St Anselm of Canterbury: A Monastic Theologian

Commemoration of St. Spyridon's Miracle in Corfu against the Turkish Invasion of 1716

Anselm_Works_Square.jpegI CAN NOW say that I have read all of St. Anselm’s works (except for the three volumes of his letters, which I’m currently working my way through). And I finished them just in time to prepare a lecture for last evening’s Hall of Men. If you're an Eighth Day Member, that lecture will appear in the Digital Library in two weeks. (If you're not an Eighth Day Member, please consider doubling your donation by becoming a monthly member before August 16.)

As I read through Anselm, I couldn’t help but hear patristic echoes, over and over again. And since one of my greatest passions is to promote the early Church Fathers, most of my Hall of Men presentation consisted of a meditative reading of passages from Anselm alongside passages from various Church Fathers (e.g., St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Dionysios the Areopagite (I should have also included St. Maximus the Confessor, especially on the human will, but alas, I ran out of time). To give you a taste of those patristic echoes, I’ll provide you one of the meditative readings below (it focuses on the Incarnation with Anselm paired alongside Athanasius).

But first, let me quickly say something about St. Anselm. He is frequently labeled as the Father of Scholasticism. He did in fact love reason and he used it well to defend the faith. But it must also be acknowledged that he understood well the limits of reason. Here is the beginning of one of his three most famous works, Why God Became Man (for a twentieth-century essay that reflects on whether or not the Incarnation would have happened if man had not sinned, and intentionally given the same title as Anselm's treatise, but in the original Latin - Cur Deus Homo - click here):

What you are asking of me is above me, and I am afraid of treating “higher things” (Ecc. 3:22 Vulg.). My fear is that someone thinking, or even seeing, that I am not giving him a satisfactory reply, may think that this is due to lack of truth where the actuality is concerned, rather than the insufficiency of my intellect to grasp it. […] Something else which makes me hold back from complying with your request is that not only is the subject matter precious, but, in conformity with the fact that it is about someone beautiful, “with beauty excelling the sons of men” (Ps. 44:3 Vulg.), it is itself correspondingly beautiful in its logic, beyond the reasoning of men. On this account, I am afraid that, just as I am invariably annoyed by bad painters when I see the Lord Himself depicted as of ugly appearance, the same fault will be found with me, if I presume to plough through such beautiful subject-matter with an unpolished and contemptible style of writing. […] Indeed, it is a matter of certain knowledge that, whatever a human being may say on this subject, there remains deeper reasons, as yet hidden from us, for a reality of such supreme importance. ~Cur Deus Homo, I.1

So Anselm was clearly aware of the insufficiency of his intellect when considering our Lord, the “God-Man” (an expression found frequently in Anselm). This awareness is articulated repeatedly throughout his writings; hence, one of our other readings last evening focused on Anselm’s apophatic approach, pairing him with St. Dionysios the Areopagite.

One of Anselm’s other most famous works is the Proslogion, which contains his ontological proof for the existence of God. To my delightful surprise, this entire work is completely saturated with prayer. It opens with a magnificent prayer (I’ll post it in the Patristic Word next week) and then, with the exception of one chapter, every single one of the following seventy-nine chapters either ends in prayer or is a prayer.

Prayer_of_St_Anselm.jpgThis emphasis on prayer leads to his other most famous work: The Prayers and Meditations. Here are two samples of the nineteen prayers composed by Anselm, which have been posted on our blog The Patristic Word: Prayer to God and Prayer to the Holy Cross.

When considering St. Anselm, we must remember that he was first and foremost a monk. His life was given to both prayer and study (although he was eventually forced to become archbishop of Canterbury). So while many may consider him the Father of Scholasticism, I’d prefer to call him a Monastic Scholar, as Benedicta Ward does in her masterful little booklet on Anselm (Anselm of Canterbury: A Monastic Scholar). Or, I’d be even happier to call him a Monastic Theologian, for he was truly a theologian in the Evagrian sense: “A true theologian is the one who truly prays; and the one who prays is truly a theologian.”

If you haven’t read Anselm, I encourage you to do so. Here’s a taste of him, as promised:

Surely there seems a sufficiently cogent reason why God had a need to do the things of which we are speaking: the human race, clearly his most precious piece of workmanship, had been completely ruined; it was not fitting that what God had planned for mankind should be utterly nullified, and the plan in question could not be brought into effect unless the human race were set free by its Creator in person. ~St. Anselm, Why God Became Man, I.4

With regard to the nature of mankind, there are two alternatives: either God will complete what he has begun, or it was to no avail that he created this life form – so sublime a life-form, and with such great good as its purpose. But, if it is recognized that God has made nothing more precious than rational nature, whose intended purpose is that it should rejoice in him, it is totally foreign to him to allow any rational type of creature to perish utterly. […] It is necessary, therefore, that, with regard to the nature of mankind, God should finish what he has begun. However, this cannot be done, as we have said, except through the paying of complete recompense for sin, something which no sinner can bring about. ~St. Anselm, Why God Became Man, II.4

Men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in the process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. […] Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. ~St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 6

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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