[Book Review] The Major Works by Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury. The Major Works. Edited by Brian Davies and Gillian Evans. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998. 544 pp. $14.20 [Paperback]

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The author of these works is a great theologian and logician named Anselm of Bec or Canterbury. Born in 1033, yet at a young age, he had a strong desire to learn. At Bec in Normandy, France, Anselm became the Abbot after Lanfranc of Pavia in 1078. Through Lanfranc, Bec’s monastery living and spiritual devotion became prominent towards the emphasis on intellectual life, which Anselm followed. Later, after the death of Lanfranc as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm succeeded him in 1093 until he died in 1109.

Anselm’s Monologion, Proslogion, including Gaunilo’s Pro Insipiente, Reply to Gaunilo, On the Incarnation of the Word, Why God Became Man, and On the Procession of the Holy Spirit are the works reviewed accordingly. The Monologion and Proslogion are Anselm’s famous ontological arguments of the essence of God’s existence, supremacy, and the Trinity came from. The initial purpose of writing these two works is to guide the monks and students at Bec. The former pertains to meditation, an assent to the nature and essence of God. Likewise, the latter leans towards spirituality, which can be seen as a prayer. Both works explore divine essence and nature, ex nihilo or “superlative something” (21), consubstantiality of the Trinity, and the distinction between the Trinity ad intra.

As the editor recommends, Gaunilo’s Pro Insipiente and Anselm’s Reply to Gaunilo are to be read with Proslogion. Since Proslogion is a sequel to Monologion, it is necessary to read this work too. The Pro Insipiente is a logical critic of Proslogion. However, although Gaunilo made strong arguments, Anselm’s reply was more substantial. Making sure he represents Gaunilo’s argument correctly—unlike Gaunilo—Anselm reviewed and clarified his claims in Proslogion.* Overall, both ministers were polite and respectful in their writings. It was a faithful and honest query. Indeed, it affirms Anselm’s claim that one must have faith to understand his works. Faith-seeking understanding, indeed.

The same zeal for holiness and “a solid faith with the precious weight of character and wisdom” are urged to the readers of On the Incarnation of the Word. In this work, the necessity of incarnation is dealt with rigorously with logic and spirituality. Anselm focuses on ad intra of the Trinity and the distinct role of the Son in the Trinity. The Cur Deus Homo is another vital work of Anselm. His method in this piece is similar to Socratic discourse but more Augustinian—a pedagogical approach between an enquirer or student and the teacher.

Further, another issue is necessarily addressed in his On the Procession of the Holy Spirit. While the Greeks—most of the Eastern churches—argue that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not the Son. Anselm recaps that the procession of the Holy Spirit, both from the Father and the Son, has “irrefutable logic makes it” evidence (426-427). The theological term is filioque. However, he clarified that this procession is not coming from two sources—Father and Son—but from one source since the Father and Son are one. This theology is also presented logically in his Monologion. He said, “From the Father and Son together, floods not two whole loves, but one and the same Love” (62). Throughout the works of Anselm, clarifying the distinct relationship between the Trinity, ad intra, that there is equality and sameness of divine essence.

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Anselm is prominent with his method of teaching and writing through logical reasoning, rational argument, syllogisms, and parallelism. Theological arguments, as grounded in orthodoxy, are also demonstrated in his works, such as perichoresis, hypostasis, filioque, the preexistence of God, ex nihilo, and other ontological principles like first principle, uncreated Creator, and unbegotten begetter. Anselm is not scared to venture deeper into theology; indeed, he is an original thinker. Nevertheless, with all these deep theological terms, Anselm’s words are crystal clear, down-to-earth dialectic, and plain style. Any person can read Anselm, assuming one has a background in logic or primary education. However, unlike Augustine—with whom he conforms most of his thought principle—his works do not directly refer to biblical passages. Understandably, though he does not cite directly from the scripture, his words come from biblical principles, church doctrinal orthodoxy, and the Catholic creeds.

In concluding this review, Anselm does not blindly assume his readers. Like Saint Augustine, he lists warnings, the scope of limitations, and the specific purpose of his writing. Mostly, if not argumentative, it is for monks with solid faith and church ministers. More than just intellectual ascent, Anselm calls for spiritual maturity and formation. He argues that the closer to the knowledge of God, the closer potential of divine resemblance (72). In this context, the reader ought to realize that Anselm’s works are not purely intellectual but spiritual as well. Rational reasoning, logic, and spirituality are inseparable. One cannot divorce intellectual meditation with lived-out experience. Anselm’s theology, therefore, marries ethics. True theology is affirmed through righteous living, devotion to service, and commitment to the lordship of Christ.

The Monologion and Proslogion are a must-read for seminary students. The other works, like Cur Deus Homo and On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, are argumentative and apologetic in nature and can be a primer for classical philosophy and systematic theology studies.

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*Read Nigel Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 46-49. Warburton summarizes the thought process and illustration of Anselm’s painter and the painting; and his reply to the Lost Perfect Island argument of Gaunilo.

Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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