Anselm, Abelard and the Atonement

G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have said that no one is witty enough to invent a new heresy. Chesterton’s theory helps us remember that today’s battles are not new. What goes around comes around.

A subject that continually haunts the church is the nature of the Atonement. This debate began in the 11th century and continues today. The protagonists were Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) and Peter Abelard (1079–1142).

Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm was one of history’s great theologians. He was known and loved for his holiness. He “combined charm with firmness, gentleness with strength, sanctity with sagacity,” notes church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette. “Humble in spirit, without ambition for personal power or preferment, he was painfully conscious of his unworthiness in the sight of God.”1

Anselm was born in Northwest Italy. At age 24, against his father’s wishes, he traveled to France and settled at Bec monastery in Normandy. There he committed himself to theology, teaching, and writing. Because of his reputation, on three separate occasions, he was invited to cross the English Channel to preach and minister.

He was not ambitious for worldly fame or position. Instead, he sought a quiet life of prayer and reading. At age 60, however, he reluctantly answered a call to become England’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm “was so violently opposed to the move,” notes D.O. Fuller, “that churchmen had to force him physically to receive the ordination.”2

Anselm was reticent to receive ordination because his new position would put him in conflict with the English monarch. He was unsure who would control the English church. Anselm felt that the Pope, not the English sovereign, should control the English church. For these views he spent much time exiled in Europe.

His most important work, Cur Deus Homo — Why God Became Man or Why God-man? (1098) — deals with the reasons for the Incarnation and Atonement. Cur Deus Homo describes how the Atonement effected the forgiveness of sin. It also explains why God needed to become man to secure our forgiveness. Could God have forgiven sin without the Atonement? If so, why did He become man and die? “With Cur Deus Homo, ‘Why God became Man,’ ” notes Phillip Schaff, “a new chapter opens in the development of the doctrine of the Atonement.”3 Anselm was the first theologian to tackle these questions.4

Prior to Anselm, Christians believed that Christ died to forgive sin. This is called the ransom theory. Since the first century, the ransom theory was the reigning model used to describe how sin was forgiven. Christ died to ransom us from the devil, and one result was the forgiveness of sin.

After careful examination of Scripture, Anselm concluded that the issue was more complicated. The Atonement secured forgiveness by satisfying the demands of God’s justice. Man is sinful, and God is just. Because God is just, He must punish sin. Because God is holy, He cannot forgive at the expense of justice. God must punish sin before He can forgive it. God would have compromised His moral perfections had He forgiven without satisfying justice. That is why Jesus needed to die on the cross His death satisfied the demands of God’s justice so sin could be forgiven.

Underneath Anselm’s theory is a radical view of sin. Latourette describes Anselm’s reasoning this way: “While none but man can make the satisfaction to compensate for man’s sin, only God can make that satisfaction, for the satisfaction must be greater than anything in the universe except God. That satisfaction, therefore, must be made by one who is both God and man.” That is how Anselm answered the question: Why did God need to become flesh and die?

Anselm’s satisfaction theory assumes that God is more than love. God is also justice. His justice is holy, inflexible, and its demands must be fully satisfied before He can forgive. Anselm’s theory also assumes that man is sinful, and his sin is so serious that only a divine sacrifice — one infinite in value — can satisfy the demands of God’s justice for sins infinite in their severity.

Anselm was a monumental thinker with a penetrating mind. He had great clarity of thought and was a precise writer. When he died, at age 75, he was wrestling with another theological issue — how to reconcile human freedom and God’s sovereignty.

Later, Aquinas (1225–1274) added to and refined Anselm’s theory. Anselm’s theory, however, reached its mature form under the preaching of the Protestant Reformers in the 16th and 17th century.

Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard, 35 years Anselm’s junior, was one of the most conspicuous people in Europe. He was Anselm’s moral, spiritual, and theological opposite. Anselm was a theologian; Abelard was a critic. Anselm was cautious and deliberate; Abelard was impulsive. Anselm sought seclusion; Abelard sought notoriety and fame. Anselm was famed for his holiness; Abelard earned his reputation from public teaching and preaching, at which he excelled. “A man of daring thought and restless disposition,” notes Schaff, “[Abelard] was unstable in his mental beliefs and morally unreliable. … He was like the barren fig tree with the promise of leaves and nothing more.”5

In the 11th century, the Cathedral School at Paris was the center of European learning. Abelard, in his 30s, was appointed dean of the school. Bright and charismatic, he was at the top of the educational ladder.

