Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Some thoughts on Anselm's Monologion: Reason and Revelation


While I've read up on medieval church history, my first hand acquaintance with the scholastic writings of the period is quite limited. In an endeavour to rectify this lacuna I'm making way way through the Oxford World's Classics edition of Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works. The collection includes Monologion, Proslogion  and Anselm's most famous work, Why God Became Man. I've just finished Monologion. Admittedly this doesn't make me an instant expert and guide to Anselm's thought, but here are some reflections on what the theologian intended to be a "model meditation".

In his Prologue Anselm explains that he wrote the Monoligion in response to requests from his fellow monks at the Abbey of Bec. They wanted him to set down on paper a meditation on the essence of the divine. They made one important proviso, "that nothing whatever be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture, but [by] the constraints of reason concisely to prove and the clarity of truth clearly to show... the conclusions of distinct investigations." (P. 5 - all quotes from OWC edition).

Initially Anselm tried to excuse himself from such an onerous task, but his friends prevailed upon him to put pen to paper. As requested he attempted to proceed on  the basis of the "constraints of reason" rather than the authority of Scripture. But this does not mean that in the Monologion human reason is the sole source and authoritative standard of Anselm's meditations. He was no freethinking rationalist. Indeed, the theologian claimed that what he wrote was not inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Fathers, especially the "Blessed Augustine" (p. 6).

Anselm argues from first principles concerning the supreme essence without appealing to the text of Scripture. But it is evident that his main assumptions concerning the supreme essence are in fact derived from the Bible. He maintains the Creator/creature distinction and even sets out an elaborate doctrine of the Trinity. However, it is difficult to see how he would have derived a doctrine of the Trinity from the "constraints of reason" had not his thinking already been subject to biblical revelation. That is the key flaw in Anselm's methodology. He should not have accepted the proviso "that that nothing whatever be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture".

To use an Anselmian phrase theological meditation is a work of faith seeking understanding of God's self-revelation in nature and Scripture. It is as well to be upfront about that rather than try and pretend that one's conclusions are derived simply from the dictates of human reason. Rational thought processes are an important tool in understanding the meaning and coherence of biblical revelation, but without revelation reason has nothing with which to work.

In attempting to prove the existence of the supreme essence and say things about the divine being without resorting to Scripture, Anselm gives reason too high a place in his theological method. The finite human mind cannot know the infinite God unless the infinite One reveals himself to us. Towards the end of his meditation Anselm writes, "It is patently obvious, therefore, as can be, that the rational creature is made for this purpose: to love the supreme essence above all other goods... So it is quite clear, as a result, that what the rational creation ought to do, is put all  its will into becoming conscious of, understanding and loving the supreme good." (P. 74). However, becoming conscious of, understanding and loving God is not something that human beings can accomplish of their own will. Not even unfallen Adam could simply choose to know his Maker. He was subject to God's sovereignly-bestowed general and special revelation. If that is the case with human beings before the fall, it is certainly true of man in sin, Romans 8:7, 1 Corinthians 2:14. Fallen humanity does not strive for, but rejects and suppresses the true knowledge of God, Romans 1:20-21, 28.

As a true Augustinian Anselm would no doubt have granted that sin has darkened the mind of fallen human beings. But he does not say as much in the Monologion. The impression is given that human beings may know God by the "constraints of reason". It needs to be made clear that we need supernatural enlightenment if we are to know the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 1 John 5:20. 

3 comments:

Andrew said...

I've tried to rectify my Lacuna, but the Renault garage say it'll cost me...boom boom!

This comment really adds to this thoughtful post doesn't it?!!?

Exiled Preacher said...

Very droll, Andrew.

jide said...

Anselm's friends strike me as mischevous fellows. Perhaps they missed a few meditations....

Your statement "The finite human mind cannot know the infinite God unless the infinite One reveals himself to us" summed it all up.

The finite human mind that uses rational thought processes to prove the divine will suffer from the same limitations described inside Plato's Cave.