A Problem with Divine “Self-Limitation”

It is somewhat commonplace for philosophical theologians to speak of God’s action in terms of a divine “self-limitation.” Irven Michael Resnick does so, for example, when characterizing Peter Damian’s views on divine power:

Again, paradoxically, it seems that self-limitation is a mark of omnipotence just as earlier [in the history of Christian teaching] the incarnation—the self-emptying or self-limitation of the second person of the Trinity (cf. Phil. 2:5-7)—represented a mark of supreme power. For the early Church, for Peter Damian, and for some Scholastic philosophers, the divine nature possesses unlimited power. But it is a nature which wills, and by willing knows, its own limitations. Unconstrained and unchecked, its creative power would surpass our understanding in a brilliant radiance which, uncloaked, would consume our world, or overflow to create an infinite number of others. God’s actualized power, as it is perceived from the standpoint of this creation, appears as a sort of accomodation [sic] to human weakness. It is a power which takes on human form and appearance, yet transcends these in its essential nature. (Resnick, Divine Power, 30-1)

Simo Knuuttila speaks in a similar vein:

It is clear that the temporal results of the actual choice exclude a choice with incompatible temporal results and that God’s possibilities (opportunies) to use his power to realize another choice are restricted by the actual choice. (Knuuttila, Modalities, 66-7).

I’ve suspected for a while that the rhetoric of divine self-limitation and restriction is metaphysically tragic, Neoplatonic, and possibilistic (Resnick, for example, makes it sound like God might blow himself up, or at least blow us up, if he isn’t careful). Reading John Milbank’s The Word Made Strange today has helped confirm this suspicion. Summarizing Giambattista Vico’s correlation between the theory of language and the theory of world origins in pagan and ancient Hebraic cultures, respectively, Milbank writes how for the pagans

‘meaning’, or the sign-relation, is always construed as ‘inhibition of chaos’. Logos is a counter-violence that ‘stays’ an always more primordial violence…. every act of signification, every sign given, is a kind of ‘victory’, a binding or ‘containment’ of the signified, then meaning is fundamentally an obscuring, a suppression…. By contrast, Vico suggests that the Hebrew grammar was always dominated by the ‘more sublime’ and more analogical trope of metaphor. For this grammar, meaning is not a capturing and a containment in the present, but rather a dialectic of presence and absence…. signification is not restriction… (Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 108-9)

To think of God’s activity in the negative terms of a “limitation,” “restriction,” or “contraction,” is not only possibilistic (a divinely voluntaristic “narrowing-in” on one’s options), but it is virtually agonistic and therefore quasi-pagan in its effective depiction of God as struggling against the dark, limitless forces of unreason (now construed as his own, infinite power and its “possibilities”). Creation, and divine action in general, becomes a victory God must achieve over himself. A less possibilist, more actualist understanding of creation, by contrast, should prove more peaceful, as it requires no competition of this world and its possibilities over all the other alleged worlds contending for the attention of divine creative election, or, on the flip-side, no divine suppression or “reprobation” of all the other worlds that “might have been.” Instead, God’s invention of this world, with all its possibilities (the only possibilities there are, because the only ones created by God), is free to occur in the repose that is God’s eternal self-understanding. Creation, consequently, is not the residue left over after God withdraws his presence (as per Milton, for example), like the debris left on shore after a receding tide, but is a truly de novo and ad hoc act of divine self-interpretation. God no more “limits” himself in his act of creation than an artist “limits” himself when he chooses to paint one painting rather than another, for there is no “other” painting that is going “unpainted.” Put differently, creation is not a sacrifice, not a loss–God must become man for that to happen–but is a gratuitous excess and bestowal of a world in which sacrifice can take place.

