Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anselm on paying the debt of obedience

In I:11 Anselm states that obedience is the debt we all owe to God:
Every wish of a rational creature should be subject to the will of God. ... This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. 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.
He goes on to say that this debt must not only be paid, but the guilty party must (as we might say now) pay punitive damages.

In I:12 and I:13 Anselm denies that it would be proper for God "to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him." If sin is remitted without punishment then:
  • There would be no difference between the guilty and the innocent and "this is unbecoming to God"
  • Sin becomes subject to no law and is therefore more free than justice
  • God's dignity and honor is violated
Then he argues (I:14) that in punishing the sinner God is actually exacting payment for the debt of obedience:
It is impossible for God to lose his honor; for either the sinner pays his debt of his own accord, or, if he refuse, God takes it from him. For either man renders due submission to God of his own will, by avoiding sin or making payment, or else God subjects him to himself by torments, even against man's will, and thus shows that he is the Lord of man, though man refuses to acknowledge it of his own accord. And here we must observe that as man in sinning takes away what belongs to God, so God in punishing gets in return what pertains to man. For not only does that belong to a man which he has in present possession, but also that which it is in his power to have. Therefore, since man was so made as to be able to attain happiness by avoiding sin; if, on account of his sin, he is deprived of happiness and every good, he repays from his own inheritance what he has stolen, though he repay it against his will. For although God does not apply what he takes away to any object of his own, as man transfer the money which he has taken from another to his own use; yet what he takes away serves the purpose of his own honor, for this very reason, that it is taken away. For by this act he shows that the sinner and all that pertains to him are under his subjection.
Perhaps he may go on to reinforce this argument (I haven't yet read much beyond this point) but, as it stands, I don't see it. The debt is obedience - but God, according to Anselm, is forcibly subjecting the sinner. I do not see how forcible subjection is the same thing as obedience. The big kid on the playground may beat up the smaller kid, but that does not mean the weaker is in any way made obedient to the will of the stronger. Anselm is (rightly) concerned with God's dignity and honor. I suppose it's possible to see a certain honor in God "showing 'em who's boss". It's not a very honorable honor, though.

Far more satisfying is the idea of universal reconciliation, where sinners are indeed brought to a state of loving obedience. Universal reconciliation sees punishment as having a redemptive, reforming effect, e.g., not merely vindictive. But universalism isn't the focus of this post. I'm only interested in pointing out the difficulties in Anselm's argument at this point.

1 comment:

  1. Scholastic philosophy.eschewing empirical study, instead being channeled into the "queen of sciences"... employed in the invention of increasingly elaborate schemata within a tight framework of orthodoxy... overcomplicating the simplicity of the Christian faith like an artist or sculptor who keeps working on a perfected work, making it uglier with everything he does. Equal parts confusing and depressing!

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.