“His dialectic powers were ripe,” notes Schaff. “Where arguments failed, the teacher’s imagination and rhetoric came to the rescue. His books were read not only in the schools and convents, but also in castles and guild houses. William of Thierry said they [his books] crossed the seas and overleaped the Alps. When he visited towns, the people crowded the streets and strained their necks to catch a glimpse of him. His remarkable influence over men and women must be explained not by his intellectual depth so much as by a certain daring and literary art and brilliance. He was attractive of person, and Bernard may have had this in mind when he says, Abelard was outwardly a John though he had the heart of a Herod.”6

Enter Heloise

Peter Abelard’s downfall came through his love affair with Heloise. The first lady of Paris, a reigning teen beauty, Heloise was one of his students. She lived in Paris with her uncle, Fulbert. Bright and precocious, she sought out Abelard for private tutoring. “The meetings between pupil and tutor became meetings of lovers. Over open books, as Abelard wrote, more words of love were passed than of discussion and more kisses than instruction.7 Soon Heloise discovered that she was pregnant, and the most famous theologian-philosopher of the age was the baby’s father.

Fearing social reprisal, Abelard moved Heloise to his sister’s home in Brittany where the baby was born. Later, he married Heloise in secret. In the 11th century, theologian-philosophers were celibate. So, Abelard refused to openly acknowledge his marriage or live with Heloise. She joined a convent where Abelard came for secret nocturnal visits.

Abelard’s relationship with Heloise angered Fulbert. Seeking to avenge the honor of his niece, he hired ruffians who broke into Abelard’s apartment late one night and castrated him. Abelard was 38.

With his career ruined, and his life in shambles, Abelard retired to a monastery where he continued to write, teach, and lecture. Heloise continued to send him impassioned correspondence, but Abelard did not reciprocate her affection and ardor. He was a selfish man. His treatment of Heloise was shameful. Even in later life he showed no signs of repentance in his writings.

Abelard’s Theology

Like Anselm, Abelard wrote extensively on the Atonement. Curiously, Abelard did not reference Anselm’s work. Like Anselm, he also rejected the ransom theory. Instead, he presented a new theory that is the father of today’s moral influence theory.

Schaff sums up Abelard’s understanding of the Atonement this way: “Christ not only did not pay any price to the devil for man’s redemption, he also did not make satisfaction to divine justice and appease God’s wrath. … In the life and death of the Redeemer, God’s purpose was to manifest His love, and thus to stir up love in the breast of man, and to draw man by love back to Himself. God might have redeemed man by a word, but He chose to set before man an exhibition of His love in Christ. Christ’s love constitutes the merit of Christ.”8

Theologians agree that the love God revealed at the cross should have a profound influence on behavior. No one rejects this part of Abelard’s theory. What orthodox theologians reject is the idea that this is the heart of the Atonement, a full explanation of the Atonement, or that it adequately explains how God forgives sin.

At the bottom of Abelard’s theory is an unwillingness to grapple with the severity of sin, the necessity of blood sacrifice, and the importance of the satisfaction of God’s justice in the divine drama of redemption.

The Conflict

The Atonement debate did not end with Anselm and Abelard. In many ways, Abelard was the prototypical liberal while Anselm was the prototypical theological conservative. Today’s Unitarians, and many liberal Christians, continue to side with Abelard.

“The views men take of the Atonement are largely determined by their fundamental feelings of need — what men most long to be saved from,” observes B.B. Warfield.9 Abelard rejected Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.10 Where there is little sin, there is little need to satisfy God’s justice. By contrast, Anselm deeply felt his need and spiritual poverty. He not only saw the horrors of sin in Scripture, but he also felt it deep in his heart. The combination of clear biblical teaching and the inner testimony of his own need drove Anselm to the satisfaction theory of the Atonement.