From Augustine’s theological to Scotus’s logical possibility

The previous post ended with Simo Knuuttila’s observation that, for Augustine, divine possibility, rooted in the divine ideas, was therefore rooted in the divine being or nature in which the ideas resided, and that this was the theological modal paradigm that prevailed until Duns Scotus departed from it in the early thirteenth century, replacing the theological source of possibility with his notion of a bare “logical” possibility.[2] Be that as it may, one may well ask what role the possibilism latent in Augustine’s philosophical theology might have played in the eventual dissolution of his own theological synthesis. As Knuuttila himself observes, for Augustine,

God’s free choice of the universe is conceptually preceded by knowledge about alternative possibilities… [H]is conception of divine possibilities contained an intuitive idea of alternative worlds of which only one is actualized. He thought that God could have made various worlds, and hence he saw God’s eternal decision as free and voluntary… [T]he conception of God as acting by choice between alternative universes… played an important role in the emergence of the intuitive idea of modality as referential multiplicity with respect to synchronic alternatives. This modal paradigm hardly occurred at all among ancient thinkers. It was introduced in early medieval discussions which were strongly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical theology.[3]

Thus, while Augustine viewed the divine ideas as located in, and hence as inherently revelatory of, the divine essence, if Knuuttila is right, Augustine’s possibilism nevertheless involved him at some level in viewing God’s creative activity in the proto-voluntarist terms of a divine will ranging over and electing possibilities that are simply there for God as given, brute facts of his existence. Insofar as we can only conceive of these hypothetical, unrealized possibilities by mentally abstracting from those concrete actualities and potentialities observed in the real world, however, it doesn’t seem that large of a step, however significant, from these already de-existentialized possibilities to the eventual de-theologized, logical possibilities postulated by Scotus. Not surprisingly, we see the beginnings of just such as disjoining of divine possibility from the divine being when Augustine, for example, says that God could do a thing “through his power, but not through his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam).[4]

[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

[2] Conor Cunningham similarly sees the decisive shift in modal thinking as taking place with Scotus when “that which exists was taken outside the divine essence. Consequently, that which was expelled became nothing, a nothing that allowed the invention of a priori realms, and tales of things called logical possibilities (a Scotist fantasy).” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 171.

[3] Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 109.

[4] Augustine, Contra Gaudentium 1.30.35, cited in Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29. In other, more circumspect moments Augustine conflates God’s power with his wisdom and hence, one may suppose, with his justice, as when he says that “God’s Word and Wisdom and Might are all one and the same reality.” Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 6.12.22.

Nihil ex Creatione: On the Invention of Darkness out of Light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, there is a scene in which the angelic Ainur are treated to a glorious, light-filled Vision of the future history of the world. After the Vision is taken away, it is said of the Ainur “that in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought.” Rather than Darkness being the prior condition and possibility of Light, in other words, it is Light that it is the prior condition and possibility of Darkness as its negation. One might wonder, what implications might this have for thinking about the doctrine of creation ex nihilo?

Heidegger claimed that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was the metaphysical question. Given the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, Christians would seem to have good prima facie grounds for agreeing. First there was nothing, then there was something: surely it is the something that bears the metaphysical “burden of proof,” that it is something rather than nothing that needs to explain itself.

While there is a sense in which this is obviously true, there may be another sense in which it is the something which (paradoxically) brings into being with itself the possibility of nothing; that until you have a something, there is not anything, not even nothing. Conor Cunningham hints at something like this when he says that “Before the opposition of being and nothing there is the difference of the Trinity” (Genealogy of Nihilism 199). I’m accustomed to thinking of the difference within the Trinity as the archetype for the distinction that exists between God and what God makes: no intra-Trinitarian difference, no Creator-creature difference. If Cunningham is right, however, the difference amongst the persons of the Godhead is so profound that it is what provides us even with the basis for the difference between the being that God creates and the non-being “from” which he makes it. The difference between something and nothing, in other words, is a Trinitarian difference. What this further suggests is that this difference between something and nothing is not something that is a given for God, but is itself a gift of God (to use yet another of Cunningham’s distinctions). God creates, in other words, not only something, but in creating something, he brings along with it into being the very opposition (i.e., antithetical difference) between something and nothing. There would seem to be a valid sense, then, in which creation is not just from nothing, but that nothing is also from the something that is creation–not just creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. In terms of our above point about darkness and light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, nothing is not the antecedent condition and possibility of something, but it is a created something that is the antecedent condition and possibility of their being nothing. 

