Monday, May 9, 2011

Anselm on the Trinity - A Devotional Reading

So this is another paper I wrote for class. It's about the Trinity, how it can be understood using only reason, and how this is in itself a spiritual and devotional discipline. It's relevant to the use (necessity) of thinking deeply about our faith and what it means to "love God with all your mind." Some of you might be interested. If you're not, that's fine. The regular posts should resume very soon. Oh, and if you don't remember who Anselm is, see my posts on his (in)famous ontological argument for God's existence here and here.


On Reading St. Anselm Deviotionally


What attention has been given to St. Anselm’s writings in the contemporary philosophical literature is almost exclusively devoted to his so-called “ontological argument” for the existence of God, which appears in various forms in his Proslogion and subsequent letters. The bulk of this attention is critical. By comparison, almost nothing is said about the rest of Anselm’s extensive writing, or about how his defenses of traditional doctrine and his view of God from the Proslogion as the greatest conceivable being inform one another.[1] Even the relatively few defenses of Anselm’s thought still generally treat his work in the same way one would treat a contemporary piece of analytic philosophy. In this paper I will attempt to read Anselm in another way, a way that I believe to be more faithful to his intentions as a writer. This will involve taking seriously his claim to be writing devotionally; indeed, it will require framing the entire discussion of his thought in light of that consideration.
In order to do this, I will consider a somewhat less-reviewed piece of Anselm’s writing—the Monologion, which was the first of his widely circulated works. More specifically, I will examine his discussion of the Trinity contained therein, and how the human mind might benefit from serious contemplation of such an ineffable mystery. In section one of the present paper, then, I will examine the context of the Monologion, and how it ought to be read in light of that context. In section two, I will lay out Anselm’s analysis of the Trinity, and attempt to deal with a particularly problematic objection to it. Finally, in section three, I will provide an illustration of how Anselm’s thought regarding the Trinity might be considered in its proper, devotional context, with particular emphasis given to what I call the mystical (3.1), perspectival (3.2), practical (3.3), and personal (3.4) dimensions.

§ 1 – Contextual Considerations

Anselm’s intention in writing the Monologion was not to develop a systematic theology. It was, rather, to assist his monks in worshiping God more deeply and with the full engagement of their rational faculties. The truths of God’s nature, including His Trinitarian identity, omnipotence, aseity, etc. were already known by revelation and were clearly laid out in Scripture and the creeds. Further, they had already been expounded on in detail by fathers before Anselm. Anselm was working within this tradition, not in an attempt at originality, but with the hope of using his reason to try to understand these great truths more fully.
It is very important that for him, this was an act of worship. The Monologion itself is a devotional work. The conclusions Anselm draws within it are directed toward the end of deepening the spiritual lives of the monks in Anselm’s charge and of any others who might read them. Anselm took pains to make clear in the Prologue to the work that he had nowhere stepped outside the bounds of Scripture or of the writings of the fathers (particularly Augustine), and that the Monologion should be read as a sort of devotional thinking-out-loud within those parameters. As is clear from the note to the archbishop that accompanied the first untitled manuscript of the Monologion, Anselm was so serious about this intention that he was willing to destroy the entire work if it were found lacking.[2] In fact, it is unlikely that Anselm even would have wanted these works (both the contemplative Monologion and the more prayerful Proslogion) to be circulated anywhere near as widely as they have been; he certainly could not have envisioned their elevation to their current status, nor his own to the status of “father” alongside Augustine himself.
Indeed, Anselm was for a while reluctant to see these works circulated, even among his ecclesiastical superiors, for fear of misinterpretation. Richard Sharpe writes,
Another letter reveals Anselm’s caution in the early stages of distributing this work [the Monologion]. He reluctantly sends a copy, still untitled, to Abbot Rainaldus, who has repeatedly asked for it over a long period, but asks him to show it only to those rationabilibus et quietis (“capable of reason and contemplation”), who will read the work as it should be read.[3]
This is an important point. It does not mean that we should not take Anselm’s conclusions (it may not even be proper to call them “arguments” in this context) seriously, or even examine them critically. We should, and there is surely fruit to be gained from doing so. No, the point is important because it changes how we interpret Anselm in his less-clear moments, some of which have turned out to be rather important. Naturally, we ought to read charitably at all times so far as we can, but this takes on a bit more significance when we realize that the text we are analyzing is a personal meditation intended for at best a small audience of peers, and not a rigorous philosophical treatise intended to be scrutinized for the next thousand years.

