Chapter 4 Medieval Philosophy



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Chapter 4

Medieval Philosophy

From Augustine until the mid-seventeenth century Christianity was the strongest influence on philosophy in the west. Representatives of Islam and Judaism also made their case. But certainly there has not been a period in western thought when religion had as much influence on philosophy.

When Augustine was dying in 430 AD, Vandals attacked Hippo, where he served as bishop. Symbolically, the western world entered a new era, in which the Roman empire was no longer the glue that held civilization together. The maintenance of western culture and civilization fell to the church.

But the church transformed western learning while preserving it. What emerged from this process were various syntheses between Christian theology and ancient philosophy. Such synthesizing was not new, as we have seen from the Church Fathers, especially Origen. But the medieval syntheses were more elaborate, and in the later medieval thinkers like Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Occam, vast in their scope and complexity. Christian philosophers at this time, unlike the church fathers, were not constricted by persecution and by a living tradition of pagan philosophy. But they never separated themselves sharply from Greek philosophy.

The propriety of such synthesis was not challenged among Christians until the Protestant Reformation, which insisted on a more radically biblical theology. But, as we shall see, Protestantism and Catholicism alike faced, soon after that, the formidable challenge of radical secularism, the beginning of modern thought. In the modern period, as in the ancient world, Christian thought had to compete with philosophy that claimed to be nonreligious. The medieval period, then, represented a parenthesis—an interlude in history—between two eras, the ancient and the modern, in which secularism dominated western thought. It was a time of relative peace, between two wars. But of course, without a secularist enemy, many Christians found opportunity to fight among themselves.

Boethius (480-524)

Boethius was born in Rome. His stepfather and eventual father-in-law was Symmachus, a consul under the ruler Theodoric, an Ostrogoth, and an Arian. In time, Boethius was also appointed consul, but eventually was arrested for sedition, imprisoned, and executed.

Besides his civic duties, Boethius was a noted philosopher and theologian. He translated the Isagoge of the neoplatonist Porphyry and the Organon1 of Aristotle. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation. Until the work of Aquinas, most medieval thinkers, like the church fathers and Augustine, were more influenced by Plato than by Aristotle. But Boethius, anticipating Aquinas, is more Aristotelian in some ways, as can be seen both from his translation interests and from his concern for sharp definitions of terms. He believed that the divergent views of Plato and Aristotle could be reconciled, but he evidently did not live long enough to publish that reconciliation.

We remember him today chiefly for two definitions. First, he defined God’s eternity as “the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.”2 Augustine had also reasoned that God was not only without beginning or end, but also, in some sense, beyond time itself, though Augustine admitted difficulty in expressing that. But Boethius in a typically succinct way taught that doctrine with its implication: finite creatures lose part of their lives as their experiences fade into the past. But God never loses any part of his life. The fact that he is above time enables him to possess it all at once. So God’s eternity is related to his sovereignty and self-existence.

Second, Boethius discussed the controversy over the divine and human natures of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (451) had said that Christ had two natures in one person. These terms had also been used in the doctrine of the Trinity, defined by the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381): God has one being (nature, substance) and three persons. But the term person was especially problematic. It had been used by Sabellians to describe divine “masks” or “roles,” and that was certainly not what the orthodox believers wanted to say in referring to the person of Christ. Boethius seeks to clarify this, and to bring the Latin persona closer to the Greek hypostasis, by defining person as “the individual substance of a rational nature.”3 For the Christological controversy, this definition was helpful. But applied to the Trinity it confuses the use of substance for the one being of God. If each person is a “substance,” then the whole Trinity is one substance and three substances.

Boethius’ most famous work is The Consolation of Philosophy, written during his final imprisonment. It is a curious volume, discussing matters of philosophical and religious interest, but with no reference to Jesus, Scripture, or Christian doctrine. Some have thought that Boethius abandoned his faith at this difficult time of his life, but that is a small minority view among scholars. He does often refer to God, but in a general philosophical way rather than a specifically religious spirit.

In form, the book is a dialogue between Boethius himself and “Lady Philosophy.” One subject is the relation of evil to providence. God foreknows, but does not cause evil, he says, which reveals his somewhat libertarian view of human freedom.

