Impassibility, or ‘Suprapassibility’? Christ’s Divine Nature as the Possibility of His Human Nature

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 7.

After an interlude in which Boso mounts an effective criticism of the Ransom Theory of Atonement (ch. 6-7), when Anselm presses him to state what it is precisely that people find in the doctrine of the Incarnation to be contrary to reason, Boso reiterates the earlier aesthetic objection with now an additional, economic twist: “that the Most High descends to such lowly things, that the Almighty does something so laboriously” (ch. 8). This time, surprisingly, instead of countering with an argument for the fittingness of God doing such things, Anselm responds by conceding the objection, all the while denying that it was the divine nature rather than the human nature of Christ that endured such labor and lowliness. According to Anselm, “For without doubt we maintain that the divine nature is impassible—that it cannot at all be brought down from its exaltation and cannot labor in what it wills to do… Therefore, when we state that God undergoes some lowliness or weakness, we understand this to be in accordance with the weakness of the human substance which He assumed, not in accordance with the sublimity of His impassible nature.” Anselm reprises here his position on divine impassibility from Proslogion 8, where he had argued that, because God has no passions and hence can have no “heart sorrowful out of compassion for the wretched—the very thing which being merciful is,” it follows that while God may be merciful “from our point of view” and in our experience of his “effects,” he is not merciful in himself or in his own “experience.” Yet Anselm’s argument may be set in contrast with his own discussion of divine sense perception only two chapters earlier in the Proslogion. Although God does not have a body, Anselm reasons, because sense perception is ordered towards knowledge, and “whatever in some ways knows is not unsuitably (non inconvenienter) said in some way to perceive,” and because God knows all things, God may be said not to lack sense perception so much as to be “supremely able to perceive” (Pros. 6). If so, then by the same reasoning we might conclude, contrary to Anselm, that insofar as creaturely passions such as mercy and vicarious suffering are ordered towards love, and God is love, neither should it “unsuitably be said” that God is merciful or that, in the Incarnation, there is a sense in which even the divine nature itself “undergoes some lowliness or weakness.” If it involved a created perfection, after all, for Christ’s human nature to experience these things, and if all created perfections preexist in the divine being (as Anselm argues, for example, in Monologion 9), then at some level we must affirm that all the goodness and sacrifice involved in the course of Christ’s human experience preexisted—albeit in an eminent and impassible, or as we prefer to say, superpassible fashion—there as well. On Anselm’s own theological metaphysics, in sum, it is what the divine nature of Christ is that is the foundation of every creaturely possibility, including the possibilities of Christ’s human nature.

Is Aesthetic Fittingness at Odds with Rational Necessity?

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 6.

To Anselm’s list of the ways in which the Incarnation is fitting, Boso responds by invoking once again Anselm’s theology-as-art metaphor, stating that Anselm’s account amounts only to so many “beautiful pictures, as it were” (pulchra et quasi quaedam picturae suscipienda sunt), but that without “a solid foundation upon which they rest, they do not seem to unbelievers to suffice for showing why we ought to believe that God was willing to suffer these things of which we are speaking” (ch. 4). Instead, Boso insists that “first of all we must exhibit the truth’s firm rational foundation, i.e., the cogent reasoning which proves that God should or could have humbled Himself to undergo those things which we proclaim,” and only this has been done should such “considerations of fittingness … be set forth as pictures of this body-of-truth.” According to Boso, showing the aesthetic fittingness of a belief is one thing whereas demonstrating its rational necessity is something else entirely, a view that some scholars have interpreted Anselm to share in and therefore as determining the structure of the subsequent argument of the dialogue.[1] As we have already seen, however, the aesthetic perspective of the Cur Deus Homo is one that Anselm commits himself to before the fictional framework of the dialogue even begins, and as I further argued, the whole criterion of aesthetic fittingness is one that is indissociably bound up with his view that such theological investigations can at best approximate an otherwise unfathomable truth and therefore only ever attain an at most provisional kind of necessity or certainty. Corroborating this interpretation, moreover, is that in his reply to Boso, Anselm says nothing that would concede to Boso the validity of his distinction between mere theological word-pictures on the one hand and putatively more “rational” considerations on the other. Instead, he merely reasserts his principle that fittingness comes with it its own form of necessity: “Do not the following considerations,” Anselm rejoins, “seem to constitute a very cogent argument for why God ought to have done those things about which we are speaking?: viz., that the human race—His very precious work—had utterly perished; and it was not fitting that God plan for man should be completely thwarted; and this plan of Gods’ could not be carried out unless the human race was set free by its very Creator.” In the following chapter, finally, it is not Anselm who yields to Boso’s distinction between necessity and fittingness, but in his plaintive question as to whether there was not a “much more tolerable” (multo tolerabilius) way in which this liberation might have been accomplished, it is Boso who yields to Anselm’s identify of necessity with fittingness (ch. 5).

