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.

Mental words are active, ideas merely passive

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 3

The extent of Anselm’s revision of Augustine doesn’t end with his substitution of a divine locutio for the Augustinian divine ideas. William Mann, for example, points out that Anselm’s particular choice of locutio to describe the Son through whom God conceives and makes all things

is initially curious; one might have expected verbum for logos. In fact, Anselm also uses verbum. But locutio conveys more clearly than does verbum an aspect of the Son that is important to Anselm. A locutio… is a speech act. But Anselm includes in the notion of a speech act something that may be surprising to modern sensibilities. Thinking is a kind of speaking, an inner speaking: concepts function as inner words in the language of thought.[1]

Like Augustine in his De Trinitate, Anselm saw creation’s pre-existence in God as occurring within the divine verbum, yet it seems it was specifically the spoken character of this verbum that Anselm particularly wanted to stress through his use of the term locutio. This may be seen in one of the earliest critics of Anselm’s theory of the divine utterance, the thirteenth-century theologian Robert Kilwardby. As Kilwardby points out in his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, in which he alludes to an implicit contrast between the verbal and the visual model of cognition found within Augustine’s De Trinitate,

[t]o speak is to point to or refer to something, but understanding is a kind of vision. Making a comparison with seeing, speaking has to do with the thing already seen, and understanding with what is going on in the person doing the seeing…. [L]ike external speaking, inner speaking has the character of an action… Thus it seems that understanding and inner speaking are opposites by definition; and if they are, then Anselm is wrong to say that […] in the supreme Spirit, this kind of speaking is nothing but grasping by thinking (cogitando intueri)…[2]

According to Kilwardby, in short, there is a referentiality, intentionality, transitivity, and implied alterity to the act of speaking that is not (or at least not obviously) the case in the act of mere understanding. As Mary Sirridge has aptly put it in her analysis of Kilwardby’s critique of Anselm, “speaking is active and understanding passive.”[3] One reason for Kilwardby’s disagreement with Anselm, moreover, is his belief in the derivative nature of the speech-act in relation to understanding: speech presupposes a prior knowledge or vision of that which is spoken. In terms of our present thesis, for Kilwardby it is an act of (passive) divine visio that is the prior possibility of any subsequent divine locutio.

[1] Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity,” 264.

[2] Robert Kilwardby, 1 Sent., q. 36, 372-386, cited in Surridge, “Utrum idem sint dicere et intelligere,” 258.

[3] Surridge, “Utrum idem sint dicere et intelligere,” 253.

Anselm’s divine locutio

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

The previous post noted the absence of any explicit reference to or accommodation of Augustine’s doctrine of divine ideas in the writings of Anselm. Instead, in Monologion 10 Anselm develops an alternative that, while partly inspired by Augustine, is nevertheless uniquely his own, the Anselmian doctrine of the divine utterance (locutio):

Now what is that form of things that existed in his reason before the things to be created, other than an utterance of those things in his reason, just as, when a craftsman is going to make some work of his art, he first says it within himself by a conception of his mind? Now by an “utterance” of the mind or reason, I do not mean what happens when one thinks of the words that signify those things, but what happens when the things themselves (no matter whether they are yet to exist or already exist) are examined within the mind by the gaze of thought.[1]

According to Anselm, prior to their making, creatures were nothing on the one hand and yet existed in the reason of God in the form of a divine “utterance” on the other. As Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams observe, given their similar function, “[i]t seems natural at first to suppose that what Anselm calls God’s utterance of creation is more or less the same as what Augustine calls divine ideas,” but Anselm in fact “develops the account in ways that modify the standard doctrine of divine ideas beyond recognition.”[2] As we shall see, for Anselm this divine locutio through which God utters his creation will turn out to be none other than the divine verbum, the eternal Word and Son of God whom Augustine, in his less abstract and more theological moments, as we saw previously, identified as the one true divine likeness of all creation. Given his expression of debt particularly to Augustine’s De Trinitate in the prologue to the Monologion, accordingly, it is perhaps unsurprising that Anselm’s own account of divine exemplarity should be found bypassing Augustine’s more Platonic reckoning of the divine archetype of creation in favor of the latter’s more Trinitarian and Christological formulation.

[1] Monologion 10.

[2] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 124.

God of the Appearances: Does God possess sense-perception?

According to Augustine, the answer is “No,” but according to Anselm, the answer might just be “Yes.” In her study of The Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Epistemology of Anselm of Canterbury, Katherin Rogers argues that, his overwhelming debt and consistency with St. Augustine notwithstanding, Anselm actually seems to differ with the Bishop of Hippo in his theological understanding of sense-perception. For Augustine, Rogers writes,

man is not a true image of God when he is concerned with the senses… The mind is a true image of God only when it contemplates eternal things, and especially when it knows itself as being able to remember, understand, and love God. Augustine… thinks there is no real analogy between the human word born of the senses and the Divine Word.

