Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

St. Anselm on Divine and Human Justice

Steven Baldner


Drawing on the Cur Deus Homo and the Proslogion, I have written a lecture for an undergraduate audience on Anselm's understanding of justice. I argue that Anselm avoids the opposed errors of voluntarism (which would assert the inscrutability of God's justice) and intellectualism (which would make God's justice subordinate to some extrinsic standard). Anselm understands God's justice as supremely intelligible and also more than is humanly intelligible. The Incarnation, thus, can be understood to make good sense of God's justice and mercy, provided that we see justice in a non-utilitarian way. When, however, we are confronted with the problem of why it is that the benefit of the Incarnation - our salvation - is not realized by all, we can only grasp the fact but not the reason for it.


I have chosen to write about a great but underrated philosopher and theologian, called St. Anselm.† If you have heard of St. Anselm at all, you have heard, perhaps, of the famous argument that he has given for the existence of God, an argument called, since Kant gave it that unfortunate name, the ďontological argumentĒ.† I am not going to talk about that argument, except indirectly, although that is a topic about which I know something.† I have chosen, rather, as an exercise in humility, to talk on a topic about which I know considerably less:† namely, what Anselm has to tell us about justice.† My excuse for doing this is, of course, the usual:† I was asked to do it Ė as if that provided an excuse for anything.† Happily, however, this occasion does allow me the opportunity of making better known a thinker who should be better known.† This paper might prompt you to find more informative scholarship on St. Anselm Ė you wouldnít have to look far Ė or, better yet, to read Anselm himself.

St. Anselm was born in the year 1033 in the Italian Alpine town of Aosta in the kingdom of Burgundy.† At the age of 23, after his motherís death, Anselm became a hippie, and set off to wander through Burgundy and France, in order to find himself.† He succeeded in finding a teacher named Lanfranc and a Benedictine monastery in the Norman town of Bec.† In 1059 Anselm entered the monastery, absorbing the teaching of Lanfranc and the monastic life, both of which were very much to his liking.† Anselm was a very happy monk, becoming prior and eventually abbot.† During his monastic years, Anselm wrote some prayers, devotional works, letters, and a number of important philosophical and theological dialogues.† His two most important works were his Monologion (Anselmís theological summa) and Proslogion, both written in 1077-78.† In 1093 Anselm suffered the very bad fortune of being made Archbishop of Canterbury, a post that required political savvy Ė a quality for which his monastic training seems to have prepared him ill.† Between his elevation to the Archbishopric and his death in 1109, Anselm wrote some important works on the incarnation, on the virgin birth, on the Trinity, and sacramental theology.

Of his works on the incarnation, surely the more important is Anselmís little classic called, Cur Deus Homo.† This work, which even in English translation always retains its Latin title (ďWhy the God-Man?Ē), set the terms of Christological debate for subsequent centuries of Mediaeval, Renaissance, and Reformation intellectual history.† In this work, Anselm explains why it is that Christ is necessarily both God and man.† Mediaeval thinkers are often supposed to be complacent in their faith; they are thought to have lived in a time when everyone shared the faith, and this fact made faith relatively easy.† If you have that view, I would urge you to read the Cur Deus Homo, for there you will find a man of faith who struggles with the most difficult of intellectual challenges to the faith.† Anselm is provoked to write this book, not because of the complaints from among the faithful, but from the objections to the incarnation made by unbelievers.† I do not know whom, if anyone, Anselm had concretely in mind, but he sets out to explain the reasonableness of the Incarnation to someone who objects that Christís becoming man and dying on the cross was wasteful and cruel.† God, the nameless objector says, surely could have accomplished his purpose in some other way.† In one sense, Anselm might agree, God could have accomplished his purpose in some other way, for God can always do things in different ways, but Anselm also argues that, given some of the very important facts of the matter, the Incarnation is the only way that manís salvation could be accomplished.† Fundamentally, the reason for the Incarnation is that Christís becoming man and suffering satisfies the demands of justice.† The Cur Deus Homo, then, becomes an extended discussion of justice.† Our debt to God can only justly be paid by the incarnate Christ, but to see why this is so, we must see something about God and about justice.

