Introduction to Anselm
Although Italian born, Anselm is most notably remembered for being the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109 (Wikipedia, “Anselm of Canterbury”). Anselm was a theologian and philosopher who was heavily influenced by Augustine in his theology and style, with most of his writings being in the form of dialogue (The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, 28; class notes, 32). Anselm is often cited as being the father of Scholasticism, as well as, “the originator for the ontological argument for the existence of God (www.britannica.com, “Saint Anselm of Canterbury”).” While he may have died over 900 years ago, his writings, especially in regard to “soteriology and Christology…continue to stimulate theologians” today (WDCH, 28).
Introduction to the Document
Written between 1077-1078, Anselm’s Proslogion (read online) is considered to be one of his greatest works (Wikipedia, “Anselm of Canterbury). Proslogion, meaning “a speech made to another,” reads as a prayer from Anselm to God (94). In this extended discourse, Anselm aims to prove the existence of God with the argument that God is that “than which nothing greater can be thought (100).” Anselm is specifically addressing the foolishness in saying “there is no God (Psalm 14:1).” He claims that even an atheist can imagine a being “that which nothing greater can be thought,” including the existence of said being. The argument found in Proslogion has come to be known as the ontological argument for God’s existence (WDCH, 27).
- Understanding the purpose and title
- Anselm’s Argument for God (Chapters 1-5)
- The Nature of this God (Chapters 6-23)
- Reconciling seeming contradictions about His nature
- Embracing God’s transcendence and eternality
- Understanding the oneness of the Godhead
- The Blessings of Believing in this God (Chapters 24-26)
In his Prologue, Anselm explains that the Proslogion was not something that came easily for him to write. In fact, he almost gave up on the project to prove God’s existence with an argument “that needed nothing but itself alone for proof (93).” However, one day the argument materialized “in the very clash of his thoughts (93).” He decided to write his thoughts down in a prayer-like, contemplative format that expressed the struggle in trying to comprehend God’s existence and nature. While the document had other titles (“A pattern for meditation on the rational basis of faith” and “Faith seeking understanding”), Anselm settled on Proslogion after being “encouraged by a number of people” to put his name to the work (93-94).
Anselm begins (Chapter 1) by calling on divine help that he might think rightly about the God whose existence he is setting out to prove (97). Anselm prays that the Lord might make Himself known, in order that, he might better understand who God is. For Anselm, belief precedes understanding; furthermore, he states, “unless I believe, I shall not understand (99).” In chapter 2, Anselm explains what exactly it is that he believes about God. He believes that God is “than which nothing greater can be thought (99).” Anselm also believes that the things that exist in both the understanding and reality are greater than those that exist only in one’s understanding. Therefore, according to Anselm, God (as defined above) must necessarily exist in reality, not just one’s understanding (100). Anselm claims that it would be foolish, “stupid” even, to deny God’s existence because “it is so evident to the rational mind (101).” Anselm praises God for His illumination, so that even if he wanted to stop believing, he cannot deny that he now understands that God exists (101). And this God does not simply exist, He exists as “the greatest of all beings, who alone exists through himself and made all other things from nothing (102).” To Anselm, God is more than just good; He is supremely good. Specifically, God is “whatever it is better to be than not to be (102).”
Anselm now turns to address some of the questions that arise from defining God in this way. For example, Anselm claims that it is better to be able to perceive things than not, so God must be percipient. But, Anselm asks how is this possible if God is not a body, for “only corporeal things can perceive (102).” He concludes that God, being spirit (which is better), perceives things in the most supreme sense. It is a perception that is not limited by the body’s senses (102). Additionally, Anselm says that God’s omnipotence does not mean that God has the power to do anything. He cites that God cannot lie because that would not be the better thing to do. Rather, God’s omnipotence means He “does nothing through weakness, and nothing has power over [Him] (103).” Weakness, as defined by Anselm here, means the power to do something one should not do. In other words, mankind’s ability to do these things does not demonstrate power, it demonstrates weakness.
