Within a few years of his appointment as archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, Saint Anselm found himself caught up in a number of theological controversies. One of these hinged on the following question: Why was it necessary that God become human and, through his death, redeem the world from sin, when it would seem that God in his omnipotence might have accomplished this saving act in any number of ways or simply by an act of divine will? This question reached Anselm from two sources: the so-called secular schools (nonmonastic Christian seminaries) of Northern Europe and a group of learned rabbis and Jewish scholars recently settled in London for whom the very idea of divine incarnation was an intellectual and theological affront.

For the secular schools, interest in the question was largely a matter of formulating a theology of the Incarnation in keeping with the dominant trend of the age, which was to place Christian doctrine on a more rational foundation. For the Jews, the question arose out of a concern with the nature of God. For them, the idea of the Incarnation was an assault on the dignity of the Supreme Being. How could an utterly transcendent being be required to suffer the ignominy of human suffering and death on a cross? While the Jews shared with Christians the view that humanity lived in a condition of Original Sin and was therefore in need of divine forgiveness, they could not accept the notion that human restoration to the perfection lost with the Fall could be accomplished only through God’s assumption of human flesh.

The key term in Anselm’s statement of the question is “necessary.” Earlier Christian apologists had assumed that God’s decision to take on the human condition was not governed by necessity but was simply an act of the divine will; God had merely chosen this manner of saving humanity by some mysterious preference but could have chosen some other method to achieve the same end. For Anselm this inherited notion that God’s assumption of human flesh was, in effect, a purely contingent act was unacceptable. It was a violation of the “rightness”...

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Sources for Further Study

Holmes, Stephen. “The Upholding of Beauty: A Reading of Saint Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.” Scottish Journal of Theology 54, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 189-203. Focuses on Anselm’s contribution to medieval debates concerning rational understanding of Christ’s Incarnation.

Leftow, Brian. “Anselm on the Necessity of the Incarnation.” Religious Studies 31, no. 2 (June, 1995): 167-185. Argues that while Anselm’s view of atonement seems to diminish God’s omnipotence, this is not so. “Necessity” in Anselm’s argument arises from God’s prior actions and does not restrict his power.

McMahon, Kevin A. “The Cross and the Pearl: Anselm’s Patristic Doctrine of the Atonement.” In Saint Anselm: His Origins and Influence, edited by John R. Fortin. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Shows that, despite the usual claims that in Cur Deus Homo Anselm breaks radically with the tradition of the church fathers, he was in fact much influenced by them.

Southern, R. W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Contains a lengthy discussion of Cur Deus Homo within its historical context and stresses especially the aesthetic dimension of Anselm’s rationality.