Augustine, the possibility of Anselm

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 3)

Yesterday’s post touched on the role that such conditions as friendship, conversation, and community played in motivating and shaping Anselm’s thought. Even more to the point is Anselm’s testimony in his prologue that, upon reviewing the argument of the Monologion, he was unable to find anything in the work “inconsistent with the writings of the Catholic Fathers—especially with Blessed Augustine’s writings.” If true, the harmony between his conclusions and those of his theological forebears could hardly have been the work of accident or afterthought, but only made possible by a faculty of reason that had first been trained in the school of Scripture, the fathers of the Church, and St. Augustine in particular.[1] Consistent with this is Anselm’s declaration that in the present work he has also sought to avoid teaching anything new, and his invitation to the reader who might suspect otherwise to “first look carefully at the books of On the Trinity by the aforementioned teacher, viz., Augustine, and then let him judge my work in the light of these books.”[2] It is Augustine, as Anselm virtually admits, who has made his own insights, such as they are, to be possible.[3] In the Monologion, then, the proper use of reason within theology is clearly not to stand in judgment of those things taught in Scripture or tradition, but consistent with Anselm’s later expression of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), reason’s role is instead to demonstrate after the fact the rational necessity or coherence—the “ratio fidei,” as he will term it—of those things already or otherwise received by faith.[4]

[1] On Anselm’s debt to Scripture in his reasoning, see, for example, Southern, Saint Anselm, 69-70.

[2] On the influence of Augustine’s On the Trinity on Anselm’s Monologion, see Asiedu, From Augustine to Anselm and Gersh, “Anselm of Canterbury.”

[3] As Southern writes: “the seeds of nearly everything [Anselm] said are to be found in Augustine—but they are seeds, not flowers. Anselm was not a writer of florilegia: his flowers are always his own… Just as he never uses the Bible to provide texts to prove his conclusions, but only to provide a starting point for his meditations, or a premonition of his conclusions, so it is with Augustine. He absorbed Augustine as he had absorbed the Bible: he made them both an integral part of his experience… He looked on himself as an explorer of territory opened up by the Bible and by its great expositer, Augustine. They provided the maps to the country over which he had to find his way under their guidance. He never challenged anything he found in them; but they left him free to find new experiences of the truths they contained, perhaps new proofs of their truth, certainly new ways of expressing their truth.” Ibid., 72-3.

[4] In Sweeney’s striking image of Anselm’s frame of mind, “Thus the discontent, the restlessness, and drive towards understanding is not from reason as the serpent whispering in faith’s ear but from within faith itself.” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 123. For Anselm as much for his later disciple Nicholas of Cusa, it is true that, in Dermot Moran’s words, “in faith all understandable things are enfolded, whereas in knowledge they are unfolded.” Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa and Modern Philosophy,” 185, citing Cusa, De docta ignorantiae 3.11.244.

Friendship, conversation, and the possibility of theology

(The Monologion‘s Theology of the Possible, part 2)

The previous post introduced Anselm’s Monologion with its method of investigating those things believed about God, not through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority, but through “reason alone” (sola ratione). Yet the rational method of the Monologion should not be confused for a modern, methodological rationalism. For our purposes, the latter error might be defined as the possibilistic presumption of a pure, presupposition-less reason, capable of discovering—independently and in advance of all that God has actually made or revealed in creation, Scripture, or tradition—those doctrinal possibilities (if any) to which faith might afterwards be allowed to give assent. On the contrary, Anselm’s Monologion, literally a “speaking to oneself,” while representing a form of rational, theological soliloquy, is nevertheless no isolated inquiry of a presumptuously self-starting, autonomous reason. The first indication and illustration of this, ironically enough, may be seen in the fact that, as Eileen Sweeney has astutely pointed out, Anselm only “undertakes this [rational] method of reflection not on his own initiative,” but on the insistence and direction of his religious cohorts at Bec.[1] In more than one sense, it is the peculiar community in which Anselm existed that made the Monologion for him possible. In his later dialogue on the necessity of the Incarnation, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm captures something of the intellectual debt he felt he owed to his conversations with others when, after professing his insufficiency for the task, he represents his friend and interlocutor Boso as encouraging him thus: “You ought not so much to have this fear as you ought to remember that in a discussion of some problem it often happens that God discloses what at first was hidden.”[2] For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of real-time, informal conversation with friends, or in the later reconstructions of a carefully composed treatise or dialogue—involves far more than the communication of ideas or arguments one already holds to be, but is often itself the means for further theological invention or “discovery.” In David Moss’s summary of the role friendship played in opening up and so making possible Anselm’s own theoretical insights, “[t] he scene of friendship then unfolds, as it were, the hermeneutical path of intelligibility and meaning—as an encounter with Otherness—and this it does as passion and in passion—as, one could say, bidding, appeal, request, supplication, thanksgiving, and precisely not in the fulfilment of any prior transcendental conditions.”[3] In this we have just one small example of the many ways in which Anselm’s thought and writings owe their origins and hence possibility to the very real, extra-rational circumstances of monastic and spiritual friendship, discipline, and devotion in which he lived and moved and had his being.[4] If Anselm came to realize, as we shall see later, that what is ultimately metaphysically possible, even for God, is a function and consequence of what God himself has already made actual, paralleling this insight was his own awareness of the extent to which his rational thought received its possibility from the very real, concrete conditions lying outside of his own self and reason.