Enter Anselm, who around 600 years later writes in ch. 6 of his Proslogion: “Therefore Lord, although You have no body, nevertheless You are, in a way, supremely capable of sensing, in that You know all things supremely, though not as an animal knows by its bodily senses.” As Rogers comments:

Anselm’s attitude towards sense knowledge seems rather different from Augustine’s… Anselm sees the ability to perceive sensible things as a perfection. Since it is a perfection God must have it. God does not see with eyes nor taste with a tongue, nonetheless, in knowing everything, He knows how sensible things look and taste. This is quite a remarkable assertion. Not only does it mark a deaprture from the earlier Neoplatonism which denigrates sense knowledge as “mere” appearance, but it suggests far-reaching epistemic implications. In Western philosophy, since ancient Greece, it has been almost a truism that sense data such as color, taste, sound etc. do not reflect truth or render knowledge. The Platonists say this because the world of sense is mutable and, in their eyes, only the unchanging can genuinely be known. The empiricists say it because they hold that the impression of the object perceived is produced as much by the perceiver as by the object. Thus Locke agrees with the ancient atomists that blue, for example, exists, qua blue, only in the mind of the perceiver. There is no blue “out there” in the blue objects. By holding that God has sense knowledge Anselm seems to give the sensible world an objective reality which most Western philosophers have denied to it. (Rogers 35)

We have sense-perception, in short, because in God there exists some perfection to which our powers of sense-perception are a real analogy or likeness. Rogers elaborates:

Surely the way individual things appear is part of the divine plan and so known by God from all eternity. It seems very odd to say that God has number the hairs on one’s head, but that He does not know what color they are. Augustine might say that knowledge of colors, tastes etc. is not really knowledge, that real knowledge must be of superior, non-sensible things. But this would put the sensible world outside of, or below, God’s plan. Augustine certainly thinks that the physical world was created and ordered according to God’s knowledge. Any other opinion is heresy. Thus it seems that the Christian philosopher ought to say that God eternally knows the appearances of things. (Rogers 35-6)

For Anselm, theology really does “save the appearances,” for God is the God of the appearances.

Augustine’s Divine Ideas vs. Anselm’s Divine Utterance

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 1

I’m working and teaching my way through Anselm’s collected philosophical and theological writings at the moment, so this the first in what will likely prove to be a long rash of posts on the sainted Bishop of Canterbury. In keeping with my research interests of late, the underlying theme of my study of Anselm is his contribution to a theology of the possible, of our understanding, that is, of what it means for something to be possible for God.

Our study of Anselm’s theology of the possible begins with his first major work, the Monologion. According to his prologue, Anselm wrote the Monologion in reluctant response to his fellow monks’ request at the Abbey of Bec that he record his thoughts on how to meditate on the divine essence. The one stipulation laid down by them, he says, was that his meditation should make absolutely no appeal to the authority of Scripture. His assignment, accordingly, was to demonstrate “by reason alone” God’s existence, his nature, such attributes as his supremacy, self-sufficiency, eternality, omnipotence, and ultimately even his triunity, and (as he puts it) “a great many other things that we must believe about God or his creation…” The discussion of greatest import to our present interest in his theology of the possible is his account of God’s knowledge of himself and creation, culminating in his doctrine of the Word. Having established that God alone exists in and through himself while all other things exist through God, in chapter nine of the Monologion Anselm observes that, although creation was brought into being from nothing, there is nevertheless a sense in which created things were not nothing before God made them.

But I seem to see something that forces me to distinguish carefully the sense in which the things that were made can be said to have been nothing before they were made. After all, there is no way anyone could make something rationally unless something like a pattern (or, to put it more suitably, a form or likeness or rule) of the thing to be made already existed in the reason of the maker. And so it is clear that what they were going to be, and what sorts of things, and how they were going to be, was in the reason of the supreme nature before all things were made.[1]

Like Augustine, Anselm is concerned to account for the rationality or orderliness of God’s creative act, a rationality he reckons, again, like Augustine, in terms of a “pattern” (exemplum), “form” (forma), “likeness” (similitudo), and “rule” (regula) that “already existed in the reason of the maker” prior to his act of creation. Conspicuously unlike Augustine, the one term that Anselm does not use to account for the pre-existence of creation in the mind or reason of God is the notion of ideas. Despite the pervasive Augustinianism of Anselm’s thought, neither here nor anywhere else in his writings does Anselm invoke the characteristically Augustinian doctrine of the divine ideas.

[1] Monologion 9.