Anselm’s Scriptural Actualism

In Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word, Eileen C. Sweeney ingeniously suggests that, for all their abstract and speculative subject matter, Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues–On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, and On the Fall of the Devil–actually track the first three major stages of biblical history: creation, the creation of man, and the fall.

The topics of the three dialogues correspond to the first three crucial points of the Christian salvation narrative. De veritate is a consideration of the possibility of created being, of many truths in relation to the one truth. De libertate arbitrii is a consideration of Eden, the finite will as free, having righteousness and able to keep it. De casu is a consideration of the possibility of the fall, of finite being as free but able to will what it ought not. Those views are adumbrated in scripture in narrative form, as a story stretched out over time. Anselm explores these notions of created being and finite will by shifting from scripture’s “horizontal” mode to a “vertical” one. His task, in other words, is the logical derivation of the ese moments and the incoherence of their contraries. The dialogues argue for these moments as logical possibilities… as logically coherent and necessary possibilities.

     In this sense, these works are no less “theological” than Cur Deus homo in the sense that they are no less tied up with the specifically Christian account of the human condition.  (240)

In Anselm’s trilogy of dialogues, in other words, we have a modal commentary of sorts on the first three chapters of Genesis, all of which, of course, prepares for Anselm’s later modal account in Cur Deus Homo on the possibility/necessity of the two events at the heart of the salvation story, the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ.

A couple of additional thoughts in response. The first is how this positions Anselm’s trilogy on truth, freedom, and the fall as not distinct from, but just another chapter in, his overarching project of fides quaerens intellectum, of “faith seeking understanding.” The second is how, in keeping with this, these dialogues may be seen to apply what I have argued previously to be Anselm’s methodological actualism, his recognition, that is, of Scripture as the divine, authoritative, and prior actuality that, when received by faith, afterwards opens up to reason and hence “makes possible” the theological and philosophical investigation of those realities contained in that prior revelation. If so, then there is a very real sense in which even Anselm’s (seemingly) a-Scriptural dialogues on truth, freedom, and the fall are not as speculative and unmoored as they may appear, but represent so many efforts at wrestling and coming to terms with a specifically and concretely Scriptural content.

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