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Reading Anselm

Jun 14, 2023

I admire the aim in Elizabeth Johnson’s Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril: to produce a theology that considers how Jesus’s life, death, & resurrection are good news for the whole cosmos, particularly in the context of ecological crisis. & while I don’t disagree with some of the conclusions (presented chiefly in book 6), ironically the particularity of Jesus’s life (natal & risen) & his death don’t seem to determine the conclusions as much as the work’s title might lead one to expect.

More frustrating is the hostility toward Anselm of Canterbury & his satisfaction theory. It seems to me Johnson could have attended more carefully to Anselm’s method (remoto Christi does not necessarily mean remoto fidei) & the scope of Cur Deus homo; I also think her treatment of satisfaction theory actually reads later theories (especially penal substitutionary atonement) back into Anselm. I’m not sure what accounts for this superficial reading; perhaps engaging more up-to-date scholarship could have helped better situate Anselm in his proper context (more Benedictine monastic than feudal).

The treatment of Anselm is disappointing not only because it misrepresents him, but also because I actually think Anselm could be a resource for Johnson’s project here. His concerns are not identical to hers, of course—we wouldn’t expect them to be—but the themes of mercy and cosmic setting-aright are decisive for Anselm. I think a more generous and productive reading of Anselm is possible.