Like any theist, Anselm believes that there is an important connection between God and justice.† God will always act in ways that are just; to know what justice is we should try to come to know what God is.† Any theist would say something like this, but there are two wrong positions to avoid, and Anselm does avoid these wrong positions.† On the one hand, there is what one could call the voluntaristic position.† If you are a voluntarist, you think that the will is always dominant over the intellect; that sheer free choice is more fundamental than the intellectual grasp of what is true.† Thus the voluntarist wishes to place more emphasis on the will than on the intellect of God.† The voluntarist, then, will say that God is simply above all possible standards and laws of what is just and unjust.† Godís all-powerful will is the source of all in the universe, and whatever Godís all-powerful will wills to be is, ipso facto, just.† On this view, what we know from human standards or nature or natural law will be some rough and ready approximation of justice, but such merely comprehensible meanings for justice are always wrong.† Justice, really, is whatever God wills to be just, and Godís will completely surpasses whatever we can comprehend to be just.† On this view, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.† Is such a command just?† Yes, it surely is, because God commanded it.† Can we understand why such a command is just?† No, we cannot, for we do not understand Godís ways.† We might work out, for strictly practical purposes, some human standards of justice, but we must recognize that such standards are always provisional and inadequate.† This first, and wrong, view about God and justice would make the intellectual investigation of the faith a fruitless effort.† A Christian of this sort might, like Tertullian, revel in the absurdity of faith, or, like Kierkegaard, might find such absurdity a source of struggle and angst.† There have always been Christians who have recognized a fundamental hostility between the revealed truth about God and what natural, human reason can know about reality.† Such is decidedly not Anselmís position.

A second position, also wrong, can be called intellectualist.† The intellectualist is the reverse of the voluntarist:† he says that the intellect, the intellectual, the conceptual, or the ideal always dominates the will.† On this view, what justice is or the standard of justice takes precedence over Godís will.† Or, to put this more crudely, on this view, God must act justly because the standard of justice is an absolute given to which even God must be subject.† If the meaning of justice is an absolute given, and if God always makes good choices, then He must always choose in accord with the standard of justice, but the standard of justice is something superior to God Himself to which He must submit.† This is the sort of position that Plato held concerning the Forms and the gods.† Piety, remember from the Euthyphro, and all of the Forms of all of the virtues, are not what they are because the gods love them, but rather, because the Forms are what they are the gods do love them.† Immanuel Kant, too, held a version of this, for he argued that all rational agents, including God Himself, are subject to the moral law.† Kant would say that even if God should command that something ought to be done, we would still have to evaluate this command according to the dictates of the categorical imperative.† This second position is the extreme opposite of the first position, and, as an extreme, it is wrong.† The first position would render reason useless, because the ultimate basis of all morality would be in the inscrutable will of God.† This second position would render faith useless, because the basis of morality would be in some reasonable standard outside of God.† The first position is a kind of fideism; the second is a kind of rationalism.

The Catholic and, hence, correct, position is the middle between these two extremes.† This is the position of St. Anselm.† Anselm held that it is Godís nature to be just, as it is Godís nature to be whatever it is better to be than not to be.† God does not merely practice justice; He is by nature just.† He is, if we may borrow from Plato, Justice Itself.† But God is not an inscrutable, voluntarist God; His actions and His nature are to the highest degree intelligible, reasonable, and meaningful.† There is nothing, in fact, that is more intelligible, reasonable, or meaningful than God, and this fact implies two very important things.† First, we can apply human reason to the actions of God, and when we do so we will find, if we are patient, that our efforts will be repaid.† Godís actions do make sense, and we can discover the meaning in them.† Theology is a genuinely rational enterprise, and philosophy will naturally lead us to the truths of revelation.† Second, Godís nature and actions are so intelligible, reasonable, and meaningful that they exceed our ability to understand them.† They are, in fact, more than we can know.† This means that faith will contain more than what we could achieve by human reason alone and it means that, although we will understand ever more and more of our faith, we will always find that the content of faith is mysterious.† Mysterious, I say, not contradictory, absurd, or irrational.† Godís actions, then, will always be just; they will, in fact, be supremely just.† If we apply our reason to analyze these actions, we will learn what justice is.† We may learn that justice is more than we can grasp, but our reason will not be frustrated.† Here, in essence, is Anselmís famous program:† faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).† We start with faith and we apply our human reason to try to understand what is given in faith.† We will understand, but we will also understand the limits of our understanding and the need for more faith.

We turn now to the problem of justice itself.† As Anselm sees things, the human condition presents a problem to which the only plausible solution is the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.† What is the problem?† For starters, we must recognize that human happiness is not to be found in this life.† Equally, human happiness is found in a life without sin.† Now these two points can be seen to be but two parts of the same problem when we also realize that all men do in fact sin.† If the human tendency toward wrong-doing is in some way endemic to the human condition in this life, and if this human tendency is a fundamental block to our happiness, then it follows that we cannot be happy in this life.† What should emerge from such reflection is that sin is a problem.† How to rid ourselves of sin?

