April 21: Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1109

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Anselm was born in Italy about 1033, and took monastic vows in 1060 at the Abbey of Bec in Normandy. He succeeded his teacher Lanfranc as Prior of Bec in 1063, and as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. His episcopate was stormy, in continual conflict with the crown over the rights and freedom of the Church. His greatest talent lay in theology and spiritual direction.

As a pioneer in the scholastic method, Anselm remains the great exponent of the so-called “ontological argument” for the existence of God: God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Even the fool, who (in Psalm 14) says in his heart “There is no God,” must have an idea of God in his mind, the concept of an unconditional being (ontos) than which nothing greater can be conceived; otherwise he would not be able to speak of “God” at all. And so this something, “God,” must exist outside the mind as well; because, if he did not, he would not in fact be that than which nothing greater can be thought. Since the greatest thing that can be thought must have existence as one of its properties, Anselm asserts, “God” can be said to exist in reality as well as in the intellect, but is not dependent upon the material world for verification. To some, this “ontological argument” has seemed mere deductive rationalism; to others it has the merit of showing that faith in God need not be contrary to human reason.

Anselm is also the most famous exponent of the “satisfaction theory” of the atonement. Anselm explains the work of Christ in terms of the feudal society of his day. If a vassal breaks his bond, he has to atone for this to his lord; likewise, sin violates a person’s bond with God, the supreme Lord, and atonement or satisfaction must be made. Of ourselves, we are unable to make such atonement, because God is perfect and we are not. Therefore, God himself has saved us, becoming perfect man in Christ, so that a perfect life could be offered in satisfaction for sin.

Undergirding Anselm’s theology is a profound piety. His spirituality is best summarized in the phrase, “faith seeking understanding.” He writes, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”


I  Almighty God, who didst raise up thy servant Anselm to teach the Church of his day to understand its faith in thine eternal Being, perfect justice, and saving mercy: Provide thy Church in every age with devout and learned scholars and teachers, that we may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  Almighty God, you raised up your servant Anselm to teach the Church of his day to understand its faith in your eternal Being, perfect justice, and saving mercy: Provide your Church in every age with devout and learned scholars and teachers, that we may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Wisdom 6:12–16

Romans 5:1–11

Matthew 11:25–30

Psalm 53

Preface of the Epiphany

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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10 thoughts on “April 21: Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1109

  1. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading and Psalm are new.

  2. He needs a concise ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important statement’; and a ‘He died in 1109’ statement.

  3. So good to read about his abbey, le Bec Hellouin in Normandy. I went there summer 1988; there had been an article about its relationship with Canterbury and the Church of England (Anglican) in the New York Times which made me want to go. It had been turned into a place to station horses and soldiers around the time of the French Revolution, but had been restored and is said to be a great place for retreats. I only had a few hours to spend there, but it was beautiful and peaceful and very moving. Do go there, anyone who has a chance. And if you do go, the Eucharist is open to Anglicans (it’s a decision made by the local bishop), or at least it was in 1988. I loved these sentences from the bio: “Undergirding Anselm’s theology is a profound piety. His spirituality is best summarized in the phrase, “faith seeking understanding.” And the way he explained the atonement according to the culture of his time (feudal). I wonder how it could be explained (rather than “explained away,” as seems to be the case today) in our own democratic culture. I really don’t think we can last as a democracy unless a number of us understand mutual bearing of consequences. For Christians, Christ bore the consequences of sin. For the feudal age, that could be explained, as Anselm did, in feudal accountability arrangements. For a democracy, perhaps, we are all accountable to each other in a sense.

  4. I recommend a different subtitle: “Theologian”. He is not included here because he was an Archbishop.

    Biographical information here is very thin. Just one sentence tells us about his “stormy” episcopate, and his efforts to try to protect the Church from the two Norman kings of England, in whose reigns he served as Archbishop of Canterbury. The rest summarizes his theology.