The Counter-Nihilism of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle tells the story of a perfectionistic and curmudgeonly painter named Niggle (a bit of a self-parody on Tolkien’s part) who attempts a life-like (and nearly life-size) portrait of a living tree, but who only really succeeds in completing a single, solitary leaf before his project is prematurely interrupted when he is whisked away on his “long journey” (an allegory of death). Although Niggle’s agonizing and obsessive efforts on behalf of his tree, in retrospect, seem to have been for naught (especially as he has to unlearn, in his new purgatorial state, his former neglect of his neighbor Parish for the sake of his art), Niggle is eventually promoted to a more paradisiacal state (not yet Paradise itself, which is still future for Niggle) where he discovers his “tree,” no longer in mere imagination, but in real, actual existence. The Tree afterwards becomes the center of a bucolic scene, tended by both Niggle and Parish (and titled “Niggle’s Parish”) where future weary travelers can come and convalesce. Thus, while this is by no means the central drama of the work, one movement recorded in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle is the movement from a man meticulously trying to “describe” a leaf via his art, only to leave behind and eventually have to learn to renounce his obsession, to at last being given back not just his leaf, or his unfinished tree, but to have them elevated to level of primary existence itself. As Niggle humbly articulates his astonishment at such grace, “It’s a gift!”

Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism has an interesting discussion of the nihilistic tendencies of modern philosophical and scientific discourse that (unintentionally, it would seem) provides an acutely apropos commentary on the very different metaphysical (because ultimately theological) perspective of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. Cunningham writes:

We ‘moderns’ continually betray the operation of a given within our discourse. It is this given which re-enacts the logic of the fall… Any description that modern discourse proffers will enact such a disappearance [of the thing describes. Let us see why.

An example may help. If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every ‘word’. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and sub-structures. The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. (Here we witness a line running from Scotus to Descartes and from Descartes to Kant, no doubt with significant differences remaining.) The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored.

Any difference we find in a being, or in the leaf, will fail to register, except at the virtual level of data…. [T]he nihilistic form of modern discourse will be unable to provide criteria for this selection [of the leaf from its branch, from its tree, and from its existent materiality] and will be unable to provide criteria for this selection and will be unable to provide real difference, individuation, specificity and so on… The leaf, which is there, is not a real leaf, but simply a formal distinction, arbitrarily but successfully constructed, or, more accurately, generated by systems of explanatory description. (These can be formal, conceptual, idealistic, empirical…)  (172-3)

What would the opposite approach look like, Cunningham asks?

It would look like the immanent–a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseum)…. [O]nly through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be. (173)

Modern science and philosophy, in other words, are like Niggle’s art: on their own (in their “immanence”), they reduce to nothing, and so lose the very things and world they try to describe. Sacrificed to, so as to be “mediated” by, the divine transcendence, they regain a more radical immanence yet, an immanence that is the “gift” of existence itself.

Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

For Derrida, John Milbank writes (The Word Made Strange), human writing is actually prior to human speech: “Speech, according to Derrida, tends to make us imagine that all meaning is fully ‘present’, in the manner that the speaking self and her or his interlocutor appears to to be. It is this phenomenon which encourages the further delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.” (For an example of this “delusion” of the priority of idea over linguistic expression, see my recent post on Robert Kilwardby’s critique of St. Anselm.) For Derrida, this realization “ends the Platonic domination of Western culture in which the illusion of the fully present idea encourages the belief that we can grasp reality in its totality.” But while Derrida is therefore “anti-Platonic in the sense that he takes the signifying trace to be an absolutely original moment,” Milbank acutely observes that, in another sense, Derrida “secretly remains Platonic…” For Plato, after all, “any realization of the idea in the concrete sign is taken as a lapse from an original completeness.” For Derrida, however, the fact that there simply is no original idea, only an original sign whose meaning is itself mediated and so deferred by yet another sign, and so on, means that the same tragic “‘lapse’, involving deception and concealment” lamented by Plato in the concrete sign is held to no less infect the origin of meaning.

