Theology

Anselm’s Theological Realism

“Since we believe God is Truth…” That is how St. Anselm’s dialogue treatise De Veritate (On Truth) begins. It is spoken by the student, but nonetheless reflects a deep reality in Christian theology. God is truth (cf. John 1:14; 14:6; 16:13; 17:17). God is the first principle of existence and created nature seeks to know God and participate with God (“faith seeking understanding”) by way of its rational nature.

Following a well-established Christian theological-anthropology, Anselm maintains that man is a rational animal. That is, man’s very nature is rational, endowed with reason—thought—to know the order of the universe and follow it. Through his senses, including reason, man can come to know God through creation (natural theology). To know God is the summit of man’s rational constitution. As Anselm says concerning man, will, reason, “It follows then that freedom of will was given to the rational nature in order that it might retain the rectitude of will it has received.”

Anselm is a pivotal and instrumental figure in Western theology. After St. Augustine and before St. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm is arguably the third most well-known and consequential theologian in the Western Christian tradition. His writings are numerous and far-reaching. Cur Deus Homo, “Why God Became Man,” is famous for theorizing the “Satisfaction” view of the Atonement. His short but important treatise on the freedom of the will, De Libero Arbitrio, “On Free Will,” reasserts the Augustinian account of grace, will, and freedom against already emergent proto-Reformed arguments against the freedom of the will and is generally credited on the voluntarist philosophy of the will that influenced Descartes, Kant, and existentialism. The Proslogion, “Faith Seeking Understanding,” is credited with the ontological argument for God’s existence.

But what is even more important is Anselm’s cementing of theological realism in the early medieval era which became the de facto theological school for scholasticism until challenged by the nominalism of William of Ockham. Theological Realism maintains that God exists independent of creation. That is, God exists even if there isn’t a universe and rational creatures to ponder and worship him. God is not dependent upon consciousness. Theological Realism also maintains that God can be known through empirical senses. Anselm is adamant, for instance, that human senses and perceptions can, in fact, bring us to an understanding of God. God can be known through sense perception and encounters with the world of nature—thus bypassing naturalism and idealism simultaneously. Lastly, theological realism also maintains that God can be spoken about truthfully—that is, we can make objective statements about God which counters the school of theology known as apophatic theology which maintains we can only talk about God by way of negation: what God is not. That God can be spoken about truthfully and objectively, positively, is called cataphatic theology.

Anselm’s theological realism blends a priori and a posteriori realities together in a seamless theological waltz. God is the greatest metaphysical being that is imaginable. This is the ontological argument which is not unique—we find this argument in Greek philosophy, for instance, especially in the argument of contingency and Aristotle’s prime mover doctrine. For Anselm, however, the Scriptural justification comes also from St. John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.” As an a priori reality, God exists independent of humanity (since God is the greatest metaphysical being there is) but is intimately tied to human consciousness insofar as he relates to us.

But theological realism doesn’t rest on a priori philosophy. It is intimately tied to a posteriori realities; especially since we, as creatures, exist in the material world of sensation. Thus, while God is the greatest metaphysical principle and being who can, by definition, exist independent of experience, matter, and consciousness, the fact that there is a world and we have senses moves Anselm to also maintain that God is knowable in and through the material world and our sense perceptions. Anselm’s argument that human senses and experiences can rationally deduce an orderly cosmos necessitating an orderly Creator, would have a major impact—ironically—on Enlightenment Deism.

Anselm’s empirical theology draws on St. Paul and St. Augustine most especially. This is known as natural theology and signification theology. The world as object points to God. Not only can we imagine or conceive of a great being (God) we intuitively and logically deduce a God by way of deductive thinking: (1) things exist; (2) everything that exists must have a creator; (3) the creator of existing things is God; (4) God exists. It is simple syllogistic reasoning.

In Christian theology, Anselm’s empirical realism is sometimes called “the Book of Nature.” God revealed himself in the form of the Word made flesh (Christ) whose knowledge we know principally through the Scriptures (Book of Revelation), but God has also revealed himself through the created world and we can deduce certain things about God through our encounters with the world, through our perceptions, and through our cognitive ability (Book of Nature). As such, we can definitively say objective things about God:

  • God is Creator (based on the observation that things exist)
  • God is Orderly (based on the orderly operations of the creation)
  • God is Beautiful (based on the perception of beautiful things in the creation)
  • God is Good (based on the fact that we exist and love, it is better to exist and love than not to exist and never know love; or, as the great poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all).
  • God is Loving (based on the fact that humans love since loving is participation in the Divine nature), etc.

