In order to appreciate Anselm, #8 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, we must have a working knowledge of Anselm’s world.  Let’s take a look at two events which need to be in our minds to appreciate him.

Anselm’s World

Crowning of Charlemagne

If you were a citizen of Rome in 450AD life stunk.  Most parents kissed their kids good-night thinking they all would be dead soon.  One of the most feared men on the planet, Attila the Hun, is on his way to be your nightmare.  His army, consisting of more than 300,000 soldiers, seeks to destroy everything you love.  As Attila nears Rome an interesting strategy develops.  Instead of sending out our army, let’s do something different.  Let’s send out our head pastor, Leo, and see if he can get Attila to forget about destroying Rome.  As Rome held its breath, Leo met Attila the Hun.  Attila, remarkably, turned back from attacking Rome.  Leo returned to Rome a hero.  People started to see how powerful the church could be in preserving the state.

In 800AD the power of the church in relation to the state reached its zenith.  In order for Charlemagne to become the Emperor of Rome he was crowned on Christmas day, 800AD by Pope Leo III.  Church leaders actually approved the leadership of nations.  Imagine today if someone like Billy Graham needed to approve of any presidential candidate before they were sworn into office.   Many of these church leaders did not seek such power.  Understanding Leo’s influence on Attila and Leo III’s crowning of Charlemagne will allow you to see how Anselm could reluctantly become one of the most powerful men on the planet.

Rise of Islam

The spread of Islam started shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632AD.  Muslims do not see Muhammad as the creator of Islam, but instead regard him as the last messenger of God.  Muhammad is seen as following in the footsteps of Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  The Qur’an is believed to be the final revelation from God.
Increasing conversion to Islam paralleled the rapid military expansion of the Arab Empire.  Muslim dynasties were soon established in North Africa, West Africa, throughout the Middle East and in Iran.  The Crusades were carried out as military responses from predominately Christian nations to the military expansion of Islam.
Islam carried something interesting into their conquered lands: learning.  In the 10th and 11th century a great wave of intellectual sophistication swept through the Islamic world.  There are several reasons for such intellectualism: 1

First, the study of the Qur’an was encouraged for all Muslims.  The Islamic world, therefore, had a very high literacy rate.

Second, classical texts from writers like Aristotle were lost to the Latin world with the fall of the Roman Empire, but were preserved in the Muslim world.  Muslims had access to sophisticated thoughts which had become virtually unknown to the Western world.

Third, Islam had a positive view between the material and spiritual world.  The material world is not at war with the spiritual world.  This positive attitude led to greater openness towards science than in early medieval Europe.  Our modern-day concept of science stems from the Islamic world.

Fourth, Muslims had schools of learning, called Madrasa, which were schools with resident students (precursors to the university).  At this higher level, students would carry out formal logical disputations stating thesis, counter thesis, and conducting dialogue of objections and answers.

Christianity enjoyed nearly a thousand years without any major challenge from outside religions.  Could the Christian faith withstand reasoned intellectual inquiry growing in the Islamic world?  Anselm would seek to answer that question.

Anselm’s Life

Anselm was born in Northern Italy around 1033AD.  He was born into a comfortable noble family, owning considerable property.

At the age of 15, however, Anselm wanted to enter a monastery but could not obtain his father ’s consent.  His father thought it would be a waste of his noble life.  Without his father’s consent, the head of the monastery refused his entry.  Anselm gave up his desire to study theology and lived a carefree life.  His mother, however, soon died and his father’s harshness became unbearable.

At the age of 23, Anselm left home, crossed the Alps and wandered through Burgundy and France.2  It was common at this time, before universities, for there to be “wandering scholars” like Anselm who would seek out older, wiser people to learn from.

