Is God’s Freedom Univocal with Ours?

Anselm on Freedom, part 2

For the Teacher, then, freedom does not lie, in possibilist fashion, in a supposed ability to range indifferently over the possibilities of sinning and not sinning. What the Teacher does allow, ironically, is the meaning of freedom to range indifferently over the possibilities of divine and creaturely freedom. When the Student responds by asking whether the cases of God and the good angels are not too dissimilar to draw any conclusions about our own freedom, the Teacher answers: “Although the free choice of men differs from that of God and of the good angels, nevertheless the definition of this freedom ought to be the same in both cases, in accordance with the name ‘freedom.’”[1] The assertion of a definition of freedom common to both God and creatures has understandably led a number of scholars to conclude that Anselm affirms a theory of univocal speech about God after all, despite his disavowal of any such possibility in his teaching on God’s transcendence and aseity in the Monologion. If Anselm’s intent, as seems to be the case, is indeed to affirm a univocity of divine and creaturely freedom, the concern is whether, in the very process of defending—over against the Student’s objection—the relevance of God’s freedom to the discussion of creaturely freedom, the Teacher has not effectively reduced God ontically to a mere instance of freedom free of the alleged “ability to sin,” and so have marginalized God from having any ultimate intrinsic significance to the meaning of freedom. Instead of analogically rooting the meaning and possibility of freedom in the actual, concrete reality of God (as I suggested the Teacher started off doing), God’s own freedom is now recast as just one among two possible (divine versus created) modalities situated within a semantically and hence logically prior and more encompassing system of freedom. It was suggested in our earlier consideration of analogy in the Monologion that there is a kind of divine univocalism involved in the Augustinian ideas, according to which God predicates of himself all those possibilities which precede and determine the range and meaning of divine action. In a parallel fashion, the Teacher’s notion of a univocal concept of freedom would seem to establish a prior, abstract possibility of freedom that is supposed to semantically precede and yoke the actual, concrete and specific instances of divine and creaturely freedom. If so, and in some ways even more explicit than the Student’s rejected definition of freedom as the ability to sin and not to sin, it is the Teacher who in fact allows for an effective de-naturing and now even de-theologizing of freedom. As we shall see later, one potential consequence of having brought God thus down to inhabit the same semantic orbit of freedom as his creatures is the way a number of Anselm’s interpreters have understood—incorrectly, in my view—God’s own causal agency as similarly existing and even competing within the same metaphysical plane as the freedom of his creatures. Once freedom has been admitted as a semantically and logically “given” for God, in other words, we should not be surprised to find the freedom of his creatures to be similarly understood as a metaphysical and causal “given” for him as well. A God whose freedom can mean the same thing as his creatures’ freedom, it may turn out, is a God whose freedom can be exercised over his creatures only at the expense and exclusion of their own freedom.


[1] On Freedom of Choice 1. “Quamvis differat liberum arbitrium hominum a libero arbitrio Dei et angelorum bonorum diffinitio tamen hujus libertatis in utrisque, secundum hoc nomen, eadem debet esse.”

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