Thursday, February 4, 2016

Anselm - To Know God

Anselm was a man who sought to know God and understand His ways. He believed that to understand God, we must have faith in Him and a desire to follow Him. Though he sought God on the personal level, he also attempted to  show how the truth of God could be demonstrated intellectually.

Anselm had two chief contributions to Christian thought. One was the ontological argument for the existence of God. The argument goes: I can conceive of  the most perfect of all beings. To exist is to be more perfect then to not exist, Therefore the most perfect of all beings must exist. Therefore God exists. This argument has always seemed to be nothing more than a sophism to me. Perhaps it has hidden in it some intuitive insight into the existence of God. But with all due respect to Anselm, I have never been able to make this argument my own.

The second idea he is known for is his concept of the atonement. It was believed from earliest times in Christianity that Christ's death was a sacrifice. The question was, who was the sacrifice to and what was the basis for it. One idea was that it was a sacrifice to Satan, who was tricked by it and Jesus escaped, accomplishing our redemption. Anselm's idea was that it was a sacrifice to God, to restore God's glory due to the breaking of God's law. The virtue of this is that it eliminates the question of how Satan or any other entity could have been powerful enough or have a strong enough claim to require God to give up His Son. The strength of this concept is shown by the fact that without any clear conflict, it came to dominate the western church's viewpoint on this subject.

Anselm, because he was a considered a prominent scholar, ended up embroiled in the controversies of his day. He was offered the position of archbishop of Canterbury and through it became involved in conflict with the kings of England, William the Second and Henry the first. William, who was known for impiety (he was mad at God for not healing an illness in his youth) was leaving ecclesiastical  positions vacant and keeping the money for himself, as well as grabbing church property. This resulted in Anselm going into exile in protest. Henry brought him back, but he ended up going into exile again over whether Henry should have control of ecclesiastical appointments. In this early stage I am generally in sympathy with Anselm, though the church leaders later proved themselves as bad as the civil ones. Anselm, personally, appears to be someone who was genuinely interested in the welfare of the church organization and not just his own power.

Anselm was a man who sought to know and understand God. He did lean too far toward the intellectual, and his successors went on even further in this direction. But I am convinced his heart was in the right place.      

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