Further, the greatest good is within us, the life of the mind, which fortune cannot take from us. Boethius teaches that people are essentially good, but sometimes by their free will they choose wickedness. It does not seem that Boethius was much moved by Augustine’s later reflections about grace.

The classical scholarship of Boethius establishes a model for later medieval thinkers. Even more significantly, and unfortunately, later thinkers learned from him that it is possible to discuss philosophical and theological subjects without any reference at all to the Christian revelation. In this way, Boethius anticipates Aquinas’ doctrine of “natural reason.”

Pseudo-Dionysius

Writing sometime during the late fifth and early sixth centuries4 was a mysterious figure, probably a Syrian, who took the name of “Dionysius the Areopagite” the convert of the Apostle Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. Some have described his use of this name as a “forgery;” others have defended it as a literary device. But most scholars today are convinced that this ascription was not literally true. Nevertheless, it caused all sorts of confusion through the Middle Ages. Most thought that this writer was in fact the convert of Paul, and so they accorded him a high level of respect. He became one of the most revered thinkers in the eastern church, but also had considerable influence in the west. Thomas Aquinas considered him a major theological authority, citing him around 1700 times.

But pseudo-Dionysius was heavily influenced by neoplatonism. As with Plotinus, the supreme being, the One, is the source of all things. But Plotinus held that everything emanates from God, as light from a candle, so that all things are in effect divine. Dionysius recognized that this view was not compatible with the Christian doctrine of creation, but he struggled to find language to differentiate the two ideas. He also resists the monism of neoplatonism, affirming that things in creation are really different from one another. It is not that the many things in the universe are merely appearances of the one (as in Plato), but that the many are attracted to God as their goal and purpose (as in Aristotle).

This is all very mysterious, of course. Dionysius is willing to say that God has the attributes of goodness, light, wisdom, etc. In fact, it is God who has them literally; creatures possess them in a lesser degree and therefore analogically. In the final analysis, only God’s perfect wisdom is true wisdom; the perfections of men are less real, more mixed with nonbeing. Like Plato, Dionysius affirms that there are degrees of being, and that God alone “is” in the fullest sense.5 Yet he tries to overcome the pantheistic implications of this view.

In the end, Dionysius reverts to ignorance. God is fundamentally unknown to us, a darkness. The being behind all things is not himself a thing; the being behind all concepts cannot himself be conceptualized. Of God himself, then, we have only negative knowledge: what he is not. This is the via negativa that we noted in the thought of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria in Chapter 3. But below the divine realm there is increasing plurality and therefore greater possibility of conceptualization. So Dionysius presents elaborate categories of angelic hierarchies and finite beings.

So the rational mind cannot conceptualize God, though it ascends in his direction. Our only hope of knowing him is mystical—a kind of union with God himself, in which we abandon all words and concepts about him, even negative ones. After the Gnostics and Clement of Alexandria, pseudo-Dionysius is the writer most responsible for bringing mysticism into Christian theology. We may well question whether this is a healthy development, considering that Scripture has no hesitation in speaking positively about God’s nature and attributes, and since knowledge of God in the Bible is by revelation rather than by some kind of metaphysical union.



John Scotus Erigena (800-877)6

Erigena translated Dionysius into Latin and was himself a diligent exponent of Christian neoplatonism. He came from Ireland, one of the few parts of Europe where ancient culture had been preserved from barbarian destruction. Erigena was one of the few scholars of the time who knew Greek, and he was also a gifted philosopher and theologian. Stumpf and Fieser say that “his systematic writing set him apart as the most impressive thinker of his century.”7 In 851 he entered the court of Charles the Bald to take part in the flowering of culture known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

His chief philosophical work is The Division of Nature. Nature, in Erigena’s title, includes both God and the creation. God is the only true reality; all else flows from him and back to him. Like Dionysius, Erigena tries, but finds it difficult to distinguish his position from neoplatonic pantheism.

The flowing of things from God and back to him occurs in four “divisions.” (1) Nature that creates and is not created: God himself. For Erigena as for Dionysius, our knowledge of God is primarily negative. God’s attributes are, he says, super attributes—super-goodness, super-truth, super-wisdom—so they cannot be confused with the attributes of creatures. But like Dionysius Erigena found it difficult to distinguish between the biblical concept of creation and the neoplatonic doctrine of emanation. He equates God’s creation of all things with his omnipresence, the fact that “God is in all things.” For him creation is not an event at the beginning of time, as in Gen. 1, but the continuing dependence of all things on God.