If there is no weakness in God how then, Anselm asks, does one reconcile God’s mercy and impassibility? Anselm argues that from man’s perspective it only seems that God is merciful in the human sense, meaning God feels compassion and sorrow in His heart. In reality, mankind is simply experiencing the effect of God’s mercy, not that God is actually “afflicted with any feeling of compassion for sorrow (104).” Applying this knowledge of God’s mercy, Anselm goes on to explain how it is that God can show mercy to both the good and the wicked while remaining just. Anselm claims that God’s goodness is “incomprehensible;” furthermore, God acts of goodness do not always make sense to the human mind (104). While God is justified in punishing the wicked, Anselm concedes that it is better that God would both punish and spare the wicked. God’s sparing of the wicked can make the wicked good, and according to Anselm, is, therefore, just in doing so (106). In fact, God is “in keeping with [His] goodness” by sparing the wicked not according to their merits (106). In regard to God’s mercy, Anselm concludes that whatever God wills is just; on the other hand, whatever He does not will is not just. There is no inconsistency between God’s mercy and justice in Anselm’s eyes (107).
Anselm moves on to point out more about the uniqueness of the God “than which nothing greater can be thought.” Anselm lists that God exists independent of anything else (107), is “unbounded and eternal (108),” and can be found by those who seek Him, although only in part (108-110). In response, Anslem prays, “Truly it is more than any creature can understand (109).” Upon considering these things, Anselm revises his initial statement, declaring that God is actually “something greater than can be thought (109).”
Following this assertion, Anselm explains briefly some of the effects that man’s sin has had on the pursuit of understanding God. He explains that “the senses of [his] soul have been stiffened, dulled, and obstructed” because of sin (110). So, even though (in some indescribable way) God can be sensed by the soul, Anselm says God remains somewhat hidden (110). It is at this time (Chapter 18) that Anselm calls upon the Lord for help once again, in order that, he might reach Him and understand Him (111). Anselm comes to Him pondering the things that God is: life, wisdom, truth, goodness, happiness, eternity, and every true good (111). He makes it clear that while God is many things, He is not the sum or composition of all these things. In the words of Anselm: “[God is] not a plurality… [He is] in fact unity itself (111).” Anselm claims this unity also applies to God’s eternity. That is to say that God’s eternality is not split up between “yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” instead, the eternal God exists “outside time altogether (112).” While there are other eternal beings that exist, Anselm says that their eternity cannot be equated with God’s, for He possesses both eternity past and eternity future. In fact, God’s eternity “contains even the very ages of time (113).” This ultimately leads Anselm to conclude that God alone is who He is (113).
Anselm continues his thoughts on God’s unity and goodness by examining them in light of the Trinity. Anselm argues that whatever one person of the Godhead is, so is the Godhead altogether (114). To summarize, the Word (the Son) is true as the Father is true, and the Spirit which proceeds from them both is nothing less than what They are (113-114). For Anselm, this “supremely simple unity” within the Trinity is the “one necessary thing, in which is all good (114).”
Finally, Anselm reflects on just how great this supremely good God is (114). Anselm asks if things such as created life, salvation, and “wisdom in the knowledge of created things” are truly good things, how good then must the God who created these things be (114). Furthermore, how many blessings await those who love this God (115)? Anslem states that whatever good thing one’s soul earnestly desires that is what God shall grant him in Heaven (115-116). It will be so great that the believer’s “whole heart, mind, and soul will be too small” to contain his joy (116). Anslem concludes his prayer by saying if he cannot fully understand the greatness of God in this life, he looks forward to understanding Him fully in the life to come, when he “[enters] into the joy of [the] Lord (117).”
Significance of the Document
Anselm’s Proslogion is a significant document for the Church in several ways. First, it is a study in how to approach theology from a place of humility. Anselm’s format of a conversation with God serves as a reminder that theology, or the act thereof, is an act of worship. As Anselm said, the person who desires to understand God must believe in Him first. Second, the Proslogion is foundational to understanding an ontological argument for God’s existence. By appealing to the mind, Anselm demonstrates that a belief in God is actually far more rational than a belief that God does not exist. Third, Christians can learn much about God’s nature and attributes from reading this document. By presenting questions and subsequent answers, Anselm helps walk believers through the difficult concepts that arise from studying God’s nature. Finally, Proslogion is also a beautiful reminder of the glory that is to come for believers. Anselm’s work is an example of how important it is for theology to be practical and pastoral. Proslogion has stood the test of time because it stirs both the mind and the heart.