The (Pseudo-)Explanatory Power of the Divine Ideas

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 14

In response to the foregoing criticisms of Anselm’s doctrine of the divine utterance, we may begin by admitting with Visser and Williams that it is indeed easier to see how the already individuated divine ideas can be the cause of the corresponding specificity and particularity of creatures. However, rather than providing an ultimate answer to the question of the origin of plurality and variety within creation, positing divine ideas only seems to push the problem (insofar as it is a problem) back a level. If Anselm’s divine Word, after all, is taken to be an inadequate explanation, at least in comparison to the divine ideas, of the specificity and particularity of creation, we are still left facing the question as to what it is that explains the metaphysical basis of the specificity and particularity of the divine ideas themselves. The traditional, Augustinian answer, once again, is that the divine ideas exist in and are spoken through the divine Word as so many (infinite) ways in which God knows his essence to be imitable by his possible creatures. In the divine Word, in other words, God’s self-knowledge refracts into an exhaustive panoply of possible yet finite permutations of his own perfection. If the divine Word, however, is to be thus allowed as an adequate explanation of the multiplicity and variation of the divine ideas, why not dispense with them altogether and acknowledge (as Anselm does) the divine Word to be the direct exemplar of the creatures themselves? And while this elimination of the divine ideas as superfluous doesn’t by itself, perhaps, advance our explanation of how the specificity and particularity of creation is brought about by the divine Word, from a theological standpoint it at least has the virtue of placing the mystery—and hence locating the vicinity of any future possible explanation, so far as one is to be had—in its proper, Trinitarian place. In Anselm’s case, at any rate, I contend that it is precisely because of his honest dispensing with the pseudo-explanatory, “philosophical” account of divine power and possibility found in the doctrine of the divine ideas, that we find him the more forcefully returning to and meditating on the conceptual resources both available and latent within the doctrine of the Word.

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Some criticisms of Anselm’s doctrine of the divine utterance

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 14

At this point we might pause to take stock of a series of important criticisms that have been levied against Anselm’s doctrine of the divine Word and its corresponding theology of possibility. Visser and Williams have enumerated at least four distinct but related concerns that are worth our consideration. Their first objection is the seeming inability of Anselm’s doctrine of the divine Word, in the absence of a supplementary doctrine of divine ideas, to account for the variety and distinctness of those things created by God. In their estimation,

Anselm deprives himself of the conceptual apparatus needed to say much that is informative about creation in its specificity and particularity. For example, … it does not seem that Anselm can say anything at all specific about the way in which cats imitate the Word differently from dogs, even though it is only by imitating the Word in different ways that they can be different kinds of things. The apparatus of divine ideas, however problematic it might be in other respects, at least offers a clear metaphysical grounding for the differentiation among creatures that all occupy the same level of imitating the Word. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, the Word contains both the idea of Cat and the idea of Dog; some creatures imitate the one idea and others imitate the other. No such explanation is available in Anselm.[1]

If Anselm has little to account for the metaphysical basis of the specificity and particularity of actual creatures, this leads to a second criticis, which is that,

A fortiori he can say even less about the metaphysical status of unrealized possibilities. Someone who accepts a straightforward doctrine of divine ideas can posit ideas of unrealized possibilities—whether of uninstantiated kinds or of merely possible individuals of kinds that do have instances—in the Word.[2]

This leads directly to a third deficiency Visser and Williams find in Anselm’s account, which is that

it is also difficult for Anselm to say unambiguously whether God could have created otherwise than he actually did… The mere fact (if it is a fact) that there are unrealized possibilities… at least opens up the conceptual space necessary to pose the question [of God’s freedom to create otherwise] in the first place. If we cannot say for certain that there are unrealized possibilities, we certainly cannot say determinately whether God could have actualized some of them.[3]

Fourth and finally, they argue:

A further difficulty for Anselm, and the only one on which he comments explicitly in the Monologion, is how to understand God’s knowledge of creatures. God utters creatures—that is, God expresses his knowledge of creatures—by uttering himself, since creatures are “in the Word” by being identical with the Word. The Word is thus the expression of God’s self-knowledge but thereby also an expression of God’s knowledge of creaturs. But again, this seems to account for God’s knowledge of creatures only in the most general way.[4]


[1] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 130.

[2] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 130.

[3] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 130-1.

