Skip to main content Accessibility help

Anselm on the Necessity of the Incarnation

  • Brian Leftow (a1)

Anselm's Cur Deus Homo argues that only by the Incarnation can God save humanity. This seems to sit ill with the claim that God is omnipotent and absolutely free, for this entails that God could save humanity in other ways. I show that features of Anselm's concept of God and treatment of necessity make the claim that the Incarnation is a necessary means of salvation problematic. I then show that for Anselm, all conditions which make the Incarnation necessary for human salvation stem from God's nature and prior choices. If so, the Incarnation's necessity restricts neither God's freedom nor His power. For that the Incarnation is necessary given God's actual choices does not entail that it would have been necessary had God made other choices, or that God could not have made choices which would have made the Incarnation non-necessary.

Hide All

1 I refer to Anselm's works first by book and chapter, then by the volume, page and line numbers of the Schmitt edition (Schmitt, F. S., S. Anselmi Opera Omnia (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, vols I–III 1946, IV–V 1951)). Thus this quotation is from CDH 1, 1, S 11, p. 48, ll. 2–5. Translations are mine save as noted.

2 CDH 1, 10, S 11, p. 66, ll 21–2.

3 CDH 1, 6, S 11, pp. 54–5.

4 For Anselm on God's freedom, see De Libertate Arbitrii, chs. 1, 14. An interesting contemporary account is Mann, William, ‘God's Freedom, Human Freedom, and God's Responsibility for Sin’, in Thomas, Morris, ed., Divine and Human Action (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 182210.

5 CDH 1, 25, S 11, p. 95.

6 ST 111a 1, 2.

7 CDH 11, 5, S 11, p. 100, ll. 24–6. Thus Anselm's theory of modality differs quite a bit from today's alethic theories. For discussion of this (including Anselm's technical senses of ‘proper’ and ‘improper’), see Serene, Eileen, ‘Anselm's Modal Conceptions’, in Simo, Knuutilla, ed., Reforging the Great Chain of Being (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980), pp. 117–62.

8 For compulsion, CDH 1, 10, S 11, p. 66, ll. 6–13; for the point about inability, CDH 11, 17, passim. Anselm distinguishes between genuine and merely apparent inabilities. For instance, we can say that God is unable to lie, but according to Anselm, this form of words does not specify a genuine divine inability. Rather, it is a roundabout, ‘improper’ way to say that God has an insuperably strong will to tell the truth (see also Proslogion 7).

9 CDH 1, 10, S 11, p. 66, ll. 6–13.

10 Thus for Anselm, the incarnation was a necessary means for God only in an ‘improper’ sense (CDH 11, 17, S 11, p. 122, l. 25–p. 124, l. 2).

11 I show below that Anselm's arguments for the ‘necessity’ of the Incarnation obey this stricture.

12 CDH 11, 21, S 11, p. 132. It is not clear to me whether Anselm concludes that fallen angels cannot be saved, or implies only that if fallen angels can be saved, it must be done in some other way.

13 CDH 1, 1, S 11, p. 149, l. 19, and 1, 2, S 11, p. 50, ll. 12–13.

14 CDH 11, 16, S 11, p. 117, ll. 19–22. Translation of Jasper Hopkins.

15 CDH 11, 17, S 11, p. 122, ll. 26–8, p. 123, ll. 1–2.

16 CDH 11, 17, S 11, p. 123, ll. 3–8. Note, incidentally, that it could be both that God's will is the source of this and other metaphysical necessities and that God wills these by nature. So Anselm's claim need not entail that the past might not have been fixed.

17 I thank Eleonore Stump for bringing this up.

18 On this see Serene, op. cit. pp. 145–50.

19 See Adams, Robert M., ‘The Logical Structure of Anselm's Arguments’, Philosophical Review LXXX (1971), 2854.

20 See Monologion 5–6.

21 See Proslogion 7.

22 For the general problem of forms of speech which mislead us about the facts they express, see De Casu Diaboli 11.

23 See e.g. Proslogion 18.

24 CDH 11, 17, S 11, p. 123, l. 31–p. 124, l. 2.

25 CDH 1, 20, S 11, p. 86, ll. 19–20.

26 De Veritate, 10. Of course, (S) could be founded on both God's nature and God's will, if God wills (S) by nature.

27 I argue that Anselm and Aquinas are far closer on the necessity of the incarnation than might at first appear. So let me note that for Aquinas too, moral truths rest ultimately on God's nature and will. See Kretzmann, Norman, ‘Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro’, in Donald, Stump, ed., Hamartia (N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), pp. 2750.