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 117.

[2] Cur Deus Homo 1.1.

[3] Moss, “St. Anselm, Theoria, and the Convolution of Sense,” 136.

[4] For a discussion of the necessity for Anselm of not only faith (about which more anon), but also spiritual experience, humility, obedience, and discipline for proper reasoning about divine things, see Visser and Williams, Anselm, 20.

Monologion: Anselm’s rational necessities

(The Monologion’s Theology of the Possible, part 1)

Anselm’s first major theological work, the Monologion, is also the first in importance for laying the foundation of his theology of divine possibility. Composed in 1076 at the behest of some of his fellow monks at the abbey at Bec, the Monologion contains Anselm’s lengthiest reflection on the doctrine of God proper, addressing questions of his existence, his principal attributes, and finally even his triune nature. What his brothers had specifically asked him for was a model “meditation” (meditatio) on what Christians believe about the divine essence (divinitatis essentiae), yet the work was intended to be no ordinary religious or spiritual exercise, as they forbade him to support any of his views on God through an appeal to Scripture or any other authority. Instead, and in keeping with Anselm’s own established practice, they required that he found all his claims about the divine nature only on what “rational necessity” (rationis necessitas) and the very “clarity of the truth” (veritatis claritas) could show to be the case. In the opening chapter of the work, Anselm describes the strategy as one of proceeding “by reason alone” (sola ratione), and goes so far as to conjecture that even a willing unbeliever—someone of average intelligence but otherwise ignorant of what Christians believe about God—could persuade himself of the validity of his arguments. Clearly, the very first possibility taken for granted in the Monologion is its assumption of the rational explicability and defensibility of those truths about God otherwise held by faith.

Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.

[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Why every creature causes ex nihilo

In both his theory and his art, Tolkien probed the metaphysical and artistic possibilities–and also the limits–of finite, creaturely making. As I’ve noted here before, one traditional limit Tolkien took for granted, one that he shared, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas, is the fact that only God has the power to create ex nihilo. We can sub-create, but only God can create. While St. Anselm would doubtlessly concur with this tradition on the essentials, there is nevertheless a sense for him in which God’s rational creatures–and really every creaturely cause–is responsible for making “ex nihilo.” In his explanation of the meaning of God’s making things “from nothing,” Anselm argues by analogy from the way creatures themselves bring things into being “from nothing”:

when we observe a man of very meager means who has been elevated by a second man to great wealth or honor, we say “The second man made the first man from nothing,” or “The first man was made from nothing by the second man.” That is, the first man, who formerly was regarded as nothing, is now esteemed as truly something because of the making of the second man. (Monol. 8, Hopkins trans.)

When a benefactor brings a man from obscurity into a state of wealth or honor, he makes him to be something from nothing, not, to be sure, and as Aquinas might have put it, from nothing absolutely considered, but from a particular kind of nothing, from being nothing in a specific respect (namely with respect to wealth or status). And such is the case, we might say, with every cause: in bringing into being their effects, they cause to be those things which formerly were not. It is from these limited instances of making-from-nothing, finally, that Anselm reasons to the meaning of God’s own act of creating from nothing, in his case, not the limited nothings with which we are familiar, but from the absolute non-being that, admittedly, God alone has the power to overcome. (Aquinas, incidentally, reasons in a similar fashion for the conclusion that God creates ex nihilo in the Summa: every causal “emanation” presupposes the absence of that which is emanated; thus man is emanated from what is non-man, and something white can only emanate from that which was formerly non-white; as God’s act of creation involves the “emanation” of being itself, creation must be from its opposite, namely non-being or nothing–ST 1.45.1.) Instead of the binary logic of an intractable dualism, accordingly, in which divine making–which alone is from nothing–is defined in ontic opposition to creaturely making–which is always from something and never from nothing, what Anselm here indicates is an analogical relationship according to which God creates ex nihilo, and we to varying degrees participate in his creative activity by bringing about that which is from that which it formerly was not. God’s creating ex nihilo is not so much the othering limit to our own making as it is the possibility and source of our own making ex nihilo.