[4] Ibid.

Creation: The Utterance of God’s Utterance

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 13

The previous post looked at Anselm’s treatment of the question as to what God would have uttered if he hadn’t uttered any creation. The reality, however, is that God of course has uttered a creation, and as Anselm further stresses, it is not by two different utterances but one and the same Word that God “utters both himself and what he made.” In contrast to a later thinker such as William of Ockham, then, who will argue that the divine ideas after which God patterned creation are themselves creatures, Anselm reasons that because it is the Word who is the very “image and figure and character” of God, it follows that “he does not utter creation by a word of creation” but by “by his own Word.”[1] Anselm anticipates the question this naturally gives rise to, namely how God can speak both himself and creation by one and the same Word, “especially since that Word is coeternal with him who utters it, whereas creation is not coeternal with him.”[2] It is in this context that Anselm offers the argument, mentioned earlier, that creation is not just the product of the divine “craft,” but in some sense pre-exists in, and therefore pre-exists as, God’s craft, “as nothing other than the craft itself.” When Anselm says further that “when that supreme spirit utters himself, he utters all created things,” one may detect an implied hierarchy or order of dependence between God’s self-utterance and his creation-utterance: God only speaks creation in and while speaking his Word, but not vice-versa. In other words, the reason God can speak both himself and his creation in one and the same Word is that it is precisely in speaking himself that God first can and then does speak his creation.[3] As was said before, it is the Word who is the very possibility of any possible creation: God utters himself, an utterance that is his Word, and yet an utterance that, in its divinity, undertakes its own uttering and it is that utterance of the divine utterance—an “uttered utterance”—that is creation (in Mark Jordan’s apt summary of Aquinas’s related teaching, creation exists as the “Word’s word”[4]). In more familiar, human terms, God neither speaks himself in “one breath” and then creation in “another breath,” nor are his own self and creation two different things that he manages to say in a “single breath” (and before he “runs out of breath,” as we might say). God is able to speak himself and creation in one utterance because creation is God’s own utterance’s utterance, so that in uttering himself, God necessarily utters anything that his own Word might also (freely) utter. In sum, it is in and while uttering himself that God utters creation. The utterance that is creation is an intonation, reverberation, or even improvisation upon the utterance that is the divine Word. It is in this way that God is able to speak his Word and creation in the same utterance (the utterance that is his Word) without the utterance that is his Word being the same as the utterance that is his creation.


[1] Monologion 33.

[2] Monologion 34.

[3] Visser and Williams, for example, interpret Anselm this way: “Thus, in uttering himself, God utters the creatures that exist in him.” Anselm, 129.

[4] Jordan, “The Intelligibility of the World and the Divine Ideas in Aquinas,” 31

The divine utterance as the possibility of any possible creation

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 12

Yet another difference between Anselm’s divine utterance and Augustine’s divine ideas might be mentioned. Whereas Augustine firmly located the divine ideas in the mind of God, in keeping with the middle-Platonist tradition, Augustine failed to expressly identify the divine ideas with the divine essence itself. Anselm is not so remiss, as he does not hesitate to affirm that the“utterance of the supreme essence” by which God makes all things “is nothing other than the supreme essence.”[1] This unequivocal identification of the divine utterance with the divine essence, moreover, informs Anselm’s views on the question of the unity or plurality of the divine utterance. He reasons: “if this utterance is consubstantial with the supreme nature in such a way that they are not two, but one spirit, then of course that utterance is supremely simple, just as the supreme nature is. Therefore, it does not consist of several words; rather, it is one Word, through whom all things were made.”[2] Much as Augustine did in his De Trinitate, therefore, in the place of a plurality of Augustinian divine ideas, Anslem substitutes the unity of the divine Word as the principle by which God creates all that he does.