After wandering around for three years Anselm made his way to the monastery of Bec in central Normandy, France.  Anselm was attracted to Bec by a famous fellow Italian countryman named Lanfranc.  Lanfranc was the primary teacher at the Bec monastery.  Anselm’s friend writes:

Lanfranc’s lofty fame had resounded everywhere and had drawn to him the best clerks from all parts of the world.  Anselm therefore came to him and recognized the outstanding wisdom which shone forth in him. He placed himself under his guidance and in a short time became the most intimate of his disciples.3

Lanfranc’s discipleship of Anselm would be profound:

When he got there, it was Lanfranc who started him on the course of religious and intellectual development which was to make him one of the outstanding figures in the history of Latin Christendom.  He put himself entirely in Lanfranc’s hands: ‘So great was his influence over me’ (Anselm later confided to his biographer) ‘and so greatly did I trust his judgment, that if he had told me to go into the forest above Bec and never come out, I would have done it without hesitation.’4

No longer to be content as just a student at Bec, at the age of 27, Anselm officially entered the monastery as a monk.  He started out at the absolute bottom rung with the official title: Novice.  Three years later, Anselm started to climb the ladder when Lanfranc was promoted to a different monastery. Lanfranc’s promotion left Anselm as the primary teacher at Bec.  Anselm became very interested in training the minds of the monks in ways which would foster their spiritual as well as their intellectual development.5  After a short while Anselm’s students begged him to write down his teachings.   He wrote his first two works at this time:  Monologion(Only Words) and Proslogion (First Words).

In 1078, at the age of 45, Anselm was promoted to the head (Abbot) of the monastery.  By 1085, people were reading his Monologion and Proslogion in France, England, and probably in Rome.  Anselm was gaining a reputation for himself which went well beyond the confines of his monastery. 6

Much against his desires, Anselm was chosen in 1093 at the age of 60 to succeed Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was the highest religious leader of all England.  Since the church was seen in many ways as being above the state; Anselm had just become one of the most powerful men on the planet.  What did he think about this new position?  He wrote to a friend, “I am so harassed in the archbishopric that if it were possible to do so without guilt, I would rather die than continue in it.”7

For example, soon after becoming Archbishop, King William requested £ 1,000 from Anselm to finance an expedition to Normandy.  Anselm felt the funds could be better spent relieving the hardships and helping to reform the morals of those in the church.  William would eventually send Anselm into exile.  He stayed away from England until after William’s death in 1100AD.  While Archbishop, Anselm wrote the works: Why God Became Man; On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin; and On the Procession of the Holy Spirit.

A new king led to some new disagreements and once again Anselm was exiled.  He returned to England in 1106AD at the age of 73.  His biographer wrote, “Anselm was received with great joy and honour by the Church and the King was heartily glad that he had made his peace with Anselm.”8  Anselm was writing his last major work De Concordia (On God’s Foreknowledge and Predestination) when he died at the age of 76.

Anselm’s Thoughts

Anselm wrote on many aspects of the faith, but he is best known for his thoughts in three areas: harmonizing faith and reason; his thoughts on the atonement; and his ontological argument for the existence of God.

Harmonizing Faith and Reason

Anselm asserted the harmony of faith and reason.  Faith and reason are not enemies, they can exist together.  He desired to apply reason to questions of faith.  What he sought in doing this was not to prove something which he did not believe without such proof, but rather to understand more deeply what he already believed.9  Anselm writes:

Lord I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves.  I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.10

Spirituality, life in the Spirit of God, was not to be viewed as a pious, hopeful wish in something basically irrational and unreasonable.  Rather, spirituality involved thinking as much as feeling, pondering as much as sensing, brain work as much as willing, head as much as heart.11

Reason assists faith by helping us grasp its reasonableness and its significance.  But reason never substitutes for revelation or faith.12 Scripture remains the final authority for Anselm.

Doctrine of the Atonement

In his greatest work, Cur Deus Homo (The God-Man), Anselm undertakes to make plain, even to unbelievers, the rational necessity of the Christian mystery of the Atonement.13  Most Christians, historically, viewed the death of Jesus on the cross as a ransom paid to Satan for the souls of mankind.  Anselm’s theory pointed people in a different direction.

Anselm explores the question of the reason for the incarnation, and offers an answer that would eventually become standard in western theology.  The importance of a crime is measured in terms of the one against whom it is committed.  Therefore, a crime against God, sin, is infinite in its import.  But, on the other hand, only a human being can offer satisfaction for human sin.  This is obviously impossible, for human beings are finite, and cannot offer the infinite satisfaction required by the majesty of God.  For this reason, there is need for a divine-human, God incarnate, who through his suffering and death offers satisfaction for the sins of all humankind.14

In stunning beauty Anselm writes:

O hidden strength: a man hangs on a cross and lifts the load of eternal death from the human race; a man nailed to wood looses the bonds of everlasting death that hold fast the world. O hidden power: a man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with devils, a man stretched out on the gibbet draws all men to himself.  O mysterious strength: one soul coming forth from torment draws countless souls with him out of hell, a man submits to the death of the body and destroys the death of souls…See, Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation, here is the cause of your freedom, here is the price of your redemption. You were a slave and by this man you are free.  By him you are brought back from exile, lost, you are restored, dead, you are raised.15

Ontological Argument

Anselm seeks to prove, using pure reason, the existence of God.He starts with the idea that God would leave footprints in the minds of the rational creatures he had made to enable them to find their way to him by contemplation of their own deepest nature.16

In the Proslogion he develops what has come to be called “the ontological argument for the existence of God.”  Anselm’s argument is that when one thinks of God, one is thinking of “that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought.”  For example: Is Tiger Woods God?  No, I do not believe he is God.  Why?  I can imagine an older being.  I can imagine a stronger being.  I can imagine a more ethical being (I can say this about all people so I’m not throwing Tiger Woods under the bus).  I can imagine, at least for the time being, even a better golfer.  Tiger Woods is not god because I can think of a greater being.  If I was wrong, and there was no greater being than Tiger Woods, than Tiger would be God.  God is the One upon which there is no greater.  Therefore, it is nonsensical and unreasonable to speak of a God who does not exist.  Even if an Atheist is asked if he believes in God, the moment he ponders the existence of God, he has proven the existence of God.

Anselm’s Influence

Anselm is called the founder of Scholasticism.  He is the first person to provide a strong intellectual foundation for the faith while also maintaining the heart of the faith.  He paved the way for the rise of the university to occur built upon these intellectual virtues. Bologna, Paris and Oxford numbered among the most famous early locations.17

Anselm’s view of the work of Christ, which was by no means the generally accepted one in earlier centuries, soon gained such credence that most western Christians came to accept it as the only biblical one.18  His ontological argument, additionally, is still pondered by philosophers and theologians to this day.

He touched the thought, the piety and the politics of the time at every important point; and whatever he touched looked different afterwards.19

Anselm’s Foibles

The two greatest foibles I see in Anselm are as follows:

1. Anselm reasoned Mary must have been one of the purest human beings to be chosen as the mother of Christ. Anselm denied the Immaculate Conception, but Roman Catholics still looked to Anselm as the one who invoked the ideas and laid the groundwork for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception.

2. Due to his affectionate letters to his friends and fellow-monks some authors accuse Anselm of being a homosexual. Author John Boswell in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality makes this charge of Anselm. Most attribute his affectionate writing to a shared spiritual intimacy. This is similar to David’s love for Jonathan. Some people accuse them of being lovers, most recognize however a strong bond that can form between very heterosexual men, think “band of brothers.” Anselm even wrote, “It must be recognized that this sin of sodomy has become so common that hardly anyone even blushes for it, and many, being ignorant of its enormity, have abandoned themselves to it…they are warned that they are acting against God, and incurring damnation.”

Anselm’s Effect on Us

We live in an age where Christians are generally seen as brain-washed lightweights.  Atheists are the intellectuals and Christians are idiots who can’t naturally cope with life.  Christians, additionally, are seen as moral hypocrites.  The pastorate is no longer viewed as a dignified position but more popularly seen as an incubator of power-corrupted immorality.

Anselm is a great example of someone who fully interacts intellectually with his culture, on their terms, but is still absolutely saturated with the Word of God.  In him we see hardly any distinction between head and heart, doctrine and practical piety, knowledge and prayer.20  Anselm’s mind is disciplined for God and his affections are for Christ.  He has all the power in the world but seeks to serve the lowest of people.  He is a man worthy to follow as he follows Christ.

What do you think of Anselm?  Please comment below on our third Top Ten Theologian.  Up next, #7 on our list, I’ll give you a hint:  The next theologian lived either 600 years before or 600 years after Anselm.


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Further Reading:


1 Outline taken from the course notes of Loyola University Chicago professor Leslie Dossey. Transmission of Islamic Learning and European Scholasticism
2 Charlesworth. St. Anselm’s Proslogion. p9.
3 Davies. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. VII
4 Stephen. Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. p15.
5 Davies. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. VII
6 Ibid., VIII
7 Ibid., VIII
8 Eadmer. The Life of St. Anselm. p138.
9 Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1. p313
10 Anselm, Proslogion. 1.155-57, p244
11 Bingham. p92
12 Ibid. p92
13 Walsh, p75
14 Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1. p313.
15 Anselm, Meditation on Human Redemption, pp230-231, 234
16 Davies. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. XI
17 Bingham, p94
18 Gonzalez. p314
19 Southern. Introduction.
20 Bingham, p86

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    18 replies to "Top Ten Theologians: #8 – Anselm"

    • Ryan

      You might want to correct anselm s birth year. :p

    • Ed Kratz

      Great post Tim. I corrected the year.