It was against this Platonic, but now also Derridaean tragic metaphysics that I pitted Tolkien’s own approach to myth and meaning in a post from some time back, which I repeat here. One significant point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). What thinks accounts overlook, however, is that for Plato, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine, and without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

To return, then, to the above discussion of Derrida and Plato, one might say that Tolkienian myth (not unlike the Anselmian locutio), through an understanding of the original donum that is God’s gift of creation ex nihilo, achieves a true “supplement at the origin,” and a différance that makes a difference.

Divine Thinking is a Divine Speaking

G.R. Evans comments at some length on how, for Anselm, divine thinking is a kind of divine speaking:

Anselm introduces [in Monologion 10] the idea of ‘talking’ (locutio). In succeeding chapters we often find thinking and and speaking apparently being used interchangeably… One passage in particular, in Monologion 63, suggests a close association in Anselm’s mind between talking and thinking… ‘For when the Supreme Spirit “speaks” in this way, it is the same same as when he perceives by thought, just as the “speaking” of our own minds is nothing but the act of reviewing our thinking.’… Here, it seems, thinking is envisaged as something more than a still activity, in which we simly contemplate the object of thought; and locutio, too, involves some sort of movement, a reviewing of thought, a process perhaps of bringing it into focus. The exact sense is by no means clear, but there can be no doubt about the clsoeness of association between the two in Anselm’s mind. When God expresses himself by speaking his thought, he creates: ‘So that I may consider, if I can, his speaking, through which all things were made’ (ut de eius locutione, per quam facta sunt omnia); ‘There is one Word, throug hwhich all things were made’ (est unum verbum, per quod facta sunt omnia). It is plain enough, then, that thinking and  talking are closely allied activities for Anselm and almost always when he mentions either activity in the Monologion, he considers both their human and their divine application. What he has to say about ‘thinking’ about God will tell us a good deal about his view of the problem of ‘talking’ about God… (Evans, Anselm on Talking About God, 23-4)

The Ideas are the Possibles

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

In overview, then, the divine ideas are those principles which account for the rationality and hence wisdom and non-arbitrariness of God’s creative and providential activity: when God acts, being good and wise he necessarily acts according to a preconceived plan, and these plans are the divine ideas. Implicit in this view, accordingly, is the notion that what is possible for God to do or make is determined by his ideas: God can do or make anything for which he has a divine idea, making the ideas the origin or source of divine possibility. Inasmuch as the ideas are located nowhere else than in the divine mind and essence itself, it follows that God’s own being is ultimately the origin and source of divine power and possibility. As Simo Knuuttila has put it, for Augustine the ideas provide an index or register of

all finite beings which could serve as partial imitations of the highest being. The ideas are divine thoughts and refer to possible actualization in the domain of mutability. They define the finite modes of imitating the infinite divine being. In this sense the possibilities have an ontological foundation in God’s essence… This was the dominating conception of modal metaphysics until Duns Scotus departed from it.[1]

