St Anselm was one of the most influential Christians of the last 1,000 years. But who was he and what did he believe?

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Being a Christian isn't just about believing 'in the Bible', or 'in the Church'. Although these are two of the pillars of our faith, what we believe about the Bible, the Church, sacraments, worship, prayer and much more, has been shaped by generations of believers before us.

Many Christians will have heard of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. They'll be familiar with DL Moody, Billy Graham and those people who shaped doctrine and practice in the modern day.

But a less well-known name is that of Anselm of Canterbury – truly one of the most influential Christians of the past 1,000 years. St Anselm (as he became) died on this day, April 21,1109, at around 78 years of age. Today is still marked as his feast day by some Churches.

Born on the border of modern-day France and Italy, he trained as a monk and became a bishop, being consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093.

He engaged in debate with the Eastern Church over the nature of the Holy Spirit, sparred with English royalty about the role of the Church and wrote theological books and essays.

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Here we look at three of his most influential legacies. 

1. The Atonement

One of the key doctrines of salvation, the atonement describes the work of Jesus on the cross. What was achieved? How does it reconcile God to humankind?

Anselm's approach was based on 'satisfaction' – the idea that God doesn't hold humans accountable for sin, because Jesus' death on the cross was 'satisfactory'. But he differs from those earlier and later thinkers who thought of the cross as a 'ransom'. Instead, Anselm argued that the primary way we owe a debt to God is in terms of 'honour'. So, Jesus, being infinitely great, brings great honour to God, by his death on the cross.

This idea was refined by Aquinas to become a significant Roman Catholic way of understanding the atonement. However, it was also influential on Calvin's theology, so has gone on to play a large role in the way Reformed churches teach about salvation.

2. The Ontological argument for God's existence

There are many arguments for the existence of God, but one that is most fiercely defended by its proponents (and yet sometimes baffles amateurs) is the 'ontological argument'.

Anselm formulated it by saying God is 'that than which nothing greater can be thought'. Anselm doesn't offer external evidence for this, but rather argues that God is, by definition, the greatest possible being. If our minds can conceive of such a being, then it exists in reality because to exist is great than not existing.

This argument was taken up first by the French philosopher Rene Descartes and then by the German thinker Gottfried Leibniz. Although it has been criticised by heavyweight philosophers and theologians, it remains a favourite argument of some. Today, it can be seen in the work of influential Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

3. The Community of St Anselm

Having made two large contributions to theology and philosophy, this third legacy is much more practical. As well as being a scholar, Anselm was a spiritual leader and pastor. He also first sought to enter the monastic life at only 15 years old. Despite being rejected, he returned and by his late 20s was on the path to becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

When setting up a new community of prayer for young people at Lambeth Palace in London, Anselm's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury – Justin Welby – spoke of his aims. 'Living in a praying community is the ultimate wager on the existence of God,' he said. '[It] is anything but comfortable or risk-free. Through it people subject themselves to discipline, to each other in community, and, above all, to God.'

But why choose to name a community of young people after Anselm? The community's website explains. It says, 'His motto of "faith seeking understanding" reminds us that the faith journey begins with an active love of God – and from this love a deeper knowledge of God follows. Anselm became a monk when he was 27.'

So, although he may not be a name on the tip of our tongues, we owe a debt to Anselm. Some do realise it – he had a Christian band named after him a few years ago...

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