[1] Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams express this view in their critique of Brian Leftow’s interpretation of the argument of the Cur Deus Homo along aesthetic lines when they argue that, for Anselm, “appeals to what is fitting are superfluous from a strictly philosophical point of view; Anselm does not use them to establish the truth of the Christian account of redemption, but to show the attractiveness of that truth once it has been established. Indeed, Boso insists from early on in Cur Deus Homo that Anselm not appeal to considerations of fittingness as though they could serve as independent philosophical considerations in favor of the Christian account of redemption. Anselm tries to use such considerations in response to Boso’s initial statemnt of unbelievers’ objections to the Christian account, but Boso immediately rejects them as unpersuasive… In deference to Boso’s complains, Anselm does not raise the ‘poetic parallels’ that Leftow cites from Cur Deus Homo until after he has established that it is necessary for God to become incarnate and lay down his life as recompense for human sin.” Visser and Williams, Anselm, 219. Counter to Visser and Williams’s latter claim, however, and in addition to the argument I make presently, Anselm continues to appeal to considerations of fittingness throughout the remainder of book one of the Cur Deus Homo.

Cur Deus Homo: A Tale of Two Aesthetics

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 5

Anselm’s stress on the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement is fitting for a further reason, which is that, as Boso goes on to indicate, much of the case against these doctrines turns on a similarly aesthetic objection to them. In Boso’s words, “The unbelievers who scoff at our simplicity raise against us the following objection: that we dishonor and affront God when we maintain that He descended in to the womb of a woman, that He was born of a woman, that He grew, being nourished by milk and food for human beings, and—not to mention many other things which seem to be unsuitable for God (multa alia taceam quae deo non uidentur conuenire)—that He experienced weariness, hunger, thirst, scourging, and (in the midst of thieves) crucifixion and death” (ch. 3). Anselm’s response to Boso’s aesthetic objection to the Incarnation, however, is to posit an even more insistent counter-aesthetic, as he ticks off a litany of ways in which the salvation accomplished through the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ perfectly corresponds to the story of humankind’s original rebellion and fall. As Anselm protests, “We do not at all dishonor or affront God,” but instead praise him for his manifest mercy, goodness, love, and grace in saving us in a manner so “appropriate” (convenienter) and “proper” (oportebat), and concludes that what we have here is “manifest a certain inexpressible beauty (inenarrabilem pulchritudinem) in our redemption’s having been accomplished in this manner.” Fundamentally at issue in the Cur Deus Homo, in other words, is two conflicting and irreconcilable theological aesthetics or visions of what is and what is not fitting for God to do.

Bad Theologians as Bad Artists

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 4

In his argument for the necessity of the Incarnation in the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm describes the subject matter of the present inquiry as “Him who is beautiful in appearance above the sons of men” and so “adorned” with a divine “rationale which exceeds human understanding.” For this reason, he confesses to feeling a certain burden that the form of his own argument should appropriately approximate the beauty of God’s own reasoning manifested in his accomplishing so marvelous a salvation. Anselm’s “fear,” he says, is “that just as I am accustomed to become indignant with untalented artists when I see the Lord Himself portrayed with an uncomely countenance, so it may happen to me that I provoke indignation if I presume to explore such an elegant topic by an inelegant and contemptible discourse.” The incompetent theologian, in other words, is like an inept artist, depicting what is beautiful beyond compare as something ugly and base. Anselm’s interlocutor, Boso, building on Anselm’s metaphor, seeks to allay his concerns by noting that the latter has already given license to those who can “to say these things better,” and reminds him that neither has he forbidden anyone who “does not like your discourse from writing more beautifully” himself. It is at this point that Anselm makes his caveat, stated earlier, that although his purpose is to prove the Incarnation “rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully” (ch. 2). As the artist-theologian, in sum, Anselm’s task is to represent the beauty and intelligibility of the faith as best he can, all the while continuing to wait in humility and hope for an even greater—both logically and aesthetically—representation of the “deeper rationale” (altiores rationes) yet to be unveiled. For Anselm, the reason the “rational” necessity of the Incarnation is only ever at most an aesthetic or “fitting” necessity is that, given the finitude of human reason, it is for the present always at most a “provisional” or “possible” necessity.