[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Divine Ideas

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 1

The person whose name has become almost synonymous with the tradition of theological exemplarism in the Christian west is, of course, the good Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (354-430). Perhaps the central doctrine where a theology of the possible is concerned is Augustine’s famous and influential teaching on the divine ideas which witnessed the effective Christianization of Plato’s theory of forms, placing them within the mind of God himself. Augustine’s fullest and most direct treatment of the subject, and the one that would serve as the chief patristic source on the topic throughout the subsequent Middle Ages, occurs in the forty-sixth of his Eighty Three Different Questions (De Diversis Quaestionibus LXXXIII).[1] His brief but formative discussion opens with Plato whom he identifies as the first to have used the name ideas, but not the first to have grasped the universal, divine reality signified by the term, something Augustine believes always and everywhere to have been understood by men deserving the title “wise.”[2] Augustine takes inventory of the some of the other names given to the ideas—“forms” (formae), “species” (species), and “reasons” (rationes)—using the latter in particular to characterize the ideas as the “original and principal forms of things, i.e., reasons, fixed and unchangeable, which are not themselves formed and, being thus eternal and existing always in the same state, […] contained in the Divine Intelligence.” Eternal and unchanging, it is through and by the ideas that “everything which does come into being and pass away is said to be formed…. It is by participation in these that whatever is exists in whatever manner it does exist.” After summarizing how the rational soul comes to know the ideas—namely through an act of divine illumination which he describes as a “certain inner and intelligible countenance” possible only after the soul has been made “holy and pure”—Augustine gives his influential argument for both the existence and the multiplicity of the divine ideas. No devout and religious person, he says, would deny that those things existing in their own, natural order, have God as their cause, or that God is the cause not only of the things themselves but also of their order and the laws of operation. Nor, having admitted this much, would anyone say that God has created these things and their order without any kind of rational plan. Having created all things according to such a plan, moreover, it is absurd to think that God created distinct individual things, such as a man and a horse, according to the same rational plan. Everything, Augustine concludes, must therefore have been created according to a rational plan, reason, or idea unique or proper to each thing. Having thus established the existence and plurality of the ideas, Augustine returns to the question of the location of the ideas, namely the divine mind of God, asserting that it would be “sacriligious” to suggest that God had to look to something outside himself to get the pattern for what he was going to create.[3]

[1] Boland, Ideas in God, 38-9, 47.

[2] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, trans. David L. Mosher (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 79-81.

[3] It is tempting to assume that Augustine saw himself as critiquing Plato’s Timaeus here, which, as we have seen, mythically represents the demiurge as looking to a reality apparently distinct from himself, namely the “eternal model,” for the plan of creation. It is important to realize, however, that Augustine didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the Timaeus but knew him through the textbooks of later Platonists who, like Augustine, also placed the ideas in the mind of God. As Vivian Boland suggests, Augustine probably thought that the notion of the divine ideas in the mind of God was the authentic teaching of Plato himself. Boland, Ideas in God, 45-6.

Abelard: Multiplying and Metaphorizing the Anselmian Locutio


If Anselm replaced Augustine’s plural divine ideas with the singleness of his divine locutio, Peter Abelard, in the following generation, marked a reversion back to the former Augustinian pluralism. In the process, not coincidentally, he reduced Anselm’s notion of a divine locutio to that of a mere metaphor. Tetsuro Shimizu writes:

two notable differences can be observed between Abelard and Anselm. First, Abelard only refers to ‘formae’ in the plural, and seems unaware of oneness of form or locution in God. Secondly, for him, neither the act of understanding in the human mind nor the form(s) in God are word, or locution in its proper sense, and if an authority refers to them as words, it is a metaphorical expression of thoughts or understandings. For instance, in the Theologia Christiana, Abelard explicitly claims what one may call a ‘translatio-theory’; that is, when a mental conception is called a ‘word’, it is not in accordance with the proper meaning of ‘word’, but in its transferred/metaphorical meaning (translato vocabulo). By this interpretation he can admit the existence of forms in the mind of God before creation without conceding them to be God’s words, or Word. (Tetsuro Shimizu, “Word and Esse in Anselm and Abelard,” in G.E.M Gasper and H. Kohlenberger, eds., Anselm and Abelard: Investigations and Juxtapositions (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies [2006]), 194-5)

Static Ideas, Active Locution

Yet another scholar highlighting the active character of the Anselmian locutio, Tetsuro Shimizu writes: 

