THIS WEEK it is 900 years since the death of Anselm of Canterbury, arguably most noted for his invention of the ontological argument, and for putting up the scaffolding for the theory of penal substitution, only really finished off by Calvin in the 16th century.
Now, while I think the ontological argument is a pretty harmless parlour game for brainboxes with too much time on their hands, penal substitution is a very bad thing indeed.
Some Christians get very worked up by anyone’s having a go at penal substitution. This is largely, I think, because they confuse this medieval-cum-Reformation reading of salvation with the gospel itself, and just cannot see that penal substitution is one reading of the text among others.
The basic idea is that human beings owe God an unpayable debt on account of their sin, and that Jesus pays off this debt by being nailed up on a cross. To many of us, this account turns God into a merciless loan shark, deaf to our pleas for forgiveness. Whatever happened to “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6, Matthew 9.13)?
Another weakness is that it gives the resurrection nothing to do in the overall scheme of human salvation. If we are saved on the cross, then there is no saving work left for the resurrection to do. Thus it gets sidelined as a spectacular after-party to the main event, which gets wrapped up on Good Friday.
That just can’t be right. Those who insist otherwise might like to take a closer look at Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (“Why a God-Man?”), where he sets out his understanding of salvation. It is made up of 47 mini-chapters; all have titles, but not one of them refers to the resurrection. Indeed, the resurrection hardly merits a mention throughout the whole book — a book on human salvation. No wonder so many of us find penal substitution so unconvincing.
My views on all this are mild and moderate compared with some of the things said about penal substitution by members of the Orthodox Church. Take Dr Alexander Kalimoros’s celebrated essay on Eastern Orthodox soteriology, The River of Fire, where he insists that “The ‘God’ of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in his destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless he receives an infinite satisfaction for his offended pride.”
This theology, Dr Kalimoros asserts, is the work of the devil, leading Western Christians to atheism. That may be a little strong, but it might just wake some people up to reconsider Anselm’s dubious legacy.
Canon Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.