28 See e.g. Proslogion 18. As all Christian medievals would, Anselm excepts the Persons of the Trinity. But this does not matter for present purposes.

29 I discuss this below.

30 It is an interesting question what sort of theory of freedom applies to the actions of Anselm's God. Can Anselm's God do other than He in fact does? One wants to say so – certainly nothing external or internal could prevent His doing so Yet suppose that, as Anselm states, all impossibility has its roots in God's single act of will. By determining what is impossible, God determines what is possible: to make it the case that P is not possible is ipso facto to make it the case that ¬P is possible. So for Anselm, all possible states of affairs are possible due only to God's creative act. If so, one would think, there are such things as possible alternatives to God's action only subsequent to its taking place. Can it be true that God can do other than He does, as He acts, if the possibility of alternative actions exists only logically after He acts? Only if the truth of this claim does not involve the existence of possible states of affairs such that alternate actions of God would realize some of them.

31 CDH 1, 8, S 11, p. 59, l. 11.

32 CDH 11, 10, S 11, p. 108, ll. 23–4.

33 CDH 1, 10, S 11, p. 67, ll. 2–6.

34 See e.g. CDH 11, 5.

35 CDH Preface, S 11, p. 42, l. 16.

36ex necessitate omnia quae de Christo credimus fieri oportere’. CDH Preface, S 11, p. 42.

37 CDH 1, 3, S 11, p. 50, ll. 24–8.

38 The thought here is that the Incarnation involves things which are ‘below’ God, incongruous with His dignity. So the claim that God ought not to become incarnate rests finally on a claim that God ought to act in a way suiting His dignity. Why? Presumably because doing justice to His own nature demands it. So the Affront Argument in the end appeals to the moral requirement that God be fair to Himself – of which more anon.

39 CDH 1, 3, S 11, pp. 50–1.

40 Anselm also tries later to blunt the objection by appeal to Chalcedonian Christology – that the degradations happen to Christ in His human, not His divine nature (CDH 1, 8, S 11, p. 59, ll. 18–28). But this is not really to the point either. For even on orthodox Christology, the actions of the incarnate Christ are actions of the divine Person, and the objection's thrust is that these actions are not appropriate to a divine person.

41necessitas quae probet deum ad ea quae praedicamus debuisse aut potuisse humiliari’. CDH 1, 4, S 11, p. 52, ll. 3–4. My italics.

42 CDH 1, 10, S 11, p. 67, ll. 2–6.

43 Ibid., as Anselm calls both reasons of justice and reasons of beauty or aesthetic appropriateness reasons of ‘fittingness’. For a treatment of ‘fittingness’ in Anselm, see Brian Leftow, ‘Anselm on the Beauty of the Incarnation’, The Modern Schoolman forthcoming.

44 As I later suggest that Anselm's moral arguments may aim only to show a prima rather than an ultima facie moral requirement, I note that the ought/can principle seems to apply to both sorts. If I cannot flap my wings and fly to the moon, I cannot be even prima facie obligated to do so. Even if I am counterfactually obligated – i.e. if it is true that if I could fly, I would be obliged to make the trip – this does not seem to be the same thing as being actually prima facie obliged to fly to the moon, even though I in fact cannot. Might I be obliged to fly there if I can, even though I cannot? If I am, it is because this sort of obligation tacitly builds in the ought/can principle.

45 How hard would this be to do? I display below Anselm's case for the prima facie moral requirement that God become incarnate. This case appeals to a fairly wide variety of intuitive moral principles. Anselm's doctrine of divine simplicity has deep roots in his overall project of ‘perfect being theology’ (see Monologion 5, 16, and for the general project, Monologion 15 and Morris, Thomas, Our Idea of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). Hence the critic would likely have to tackle the project as a whole. I suspect that Anselm's claim that God is the ground of necessity has equally deep roots in that project – in general, one exalts one's concept of God the more of what is not evil in Creation one traces to His causation.

46Nonne satis necessaria ratio videtur cur deus ea quae dicimus facere debuerit’, CDH 1, 4, S 11, p. 52, ll. 7–8.

