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Anselm’s Faith Seeking Understanding

March 21, 2008

Many Reformed folks have been taught that the ontological proof for God’s existence is completely worthless for apologetics. This idea is usually backed up by the argument that Anselm was a rationalist who thought he could prove God just by thinking really hard. But, is that not a bit anachronistic? Was Anselm Descartes? Did he start from pure reason apart from any belief in the Christian God? Was his a strict natural theology? Anselm’s ontological argument is not Natural Theology in the Enlightenment sense.  He does, nonetheless, seek to demonstrate the existence of God based on an “independent proof”, independent in that his argument is not a direct appeal to the authority of special revelation. However, his “independent argument” is not independent from his a priori belief in the existence of the Triune God.  Anselm does not begin from autonomous reason but from the presupposition of God’s existence.  Unquestionably one of the most famous lines of the Proslogion shows him to be in harmony with this idea, “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ [Isa. 7:9].”[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg concurs that Anselm’s ontological argument is not a radically a posteriori postulation,

“…if we have arrived at the idea of God…on other grounds [than pure reason], and if we then form the conception of a being with maximal perfection – and if, in addition, we raise the question of whom we should affirm this highest perfection – then in such a case it must be clear that this attribute can be affirmed only of the one God.  It is in this sense that we are to understand Anselm’s thesis that God is the being ‘greater than which none greater can be conceived.'”[2] 

In other words, Anselm’s argument for God, as that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought, is based on the a prioriassumption of God’s existence and should be seen within the paradigm of faith seeking understanding. If Anselm’s ontological argument is seen within the proper context and proper authorial intent then its greatest strengths will gleam through its weaknesses.  If one understands the ontological argument as lying within the realm of faith seeking understanding then the telos of the argument can be seen as what it is, namely, a greater perception of certain epistemological presuppositions of the Christian faith.  To argue that God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought helps those who are already faithful to the God of the Bible to understand God as True Being, to develop a means of grasping through cognition (as much as man in his finitude is able) the incomprehensibility of the infinite – and, at the same time, the closer-than-can-be-thought of the immanent.  Paul Helm perpetuates the strength-in-correct-use of the ontological argument.  He states,

“If we reflect on the concept of God’s almightiness, then according to Anselm we shall see that real existence is implied by that concept, and that to deny the existence of God, having accepted this concept of God, is both metaphysical and spiritual folly.  If we really have in our understanding the idea of ‘Almighty’ then we shall have the idea of something than which no greater can be thought.”[3] 

That something-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought must be greater than the finite yet not defined only in relation to the finite.  It must transcend the abstract to return as concrete.  It must be Lord and King. Anselm’s ontological argument cannot be used outside of a Christian context for the purpose of proving the existence of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (mia ousia, treis hypostases) – in other words one cannot rely on reason alone to prove the existence of the Triune God (a statement that some would take issue with).[4] When one takes the context of the Proslogion into consideration – Anselm understood reason to work only within the bounds of revelation – this no longer poses a problem.  If the rational man listens to the discussion of Anselm in this work he will come to consider the faith of Anselm as utterly dependant on the movement of God to man in revelation. “O supreme and inaccessible light; O whole and blessed truth, how far You are from me who am so close to You!”[5]

Notes:
[1] Anselm of Canterbury, Major WorksOxford World Classics. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans, Eds., (New York, NY:  Oxford University, 1998), 83.
[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Metaphysics and the Idea of God (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1990), 28, 29.
[3] Van Til notes, “When we speak of our concept or notion of God, we should be fully aware that by that concept we have an analogical reproduction of the notion that God has of himself.” Cited in Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), 694.
[4] Paul Helm, Faith and Understanding, Reason and Religion Series (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1997), 122.
[5] Anselm, 82.

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