St. Anselm on Proving That Which Is Said Cannot Be Proven

Series: On This Day in Christian History – April 21st, 1109

 By A. Kenneth Curtis, Daniel Graves, and Robert J. Morgan

“God’s eternal power and character cannot be seen. But from the beginning of creation, God has shown what these are like by all he has made” (Rom. 1:20). Many miss the majesty of God’s creation, but one boy on the Swiss-Italian border got the message.

Anselm grew up on the breathtaking St. Bernard. His mother frequently reminded him of the Creator, and Anselm imagined God living among the Alps. In his mid-teens Anselm, quarreling with his father, entered a French monastery where he expanded his knowledge of God through study of Scripture. His keen mind and mature faith led to repeated calls from England, and eventually Anselm crossed the channel to become the archbishop of Canterbury.

Anselm won a name as a reformer because he attempted to end abuses such as the slave trade. He urged the holding of regular synods and, while h was archbishop, enforced clerical celibacy within his see. Through his learning and methodology, he became one of the creators of scholasticism. But his most notable gift to history has become known as the ontological proof for the existence of God.

Can the existence of God be proven? Anselm thought so. Modern philosophers and theologians disagree. However, it is Anselm’s argument, the ontological proof, which remains the slipperiest for modern logic to deal with and is though to be impossible to refute.

Anselm’s argument went something like this: When we discuss the existence of God, we define Him as a perfect being, greater than anything else that can be conceived. If God does not exist, then the name “God” refers to an imaginary being. This makes the definition of “God” contradictory, for to be real, to be living, to have power is greater than to be imaginary. It is clear that the word God cannot be discussed as defined if He does not exist, because He must be conceived as really existing in order for Him to be greater than anything else, for a God who does not exist is not greater than anything else.

In short, no philosopher can legitimately argue that God does not exist if he defines “God” as a perfect being that is greater than any that can be imagined; for to be perfect, God must have real existence. Those who acknowledge that He exists do not have a problem with self-contradiction when they affirm His existence, whereas those who deny His existence do. Since we can indeed raise the question of God’s existence and argue the point, then God must exist.

His life and teaching breathed of Christ. Belief in God, Anselm felt, was rational and logical, not a blind leap of mindless faith. The beauty of creation evidenced God’s existence; and furthermore, the very fact that our minds could imagine and infinite, loving God gave evidence that he existed. Anselm’s famous argument for God’s existence said that if God could exist in our minds, he could exist in reality.

But Anselm’s deepest writings were on the atonement, which he defined as Christ’s blood being a “satisfaction” made to God by the Lord Jesus. Love of Christ’s atonement brought Anselm comfort when he found himself in the crossfire between the pope and English king. The redheaded King William (Rufus the red) was profane and violent. He reputedly arose a worse man every morning, and went to bed a worse man every night. He enjoyed seeing animals and men tortured, while Anselm would go out of his way to save a hare.

As archbishop of Canterbury, the zealous Anselm continually struggled with King William for church rights. As a result of the struggle he was exiled. As a theologian, Anselm was most remembered for his book Why did God Become Man? In it he argued that each of us has run up such a debt of sin that there is no way we can repay God. Christ, as infinite God, has merit enough and plenty to spare for our debts. Anselm argued that we must first believe in order to understand. In modern terms we might say that truth only begins to come clear when one is committed to it: You cannot see around a bend in a trail unless you walk toward it.

I look to the hills! Where will I find my help?

It will come from the LORD,

Who created the heavens and the earth.

The LORD is your protector,

And he won’t go to sleep or let you stumble.

The protector of Israel doesn’t doze or ever get drowsy. – Psalm 121:1-4

On this day April 21, 1109 Anselm died surrounded by friends who placed his body in ashes on the floor. He was probably canonized in 1494, although there is debate as o whether this occurred at all. Anselm will be long remembered for his ontological proof for the existence of God, and his defense of the atonement and deity of Christ.

*Other Significant Events on April 21st in Church History:

1073: Pope Alexander II died. He became the first pope elected under the new electoral system by the college of cardinals.

1142: Peter Abelard died on this day His conceptualism (a way of describing how the mind knows ideas) tried to resolve difference between two schools of philosophy called Nominalism and Realism. But Abelard may better be remembered as the man who seduced his student Heloise than as a thinker who tried to ground theology in reason. He was often accused of heresy, but he remained one f the most popular teachers of his day and was cofounder of schools that were later incorporated into the University of Paris.

1621: William Bradford was chosen governor of Massachusetts when John Carver died.

1855: Dwight L. Moody was converted to Christianity. His Sunday school teacher Edward Kimball, said, “My plea was a very weak one, but I was sincere.” Moody became a powerful evangelist.

*Adapted from the April 21st entries in This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications & Robert J. Morgan. On This Day. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.