A Brief History of the Christian Doctrine of God, Part 1: Anselm

Anselm of Canterbury and the Beginnings of “Classical Theism”

The Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly endorses reason as well as Scripture as being a source of doctrine, when it says, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.7).

They seem to have held the history of the Doctrine of God in mind when they made this statement.

Muller clarifies this trajectory somewhat in his Section 1.2 Scripture, Tradition, and Philosophy in the Scholastic Doctrine of God: A. The Early Scholastic Contribution: From Anselm of Canterbury to Peter Lombard:

1. Lines of historical development. The scholastic doctrine of God—of the divine essence, attributes, and Trinity—had its beginnings in the theology of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, most notably in the work of Anselm of Canterbury. Before Anselm, Western theology possessed all of the elements of its doctrine of God: it knew the language of divine essence, it understood the concept of divine simplicity, it could draw on a lengthy list of divine attributes argued by the way of negation (via negationis) and by the way of eminence (via eminentiae), and it had at its disposal a massive structure of trinitarian argumentation.

All of this had been passed on to the teachers of the Middle Ages in the writings of the fathers. The patristic materials, however, were hardly systematized. Of the great patristic thinkers, only Origen had attempted anything like a cohesive theological system—and his De Principiis, both because of its early date (ca. 230 A.D) and because of the highly individualistic character of its speculations, failed to provide the church with a normative statement of Christian doctrine. From Augustine, the Middle Ages received a vast but not always clearly organized source of formulations concerning the Godhead, its essence, and its attributes and, of course, trinitarian language.

What Anselm attempted, in the late eleventh and early twelfth century, was to draw together the threads of patristic teaching—chiefly the teaching of Augustine—into a coherent fabric.

Anselm’s efforts, in the Monologium, the Proslogium, and the treatise On the Procession of the Holy Spirit against the Greeks, all follow a logical or dialectical path toward a statement of doctrine based not—as was the usual pattern—on the authority of Scripture and tradition without any distinction being made between the tradition-exegetical and the dogmatic task, but on a rational exposition of the logic of the doctrine and its constituent concepts.

Anselm clearly identified the dogmatic task as the rational argumentation of a doctrinal point. This point is important inasmuch as Anselm himself did not offer a clearly stated distinction between sacra pagina (the doctrine of Scripture) and sacra theologia (the notion of theology as a “science”) as would his successors, although it is obvious that Scripture is the ultimate norm for doctrine in his theology and that both the truths directly expressed in Scripture and those that arise by necessary conclusions from examining the text are to be “received with certainty.”

There is no small irony in the continuing interest in Anselm’s great treatises, the Monologion and the Proslogion, as repositories of proofs of the existence of God, inasmuch as the treatises, although they do contain significant attempts to formulate such proofs and, in the case of the Proslogion, the uniquely Anselmic ontological argument, are primarily treatises on the logic of the doctrine of God. The preface or prologue to the Monologion offered numerous works of the subsequent generations, including Lombard’s Sentences, the many commentaries on it, and the great summas of the thirteenth century, a foundational insight into the object and method of theology.

The intention, indeed, of both of Anselm’s treatises on God is to draw together into a coherent whole the issues of the divine existence, essence, attributes and trinity—to identify the fundamental purpose of theological discourse as a meditation on the nature of God, whether considered “absolutely” as such in the thought of Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus or considered “relatively” as Creator, Redeemer, and Glorifier in the work of such thinkers as Giles of Rome, Gregory of Rimini, and Durandus of Sancto Porciano.

Thus, the impact of these treatises on the development of scholastic doctrine was in the codification and internal argumentation of the doctrine of God, including, of course, the proofs, but going far beyond them, indeed, identifying their context within the doctrine of God and manifesting the logic and interrelation of the various elements of the doctrine as a whole.

Even those, like Aquinas, who did not accept Anselm’s ontological argument, stand in the line of his influence on the nature of language about God and, in particular, the assumption that God is what he has and that the essence of God is such that God must exist. In addition, the argumentation of both treatises determined the shape of the locus on God for one of the major trajectories of theological system: an argument beginning with the fact of God and proceeding toward the faithful contemplation of God as Trinity.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence And Attributes (pp. 33–35). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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