Anselm of Canterbury
In One Sentence
A medieval monk who became a major theologian, Anselm’s writings on theology (the atonement, the incarnation, and more) and his model for teaching dominated Christian thinking until the Protestant Reformation.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) lived at a time of severe cultural divisions globally, yet Europe enjoyed mild isolation due to geography and was homogeneously Christian for the most part. Anselm was born in Aosta, Italy in 1033. In 1060, Anselm joined the Benedictine monastic order and intentionally sought out the leadership of Abbot Lanfranc at the Monastery of Bec in the region of Normandy, France. Later, Lanfranc was transferred to Canterbury (in England) with Anselm inheriting his role as abbot in France. Like a feudal castle ruled its region, the monastery become a center of scholasticism and economic commerce in the area. However, these were unstable times.
Within six years of his appointment, William the Conqueror led his Norman brethren to overthrow the English king at the Battle of Hastings (1066) setting the stage for Anselm’s later life spent as a theologian embroiled in a political conflict for which he had very little interest. In 1093, Anselm once again followed in his mentor’s footsteps and became Archbishop of Canterbury. The position was one that came with great honor andgreat personal risk. It is said that Anselm was “so distraught [at the prospect of being appointed archbishop of Canterbury by William II] that he gave himself a nosebleed as he protested to the king his inability.” Seventy years later, one of his successors, Thomas Beckett, would be famously murdered for many of the same things Anselm did while serving in the same position validating this fear.
As predicted, his tenure at Canterbury proved to be contentious and being personally exiled by the king became the new normal. Anselm used his new-found free time away from his official office to become what historian Justo Gonzalezcalls “the most important forerunner of scholasticism.” Anselm spent his life arguing that Christian doctrines are reasonable. For example, Anselm argued that the incarnation was reasonable because only a human would be able to repay a sin debt earned by human sin. Thus, God becoming human was the mostreasonable way for justification and salvation to be achieved. His work remained the widely agreed upon standard until the Enlightenment finally challenged the premise that Christian doctrine was indeed the most “reasonable” explanation for all of life’s questions.
Like many influential figures of his day, Anselm had a contemporary biographer that lived and worked alongside the bishop. Eadmer, a notable historian in his own right, began his biographical work in secret and only reluctantly shared his in-progress writings with his life-long friend after Anselm was suspicious of what he was working on and demanded an explanation. Initially Anselm helped edit and refine the work, but later asked Eadmer to destroy it because he felt the whole affair to be too prideful. Conflicted, Eadmer did honor the bishop’s wishes and destroyed the book but only after making a copy of the whole biography. The result is a very biased but very personal look into the daily life and work of Anselm.
Anselm’s writing generally reads with generosity and humility. In his book Proslogion, Anselm states: “I do not seek, Lord, to reach your heights, for my intellect is as nothing compared to them. But I seek in some way to understand your truth.” His apologetic works especially read with a sense of genuine desire to make an avid improvement on the understanding of the reader despite whether one agrees with his particular theological point or not.
Tales of Anselm’s observations of humanity, whether real or legend, abound as well. One tells of him encountering a young boy cruelly playing with a trapped bird. Anselm reflectively responded to the boy that this was how the devil played with us. This encounter seems typical of his pastoral heart for application and visual illustrations of biblical principles.
Anselm’s book Cur Deus Homo asks an old question in a new way: why did God became man? The book creates a question and answer dialogue between himself and the character Boso making the work easier to understand and more practical for personal application.
Monologion meditates on the essence of Godand attempts to establish a reasoned argument for the Trinity, among other things. In the sequel entitled Proslogion, Anselm develops the foundational question he felt was missing from Monologion: the primary element of God’s very existence and definition as someone of whom no greater being can be conceived. Thus, Proslogion presents what today is known as the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God with an emphasis on using reason to argue his stance. In one form, the argument reads: “God, or substance, consisting, of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.”
His Ideas and Their Influence
Anselm’s rise in theological stature was not without its critics both in his day and for generations to follow. His Ontological Argument became one of his most lasting and studied works and would become a much more controversial topic from the Enlightenment onward. Some form of this argument has become a favorite for many modern Christian apologists as well as being a perennially favorite adversary for skeptics.
No less than the greatest secular philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and many more have penned specific responses to Anselm’s work. While these thinkers clearly disagreed with the bishop’s premise, their recognition of his work is a testament to the dissemination of his research and ideas into the highest levels of scholarship for centuries after his death. He is known today as the “father of scholasticism,” and according to David Deane, Anselm is rightly described as the mediator between the patristic period and the Reformers. -MF
Where to begin
G. R. Evans, Anselm. New York: Continuum, 1989.
Michael Reeves, Theologians You Should Know: An Introduction: From the Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016, Chapter 5.
“Spinoza’s Critique of Anselm,” http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-critics.asp.