Guest Post#7: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Anselm Revisited: Divine Violence, Obedience, and Reconciliation

This post was written by Myles Werntz, a graduate student at Baylor University, writing a dissertation on ecclesiology and nonviolence in John Yoder, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow. He is the editor of Nonviolence: The Warsaw Lectures, by John Howard Yoder (Baylor University Press, 2010), and writes on occasion at and


In examining the question of divine violence, and whether or not we can even speak of such a thing, I propose a return to one of the “culprits” of the medieval tradition: Anselm. I take it for granted, that for Christian theology to speak of the divine-human relation, it turns to the person of Christ for its norm. This is not without its difficulties, however, particularly as one attempts to speak of divine violence. If Jesus is the norm for human relations with God, what are we to make of the crucifixion? Does Christ’s death bespeak a similar “necessary” death for humans? Is God’s fundamental relation with humanity one of wrath, abetted by blood sacrifice? It is this aspect of the divine-violence knot that Anselm, I think, helps us to see more clearly.St. Anselm Stained Glass

Turning to one of Anselm’s better known works, Cur Deus Homo (or “Why God Became Human”), we find Anselm arguing that 1) honor has been denied of God, 2) humanity lives unable to restore this honor, an honor which functions as an indication of cosmic socially stability, resulting in 3) God inhabiting human flesh to rectify this problem on the human side of the ledger. When we read this dialogue, we must bear in mind that many of the claims to God’s “anger” and “will to punish” are put forward not by Anselm, but by Anselm’s interlocutor “Boso.” As such, the argument that God is angry and wills to punish relentlessly are not in the main of Anselm’s construal of how Christ restores honor.

What Anselm does argue, however, is that while “every creatures owes [truth and righteousness] from every rational creature, and every creature owes this to God as a matter of obedience”, this does not imply that God needs blood to accomplish this. Rather, Anselm argues that “God…did not force Christ to die”, but rather that “[Christ] underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out uof an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.” Obedience, as that which is owed by humanity to God, is maintained by Christ “even unto death”. The demonstration of obedience comes “through his death”, but Anselm argues that it is “not appropriate to say that it comes about because of it.”

Significantly, Anselm does not say that blood is required, nor that violence is intrinsic to the divine life, nor even that suffering is a necessity if one is to live according to this arrangement. What is argued, instead, is that Christ’s life—as emblematic of perfect obedience—leads Christ to death. In other words, death is the culmination of obedience and reconciliation, not as a matter of course, but as a consequence of intention. Anselm concedes that because obedience is intrinsic to Christ’s life and God’s desire, then, that Christ’s death as a result of obedience is thus “wished”, but again this is not because suffering in and of itself accomplishes anything. Rather, the way of obedience led directly into the heart of death.

Part of what I take Anselm’s purpose in this work to be is to demonstrate not only a rationale by which divine-human reconciliation is to be had, but also the kind of human behavior which is implicated by Christ’s life. As such, virtues of prudence, fidelity, and courage are exalted by Anselm as intrinsic to one who seeks to be obedient. Does this mean, then, that the violence which is visited on the faithful is “wished” or “willed”? Is God’s anger appeased by blood? For Anselm, this question is like asking that since doing a PhD in Religion requires a great deal of discipline, if what one is doing in finishing a PhD is really cultivating discipline, and not learning a particular skill set.

In sum, I take two things from this text. First, “divine violence” is one (badly construed) way of viewing the act of obedience in the world. While violence against Christ was intrinsic to obedience, it was neither “willed” nor “wished” in the sense that God desired the victimization or abuse of Christ. Rather, for Anselm, death and abuse is the consequence of obedient living. Those that want to live in the divine relationship should gird themselves and prepare for the beatings to come. Secondly, the honor which is restored via obedience is a shared honor, obtained by the Son, returned to the Father, and emulated by the disciples. As such, violence is not that which must be undergone to belong to this restored sociality, but which is, in some sense, borne by the entire community. Those who benefit from the violence experienced by some of the faithful are to bear with those faithful.

