Sunday, May 29, 2016

Interview with Gavin Ortlund

SV: Who was Anselm, and what is his significance/contribution in the history of Christian thought?

GO: Anselm was an 11th century monk, theologian, and eventual archbishop of Canterbury. He lived from 1033-1109. He is often regarded as the greatest theologian/philosopher in the church in the nine centuries separating Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He wrote a number of works on topics as diverse as grammar, the Trinity, and free will. But his most celebrated accomplishments are two-fold.

First, in a book called the Proslogion, he advanced an argument for God’s existence (subsequently labeled the “ontological argument”) that has fascinated and perplexed philosophers ever since, with significant names equally affirming (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) and rejecting (Kant, Schopenhauer) it. Second, Anselm’s view of the atonement, articulated mainly in a book called Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-man?”), was widely influential on the subsequent Western church. Anselm’s account of Christ’s atoning work is often labeled the “satisfaction” view because it sees Christ’s work on the cross as making a satisfaction, or recompense, for the affront to divine honor caused by sin.

Anselm is also noted for his theological method, which involved the prayerful and whole-hearted effort of faith to pursue theological understanding by means of logic and rationality, rather than adherence to authoritative texts like the Bible and church fathers. This was an innovative approach to theology in the 11th century, as theological writings in early medieval era generally consisted of citing theological authorities. This method has led some to call Anselm the “father of Scholasticism,” though that is a bit of a misleading label as Anselm’s prayerful approach of “faith seeking understanding” is quite distinct from the approach of later scholastic theologians.

In his own lifetime and in the immediately following generations, Anselm was equally valued for his spiritual insights as for his theological writings, and his Prayers and Meditations were widely used throughout the subsequent medieval era for devotional and educational purposes.

SV: A lot of contemporary scholars tie many problematic features within the atonement discussion back to Anselm. Could you talk about what some of those criticisms are and to what extent are they justified?

GO: Anselm is an easy target for those reacting against various “objective” species of atonement theology (especially those involving an affirmation of penal substitution). Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement was widely influential in the Western church in the centuries following his death, and it was articulated in a medieval context. As a result, it is sometimes summarized in terms of its perceived influence rather than its actual content, and it is often portrayed as bound up with feudalism, the dominant social system of Anselm’s day. Anselm’s view of atonement is also sometimes critiqued as rationalistic, individualistic, legalistic, harsh, and narrowly focused on the cross (at the expense of Christ’s life and resurrection).  

While I would not want to place Anselm’s view of the atonement beyond criticism, these typical critiques strike me as unfair and/or dependent on caricature. Anselm is an especially easy target for caricature. One Anselm scholar has gone so far as to say that "no major Christian thinker has suffered quite so much as St. Anselm from the hit-and-run tactics of historians of theism and soteriology” (John  McIntyre, St. Anselm and His Critics: A Re-interpretation of the Cur Deus Homo (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1954), 2).

I’ve observed that those who take the time to read Anselm’s actual writings, rather than rely on second-hand summaries, are often surprised by the nuance and sensitivity of his understanding of the atonement. For instance, contrary to popular claims, Anselm does not focus exclusively on the cross (as opposed to Christ’s life) or speak exclusively in legal/penal categories about the effects of Christ’s death. On the contrary, in Cur Deus Homo Anselm emphasizes the importance of Christ’s entire incarnate ministry as restoring human nature to its original happiness and immortality. Satisfaction, for Anselm, is but one piece of the larger motif of restoration. That is why he talks so much about angels and heaven in Cur Deus Homo (for instance, 1.18, the lengthiest chapter).

For those interested, I’ve offered my defense of Anselm’s view of the atonement here. The best thing, of course, is to give Cur Deus Homo a careful reading, perhaps in conjunction with his On the Virginal Conception and on Original Sin, and his Meditation on Human Redemption

SV: What can the church today learn from Anselm? Does he have anything to say to pastors and theologians today? How can he speak to some of the issues we are facing?

GO: Anselm made a huge contribution to the church’s understanding of the atonement, and he wrote clearly and helpfully about many other topics (e.g., divine simplicity, the procession of the Holy Spirit, the nature of free will). But let me just mention two more basic methodological areas we can learn from Anselm.

First, Anselm had a huge view of God. Modern theology often faces the temptation to start with human thoughts and concerns, and then build outwards from there. Anselm, by contrast, started with God, and built outwards from there. Thus, for Anselm, it was a problem requiring explanation that God should forgive sin, not that God should judge sin (for many modern people the problem is just the opposite). In my opinion, Anselm’s God-centeredness can serve as a helpful counter-balance to our (often) human-centered theological instincts in the Modern West.

Second, Anselm had a robust doctrine of sin. I will never forget reading through Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations and being struck by how agonizingly seriously Anselm took his sin. Once again I find this a helpful corrective for our cultural context, where we often think of sin in therapeutic terms, or merely in terms of harm to other human beings (assuming we think of it at all). For Anselm, sin is an affront to a holy God, infinite in its guilt and implications. When I’m reading Anselm, I’m often convicted to ask, “do I take sin seriously enough?”

SV: Could you please tell us a little bit about your dissertation, how it relates to Anselm, and the argument you make in it?

GO: For a PhD student, this is always a fun question to receive, but a challenging one to answer briefly! Here goes. My dissertation deals with Anselm’s work the Proslogion, arguing that the reception of this book has too often been narrowly focused on its so-called “ontological argument” in chapters 2-4. As a result, the greater portion of Anselm’s actual text has been frequently neglected, and too little attention has been paid to the prayerful purpose that undergirds the whole book. Even when interpreters of the Proslogion have strayed into chapters 1 or 5-26, their focus has tended to be piecemeal and/or systematically driven. Thus even the most rigorous engagements with the Proslogion tend to have little to say about how the prayers of Proslogion 1, 14, and 18 contribute materially to Anselm’s argument, or how his doctrine of God develops organically from the divine formula in the early chapters to the doctrines of eternity, simplicity, and Trinity in later chapters. And no one has explored how Anselm’s doctrine of creaturely joy in heaven in Proslogion 24-26 is a fitting climax and resolution to the book.

This project offers a holistic interpretation of all twenty-six chapters of the Proslogion, in light of Anselm’s theological epistemology and spiritual aims as an 11th century monk. It suggests that the basic purpose of Anselm’s argument in the Proslogion is to seek the beatific vision that he articulates as his soul’s deepest desire (Proslogion 1). While Anselm’s argument for God’s existence (Proslogion 2-4) is an important piece of this effort, it is only one step of a larger trajectory of thought that leads Anselm to meditate further on God’s nature as the highest good of the human soul (Proslogion 5-23), and then to anticipate the joy of possessing God in heaven (Proslogion 24-26).

In other words, the establishment of God’s existence is only the penultimate consequence of Anselm’s famous formula “that than which nothing greater can be thought”—his ultimate concern is with the infinite creaturely joy that is entailed by his existence. The Proslogion is therefore, far more than an argument for God’s existence, a meditation on God as the chief happiness of the human soul.

Gavin Ortlund is completing his Ph.D. in theological studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. 

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