Chapter 13

Anselm: Archbishop of Canterbury


The Middle Ages, from the time of Augustine, bishop of Hippo, to the time of the great Reformation, was a period of spiritual darkness. The Roman Catholic Church ruled supreme in Europe. It is difficult to find the church during much of this troubled period. It is perhaps to this period, along with others, that our Belgic Confession refers in Article 27:

And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal.

In our discussion of outstanding men in the church, it is difficult to find men in this period about whom to write, who were genuine men of God -- i.e., men who held firmly to the truth and who represented the cause of God without the additions of erroneous and Roman Catholic heresy and practice. In short, there were few, if any, who were in all respects faithful to the Word of God.

In treating men of this period, therefore, we have to deal with men who carried the freight of Romish error with them. But, in spite of this, they were men who were, for one reason or another, outstanding men in the history of the church, or who were representative of various currents of thought in the days in which they lived. We shall have to tolerate their mistakes.

Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, was one such men.

His Early Life

Anselm was born in 1033 in Aosta of Northern Italy in the shadow of the towering Alps. His mother, Ermenberga, was a pious and godly woman who gave her son such spiritual education as was important for the religious upbringing of a child born in the church. His father was quite another matter. Gundulf by name, he was a thoroughly worldly and rude nobleman who attempted to dominate the lives of others and who was without compassion or sympathy in his dealings with his acquaintances. Ermenberga lived with the "Nabal" of her day. Gundulf's spiritual insensitivity changed when he lay on his death bed and, just prior to dying, he became a monk to escape, if possible, the torments of hell.

It seems that Anselm, from his youth, was a sensitive and somewhat mystically inclined boy, who delighted in contemplating the soaring pinnacles of the mountains in his backyard as means to bring him nearer to God. in his own words, when he was not yet 15, he sought "to shape his life according to God."

This soon brought him into such fierce conflict with his father that he left home, never to return, and fled to Normandy in France, far to the north and west. There he found his heart's desire and became a monk in the Dominican monastery at Bec. it was the gracious providence of God which led him to the monastery of Bec, for here he came under the influence of the great Lanfranc, one of the most notable men of his age. Lanfranc was the prior, or governing head, of the monastery and took Anselm under his wing to give him the education which was to prepare him for his life's calling.

His Life as a Monk

When Lanfranc left France to become Archbishop of Canterbury in England, Anselm was appointed prior in Lanfranc's place. Already Anselm's reputation as a scholar, a man of brilliant intellect, a theologian of considerable note, and yet a kind and gentle man, caught the attention of Europe's leaders. He served as prior in Bec from 1078-1092. During this period he did much of his writing.

In 1092 he too was called to England, where his reputation had preceded him. He went at the request of the Earl of Chester, who wanted Anselm's help in his sickness. Anselm did not remain idle in England but spent his time organizing the monastery of St. Werburg's in Chester. But after a year had expired, Lanfranc died, and Anselm was appointed to Lanfranc's place once again, this time as Archbishop of Canterbury. He took this position with the greatest reluctance because the archbishopric of Canterbury was the highest ecclesiastical post in England, and all the responsibility for the welfare of the church fell upon his shoulders. He was ordained to this office on December 4, 1093 and served here for 16 years until his death on April 21, 1109. He served with distinction and has gone down in history as one of the great churchmen of the Middle Ages.

We must try to put some flesh on these bones of Anselm.

Teacher and Pastor

There are many different facets to his character.

Anselm was a gentle man, apparently more like his mother than his father. This gentleness was shown in his love for animals. The story is told that as Archbishop of Canterbury he was riding his horse from Windsor when a rabbit found refuge from its hunters beneath his horse. He dismounted with tears, picked up the quivering rabbit, and sharply reprimanded the hunters by comparing the plight of the rabbit to the plight of a dying man who fears the torment of punishment to come.

Anselm was not a great preacher. His strength lay in study and teaching. He was able to counsel troubled souls who sought his help. He easily understood the problems of spiritual struggles with sin and doubt. He could enter into the minds of his students and anticipate and answer questions which they dared not ask. He carried on an extended correspondence in which he was always understanding and sympathetic, but firm when this was needed. He offered advice, compliments, consolation, reproof, and affection to those who sought his counsel. To one troubled monk he wrote: "Of evil works we ought to repent, and forsake them before we die: lest the day find us in them. But of good works we ought to persevere till the end, that in them our soul may be taken out of life." He was surely beyond his times in education and was one of the most popular teachers of his day. He maintained a discipline which was wise and fair. When a fellow abbot complained that he could not improve his boys, however much he beat them, Anselm responded: "Have you tried not beating them?"

Anselm also was given to works of mercy. His greatest delight was in nursing the sick in the hospitals of his day and taking the poor under his care. About the only thing that angered him was the greediness and immoderation of his fellow monks.

He was an extremely mild man who suffered easily the follies of his fellow men. The story is told that at the Synod of Rockingham in 1095, during a period of bitter controversy among the delegates, Anselm was noticed sound asleep with a smile on his face.

Man of the Church

Anselm found himself deeply involved in the investiture controversy in England. While this controversy was a complicated one and over several centuries, its basic issues are easily understood. Many of the higher clergy in the Romish church were also feudal lords who ruled over vast estates. The pope wanted to control the clergy, something which he could do only if he possessed the right to ordain the clergy into office. On the other hand, the kings of Europe also wanted to ordain the clergy because these same clergy were secular rulers who ruled under the king. The kings claimed, therefore, that they should have the right to appoint to office since these bishops and archbishops were secular rulers under the king.

But the bottom line, as is usually the case, was money. Both the popes and the kings wanted the taxes and revenues from these estates as their own. The pope wanted the money to flow into the coffers of Rome, and the kings wanted the money to come into the royal treasury. Then too the love of money was the root of all evil.

Anselm was deeply involved in this controversy in England, but was a loyal member of the church who did what he could to stymie the actions of William Rufus (wanton son of William the Conqueror) and Henry I to ordain clergy. In his loyalty to the pope he was forced to flee England two different times to save his life. Part of his archbishop tenure was spent in exile in France.


Anselm was also a thinker of great note. He is, in fact, often called the "father of the scholastics." While many in his day set reason before faith, Anselm himself followed the dictum: faith precedes knowledge. "I do not seek to understand," he wrote, "in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand, for of this I feel sure, that, if I did not believe, I would not understand." Certainly in this respect he was on the right track. But he was not always faithful to his own commitment.

Anselm is the father of the so-called ontological proof of God. In attempting to prove God's existence by reason, he argued that all men have an idea in their minds of "most perfect being." But, so he argued, that which is most perfect being must exist in fact as well as in thought. Hence, God exists. Philosophers for centuries struggled with this "proof" of God's existence, and efforts were constantly being made to show him wrong. However, apart from the whole question of whether Anselm's proof is sound or not, the fact is, as every child of God knows, that God is so great that He lies beyond the reach of human proof. He is God. He can be known and believed only by faith.

In all the Middle Ages, almost no advancement in the truth of Scripture was made. Anselm stands out as an exception. If he is worthy of our respect for no other reason, we ought to know about him for his doctrine of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He carried this truth beyond anything the church had confessed prior to his time. He developed his views in an important book called Cur Deus Homo?, or Why Did God Become Man? He answered his own question by arguing that the incarnation and atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ was necessary because of the justice of God. We need not go into his argument here, for it was substantially taken over by our own Heidelberg Catechism in Lord's Days 5 and 6. To read these Lord's Days is to read a brief summary of Anselm's argument. His great insights into these truths have become part of the confessional heritage of the Reformed churches.

Troubled Saint

Anselm wrote many meditations and prayers. It is enlightening to read them. Being a child of his times, he directed his prayers to Mary and many of the saints. They are filled with a profound understanding of sin, of the struggle which the Christian experiences in his battle against sin, and of his longing for forgiveness and holiness. They breathe a spirit of genuine piety and godliness.

And yet there is one characteristic of them which cannot escape the attention of the reader: Anselm never came to assurance. He never attained comfort and peace. Always reaching, never attaining, he continues lost in what is almost hopeless and black despair. We give here a few quotes from these writings. In a prayer to St. John the Evangelist Anselm prays:

Jesus, against whom I have grievously sinned,
Lord, whom I have wickedly despised.
Omnipotent God, whose anger I have stirred up by pride;
You are the lover of John, your blessed apostle,
And to him your terrified accused flees.
Your sinner, your offender, however great his wickedness,
However great his disgrace,
Holds the name of your beloved
Between him and the threatening sentence
Or your just judgment.
By that blessed love spare him who seeks John's protection.
Lord, by what name will you have mercy upon sinners
If you condemn someone who prays
By the name of your beloved?
Lord, under what cover is there protection,
If under the name of your beloved there is punishment?
Where is there refuge if with your beloved there is peril?
Lord, do not feel hatred for him who flees to your beloved.
Lord, Lord, do not let my iniquity avail for damnation . . . .

Or, again, in a prayer to St. Nicholas:

But if God looks down on me, who will look up to me?
If God turns his face from me, who will look towards me?
If God hates me, who will dare speak on my behalf?
O God, "merciful and pitiful,"
Do you indeed ward off one who would return to you,
So that you cannot bear to have mercy upon one who cleaves to you?
Will you curse one who has grieved you so much that you will not hear any of your
friends on his behalf?

This is instructive -- and yet inevitable. Within the context of Romish thought, true comfort is beyond the reach of the sinner, for he must merit peace with God through his own good works. It is all reminiscent of Luther's great struggles. Within Roman Catholicism, comfort is impossible.

The hopelessness of these prayers underscore the greatness of the gospel of the Reformation which broke like a thunderclap over Europe. We have, the Reformers insisted, a gospel which brings peace to God's people. We come with comfort. Can you imagine the mighty power, on Europe's despairing throngs, of that simple question and answer with which our Heidelberg Catechism begins? "What is thy only comfort in life and in death? That I belong . . . to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ." That is all. That is enough. Anselm never knew it.