§ 2 – The Trinity in the Monologion

Anselm’s argument for the Trinity—which he does not think can be established through reason alone, but rather understood, in the sense that true conclusions can be reached about it—begins with the doctrine of God’s aseity.[4] From the Latin a se (“of itself”), this doctrine holds that God exists and is what He is entirely through Himself and no other. Nothing about Him in any way depends on anything outside Him. Closely related to God’s aseity is His simplicity. Since God is not what He is through some other things in the way that contingent/dependent creatures are, it cannot be the case that adjectives like just, good, true, etc., can be predicated of him in the same way that they are predicated of contingent beings. So, when we say that Solomon was just or that Mother Teresa was good, we mean that the property of justice or goodness could be rightly applied to them.[5] However, when we say that God is just and good, we actually mean that He is justice and goodness, since these things have their meaning in and through Him, and not the other way around. Having established this, Anselm then explains[6] that, “Whatever [God] is in any way, he is in every way and under every aspect. For whatever he in any way essentially is, that is the whole of what he is. Therefore, whatever is truly said of his essence is not understood as expressing what sort of thing or how great he is, but rather as expressing what he is.”[7] So, God cannot be “composite,” in the way created beings are, but He must be simple in His essence, since “every composite needs the things of which it is composed if it is to subsist, and it owes what it is to them,” and this would of course violate God’s aseity.[8]
Anselm then moves on to an explicit discussion of the Trinity. He begins by establishing that God’s utterance is the same as Himself;[9] that is, it is essential to Him. By utterance, he means something roughly analogous to “understanding” or “thought.” For example, before a painter puts any paint on a canvas, she presumably has a plan of action, which is then realized. Anselm considers this a sort of internal speech act, in the language of thought.[10] Thus, anything the painter accomplishes (and analogously, anything God accomplishes) is accomplished through this “utterance.” Anselm then reasons, “For if the supreme spirit made nothing except through himself, and whatever was made by him was made through his utterance, how can that utterance be anything other than what he himself is?”[11] And, since we have already established that God is essentially simple, this utterance, or “Word,” must be one is essence (or “consubstantial”) with Him.
And yet, God (or the “supreme spirit”) and His Word must be distinct in some way.[12] And this way is of course in their relation to one another, for the Word is the word of God, and not the other way around. As Anselm says, “They must be two because of their individual properties. For it is the distinguishing characteristic of the second that he exists from the first, and it is the distinguishing characteristic of the first that the second exists from him.”[13] And so, God and His Word are one in essence and yet distinct in some other way, since the latter is born—or begotten—from the former. The Word depends on the One whose word He is, and is the perfect image of His mental life (i.e. His essence), bearing a resemblance much like a child to a parent. Thus, they can be truly referred to as Father and Son.[14] The Son has His being from the Father, and yet the two are of one essence, and aseity is maintained for both individually. This is not contradictory, since, as Anselm says,
Just as the Father has essence and wisdom and life in himself, so that it is not through someone else’s but through his own essence that he exists, through his own wisdom that he is wise, and through his own life that he lives, so by begetting the Son he grants the Son to have essence and wisdom and life in himself, so that it is not through someone else’s essence, wisdom, and life but through his own that he subsists, is wise, and lives. Otherwise the being of the Father and the Son would not be the same, nor would the Son be equal to the Father. And we saw above quite clearly how false that is.[15]
            Anselm also believes that the relationship between the Father and the Son is analogous to the relationship between human memory and understanding.[16] This is an important point, since it will figure prominently in Anselm’s discussion of the Holy Spirit. We have already discussed above how by “utterance” or “word” Anselm means something like “understanding.” He now applies to the Father the concept of “memory”—i.e. the source of the understanding:
It seems that a word is born from the memory, as is more clearly seen in the case of our own mind. For since the human mind is not always thinking of itself, as it always remembers itself, it is clear that when it does think of itself, its word is born from its memory. Hence it is evident that if it were always thinking of itself, its word would always be born from its memory.[17]
William Mann’s interpretation of the difficult italicized portion is helpful here:
“Since a human mind is not always thinking of itself, as it is always…[retaining its capacity to focus its attention on itself], it is clear that when it is thinking of itself, its word [in this case, its concept of itself] is…[brought to consciousness by its faculty of recollection accessing its storehouse of concepts].”[18]
So, the Father is memory through Himself, while the Son is the perfect image of the memory of the Father, His eternally-begotten understanding.