    • Ed Kratz

      What did the birth year say before? Michael corrected it but incorrectly, he was born in 1033AD. Did it say something else?

    • Ed Kratz

      I never claimed to be much of an editor. It just said 100. I figured you forgot one 0, so I changed it to 1000 :). 33 years off.

    • Aaron Walton

      I was surprised not to see a section on foibles. Can anyone offer some foibles?

    • Ed Kratz

      I wrestled with the Foibles section for Anselm. I decided to take it out of this post since the article had reached its maximum length without the Foibles. The two greatest ones I was going to mention were:

      1. Anselm reasoned Mary must have been one of the purest human beings to be chosen as the mother of Christ. Anselm denied the Immaculate Conception, but Roman Catholics still used Anselm as the one who invoked the ideas and laid the groundwork for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception.

      2. Due to his affectionate letters to his friends and fellow-monks some authors accuse Anselm of being a homosexual. Most attribute his affectionate writing to their shared spiritual intimacy. This is similar to David’s love for Jonathan. Some people accuse them of being lovers, most recognize however a strong bond that can form between very heterosexual men, think “band of brothers.”

    • ounbbl

      Anselm – a great guy, I should confess.

      “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.” – Indeed! I may append to it: ‘I seek to understand so that I can lead others to understand.’

      You say, “Most Christians, historically, viewed the death of Jesus on the cross as a ransom paid to Satan for the souls of mankind.”

      Do you have any reference, I can verify? I thought such unbiblical idea – a very heretic one – was something I read only from the Seventh Adventists (saying Christ and Satan were brothers).

    • Jonnathan Molina

      Did Anselm have any contemporary critics that challenged him on his ontological argument for the existence of God? I know I read a book on philosophers and, by now, there have been arguments claiming to have discredited him but I wonder if during his own time someone went toe-to-toe with him. Mostly, because I want to know if he ever responded but this seems unlikely.

    • Ed Kratz


      I went ahead and added the Foibles section to the post in order to keep it consistent with the other articles.


    • Aaron Walton

      Jonathan Molina,
      Gaunilo of Marmoutiers was a contemporary who challenged Anselm. The Wikipedia article seems to do it justice: “…Gaunilo does not write as a fellow Christian who believes, rather, he pretends to be a rational non-believer.”

      I cannot find anything regarding whether or not they had correspondence.

    • Paul

      Great and timely post. To show the value of Anselm’s ontological argument, see The Devotional Value of Anselm’s Ontological Argument.

    • h diehl

      There’s a problem with the date of the destruction of the Bec Monastery, which is listed as during the French Revolution in the 15th century. Either it was destroyed in the late 18th century (when the French Revolution occurred), or there was another revolution that occurred in the 15th Century that I am unaware of.

      • Ed Kratz

        Good call, thanks for the correction, it should say 18th century. Thank you.

    • […] world. The tide of Islam brought with it many new ideas (read more about the spread of Islam in the Introduction to Anselm). A Muslim man named Averroes threatened to crumble […]

    • Adam

      Good article, but you make one historical error: you over state the power of the church over the state at this time. The state (more specifically, the Holy Roman Empire and its predecessor, the Carilonian Empire) was certainly supreme, and simply used the church to legitimate the emperor. Since this legitimization was so important, after the time of Charlamane the empire coopted the church so it could control this legitimization process. The church’s power didn’t actually reach its height until the 1200s, with the investiture contriversy.

    • mark

      I think this is a great series. Thanks for writting it. It has been very helpful. I do not think it is completly correct that Islam is what produced science. I believed they borrowed much of the learning they produced. Both intelectually and technologically. See “God’s Battalions” by Rodney Stark


    • […] and Barth) on the list.  Time has not vetted these men as much as someone like Irenaeus or Anselm.  Generations to come may downgrade the influence from any 20th century theologian.  I am […]

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