Christ’s obedience the per accidens cause and possibility of his death

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 8.

Even if we grant Anselm’s outsourcing of Christ’s labor and lowliness to his human nature, this comes with its own set of problems for Boso, principally how God could be just in commanding a good and innocent man to suffer and die. Much as he had previously denied that it was Christ’s divine nature that underwent his human suffering, Anselm now answers Boso by denying that Christ’s human suffering was in fact commanded or required by the Father, at least so far as Christ’s human obedience was concerned. As a human, what God required of Christ was nothing more than what he requires of every human being, namely their complete obedience and rectitude of will (ch. 9). As suffering and death are punishments for disobedience, because Christ himself was perfectly obedient, it follows that God did not and could not require suffering and death of him as a condition of his properly human obedience. Thus, while the ultimate argument of the Cur Deus Homo is that Christ’s suffering and death were necessary to accomplish humanity’s salvation, Anselm’s point here is that his suffering and death were nevertheless not necessary for, but were in fact the mere accidental consequence—even if divinely foreseen or ordained—of his obedience. His obedience, in other words, happened to lead, under the particular circumstances in which it was lived out, to his suffering and death, but these were not on that account at all logically required or necessitated by his obedience. (To use the distinction introduced by Aristotle and revived by later scholastics, Christ’s obedience, and prior to it, God’s command of that obedience, were only the per accidens rather than the per se causes of his suffering and death. Whereas a per se cause is one that has the production of a given effect as its proper intention, operation, or activity, a per accidens cause is one that does not normally, naturally, or necessarily produce a given effect, but just happens to do so in the course of producing those effects that are normally and per se attached to it.) Thus, as Anselm puts it, “God did not compel Christ to die, for in Christ there was no sin. Instead, Christ willingly underwent death—not by obeying a command to give up His life but by obeying the command to keep justice. For He persevered so steadfastly in justice that He incurred death as a result.” So far as his mere human obedience was concerned, therefore, Christ’s not dying was in fact possible, but so far as God’s purpose (and Christ’s purpose as the God-man) to save mankind was concerned, only here did Christ’s death become necessary. Not the Father’s prior command, accordingly, nor even the Son’s obedience in the abstract, but the Son’s actual obedience in a fallen world in which his perfect justice could and would lead to the jealousy, hatred, and reprisals of sinful men—this was the unique circumstance and possibility of the latter’s suffering and death.

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