For the past four years, I’ve been pursuing a PhD in historical theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. I graduated this past Saturday. The whole experience has been very rewarding, and I’m grateful that the Lord opened the door for me to do it. I don’t take that for granted. I had abandoned the dream of doing a PhD and committed myself to local church ministry, and then surprisingly God opened the door to do this one on the side, while continuing on in ministry. For me, the degree wasn’t really about any job requirements, but simply about learning, and wanting to be the best thinker I can be—which in some ways made it all the more fun. It’s also been a bit exhausting to do it while juggling so many other commitments, and I’m looking forward to a lot of time this summer to simply rest.
The focus of my dissertation was on Anselm of Canterbury, the 11th century monk, Archbishop, and theologian. It’s been fascinating to study a medieval theologian like Anselm. I’ve learned more about medieval monasteries than I ever cared to, logged a lot of hours puzzling over how best to translate certain Latin words and phrases, and gotten some great inspiration for new baby names (normal stuff like Gundulf, Rodulphus and Gunhilda).
Now that I’m wrapping it up, people often ask, “why study Anselm?” It was fun to dialogue with Sheb Varghese a bit recently about my work in Anselm, and I thought I would expand my thoughts a bit here on why I am glad I studied him. Studying a medieval monk who believed in purgatory, the papacy, and praying to the saints (among many other points of difference from a modern evangelical) may not seem very practical or helpful today. But I found Anselm such a helpful dialogue partner for doing theology.
To put it as succinctly as I can: Anselm had a huge view of God, and therefore a huge view of sin, and therefore a huge view of the cross. In these fundamental impulses of his thinking, he is invaluable corrective to the temptations we face in our modern Western context.
Or put it another way: we tend to start theology with human thoughts and concerns, and then build outward from there. Anselm, by contrast, started with God, and built outwards from there.
That makes all the difference, and to get a whiff of Anselm’s approach, to spend some time trying to see the world through his eyes, is an incredibly enriching experience.
A Huge View of Sin
Many of us are familiar with Anselm’s words to Boso in Cur Deus Homo, “you have not yet discovered the weight of sin.” But we are less familiar with Anselm’s Meditations, which can be understood as a kind of personal, sustained contemplation of this theme. Anselm wrote 3 Meditations, and they are included with his Prayers and his other work the Proslogion in a helpful translation by Benedicta Ward.
Anselm’s first meditation opens with a dreadful, almost Sartre-esque tone: “I am afraid of my life. For when I examine myself carefully, it seems to me that my whole life is either sinful or sterile.” He goes on and on, excoriating himself as a “creeping thing” (unless I mis-remember, the Latin word here means some kind of insect), a “foul smelling sinner,” and “worse than a corpse.” Not exactly the stuff of the self-esteem section at Barnes and Noble. At one point he laments, “I blush to be alive, I am afraid to die.” The sense of psychological torment really does remind me of something you would read in Sartre or Camus.
Anselm’s second meditation is specifically about sexual sin, and extends into even more emotional extremes. At one point he writes, “let the fornicator [that’s Anselm] feel beforehand the torments of hell that he has deserved, give him a foretaste of what he has to look forward to … spin round and round in the whirlpool of bitterness as you have spun round so often in the giddiness of lust.” I won’t quote more, but you get the idea. It’s intense.
Now: most of instinctively recoil from this kind of prayer. It seems morbid, unhealthily introspective, gruesome, joyless. But what motivated Anselm to pray like this? Could it be that, leaving room for critique and disagreement as well, he saw something we don’t see? This has been my main benefit from studying Anselm, and doing historical theology in general: when you give pre-modern thinkers a sympathetic read, it exposes our own cultural blind spots in the modern era. The seriousness with which Anselm took sin can function, I believe, as a helpful corrective to our shallowness and human-centered instincts.
A Huge View of God and God’s Grace
Anselm’s high view of sin leads him to an incredibly sweet love of Jesus. Toward the end of the first meditation, he writes:
“But it is he himself, he himself is Jesus. The same is my judge, between whose hands I tremble. Take heart, sinner, and do not despair. Hope in him whom you fear, flee to him from whom you have fled…. Jesus, Jesus, forget the pride which provoked you, see only the wretchedness that invokes you. Dear name, name of delight, name of comfort to the sinner, name of blessed hope. For what is Jesus except to say Savior? So, Jesus, for your own sake, be to me Jesus.”
These are beautiful words, and from reading them in context of the whole meditation you get the sense that the intensity of this love is in proportion to the intensity of his hatred of sin. In other words, it is only because he is so despairing and broken over his sin that he can love Jesus in this way.
I think we have a lot to learn from Anselm on this point. In my own experience, it is actually a liberating experience to humble ourselves as much as we can under the immense weight of our sin, deliberately raising it up over us so that it can crush our pride and pierce our hearts. There is freedom and joy in sinking down as low as we can into the recognition of our sin, because it is there, in whole-hearted acknowledgement and repentance, that we truly find Christ. He is drawn to the humble, drawn to the desperate, drawn to those who eschew all the evading and minimizing and self-justifying that characterizes so much of our lives and drives so much sin and conflict and pain in the world. The lower we sink down, the more tenderly he meets us, and the more deeply he heals us.
I will always be grateful for the opportunity to study Anselm, and I hope I can do theology in the way that he did it: humbly, prayerfully, “faith seeking understanding,” and inflamed with love for God.