Divine Ideas: God looking at himself looking at creation

One of Anselm’s argument for the utter unity of the divine locutio centers on its status as the supreme truth and likeness, not of the creatures that are spoken through it, but of the divine being by which it is spoken (Monol. 31).[1] Anselm recognizes that, whereas the words we humans mentally speak are the very likeness and image of the extra-mental objects which are conceived through those mental words, the divine locutio cannot be a likeness or image of those things spoken through it, for otherwise the locutio would not be truly consubstantial with the divine being itself. Rather, they are the created things conceived and spoken by the divine locutio that are the likeness and image of it. For the divine locutio to be the supreme truth, it must be perfectly conformed to what supremely and unchangeably exists, namely the divine essence, and this means that that the locutio must be supremely one and unchanging.

Contained in this argument (whether consciously or not) is an implied critique of Augustine’s divine ideas, inasmuch as the latter’s plurality was argued to be necessary in order to account for the plurality of forms found amongst creatures. For Augustine, God must have a different divine idea by which he makes a horse from the idea he uses to make a man, for a horse is different from a man. From the Anselmian perspective, however, this is effectively to make the divine ideas as exemplar causes in the image and likeness of their created effects. Although Augustine argues that it would be irreligious to suppose that God (after the fashion of Plato’s demiurge) looks outside of himself for his plan for creation, there is a sense in which what Augustine has really done is merely relocate or specify the precise vantage point from which God does precisely that: the divine ideas, in short, are God’s looking at himself looking at his (possible) creatures. Given these contortions, it is little wonder that in the fourteenth century William of Ockham, wielding his razor (and in the name of Augustine) would seek to cut through the Augustinian knot by re-interpreting God’s ideas as simply God looking at his creatures. Once again, Anselm endeavors to avoid such later consequences of the Augustinian teaching by more perfectly affirming the divine locutio’s identity as the supreme truth, image, and likeness of the divine essence itself.

[1] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 125.

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)

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.  

When God Puts Himself in a Box

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 18

The vindication of the temporality of time resulting from this picture is indicated in Anselm’s further statement that, although there is a sense in which God does not exist in the ephemeral past, present, and future of our experience, “yet they can in some sense be said of him, since he is present to all circumscribed and changeable things just as if he were circumscribed by the same places and changed by the same times.” Indeed, Anselm could just as well say that God is more present to time than his creatures, inasmuch as his presence has proven to be the very possibility of time. For Anselm, accordingly, God’s eternality is not the acid bath in which the inherent temporality of time is flatened or dissolved, but (properly understood) brings into even deeper relief and sharper focus the texture and angularities of a real creaturely, temporal difference.[1] If anything, time is more rather than less real for God than it is for his creatures. In this way, Anselm arguably achieves a more dialectically uniform and stable doctrine of divine eternity, one that was presaged in such formative predecessors as Augustine, Boethius, and Damian, and yet arguably not worked out in quite the considered and consistent degree as that achieved by Anselm.

[1] Leftow is again helpful here: “For Anselm, God is simultaneously present at discrete, non-simultaneous times, without wiping out their temporal distinction… God, temporal things and times are literally at the same location, and so simultaneous, but are not at the same temporal lcoation, so that times remain temporally discrete.” Leftow, “Anselm: Eternity and Dimensionality,” 183-4.

