Were people in the Middle Ages simply gullible about Christianity? (Reflections on Anselm’s ‘Why God Became Man’ #1)

Statue of Anselm outside Canterbury cathedral. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Ealdgyth, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anselmstatuecanterburycathedraloutside.jpg
Statue of Anselm outside Canterbury cathedral. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Ealdgyth, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anselmstatuecanterburycathedraloutside.jpg

In the modern world we often assume that our ancestors in the Middle Ages were simply gullible about Christianity. But is this really the case? In the first of a series of reflections on Anselm of Canterbury’s ‘Why God Became Man’ (Cur Deus Homo), I will consider this question.

Of course, people in Europe didn’t have access to the same amount of information at their fingertips that we have today; nor were literacy levels anything like what they are in Europe today. Nor was the concept of empirical method, which has been so fundamental to scientific advancement during the last 500 years, really practised in the Middle Ages in the way it has been since.

“Before we congratulate ourselves on how much more wise and clever we moderns are when we dismiss the claims of the Christian faith, we ought to reflect on the fact that many people today dismiss Christianity without knowing what Christianity teaches or what Christians really believe. Are we really so much smarter than our ancestors?”

Certainly there were instances of mediaeval corporate credulity. The rise of the power of the papacy in the Latin West which went largely unquestioned — though not as unquestioned as you might think — is of course one instance. Part and parcel with this was Western Christendom’s swallowing of the papal forgery known as the Donation of Constantine, a document produced probably between A.D. 750 and 850 purporting to be the fourth-century emperor Constantine’s donation of the Western half of the Roman Empire to the then bishop of Rome, Sylvester. Although roundly denounced as a forgery by Eastern Christendom, it was accepted as genuine in the West until Lorenzo Valla showed it to be a forgery in 1440.

None of this, however, should make us assume that people within Western Christendom in the Middle Ages were simply and universally gullible when it came to the Christian faith. And before we congratulate ourselves on how much more wise and clever we moderns are when we dismiss the claims of the Christian faith, we ought to reflect on the fact that many people today dismiss Christianity without knowing what Christianity teaches or what Christians really believe. Are we really so much smarter than our ancestors?

Anselm of Canterbury and his ‘Cur Deus Homo’ (‘Why God Became Man’)

Anselm of Canterbury wrote his work ‘Why God Became Man’ (Latin: ‘Cur Deus Homo’) around the year 1100,[1] consciously in two books. In the first book he addresses the question whether, supposing Christ had never existed, it were possible for mankind to be saved; in the second, he shows that mankind was created in order to be blessedly happy, and that this could only come about through Christ.[2]

That the crucifixion of Christ was the Son of God’s offering of himself as a sacrifice of atonement to make possible the salvation of mankind is, of course, one of the most central tenets of the Christian faith:

“A question which many people ask today is this: ‘Why can’t God just forgive people simply by willing it? Why must he go through the rigmarole of putting his Son to death so as to be able to forgive people? It doesn’t make sense!’ It turns out this is not a modern question. People were asking it in the eleventh century.”

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:21-26[3]

What Anselm’s work shows us, however, is that many people in Western Europe at the close of the eleventh century were far from happy simply to accept this ‘on trust.’

A question which many people ask today is this: Why can’t God just forgive people simply by willing it? Why must he go through the rigmarole of putting his Son to death so as to be able to forgive people? It doesn’t make sense!

“And this question, both infidels are accustomed to bring up against us, ridiculing Christian simplicity as absurd; and many believers ponder it in their hearts; for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will.”

Anselm, ‘Why God Became Man’, Book 1, Chapter 1

It turns out this is not a modern question. People were asking it in the eleventh century. Hence, in his preface to the work Anselm writes:

The first [book] contains the objections of infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason; and also the reply of believers; and, in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him.[4]

And again in the first chapter:

And this question, both infidels are accustomed to bring up against us, ridiculing Christian simplicity as absurd; and many believers ponder it in their hearts; for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will. Not only the learned, but also many unlearned persons interest themselves in this inquiry and seek for its solution.[5]

That God could not simply forgive “by his will,” nor by “some other being, angelic or human,” other than the very Son of God, he demonstrates by logic and reason in the rest of his work.

This should cause us to reflect. Skepticism about the Christian faith is not simply the modern phenomenon which some of us imagine it to be. It has been around since the first days of Christianity and, as Anselm shows us, it was certainly around in the Middle Ages.

 

‘Why God Became Man’ can be found in Anselm, Brian Davies, and G. R. Evans, The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.260-356. You can also read this work online at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-curdeus.asp.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Anselm, Brian Davies, and G. R. Evans, The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. xxviii.

[2] Ibid., pp.261-262.

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A21-26&version=ESVUK

[4] https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-curdeus.asp#PREFACE

[5] https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-curdeus.asp#ACHAPTER%20I

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