Essay / Theology

Does God Have to…?

I’ve spent much of this week talking with students about Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). We don’t lecture in the Torrey Honors Institute; we discuss. To start off a class, we try and develop a crafty question, one that immediately sets the students before an issue at the heart of the text in a way that provokes, stimulates, hooks them into discussing the book. From talking to my colleague Diane I knew that the students had spent good time considering the atonement from the angle of humanity’s need, so in our classes we turned to inquire into the character of the God who became man for us and our salvation. As class began, I asked a simple question, ‘Did God have to be just?’ And we were off. Here are a few of my own thoughts in dialogue with Anselm on the question of just what God does or does not have to do.

God being God, it would seem that he is free to do whatever he wants. And so he is. Anselm is clear that ‘it is incorrect to say of God that he “cannot do something” or that he “does it of necessity.” For all necessity, and all impossibility, is subject to his will. Moreover his will is not subject to any necessity or impossibility. For nothing is necessary or impossible for any reason other than that he himself so wills it.’ God is the one than which no greater than be conceived, and as such he is ‘so free that he is subject to no law and no judgment, and is so benevolent that nothing can be conceived of more benevolent than he’; and so ‘there is nothing right or proper except what he wishes.’

Again, God is free to do whatever he wants. But for Anselm, much of this question is decided in the scope of that ‘whatever.’ Might God want to create for wanton sport? Might he want to do an about-face and decide to reward viciousness instead of virtue? We quickly recoil at this and suggest that there must be some limits to ‘whatever God wants,’ and this intuition is basic to a number of moves Anselm makes throughout his work.

For instance, could God tire of his creation, turn his back on it and consign it to oblivion? Could he take this drastic step of changing his mind? Isn’t he capable of this? Absolutely not, says Anselm. But, we might retort, does this not suggest an inappropriate limitation of God’s freedom? No, instead it evinces linguistic sloppiness. To plan something and then change one’s mind is to be reactive and inconstant; it is thus to make one’s will beholden to another, to allow it to be a function of external circumstances. But God wills whatever he wants, and so even the diabolical defection of humanity cannot change his mind about gathering people to himself. Were God capable of changing his mind – or, Anselm adds, of deceiving or wishing to lie – this ‘would be incapability more than capability.’

At times, Anselm will talk of God’s doing something ‘of necessity,’ but this is the necessity of self-consistency rather than the necessity of compulsion. God is never other than God, and so some things are ‘necessary.’ But there is nothing other than God that moves God to do what God does. He is in no way constrained, ‘in no way forced to do, or prohibited from doing, anything.’ Even this divine consistency is no straitjacket, but God’s ‘own spontaneous unchangeability’ – ‘spontaneous’ because even this unchangeability is never something which curbs the freedom of God. God does ‘put himself under an obligation to bring his good beginning [in creation] to fulfillment,’ which eventually requires the incarnation and crucifixion, but better than calling this necessity is to call it grace.

God does whatever he wants, and that is his freedom. When we do whatever he wants, that is our freedom. Anselm sets out a basic, far-reaching principle in his treatise On Free Will, defining ‘the liberty of will’ as ‘the capacity of preserving rectitude of the will for the sake of rectitude itself.’ Justice results when this capacity is exercised. Elsewhere, Anselm identifies truth and justice, defining them both as ‘rectitude.’ This is counter-intuitive in a late modernity reared on libertarian notions of freedom and a market economy. For Anselm, to be free is not to choose whatever I want; it is to have the capacity to want the right things, and thereby follow the grain of the universe.

All of which is, in a word, ‘fitting.’ That is, God being God, he does things well and in good order. There is an unalloyed rightness to what he does. All his works are just. This drives Anselm’s soteriology: ‘[I]f it is not fitting for God to do anything in an unjust and unregulated manner, it does not belong to his freedom or benevolence or will to release unpunished a sinner who has not repaid to God what he has taken away from him.’

But perhaps all this talk of regulation and order goose steps across the page too stridently. We fidget around such stark language and worry that this kind of structure is inimical to love and more suggestive of a tyrant. I suspect this is in large part because, in our limitations and sin, we cannot imagine that an immaculately ordered world might be enlarging and life-giving. To most of us, that sounds stifling. But to Anselm, such perfect order is at once true and beautiful. Augustine, the master of the medievals, spoke of the ‘harmony of redemption’, making a materially similar point that God’s way of redeeming fits with his way of creating and that the sinful disorder needs must give way to holy, beautiful order. Similar is Irenaeus’ logic of recapitulation in which Christ undoes Adam by redoing Adam the right way. There is a beauty to what he does. It is ‘fitting,’ ‘appropriate’ that God would redeem us in this way; and Anselm speaks of ‘the indescribably beauty of the fact.’

There is nothing, though, more unfitting than sin. The problem with sin is that the sinner ‘is disturbing, as far as he is able, the order and beauty of the universe.’ Without recompense or punishment for sin, which have a certain ‘regulatory beauty,’ ‘there would be in the universe, which God ought to be regulating, a certain ugliness, resulting from the violation of the beauty of order, and God would appear to be failing in his governance.’ As we turn to consider the Cur Deus Homo, then, we note Anselm’s initial answer to why God became man – because something had to be done to restore the ordered beauty of the universe. He offers the analogy of a dirty pearl: ‘What if he were to allow this same pearl to be knocked out of his hand into the mud by some malignant person, although it was in his power to prevent this, and afterwards, picking it up from the mud, dirty and unwashed, were to store it away in some clean and costly receptacle of his, intending to keep it there in that state.’ No, this would not be fitting. A beautifully ordered universe suggests a recompense for sin that is ‘in proportion to the magnitude of the sin.’ Mercy must align with justice.

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