Eternity as Time’s Possibility

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 17

This inclusive, both/and dialectic of Anselm’s doctrine of divine presence within time invites comparison with I believe to be the more either/or, zero-sum approach of his near contemporary, St. Peter Damian. For Damian, God’s transcendence over time arguably came at the expense of his immanence within time and, as a consequence, at the virtual expense of the reality of time. Because every moment of time is eternally present—and hence permanently and atemporally possible—for God, the passing of time and its “tensedness” is ultimately illusory, a perception limited to our creaturely finitude. Anselm’s doctrine of God’s presence in or with time, by comparison, is appreciable for its opposite tendency, inasmuch as his “penetration” into and effective habitation within a given moment may be seen to fix rather than evacuate it of its inherent temporality. For Anselm, a given moment of time is no banal, temporal possibility which is simply “there” with its content to be either observed or determined (or even re-determined, à la the conventional Damian) by God, for it is only God’s intentional creative presence at and for a given moment that makes that moment to exist in the first place.[1] Put in terms of my thesis on possibility, the temporal order is not an otherwise empty logical or metaphysical space or container that makes God’s presence possible, but it is God’s active, creative presence that brings into being the creaturely possibility that is time.[2] Briefer still, God’s creative presence makes time possible, and not vice versa.


[1] As Leftow puts it, “if God does not exist at some time, there can be no time there at all. So if there are times at all, Anselm concludes, God is there…. Without the present of God’s power, no time could exist… as He is simple, God = God’s power. Hence God is Himself present with His effects.” Leftow, Time and Eternity, 185.

[2] Leftow offers this image: “Anselm’s doctrine of temporal omnipresence would say that God is present where and when His creatures are, in something like the way a field of force is present in an area in which the effets of that field are perceptible…. God is temporally omnipresent because we know that He is the sustaining cause of all time…” Leftow, Time and Eternity, 187.

Both Omnipresent and Omniabsent

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 16

Another discussion in the Monologion meriting some consideration in light of the question of divine possibility is Anselm’s understanding of time’s relation to God’s eternity. A concern I’ve had with Boethius and Peter Damian is their tendency in places to represent God’s relationship to time in terms of a divine surveillance-at-a-distance, as though all of created history were extended before God such that every moment in time was never really past (Damian) or future (Boethius) for God, but always and only “present” to him in his eternity. I would characterize this view as broadly “possibilist” in its treatment of every moment of time as an abstract possibility whose content was for all times observable (Boethius) and even alterable (Damian, as conventionally interpreted) by God. Fortunately, there are significant and ultimately decisive elements in Boethius and Damian’s thought that push toward an understanding of God as more than the mere observer or even implementer of allegedly available, temporal possibilities, but as the designer and providential executor of those possibilities.

As with his doctrine of the divine utterance, what we find in Anselm’s treatment of divine eternity, I submit, are these earlier tensions and ambivalences once again finding themselves dialectically overcome and resolved within a more homogenous understanding of time’s relationship to and presence before God. From his starting principle that God alone exists through himself and all things else exist through him, Anselm plausibly concludes in chapter 14 that

Where he does not exist, nothing exists. Therefore, he exists everywhere, both through all things and in all things. Now no created thing can in any way pass beyond the immensity of the Creator and Sustainer, but it would be absurd to claim that in the same way the Creator and Sustainer cannot in any way go beyond the totality of the things he made. It is therefore clear that he undergirds and transcends, that he encompasses and penetrates all other things.[1]

From God’s necessary metaphysical presence to all things and places, Anselm goes on to infer his equally necessary immanence within all times. As the source of existence, God must exist at every time and place for which there is existence.[2] On the other hand, Anselm acknowledges an equally valid sense in which God, because he can exist at no time and place either in whole or in part, and because God in his eternity has no past, present, or future, cannot therefore exist at any time or any place.[3] God, in short, is both “omnipresent and omniabsent at once.”[4] “How, then,” Anselm asks, “will these two conclusions, which are presented as so contrary but proved as so necessary, be reconciled?”[5] His answer is that, although God is indeed wholly present at a given time and place, this does not prevent him from being equally present at any other time and place. Anselm recognizes that when we speak of God “existing in a place or a time,” we are speaking analogously:

even though the very same expression is used both of him and of localized or temporal natures because of our customary way of speaking, there is a different meaning because of the dissimilarity of the things themselves. When it comes to localized or temporal natures, this one expression signifies two things: that they are present at the times and places in which they are said to exist, and that they are contained by those times and places. But in the case of the supreme essence, only one of these meanings applies, namely, that he is present, not that he is contained by them.