Anselm then moves on to discuss the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son love one another, he says, in the way that reason requires that things are to be loved—i.e. according to their nature. Both the Father and the Son are supremely excellent and so must love one another supremely. Indeed, this love is itself as great as the Father and Son, since in each case it is proportional to the greatness of its object, which is infinite. This love, then, is equally as great as God’s memory and understanding of Himself, which are in turn equally as great as His essence.[19] And since nothing can be equal in greatness to the “supreme essence” except that essence itself, it follows that this Love shares in that essence, and is as much God as the Father or the Son.[20]
Just like we saw with the Father and the Son, however, the Love of God must be distinct from the Word and its Source. And, like the distinction between the Father and the Son, the Love is distinct by virtue of its relation to the other two. After establishing that the Love proceeds equally from the Father and the Son,[21] Anselm explains that this procession is a kind of “breathing out” (Latin spiratio), since “it seems there may be no more appropriate expression for the way in which he sends forth his love—which proceeds from him ineffably, not by departing from him but by existing from him—than ‘breathing out.’”[22] Thus, it is appropriate, by way of the method of His procession, to call this love the Spirit. Further, the Father, Son, and Spirit exist equally in one another and are all of one supreme essence, “for indeed the supreme spirit understands and loves his whole memory, remembers and loves his whole understanding, and remembers and understands his whole love.”[23] They are thus coeternal and consubstantial.
In his article in The Cambridge Companion to Anselm, William Mann points out a particularly troubling difficulty with Anselm’s analysis as presented.[24] Early on in his discussion,[25] Anselm asserts that no relational term ascribed to God, or any other being, refers to his essence. This follows from Anselm’s conception of God’s aseity: if relations were essential to Him (e.g. the relation that He is greater than His creation), then He would have His essence through those relations. This would of course be a violation of His aseity, and so Anselm concludes that relational (or “relative”) terms must not refer to God’s essence. However, the problem is that “begotten” and “breathed out” are definitely relational terms, and they seem to be applied to God’s essence. Mann argues:
Either the Father begets the Son essentially or not. If the former, then [Anselm’s principle that no relational term ascribed to God refers to His essence] is false. If the latter, that is, if the Father does not beget the son essentially, then it would seem that the Son’s existence is as contingent as the existence of any creature…Anselm is in danger here of capitulating to Arianism.[26]
Since the second horn of Mann’s dilemma is obviously unacceptable, he thinks we ought to reject Anselm’s notion that relational terms do not refer to God’s essence. However, if we do so, not only is God’s aseity called into question (a problem Mann does not seem to notice), Anselm may fall prey to the charge of modalism,[27] since the only thing that obviously separates the persons of the Trinity is their relation to one another, namely, begetting and procession. But if these relational terms are essential, and God is only one essence, then it seems like Anselm may indeed be in danger of unintentional modalism.
Mann solves this problem by reference to another of Anselm’s analogies—that of the Nile. The Nile, Anselm says, is made up of spring, river, and lake, none of which is identical to the others, and yet all of which are correctly said to be the Nile. Lest we think this is still modalist (or tritheistic, depending on how it is construed), he further states that “the whole Nile is the spring, the whole Nile is the river, the whole Nile is the lake.”[28] Thus, thinks Mann, Anselm saves himself from the modalist charge. To my mind, however, this response is inadequate, since all it shows is that Anselm thinks his understanding is orthodox, a claim for which we already have ample evidence apart from the Nile analogy. If Mann’s dilemma is correct, then the problem is that Anselm’s view of relational terms and God’s essence commits him to a modalist position, unintentionally. The Nile analogy does not solve this problem.
How, then, are we to understand Anselm here? If we are to read him charitably—and we should (that is, after all, what this paper is about)—it seems unlikely that he would miss this seeming contradiction; it cannot both be the case that no relations refer to God’s essence and that God is essentially relational by virtue of the Trinity. I believe the answer lies in the second horn of Mann’s dilemma. Referring back to the italicized portion, Mann claims that if the begetting relation between the Father and the Son does not hold essentially, then the Son’s existence is contingent. However, this seems to me to confuse essence with necessity.[29] The opposite of “contingent” is not “essential;” it is “necessary.” It seems that it is possible for the begetting relation between the Father and the Son to be a necessary one without being essential to God’s nature, in the technical, medieval sense of “essential.” And this necessity would be sufficient to maintain the genuine distinctions between the persons of the Trinity and thus avoid the charge of modalism. In fact, it is likely that the model of essence and necessity that Anselm was working with was much closer to that of Aristotle—who maintained a clear distinction between the two concepts (i.e. not all necessary truths are essential truths)—than to our present understanding, which makes no such distinction.[30] We cannot of course be certain of this, as it is a very complex issue, but it does at any rate seem to be the more charitable reading.

