On Anselm and Bare Reason

At the beginning of the year I started reading through the works of Anselm of Canterbury. I have decided to post some of my miscellaneous thoughts on different aspects of his writing from time to time throughout the remainder of the year.

The preface of the Monologion lays out the goal of the book: for Anselm to write intelligibly and accessibly on the divine essence without making his argument from the authority of scripture. My initial skepticism in that approach flowed from the impossibility to separate the rational from the revealed. Dividing the discernment of God’s essence from nature, apart from scripture, is the beginning of jettisoning divine self-revelation in scripture in the pursuit of rationality. His approach to me smacked of pursuing of a neutral starting point (an impossibility), namely human reason.

But there were two aspects of the Monologion that cooled this skepticism. The first was the very obvious ways in which scripture and the Christian tradition had informed the questions he asked, the priorities in his logic, and the vocabulary employed. Examples include the divine essence creating through the ontological ‘word’, the dynamic between the divine essence and his word revealing the autotheistic nature of the word, which prompted the differentiation between the two being a difference of ‘persons’, and the relationship between these two persons being one of begetting and being begotten. The absence of non-Christian thinkers arriving at these questions and conclusions is also evidence of the necessity of scripture and tradition for rightly thinking about God. Anselm’s approach was rational and reasonable, but it demonstrated the impossibility of utilizing naked reason, as if the reasoner is an unshaped thinker. The reality of scripture shaping his approach, even if he avoid relying on scripture’s authority, is made all the more clear by the Proslogion. There the style of argumentation, vocabulary, and outline of thought are very similar to the Monologion. The difference is that the later work is overflowing with scriptural citations and appeals. This draws out how much of the logic of the Monologion is eminently biblical, even if not made explicit.

This led to the second allaying of my skepticism. Anselm did employ logic without appealing to scripture’s authority, and yet arrived at the same place as scripture. This was a brilliant demonstration of scripture’s logic and reasonability, not begging the question. Without citing scripture, Anselm was able to show that special revelation’s rationality does not boil down to “because I said so” but is the best way of making sense of the universe. He also showed that rationality is not neutral. The pursuit of “just the facts” is the pursuit of God’s facts. To think about the nature of the divine essence is to rely on a tool created by God (the human mind) in the pursuit of considering the world he also created. To rely on natural revelation (the mind and creation) to consider God is to rely on his authority just as much as relying on special revelation. The difference, to allude to Anselm’s other works, is that sin has twisted natural revelation in ways that it has not with special revelation. It takes the regeneration and sanctification of the mind in faith to be able to consider the divine the essence apart from scripture and come to a scriptural conclusion.