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Interpreting Anselm's thought about divine justice: dealing with loose ends

  • Bernard J. D. van Vreeswijk (a1)

Over the last fifty years studies of Anselm of Canterbury's concept of divine justice have delivered different results. The aim of this article is to present the results of a new comprehensive inquiry, based on the interpretation of key passages about justice in Anselm's theological works. The article argues that Anselm works with three definitions of God's justice. The first is the most traditional: God's justice is his right dealing with good and bad. The second definition follows the Anselmian concept of God: God's justice is his acting according to his being that than which nothing greater can be conceived. The third definition is God's rightness of will, preserved for its own sake. The article concludes that the attempt to show how these three definitions are related to each other brings to light tensions and loose ends in Anselm's works.

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1 Kuhn Peter (ed.), Gespräch über Jesus. Papst Benedikt XVI. im Dialog mit Martin Hengel, Peter Stuhlmacher und seinen Schülern in Castelgandolfo 2008 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), pp. 95104 .

2 Greshake Gisbert, ‘Erlösung und Freiheit: Zur Neuinterpretation der Erlösungslehre Anselms von Canterbury’, Theologische Quartalschrift 153 (1973), pp. 323–45. Earlier Eugene Fairweather pointed out that the right ordering of things belonged to the kernel of God's justice: ‘“Iustitia Dei” as the Ratio of the Incarnation’, in Spicilegium Beccense 1. Congrès International du IX Centenaire de l'Arrivée d'Anselme au Bec (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1959), pp. 327–35. Another milestone in the development to an improved account of Anselm's concept of justice is Pouchet Robert, La Rectitudo chez Saint Anselme: Un itinéraire augustienne de l’âme à Dieu (Paris: Etudes Augustiennes, 1964). He stresses the meaning of justice for Anselm as the rightness of will; so, too, does Torrance Thomas F., ‘The Ethical Implications of Anselm's De Veritate’, Theologische Zeitschrift 24 (1968), pp. 309–19.

3 Greshake, ‘Erlösung und Freiheit’, 338.

4 Other and less comprehensive studies I have left aside in the main text, for reasons of clarity. I will discuss them in the footnotes.

5 Marilyn McCord Adams contends the same in her ‘St Anselm on the Goodness of God’ in Gasper Giles E. M. and Logan Ian (eds), Saint Anselm of Canterbury and his Legacy (Durham/Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2012), p. 367 . Likewise Plasger Georg, Die Not-Wendigkeit der Gerechtigkeit: Eine Interpretation zu ‘Cur Deus Homo’ von Anselm von Canterbury (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 1993), pp. 167–9. He explains God's justice as his covenantal faithfulness. God's justice is his will to lead man to salvation.

6 Like McGrath, McCord Adams points to the two kinds of justice without explaining how they are related (McCord Adams, ‘St Anselm on the Goodness of God’, pp. 365–74).

7 McGrath Alister E., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), pp. 7581 .

8 Anselm of Canterbury, Lettre sur l'incarnation du Verbe, Pourquoi un Dieu-Homme, ed. and trans. Corbin Michel and Galonnier Alain (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1988), p. 46 .

9 Ibid. Cf. Corbin Michel, La Pâque de Dieu. Quatre études sur S. Anselme de Cantorbéry (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1997), p. 58 ; idem, Espérer pour tous: Études sur saint Anselme de Cantorbéry (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2006), p. 204. Kienzler Klaus thinks along the same lines in his Gott ist grosser: Studien zu Anselm von Canterbury (Würzburg: Echter, 1997), pp. 153–61. In Gäde Gerhard, Eine andere Barmherzigkeit: Zum Verständnis der Erlösungslehre Anselms von Canterbury (Würzburg: Echter, 1989), esp. pp. 274–85, the author shows the importance of God as that than which nothing greater can be thought for Anselm's thinking about mercy and justice in Cur Deus Homo. He contends that God's justice and mercy are transcending human categories, and that it is Anselm's aim to quarantine God's absoluteness.

