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.

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