Recall our discussion in Chapter One of the biblical vs. nonbiblical concepts of transcendence and immanence. There I used this diagram:

Biblical Non-biblical

Transcendence: God’s control and authority Transcendence: God not present

(1) (3)

(2) (4)


Immanence: God’s covenant presence Immanence: God and the world are indistinguishable8

Erigena, like the Gnostics and neoplatonists, uses both the rhetoric of extreme transcendence (God is utterly beyond us and therefore unknowable) and the rhetoric of extreme immanence (God and the world are aspects of one another).

(2) Nature that is created and creates: the Forms of all things (as in Plato), which Erigena equates with logos. These are God’s attributes and God’s thoughts. They “create” things on the earth, but again not in the sense of Gen. 1:1. They create, rather, in the sense that they are the patterns after which everything else exists, and in the sense that all other things “participate” in them.

(3) Nature that is created and does not create: the finite world of our experience, including angels, persons, animals, and things, existing according to the patterns of the Forms, and therefore participating in them.

(4) Nature that neither creates nor is created: God again, but this time as the final goal of all things.9 Unlike his thinking about creation, this concept of consummation seems to be temporal and historical—as if the world is working its way toward a consummation in which evil will be judged, and all will be united to God.

Dionysius and Erigena are examples from the medieval period of how far thinkers can depart from the biblical worldview and still be accepted by many as great theologians. Pope Honorius III did condemn Erigena’s The Division of Nature in 1225, but Pseudo-Dionysius, the main source of Erigena’s philosophy, was accepted for centuries more as a theological authority. But neither of these men understood the biblical doctrine of creation, or, therefore, the biblical creator-creature distinction. Their negative theology substituted a divine darkness for God’s clear revelation in creation and Scripture. Negative theology left them with a nonbiblical concept of divine transcendence, and their general neoplatonic worldview left them defenseless against pantheism, the nonbiblical concept of divine immanence.



Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).

Although Anselm was influenced by Plato, as were all Christian thinkers of the medieval period, he was much more orthodox theologically than either Pseudo-Dionysius or Erigena. His thought is much closer to Augustine’s than theirs, and much farther removed from neoplatonism. Indeed, Anselm is sometimes called “the second Augustine.”



Faith and Reason

In my view, Anselm’s most interesting contribution is his description of the relation of faith and reason. As we have seen, this has been a major problem for Christian thought since the church Fathers. Christian philosophers have often looked to Greek philosophy as supplying standards for rationality, while committed also to the Christian rule of faith. For many, like Justin and Clement, faith and Greek philosophical reason work together nicely, reinforcing one another’s claims. But occasionally, as with Tertullian, there is a protest against this relationship. And at least once, in the Trinitarian controversy, the church fought a major battle to liberate its doctrine from distortions that were due to Greek philosophy.

Augustine did not wrestle with the problem in a formal way, though his loyalty to the biblical teaching usually overwhelmed his genuine respect for Greek philosophy. At one point he invoked the slogan “crede ut intelligas,” “believe that you might understand.”10 Anselm, in his Proslogium, employs this formula in the first person, “I believe that I might understand.”11 Indeed, he considered Fides Quaerens Intellectum (“Faith Seeking Understanding”) as a title for the book, before (on advice from others) settling on the simpler, one-word title.

I take these formulae to be expressions of presuppositionalism. In Chapter 1 I indicated that on a biblical view of things human thought is not neutral, autonomous, or independent, but it presupposes criteria from whatever source it takes to be most authoritative. For some, the ultimate criteria of truth may come from human reason, or sense experience, or a religion or ideology. For a Christian, the ultimate standard of truth is God himself, as he is revealed in his creation and in Scripture. The patristic and medieval philosophers show in their thought loyalty to Scripture in some measure, but they sometimes contradict this loyalty by their appeals to Greek thought. To say “I believe that I might understand” makes our faith to be the basis, the presupposition, of rational inquiry. Anselm is quite explicit that his slogan is opposed to the idea of “understanding that I might believe.” Faith is the foundation of knowledge, not a conclusion of it.

