Doctrine of Christ (Part 15): The Work of Christ (8) - Satisfaction Theory

May 26, 2017

The Satisfaction Theory

Today we come to the so-called satisfaction theory of the atonement. This was developed by none other than St. Anselm who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the eleventh century. Yes, this is the same Anselm that gave us the ontological argument for the existence of God! As if that weren’t enough for his claim to fame, even more significant is Anselm’s treatise on the atonement called Cur Deus homo (translated means “Why did God Became Man?”). This is a work of unsurpassed importance in the history of the doctrine of the atonement. It constitutes a watershed between the patristic and the medieval church. Although Anselm’s comprehensive theory of the atonement includes elements of the ransom theory of the church fathers, including God’s victory over Satan and even a rationale for God’s not achieving atonement without the death of Christ, nevertheless the fundamental thrust of Anselm’s theory is very different from that of the church fathers. It forever altered Christian thinking on the doctrine of the atonement.

Anselm’s main complaint about the ransom theory is that it is inadequate to explain why God would take the extraordinary step of sending his Son to suffer and die a horrible death in order to redeem mankind. An omnipotent God could have freed mankind from the bondage to Satan directly without any need of an incarnation. You cannot claim that in doing so God would have violated the rights that Satan has over man because man owes nothing to the devil. He has no rights over humanity. Moreover, God owes the devil nothing but punishment and certainly need not respect his rights by offering a hostage to Satan for the redemption of mankind. In contrast to these ransom theories, Anselm argues that the salvation of mankind is about a lot more than just defeating Satan and liberating people from sin. Rather, it is about making satisfaction to God for man’s sins. He believes that that necessitated the incarnation and the suffering of Christ.

Unfortunately, Anselm’s theory is frequently misrepresented in the secondary literature, especially by those who are critical of it. Typically you will hear it said that Anselm’s fundamental concern is with the restoration of God’s honor. God has been insulted by human beings in sinning against him and thereby they have besmirched God’s honor. In order to restore God’s honor, the incarnation and the death of Christ was thought to be necessary. Having laid out the theory in those terms, Anselm is then typically criticized for neglecting the moral aspects of the atonement, ignoring the demands of justice in favor of simply remedying an insult that has been paid to God. People will sometimes say that Anselm portrays God as a sort of feudal monarch or lord (reflecting the feudal society of his time) whose wounded ego demands that some satisfaction be given before he is willing to forgive the insult that has been rendered to him. These critics will say since God would be all the more magnanimous if he would simply forgive the insult without demanding some kind of satisfaction or payment, Anselm’s theory fails to show that Christ’s atoning death was really necessary.[1]

There are always elements of truth in every misrepresentation of a point of view. That is true here as well. This involves half-truths about Anselm’s theory, but does not explain it accurately. A careful reading of St. Anselm reveals that his fundamental concern is, in fact, about God’s justice and the moral demands of justice. Sin is materially bringing dishonor to God – that is true. That is the truth in this. To sin is to bring dishonor to God. But the reason that God cannot just overlook the insult magnanimously is that because it would be unjust to do so and so it would contradict the very nature of God which is just.

Anselm defines sin as the failure to render to God what is due to him. What is due to God? Anselm answers, “Every wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God.” God’s due is that in everything we do, we should do God’s will. We should be subject to his will. Anselm says, “This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.” So the honor that is due to God, on Anselm’s view, is to be just or upright in will. Anselm says, “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin.” So the essence of dishonoring God, on Anselm’s view, is to fail to be upright in will, to be submissive to God’s will, and so to sin.

Given the moral character of dishonoring God, Anselm asks “whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him?” In other words, could God out of his compassion simply overlook the dishonor that human beings have done to him and out of compassion simply forgive them? Anselm responds negatively: “To remit sin in this manner is nothing else than not to punish; and since it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then it is passed by undischarged.” His concern here is not merely with propriety but that it would be morally wrong (unjust) to leave sin unpunished. His concern here is divine justice. He says, “Truly such compassion on the part of God is wholly contrary to the Divine justice, which allows nothing but punishment as the recompense of sin.” The fundamental problem is not honor but justice. Man has dishonored God by sinning, but the reason that God cannot just overlook the offense is because it would be unjust to do so. Sin deserves punishment. Since God’s nature is essentially just, he would contradict his own nature if he were to fail to satisfy the demands of divine justice. So Anselm’s fundamental concern in this theory is ethical and not merely with a sort of insulted dignity on God’s part.[2] It is true he is concerned with God’s honor, but it is fundamentally a concern with justice and not simply remedying an insult to a feudal lord of sorts.