Even Anselm’s argument for why the divine utterance, more than being God’s utterance of creation, is first and foremost an utterance of himself, speaks to the question whether God has ideas of merely possible beings. Insofar as the only possible creation contained in the divine utterance is the creation that God actualy makes, if God were never to create, no possible creation would ever be uttered by him. This understandably leads Anselm to ask,

But then if nothing existed apart from him, what would he understand? Would he not understand himself? Indeed, how can it even be thought that the supreme wisdom at some time fails to understand himself…? Therefore, just as that supreme spirit is eternal, so too he eternally remembers and understands himself after the likeness of the rational mind… Now if he understands himself eternally, he utters himself eternally. And if he utters himself eternally, his Word exists with him eternally. Therefore, whether he is thought to exist without any other essence existing, or along with other things that exist, his Word, coeternal with him, must exist with him.[3]

For the Augustinian tradition of divine ideas, by comparison, even if God were never to create, he would always know himself, and in knowing himself, know all the purported ways in which his essence could be (even if it never were) imitated by his possible creatures. Significantly, Anselm does not take this obvious and available route, yet he seems quite aware that his refusal to include merely possible creatures within the divine utterance prompts the question as to what God would speak if he did not speak creation. His answer is that in such a case God would be speaking himself, his divine Word, and that’s all. In Anselm, in short, there is simply no notion of God knowing himself as imitable by his possible creatures. Prior to and apart from God’s actual determination to create, it is the divine Word and the divine Word alone that is the “possibility” of any possible creation.


[1] Monologion 12.

[2] Monologion 30.

[3] Monologion 32.

The Sufficiency of the Divine Locution

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 11

Much more so than with Augustine’s divine ideas, then, Anselm’s divine utterance is an artistic utterance. Indeed, his utterance simply is his art: just as that which God speaks in and by his utterance is said to pre-exist in his utterance, so he argues later on that, insofar as that which God makes according to his craft also pre-exists in his craft, it is to that extent “nothing other than the craft itself.”[1] The divine utterance, in short, is the divine craft, which may remind us of Augustine’s statement (in one of his later, more theological and Trinitarian moments) that the divine Word—whom Anselm, as we shall see momentarily, further identifies as the divine utterance—is the ars dei, the “art of God.” We might also note Anselm’s emphasis in this context on the “sufficiency” of the divine utterance as the paradigm or pattern by which all things were created: “the Creator’s utterance was not collected from or assisted by some other source; rather, as the first and sole cause it was sufficient for its Artisan to bring his work to completion.”[2] While Anselm’s remarks are, as before, directed against Augustine’s own target of there being anything outside of God that he took as his pattern for creation, his assertion of the adequacy of his understanding of the divine utterance to serve as the exemplar cause of creation would seem to no less indict (what Anselm would deem to be) the superfluity of Augustine’s divine ideas, insofar as they presume to provide archetypes for not only what God does, but also allegedly anything he can make. As we shall find Aquinas implying in a later chapter, rather, in the divine Word we have nothing less than a similitudo sufficiens omnium, the one “all-sufficing likeness” of creatures in God.[3]


[1] Monologion 34.

[2] Monologion 11.

[3] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.14.12.

Anselm on Gun Control

In his unfinished “Lambeth Fragments,” St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) distinguishes six different modes in which something can be “brought about”:

For we say that a given thing brings it about that something is, either (1) because it brings about the being of the very thing it is said to bring about, or (2) because it does not bring about the non-being of that very thing, or (3) because it brings about the being of some other thing, or (4) because it does not bring about the being of some other thing, or (5) because it brings about the non-being of some other thing, or (6) because it does not bring about the non-being of some other thing.

Anselm illustrates his six modes through the six different ways in which someone can “bring about” someone’s death:

(1) In the first mode, when someone fatally stabs a person, he is said to bring it about that that person is dead.

(2) …someone who could revive a dead person but does not will to do so… he would not bring it about that the person is not dead. [Anselm admits to not having a very good example of sense (2)]

(3) …someone is said to have killed another, that is, to have brought it about that he is dead, because he commanded that he be killed, or because he brought it about that the killer had a sword, or because he provoked the killing…

(4) …someone killed another person because he did not offer weapons to the victim before he was killed, or because he did not forestall the killer, or because he did not do something such that, if he had done it, the victim would not have been killed.

(5) …someone is said to have killed another because he brought it about that the victim was unarmed by taking away his weapons, or because by opening a door he brought it about that the killer was not locked in where he was being detained…

(6) … someone is charged with killing because he did not, by taking away the killer’s weapons, bring it about that the killer was not armed, or because he did not whisk away the victim so that he would not be accessible to the killer.

In Anselm’s logic of agency, the gun-control debate–at least in its more pragmatic aspect–might be boiled down to a debate between those who are concerned with how gun control kills in sense (5) and those who are concerned with how an absence of gun control kills in sense (6).