10 Corbin, Espérer pour tous, p. 204.

11 Ibid., p. 220. Gilbert Paul, ‘Justice et miséricorde dans le Proslogion de Saint Anselme’, Nouvelle Revue Theologique 108 (1986), pp. 218–38, and ‘Le “Proslogion” de St. Anselme: Silence de Dieu et joie de l'homme (Rome: Editrice Pontifica Università Gregorian, 1990), pp. 124–40, can be seen as working with a comparable twofold definition of God's justice, although he elaborates it in a different way.

12 Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in Opera Omnia, ed. Fransiscus S. Schmitt (Edinburgh: Apud Thomam Nelson et Filios, 1946–61), vol. 1, pp. 89–122; De Veritate, in Opera Omnia, vol. 1, pp. 169–200; Cur Deus Homo, in Opera Omnia, vol. 2, pp. 37–134. The Roman numerals in the citations below refer to the chapters of the works of Anselm; the Arabic numerals refer to the page numbers and line numbers in the edition of Schmitt.

13 Anselm, Proslogion, II.101.4–5.

14 Anselm Proslogion, IX.108.11–13. Translation from Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, ed. Davies Brian and Evans Gillian R. (Oxford: OUP, 1998), pp. 92–3.

15 Anselm, Proslogion, IX.108.21–109.6.

16 Anselm, Proslogion, IX.109.8–20.

17 Anselm, Proslogion, IX.109.21–4.

18 See also Sadler Gregory B., ‘Mercy and Justice in St. Anselm´s Proslogion’, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 80 (2006), pp. 4161 . Sadler argues, rightly in my opinion, that Anselm's discussion of the relation of mercy and justice is an exploration of God's nature as that than which nothing greater can be thought. He also signals the tension in God's justice. He is not explicitly searching for a definition of God's justice and does not take Anselm's other works into account.

19 Anselm, De Veritate XII.194.26.

20 Anselm, De Veritate XII.196.1–8. See for an explanation Enders Markus, Wahrheit und Notwendigkeit. Die Theorie der Wahrheit bei Anselm von Canterbury im Gesamtzusammenhang seines Denkens und unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Antiken Quellen (Aristoteles, Cicero, Augustinus, Boethius) (Leiden: Brill, 1999), pp. 528–9.

21 See Enders, Wahrheit und Notwendigkeit, pp. 526–8; Anselm , Über die Wahrheit, ed. and trans. Enders Martin (Hamburg: Meiner, 2001), CIII; Külling Heinz, Wahrheit als Richtigkeit: Eine Untersuchung zur Schrift ‘De veritate’ von Anselm von Canterbury (Bern: Peter Lang, 1984), pp. 252–3. See also Pérez-Paoli Ubaldo R., ‘Truth and Justice in Anselm of Canterbury’, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 17 (1994), pp. 127–51, esp. 140; and Leftow Brian, ‘Anselm's Perfect-Being Theology’, in Davies Brian and Leftow Brian (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Anselm (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), pp. 132–56.

22 Here I differ from Enders. According to him, propter se means that God is the ground for his own being (Enders, Wahrheit und Notwendigkeit, p. 528; so too, Külling, Wahrheit als Richtigkeit, pp. 253–4). It can be argued, however, that as propter se refers to the worth of justice in itself as the reason why it has to be preserved, propter se with respect to God refers to his worth that has to be preserved more than anything else. Further, Enders leaves unanswered in his discussion of De Veritate, XII what this preserving means. Earlier in his study dealing with De Veritate, he explains what Anselm means by rectitude with respect to God. Anselm says that God owes nothing to anyone else. In Enders’ interpretation this means that God must act according to his own nature as the being than which nothing greater can be thought. He then refers to Anselm's later book Cur Deus Homo (cf. Anselm, Über die Wahrheit, LXXIX). In the next paragraph I will analyse Cur Deus Homo, and then I will return to Enders’ interpretation.