It is intriguing that Anselm sees the relevance of a so-called Divine Command Theory of ethics to his concern with justice. If you remember when we talked about the attributes of God and particularly the goodness of God, we talked about a Divine Command Theory of ethics which holds that moral values are grounded in the character of God himself. God himself is the standard of good and evil. Our moral duties are constituted by his commandments. His moral nature expresses itself toward us in the form of certain divine commands which then become our moral obligations or prohibitions. Anselm understands the relevance of such a Divine Command Theory of ethics to his concern with justice. He asks, since God is subject to no law and his will determines what is right, why does he, being supremely merciful, not just ignore the injury done to him? Do you see what he is saying? On a Divine Command Theory of ethics, God has no moral obligations. There is no moral law hanging over him to which he must conform or which he must obey. He himself by his will and commands determines what is just or right. If that is the case, why can’t he just overlook man’s sin without acting unjustly in doing so? Anselm, I think, gives the correct response to the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma. If you remember when we talked about this before, the Euthyphro Dilemma asks the question: is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good? If you say that something is good just because God wills it then that seems to make good and evil arbitrary. But if you say, no, God wills something because it is good then the good is independent of God and there is a moral law hanging over God to which he must conform. But the answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is to say that is a false dilemma. In fact, God himself is the standard of right and wrong, good and evil, and it is his nature which is the paradigm and the yardstick for what is good. Anselm holds to this view. He says, “there is nothing more just than supreme justice, which . . . is nothing else but God himself.” God is not at liberty to do “anything improper for the Divine character.” Since “the nature of God” sets limits to divine liberty, “it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished.” “Therefore, as God cannot be inconsistent with himself, his compassion cannot be of this nature.” The character or the nature of God himself necessitates that he punish sin. On Anselm’s view, retributive justice is not something that is just willed by God, it belongs to the very nature of God and therefore God is not at liberty to act contrary to the demands of retributive justice. This would be to act contrary to his own nature which is impossible. Therefore the demands of divine justice must be satisfied. God cannot just forgive sins or remit sins by his fiat. He must have the demands of justice satisfied.

In fact, Anselm recognizes two ways in which divine justice might be satisfied. If we think of the satisfaction of divine justice, this might be either through compensation or through punishment.[3] These are the two ways in which divine justice might be satisfied: compensation or punishment. He presents the atonement theorist with a dilemma: since the demands of divine justice must be satisfied, there must be either punishment of sin or compensation for sin. One or the other. Anselm himself chose compensation as the horn of the dilemma for his atonement theory. He assumed that punishment would result in the eternal damnation of mankind. If God punished mankind for its sins then everyone would be eternally damned. Therefore, he chose compensation. By contrast the later Protestant Reformers will chose the punishment horn of the dilemma. It will be through punishment that God’s justice is satisfied. Not our punishment of course (at least in the case of the redeemed) but Christ’s punishment in our place – substitutionary punishment. Anselm and the Protestant Reformers are therefore very much on the same footing with respect to the satisfaction of divine justice. Both of them agree that God could not simply forgive people’s sins without satisfaction of divine justice since that is essential to his nature. Anselm said therefore God will provide some sort of compensation to satisfy his justice whereas the Reformers said, no, God will provide a substitutionary punishment in order to satisfy his justice.

