Cur Deus Homo by Anselm of Canterbury

There was a time in Israel’s history, when the Word of God was lost. Then while renovating the temple, the people found the scrolls and they rushed it to the king. When the king saw it, he recognised it as treasure. In a similar way, today’s classic is a treasure for Christian readers everywhere .

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review that handsome piece of work I hinted at in the last episode. Cur Deus Homo by Anselm of Canterbury. Around 120 pages, published in the late 11th century. Cur Deus Homo translated from Latin is “Why God Man?” or “Why God Became Man?”


I read two translations. The first translation is the popular one, meaning the one that appears in Amazon and comes up first in Google. It’s by Sidney Norton Deane, which was published in 1903. I read this translation, there were parts I didn’t understand. So searching for an answer, I discovered this second translation by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson, which was published in the year 2000. It’s more recent which makes it easier to read and so this is the translation I will be using for this review.

Both translations are available for free. I share the links in the show notes below.

I want to give a disclaimer up front, I’m not qualified to compare or evaluate Latin to English translations. I just want to read and review Cur Deus Homo by Anselm. If I misunderstood the translation, that’s my fault. If the translator misunderstood the writer, that’s the translator’s fault. If the writer misunderstood God, that’s the writer’s fault. Just remember it’s never God’s fault.

Anselm’s Achievement

Before Anselm, the church taught that Christ redeemed us by paying a ransom to the devil. It was Anselm who argued that the debt was paid not to the devil but to God.

Augustus Hopkins Strong in his Systematic Theology wrote:

[But,] although many theologians had recognized a relation of atonement to God, none before Anselm had given any clear account of the nature of this relation. Anselm’s acute, brief, and beautiful treatise entitled “Cur Deus Homo” constitutes the greatest single contribution to the discussion of this doctrine.

An even stronger praise is John Miley’s Systematic Theology where he writes:

The treatment of the atonement in a scientific or more exact doctrinal manner really began with Anselm, late in the eleventh century. His book, though but a small one, is not improperly characterized as an “epoch-making book.”

Later he writes:

Reviews of Anselm are so common to histories of doctrine, systems of theology, and monographic discussions of atonement, that there is little need of special reference.

Reviews are so common such that there is little need of special reference. If only that was true today for the general audience.

In Amazon, there are less than 100 reviews for the various editions of this book. In Amazon it ranks at number 1046 under the category of Christian Salvation Theory. Not bad for a 1000 year old book with a Latin title.

Cur Deus Homo is an epoch-making book that is sadly unknown to the common man. Let’s try to remedy that with today’s episode. Let’s re-introduce a classic to a podcast generation.


The book is written as a dialogue between Anselm, the writer, and his fictional creation, Boso. So it’s appropriate that this book be a dialogue between myself, the reviewer, and my own fictional creation, Sobo.

Sobo: It is an honour to be part of this book review. Let’s start by asking why did Anselm wrote it as a dialogue?

Terence: Because we are slow. That’s what he said:

Now, issues which are examined by the method of question-and- answer are clearer, and hence more acceptable, to many minds— especially to minds that are slower.

This probably explains why this book is surprisingly easy to read. Sure, there are long sentences that seem to circle the globe before it reaches a point. This is characteristic of older writings. But there are parts where the dialogue is snappy, the question and the answers come in fast and to the point.

Bulletproof Case

Sobo: It’s nice to know that it’s easier to read. I guess what readers want to know is: “Is there any reason to read this classic when there are newer books on the same topic written for modern audiences?”

Terence: In the past, in some circles, you just have to drop the book title in an argument and everybody knew what you were talking about.

The argument is so tight, it’s bulletproof. Forget everything else I read, Anselm’s answer is now my answer to the question, “Why did God become a God-Man?”

If your answer is, “He became Man to save us, you misunderstood the question.” The question is why must God save us in this way. To an unbeliever it is ridiculous for God to die at the hands of a mob.

What do you think if the President of the United States thought that the only way to rescue hostages held by the Taliban was to sacrifice himself in exchange? We would all think it to be ridiculous! Send special forces. Pay them the ransom. Use diplomatic pressure. Surely, anything is better than exchanging the hostages for the President of the United States or the President’s son? And if he does so, it must be because he is either powerless or he is not too bright.

Structure of Argument

Sobo: In this book, Boso is a Christian who asks questions on behalf of unbelievers. How does Anselm seek to convince unbelievers?

Terence: First of all, Cur Deus Homo is divided into two books. In Anselm’s own words,
Book I “prove[s] by rational necessity — Christ being removed from sight, as if there had never been anything known about Him — that no man can possibly be saved without Him.”