23 See e.g. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I.VIII.60.1–10, I.XII.70.11–30, I.XXIII.90.28–91.29, I.XXIV.92.1–94.22, II.II–III.98.6–98.26. In Proslogion Anselm seems to use ‘just’ in the first sense of justice as rewarding good and bad; in Cur Deus Homo he seems to use it in the somehow broader sense of ‘legitimate’ or ‘justified’.

24 Cur Deus Homo, Praefatio, 42.1–6.

25 Sweeney Eileen C., Anselm of Canterbury and the Desire for the Word (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 9 .

26 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I.VIII.59.10–11.

27 Ibid., I.XI.67.1–6.

28 Ibid., I.XI.68.14–69.2.

29 Ibid., I.VIII.60.2–5.

30 Ibid., I.II.50.1–13.

31 Ibid., I.X.67.1–6.

32 Ibid., II.IV.99.1–13.

33 Enders (Wahrheit und Notwendigkeit, pp. 335–9) connects these two concepts in his interpretation of Anselm's view on justice in Cur Deus Homo. However plausible it seems, Anselm himself does not make this connection.

34 Anselm, Proslogion, IX.108.11–13.

35 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I.X.67.4–6.

36 Anselm, De Veritate, XII.196.5–8.

37 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I.XIII.71.15–17.

38 Ibid., I.XV.72.29–73.9.

39 Ibid., II.XX.132.2–6. Translation from Anselm, The Major Works, p. 354.

40 To contend that Cur Deus Homo is the last word Anselm has to say on divine justice and mercy, as Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams do, does not do justice to the complexity of Anselm's thought. Visser and Williams, Anselm (Oxford: OUP, 2009), p. 108.

41 We can say the same about McCord Adams, ‘On the Goodness of God’, and Plasger, Die Not-Wendigkeit der Gerechtigkeit. Moreover, McGrath reads too much into Anselm (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, pp. 7681). He writes that Anselm works with the definition of God's justice as his action directed to the highest good. That may include the redemption of man, McGrath concludes – but Anselm does not say that anywhere. In Proslogion, IX he seems to do so, but there he says that God's justice leads to punishment as well. McGrath gives another description of justice with which Anselm works, namely, the basic God-given ordering of the universe, reflecting divine will and nature. Because of this, God cannot allow this justice to be violated and an unjust state of things to arise, since injustice in the moral order, which reflects his nature, would mean a contradiction in his nature. Therefore God has to restore the moral order. Because it is unjust for God to fail in his intentions, it is unjust to let humankind perish. Therefore God has to restore humankind, too. But in two respects McGrath reads more than Anselm writes. (1) The point for Anselm is not that injustice in the moral order would lead to a contradiction in God's nature. He only says that God ought not to tolerate something that is not to be tolerated. (2) Nowhere in Cur Deus Homo does Anselm say that God's justice implies that he has to restore humankind. McGrath seems to bring this into Cur Deus Homo from the definition of justice in the Proslogion. In Cur Deus Homo Anselm does not relate the necessity of the restoration of humankind to God's justice, but only to the fact that it is not fitting for God to let humankind perish. God will not do what is not fitting for him. You can trace this back to the justice of God as his willing and acting according to his being that than which nothing greater can be thought, but Anselm does not take that step in Cur Deus Homo.

42 The same holds true for Kienzler, Gott ist grosser, pp. 153–61, and Gäde, Eine andere Barmherzigkeit, esp. pp. 274–85. I finally mention Deme's interpretation: God's justice is that he gives each his due. When man has sinned, his due is punishment. So God has to punish. See Deme Dániel, The Christology of Anselm of Canterbury (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 81–2. Deme's interpretation seems not to be based the important passages we observed and so does not appear to be central in Anselm's thinking.

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