How does Anselm understand satisfaction? He will define it as “voluntary payment of the debt.” He thinks of the satisfaction of God’s justice as voluntary payment of the debt which is owed to God. He says the difficulty we face in paying our debt we owe to God is that there is nothing we can give to God by way of compensation that we don’t already owe him! We owe everything to God. Our will is to be entirely submitted to God. Therefore we already owe God total obedience. So there is nothing that we can give God to compensate for our sins because we already owe him everything. Moreover the situation is made worse by the fact that in order to compensate God adequately for the dishonor that we have done him, we would need to give back more than we originally owed. If you just give back what you originally owed you've just done what you were supposed to do. You haven’t compensated for your sins. So we would need to give back more than we originally owed. The gravity of our offense compounds the situation. We’ve sinned against God himself and therefore we have dishonored God so that the debt that we owe, says Anselm, is a debt of infinite proportion – a debt which is impossible for us to repay. So no one but God could repay such a debt of such magnitude, but no one but man is obligated to pay it. Therefore, it follows that our salvation requires that God become man. What a wonderful syllogism that is. No one but God could pay this debt, but no one but man is obligated to pay it. Therefore it follows that God had to become man if we are to be saved. So Anselm writes, “If it be necessary, therefore, . . . that the heavenly kingdom be made up of men, and this cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.” That is the answer to his question cur deus homo – why did God become man? In order to make compensation for our sin. This is a satisfaction which none but God can make and none but man is obligated to make. Therefore it is necessary for the God-man to make this compensation.[4]

Anselm affirms that in the incarnation the second person of the Trinity is united with a human nature such that Christ has two complete natures united in one person. He affirms an orthodox Christology which we already studied of one person in two natures. He compares this to the union of a rational soul and a body in every human being. Just as a human being is made up of a rational soul and body, so he says that in Christ there is one person who has two complete natures – human and divine. The gift that the incarnate Christ presents to God (the compensation that Christ gives to God) can be found, says Anselm, in nothing but himself. There is no finite good that Christ could give to God to compensate for the infinite debt we owe. The adequate compensation can only be found in Christ himself. Therefore he must give himself to God on our behalf. Since Christ was sinless, he was under no obligation to die. By voluntarily laying down his life he gives to God a gift of infinite value which he did not owe. Christ, as man, owed God obedience during his life. But because he was sinless he did not owe his death. Therefore he presents his life to God as a gift of infinite value by giving up his life and dying on the cross.

On Anselm’s view, it is important to understand that Christ did not die in our place. He was not punished for our sins nor did he bear the penalty for our sins. This is not a substitutionary theory such as the Reformers later offered. When Anselm says that Christ “allowed himself to be slain for the sake of justice”, we have to keep in mind that there are two ways of satisfying the demands of God’s justice: either punishment or compensation. Christ did not die as a substitutionary punishment. Rather, he gave his life to God as a compensation – a gift – for us for our sin.

How does this work? How does the gift of Christ’s life to God win our salvation? Anselm says that divine justice requires God the Father to reward the Son for the gift of his life. The Son has given to God this gift of infinite value which he did not owe. Justice would require God the Father to give Christ a reward for so inestimable a gift. But how can a reward be bestowed on someone who needs nothing and owes nothing? Christ is God. He is the second person of the Trinity. So how can he be rewarded by God the Father? Anselm answers, the Son therefore gives the reward to those for whose salvation he became incarnate. He gives the reward to us. He remits the debt incurred by our sins and he bestows on us the beatitude that we had forfeited because of our sins. So God the Father, out of his justice, offers a reward to Christ for his infinite gift, but Christ in turn passes that on to us so that we now become the beneficiaries of God the Father’s reward which is eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and so forth.

How do we become the beneficiaries of Christ’s reward that he offers to us? Anselm says it is through “faith in the Gospel.” I thought that was interesting that here this medieval Catholic theologian would recognize that the way in which we appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death is through faith in the Gospel.[5] Then he adds by making the Son an offering for ourselves with the love that he deserves. We offer Christ to God as an offering on our behalf and thereby become the beneficiary of his atoning death.

That is a summation of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. There is a lot going on there.


Student: Are you familiar with theologians that make a strong case for satisfaction being both compensatory and serving as punishment – it is both-and not either-or?

Dr. Craig: It tends to be either-or. A strong proponent of a satisfaction theory today on the contemporary scene would be Richard Swinburne. He has enunciated such a theory. But Swinburne is not sympathetic, so far as I know, to substitutionary atonement or punishment. Those who do champion substitutionary punishment don’t seem to have much room for compensation. But I don’t think that there is any reason to think that these are mutually exclusive – that you couldn’t combine both elements into one theory. I saw a very, very interesting suggestion in this regard by the Christian philosopher Mark Murphy where he points out that there is a difference in criminal law and civil law. As you know, sometimes a person can be prosecuted for a criminal offense or they can be brought before the court for a civil offense. Remember O. J. Simpson was found not guilty on the criminal offense of murder, but he was then found guilty in civil court of owing damages and compensation. What Murphy suggests is maybe through substitutionary punishment the criminal sentence of sin is discharged by Christ on our behalf. He has paid our sentence of death for sin so the demands of God’s criminal justice, as it were, are met by substitutionary atonement. But that still leaves room for civil damages that might be assessed, and perhaps Christ offers to God this tremendous award or compensation that would be like the civil damages that still might be awarded even after the criminal case has been settled. That would be a provocative suggestion for combining Christ’s death as both substitutionary punishment and as offering compensation to God.