§ 3 – A Devotional Reading

            Anselm’s discussion of the Trinity thus clearly (I hope) laid out, I will now attempt to provide an example of how he may be read in his proper, devotional context. It seems to me (and, I believe, to Anselm) that serious, demanding contemplation of the doctrine of the Trinity can have devotional and practical significance. Indeed, it is my contention that for Anselm and those like him, discussion of deep theological concepts such as this one, are useless if done in a purely academic manner. Thinking about God ought to change you. There are at least four areas or ways in which theological meditation can effect such change: the mystical, perspectival, practical, and personal.

§ 3.1 – The Mystical Dimension

            By “mystical,” I do not intend the modern, typically derogatory meaning of “cultic” or “separated from reality.” Rather, I have in mind the traditional Christian understanding of the inner spiritual life, and the experiences that accompany that life. A good example would be the practice of Lectio Divina, in which the Christian reads, meditates on, and prays over a passage of Scripture, culminating in an intensely personal communion with God and resting in His presence. This is, I think, something like what Anselm had in mind for his Monologion. For him, meditation on the divine essence, using only our reason (the part of us most like God) is perhaps the purest form of worship. So he states:
And so it is evident that just as the rational mind is the only thing among all creatures that can rise up to seek him, it is no less true that the rational mind is the only thing through which the mind itself can best make progress in finding him. For we have already realized that it comes especially close to him through the likeness of its natural essence. So what is more obvious than this: that the more diligently the rational mind tries to come to know itself, the more efficaciously it rises up to know him; and the more it neglects to look upon itself, the more it falls away from seeing him?[31]
Here Anselm beautifully illustrates the mystical dimension of theological contemplation. The more we employ that part of us closest to the divine essence (i.e. our minds), the closer we will come to His presence. And this clearly includes not just contemplation of God, but contemplation of ourselves as well, since the more accurately we know ourselves—being made in His image—the more readily can we come to know Him. Meditation on God’s Trinitarian nature helps to clear away all else but God’s essence and ours, in active communion with one another. As Thomas Williams puts it,
The most excellent created essence, the one that is most like God, is the rational mind. For the mind is the only creature that can remember, understand, and love itself—or better still, remember, understand, and love God—and is thus "a true image of that essence who through his memory and understanding and love constitutes an ineffable Trinity." The mind can therefore serve as "a mirror for itself”; it cannot look upon God "face to face," but by looking upon itself it sees an image of God.[32]
This, then, is how we follow the Biblical mandate to love God with all our mind, as well as with all our heart, soul, and strength.[33]