    Line 1, first paragraph: substitute “Aosta, Burgundy (now Northern Italy)” for “Italy”, after “in”.

    Add a final paragraph: “Anselm died in Canterbury on April 21, 1109.”

  5. This may be a case of “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but some philosophical and theological quibbles from one with no credentials (save EfM) in either area:
    St. Anselm is arguably the greatest and most original philosopher and theologian the West produced between Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. Depending on who you read, he’s either the father of Scholasticism or one of its founders, but I’m not sure that one who didn’t already know all that could figure it out from the write-up.
    I agree that the write-up is thin on his misadventures as Archbishop, but he was at best an unlucky administrator. He wasn’t cut out for politics, as he hmself observed when William Rufus made him archbishop: “You are yoking an untamed bull and a weak old sheep to the same plough.”
    The purpose of Proslogion was to find “a single argument that needed nothing but itself alone for proof, that would by itself be enough to show that God really exists; that he is the supreme good, who depends on nothing else, but on whom all things depend for their being and for their well-being; and whatever we believe about the divine nature.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm/) notes that “We owe the curiously unhelpful name “ontological argument” to Kant. The medievals simply called it “that argument of Anselm’s” [argumentum Anselmi].
    “It is hard to think of any philosophical argument that has excited and agitated philosophers more than this one,” wrote William E. Mann in Classics of Western Philosophy. If Anselm is right, then atheism is not simply a false belief; it is a logical impossibility. Many of philosophy’s knottiest problems lie beneath what Kant dismissed as “the most naive of verbal conjuring tricks.” Is existence a property of things? Can one deny the existence of something without presupposing its existence? Can something exist in one sense but not in another?
    While “that argument of Anselm’s” was rejected by Aquinas, Hume, and Kant, other, equally eminent philosophers have defended it or offered their own variants of it, including Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, and Gödel. Bertrand Russell admitted “The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”
    I don’t think the existing write-up catches the crux of Anselm’s “satisfaction theory,” and I’m pretty sure it misstates the underlying legal assumption. As I understand it, Anselm’s theory is not one of penal substitution, where God inflicts on his innocent Son the punishment due for the sins of others. It’s more like the payment of a debt that the debtor can never repay by a generous Volunteer with the approval of a just but kindly Creditor. While the end result is the same (Christ lays down his life for our sins), Cur Deus Homo gets there without directly accusing God of child abuse. But even so, depends on the medieval assumption that the penalty for a crime should be proportional to the relative ranks of the perpetrator and the victim (the peasant who poaches his lord’s deer is hanged; the noble who murders a peasant pays a small fine). From that, it follows that, since God is infinitely superior to even the most exalted of humans, the sins of such lowly beings against their infinitely superior God incur an infinite debt, which can be discharged only if one who is both fully human and fully divine voluntarily pays the debts for the sinners.
    Similarly, fides quaerens intellectum may need some unpacking for moderns. Anselm himself says in the Monologion, that it is a “dead faith” that “merely believes what it ought to believe.” “So,” says the Stanford Encyclopedia, “‘faith seeking understanding’ means something like ‘an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.’”
    The second half of the reading from Romans is perfect, but verses 1-5 seem to belong to another saint, as Anselm seems to have seen faith as something you did rather than something you simply had.

    • For the record, I don’t know any advocate of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement who believes God inflicts on his innocent Son the punishment due for the sins of others. The doctrine says that God Himself, having become man in Jesus Christ, bore the punishment due for the sins of others. The doctrine of the Trinity is an essential foundation for the penal theory.

      You’re certainly right that the bio doesn’t get Anselm’s significance across. In the space available, I wouldn’t do more than name the ontological argument—a summary of it that could fit in this space can only confuse those not familiar with it. It wasn’t really taken seriously till the 20th century in any case. Use the space saved to say more about his exploration of the relationship between faith and understanding, which could also be better dealt with. As I understand it, ‘faith seeking understanding’ described a particular way of exploring matters of faith reasonably, and is of deeper interest than any of his particular conclusions.

