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.