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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