A common trope among our Eastern Christian brothers’ criticisms of the Western theological tradition is the allegation that St. Anselm of Canterbury — often referred to as “the father of scholasticism” — “ruined” the doctrine of the Atonement by “introducing” the idea of penal substitution. To be very brief, this just isn’t true: that the Atonement entailed the fulfillment of both Divine love and Divine wrath is evident not only from the apostolic witness (the Scriptures) but also from the witness of the fathers.* Yes, this is an assertion — not an argument. (I am not here and now attempting to make an argument, but I get to be tendentious because it’s my website.)
I mention the foregoing not to broker discord between Eastern and Western Christians on this Holy Saturday (which we happen to share this year — thanks be to God!) — but to provide some context for the readings which I offer below. In short, my point is this: these two great saints should not be pitted against one another. Though their emphases are different, they do truly speak with one voice. I offer selections from each of them without further comment.
* “Patristic Passages of Interest for Lutherans,” compiled by the Rev’d William Weedon; “Penal Substitution in the Writings of the Church Fathers,” compiled by Chris Rosebrough.
Prayer to the Holy Cross
St. Anselm of Canterbury
We do not acknowledge you because of the cruelty that godless and foolish men prepared you to effect upon the most gentle Lord, but because of the wisdom and goodness of Him who of His own free will took you up.
For they could not have done anything unless His wisdom had permitted it, and He could not suffer except that in his mercy He willed it.
They chose you that they might carry out their evil deeds; He chose you that He might fulfill the work of His goodness.
They that by you they might hand over the Righteous to death; He that through you He might save sinners from death.
They that they might kill Life; He that He might destroy death.
They that they might condemn the Savior; He that He might save the condemned.
They that they might bring death to the Living; He to bring life to the dead.
They acted foolishly and cruelly; He wisely and mercifully.
Therefore, O Cross to be wondered at, we do not value you because of the intention of their cruel folly, but according to the working of mercy and wisdom.
From De Incarnatione, Book IV
St. Athanasius of Alexandria
“[I]f any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He ‘become a curse’ otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written ‘Cursed is every one that hangeth on tree.’ Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all, and by it ‘the middle wall of partition’ is broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Myself.’ Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race who, having fallen from heaven, endeavors with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it. The apostle refers to this when he says, ‘According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.’ But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make ‘a way’ for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, ‘through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.’ This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? Here, again, you see how right and natural it was that the Lord should suffer thus; for being thus ‘lifted up,’ He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy. ‘I beheld Satan as lightning falling,’ He says; and thus He re-opened the road to heaven, saying again, ‘Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors.’ For it was not the Word Himself Who needed an opening of the gates, He being Lord of all, nor was any of His works closed to their Maker. No, it was we who needed it, we whom He Himself upbore in His own body—that body which He first offered to death on behalf of all, and then made through it a path to heaven. (IV: 25)