  6. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1109
    TITLE: Nothing in the narrative comments on anything specific contributed by him in his capacity as Archbishop. He is mostly remembered as a Theologian/Apologist. It seems odd to identify him as Archbishop but not as theologian.
    NARRATIVE: This is a narrative better than which none can be imagined. You might even say it’s divine!
    COLLECT: No argument with the formal aspects of the collect. It is very good, except for one point of content. The collect’s “that we may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us” – implying “give a reason that justifies our thinking and challenges the unbelievers’ position” — just doesn’t carry the same impact for me as Anselm’s “I believe in order that I may understand” and “unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” As I hear it, the way it presently stands, the collect is asking for rational understanding as the presumed reason or expected pre-condition for anyone’s accepting God’s existence. Hope-filled trusting faith in God is not the same as analytical ratiocination that provides grounds for acceding to the existence of God, and I believe Anselm has it the right way around (and that the collect implies and seeks the opposite). I’d prefer that phrase be changed to, “…that we may be able to CHERISH (rather than “give a reason for”) the hope that is in us.”
    READINGS: The selections from Wisdom, Romans, and Matthew all are all very good choices. While I can see why Psalm 53 was chosen, I have reservations about it. I expect it was chosen because one of Anselm’s famous contributions was the ontological argument for God’s existence, one of very few classical arguments included in almost every philosophy of religion text to this day, and also because Psalm 53 starts off mentioning “the fool” who says “there is no God.” It creates an antithesis between “fool” and “wise” within the psalm (vv. 1 and 2), and echoes “wisdom” from the first lesson, verbally connecting that lesson with this psalm of response. This would be great if they were talking about the same kinds of things, but “no god” in the whole Old Testament (as seen in verse 5 of the psalm) is about God’s effectiveness, not God’s existence. The psalm, then, is not about the actual (ontological) existence of God. We can then ask, does it at least carry a meaning that makes some other appropriate response to the first lesson, or in relation to the commemoration in general?
    The psalm observes (v. 2) God looks upon us ALL and (v. 3) sees EVERYONE has proved faithless, ALL ALIKE have turned bad, NOT ONE does good. Verse 4 asks if “those evildoers” have no knowledge, that they do not call upon God. Verse 5 sees them all trembling, bones scattered, shamed and rejected by God. Verse 6 pleads for deliverance (“O that deliverance would come”) and then predicts restored fortunes, rejoicing, and gladness by Jacob and Israel. The psalm makes little sense in the context of an Anselm commemoration, and does not closely connect to the preceding lesson.
    Of course, I expect the selection won’t seem necessary to revise, because the first impression will be “oh it’s good enough, the psalm sounds like it’s talking about those foolish atheists, not us,” — even though verses 2-3 say plainly it’s not just about atheists, the rest of the psalm presumes God’s reality, and it explicitly explains that it includes “everyone.” Nevertheless, as a replacement, I suggest Psalm 19:1-11.

  7. Thanks, Steve, for the very helpful information! I wonder where Kierkegaard would fit on the list (he differed
    from Hegel but was not like Kant). And Bonhoeffer (no “cheap grace”) and Tillich (“ground of being”, sort of wishy washy to my way of thinking) and Niebuhr (like Bonhoeffer in some ways). Thanks especially for the comments about ontology and the phrase “that argument of Anselm’s.” Teleology and ontology are both “bête noires” for “non-religionist” philosophers like John Dewey. –Thanks to John LaVoe, also. –ANYWAY, “theologian” certainly does seem to be where Anselm made a difference.

  8. While I think Anselm’s ontological argument for the existance of God is interesting though flawed, and his satisfaction ttheology of the atonement has caused a good deal of trouble, he is an impostant theologian and and a holy man and deserves to keep his plae in the calendar.

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