Book II “show[s] with equally clear reasoning and truth that human nature was created in order that the whole man (i.e., with a body and a soul) would some day enjoy a happy immortality.”

It is too big of a task to summarise what the great Anselm wrote, 25 chapters in the first and 22 chapters in the second, within a few minutes for this podcast.

Debt to God

Sobo: Undoubtedly so, but please for the benefit of listeners who may need encouragement to read for themselves this wonderful book, what is the gist of Anselm’s argument?

Terence: I don’t feel up to the task to give you what you ask for but I will try my best. As you say, readers should read the book to properly judge how bulletproof is Anselm’s argument.

In my own words, here is how I understand it:

Man owes God a debt. Who pays the debt? God?

God cannot clear this debt because that would be unjust. Man would enjoy Heaven at God’s expense.

There is a debt. Who pays the debt?
What if God creates another man to pay the debt? But that new man has no relation to us. Adam sinned. We are the children of Adam. That new man cannot pay because he is not of Adam’s line.

There is a debt. We cannot pay. God must not pay. And God cannot create a new being to pay it.

Now, leave the question of who pays aside, Anselm asks, “What will you pay to God in proportion to your sin?”

Boso answers, “Penitence, a contrite and humbled heart, fasting and a variety of physical toil, the mercy of giving and forgiving, as well as obedience.”

I thought that was an excellent answer. Wouldn’t you say the same?

Anselm brings the hammer down. I’ll quote him at length to give you a sense of how he answers questions.

When you render something which you would owe to God even if you had not sinned, you ought not to reckon it as payment of the debt which you owe for your sin. Now, you owe to God all of the things you have just mentioned. For in this mortal life there ought to be so much love, and so much desire to arrive at that end for which you have been created (an arrival whereunto prayer is relevant), and so much sorrow because you are not yet there, and so much fear lest you not arrive, that you ought to experience joy only over those things which give you either assistance in arriving or the hope thereof. For you do not deserve to have what you do not love and desire in proportion to its nature, and over which you do not grieve because you do not yet possess it but are still in such great danger as to whether or not you will ever possess it. To possess this, it is also a prerequisite to flee from the repose and worldly pleasures (except insofar as you know them to conduce to your aspiration to arrive at this possession) which call the soul away from that true rest and delight.

Yes, it’s the type of sentence that modern readers may have to read and re-read to follow along.

Let me give a picture for how I understand it:
If I ask you, “What will you pay to God in proportion to your sin?” What do you say?

Sobo: I feel bad, I repent and promise not to do it again. And I commit to live a better life.

Terence: But that’s what you are supposed to do!

For example, if I borrowed your car. And I crashed your car. You ask me, “What are you going to do to make things right?” I say, “I feel bad, I repent and I promise I won’t crash your car again. I commit to be a better person. That’s all. Bye bye.” What do you say to that?

“That is all and good but my car is now wrecked so how will you make things right? A debt needs to be paid, how will you pay?”

Then you might say, “Alright then, to pay my debt to God I will give to God my money, my time and even my life. Full time missionary into a far away land. Even a martyr if God so will it.”

Your grand offer is noted. But what do you have that does not come from God? Everything you have comes from God! After crashing someone’s car would you now take his wallet to pay for the damages?

The question stands. So how will you pay?
As I read the book, my answer echos Boso’s. Nothing. I have nothing to pay with.

Now let us suppose, let us imagine, that there is something that can be given to God. First, this something must be something that God gives, right? Otherwise, it’s paying for damages from the person’s wallet. Second, this something must be of great worth. Something valuable to God himself.

So we come to the riddle, the dilemma in Cur Deus Homo. Which I simplify as:

A debt that Man must pay but cannot.
A debt that God can pay but must not.

So this debt demands a person who is both God and Man to pay.

I can say more but I believe this summary is the crux of the whole book.

More to the Book

Sobo: Indeed your summary seems so simple that I now wonder whether there is any point to read the rest of the book.

Terence: There is! My summary is just a drop and there is far more goodness from the book. You read classics not just to get the conclusion, the answer to the big question, but to see how they get there. The classical writers are often pioneers. They look at things differently. They ask different questions.

For example, in the book Boso and Anselm reach a point where we see it was necessary for God to save in this way. Boso asks the natural follow up question, if God saves out of necessity, then why should we be grateful since he was compelled to do so?

Anselm answers:

… when he willingly submits himself to the necessity of doing a good work, and does not merely endure this necessity against his will, surely he deserves greater gratitude for his good work. For this “necessity” ought not really to be called a necessity but [ought to be called] a grace, since he voluntarily incurred it or holds to it, without anyone constraining him. For suppose you willingly promise today to bestow a gift tomorrow; and tomorrow you do bestow it with this same willingness. Although it is necessary that, if you can, you do tomorrow give what you have promised (or else be caught in a lie), nonetheless the one to whom you give this benefit is no less indebted to you for the bestowal of it than if you had not made a promise. The reason for his indebtedness is that you did not hesitate to make yourself indebted to him prior to the actual giving.