I am not going to develop the points I have just mentioned, but I feel that I should point out that, in some form at least, they are not exclusively theological points.† That is, I think that a good philosophical case can be made (consult Boethius or Thomas Aquinas for the fine print) to show that human happiness cannot be found in this life and that one of the primary, if not the only, reason for this is the persistent fact of human sin.†††††††††

Now, the next stage in the argument is a little more difficult.† According to Anselm, in order to see the real problem of sin, we have to see what sin is.† I am going to quote one passage.

A:† [T]o sin is nothing other than not to render to God what is due.

B:† What is the debt which we owe to God?

A:† The will of every rational creature ought to be subordinate to the will of God.

B:† Nothing is truer.

A:† This is the debt which angels and men owe to God.† No one who pays this debt sins; and everyone who does not pay it does sin.† This is the justice-of-will, or uprightness-of-will, which makes men just, or upright, in heart (i.e., in will).† This is the sole and complete honor which we owe to God and which God demands from us.† For only such a will, when it is able to act, does works which are acceptable to God; and when it is not able to act, it alone is acceptable in itself, since without it no work is acceptable to God.† Whoever does not pay to God this honor due Him dishonors Him and removes from Him what belongs to Him; and this removal, or this dishonoring, constitutes a sin.† However, as long as he does not repay what he has stolen, he remains guilty.† But it is not enough for him merely to repay what has been stolen; rather, because of the wrong which has been inflicted, he ought to repay more than he has stolen.† For example, if someone who injures anotherís health restores it, his doing so is insufficient payment unless he also gives some compensation for the painful wrong that was inflicted.† Similarly, he who violates anotherís honor does not sufficiently repay this honor unless, in proportion to the injury caused by the dishonoring, he makes some restitution which is acceptable to the one whom he has dishonored.† We must also note that when someone repays what he has unjustly stolen, he ought to return that which could not be exacted from him had he not stolen what belonged to another.† Accordingly, then, everyone who sins is obliged to repay to God the honor which he has stolen.† This [repayment of stolen honor] constitutes the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to make to God.† (Cur Deus Homo 1.11, Hopkins/Richardson 67-68) [1]

There are several things to note about this passage.† First, whenever an injustice has been committed, the perpetrator owes more to the victim that the mere returning of what has been unjustly removed.† Restitution must be made for the full value of what has been lost.† If, for example, I have stolen your automobile, I am obliged not only to return the automobile but also to compensate you for the loss you suffered when you could not use your automobile.† Second, any sin against God is always a refusal on our part to give God the honor we owe to Him.† We are Godís creatures and hence we owe a continual debt of honor to God.† Our sins can take many forms, but the general form of all sin is the refusal on our part to give God the honor that is His due.† Anselm is saying that all human choices are in their most general form always but one choice only:† we either choose to give honor to God or we refuse to do so.† Every choice that we make is a choice either to honor God or to dishonor Him.† It is important to stress the fact that this honor is always due to God.† The gift of our created being is not just something that was once given and then forgotten about; it is, rather, an on-going giving on Godís part and an on-going receiving on ours.† Accordingly, we always owe a debt of honor to God.

Now from these two facts, from the fact that the perpetrator of an injustice owes more than the simple good which he violated and from the fact that we owe a debt of honor to God always, a troublesome conclusion follows.† The conclusion is that, as sinners we owe a debt to God, but also that, as continual debtors, we cannot pay the debt that we owe for sin.† If we had not sinned at all, we would still owe God, with every decision that we make, a debt of honor.† Since we have sinned, we owe God something more than the normal debt that we always owe.† We owe, in addition, the debt that was not paid in the sinful acts and we owe something more in addition.† Our debt for sin, therefore, cannot possibly be paid by us.

There is something else to be noticed here.† Anselmís view of justice is not a utilitarian view of justice.† I stress this because I think that most people today think of justice in more or less utilitarian terms.† The doing of justice should, on the prevailing common view, bring about some good other than the justice itself.† The doing of justice should, we think, compensate the victim; or the doing of justice should educate or re-train the criminal; or it should deter or prevent future crimes.† Now, Anselm would say, there is nothing wrong with any of these goals, and if justice can help to bring them about, so much the better.† But the achievement of any of these goals is incidental to justice, for justice has no utilitarian purpose.† The purpose of doing justice is simply to balance the scales, to pay back debts, or to give people what is due to them.

