St. Anselm and the Perfection of God

A late 16th-century engraving of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury

A late 16th-century engraving of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury

April 21st is the birthday of a great philosopher, Jerry Walls. Also, and perhaps slightly more acclaimed, it is the anniversary of St. Anselm’s death celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church, much of the Anglican Communion, and in parts of Lutheranism. St. Anselm of Canterbury was a Benedictine monk, philosopher, and prelate of the Church, holding the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He was born circa 1033 and died in 1109, 906 years ago.

After entering the priesthood at 27, he was elected prior of the Abbey of Bec, which, under his jurisdiction, became the foremost seat of learning in Europe. During his time there, Anselm wrote his first works in philosophy, the Monologion (1076) and the Proslogion (1077-8), followed by The Dialogues on Truth, Free Will, and Fall of the Devil.

Greatly influenced by Neoplatonism, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, he exerted a strong influence on Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, and William of Ockham. His motto was “faith seeking understanding,” which for him meant “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” His academic work was notable for many reasons. Two of his most important contributions to theology were his satisfaction theory of atonement and his ontological argument(s) for God’s existence.

An Anselmian conception of God has largely come to be seen as the standard for classical theism—a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and the like. Regarding God’s moral perfection, God is impeccable, essentially sinless, maximally loving; in God there is no shadow of turning. Irrespective of one’s take on the ontological argument, the idea that God is the ground of being, that on which all else depends for its existence, is central to theism classically construed.

On we have argued at length that God, thus conceived, is uniquely able to provide the best explanation of objective moral values and duties, human rights, meaningful moral agency, the convergence of happiness and holiness, and the full rational authority of morality.

On occasion some suggest that God understood as the possessor of the omni-qualities is inconsistent with the God of the Bible. Yoram Hazony, author of, most recently, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures, wrote an interesting and provocative opinion article for the New York Times a few years ago (“An Imperfect God,” November 25, 2012) in which he summarized in no uncertain terms his skepticism about the idea of a perfect God.[1]

Hazony suggests that there are various compelling reasons the God of classical theism and, thus, the perfect being theology of Anselm should be rejected. Hazony wishes to emphasize the need for tentativeness and provisionality in theology because our knowledge of God remains fragmentary and partial. He even pushes an ambitious and dubious interpretation of the great “I am” declaration of God to be, in virtue of being in the imperfect tense, an indication of God’s incompleteness and changeability, rather than, as seems the more straightforward meaning, God’s uncreatedness and ontological independence. In Hazony’s view, “The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.”[2]

But as Old Testament scholar Gary Yates puts it, “It seems a little odd that this would be the idea stressed if Yahweh is attempting to assure Moses when Moses is already fearful of the circumstances and the people's response to him. The imperfect conjugation does not actually have tense, so it can also be used to simply state something that is a present or even characteristic reality. Beyond that, there is debate as to what the term means, and if for example, this were a hiphil imperfect, it would stress that the Lord is the one who ‘causes to be.’”

Yates admits that Old Testament scholars tend to move away from some of the more abstract and philosophical understandings of the name and to see it in more concrete, covenantal terms as emphasizing Yahweh as the one who is present with his people in the midst of this circumstance and thus aware of their situation and able to act to help them, hear their cries, and deliver them. That would still most certainly comport with the ideas of God being uncreated and eternal but without necessarily focusing primarily on those more abstract and ontological ideas.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Hazony insists, God represents the embodiment of life’s experiences and vicissitudes, from hardship to joy; and although God is ultimately faithful and just, these aren’t perfections or qualities that obtain necessarily. “On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.”[3]

He concludes his piece like this: “The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realistic God than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations—idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.”[4]

Is it indeed theism that is “losing ground,” in the specified parts of the world, or rather a certain cluster of religious institutions? The recent phenomenon of “the New Atheists” as the current spokesmen for disbelief is of interest, but is meeting them halfway a sensible, or even possible tack for the religious to take? It’s certainly undesirable, since in any close reading of their rhetorically engaging works, it becomes clear to any serious student of theism that their conception of God is vastly less sophisticated and philosophically resilient than the concept of a perfect being that was so well captured by Saint Anselm, a man steeped in biblical thought.

What indeed does it even mean to speak of the Hebraic depiction of God as more realistic than the idea of God as altogether perfect? It is certainly more anthropomorphic, or to put it more precisely, anthropopathic—portraying God as if having human passions. But that is the natural outflow of the literary forms in the original biblical documents. The fact that they don’t explicitly present us with the precisely articulated conception of God that philosophers have seen suggested by the cumulative impact of its most exalted passages does not at all compromise the philosophical work of clarifying such a conception, nor does it render the effort artificial, or invalid.

The Greeks had no corner on the market of reason. Why is it merely a Greek notion that God possesses all the perfections? Plenty of Greeks—Euthyphro for example—believed in all sorts of rather morally deficient gods; we could return the favor and suggest that Hazony’s conception of God is more influenced by Greek ideas in this regard than by scripture.

The claim that a perfect God is a Greek convention incorporated into theology is an allegation that potentially overlooks the important role of what theologians refer to as general revelation. The Greeks had no corner on the market of reason. Why is it merely a Greek notion that God possesses all the perfections? Plenty of Greeks—Euthyphro for example—believed in all sorts of rather morally deficient gods; we could return the favor and suggest that Hazony’s conception of God is more influenced by Greek ideas in this regard than by scripture. 

The fact remains, though, that the writers of the New Testament were deeply steeped in Old Testament teachings and theology and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and in the New Testament itself we find ample indications of a morally perfect and perfectly loving God. This happy convergence of the a priori deliverances of reason and the a posteriori deliverances of scripture should come as no surprise since one would expect harmonious resonance between the outcomes of special and general revelation. Nothing less than Anselm’s view of God can answer our deepest hopes.

Since it’s Jerry Walls’s birthday, it’s fitting we end with a quote from his latest book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, an excerpt that deeply resonates with Anselmianism both in the sense of the deliverances of classical theism and the specific and startling claims of Christianity: “. . . [H]ere we can see what may be the most profound difference of all between those who believe that ultimate reality is love and those who do not; between those who believe love is stronger than death and those who do not; between those who believe in heaven and those who do not. It is the difference between believing that even the best things of life are destined to come to a tragic end and believing that even the worst things can come to a comic end.” [5]



[1] (accessed April 11, 2015). Also see Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Hazony, “An Imperfect God.”

[3] Hazony, “An Imperfect God.”

[4] Hazony, “An Imperfect God.”

[5] Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015), p. 161.