I just finished reading Cur Deus Homo by St. Anselm. It was my second reading of the book, the first being almost 15 years ago shortly after I became Catholic. Although not as well-known as classics such as Confessions by St. Augustine, Cur Deus Homo is one of the most influential books ever written. It is the foundational text for the theory of atonement know as “penal substitution”: the belief that man deserved death for his sins, but Christ as the God-man was able to die in our stead, thus taking the punishment we deserve. This is the most widely-held theory of atonement in Evangelical Protestant circles today.
I have a number of difficulties with the penal substitution theory, which I’ll attempt to address in a later post, but for now I’m more interested in the acceptance of this theory in Evangelical circles. At the time of the Reformation, Anselm’s theory reigned supreme in the West (it never gained traction in the East), and it was assumed as true by both Catholics and Protestants. However, it is a bit odd that Protestants have accepted Anselm’s arguments so readily. First. Anselm explicitly argues from reason, not the Scriptures. The whole purpose of Cur Deus Homo is to show to the “infidels” (i.e. Jews and Muslims) why God had to become man and die. Since these peoples don’t accept the authority of the New Testament, Anselm bases his arguments on reason, not revelation. There are few Scriptural references in the text and none are part of the main argument. This does not mean his arguments are contra Scripture, but considering the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, I find their wholesale acceptance of Anselm’s arguments ironic.
Furthermore, Anselm’s theory was quite innovative for his time. Penal substitution is not found widely in the Fathers, and it is only after Anselm that it becomes a “tradition.” Thus it seems to be the type of theory that Protestants are most leery of: a later tradition “added on” to the purity of the Gospel. Yet it endures as the heart of the Evangelical message.
Of course, proponents of penal substitution would argue that it is biblical and clearly in the sacred text. I’m not so sure. There is plenty of talk in the New Testament of the fact that Jesus’ death saves us, but very little as to why this is so. Also, if it is so clear, why did it not become prominent within the Church until the Middle Ages and then only after it had first been shown by reason alone?
Regardless of Evangelical acceptance of this theory, there is much value in the theory of penal substitution, but I also think much is problematic with it. I’ll try to address those concerns in another post.