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ANSELM OF CANTERBURY
MONK, ARCHBISHOP, THEOLOGIAN (21 APR 1109)
He was born in Italy about 1033, and in 1060 he entered the monastery of Bec in Normandy to study under Stephen Lanfranc, whom he succeeded in office, first as prior of Bec, and later as Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1078 he was elected abbot of Bec. The previous year, he completed a work called the Monologium, in which he argues for the existence of God from the existence of degrees of perfection (Aquinas's Fourth Way is a variation of this argument).
In 1087, while still at Bec, he produced his Proslogium, an outline of his "ontological argument" for the existence of God. Taking as his text the opening of Psalm 14 ("The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God."), Anselm undertakes to show that the fool is contradicting himself -- that the concept of God is unique in that anyone who understands what is meant by the question, "Does God exist?" will see that the answer must be "Yes." The argument has received mixed reviews from the start. Almost at once another theologian, Gaunilon, wrote, "A Reply on Behalf of the Fool." Thomas Aquinas rejected Anselm's argument as inconclusive (and is followed in this by most Roman Catholic writers today). Kant practically made his reputation as a philosopher by explaining in detail what he thought was wrong with Anselm's argument. On the other hand, Leibniz and others have thought it valid.
King William II of England had no fondness for the Church, and at the death of Lanfranc he kept the See of Canterbury vacant until he was gravely ill, whereon he promised to let Anselm be made Archbishop. Anselm was made Archbishop (4 December 1093), the King recovered, and the two began to dispute the extent of the King's right to intervene in Church matters. Anselm went into exile in 1097 and remained in Italy for three years until the King died in 1100.
During that time Anselm was instrumental in settling
the doubts of the Greek bishops of southern Italy about the doctrine of
He also devoted the time to writing a book known as Cur
Deus Homo? (meaning Why did God become Man?). In it he puts forward the
"satisfaction theory" of the Atonement. Man's offence of rebellion against God
is one that demands a payment or satisfaction. Fallen man is incapable of making adequate
satisfaction, and so God took human nature upon Him, in order that a perfect man might
make perfect satisfaction and so restore the human race. The success of his work may be
gauged by the fact that many Christians today not only accept his way of explaining the
Atonement, but are simply unaware that there is any other way.
The five works Proslogium, Monologium, Gaunilon's Reply, Anselm on Gaunilon, and Cur Deus Homo? are available in a single paperback volume from Oxford Univ. Press.
After the death of King William II in 1100, Anselm returned to England at the invitation of the new king Henry I, only to quarrel with Henry about the lawful extent of the king's control over the selection of bishops and abbots (it must be remembered that these officials had civil as well as religious authority). Anselm was again in exile from 1103 to 1106. In 1107 a compromise was reached, and Anselm returned home to Canterbury, where he lived his last few years in peace, dying 21 April 1109.
Typical of Anselm is his reversal of a tendency among English bishops after the Norman Conquest to ignore or downgrade the Anglo-Saxon saints as representatives of the conquered race. Lanfranc had proposed to remove even Dunstan and Alphege from the calendar, the latter on the grounds that he had not died as a martyr for refusing to deny the Christian faith. Anselm argued that, if he was not a martyr to faith, he was a martyr to justice and to charity.
From the Preface to the Proslogium:
A PRAYER OF ANSELM
A SONG OF ANSELM
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
by James Kiefer
Note: Clicking on the book link above will take you to Amazon.com, where you may buy the book if you wish. Also available is Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm.