God as a Remote Roman Magistrate Dispensing ‘Iustitia’ to Mankind

The real defect in Anselm’s doctrine of atonement is that he built upon the action or the fears of a diseased and guilty conscience in its sense of alienation from God, instead of the pure and free consciousness of Him who is the type of the normal man…

Alexander V.G. Allen, 1884

By building their theology backwards, with man in relation to God, the Western church also developed, not surprisingly, an anthropomorphized concept of God (i.e., attributed human characteristics to God).  God becomes a distant (read “transcendent”) Imperial Roman Magistrate administering iustitia, the secular Roman idea of jurisprudence, on his subjects (man).  Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD) was, among other things, a Carthaginian lawyer.  He set in motion this hierarchical, magisterial, forensic, Roman view of religion.  This concept was further refined later by his fellow Carthaginians Cyprian, and St. Augustine, whom we just met.  Ultimately, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) pushed this idea to its absurd limits in the Middle Ages.  Anselm’s vision of God resembled a kind of remote, magisterial medieval lord (God) whose offended dignity could only be satisfied by the substitutionary death of his own son (Jesus) in atonement for his subjects’ (man’s) disobedience.  This doctrine even has a Latin church name: satisfactio activa vicaria.[1]

Given the above discussion, it is clear that many of our Western Christian doctrines such as “election” and “exclusivism” (‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’)[2] are Afterthoughts of man and not good theology.

Excerpt from the book “First Thoughts“.


[1] See Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man)

[2] Latin: ‘Outside the Church there is no Salvation’

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