A Divine Loquacity

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 10

As I’ve suggested, Anselm’s theory of the divine utterance establishes a far deeper parallel between divine and human making than that afforded in Augustine’s exemplarism. One implication of Anselm’s metaphysical actualism, touched on previously, after all, is that if the divine utterance excludes (because it denies the very existence of) merely possible beings and includes only those things God actually creates, then the content of God’s utterance, at least where creation is concerned, is directly tied to God’s creative intention and action. Thus, while the divine utterance is still very much prior to the creation that God speaks through that utterance, the directedness or focus of his creational speech—i.e. the fact that what God utters relative to a “possible” creation is none other than what he actually does create—commends a much stronger affinity, not to the Augustinian “knowing-then-making,” but to what Miner describes as the characteristically human artist’s “knowing-through-making.” And while Anselm is unequivocal in his denial of an external source from which God might have “collected” or “assembled” the forms of creation, we might nonetheless wonder if isn’t something like a divine “collecting” and “assembling” by which God fashions these created forms, only from a thesaurus wholly internal to the divine being, namely the divine utterance. Substituting Augustine’s exemplarist voluntarism for his own model of the divine loquacity, therefore, Anselm is able to conceive of God creating this world through an internal utterance that, while derived from nothing outside of God, nevertheless speaks specifically to and for that which comes to exist outside of God. For Anselm, in short, God knows what he knows of creation together with, and in some sense even because of, his determination to make what he makes.

God knows creation into being

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 9

In the previous post I interpreted Anselm as teaching that for God creation is less like the technicist’s or engineer’s knowing-then-making, but the artist’s knowing-through-making. Some important qualifications to this need to be made and objections answered.

The way this view is most likely to be misinterpreted is that it effectively puts God in the position of “learning” or “discovering” creation as something he was previously ignorant of. My first reply is that the charge that this makes God having to “learn” or “discover” something is inapplicable because the whole point of this reading of Anselm is to say that, apart from God’s intention to create, there is literally nothing “there” for God to learn (just as, according to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, apart from God’s act of creation there is literally nothing “there” out of which he creates). The whole notion of God “learning” and “discovering” presupposes the very possibilist framework that I am here arguing that Anselm rejects: God can only “learn” what is in some sense already there as a divine possible-to-be-known. I am arguing from Anselm, however, that God’s creative, sovereign knowledge is such that it brings into being the very possibility of discovering or learning itself.

Furthermore, it needs to be said that God’s knowing-through-making is obviously not a “learning” insofar as, prior to his creative determination of the very possibilities of creation, God still knows creation “eminently” or “virtually” (as Aquinas puts it) by knowing himself in his Son and through the Spirit. To interpret this model, therefore, as saying that God therefore “learns” or “discovers” something he was previously ignorant of is to be guilty of construing the possibilities of creation as something that exists above, beyond, or in addition to God himself. Again, it is to impugn the very doctrine of divine aseity in knowledge that it portends to defend. Put simply, it is not the above reading of Anselm that makes God learn or discover things, but the critic. Far from God’s creative knowing-through-making being guilty of turning God into the divine learner, it is the only real alternative to it.  

Finally, having said all that, I do think there is a deep inconsistency in the mainstream theological tradition that leads it to balk at the idea of God knowing the possibility of his creation in and through his intention and act of creating (as I have been defining it), but which, on the other hand, is fine with the idea of God going from not creating a world he was able to create to him actually creating that world. If God, however, can go from not creating a world that he can create to actually creating it without there being an “increase” in God’s activity or actuality, then there can be no objection to God going from knowing himself in his infinite fullness to his creatively knowing this particular creation without there being any “increase” in his knowledge. If God’s power and actuality, in other words, can contain virtually or eminently his power to create a given world without his actually creating it, then God’s knowledge of himself can contain virtually or eminently his power to create that same world without his actually knowing it (i.e., knowing it in a determinate, worked-out sort of way). To put it slightly differently still, just as God does not create a thing out of some pre-existing material but rather from nothing, so God does not come to know his creation out of a prior state of ignorance, but he knows it “from nothing.” God’s knowledge is a creative knowledge: he knows things into being.