This non-utilitarian character of justice is brought out forcefully in the case at hand.† Manís just debt to God cannot possibly be understood in any utilitarian way.† As Anselm points out, nothing that man can do will benefit, or harm, God in any way.† God is an infinite, omnipotent, and eternally unchanging being; such a being cannot be affected by what creatures do.† We are very much affected by what God does, but He is not affected by what we do.† Hence, the just debt that we owe to God cannot be measured by any utilitarian standard.† God demands that justice be done, but when he so demands, He is not making a demand for his own betterment.† God is not like a plaintiff in a civil suit, claiming that something is owed to him, the lack of which has caused real loss to him.† Rather, in demanding that justice be done, God is like a disinterested judge who desires to see the law fairly upheld, but with the difference that this Judge is the maker of all law and not merely the judge of the law made by someone else.

In the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm presents us with a dilemma.† On the one hand, the salvation of mankind ought to take place.† As I have explained earlier, human nature is so created that man is intended for blessedness in Godís presence.† If mankind were not saved, it would be the case that the end for which human beings are intended would be frustrated.† From manís standpoint this is bad, because human nature would remain unfulfilled.† From Godís standpoint this is also bad, because the salvation of man represents the completion of a work that God has begun.† It is against Godís wisdom that God should have begun a work (the creation and eventual blessedness of man) and not bring the work to completion.† Furthermore, Anselm thinks that the number of happy intelligent beings in heaven has been depleted by the unfortunate defection of the fallen angels.† The salvation of human beings will fill out the heavenly company in a way that is fitting with Godís providential plan.† From Godís standpoint, then, the salvation of man is something that ought to take place.

Human salvation, however, as I indicated early in the paper, is incompatible with human sin.† A sinful human being cannot be blessed and cannot enjoy the presence of God.† The salvation of man, therefore, requires the removal of sin.† But the removal of sin can only take place if the debt of sinners is paid Ė that really is what is meant by the removal of sin.† A payment for sin is required; such is the demand of a just God.† But a payment requires that someone make the payment, and that is just the point of the dilemma.

Man cannot make the payment for sins, but he ought to do so.

Only God can make the payment, but He ought not to do so.

The debt is ours, and we ought to pay it, but, as I indicated earlier, the requirement of the debt is that we pay the debt and not some other debt that is owed.† Since we really do not have anything to give to God that is not already owed, we do not have anything to give to God to repay for past sins.† The debt owed is really the greatest of debts; it is that debt than which a greater cannot be conceived.† No creature could repay this debt.† God, of course, could make the payment, but He ought not to do so, because the debt is not His.† He is, if we can put it this way, the creditor, not the debtor.

Given the dilemma, I think that you can see where Anselm is going for a solution.† Man cannot make the payment for sins, but God can do so; man ought to make the payment, but God ought not to do so.† Anselm thinks that the only way out of this is to go between the horns of the dilemma.† There is needed one instance of personhood that is not exclusively human nor exclusively divine.† In other words, salvation can only be brought about by a person who is God-Man, the Deus Homo.† The incarnation, then, is the solution to the problem of manís salvation.† If it were not for the incarnation, our salvation would be impossible, for without the incarnation it is impossible to see how the demands of justice Ė the demands of the perfectly just God Ė could be met.† The incarnation, then, allows the demands of justice to be met, but here is something more than justice.† It is, of course, an act of Godís supreme mercy that the incarnation is brought about.† Strict justice with no mercy would not allow us to see how sinful man could possibly win salvation; but, paradoxically, strict justice with no mercy would not allow the fullest realization of justice, because it is just that man be saved Ė it is just that Godís plan and human nature be fulfilled.† Hence, the incarnation and passion of Christ are acts of mercy, but they are acts of mercy that allow justice in the fullest way to be realized.† Here, then, in the realization of supreme justice we find, necessarily, an act of supreme mercy.† Godís justice and mercy are, in a mysterious way, one and the same.

This, however, raises a second major problem and directs us to a different work, Anselmís famous Proslogion.† In the Proslogion, as is well known, Anselm sets out to prove the existence of God, who is defined according to the brilliant formula:† that than which a greater cannot be conceived.† It is, Anselm argues, inconceivable that we should think of God thus defined as non-existent.† But after Anselm proves the existence of God in chapters two and three of this short work, he proceeds to use the same formula to demonstrate that God possesses many of the attributes Christians traditionally give to God.† Thus, Anselm argues that God is supremely good, blessed, truthful, intelligent, powerful, and so forth.† The general form of the argument is that God, defined as that than which a greater cannot be conceived, must be whatever it is better to be than not to be.† Since it is better to be supremely good, blessed, truthful, intelligent, and powerful than not to be these things, God must possess all of these attributes, and others in addition.† Anselm, however, pays close attention to two attributes.† God must be both supremely just and also supremely merciful, because being supremely just and supremely merciful is better than not being such.