Cur Deus Homo: Anselm’s Theological Sub-Creation

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 3

Connected with Anselm’s increased attention to the aesthetics of reason of the Cur Deus Homo is his choice of the dialogue form to convey the “fitting necessity” or “necessary fittingness” of the Incarnation. In the Monologion Anselm had represented his method of proceeding by “reason alone” (sola ratione) as sufficient to persuade even an unbeliever who was either ignorant or skeptical of what Christians believe about God (ch. 1). Yet in his prologue he had also indicated that the “unbeliever” from whose vantage point this meditation was conducted was in fact none other than his own self as he donned “the role (sub persona) of one who by reflection alone investigates, and disputes with himself about, points which he had previously not considered.” As Eileen Sweeney has aptly summarized the purpose behind Anselm’s pious dissimulation, in the Monologion we have an author who “crafts a persona in whose voice he writes… a voice not exactly the same as his own…. [but] of a somewhat naïve beginner as Anselm tries, by taking an unexpected perspective, to invigorate and enliven the meditation, making fresh insight possible.”[1] Not unlike the substitutionary model of the atonement Anselm will defend in the Cur Deus Homo, accordingly, in the Monologion it is as though Anselm presents us with an almost vicarious form of unbelief, one in which reason, conducted under the silent yet watchful tutelage of Anselm’s own faith, is defamiliarized so that it might be recovered again in its proper theological role as faith’s possibility. That having been said, in the Cur Deus Homo we find an Anselm even more conscious of, or at least more candid about, the artistry or sub-creation involved in his own theological reasoning. In contrast with the Monologion’s direct meditation on God, for example, in the Cur Deus Homo Anselm opts for the mediation of a “question-and-answer” (per interrogationem et responsio) dialogue which he condones for its being “clearer, and hence more acceptable, to many minds—especially to minds that are slower.” Aside from its pedagogical effectiveness, however, is the way in which the dialogue form allows Anselm to re-enact the kind of give-and-take of many of the real-life conversations upon which the fictional exchange in the Cur Deus Homo was no doubt based. Thus, after the commencement of the dialogue proper, when Anselm represents himself as fearful that the present undertaking will prove beyond his abilities, his interlocutor Boso encourages him by saying that “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 a first was hidden.” For Anselm, theological discourse—whether in the form of informal conversation with one’s friends or pupils, 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 true, but as a veritable art form can itself be the means for genuine theological disclosure and discovery. In keeping with this is Anselm’s concession to Boso in the following chapter that, “to the best of my ability, and assisted by God and by means of your prayers, I will attempt not so much to exhibit the solution you are seeking as to seek it with you” (ch. 2).

[1] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 116, 118. For a related discussion, see also Adams, “Anselm on Faith and Reason,” 51.

From Necessity to Fittingness: Anselm Goes Aesthetic

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 2

Another similarity to the Monologion is Anselm’s explanation in the opening chapter of the Cur Deus Homo that the impetus behind the present investigation was the request made by others that he should provide the “rational bases (rationes) of a particular problem of our faith,” viz., the problem of the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ. Yet a subtle but important difference between the method of the Monologion and the approach he will take in the Cur Deus Homo quickly emerges. In the Monologion, the criterion for demonstrating what Christian’s believe about God was simply what “rational necessity (rationis necessitas) would tersely prove to be the case, and truth’s clarity (veritatis claritas) would openly manifest to be the case.” At the same time, Anselm had also conceded that, even if his conclusions followed as “a necessary consequence of reasons which will seem good to me, it is not thereby said to be absolutely necessary, but is said only to be able to appear necessary for the time being” (Monol. 1). Anselm reiterates precisely this point, moreover, in the Cur Deus Homo when he says that, “even though I seem to prove [the Incarnation] rationally, it should be accepted as certain only in the sense that it appears to me for the time being to be thus, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully.” New to the Cur Deus Homo, however, is the unprecedented way Anselm now casts this whole notion of a provisional, “possible” necessity in more overtly aesthetic terms. He mentions, for example, how his acquaintances, more than merely finding his arguments logically compelling, also “say that these rational considerations please (placere) them; and they regard them as satisfactory (satisfacere),” and that they “make their request not in order to approach faith by way of reason but in order to delight (delectentur) in the comprehension and contemplation of the doctrines which they believe” (ch. 1). As for the present topic concerning the necessity of the Incarnation and Atonement, Anselm deems that the solution, while difficult, is nevertheless one that is “intelligible to everyone and is commendable (amabilis) because of the utility and elegance of the reasoning (rationis pulchritudinem).” For Anselm, as it will turn out, inasmuch as God is the inventive creator of his own possibilities—and therefore also of his own necessities—so proving the truths about God will inevitably involve considerations of beauty and aesthetic “fittingness” (convenientia) as much as those of pure logic or rational necessity.

The Possibility of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, part 1

In his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm sets forth his argument for the necessity of Christian view of redemption. Yet the first question Anselm feels the need to answer concerns how it is even possible, after a full millennium of Christian reflection on this topic, to say anything that has not already been said before. To this end, in his prefatory “Commendation of This Work to Pope Urban II,” Anselm rehearses many of the methodological notes with which he began the Monologion and the Proslogion. While the present work, on the one hand, aims “to confound the foolishness of unbelievers and to break through their hardheartedness,” on the other hand he recognizes that this kind of undertaking is only really possible for those “who, having hearts already cleansed by faith, delight in the rational basis of our faith—a rational basis for which we ought to hunger once we have the certainty of faith.” But what is not possible, Anselm is eager to make clear, is that either now or in the future anyone should ever surpass those things already laid down by the holy Fathers. That having been said, it is equally clear, Anselm takes it for granted, that neither was it possible for these same Fathers to say everything that could have been said on any given subject, which is what makes it possible for us in the present to build upon their insights and extend their arguments into areas left unexamined or undeveloped by them. More than this, the nature of the truth itself is “so extensive and so deep” that no amount of expertise, time, or consideration could ever succeed in plumbing such depths anyway. Finally, it is the Lord himself who, through his gifts and his promise to be with his Church, and through his command in Scripture itself, has given both the ability and the divine sanction for our searching out by reason those things once and for all delivered to the saints.