But this reading of Anselm is difficult to defend in the light of some other things Anselm says. In the Monologium, for example, he announces his purpose as follows:

that nothing in Scripture should be urged on the authority of Scripture itself, but that whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should declare to be true, should, in an unadorned style, with common proofs and with a simple argument, be briefly enforced by the cogency of reason, and plainly expounded in the light of truth.12

And in Cur Deus Homo, he expresses the purpose of the first part of his book, directed to unbelievers, as follows:

…in fine, leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him.13

In these prefaces, he seems to set aside the authority of Scripture and the revelation of Christ to argue his position by reason independent of revelation, i.e. autonomously. Even in the Proslogium, which contains most of the evidence for my presuppositional interpretation of his epistemology, he describes the genesis of his writing thus:

I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being.

Anselm looks for an argument that is self-attesting, that proves itself. What can that mean other than an argument that does not rest on Scripture or tradition—an argument based on itself, on human autonomy?

So what is the basis of Anselm’s thought? Faith in Christ revealed in the Bible, or trust in autonomous human reason? Some combination of the two? And, whichever answer we give, how do we explain the data of Anselm’s writing that suggest a different answer? I would not claim that Anselm is perfectly consistent in these matters, but I think all his statements can be reconciled with a Christian presuppositional epistemology. Note first that the Proslogium does not only contain the slogans credo ut intelligam and fides quaerens intellectum, but it contains many other indications of revelation-based thinking:



  1. The whole document is written as a prayer, as reasoning in the presence of God. It is clear, then, that although the book is intended as a proof of the existence of God, Anselm has no real doubts as to God’s existence. And in that prayer he declares that he has no doubts. So Anselm’s “argument” is designed first to function in a prayer, one in which Anselm is already overwhelmed by God’s reality and presence.



  1. In the context of the prayer, Anselm repeats the credo ut intelligam formula, confessing his faith and love for God’s truth:

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, --that unless I believed, I should not understand.14

  1. Anselm’s definition of God, “that than which no greater can be conceived” (which for Anselm is sufficient to prove God’s existence), is a datum of revelation:

And so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.15

The source of this definition is “that which we believe,”16 i.e., the faith of the church.



  1. When the monk Gaunilo replies to Anselm, he speaks “on behalf of the fool” (who says “there is no God,” Ps. 14:1). But Anselm’s response begins,

It was a fool against whom the argument of my Proslogium was directed. Seeing, however, that the author of these objections is by no means a fool, and is a Catholic, speaking in behalf of the fool, I think it sufficient that I answer the Catholic.17

Anselm tells Gaunilo that if he claims not to have the idea of God as defined in the Proslogium, he violates his “faith and conscience.”18 Faith and conscience, therefore, are the real ground of the argument. So it appears that the whole argument of the Proslogium, including Anselm’s response to an objector, presupposes the truth of the Christian revelation.



  1. In Cur Deus Homo, following the preface in which he claims to be “leaving Christ out of view,” he says this:

I HAVE been often and most earnestly requested by many, both personally and by letter, that I would hand down in writing the proofs of a certain doctrine of our faith, which I am accustomed to give to inquirers; for they say that these proofs gratify them, and are considered sufficient. This they ask, not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason, but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things which they believe; and that, as far as possible, they may be always ready to convince anyone who demands of them a reason of that hope which is in us.19

So in the book, Anselm claims to offer proofs for his conclusions, but he disavows the idea that his readers can attain to faith by means of reason. The purpose of the book is not that, but “that they might be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things which they believe” as well as being able to convince those who demand reasons (1 Pet. 3:15). Anselm assumes, then, that his readers already believe his conclusions.

Now, to say all these things is not to cast any aspersion upon human reason. Certainly Anselm intends all his writings to consist of rational discourse and arguments. The question is not whether Anselm appeals to reason, but rather what kind of reason Anselm appeals to. Anselm was, of course, a medieval writer. Although in the Proslogium he addresses the atheist of Psm. 14:1, he was not writing there for an audience dominated by the radical unbelief of the later “Enlightenment.” He was writing for an audience of Catholic Christians. He was able to assume their ability to appeal to “faith and conscience.” In writing the Proslogium, he believed that anyone who took seriously his faith and conscience would accept Anselm’s definition of God, and therefore, at least implicitly, believed in God. Or, in the language of Cur Deus Homo, he presented his arguments to people he assumed would already believe his conclusions, as a gladdening exercise in meditation on these truths.