Anselm’s theological realism is confronting other schools of thought. As mentioned, the cataphatic nature of his theology is confronting the apophatic theology of the mystics but also the critiques of Christianity that it is a non-rational religion. Subsequently, Anselm sets out to show how Christianity is a rational religion. First, he points out, for there to be any Truth (something all rationalists would agree with) then there must be a God. This argument, again, goes back to the intellectual origins of rationalism: the Greek philosophers. Moreover, this is explicitly what the Holy Scriptures teach: That God is Truth itself.

From this, then, Anselm seeks to go over the rationalists by also showing how Christian theology is empirical. We can know God, again, through our senses, perceptions, and encounters with the world and others. Thus, Anselm’s theology is also empirical. It is not dependent upon rational logic or argumentation. It is also confirmed through our sensory experiences and perceptions. God is knowable through our observations.

Additionally, Anselm is also troubled about the worrying rise of fideism. Fideism is the theological doctrine that maintains we cannot know God except through revelation or trust (fides, the word that is translated as faith in English, means trust in Latin). Fideism is the belief that revelation occurred and has been transmitted down through the eons, and only through this first act of revelation followed by transmission can we know anything about God. Since we do not live in the age of revelation, we must trust (have faith) that the received revelation down through the eons is accurate.   

We must be clear, here, that Anselm does not reject revelation as such. Of course Anselm accepts revelation. He accepts the revelation of God in and through Christ; as well as the Rule of Faith of the Catholic religion: Scripture, Apostles, and the Trinity.  But Anselm is also going above and beyond received revelation as mentioned. He believes that God can be known through our own sensory perceptions and logical deductions from sensory perceptions in this world. Hence, Anselm is instrumental in pioneering natural theology at a level heretofore unseen in the Christian tradition. While it is true that Christians prior to Anselm had believed that God could be known, to some degree, through the “Book of Nature,” none had championed this reality as much as Anselm came to do. From Anselm, then, the marriage of faith and reason; revelation and rationality; comes to a climax though he drew on antecedent roots in Paul and Augustine most especially (Anselm’s thoughts, here, strongly influence Thomas Aquinas).

At the same time as Anselm is buttressing against fideism, he is also confronting naturalism. Naturalism is the doctrine that only nature exists and there is nothing beyond nature. However, since we can conceive of a being greater than nature and beyond (independent of) nature, God exists and naturalism is false. Yet Anselm doesn’t rest on the ontological argument to dismantle naturalism. He turns to fight naturalism on its own terms and ideas.

We exist in nature. Nature also exists. However, our senses, perceptions, and encounters in nature lead us to something beyond nature. Nature has the mark of creation. Nature has the mark of orderliness and goodness. Nature has the mark of love and rationality in it; the imago Dei. For to be made in the image of God is to be made in wisdom and love. Precisely because we have rationality (a soul) and can love (will), we intuitively know that there is more than us. (This argument also goes back to Cicero.) Thus naturalism fails even as we try to take naturalism seriously. If we take naturalism seriously, Anselm is arguing, we will deduce its shortcomings and logically conclude—through our perceptions and experiences in the world—that there must be a God.

Anselm’s theological realism, then, elevates empiricism in Western epistemology. In fact, this is probably Anselm’s greatest contribution to Western thought. He thoroughly rehabilitated empirical and a posteriori epistemology through his theology. Given his location in England, it isn’t a surprise that England would become the bastion of empiricism in the centuries going forward. Another point of irony is how Anselm’s theology is “scientific.” Anselm’s theology is dependent upon observation, testing, and experiences. Anselm lays out, in crude form, the future schema of the scientific method and scientific outlook (even if science would eventually push away God). To know we perceive; to know we observe; to know we encounter—through these purely empirical undertakings we can objectively say positive things about our world. This all, in fact, goes back to Anselm’s theological realism even if it has a metaphysical and theological dimension to it.

Anselm remains a crucial figure in the history of philosophy, theology, and even science. Anselm’s theological realism stands in a middle ground between naturalistic denialism and blind fideism. It affirms, contrary to fideism, that we can objectively know God apart from revelation. It also affirms, contrary to naturalism, that the natural world and our perceptions therein point to a God beyond nature. Lastly, Anselm’s theological realism affirms that we can objectively know God in his attributes, being, and substance from our own experiences. Anselm’s longstanding legacy, as mentioned, is his empirical premises for knowing God. Almost all of Anselm’s arguments in his many writings rest on empirical premises. As such, he paved the way for recovery of empirical epistemology in the West, also greatly influencing the future scholasticism which would marry faith and reason in the same spirit articulated by Anselm.

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