March 28, 2024

What Is One Medieval Church Figure Every Christian Should Know?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
What Is One Medieval Church Figure Every Christian Should Know?

Why do you know about Anselm of Canterbury? Today, Stephen Nichols introduces this prominent figure from medieval church history, telling us about two of his influential writings.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us this week on the Ask Ligonier podcast is Dr. Stephen Nichols. He is the host of the 5 Minutes in Church History podcast and also the president of Reformation Bible College. Dr. Nichols, who is one medieval church figure that every Christian should know?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: Well, the one medieval church figure that we should all know is Anselm of Canterbury. He was born in 1033 in Italy, and in 1056, he decided to set off for a monastery up in Normandy. It took him a couple years to get there. He was traveling through the Alps, and he finally arrived at this monastery at a place called Bec in Normandy. And He serves there as a monk for many years.

And about six or seven years into his time as a monk, the abbot of that monastery was called upon for a special duty: to accompany William the Conqueror across the English Channel and to conquer England. And so, everyone from the UK knows the year 1066. That’s the year that William the Conqueror conquers England and becomes crowned as William I, and he needs a new archbishop. So, he installs Lanfranc of Bec, the abbot of the monastery, as the archbishop of Canterbury. This clears the way for Anselm to get a promotion. And so, he’s promoted to be the abbot of the monastery there at Bec.

And then following Lanfranc’s death in 1093, Anselm gets invited to cross the English Channel, and he gets installed as the archbishop of Canterbury. So, that’s why we call him Anselm of Canterbury. He holds that post until the time of his death in 1109, with two interludes. There were two sets of years where he was exiled by the king of England and kicked out of England because the king was fighting with the pope.

So, there’s Anselm: 1033 to 1109, and his life is fascinating and his journeys, but his real legacy to us are in his books and his writings. And when we think of Anselm, we think of two major books. The first is a book on philosophy. It’s called the Proslogion. And it’s a very well-known text. It’s anthologized in history of philosophy textbooks. It’s always a subject taught in philosophy classes. And his other book is a book of theology. It’s entitled, Why the God-Man? in Latin. It’s also known pretty popularly as its Latin title, Cur Deus Homo.

So first, Proslogion. It’s philosophical text, but as you read it, you realize he has cast the whole thing as a prayer. And in it, especially in the early pages of it, he puts forth what is known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. Now, ontos is the Greek word for “being,” and it’s an argument based around the idea that we have an idea of a perfect being, and therefore this perfect being exists. But we probably need a separate Ask Ligonier episode to explain the ontological argument. Just know that it’s in Anselm’s book, and he’s credited with it. But then after he gives the argument in those opening pages, he turns to discuss the attributes of God. And it is a wonderful philosophical, theological piece. It was one of Dr. Sproul’s favorite philosophical texts.

But the next one is the one I want to focus on a little bit more. It’s the theological book: Why the God-Man? Now, this book is set up as a dialogue with a monk that Anselm saw as having a lot of promise, a sharp intellect, and one that he invested in. And so, by now though, he’s over at Canterbury, and the year and the year is 1097. And this is the first exile that he’s about to begin.

So, this is now King William II. William I has died. And William II and the pope have a fight. And to get back at the pope, William kicks out the archbishop. Anselm, I think, welcomed the exile. He was a scholar, and he enjoyed the scholarly work, but he’s caught up in all the politics and the administration. And so, it was probably a welcome couple years for him.

And in 1098, he makes his way to a mountain monastery called Liberi, down about thirty-five miles north of Naples. And he spends several months there, and during those months, he writes Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God-Man?” He invites Boso, his former monk and friend to come down, and most historians believe it’s actually a dialogue between the two of them that Anselm then records and edits and produces as the book. And in the book, he’s talking with Boso about why salvation is provided, why Scripture provides this view of salvation of the death of Christ. And Boso says, “Certainly, God could have figured out another way to forgive sins.” And at that point, Anselm turns to him and says, “My dear Boso, you have not yet considered or contemplated the great weight of sin.” And it’s a turning point in the book.

And when we realize that there is nothing we can do about our sin—we realize that we as human beings owe the debt but we as human beings have no possibility of paying the debt—we recognize that there must be One who takes upon His divine being human nature. And so, we have the One who is God becoming man—truly God, truly man in one person. And so, the offending party is paying for the transgression and paying for sin, and then Christ as the God-man makes the sufficient payment for sin that we can’t pay. So, it’s a beautiful book that puts forth what we call the substitutionary atonement.

So, there’s Anselm—great writer, Proslogion and Why the God-Man? And I think those books qualify him to be that one medieval figure that all of us should know.