What then of violence? Is violence “necessary”? For Anselm, no, rendering then “divine violence” to be a misunderstanding of where the violence comes from. The death of Christ comes as a result of obedience, not by divine fiat. If the violence against Christ is 1) not willed, and 2) begets, in a twist of irony, divine life in a restored sociality, then with Anselm, we can say that violence is in a sense an anti-theology, finding its roots not in the divine life, but in opposition to restoration of the divine life, working against the “grain of the universe.”


[1] All references will be from Anselm: The Major Works, edited and introduced by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford UP, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 271.

[3] Ibid., 276.

[4] Ibid., 277.

[5] Ibid., 278.

[6] Ibid., 281.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post#7: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Anselm Revisited: Divine Violence, Obedience, and Reconciliation”

  1. Myles,

    Thank you so much for this post. You make a good point about the need to discern whose voice is actually communicating a certain position. I also like the distinction you make regarding Christ’s obedience coming about through death but not because of death. Lastly, I like what you say in your final paragraph, in particular, the following:

    “If the violence against Christ is 1) not willed, and 2) begets, in a twist of irony, divine life in a restored sociality, then with Anselm, we can say that violence is in a sense an anti-theology, finding its roots not in the divine life, but in opposition to restoration of the divine life, working against the ‘grain of the universe'”.

    Violence as anti-theology–very nice.

  2. I like very much what you are saying, but I’m not sure that Anselm would go that far. It seems to me for Anselm the violence is not so much ‘anti-theology’ as incidental, since what matters is the balancing of the moral economy of exchange. Doesn’t Anselm say that divine punishment is a hypothetical possibility to solve the problem of sin, just not the one that is actualised. Thus although Anselm didn’t advocate ‘penal substitution’ strictly speaking, Christ’s death does avert a punishment which would otherwise be necessary. Thus the non-violence of God is incidental rather than an expression of divine nature.

  3. Thanks, Cynthia. I’ve been reading a lot of William Stringfellow, who makes the case later in his life for violence as an undoing of creation. Not entirely sure that account of violence can be given as much latitude as that, but positing that violence is in some sense the aberration of creation is good.

    Bruce–in rethinking this, maybe “anti-theology” would be a bit too far. Anselm does say that a restoring of honor is what is needed, and that the punishment of humanity is averted by Christ–but by Christ’s obedience, strictly speaking, of which Christ’s violent death is an incidental aspect. So, yes, the NV of God for Anselm isn’t the kind that JD Weaver wants to talk about, or the kind that DB Hart’s “donation of God” in his reading of Anselm offers; rather, it is, as you suggest, incidental. But that’s not to say that NV isn’t good, just that it has to be housed within a larger account of salvation, namely, that NV finds its coherence not for its own sake, but within the contours of obedience.

  4. Myles interpretation of Anselm theory may be correct, but I dont think he has got to main problem of the theory for me, particularly when as a Christian we affirm the ‘scandal of the incarnation’.

    For me the whole problem with anselm theory is the very idea of God’s Honor having to be restored. The problem is that this so called honor is an honor that can only be restored from the divine side because my sin or unrighteousness is viewed as being of an infinite nature, and my question is why should my sin which is finite be viewed as transgressing a infinite honor which I cant restore, hence why God became incarnate?

    Surely then I would argue how do I ever keep This Honor of infinite nature, because Surely I would have to be infinite to do so, so if this metaphysical logic underpins Anselm iunderstanding of God’s honor not end up viewing my Finite condition as itself sinful, and so the goodness of creation which Christian affirms is fallen at it inception, so it undercuts the whole scandal of the incarnation anselm theory is based upon.

  5. Sorry I didnt get to finish my early post.

    To finish, what I’m saying is that Anselm theory doesnt take the scandal of the incarnation serious enough , because he ends up with a ‘gnostic ontology’, which views the material as a defect, something to be overcome, not as the goodness of creation that Christians affirm which is to be transformed by grace. Because of Anselms metaphysical premise of a infinite honor having to be restored he ends up viewing my finiteness as sinful, and so posits an ontology of violence at the heart of his theory and hence undercuts the incarnation he is attempted to promote.

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