God knows creation through making creation

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 8

Yet another consequence of the Anselmian turn in divine psychology and epistemology is a new significance the artisan metaphor for God’s knowledge and production of creation is able to assume in his philosophical theology. Although earlier theologians employed the artisan metaphor, in the case of Augustine, one consequence of the latter’s Platonic exemplarism was its confinement of God’s artistic creativity to the “craft” or “technicist” paradigm of what Robert Miner refers to as the divine “knowing-then-making”: insofar as creation involves a mere divine “choosing” which possible creatures, known in God’s eternal self-knowledge, he will make real, God’s act of creation contributes little to nothing to his knowledge of what he creates. By restricting God’s creative knowledge to only those things he actually creates, by contrast, Anselm may be seen to provide the basis for an alternate understanding of the artistic relationship between divine knowing and making. Expounding further on the nature of the divine utterance, he writes:

the supreme substance first said (as it were) all of creation in himself and then created it in accordance with and through that innermost utterance of his, in the way that a craftsman first conceives in his mind what he afterwards makes into a completed work in accordance with the conception of his mind.[1]

Prior to his speaking creation into existence, God first spoke “all of creation in himself,” and it is this “innermost utterance,” internal to God’s own being, that is the archetype or divine reason after which created existence is patterned. Anselm likens this immanent utterance spoken by God within himself to “the way that a craftsman first conceives in his mind what he afterwards makes.” He immediately qualifies the comparison, however, with an important disanalogy, namely the very Augustinian consideration that, whereas the human craftsman ultimately derives his artistic utterance from the world around him, “the supreme substance collected nothing at all from any other source from which he would either assemble within himself the form of the things he was going to make or bring it about that the things themselves exist.” Instead, God’s creative utterance, as spoken within himself, therefore originates entirely within himself.

(For an important explanation and qualification of this argument, see the next post.)

[1] Monologion 11.

“Con-creating” the possibles with the actual

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 7

If it requires an actual creation for the relation of supremacy to come into being, would this not also apply for all the other possible relations that are God’s alleged divine ideas? According to the conventional understanding of the divine ideas, what the latter represent are the infinite ways in which God’s essence or nature can be imitated by his possible creatures. In other words, the divine ideas are God’s knowledge of his own essence as relatable to by his possible creatures. In knowing his own essence, God knows all the relations to that essence capable of being had by his possible creatures. This means that, for God to be and know himself as God, all possible relations must be said of him. God is necessarily, essentially, and substantially related to the possibility that is creation. For Anselm, by contrast, relations to God only obtain if and when God actually creates, yet as he hastens to explain, had God not created “he would not on that account be any less good, and his essential greatness would in no way be diminished.” Relations to God only come into being with God’s act or at least intention to create (they are, as Aquinas might say, “con-created” with the substance that is the creature), yet when they come into being, because they are relations to God, and not God’s relation to the thing created or to be created, God remains unaffected or unchanged. As he illustrates the point later,

Take someone who is going to be born next year. At the moment I am not taller than him, or smaller than him; nor the same height as, or similar to, him. When he is born, however, I will be able to have, and to lose, all these relations, without my changing at all, insofar as he grows and changes through different qualities.[1]

Until the person born to be born a year later now actually exists, Anselm is not able to be related to that person in any way at all. Although Anselm does not go into this here, one primary reason this is the case is the fact that, until the prospective person actually exists, there of course is nothing there to be reciprocally related back to Anselm. Yet when this person comes into being, Anselm himself, that is, in his substance, will be unchanged. So for God there are and can be no relations of imitability for “things” that God never does create, and if there are no relations of imitability, then there are no divine ideas of things he supposedly knows himself as capable of creating but never actually does create. This is what it means for God to exist a se, “in himself,” and to contend otherwise is, for Anselm, to deny the very aseity of God that it portends to defend.

[1] Monologion ch. 25.

Why God has to create his own supremacy

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 6

Related to his denial of non-existing possibles in the divine utterance is Anselm’s teaching on divine relations in the Monologion. Having identified the divine utterance as identical in substance with the supreme essence, Anselm poses the question as to what can and what cannot be said of God “substantially.” With respect to relations, Anselm says,

No one doubts that none of them is said substantially of the thing of which it is said relatively. Therefore, if something is said relatively of the supreme nature, it does not signify his substance. And so it is clear that whatever can be said of him relatively—the fact that he is supreme among all things, or that he is greater than all the things that he made, or anything else like these—does not designate his natural essence. For if none of those things in relation to which he is said to be supreme or greater had ever existed, he would not be understood as supreme or greater; but he would not on that account be any less good, and his essential greatness would in no way be diminished.[1]

According to Anselm, if God did not create anything, there would be nothing that existed in relation to him, and therefore nothing, for example, that God could be said to be supreme or greater in relation to. Supremacy or greatness, therefore, are not said of God substantially, that is, as he exists in himself, but only insofar as there exists a creation for God to be greater than. The relation of supremacy and greatness, in other words, only comes into being with creation.