Who the Book is For

Sobo: You say it’s easy to read but from the quotes, it still sounds intimidating.

Terence: I didn’t say it’s easy, I said it’s easier. Easier than some of Puritan books. Books that I cannot finish, that I fall asleep reading and never got back to. In comparison to those, Cur Deus Homo is a fun read.

But practically, this book appeals to two types of readers. The first reader wants to get a good solid answer to the question, Cur Deus Homo, “Why did God become a God-Man?” This is it. Read this, be convinced and Anselm’s answer will be your answer.

The second type of reader wants to read something old. If this is your first book, I would suggest Pilgrim’s Progress or Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotions. Cur Deus Homo is a better read when you have already built up an appetite and some idea of what to expect from old books.

You see, there are some hard going chapters. For instance, chapters 16, 17 and 18 looks into the question of how and why the number of fallen angels will be replaced by redeemed mankind.

Sobo: Say what?

Terence: Yes, it is an odd part of the book. If 100 angels fell, God intends that 100 people be redeemed to replace them. That’s the topic of their discussion. Anselm and Boso argue whether God has a perfect number in mind. That notion seems awfully dated 1000 years later but it did make me wonder whether we make similar arguments today? Do we have such blindspots?

For example, one of the reasons I have heard for limited or definite or particular atonement is if Jesus died to atone for all, then Jesus’ blood was wasted because some were not saved. Jesus’ blood is never wasted. Therefore, Jesus did not die to atone for all. But is the idea of wasted blood something that we assume is true, that’s how we would look at it. Is it true of God?

Sobo: Are you saying Limited Atonement is wrong?

Terence: No, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, this is the wrong place for that discussion, I’m just saying I have heard arguments such as those for limited atonement that may 1000 years later sound as strange as Anselm’s insistence that God loves perfect numbers. I’m just showing how an old book can help us look and ponder at what is happening today from a different angle.


Sobo: Come to think of it, is there anything that Anselm says here that is wrong?

Terence: The parts where I understand, the debt that we owe God that only Jesus Christ can pay, I see it is absolutely right and books, and movies, and songs should be written to make the whole world know this truth.

The parts where I don’t understand, or not confident of, I don’t dare to comment.

However, I do share a common critique of Anselm’s approach. If you recall, Anselm made his arguments in this book without any reference to Jesus Christ. He said let us assume Jesus Christ is not in the picture and just by the power of reason show that Man owes God a debt which is a debt that only a God-Man can pay.

The problem is how far can reason take you? What happens when your impeccable reasoning contradicts the clear words of Scripture?

It didn’t in this case, which I would argue is not by coincidence but by design. I believe that as Anselm organised his thoughts on the question, he rejected logical paths that contradicted the Bible. We never got to see those rejected paths because he showed us his final solution.

There is a limit to where reasoning can take us because the Fall didn’t only affect our behaviour and morality, it also affected our affections and our faculties, our ability to reason. Today we hear statements like “If God is love, then…” and we fill it in with what seems perfectly logical and reasonable to us, regardless of what God tells us.

Anselm as a man of his time, puts too much confidence in reason not aware how people after him will abuse reason to deny God.

Children’s Book

Sobo: A sobering thought. Do you have any final thoughts for this book review?

Terence: There is a temptation to read classics for bragging rights alone. Yes, I managed to climb this mountain, finish this book. But classics are to be read for the satisfaction of journeying with a great mind for a worthy quest.

If I was in charge of the world, I would turn Cur Deus Homo into a comic or a children’s book. When I was younger, I read comic books on Western and Eastern philosophy. It is more than doable to turn Cur Deus Homo into a comic or children’s book.

This is a Reading and Reader’s review of Cur Deus Homo by Anselm of Canterbury. 100 pages, published in 1093. There are two translations. The popular one is Deane’s. A more recent one is Hopkins and Richardson’s. And I am hoping there will be a comic or children’s version one day.

The next book I review will be a free book. So subscribe to the Reading and Readers podcast to hear that review and grab that book before the deal ends. Until next time, thank you for listening.

Book List

  • “Cur Deus Homo” by Anselm of Canterbury, translated by Sidney Norton Deane. Website.
  • “Cur Deus Homo” by Anselm of Canterbury, translated by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson. Book I pdf. Book II pdf.
  • “Pilgrims Progress” by John Bunyan. CCEL website.
  • “From Morning and Evening” by Charles H. Spurgeon. CCEL website.