Paying back the debt

One of the most basic Christian claims is that God became a human being in the Incarnation. But why? Couldn’t an omnipotent God forgive and redeem humans simply by an act of will? 

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In the early church, many argued that God offered Jesus as a ransom to the devil for humanity; the devil eagerly accepted this sinless human being, only to be overcome by God hidden under the weakness of human flesh. Others, such as Athanasius (see “Fully man and fully God,” pp. 6–8), spoke of Jesus’ sacrifice as a victory over death, as well as showing forth God’s justice, because death was the just penalty for sin. By suffering this penalty on behalf of human beings, Jesus destroyed its power over us.

Not until the eleventh century would a theologian offer a different explanation. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) was born into a noble family in northwestern Italy and joined the monastery of Bec in Normandy at the age of 27. He soon succeeded his mentor, Lanfranc, as abbot; after their ruler, Duke William of Normandy, became king of England in 1066, he succeeded Lanfranc as archbishop of Canterbury, the highest position in the English church. Anselm continued Lanfranc’s policy of speaking out against royal tyranny and corruption, resulting in his exile from England twice. He persisted in upholding his principles and was restored to his office—both times. On his deathbed he expressed as his only regret that he had failed to write a book on the origin of the soul. 

rejecting ransom, deserving debt

Anselm rejected the “ransom theory” in Why God Became Man (1098) on the grounds that the devil cannot have legal rights over human beings. He did believe Christ’s death and Resurrection defeated the devil, but thought the atonement was based legally in the idea that sin offended God’s honor, thus creating a situation of injustice that God’s nature required him to remedy.

Human beings owed God all their obedience simply as creatures, but they also needed to “pay back” the debt of honor incurred by Adam and Eve. God incarnate was the solution. As a sinless man, Jesus obeyed God the Father fully. But this obedience led to his death. Since Jesus did not deserve to die, his death was a gift over and above the obedience that he owed as a human being. And because he was also God, his offering was of infinite value, sufficient to make up for the infinite debt owed by the human race. 

Anselm did not believe that satisfaction equals punishment: Jesus paid our debt by his perfect obedience, so no one needs to be punished except those who reject the gift of forgiveness. Protestant Reformers, particularly Calvin, combined Anselm’s understanding with Athanasius’s older theme that Jesus was actually punished in our place, resulting in the theory of penal substitution, where Jesus’ satisfaction was no longer simply perfect obedience but a passive endurance of the just wrath of God on our behalf. 

Anselm’s theory seemed cold and rationalistic to many, and in the past century, the early church’s more mythical, dramatic atonement theology regained favor. I find early Christian atonement theologies highly compelling. But Anselm may have more in common with the early church than people recognize. Ultimately he presents Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and Resurrection as the merciful acts of a loving God unwilling to punish human beings even though he is legally entitled to do so. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Edwin Woodruff Tait is consulting editor at Christian History.
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