Then why the appeal to “independent” reasoning (i.e. independent of Scripture) in his books? Because for Anselm it is important for faith to seek understanding. Indeed, for him this is the very nature of theology. It is one thing to believe in God. It is another thing to understand how belief in God fits into a general Christian worldview.

In Cur Deus Homo, note the question Boso asks to begin the dialogue in Chapter 2:

for what necessity and cause God, who is omnipotent, should have assumed the littleness and weakness of human nature for the sake of its renewal?

Boso does not ask this question out of a general unbelief. He believes in God, believes that God is omnipotent, and believes in the incarnation. But he does not understand why God became incarnate in Christ. This is a theological question, and Anselm answers it theologically. He answers it using concepts in Scripture that he and Boso both believe. In subsequent chapters, Anselm appeals to the nature of sin, of Satan, of angels, of eternal life and death. These are all biblical concepts.20 So when Anselm “leaves Christ out of view,” he does not leave the whole biblical revelation out of view.

We can imagine this as a theological exercise: Think of biblical doctrine as a series of puzzle-pieces: creation, divine love, Christ’s two natures, sanctification, the church, etc. Christians presume that they all fit together neatly, at least in the mind of God. But now let us remove one of these pieces, the incarnation, and see if we can reconstruct its shape from consideration of the other pieces. Can we show from a biblical understanding of sin, divine justice, divine mercy, Jesus’ two natures, etc. why it was necessary for him to be incarnated? Cur Deus Homo intends to give the answer. That is the nature of Anselm’s “reasoning.” In a sense this involves “leaving Christ (or at least his incarnation) out of view.” But that means only that he is removing one piece from the puzzle, in order better to describe its coherence with the other pieces. It does not involve any departure from commitment to the Christian faith, its revelation, or its worldview. So we can see that there is no contradiction between Anselm’s commitment to “faith seeking understanding” and his method of offering rational arguments for individual parts of the Christian system of truth.

Similarly, in the Preface to the Monologium, when Anselm proposes that “nothing in Scripture should be urged on the authority of Scripture itself,” he is not denying the self-attestation of Scripture as a doctrine. Rather he is indicating his method in this particular book: that he will argue his conclusions, not by citing Scripture texts, but by expounding in extrabiblical language the rationale of the biblical doctrines, a rationale consistent with and implicit in the biblical worldview which Anselm believes.

So in the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm sees “faith” as something objectively given to Christians by revelation. That faith is assumed in any exercise of Christian reasoning. The arguments he uses, though they may depart from biblical language, and though they may “set aside” some element of biblical teaching for the sake of argument, are themselves often taken from Scripture and in any case must be made consistent with it.



Monologium

Having explored Anselm’s view of faith and reason, we should also look at the content of his major books. The Monologium presents arguments for the existence and nature of God. These are similar to arguments later and more famously propounded by Thomas Aquinas, and when I discuss Aquinas I shall treat them in more detail.

Anselm’s arguments deal with causality (God as the first cause, the cause of all causes) and levels of reality. In the second area, Anselm deals both with levels or degrees of qualities (goodness, greatness) and levels of being (plants, animals, people). In both areas there is a hierarchy, and Anselm argues that the hierarchy implies a highest member. The roots of his argument from causality can be found in Aristotle and Augustine. The roots of his argument from degrees of reality can be found in Plato. Plato argued that goods in various degrees imply a highest good which serves as their cause and criterion. Plato also thought that being itself is a matter of degree, so that lesser beings imply a highest being, a Form of being in which the lower beings participate.

Anselm, of course, does not believe that the first cause is an abstract form (as Aristotle) or that the highest being is an abstract form (as Plato). He believes, rather, that the God of the Bible is both the first cause and the highest being. So he adds arguments to show that the true God has attributes and qualities beyond those of Aristotle’s prime mover and Plato’s form of the good. He even develops arguments for the Trinitarian character of God, drawing on Augustine.