Because of this ambiguity in language, Anselm says his preference would be to say that God

exists with a time or place rather than in a time or place. For saying that something exists in another thing implies more strongly that it is contained than does saying that it exists with that thing. And so he is properly said to exist in no place or time, since he is in no way contained by any other thing. And yet he can be said in his own way to exist in every place or time, since whatever else exists is sustained by his presence so that it does not fall into nothingness.

[1] Monologion ch. 14.

[2] Monologion ch. 20.

[3] Monologion ch. 21.

[4] Leftow, “Anselm: Eternity and Dimensionality,” 185.

[5] Monologion ch. 22.

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.

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.

Creation: The Utterance of God’s Utterance

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 13

The previous post looked at Anselm’s treatment of the question as to what God would have uttered if he hadn’t uttered any creation. The reality, however, is that God of course has uttered a creation, and as Anselm further stresses, it is not by two different utterances but one and the same Word that God “utters both himself and what he made.” In contrast to a later thinker such as William of Ockham, then, who will argue that the divine ideas after which God patterned creation are themselves creatures, Anselm reasons that because it is the Word who is the very “image and figure and character” of God, it follows that “he does not utter creation by a word of creation” but by “by his own Word.”[1] Anselm anticipates the question this naturally gives rise to, namely how God can speak both himself and creation by one and the same Word, “especially since that Word is coeternal with him who utters it, whereas creation is not coeternal with him.”[2] It is in this context that Anselm offers the argument, mentioned earlier, that creation is not just the product of the divine “craft,” but in some sense pre-exists in, and therefore pre-exists as, God’s craft, “as nothing other than the craft itself.” When Anselm says further that “when that supreme spirit utters himself, he utters all created things,” one may detect an implied hierarchy or order of dependence between God’s self-utterance and his creation-utterance: God only speaks creation in and while speaking his Word, but not vice-versa. In other words, the reason God can speak both himself and his creation in one and the same Word is that it is precisely in speaking himself that God first can and then does speak his creation.[3] As was said before, it is the Word who is the very possibility of any possible creation: God utters himself, an utterance that is his Word, and yet an utterance that, in its divinity, undertakes its own uttering and it is that utterance of the divine utterance—an “uttered utterance”—that is creation (in Mark Jordan’s apt summary of Aquinas’s related teaching, creation exists as the “Word’s word”[4]). In more familiar, human terms, God neither speaks himself in “one breath” and then creation in “another breath,” nor are his own self and creation two different things that he manages to say in a “single breath” (and before he “runs out of breath,” as we might say). God is able to speak himself and creation in one utterance because creation is God’s own utterance’s utterance, so that in uttering himself, God necessarily utters anything that his own Word might also (freely) utter. In sum, it is in and while uttering himself that God utters creation. The utterance that is creation is an intonation, reverberation, or even improvisation upon the utterance that is the divine Word. It is in this way that God is able to speak his Word and creation in the same utterance (the utterance that is his Word) without the utterance that is his Word being the same as the utterance that is his creation.

[1] Monologion 33.

[2] Monologion 34.

[3] Visser and Williams, for example, interpret Anselm this way: “Thus, in uttering himself, God utters the creatures that exist in him.” Anselm, 129.

[4] Jordan, “The Intelligibility of the World and the Divine Ideas in Aquinas,” 31

The divine utterance as the possibility of any possible creation

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 12

Yet another difference between Anselm’s divine utterance and Augustine’s divine ideas might be mentioned. Whereas Augustine firmly located the divine ideas in the mind of God, in keeping with the middle-Platonist tradition, Augustine failed to expressly identify the divine ideas with the divine essence itself. Anselm is not so remiss, as he does not hesitate to affirm that the“utterance of the supreme essence” by which God makes all things “is nothing other than the supreme essence.”[1] This unequivocal identification of the divine utterance with the divine essence, moreover, informs Anselm’s views on the question of the unity or plurality of the divine utterance. He reasons: “if this utterance is consubstantial with the supreme nature in such a way that they are not two, but one spirit, then of course that utterance is supremely simple, just as the supreme nature is. Therefore, it does not consist of several words; rather, it is one Word, through whom all things were made.”[2] Much as Augustine did in his De Trinitate, therefore, in the place of a plurality of Augustinian divine ideas, Anslem substitutes the unity of the divine Word as the principle by which God creates all that he does.

