Thursday, August 30, 2012

Anselm on faith seeking understanding of God's justice and mercy

In fits and starts I've been reading my way through Anselm's Proslogion. I finished it yesterday. In this work Anselm sought to put forward a convincing argument for the existence of God. Although he deploys rational arguments for God's existence, he is well aware that faith is indispensable for the right understanding of God and his ways. "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand." (Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, OUP, 2008,  p. 87). 

The Proslogion is an exercise of 'holy reason', faith seeking understanding. Anselm begins by rousing his mind to the contemplation of God and prays, "Come, then Lord my God, teach me where and how to seek You" (p. 85). Something like Augustine's Confessions, the work is carried out in dialogue with God and is interspersed with frequent prayer. 

Unlike the earlier Monologion, wher"nothing whatever be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture" (see here), Anselm frequently appeals to the Bible at various points in the Proslogion. That said, his use of Scripture tends to be allusive and devotional rather than anything else. Most of what he has to say is biblical in content, but it is not explicitly rooted in reflection on God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture. More specifically, the work is not sufficiently shaped by the Bible's unfolding drama of God's redemptive action in Christ. I'll return to that point in a moment. 

Anselm's key argument for the existence of God is that he is "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" (p. 87). Even the atheistic fool who says in his heart "there is no God" (Psalm 14:1, 53:1) has an idea in his mind of One who is "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought", otherwise why would he deny that such a being existed? And if God exists in the mind, then says Anselm, he must also exist in reality, which is greater than existing only in the mind. If God is truly "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought" then he must exist both in the mind and in reality (p. 87-88). That's basically it, anyway. 

Anselm goes on to work this out in detail, showing that God is the perfect being, eternal, all powerful, just and good, who dwells in unapproachable light. For now I simply want to focus on two aspects of the Proslogion: Anselm's construction of the relationship between the justice and mercy of God and his account of the doctrine of the Trinity. I suggest that in both cases the theologian's treatment of these subjects is suffers from a lack of orientation to the drama of redemption. 

Anselm contemplates "How the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has mercy on the wicked" (p. 91-94). After some discussion of this point, the theologian attempts to resolve this conundrum by appealing to the sovereign will of God, "For that alone is just which You will, and that is not just which You do not will. Thus, then your mercy is derived from your justice since it is just that You are so good and since it is just that You are so good that You are good even in forgiving." (P. 94).

Anselm's proposal is not altogether satisfactory for a couple of reasons. He seems to come perilously close to 'divine command theory', i.e. the view that what is good is good simply because God wills it so. For example, God has decreed that telling the truth is good, but he could conceivably have decreed that lying is good. That would make God's will capricious and goodness arbitrary. It is better and more biblical to think of God's will as expressive of who he is as a good and just Deity. In other words, what he wills is good because he could not have chosen to do otherwise and be consistent with himself. Contrary to what Anselm appears to be saying here ('that alone is just which You will'), justice is not the product of the divine will, but is expressive of God's character.

The theologian returns to this theme is his great treatise, Why God Became Man. He discusses whether it would have been fitting for God to forgive sin out of mercy alone without requiring restitution. Boso, Anselm's interlocutor appeals to a form of 'divine command theory' to argue that God is free to forgive without restitution if he so wills, as whatever he wishes is right and proper (p. 285). Anselm objects to this and finds himself having to qualify his own words in the Proslogion,
A statement that, 'What God wills is just and what he does not will is unjust', is not to be understood as meaning that, 'If God wishes anything whatsoever that is unfitting, it is just since it is he who wills it....[I]t does not belong to his freedom and benevolence or will to release unpunished a sinner who has not repaid to God what he has taken away from him. (p. 285-286).
Anselm has to clarify what he said in his earlier work to justify his thesis that God became man in Christ because it was only on the basis of his atoning work that sins could be justly forgiven by God. Despite the impression given in the Proslogion, he is not, in fact a 'divine command theorist' after all. But that leaves us with another question regarding Anselm's handling of the relationship between God's mercy and justice in the Proslogion. Why should God's mercy be 'derived' from his justice? Is God good because he is just, or is he just because he is good?

The Bible is clear that the Lord our God is righteous and just in all his ways (Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 145:17). He always acts in a way that is consistent with himself. In relation to human beings that means God will justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. As all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we all stand condemned before him, and the wages of sin is death. On the basis of justice alone God cannot save us, unless we resort to some kind of  'divine command theory', where whatever he wills is therefore just. If as Anselm suggests, God's mercy is the product of his justice, then words have little meaning, because strictly in terms of in justice sinners deserve no mercy.

Anselm is wrestling with the problem, "How the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has mercy on the wicked". This cannot be resolved simply by appeal to the divine will or by speculation on which of the divine attributes is derived from the other. If God wills to spare the wicked that is an act of sheer mercy, but the demands of his justice must be satisfied.  This apparent dilemma can only be resolved by allowing the drama of redemption to shape our thelogy. In other words, the Proslogion needs to factor in Why God Became Man. There is nothing about the Cross of Jesus in the former work. Yet it is on the basis of  Jesus' substitutionary death that God graciously and justly justifies the ungodly (Romans 3:24, 4:5). That is how the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has  mercy on the wicked; "Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust to bring us to God", (1 Peter 3:18).

The cross of Jesus is the supreme revelation of the One who is "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought". God's perfect being is disclosed in his redemptive act. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory" (John 1:14). He is God with us as one of us. Jesus stooped to take the burden of our guilt at Calvary. Such things angels desire to look into and they should never cease to astound us and leave us gasping with amazement. The drama of redemption is so gloriously divine. The God of the Gospel is not simply "something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought". He is far greater-than-we-ever-could-have-thought, 1 Corinthians 2:9. 

Well, I'll leave it there for now and return to Anselm's account of the Trinity in the Proslogion in another post.

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