Commemoration of Anselm of Canterbury, Theologian
The Lord be with you
Today we remember Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Born in Aosta, which is now part of northwestern Italy and then the frontier of Lombardy and Burgundy, Anselm was the son of a nobleman. After the death of his mother and quarreling with his father, Anselm left home at the age of twenty-three for travel in Burgundy and France, furthering his education. While in France he was attracted to the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy, which had been founded in 1040. The prior of the monastery was Lanfranc, a brilliant man. When Anselm’s father died he left Anselm all his property, leaving Anselm with a choice: leave the monastery to manage the family lands, or stay and become a monk. Anselm chose to stay and became a novice in 1060. After three years, when Lanfranc left to become prior of a new monastery, Anselm was elected his successor as prior of Bec. Herluin, the founding abbot of Bec, died in 1078 and Anselm was unanimously elected abbot. Under Anselm’s leadership the monastery of Bec became the intellectual center of Europe.
Lanfranc became Archbishop of Canterbury and Anslem visited him in 1078, making a favorable impression on the English. Lanfranc died in 1089. King William Rufus kept the post empty for four years to secure as much of the revenues of Canterbury as possible. Finally Anslem was chosen to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury, but he was inclined to refuse the call. However, pressure from all sides changed his mind and he was “enthroned” September 25, 1093 and consecrated December 4.
During this time something called the “Investiture Controversy” was raging. The basic issue was: Who had the right to appoint Church officials (pastors, bishops, etc.), the civil authorities or the Church. Behind this issue was the question of where Church leaders ultimate allegiance belonged, the Church or the State. Anselm came down clearly on the side of the Church, putting him in conflict with King Rufus, who felt it was his right to appoint Church leaders in England (and therefore their ultimate allegiance would be to him). Anselm was exiled twice over these issues. While in exile, he persuaded the Pope to not excommunicate the English king. In the end, the Pope worked out a compromise that was acceptable to all. It confirmed that the Church, and not civil authorities, is responsible for establishing structure and maintaining order among the clergy.
Anslem was a brilliant scholar. At his time theological thought mainly meant finding out what earlier Christian thinkers taught on a topic. You would group the various authors together on various topics and seek some sort of synthesis. Anslem approached these issues from a fresh perspective and also asked new questions.
He is probably best known for his ontological proof of the existence of God. Anslem reasoned that God was the greatest possible being of which we can conceive. He suggested that, if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality. The argument has been expanded by many over the centuries. Anyone who has taken a philosophy 101 course in college has been exposed to it.
Perhaps his greatest work was his book on the incarnation. In this book, you might say, he examined the incarnation in relation to the phrase in the Nicene Creed which confesses that the Son, “for us men and for our salvation, became man.” The book taught that the reason for the incarnation was that Jesus, the Son of God, would suffer and die in place of sinners. In his argument, the material world was lifted up as vitally important to God. “Spirituality” was not “non-corporeal.”
Another important high water mark was reached in a meeting between Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches. In the Western Church the Nicene Creed reads, in part, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified …” In the Eastern Church the first “and the Son” is missing. The Eastern Church had long argued that the Western Church was wrong in attributing the proceeding of the Holy Spirit to both the Father and the Son. Anslem successfully (at least in the opinion of the Western Church) argued for the appropriateness of the phrase.
A key mark of his theology is prayer. In deed, he thought of theology as prayer.
Anslem’s searching mind remained active to his dying day. On his death bed he spoke to those gathered about his next project, a book on the origin of the soul.
Anslem died April 21, 1109 [hence the selection of April 21 for his commemoration], which was Wednesday in Holy Week. He was almost 80-years-old.
What follows are some quotes from Anselm, which I found in Treasury of Daily Prayer, published by Concordia Publish House.
The restoration of human nature by God is more wonderful than its creation. Both were equally easy for God; but before man was made he had not sinned so that he ought not to be denied existence. But after man was made, he deserved, by his sin, to lose his existence together with its design, though he never has wholly lost this, viz., that he should be one capable of being punished or of receiving God’s compassion. For neither of these things could take effect if he were annihilated. Therefore God’s restoring man is more wonderful than his creating man, inasmuch as it is done for the sinner contrary to what he deserves; while the act of creation was not for the sinner and was not in opposition to what man deserved. How great a thing it is, also, for God and man to unite in one person, that, while the perfection of each nature is preserved, the same being may be both God and man! Who, then, will dare to think that the human mind can discover how wisely, how wonderfully, so incomprehensible a work has been accomplished?
Christian soul, soul raised from sad death, soul redeemed from miserable slavery and set free by the blood of God: rouse your mind, dwell upon your resurrection from the dead, and ponder well the history of your redemption and your liberation. Consider where the strength of your salvation comes from, and what it is. Employ yourself in musing on it, delight yourself in contemplating it; shake off your sloth, do violence to your heart, bend your whole mind to it. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, break forth in fires of love to your Savior. Bite the honeycomb of the words that tell of it, suck their savor more pleasant than honey, swallow their wholesome sweetness. Bite by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow as you love and rejoice. Gladden yourself by biting, exult in sucking, fill yourself to the full with joy by swallowing. Where and what is the strength and power of your salvation? Christ, Christ assuredly has raised you up again. He, the Good Samaritan, has healed you. He, the good friend, has redeemed you with His life and set you free. Christ, I say, Christ is He. And so the strength of your salvation is the strength of Christ….
Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation; here is the cause of your freedom; here is the price of your redemption. You were a captive, but you have been redeemed; you were a slave, but [by Him] are made free. And so, an exile, you are brought home; lost, you are reclaimed; and dead, you are restored to life. This let your heart taste, O man, this let it suck, this let it swallow, while your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this present life make this your daily bread, your nourishment, your support in pilgrimage. For by means of this, this and nothing else, you remain in Christ and Christ in you, and in the life to come your joy shall be full.
A Collect for the Day
Almighty God, you raised up your servant Anselm to study and teach the sublime truths you have revealed: Let your gift of faith come to the aid of our understanding, and open our hearts to your truth; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with yuou and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Other Appropriate Prayers include:
• For a sense of the majesty of God
• For forgiveness for those who wrong us
• For a spirit of prayer and devotion
• For those who inquire into the mysteries of God and God’s relation to the world
• For those who seek assurance of the existence of God
• For Christian unity based on a faithful understanding of Scripture
• For the Church to remain faithful to Christ above all human authority
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert