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Who was Anselm of Canterbury?

Anselm of Canterbury audio

Anselm of Canterbury was a monk, theologian, and archbishop of the 11th century. His work laid the foundation of an approach to theology known as Scholasticism. Anselm is best remembered today for his writings, such as Proslogion (Discourse) and Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God Become Man?), and for what is now known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. Because of his influence and contributions, Anslem is considered one of history’s greatest Christian philosophers, along with men like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

As Anselm was growing up in Lombardy (a region of northern Italy), his father intended for him to go into politics, but even as a child Anselm was far more interested in studying and privacy. In fact, when Anselm joined a monastery, he specifically chose one where he assumed he could be ignored by the rest of the world. As it turned out, this did not happen, because his phenomenal intellect brought him a great deal of attention. Anselm eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, though he strongly resisted taking on the position.

In fact, many of Anselm’s struggles revolved around his inability—or unwillingness—to play the political games of his time. A small number of scholars believe this was actually a clever illusion on his part. However, most believe he truly had no interest or aptitude for intrigues and politics. Consistency and integrity were paramount to Anselm, both in his scholarly work and in his practical living. He was known to avoid arguments and conflict, though he was enthusiastic about teaching and discussion.

Highlights of Anselm’s contributions to theology and philosophy involve four major aspects: his writings, his approach to faith and reason, his theology of atonement, and his signature argument for the existence of God.

Works such as Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo are considered landmark theological and philosophical works. Anselm’s other writings are studied even today, as they provide important insights into the development of Christian theology during the Middle Ages.

In his books, Anselm displays his approach to the relationship between faith and reason. According to Anselm, faith is required for understanding. To him, any knowledge gained without faith is unreliable. However, Anselm also held that reason is indispensable in understanding faith. This view is often summarized as “faith seeking understanding.” Anselm was one of the earliest theologians to rely almost exclusively on logic and reason in his defense of Christian beliefs.

This approach led to a philosophical system known as Scholasticism. This method of study emphasizes reason, dialogue, research, close attention to the intended meaning of words, and constructive criticism. Anselm’s students continued in this tradition, and Thomas Aquinas, often labeled the greatest Christian philosopher, was a Scholastic.

Anselm’s most direct contribution to theology was his interpretation of the atonement. Many of Anselm’s predecessors had characterized Christ’s sacrifice as a ransom paid to Satan, who was holding man hostage. Anselm countered that the only party wronged by human sin was an infinitely holy God, so only an infinite sacrifice could satisfy that debt. Therefore, Jesus Christ had to willingly sacrifice Himself, as the sinless God-man, in order to fulfill our debt. This view is known as the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Several centuries later, Reformed theologians would rely on a modified version of this concept, known as substitutionary atonement.

Among the commonly debated arguments for the existence of God is the ontological argument. This concept was actually known as “Anselm’s Argument” until the 1700s, having been explained in his Proslogion. In short, Anselm claimed that God was the single greatest thing imaginable. Since existing is “greater” than not existing, Anslem concluded that, if we can conceive of one thing greater than all others, by definition that thing must exist. That single “greatest” thing, per Anslem, is God.

The ontological argument is especially interesting for its unique place in debates. Proponents admit that it’s not particularly convincing, since it seems to give a circular definition for terms like greater and existing. For those not inclined to believe in God, Anselm’s logic is rarely seen as powerfully compelling. At the same time, even the argument’s detractors admit it’s extremely hard to say exactly where, if, or how the argument is logically invalid. As a result, while not considered among the more useful proofs of God’s existence, the ontological argument is certainly one of the most famous, long-lived, and commonly discussed.

By far, Anselm’s most important contribution to Christian thinking was his emphasis on reason, dialogue, and understanding. His scholastic approach to faith laid the foundation for a great deal of theology, as well as proving that the Christian faith is not only compatible with reason, but it can only be fully understood through a rational framework.

Anselm died in 1109. The Roman Catholic Church has made Anselm a saint, although there is some question as to exactly when he was canonized. His feast day is April 21. Pope Clement XI declared Anselm a Doctor of the Church in 1720.

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This page last updated: January 7, 2022