Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

Augustine’s “linguistic turn”

A while back I argued that Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio (“utterance,” “expression”) helped resolve an ambiguity at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of the divine Verbum, namely his ambivalence between a more verbal or linguistic model for understanding the second person of the Trinity on the one hand and a more visual and hence intellectual model on the other. Related to this is another ambiguity in Augustine’s thought, this time within his philosophy of language itself. To develop, for the time being, just one side of that tension, John Milbank has argued that there are significant elements in Augustine’s theology of language which push against the kind of “linguistic rationalism” that dominated much ancient, patristic, and medieval reflection on the subject. Milbank draws particular attention to the Aristotelian and Stoic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent, which he criticizes as implying 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.”[2] Yet it was also the Stoics who first “decisively modified” the semantic triangle “by interpreting the meaning-content (semainomenon) [of words] not as eternal “Idea,” nor as psychological “thought,” but rather as a lekton, a position within a system of signification.” One of virtues of this revised understanding of the relationship between words and their meaning, on Milbank’s view, was its insight into the irreducibly linguistic character of the act of signification, such that “the lekton, as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… The ‘incorporeal’ character of these lekta does not indicate any Platonic, eternal status, but rather a ‘temporally indefinite’ character.”[3] Put in modal terms, in the place of Aristotle and Plato’s “semantic possibilism” (as we might deem it), according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought and eternal ideas that provides the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic doctrine of lekta substituted a “semantic actualism” according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence may be connoted within the dynamic “continuum” of a given “system of signification.” They are traces of this Stoic modification of the semantic triangle, finally, that Milbank finds evidence of in Augustine when, for example, and following the Stoics, he “speaks of a verbum cordis or verbum mentis, rather than just ‘a thought’,” or when “Augustine is so aware of the sign-character of words, and the indispensability of the artificial system of language for thought, that in De Magistro he declares that one can give the meaning of a word only by another word, or else by a gesture which is still a sort of sign.”[4] Elaborating on Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner word” in particular, Milbank finds here that Augustine “construes thought as ‘intentional’, or as having a sign-character (the Stoic lekton) which, especially in the De Trinitate, promotes a non-substantive, relational ontology…”[5]  (This move is paralleled, as we shall see later, in his commentary on Genesis, where he likewise shifts the source of creaturely possibility from the Platonic divine ideas to the less substantive, more relational and immanent ontology of the Stoic rationes seminales or “rational seeds.”) Indeed, Milbank suggests that

Augustine actually goes further than the Stoics in one respect, by becoming the first person in history unequivocally to place the linguistic word itself in the category of sign: verbum est uniuscuiusque rei signum. For the Stoics the word itself still stood in a relationship of definitional equivalence to the lekta, if not to referential res (as for Aristotle). As Umberto Eco has pointed out, Augustine’s conflation was a potentially momentous innovation, because by bringing words under a category traditionally to do with ‘natural’ relationships of typical implication (as the sequence fire/smoke, considered generically) Augustine opened the way to seeing that word and ‘dictionary definition’ are never fully reciprocal. Quite to the contrary, words can only be explicated ‘intensionally’, through a process of semiotic inference which relates no longer (as for the Stoics) more or less readily to nature, but only to a particular cultural-linguistic ‘segmentation’ of reality.[6]

In each of these ways, in sum, Augustine dimly foreshadows the later Renaissance humanist view of thought as sign—a “Trinitarian redefinition of the ideas as ‘word’ or ‘art’”[7]—and beyond that, the eighteenth-century insight of such Christian philosophers as Berkeley, Hamann, Herder, and Vico into the “indispensability of language for thought,” the ultimate “impossibility of distinguishing ‘sign’ from ‘thing’,” and the recognition of “reality as constituted by signs and their endless ramifications”[8] that anticipate and hence which allow for a more “positive assessment of language.”[9]


[2] Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 89-90.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 96.

Could the Father or Spirit Have Become Incarnate?

In his Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, Robert Jenson critiques the Augustinian legacy in Western theology that tends to flatten out the differences between the respective agencies of the persons of the godhead. For Augustine, Jenson says, “there is no difference at all between the agencies of Father, Son, and Spirit. Either, he thinks, Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things” (and Augustine rejects the latter) (111). One of the most “disastrous” applications of this principle, in Jenson’s view, was Augustine’s teaching (in the words of Peter Lombard) that “As the Son was made man, so the Father or the Holy Spirit could have been and could be now” (Sent. 3.1.3). If the agency among the divine persons, in other words, is univocal among them, then it stands to reason that the act of incarnation cannot be proper or unique to any one of the persons, but must be shared by each. Against this view Jenson pits the “authentically Nicene analysis” of John of Damascus, who wrote that “It was the Son of God who became the son of man, so that his individuating property might be preserved. As he is Son of God he became a son of man…” (Expositio fidei 77.5-8). As Jenson summarizes the problem with the Augustinian position, the

supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative. (112)

My response: the conflict might also be viewed in terms of the theistic possibilism-actualism debate I have been developing here of late. On the Augustinian view, the “possibility of Incarnation” seems at some risk of becoming an abstract, uncreated possibility simply given to or for God, not simply as Creator, but now more specifically as a Trinity of divine persons. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, God’s will ranges over all the possibilities that are his with respect to creation. On the Augustinian view of the univocal agency of the divine persons, the classic Augustinian voluntarism and possibilism receive an even further, deeper, more problematic application, as the divine will is here allowed to range over possibilities that reference not only created being per se, but also how the persons of the Trinity in particular may (or may not) relate to that created being. (Consistent with this position is the later “personal properties” debate of the high and late Middle Ages, which was waged over whether it was the property of relation (the Dominican position) or the property of emanation (the Franciscan position) that was primarily responsible for constituting the persons in their distinct personhood. Either way, this is to posit a prior ontic framework that afterward makes the Trinitarian persons “possible.”)

As for the Damascene position tying the possibility of Incarnation to the Son only, while this conclusion could be drawn as the result of an even more limiting possibilism (i.e., the possibilities for Incarnation are still viewed as prior to and determinative of all Trinitarian action, as per the Augustinian position, it’s just that the range of available options have now been narrowed from three to one), the thrust of Jenson’s discussion, as I understand him, would seem to be to see the divine Son simply as God’s own possibility of Incarnation. If the Father or the Spirit are able to become Incarnate, the Son is that possibility for them. The possibility of Incarnation is not, accordingly, something that precedes or co-exists eternally with the persons of the Trinity, distinguishing them (or not, as the case may be) from each other; rather it is the prior actuality and givenness (and giftedness) of the divine persons for each other that afterwards determines the character of the possibility of their givenness for creation.