Student: In Ephesians 2:14-16, “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.” This passage kind of says the objective is reconciling us to God and reconciling the accuser to accused or the deceived to the deceiver.

Dr. Craig: I would encourage you to look again at the context of that. I think the reconciliation that he is talking about is between Jew and Gentile. He is saying that God has broken down this wall of partition constituted by the law that separated Jews and Gentiles, and now together we are reconciled in one body to God through the cross.

Student: I understand that is the traditional way of teaching, but if we see this division all the way back in Genesis 3 where the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent are in enmity and Christ comes to bridge that enmity.[6]

Dr. Craig: If I understand you, I don’t see anything like that in Scripture. The enmity you are talking about is the enmity between man and Satan. The closest that the atonement would come to that would be the ransom theory where God has deceived Satan and liberated us from his power, but he is not reconciling us to Satan. He is not trying to remove the enmity between Satan and us. The enmity that he is talking about is not only between Jew and Gentile but between man and God. Paul says while we were still enemies Christ died for us. There is a reconciliation of man to God but I don’t see any idea that there is a reconciliation between man and Satan.

Student: I see the enmity as the deceiver and the seed of the deceiver and the deceived.

Dr. Craig: That would be Satan, right? The deceiver.

Student: Right. And we are under Satan’s deception and our salvation is to come to the seed of the woman into Christ redemption.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we are to be freed. I think that is the proper insight of the ransom view – our salvation does involve this element of redemption, of liberation from sin, corruption, death, and Satan. But I am persuaded that Anselm is correct that it has a lot more than that to it. It has also to do with satisfaction of divine justice which isn’t included in that redemption or ransom model.

Student: The satisfaction is that for the accused. Christ’s cross takes away the right to accuse anybody. For the accuser Christ’s death takes away their right to accuse. But for the accused Christ’s substitution satisfied that.

Dr. Craig: That would be the case on the Reformer’s view where you have substitution. But remember here on Anselm’s view it is not a substitutionary theory. It is so tempting for us Protestants to read it as a substitutionary theory – that he died in our place. But that is not the theory on Anselm’s view. It is that Christ is able to pay the debt of sin that we owe to God and he gives to us the wherewithal to compensate God.

Student: I am a little surprised that Anselm’s theory was seen as groundbreaking in light of Romans 3:25-26: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” This seems to encapsulate it very well. The possessive pronoun indicates God had nothing hanging over his head making him do it. It was his justice that was violated. I can see, and I certainly have no qualm with Anselm – he did a beautiful job of encapsulating this. The idea of either punishment or compensation – he came up with that. That is the first time I’ve been confronted with that. I wonder if there are other alternatives. I’d have to think about that to see. But certainly I even agree with him more on the compensation than the punishment part. God wasn’t out for blood, he was out to satisfy his justice.

Dr. Craig: All right. You’ve said a lot there. Let me just respond by saying of course we should find biblical antecedents of these theories – all of them – because otherwise they could hardly be Christian theories of the atonement. So, yes, in the Scriptures you will find ransom sayings, you’ll find sayings that could talk about satisfaction of divine justice and God’s justice being met. We will see, I think, that there are passages in the Scripture that talk about substitutionary punishment. When I say it is groundbreaking what I mean is that for nine hundred years the church fathers explicated this ransom theory of God’s paying a ransom to Satan to let the hostages go free and thereby trick Satan.[7] After Anselm, that theory disappears from church history. It is a watershed between the patristic and the medieval period. It truly is groundbreaking. The ransom theory has never come back. It really was laid to rest by Anselm. The Reformers then, as we will see, will want to push even further than Anselm in developing their theory of the atonement. But we shouldn't diminish Anselm’s contribution to this doctrine.


With that we are at the end of our time.[8]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:04

[6] 30:03

[7] 35:05

[8] Total Running Time: 36:31 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)