47nec decebat ut quod deus de homine proposuerat, penitus annihilaretur’. CDH 1, 4, S 11, p. 52, ll. 9–10. Recall here Anselm's claim that ‘in the case of God… an impossibility results from any unfittingness, however slight’.

48 For Anselmian reasoning about God's being fair to Himself, see e.g. Proslogion 10 and CDH 1, 13.

49 CDH 11, 4, S 11, p. 99, ll. 3–4, 9, 12–3.

50 CDH 11, 5, S 11, p. 100, ll. 26–7.

51 So again De Veritate 10, plus the earlier-cited CDH 11, 17, tracing even metaphysical necessities to God

52 CDH 1, 19, S 11, p. 85, ll. 25–7.

54 CDH 11, 1, S 11, pp. 97–8.

55 CDH 1, 19, S 11, p. 84, ll. 17–9, 22–4; 1, 25, S 11, p. 95, ll. 25–9.

56 CDH 11, 6, S 11, p. 101.

57 CDH 1, 11.

58 CDH 1, 11–12.

59 ST 11–11a 62, 2.

60 ST 11–11a 62, 2 ad 1.

61 CDH 1, 20, S 11, p. 86, ll. 19–20.

62 CDH 1, 13, S 11, p. 71.

63 ST 11–11a 62, 2 ad 1.

64 ST 111a 46, 5 ad 3.

65 S 11, p. 128, l. 23.

66 S 11, p. 128, ll. 21–3.

67 S 11, p. 128.

68 CDH 11, 14, S 11, p. 114, ll. 9–11.

69 CDH 11, 14, S 11, p. 114, ll. 17–9.

70 CDH 1, 20. Presumably, then, Anselm would claim that an atoning death is more proportional to the gravity of sin than other possible sacrifices.

71 CDH 1, 13, S 11, p. 71.

72 CDH 1, 13, S 11, p. 71. Presumably it would be an insult either to forgive by simple fiat, without any satisfaction, or to forgive in virtue of a satisfaction not truly adequate to the crime.

73 CDH 1, 12, S 11, p. 69. Strictly, this is an argument against forgiveness by simple fiat. But it seems equally apt as an argument against leaving sin unpunished and also atoned-for by a less than adequate payment, or even perhaps a less than optimal payment.

74 CDH 1, 12, S 11, p. 69; 1, 15, S 11, pp. 73–4. One might add: it would equally violate this order if sin were neither punished nor adequately or appropriately paid for.

75 Thomas does not explicitly list Anselm's reasons and assert this. But his treatment of the necessity of the Incarnation (ST 111a 1, 2) and Passion (ST 111a 46, 2) is plainly informed by a close reading of CDH. So when Thomas asserts that it would be permissible to accept non-proportional satisfaction, he is implicitly claiming that none of Anselm's moral reason provides more than a prima facie reason for the Incarnation and Atonement.

76 CDH 11, 10.

77 ST 111a 1, 2.

78 See CDH 11, 6.

79 See e.g. ad 2.

80 ST 111a 1, 2.

81 ST 111a 1, 2, and 46, 3. Thomas makes a point of adding that his list is extensible by further ‘advantages above human comprehension’, suggesting that if the benefit list does not seem long or weighty enough to justify God's choice, this is only due to human cognitive limitations. For treatment of Anselm's arguments that I/A is the ‘most fitting’ means of salvation, see Brian Leftow, ‘Anselm on the Elegance of the Incarnation’, forthcoming.

82 ST 111a 46, 3.

83 ST 111a 1, 2.

84 ST 1a, 25, 3.

85 ‘simply and absolutely’ possible, 111a 46, 2.

86 See e.g. QD de potentia Dei 1, 5.

87 SCG 11 45, 2.

88 ST 1a 25, 6 ad 3. For a careful analysis of Aquinas on maximizable and non-maximizable aspects of the world's order, see Norman Kretzmann, ‘A Particular Problem of Creation’, in Scott, MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 231–7.

89 I believe Thomas's views on the relation of God to modal truth are enough like Anselm's to bear out this comparison in detail. But that must await another occasion.

90 This paper stems from comments I delivered at the Robert J. Henle Conference in Medieval Philosophy, St Louis University, April 8, 1994. My thanks to Eleonore Stump for hosting the conference and inviting me, to Marilyn Adams (my commentee) for sparking my interest in the topic, and to members of the conference audience for their helpful comments.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed