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12. Limerick and Canterbury: Church and Atonement

Viking Raids in Ireland

Viking raids in Ireland began c. AD 795 at the island of Lambay (Dublin Bay). Viking success in Northern France resulted in the kingdom of Normandy. Vikings began Ireland’s first cities (Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick). These pagans from the North soon became more Irish than the Irish themselves, adopting the language and religion of the Irish overtime. The annals record the death of Ivar, Viking king of Dublin, in 872 by noting that “he rested in Christ”. The Norse in Ireland had adopted the religion of their enemies.

Together but Separate

A Viking church in Ireland presented a problem for the Irish church since the urban Vikings were at war with the rural Gaelic clans and monasteries. The Vikings looked to Canterbury in England, and not Armagh or Cashel, for their Bishops. Two churches within Ireland, Gaelic and Viking, viewed each other with distrust and indifference. However, both Gaelic and Viking churches regarded themselves as part of the Western Roman Catholic Church. They were together part of the one (western) church, but separate and divided in terms of communion and cooperation.

Gilbert of Limerick

Permanent settlement on the site of modern Limerick had begun by 922. Limerick native Gilbert was made bishop of Limerick sometime around the year 1106 but unlike bishops from other Norse settlements like Dublin and Waterford he was not consecrated in Canterbury because the Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm was in exile in Normandy at the time. When Muirchertach Ua Briain under the influence of Anselm called the Synod of Ráth Breasail (near Mountrath, Co. Laois) in 1111 Gilbert presided as legate. This synod began to bring Ireland more into line with the diocesan system that existed in the rest of Western Christendom. Gilbert resigned as Papal Legate in 1139 due to his advanced age and died in 1145.

The Church as Hierarchy

Gilbert viewed the pursuit of unity in the Irish church through structural reform. He saw reform needed in the Irish church in the following areas:

  • Celibacy

  • Church-State relations

  • Simony

  • Schism

This call for reform must be understood within the Medieval emphasis on Ordo (order/structure). The prevailing theory at this time was that the order of the church on earth should reflect the celestial order of heaven. There are clear Platonic influences here particularly from the Christian Philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The historical person Dionysius the Areopagite was an Athenian member of the judicial council (Areopagus), who was converted by Paul (Acts 17:34). A spurious sixth century work of Christian Neo-Platonic theology was falsely attributed to him. It was translated from Greek into Latin by the Irish theologian John Erigena in the ninth century. In the twelfth century Gilbert drew on this theory of order as he lamented schism in the Irish church, and appealed to Romans 15:6, “so that you may praise God unanimously with one voice.”

An Ideal Irish Church: United and Ordered

Gilbert wrote a treatise on church reform in Ireland called De Statu Ecclesiae (the Sate of The Church). Gilbert’s blueprint for an ideal Irish Church was portrayed in manuscripts as a Gothic Window with its rising tracery and arches meeting in the apex of Pope. This model regarded the role of Bishop as central. The Bishop was called to Teach, Care, and Rule. Bishops needed to follow Scripture and Tradition and preserve the orthodoxy of the Church. For Gilbert, the Pope was Christ’s Vicar or representative on earth. The Pope was the new Noah in charge of the ship of salvation (the church). Gilbert did not see any need for Ecumenical consensus just obedience to Rome. Unity was to be maintained through a rigours ecclesiastical hierarchy. However, this was not how the Eastern Church regarded unity in the Church and Gilbert was aware that his understanding of Church order was completely Western in bias.

Gilbert conceded that, “Patriarchs preside in Apostolic Sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) …and in a certain sense they are described as equal to Rome. However, it was only to Peter that it was said, You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church. The Pope alone, therefore, is supreme over the Universal Church, and he himself orders and judges all and is obeyed by all…” The Eastern Orthodox Churches would never agree to such statements and in reality Gilbert’s understanding of the church’s unity was limited to a unity of the Western Church not the Catholic/Universal Church in fullest sense. Gilbert’s plan for reforming the Irish Church was to achieve unity through a structured hierarchy.


The Italian Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm (1033-1109) was a friend of Gilbert of Limerick and an early promoter of Scholasticism. Scholasticism was a particular way of doing theology. It applied the rules of logic (i.e. Aristotle) to reveal an underlying agreement, revealing the one inner truth of things (veritas rerum) (ODCC: 1475). The Irish Pre-Scholastic John Scottus Erigena was the first independent effort to apply logic and Neoplatonism to the realm of faith (ODCC: 1476). It was a quest to build Cathedrals of the mind: Faith seeking understanding.

What is Atonement?

For theologians like Anselm the question of what the Atonement meant had to be understood in a way that made sense. The Atonement had to be explained within the limits of logic. Why did Jesus die on the cross and what did it accomplish? There were several answers to this question in the Bible.

  • A­­ ransom payment (Mark 10:45, 1Pet 1:18-19)

  • An example of love to follow (Rom 5:8, 1 Pet 2:20)

  • A Victory over death and Satan (Heb 2:14-15, Col 2:15)

  • Reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-21)

  • Propitiation (Rom 3:25-26, 1 John 2:2)

  • Expiation (Heb 9:6-15)

  • Exchange (2 Cor 5:21, Rom 5:19)

The early church explained the atonement in a variety of ways all drawing from the language of Scripture. “[Patristic] writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them developing in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.” (HPT, 39)

Anselm and Cur Deus Homo

Anselm’s contribution to the question of Atonement was in his book Cur Deus Homo (why the God-Man?). The book is written as a dialogue between Anselm and a disciple called Boso. In Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo the emphasis shifted from Atonement as Ransom to Atonement as Satisfaction. The role of Satan as enslaver of sinners was diminished and the focus shifted to God as Lord over humanity. Sin, being an infinite offence against God, required a satisfaction equally infinite. Man alone was culpable for human sin but as no finite being, man or angel, could offer such infinite satisfaction, only an infinite being, i.e. God. God alone is able to provide an infinite satisfaction of justice, but it is man that must pay satisfaction to God. Therefore, Anselm argued, there is need for a God-Man who can fully represent culpable man and fully satisfy an infinite debt. “No one can pay except God, and one ought to pay except man: it is necessary therefore that a God-Man should pay it.” (CDH §6). The penal satisfaction was not only adequate but superabundant, for whereas the offence against God, being perpetrated by a finite being, was only morally infinite, the satisfaction, being the work of a divine Person, was objectively, as well as morally, infinite (ODCC, 124).

Friends Gilbert and Anselm both produced important theological works to consider. Reading the theology of Irish Christians prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion reveals an interesting discovery. Irish Christians like Gilbert saw in Rome a saviour of the Irish church not a destroyer. However, the biblical basis for Gilbert’s theology is another matter and we should rightly question if his vision for the Irish Church is supported from Scripture (which never uses the word hierarchy!). In Anselm we should take note that the dominate model of Atonement that Evangelicals typically use, i.e. the Substitutionary Atonement Model, is a theological product of Medieval Scholasticism. This does not diminish it, rather it reveals our debt to Scholastic Theology (even if we don't acknowledge that!). Again, the merits of Anselm’s argument, like all theology, must be considered on the basis of teaching of Scripture.


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