[1] Monologion 15.

God only utters what he actually creates

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 5

For Anselm, God’s knowledge of his creation in its first instance is not a passive survey of what is merely possible, but an active verbalization or articulation of what he intends to create. Of the two aforementioned models of divine cognition found in Augustine’s De Trinitate, accordingly, it is possible to see Anselm’s doctrine of the divine utterance as interpreting Augustine in favor of the verbal over the visual model. Consistent with this, and unlike the Augustinian ideas (which are generally understood as accounting not only for God’s actual but for all of his allegedly possible creatures as well), Anselm makes God’s utterance encompass only those things he actually does make. This is hinted at in the passage cited earlier from the Monologion when Anselm implies that God’s utterance includes those things that “are yet to exist or already exist,” with no mention of those putative possible things that will never actually exist. Later in the Monologion Anselm is even more insistent on the actualist dimension of the divine utterance when he says that “there can be no word of something that neither existed, nor exists, nor will exist.”[1] Finally, and as we shall examine more fully later, in his unfinished Lambeth Fragments, Anselm explicitly denies the existence of purely possible beings, something that God could but in fact does not make. Coincident, then, with his shift from the Augustinian idea to the Anselmian utterance as the metaphor of choice for creation’s relationship to the divine mind is Anselm’s simultaneous contraction of the available objects of divine cognition to only those things God actually makes. Where Augustinian thinking or intellecting God purportedly has his mind full of those things he can but never will make, Anselm’s speaking or uttering God speaks and hence has knowledge of only those things he actually does make.

[1] Monologion ch. 32. As Visser and Williams have put it, for Anselm, “[i]f God were never to create, he would never utter any creature.” Visser and Williams, Anselm, 128.

Is Word prior to Idea?

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 4

Yesterday I posted on Anselm’s apparent preference of locutio over verbum as his term of choice for God’s knowledge of himself and creation, arguably on account of locutio‘s stronger, active linguistic tones in comparison to the more intellectualist and hence passive connotations of verbum. Tying in with this discussion is John Milbank’s argument for the priority of word over idea in contrast to the more Hellenistic tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas:

But in this reconception of analogy one has to say that the imitation of the divine power spoken of by Aquinas (an imitation which in the elusive yet concrete centre of the Christ-figura and in the eschatological prospect of the spirit is actually an identity with) must also include the creation of language itself, because language does not stand for ideas, as Aquinas thought, but constitutes ideas and ‘expresses’ things in their disclosure of truth for us. In this case language itself in its expressive relation to beings belongs to the analogatum. Language is also ‘like God’, and our linguistic expression mirrors the divine creative act which is immanently contained in the Ars Patris that is the Logos. ‘Analogy of being’ becomes ‘analogy of creation’ because our imitative power is a participation in the divine orginative-expressive capacity (this also accords with a more dialectical conception of the esse/essentia difference). Teleological constraint is here mediated through our sense of the ‘rightness’ of our emergent linguistic product. (Milbank, Word Made Strange, 29)

In a footnote, Milbank continues:

It is in fact with Thomas Aquinas, in relation to both the Trinity and the verbum mentis, that a certain conflation of the forma exemplaris with the imago expressa begins, so transforming the notion of an exemplary idea, such that the idea now only is in its constant ‘being imaged’. Taken further by Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, this development dynamizes our participation in the divine ideas and finally makes our creativity the reflection of the divine rationality. Yet at the same time, teleology remains fully in place, because our ‘art’ is always a ‘conjecture’ concerning the completion of the divine ‘art’.  (Milbank, Word Made Strange, 35n38)

This idea of human art as a ” ‘conjecture’ concerning the completion of the divine ‘art'” fits with my Tolkienian account of Anselm’s understanding of theology as “sub-creative,” that is, as a mere approximation–accurate but never complete–of the inherent logic or inner consistency of revelation and the Christian faith. At the same time, as Tolkien might put it, our theology is always “more” than a mere approximation, but a veritable “effoliation and multiple enrichment” of God’s own work of creation and redemption.