“This idea of Anselm is in a sense remarkable, for it has traditionally been said—as Anselm himself says—that God created the world by His word or ‘speaking’ (Monol. cap. 12), or the Son is the Father’s word or ‘speaking’ (Monol. cap. 39-42). It was also said that the forma of each created thing was in God before creation as a word or ratio, but this was explained with a static image, e.g., as a primordial idea, and not as active locution. By contrast, here Anselm refers to this form as God’s ‘speaking’, which means that he explains the form in God not as a static knowledge residing in the memory, but as an act of thinking something. Here we can recognize the first aspect of the relationship between word and thing. There happened speaking [sic] something in God, but the object of speaking was not there. By apprehending the point as speaking and not as word, the emphasis is put on the side of the act of speaking, or the agent, and not to the thing or fact that is spoken of.” Tetsuro Shimizu, “Word and Esse in Anselm and Abelard,” in G.E.M Gasper and H. Kohlenberger, eds., Anselm and Abelard: Investigations and Juxtapositions (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies [2006]), 180.

Creation as Divine Extempore

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 22

Despite Anselm’s exchange and preference of locutio for Augustine’s verbum, because of his similar emphasis on the singleness or simplicity of the Word by which God speaks both himself and creation, Boyle sees Anselm as likewise falling almost entirely within the Augustinian verbum tradition. As she characterizes the tension at the heart of Anselm’s account, the latter “recognized no grammatical inconsistency in terming the divine lovgoV locutio, then claiming that this locutio consists of one, single word.”[1] Boyle’s implied criticism of Anselm, however, seems both unwarranted and unnecessary: for starters, one could hardly expect as orthodox a writer as Anselm to countenance the idea of the divine lovgoV as being more than one (surely Boyle wouldn’t suggest that Anselm should have used locutio in the plural), and what is more, her dismissal of Anselm seems to miss the point, inasmuch as the problem (such as it is) with translating lovgoV as verbum was never the latter’s singularity but the kind of thing (namely a mere word) that it implied the divine lovgoV to be a singular instance of. A more fair and favorable construction of the Anselmian locutio, therefore, might be as follows. We have already seen how Anselm’s purpose behind his choice of locutio, in part, is to stress the linguistic and hence active side of the Augustinian verbum over its more visual, intellectualistic, and hence passive side. If so, this correlates broadly with Boyle’s indictment of verbum as a “single word, abstracted from the discourse which sermo means and its implied context of an audience,”[2] and her identification of verbum as an appropriate rendering of lovgoV only if one first accepts the questionable “Platonic dictate that the morpheme is the basic unit of language, and meaning, the computation of such signs.”[3] For Anselm, by contrast, one might say that it is precisely the unity of the divine Word that helps inspire him to see the meaning and identity of creation, not in terms of a possibilistic construction of prior divine ideas (the Platonic, “divine morphemes,” as it were), but as an organic, authentic, ad hoc and de novo (and in that sense even extemporaneous) “eloquent oration,” in which the creational speech as a whole is only possible in and with its component parts, and its parts are only possible through (because concreated with) the whole. Boyle’s observation as to how sermo, moreover, as the divine speech or conversation, more obviously implies the presence of an audience or conversation partner, comports well with the metaphysical actualism of the Anselmian locutio, according to which God’s knowledge of creation is never a merely passive, immanent, and intransitive visio of pure possibilities, but is more like a speech-act that has its terminus outside itself in the thing spoken. Thus, while Anselm may not have exactly “recover[ed] the Christian patrimony of sermo,” I submit that in his doctrine of the divine locutio we have not just the beginnings of, but significant progress towards an answer to the important question with which Boyle concudes her article: what might a theology of Christ understood as the sermo or “eloquent discourse” of God look like?

[1] Boyle, 167.

[2] Boyle, 165.

[3] Boyle, 168, citing Plato, Cratylus 421d-427d.