Proslogium

Anselm’s best-known contribution to philosophy is the argument for the existence of God presented in the Proslogium. This argument was called the “ontological argument” by Immanuel Kant, but Anselm did not use any particular name for it. In the Preface, he recalls his dissatisfaction with the complexity of arguments in the Monologium, and reports,

I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being.21

The answer to this inquiry came to Anselm almost as a revelation, “…it began to force itself upon me, with a kind of importunity.”22

In Chapter 1, he confesses his sins and asks for a small measure of illumination, for he believes that he might understand, not the reverse. In Chapter 2, he notes that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived,” a title, as we noted earlier, given by the Christian revelation. Now the fool who says “there is no God” in Ps. 14:1 does not believe that such a being exists. But at least he has a concept of this being “in his understanding.” The problem is that the fool does not think this being exists in reality. But that position, says Anselm, is impossible:

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.23

In Chapter 3, he presents a further conclusion: God not only exists, but he cannot be conceived not to exist. And a being who cannot be conceived not to exist is greater than one who can be conceived not to exist. So God must be like that: a being who not only exists, but cannot be conceived not to exist. In philosophy, such a being is called a “necessary being” as distinguished from a “contingent being.” A necessary being is one that must exist, rather than merely happening to exist. So a necessary being is one who depends only on himself or itself; a contingent being depends on something other than himself/itself.

In Chapter 4 he deals with an objection, and then in subsequent chapters he expounds the nature of God. His basic argument is that God is “whatever it is better to be than not to be.”24 So he is self-existent, creates all things from nothing,25 sensible, omnipotent, compassionate, passionless,26 omnipotent,27 and so on.

Attached to the Proslogium is an essay by the first critic of the argument, the monk Gaunilo, together with Anselm’s Apologetic in answer to his critic. Gaunilo first expresses doubts as to whether we can have in our minds the idea of one than which no greater can be conceived. To that argument, Anselm replies that Gaunilo (being a Catholic, not a fool) himself has such a concept, since that concept is part of the Christian faith.

Gaunilo also argues that if Anselm’s argument is true one could as easily prove a perfect anything—say a perfect island. We could define a perfect island as one than which no greater can be conceived, and that island must exist. Anselm’s reply is that an island, no matter how perfect, is not a being than which no greater can be conceived. Only one being fits that definition, namely God.

But perhaps Gaunilo’s argument is stronger than Anselm is willing to grant. For when he suggests that you could prove the existence of anything with Anselm’s argument, he is really suggesting that there is something wrong with the whole procedure of reasoning from a concept to reality. To say that Anselm’s argument could prove the existence of a perfect island, or a perfect hamburger, or a perfect political system, is to say that this procedure is never right, whatever the subject matter. One cannot reason from a mental concept of a perfect something to its real existence.

Plato, of course, would have disagreed. For him, it is rationally legitimate to reason from perfections in our concepts to the real existence of perfect Forms. For that reason, scholars have often commented that Anselm’s proof shows Platonic influence. But for Plato, the argument from concept to reality works for many things, such as goodness, humanity, courage, and wisdom, and not for a personal absolute like the Christian God.

Certainly we cannot rule out in a general way arguments that reason from our concepts to reality. In one sense, we know reality only through our concepts. To say that we can never reason from concept to reality is to say that we cannot trust our concepts to be reliable guides to truth.

One particularly important argument from concept to reality is the argument that concepts like good, bad, perfect, imperfect presuppose standards of valuation. If those standards are to be valid they must be objective, not limited to an individual human subjectivity. The highest standard of perfection, in other words, must really exist. In that sense existence is a perfection and perfection is an existing reality. That is what we can learn from Anselm’s argument.28

Anselm’s argument has been subjected to many other criticisms through history, but to the surprise of many it has also had defenders in every age including the present. After Gaunilo, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Bertrand Russell, Michael Martin and many others rejected the proof. But Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Norman Malcolm, and Alvin Plantinga accepted various forms of it. Those who look at the argument with skepticism often find it difficult to take it seriously. But even if it is seriously wrong, it is terribly difficult to show what is wrong with it. As is typical of philosophical arguments, each attempt to refute the argument has attracted its own refuters. Let us consider some of these debates.

Expressed in a tidy syllogism, Anselm’s argument looks like this:

God has all perfections.

Existence is a perfection.

Therefore God exists.

Kant thought it was illegitimate to treat existence as a perfection. In his view it was not even a proper predicate. That seems to mean that for Kant existence doesn’t “add” anything to a concept: my concept of an existent apple is no different from my concept of a nonexistent apple. But I think that in one sense there is certainly a difference. Seabiscuit was an existent horse; Silver, the Lone Ranger’s steed, was not, most likely. Among the differences between Seabiscuit and Silver, one of them is existence. And that difference is evident both in concept and in the world.

