St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument

The Ignored Anselm
When I was seminary I read a few books whose authors seemed to take great joy in hating on St. Anselm. I don’t remember what they were at this point, but it still struck me as weird. He would be dismissed as somebody who was overly philosophical, he would be lampooned as having come up with a silly proof for God’s existence, or he would be criticized for foisting his medieval economics upon the gospel in Cur Deus Homo. I’m not sure that any of this criticism was warranted. I’ve been rereading Anselm and found his work to be quite edifying.

The Ontological Argument
Since I’ve graduated from seminary and started reading more philosophy I’ve discovered that the Ontological argument is not limited to Anselm (though his expression of it seems fairly original). I don’t really buy the argument because it relies (on the surface any how) upon innate knowledge rather than empirical experience. Aristotle was right on that score and so was St. Thomas. Nevertheless, it was weird to read theology text books making fun of the argument or even hearing lectures by theologians (none of my profs, just some courses I downloaded from bigger name schools on itunes university) making fun of it. The problem with doing so is that the argument has been treated much more thoroughly since that time and perhaps in much more rigorous ways than Anselm did (for his piece was also meant for devotional purposes, not merely philosophical). Anyhow, since Anselm, some version of the ontological argument has been put forward by:

  1. Rene Descartes (see his meditations) It’s also important to note, that despite his critiques of Descartes, Hume seems to have mentioned in a letter to a friend in Edinburgh, that Descartes argument still remained convincing enough. Though this could be Hume’s attempt at having his cake (being an atheist) and eating it too (not wanting to admit it).
  2. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (it appears in several of his papers)
  3. Georg Hegel
  4. Kurt Friedrich Gödel (volume 3 of his collected works)
  5. Alvin Plantinga

Some of these are more rigorous than others. But its not like the argument hasn’t received attentional due its ridiculousness. Gödel’s version has even been verified as logically valid using computer science in an experiment meant to show the utility of computers for formalizing arguments. Hegel, as far as I know, never actually stated his version of the argument, but he claimed to have it. Plantinga’s possible worlds model is weird to me because I don’t buy into the whole “possible worlds’ model of argument seems wrong headed. Rene Descartes’ version of the argument starts from global skepticism and moves from there. It at least shows that if we doubt everything we must then infer our own existence, followed by God’s own being. Again, I’m not saying that any of these are necessarily true arguments. I’m just saying that Anselm wasn‘t some medieval hack who sullied our theological heritage. It is also important to note that there are some interpretations of Anselm‘s argument that have almost nothing to do with proving God’s existence at all, but that his argument is instead an attempt to understand what it means to the intellect to have faith in the Christian God (Barth, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum).

I’ll post more later on Anselm’s supposed understanding of the Atonement. To put it briefly, it isn‘t so wrong as all that.


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