Christ as Sermo, not Verbum, Speech, not Word

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 21

Another perspective on the significance of Anselm’s use of locutio might be to see the latter not just as a particularly linguistic interpretation of the Augustinian verbum, but as hearkening back to an even more ancient but long supresssed mode of translating the logos of John 1:1. As Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle has shown, the earliest and almost standard Latin translation of logos among the early church fathers until the fourth century was not verbum (which means a single word), but sermo, a word meaning an informal conversation or ordinary speech, and henc a more appropriate rendering of lovgoV, whose denotations include “speech: a continuous statement, narrative, oration; verbal expression or utterance; a particular utterance or saying; expression, utterance, speech regarded formally.”[1] Boyle speculates that the reason verbum came to be the preferred translation of lovgoV basically from Augustine onward (though Erasmus, Calvin, and Beza all made a return to using sermo) was owing to “a fusion or confusion of the doctrine of Christ as revelation (lovgoV) and as the only-begotten (monogenhvV) so that one Son has been conceptualized as one Word.”[2] Commenting on Augustine in particular, Boyle writes:

Concerned to distinguish God’s Persons against the Modalistic claims of Sabellius and others, Augustine’s argument lapsed into a prblematic computation which he inherited from his adversaries. Whereas he might have argued that the one Son is one Oration, he understood the Son as the Word, the Father’s single undivided utterance. Would oratio or sermo have compromised the only-begotten Son any more than the unity ofa discourse is compromised by its composition from many words? A brilliant rhetor, Augustine did not develop a theology of the Son as copious discourse (lovgoV), the Father’s full and eloquent oration.[3]

[1] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Sermo: Reopening the Conversation on Translationg JN 1,1,” Vigilae Christianae 31 (1977): 163-4.

[2] Boyle, 166.

[3] Boyle, 166. Boyle further cites the argument of Kenneth Burke, who “reads in Augustine’s conversion an attachment ot the singel Word in deliberate repudiation of his career as a rehtor, a salesman of many words, in The Rhetoric of Religion (Boston 1961) 114.” Boyle, 166n39.  

Anselm Contra Double-Predestination

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 20

Although most often associated with the post-Reformation era, the “double predestination” debate actually has its origins in the early ninth century when a Benedictine monk, Gottschalk of Orbais, interpreted Augustine as having taught a form of double predestination. Eriugena took up the task of refuting Gottschalk, but his own account of predestination proved just as worrisome as Gottschalk’s. In his treatise on predestination, De concordia, Anselm also briefly weighs in on the issue. While Anselm is accepting of the use of the word predestination to describe God’s sovereignty over evil, he nevertheless insists that God’s causality with respect to such instances is manifestly different than when God’s brings about the good. He writes:


predestination is not only of good things. We can also speak of predestination of bad things, in the same way that God is said to bring about the bad things that he does not in fact bring about, on the grounds that he permits them. For God is said to “harden” someone when he does not set him free from temptation. So it is not inappropriate if we say in this sense that God predestines the wicked and their evil deeds when he does not rectify them and their evil deeds. But he is said to foreknow and predestine the good in a stricter sense, because in them he brings about both what they are and the fact that they are good, whereas in the evil he brings about only what they are essentially, not the fact that they are evil, as was said above. (De concordia 2.2)

Anselm, Mr. Sola Scriptura

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 19

The Reformed apologist and theologian Cornelius Van Til once remarked that “The Bible is … authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” In saying this, however, Van Til was merely echoing St. Anselm, who in his treatise On the Harmony of God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Grace with Free Choice (De concordia), offers this little gem on Scripture’s authority over reason:

Even if by reason we say something that we cannot point to explicitly in Scripture, or prove from what Scripture says, it is by Scripture that we know whether we should accept or reject it. For if it is a conclusion of straightforward reasoning and does not contradict anything in Scripture (since just as Scripture opposes no truth so too it gives aid to no falsehood), we accept that conclusion on the authority of Scripture precisely because Scripture does not deny what is being said according to reason. But if Scripture is unmistakably opposed to our opinion, then even if our reasoning seems unassailable to us, we must not think it is supported by the truth in any way. And so it is in this way that Holy Scripture contains the authority of every conclusion of reason: by either explicitly affirming it or in no way denying it. (De concordia 3.6)

In terms of an Anselmian theology of the possible, we may say that it is Scripture that is “reason’s possibility,” the possibility that is reason.