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.

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