§ 3.2 – The Perspectival Dimension

            Secondly, considering God’s nature puts us in right perspective to him and draws out of us the only appropriate response to grasping a measure of his infinite excellence and, by contrast, our finite depravity: praise and worship. It may be objected here that it makes no sense to praise God for his excellence, since on Anselm’s view, excellence is just God’s nature; He could not be or act otherwise than He does. Anselm, however, understood that the gulf between the infinite God and finite creature is such that there is no way in which the creature could ever stand in judgment to the Creator. God is praiseworthy by virtue of who He is, not by virtue of our evaluation of His performance. As Katherin Rogers puts it,
We may praise one another as more or less successful imitators of the divine, but God we worship. God's praiseworthiness, then, finds not the least echo in creation. In the faith which gave rise to Anselm’s philosophical explorations the first and greatest commandment is that we should worship God alone. No creature is worthy of worship in any way at all.[34]
Devotional contemplation of this truth fills the believer with praise, much like it did the Psalmist when he contemplated the heavenly order and the splendor of creation.[35]

§ 3.3 – The Practical Dimension

Struggling with difficult questions regarding the essential doctrines of our religion is one of the surest ways to build faith and character, where faith is defined as confidence in what we know about God, which motivates us to action. This is especially true when we attempt to understand God’s revealed truth using reason alone, apart from the revelation of Scripture or tradition (which was Anselm’s explicit goal with the Monologion).[36] This is not because reason can give us anything revelation cannot, nor is it true that we can derive the truths of revelation from reason alone. Rather, such rational contemplation can help us to better understand those already-revealed truths. This is the business of theology, and (for Anselm and others) it should also be the business of our devotional lives. Worshiping in this way builds confidence in what we already know and thereby affects the way we act on that knowledge, both where it concerns us and others. Such confidence inspires us to share the truth of God’s message and the Good News of Christ’s atonement with those around us. This is precisely what God wants us to do. It helps to overcome doubt, and more importantly, it helps us to use doubt to better understand God, ourselves, and our relationship with Him and with one another.

§ 3.4 – The Personal Dimension

            Lastly, perhaps the greatest way in which serious, methodical contemplation of the divine, Trinitarian essence can effect real change in the sincere believer is by helping her to achieve a deeper, truer understanding of God’s love. As Anselm shows in his discussion of the Holy Spirit, there is no sense in which God can be said to be less than infinitely loving. For His love is literally a description (perhaps the best description) of what He is in His very essence. This knowledge then frames everything else we think about Him, including how we read and interpret Scripture, as well as how we understand ourselves, and how we deal with other people. It gives us a foundation from which we can deal with the more difficult, and less certain, aspects of the Christian story (e.g. how one ought to understand the difficult moral passages of the Old Testament). And most importantly, understanding God’s thoughts toward us motivates change as nothing else can. Once we learn that He values us as He values Himself (since we bear His image and are, of all created things, closest to His essence), how we understand suffering and evil changes, as does how we treat those around us who also bear His image—especially those we might consider enemies.
            In this paper I have argued that Anselm, particularly his Monologion and Proslogion were intended to be read, and ought to be read, in a devotional context. I have also tried to provide a brief sketch of how this might be done by considering his penetrating discussion of the Trinity. It should be clear that such a devotional reading does not mean that one must abandon the high standards of evaluation and precision befitting a philosophical project. It does, however, require that one consider the text in light of its intended purpose, and evaluate it primarily based on the extent to which it achieves that purpose. When considered this way, Anselm passes with flying colors.