In my view, a stronger critique will grant that existence is a proper predicate but will question whether it is a perfection. A Buddhist, for example, might well believe that existence is an evil. Since in Buddhism life is suffering, it is actually better not to exist than to exist. On that basis, Anselm’s argument would prove the non-existence of God: God has all perfections; nonexistence is a perfection; therefore God does not exist.29

As we can see, the concept “perfection” (“greatness” in Anselm) is problematic. Anselm’s belief that existence is a perfection is understandable in a Christian context, for in Gen. 1:31 God declared all creation, all existing things, to be good. Anselm, as we have seen, presupposes the Christian revelation and therefore presupposes a Christian scale of perfection. Others, such as Buddhists, do not share Anselm’s presupposition.

And there have been other disagreements about what constitutes a perfect being. Charles Hartshorne believes that a perfect being would not be changeless, as Anselm’s, but would rather change to adjust to circumstances outside himself.30 That view of God, of course, presupposes a theology very different from Anselm’s. So evidently Anselm’s argument presupposes a particular view of what is and is not perfect. Someone with a different presupposition will not find the argument persuasive. Or, like Hartshorne, he may reconstruct the argument to prove a god very different from that of Anselm.

So the history of criticism validates my earlier assessment, that Anselm’s argument presupposes the worldview of the Christian revelation.



Cur Deus Homo?

The third book of Anselm we shall consider asks why God became man in Christ. His answer is, essentially, to save human beings from sin. He develops this answer in terms of medieval feudalism: Sin is an offense to God’s “honor.” God will not be reconciled unless man makes “satisfaction,” paying the debt he owes. But to offend God’s honor is a crime of infinite weight, one that man cannot possibly remedy.

The only remedy is for God the Son to come into the world as a man and to give his life. Now the sinless Jesus did not himself owe this debt to God. So when he gave his life, he exceeded what he owed, doing something far beyond what was required. He merits a reward, therefore, and he passes that reward on to mankind.

Anselm’s theory of the atonement set aside the theory held by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, that Christ’s atonement paid a ransom to the devil and thus freed mankind from his grip. Anselm argued that the devil had no claim on mankind; the controversy was between man and God himself. By connecting the atonement directly to man’s rebellion against God, Anselm laid the foundation of most all future thinking on the subject in the western church.

Still, some Reformed and evangelical thinkers have found Anselm’s formulation inadequate. Among Louis Berkhof’s criticisms, the following has been the most influential:

2. The theory really has no place for the idea that Christ by suffering endured the penalty of sin, and that his suffering was strictly vicarious. The death of Christ is merely a tribute offered voluntarily to the honor of the Father. It constitutes a superogatory merit, compensating for the demerits of others; and this is really the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance applied to the work of Christ.31

It is true that Anselm does not emphasize the law court model that governs Reformation thinking about the atonement. But he clearly equates dishonor to God with sin:

This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us. For it is such a will only, when it can be exercised, that does works pleasing to God; and when this will cannot be exercised, it is pleasing of itself alone, since without it no work is acceptable. He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin.32

In Chapter 12, then, Anselm considers “Whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of debt.” The answer is no, because

To remit sin in this manner is nothing else than not to punish; and since it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then is it passed by undischarged.

So Anselm certainly is thinking in terms of sin and punishment. In Chapter 14, he says, “the honor of God exists in the punishment of the wicked.” In 15, he argues that God does not allow “his honor to be violated even in the least degree.” In subsequent chapters he indicates that man is not capable of repairing this breach by anything he does.

So although he does not say explicitly that “Jesus paid the penalty that we deserved,” that idea is certainly implicit in his formulations. I wish that he had put that more pointedly. On the other hand, modern evangelicals also need to stress more explicitly something that Anselm emphasized: The reason why transgression of God’s law is so enormously wrong is because it dishonors God himself. Ultimately, we deal, not with a law in the abstract, with the absolute-personal God. Our problem is the breakdown of a relationship. It is for that reason that transgression of his law is such an evil and that the penalty for sin can only be death. And it is for that reason that the Son of God had to die in our place.


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