Anselm on the divine nature

I want to shift gears away from Anselm’s argument for God’s existence and focus on his account of God’s nature (though, as noted, he doesn’t think these are wholly separable).

Recall that, for Anselm, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived (or, “the greatest conceivable being” for short). In chapter V, Anselm amplifies on this definition:

WHAT are you, then, Lord God, than whom nothing greater can be conceived? But what are you, except that which, as the highest of all beings, alone exists through itself, and creates all other things from nothing? For, whatever is not this is less than a thing which can be conceived of. But this cannot be conceived of you. What good, therefore, does the supreme Good lack, through which every good is? Therefore, you are just, truthful, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. For it is better to be just than not just; better to be blessed than not blessed.

“Whatever it is better to be than not to be” seems to be the controlling idea as Anselm discusses some of God’s key attributes. For example, he says that it is better to be “omnipotent, compassionate, passionless” than not (chapter VI).

In explicating these attributes, Anselm offers arguments intending to show, for instance, how God can be said to be omnipotent even though he can’t, say, lie or change the past, or how God can be compassionate even though he is “passionless.” He also attempts to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. Furthermore, God, according to Anselm, does not exist in space or time, and God exists as triune (Father, Son, and Spirit).

Anselm’s arguments vary in their persuasiveness, but probably the most disputable point is his method of deriving divine attributes from general premises about “what it is better to be than not to be.” To take the most obvious example, much recent theology has questioned whether it is really better to be “passionless” and specifically whether divine impassibility is compatible with divine love and compassion.

Obviously, the tradition of “perfect being” theology that Anselm represents (and in large measure established) has been hugely influential in Christian theology. The question that has been asked by more recent theology, though, is whether the way this tradition depicts God is faithful to the disclosure of the divine nature that Christians believe occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and which is witnessed to in the Bible. I’m not dumb enough to think I can settle that issue in a blog post, but I do think that Anselm’s appeal to “what it is better to be than not to be” is bound to seem far less straightforward and persuasive today than it may have in his time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s