Here, however, Anselm runs into a problem.† To be just means to punish the evil and reward the good.† To be supremely just means to punish every evil and to reward every good.† On the other hand, to be merciful means to forgive, that is, not to punish evil.† To be supremely merciful means not to punish any evil.† God is both supremely just and supremely merciful.† This seems to imply that God punishes every evil and also does not punish any evil.† You donít need advanced logic to see that there is some trouble here.† Both supreme justice and supreme mercy flow from the nature of God defined as that than which a greater cannot be conceived, and yet the two properties of God seem to be incompatible.

One of the themes running through the Proslogion is the image taken from Paulís first letter to Timothy (6,16), that God dwells in ďunapproachable lightĒ.† Godís light helps to clarify our condition; we can better understand ourselves because of Godís revelation.† But it is a light that we cannot look at; one can see by means of light but one often cannot look directly at it.† And so it is in the present case.† Knowing that God is both supremely just and supremely merciful will tell us something about Godís ways with us, but we are not thereby going to understand how mercy and justice are reconciled in God.

Anselm says that since it is good for God to be merciful, and since it is just for God to be good, it is just for God to be merciful.† His little prayer after he says this is instructive.† ďHelp me, just and merciful God, whose light I seek, help me to understand what I am saying.Ē† (Proslogion 9)† Somehow it must be just that God act in a merciful way.

At this point (Proslogion 10), Anselm reminds his readers of a distinction that he made earlier (Proslogion 8).† When we talk of the attributes of God, we must recognize that certain of these attributes are more indicative of Godís effect on us than they are of Godís own nature.† Thus, to take the earlier example, when we say that God is ďcompassionateĒ, we do not mean that God literally undergoes an emotional response to our miserable condition.† To say that God is ďcompassionateĒ is really to say that we experience the effects of Godís being compassionate; it is not to make a claim about what ďgoes onĒ, so to speak, in God.† Similarly, Anselm says, in some way God is being just when he is being merciful.† But when God is being merciful, God may be fully just in Himself, but we only experience the effects of his mercy.† From our point of view, it is as though mercy has trumped justice, but we should know enough to know that from Godís point of view justice is still being fully done, although we cannot see how.† We feel the effects of mercy only, but we must affirm at the same time that justice is also being done.

There is a plausibility about all of this when we are thinking about Godís rewarding the good with justice and sparing the evil with mercy.† We can think, even if we cannot understand, Godís being just and merciful when He rewards good people, and again, we can grasp somewhat how it is just for God mercifully to spare the sinner.† We cannot really understand what is going on in God, but it is good news for us that there are two ways to salvation:† conveniently, both the just and the unjust get a happy ending.† That, however, is not the whole of the story.† Others will be damned, eternally.† If we can appreciate somewhat that God might spare some sinners, we cannot then understand at all how it is that God will damn others.† The sinners He spares presumably deserve damnation (otherwise, they wouldnít need to be spared), but then those he condemns also presumably deserve damnation.† We simply cannot understand why some are spared and others are not. Anselm simply says that this is something that we cannot understand, and I donít think that we can do any better than that.

In the Cur Deus Homo we saw Anselm argue that a severe, non-utilitarian standard of justice requires that the incarnation and passion of Christ take place.† In the light of what we have just seen in the Proslogion, we might say that it is a mercy on Godís part that the incarnation take place in order that justice be satisfied.† We can see there, at least, a possible reconciliation of justice and mercy.† When we think, however, of Godís ultimate justice and mercy, we can say that He is ultimately just and merciful, but we cannot say how this is so.† Godís justice is, we learn from Anselm, severe and non-utilitarian, but it is also thoroughly involved with His mercy.† We will not understand Godís justice until we understand His mercy, and vice versa.† How will we understand them both in God?† Anselm began the Proslogion by setting out to prove the existence of a God who is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.† At the end of the work, Anselm comes to realize that God is not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived but He is also that which is greater than can be conceived.† Let us end with this salutary recognition.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury Volume III, Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson translators.† Toronto and New York:† The Edwin Mellen Press, 1976.

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