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Review of Eckardt’s Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was It “Necessary”?

by T. R. Halvorson

Note: This article may be downloaded as a PDF file.


  • Citation
  • Explanation of Review and Commentary
  • Preview of  Substance
  • Plan of the Dissertation
  • Table of Similarities and Differences
  • Review of Substance
  • Evaluation


Eckardt, Burnell F. Jr. Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was it “Necessary”? San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

Explanation of Review and Commentary

This review is comprised of excerpts from a more extensive Commentary on Burnell F. Eckardt Jr.’s Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was it “Necessary”? In addition to the sections in the outline of this review above, the Commentary on . . . has the following sections:

  • Importance and Standing
  • Author
  • The Chapters
    • Chapter I – Introduction
    • Chapter II – Points of Correspondence
    • Chapter III – Point of Some Similarity on Style of Expression
    • Chapter IV – Points of Difference
    • Chapter V – Was the Atonement “Necessary”?

The Commentary on . . . may be downloaded as a PDF file.

Preview of Substance

To understand a theologian, it helps to bear in mind not only what he seems to be saying, but his purpose in saying it, and his method of arriving at it or expressing it. Purpose and method matter for meaning. Can we be so sure we got the what while ignoring the why and the how?

The trouble with many conventional treatments of Anselm and Luther is that they fail to consider their differences in purpose and method. This failure, especially among many claiming to be heirs of Luther, has driven a deeper and wider wedge between Anselm and Luther than is warranted. To be sure, they have differences, and to be sure, the differences are significant. But on vicarious satisfaction they hardly are as distant from one another as has been made the popular perception.

Eckardt’s study responds to the comparisons that have been made between Anselm and Luther on the atonement. Eckardt carefully observes Anselm’s purpose. He carefully observes Luther’s purpose. They both are talking about the atonement, but they have different purposes. Eckardt carefully observes Anselm’s method. He carefully observes Luther’s method. They are both talking about the atonement, but their methods are different. When they are read with purpose and method in mind, Anselm and Luther come into focus. The result is seeing major points of difference, but also major areas of similarity. Their answers to the question, “Was the atonement necessary,” both are “Yes.”

As simple and innocuous as that might sound superficially, the consequence is a continental divide with Luther and Anselm together on one side, though by method and purpose differently, and many other atonement theologians on the other side.

Anselm’s purpose is faith seeking understanding. Luther’s purpose is proclamation of the Word, which is proclamation of Christ.

Anselm’s method is sola ratione or remoto Christo (Christ being removed). Luther’s method is sola scriptura.

Anselm views Christ “from above.” He starts at God and moves to who Christ must be. Luther views Christ “from below.” He starts at the Jesus in the manger and sees who the baby is.

Anselm and Luther have very different doctrines of man and of sin. Yet, the two both see the atonement as necessary and their doctrines of the atonement have significant similarities.

The differences make the atonement even more necessary for Luther than for Anselm.

Plan of the Dissertation

Chapter I is an introduction. This sets up the dispute over vicarious satisfaction. It shows the attack on Anselm and the attempt to enlist Luther’s endorsement of the attack.

Chapter II presents points of correspondence between Anselm and Luther on substance. Eckardt views this from two perspectives: first, looking from Anselm to Luther; and second, looking from Luther to Anselm. In the first perspective, waypoints along the path of comparison are Anselm’s views of sin, God’s justice, and the vicarious satisfaction. In the second perspective, waypoints are Luther’s views of Christ, the love of God, and faith.

Chapter III compares purpose and method in style of expression. Both men use Scripture, but for different purposes.  Anselm uses it to achieve pulchritude (agreeableness arising from beauty). He uses reason for the same purpose, to show fittingness and beauty. Luther uses Scripture for proclamation. He does not depend on the pulchritude of Scripture. This has made many theologians conclude that the two disagree on the Atonement. That is not true, at least, not to the extent portrayed.

Chapter IV presents points of difference between Anselm and Luther. They have very different ideas of what sin is. They have very different ideas of how faith advances. Anselm believes faith can advance by reason seeking understanding of what Scripture and the church fathers have taught. Luther, on the other hand, mistrusts reason, and adheres to the Word of God even when he himself acknowledges that he cannot resolve Scripture’s paradoxes or what rationales might lie behind its teachings.

In Luther’s theology of the cross, it does not matter that we cannot resolve paradoxes or penetrate the hidden counsels of God. God often absconds regarding his reasons or his seeming contradictions. But attempting to rationally systematize doctrine does not make things any better. Suppose you were to resolve a scriptural paradox. Would that change Scripture’s paradoxical teaching? No. The teaching would remain. Suppose you could catch the absconding Deity and demand his rationales. Would what you found out about the hidden God change what the revealed God has says? No. Everything the revealed God says still would be true. Furthermore, in this life, what the revealed God has said, paradoxes and all, apparent irrationalities and all, is more than sufficient for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

So the differences are significant, but all by itself that still does not conclude the question, how corresponding or different are their ideas of the atonement.

Chapter V sums up the effects of the similarities and differences between Anselm and Luther on the necessity of the atonement. Owing to their differences of purpose and method, they have different reasons for nevertheless coming to the same conclusion. For Anselm, the atonement is necessary because it appeals to reason and it is fitting. For Luther the atonement is necessary because, as a matter of fact, atone is what Jesus did, therefore, to proclaim Christ, one hardly can avoid proclaiming the atonement He worked.

Table of Similarities and Differences

View of SinPrivation of original righteousness or of justice
Denial that concupiscence is sin
Morbid quality of the soul
Rejects Scholastic definition of sin
PurposeFaith seeking understandingProclamation of Christ
Proclamation of the Gospel
MethodSola ratione
remoto Christo
Chain of reasoning
Sola scriptura
Ennaratio of the Word
Central concernsSin
Justice of God
Vicarious satisfaction
Love of God
Repentance (contrition & faith)
AppealAttract by pulchritudeConvince by power (of the Word)
LanguageAbundant use of Scripture, because it is the best language for pulchritudeAbundant use of Scripture, because the Word is a means of grace
HabitatChurch at peaceChurch militant
Must be preached
NecessityNecessary because of fittingness
Necessary because of seriousness of sin
Necessary because of the justice of God
Necessary for God to sustain his creation
Necessary means appealing to reason so that faith may find understanding. Does faith understand without vicarious satisfaction?
Necessary because Scripture reveals it as what God has done
Necessary because Christology and justification are revealed together with atonement
Necessary for the fröhliche Wechsel, the happy exchange of sin and righteousness
Even more necessary than Anselm knows because sin is even more serious than Anselm knows
Necessary means unalterable and necessary to proclaim Christ. Have you proclaimed Christ without proclaiming vicarious satisfaction?
FaithUsually a reference to what is believed, content of the faith
Closer to a theology of glory
Faith in the light of reason
Usually a reference to trust by which the Gospel is believed
Theology of the cross
Faith in darkness and against contrary appearances, even contrary appearances of God’s own making
The WordUsually Christ, the LogosUsually Scripture, Law and Gospel
CrisisA challenge to intellectus, and hence very little crisisAnfechtung, a challenge to certitudo, to faith itself Forced upon the Christian by trial and the theology of the cross

Review of Substance

Luther differs from Anselm, and Luther agrees with Anselm.

For Anselm, faith seeks to understand by reason which relies on the pulchritude of the idea of the atonement and the pulchritude of the way the idea is expressed. Ratio provides intellectum.

For Luther, faith, by the Word as means of grace, blindly trusts in the dark where there is no pulchritude, no ratio, no intellectum. The bare promise of the Gospel provides certitude against every appearance of God’s wrath.

Both Luther and Anselm speak in terms of payment for sin, of substitution, and of redemption by the blood of Christ. Though for different reasons, for both men the atonement is necessary. By Luther’s reasons, the atonement is even more necessary than it is for Anselm.

Hofmann, Ritchl, Aulén, Forde, and company have got both Anselm and Luther profoundly wrong. They have failed to view each man on his own terms. They have used the significant differences between Anselm and Luther to cloud their agreement on vicarious satisfaction and its necessity. They have credited themselves as the heirs of Luther and have enlisted Luther as their endorser against Anselm and vicarious satisfaction. But Anselm and Luther do not disagree about vicarious satisfaction. On the contrary, for Luther, vicarious satisfaction is even more necessary than Anselm knows, and thus Luther opposes them more than Anselm does. Their errors have devastating implications for Christology, justification, and faith.


In English, Eckardt’s dissertation ranks as one of the top three Lutheran works on the atonement. The three are (in alphabetical order by author):

Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr., Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was it “Necessary”? San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

Jack D. Kilcrease, The Doctrine of Atonement: From Luther to Forde, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018.

Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Creed, trans. Thomas Trapp, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011, in his treatment of the Second Article.

There are Lutheran writings in English about the atonement on my syllabus that I have yet to read. This list, hence, is subject to ongoing development.

Among non-Lutherans, Leon Morris’ several books remain the best.

Reading Eckardt, I repeatedly found myself looking away from the text, having been hit by it, experiencing shock at how low my Christology has been, and sorrow at how little capacity I have for reverencing Christ. Along with this, Eckardt preaches with Luther – even though the work is a dissertation – the consolation of faith in the Gospel of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction by which He atoned for even these sins.