Abelard was content to let God be love and nothing else, while Anselm’s theory assumed the complex God revealed in the Bible. To Anselm, God was more than love. He was also justice, holiness, and righteous.

Like Abelard, Anselm believed that God is love. But unlike Abelard, he did not believe that love is God. He was not willing to deify love.


The story of Anselm and Abelard offers many lessons for the modern pastor. First, in the 11th century, as today, other than the biblical text, the nature of man and the holiness of God are the issues on which the Atonement turns. “Nothing is more startling in the structure of recent theories of atonement,” wrote B.B. Warfield, “than the apparently vanishing sense of sin that underlies them.”11 Without a clear and prescient understanding of the gravity of sin and its offense to God, the need to satisfy God’s justice, as seen by Anselm in Scripture, will be unclear. But, when a believer sees sin through God’s eyes, Anselm’s satisfaction theory makes sense. Abelard’s deficiency was in his unclear view of sin. Anselm’s view of sin was more accurate, and it gave life to his theology of Atonement.

A second lesson is that faith must precede knowledge. Augustine taught that we believe to understand. Anselm, as a student of Augustine, also believed to understand. The satisfaction theory is repugnant to reason because it suggests that we all deserve crucifixion. It also suggests that God’s justice is as important to God as His love. These ideas do not go well with reason. Those who start with reason will have difficulties with the Atonement. Because Anselm saw satisfaction in Scripture, he believed it. Because he believed, he understood the doctrine.

By contrast, Abelard taught that we know to believe. He only believed what he could first understand. This is why he rejected the doctrine of original sin. To think that anyone should be guilty for the sin of another is against reason. This same thinking also led him to reject the satisfaction theory. How could God put such an emphasis on justice and still be love (1 John 4:16)? Why couldn’t He just forgive?

Third, the condition of our heart influences our theology. Doctrinal precision proceeds from a pure heart. Scripture contains many unpleasant, unpopular, and counter-cultural truths. Divided hearts may compromise these teachings to obtain social acceptability. Anselm modeled holiness. By contrast, Abelard’s life speaks of a divided heart before God. Ultimately, the condition of each man’s heart affected his doctrinal conclusions.

Last, those who insist that God is love and nothing more, seldom experience the love of God that Paul said “surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). Abelard’s theory of the Atonement spoke much of God’s love, but ended by obscuring it. The reason is that the door through which we experience God’s love is the severity of sin, the holiness of God’s justice, the depravity of man, and the necessity of a substitutionary, blood sacrifice. He that has been forgiven much loves much.

As Martin Luther said, “God hides His power in weakness, His wisdom in folly, His goodness in severity, His justice in sins, and His mercy in His wrath.”12 God’s love works the same way. We must go through these realities, not around them, to discover the riches of God’s infinite love.13 “Apart from understanding God’s wrath against evil,” notes G.R. Lewis, “it is impossible to understand the extent of divine love in the incarnation, the extent of Christ’s suffering on the Cross, [or] the propitiatory nature of His sacrifice.”14

Almost 1,000 years have passed, but the debate has not. To many, God is still love and that is all. Others are constrained by biblical testimony: God is also light (1 John 1:5), a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), jealous (Deuteronomy 4:24), and holy (Psalm 99:9). In the end, what we assume about God determines our understanding of the Atonement, and many other doctrines as well.

G.K. Chesterton was right. No one is smart enough to invent a new heresy. That is why it is important to understand the debate between Anselm and Abelard over the Atonement.

History is His Story.



1. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity,vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500 (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1953), 499.

2. David Otis Fuller, Valiant for the Truth (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961), 57.

3. Phillip Schaff and D.S. Schaff, History of the Christian Church,vol. 5 (Oak Harbor, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

4. B.B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield,vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 263.

5. Schaff.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Warfield, 283.

10. Latourette, 504.

11. Warfield, 297.

12. Rolland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950), 63.

13. Good books on this subject are John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Leon Morris, The Atonement (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984); William Bates, The Harmony of the Divine Attributes in the Contrivance and Accomplishment of Man’s Redemption (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1850s); A.W. Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955); George Smeaton, The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957); and Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life (Colorado Springs: Colo.: NavPress, 2003).

14. G.R. Lewis, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W.A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 457.