[1] There are of course exceptions. Prominent among them is Karl Barth’s study Fides quaerens intellectum. See Vincent G. Potter, “Karl Barth and the Ontological Argument” The Journal of Religion 45, no. 4 (1965): 309-25. 
[2] See Richard Sharpe, “Anselm as Author: Publishing in the Late Eleventh Century” Journal of Medieval Latin 19 (2009): 16. It may be objected that Anselm must not have been too sincere about this, since Archbishop Lanfranc did apparently recommend that more weight be given to the authority of Scripture, advice that Anselm evidently did not take. However, such action would have been contrary to Anselm’s purposes in authoring the document, since by his own account in the published Prologue to the work, it was written in response to repeated requests from his monks to develop “a sort of pattern for meditating on [the divine essence],” in which “absolutely nothing…would be established by the authority of Scripture.”
[3] Ibid., 17.
[4] Anselm, Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 9-13.
[5] The “property” concept is, however, controversial. See Jeffrey E. Brower, “Simplicity and Aseity” in Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105-28.
[6] Anselm, Basic Writings, 24-5.
[7] Ibid., 25.
[8] Ibid., 24.
[9] Ibid., 38.
[10] See William E. Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity” in The Cambridge Companion to Anselm, ed. Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 264-5.
[11] Anselm, Basic Writings, 39.
[12] Ibid., 46-7.
[13] Ibid., 47.
[14] Ibid., 47-8.
[15] Ibid., 50-1.
[16] Ibid., 53.
[17] Ibid., 53 (italics mine).
[18] Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity,” 268-74.
[19] Anselm, Basic Writings, 53-5.
[20] Ibid., 55.
[21] Ibid., 55. This is a distinctly Latin doctrine and is the source of the initial split between the Western and Eastern churches during Anselm’s lifetime. It has to do with the wording of the Nicene Creed regarding the Holy Spirit. Initially, the Spirit was described as proceeding only from the Father, but the Roman church eventually officially added the term filioque (Latin for “and the Son”) to show the equal procession of the Spirit from the first and second persons of the Trinity. The East, however, saw this revision as a dangerous subordination of the Spirit to a mere relationship between the Father and Son, and refused the addition. Anselm, however, actively supported the change.
[22] Ibid., 57.
[23] Ibid., 58.
[24] Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity,” 274.
[25] Anselm, Basic Writings, 21-3.
[26] Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity,” 274 (italics mine). Arianism is the 4th century heresy, which states that the Son was created by and is therefore subordinate to the Father.
[27] “Modalism” is one of two ways one can err regarding the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Contrasted with “tritheism,” modalism is the view that God is only one person who manifests Himself and is described is three distinct ways. Tritheism, then, is the view that God is three, distinct essences. The orthodox view, set forth in the creeds and upheld by Anselm, is that God is one in essence and three in person.
[28] Ibid., 277.
[29] In contemporary terminology (which may not be best here), necessity is broadly defined as “holding in all possible worlds.”
[30] See David Charles, Aristotle on Meaning and Essence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[31] Anselm, Basic Writings, 65.
[32] Thomas Williams, “God Who Sows the Seed and Gives the Growth: Anselm’s Theology of the Holy Spirit” ATR 89, no. 4 (1986): 619. Williams’ quote is from Anselm, Basic Writings, 65.
[33] Luke 10:27
[34] Katherin Rogers, “Anselm on Praising a Necessarily Prefect Being” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 34, no. 1 (1993): 49.
[35] Psalm 8
[36] See note 2 above.

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