Even Anselm’s argument for why the divine utterance, more than being God’s utterance of creation, is first and foremost an utterance of himself, speaks to the question whether God has ideas of merely possible beings. Insofar as the only possible creation contained in the divine utterance is the creation that God actualy makes, if God were never to create, no possible creation would ever be uttered by him. This understandably leads Anselm to ask,

But then if nothing existed apart from him, what would he understand? Would he not understand himself? Indeed, how can it even be thought that the supreme wisdom at some time fails to understand himself…? Therefore, just as that supreme spirit is eternal, so too he eternally remembers and understands himself after the likeness of the rational mind… Now if he understands himself eternally, he utters himself eternally. And if he utters himself eternally, his Word exists with him eternally. Therefore, whether he is thought to exist without any other essence existing, or along with other things that exist, his Word, coeternal with him, must exist with him.[3]

For the Augustinian tradition of divine ideas, by comparison, even if God were never to create, he would always know himself, and in knowing himself, know all the purported ways in which his essence could be (even if it never were) imitated by his possible creatures. Significantly, Anselm does not take this obvious and available route, yet he seems quite aware that his refusal to include merely possible creatures within the divine utterance prompts the question as to what God would speak if he did not speak creation. His answer is that in such a case God would be speaking himself, his divine Word, and that’s all. In Anselm, in short, there is simply no notion of God knowing himself as imitable by his possible creatures. Prior to and apart from God’s actual determination to create, it is the divine Word and the divine Word alone that is the “possibility” of any possible creation.

[1] Monologion 12.

[2] Monologion 30.

[3] Monologion 32.

The Sufficiency of the Divine Locution

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 11

Much more so than with Augustine’s divine ideas, then, Anselm’s divine utterance is an artistic utterance. Indeed, his utterance simply is his art: just as that which God speaks in and by his utterance is said to pre-exist in his utterance, so he argues later on that, insofar as that which God makes according to his craft also pre-exists in his craft, it is to that extent “nothing other than the craft itself.”[1] The divine utterance, in short, is the divine craft, which may remind us of Augustine’s statement (in one of his later, more theological and Trinitarian moments) that the divine Word—whom Anselm, as we shall see momentarily, further identifies as the divine utterance—is the ars dei, the “art of God.” We might also note Anselm’s emphasis in this context on the “sufficiency” of the divine utterance as the paradigm or pattern by which all things were created: “the Creator’s utterance was not collected from or assisted by some other source; rather, as the first and sole cause it was sufficient for its Artisan to bring his work to completion.”[2] While Anselm’s remarks are, as before, directed against Augustine’s own target of there being anything outside of God that he took as his pattern for creation, his assertion of the adequacy of his understanding of the divine utterance to serve as the exemplar cause of creation would seem to no less indict (what Anselm would deem to be) the superfluity of Augustine’s divine ideas, insofar as they presume to provide archetypes for not only what God does, but also allegedly anything he can make. As we shall find Aquinas implying in a later chapter, rather, in the divine Word we have nothing less than a similitudo sufficiens omnium, the one “all-sufficing likeness” of creatures in God.[3]

[1] Monologion 34.

[2] Monologion 11.

[3] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.14.12.

A Divine Loquacity

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 10

As I’ve suggested, Anselm’s theory of the divine utterance establishes a far deeper parallel between divine and human making than that afforded in Augustine’s exemplarism. One implication of Anselm’s metaphysical actualism, touched on previously, after all, is that if the divine utterance excludes (because it denies the very existence of) merely possible beings and includes only those things God actually creates, then the content of God’s utterance, at least where creation is concerned, is directly tied to God’s creative intention and action. Thus, while the divine utterance is still very much prior to the creation that God speaks through that utterance, the directedness or focus of his creational speech—i.e. the fact that what God utters relative to a “possible” creation is none other than what he actually does create—commends a much stronger affinity, not to the Augustinian “knowing-then-making,” but to what Miner describes as the characteristically human artist’s “knowing-through-making.” And while Anselm is unequivocal in his denial of an external source from which God might have “collected” or “assembled” the forms of creation, we might nonetheless wonder if isn’t something like a divine “collecting” and “assembling” by which God fashions these created forms, only from a thesaurus wholly internal to the divine being, namely the divine utterance. Substituting Augustine’s exemplarist voluntarism for his own model of the divine loquacity, therefore, Anselm is able to conceive of God creating this world through an internal utterance that, while derived from nothing outside of God, nevertheless speaks specifically to and for that which comes to exist outside of God. For Anselm, in short, God knows what he knows of creation together with, and in some sense even because of, his determination to make what he makes.