The Devotional Value of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Doing Philosophy as a Christian by Garrett J. DeWeese is a new release in the Christian Worldview Integration Series by InterVarsity Press. One of the reasons I picked this up is because I know Garry (a.k.a. “Garrett”). Many years ago we spent quite a few hours in a car together commuting to a philosophy conference. It was a delightful time and Garry not only taught me a lot about philosophy, but displayed an exuberant zest for life. I’ve seen Garry a few other times over the years at various engagements and he’s hardly changed. Quite honestly, I don’t know of a happier philosopher!

Chapter 3 “Philosophy Within the Limits of Religion Alone?” caught my attention. Anselm’s oft-quoted credo ut intelligam (“I believe in order to understand”) is often misunderstood. Says DeWeese, the statement actually sets up the ontological argument for God’s existence. DeWeese points out virtually all anthologies that include Anselm’s ontological argument from chapters 2-3 of his Proslogion ignore the closing of chapter 1, which portrays Anselm’s deep desire to know and understand God:

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand.

DeWeese opines that it is tragic the ontological argument for God’s existence is treated as “pure autonomous a priori rationalism” rather than the “continuation of a prayerful meditation and the culmination of Anselm’s considered vision of the relationship of faith and reason” (p. 73). Framed in the context of a meditation and prayer, the credo is not intended to endorse some kind of fideism that seeks to divorce faith from reason. Instead of mere static cognition about a subject, the intended end of faith is understanding, which is “the true explanation grounded in the nature of things” (p. 75). Knowing how to apply the Pythagorean theorem to a problem, for example, is not the same as grasping first principles of Euclidean geometry (pp. 74-75). Likewise, we must first believe certain things about God before we can understanding them. The “way into understanding is believing” (p. 74). Belief necessarily precedes understanding. Anselm’s goal in the ontological argument, therefore, was understanding what he already believed about God. It was wholly devotional!

Now, for your meditative pleasures…

  1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
  2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
  3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
  4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
  5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

For a solid presentation on Anselm’s ontological argument, see To Everyone an Answer (pp. 134-137) and Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (pp. 185-206; esp. pp. 203-205)

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