That’s a mouthful! This is Anselm’s main point in his book, Proslogion. His defense for the existence of God has been a debated one since introduced in the 11th century. He was born in 1033 and forced to accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 (though reluctantly).

Anselm was a Realist in the Scholastic schools of the Roman Catholic Church – which is a school that aimed to show universal principles from the world that we live in. For example, one can see that God is intelligent from the order of Creation. God has purpose in Creation from the fact there is a food-chain, etc.

Proslogion is the sequel to his book, Monologion. In Monologion he attempted to show that God is ‘the best and greatest and highest of all things’. In Proslogion he attempts to show that God is ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’.

What does this mean? Think of a being that encapsulates the best of everything you can think of – justice, mercy, beauty, power, splendor, majesty. That which you think of is not God. Sorry. God is better than what you just thought of.

It might be argued that merely because you can think of something does not mean that it has to exist. For example, I can think of an beautiful island with white sandy beaches etc. That does not mean it has to exist. Response: This is true, it does not have to exist. However, to exist is greater than not to exist. Therefore, this island is not the greatest island because it does not exist.

In the same way, because existence is better than non-existence, God exists. Thinking of a being that is perfectly just, merciful, powerful, loving, etc. and for him to not exist means that this being is not ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’. Make sense?

Further, we know that there is such a being that exists because we have in our mind’s eye an understanding of what right and wrong is. That is, we have a sense of morality. The impossibility for morality to find its way through evolutionary processes of trial and error do not solve the problem of evil. We will get into this later in another discussion of God’s existence and the existence of morality – good and evil.

So before you leave this discussion, try this. Close your eyes and think of ‘something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought’. When you get to your highest thoughts, realize that God is more than this. And take comfort in the fact that existence is better than non-existence.

You can read more on this argument here .And I will also make it possible to download a three-page summary I wrote of the book that might be helpful.

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This post has 2 Comments

  1. i read the explanation on the link you provided and it helped a bit more with understanding this argument.

    it explains that to exist in reality is greater than to exist in our own thoughts. i can imagine a perfect (the greatest)island and i can imagine that it exists, even when it doesn’t. but if it did exist, that island would be greater than the own i was thinking of.

    what doesn’t make sense to me here is how we can compare things that exist with things that don’t exist. how can i compare a real island with a made-up one in my mind and say that it is better? it sounds a little nonsensical. (it reminds me of the famous, “Can God create a rock so big he can’t lift it?” this is a nonsense question because it requires us to imagine a finite object with infinite proportions.)

    another question: what’s to stop us from imagining the greatest possible versions of all kinds of things and then saying that the existing version of those things is greater than the one that doesn’t exist and concluding that they exist? the explanation in the link dismisses this as possibility “absurd” and doesn’t really explain why. is this more absurd than applying this argument to the existence of God? can anybody offer any help with this?

    the argument boils down to us thinking God into existence. it says that if i’m thinking of the greatest possible being, then that being has to exist because existing is part of being the greatest possible being. well, isn’t it possible that that being doesn’t exist and i was actually wrong in my thinking? that is, i really wasn’t thinking of the greatest possible being because the one i was thinking of doesn’t actually exist. how would we know that we were right in our thinking unless we knew by some other way (than us conceiving of it) that that being did in fact exist???

  2. Great point, Will. This is the same argument that the fellow at Stanford raises. Could this be one of the holes in the buckets? Possibly. I think the essential presuppostion that Anselm has in his mind has to do with the fact that only the fool would say there is no God and work from that foundation. He says that it is absurd to think that there is no Infinite Being.

    I see my interpretation in what Anselm says in his reply to Guanilo: “But if you say that it is not understood and that it is not in the understanding, because it is not thoroughly understood; you should say that a man who cannot face the direct rays of the sun does not see the light of day, which is none other than the sunlight.”

    That is, it is foolish to deny the sun because you can’t see it because of its rays. OR You deny the existence of a forest because you can’t see past the trees. This is something Anselm does, like many of the Fathers, so well. He uses apologetics to defend the faith and rebuke the fool who says that Christianity is false.

    Essentially, I think Anselm must depend on presuppositional apologetics in order to make his defense work. In fact, any kind of argument for the existence of God must needs depend on it. This is due to the fact that men’s eyes and minds have been covered with argument after argument about piddly irrelevances rather that basking in the God-given conscience. This is why I began with the presuppositional argument (at least one aspect of it) in my first post.

    The one who denies God’s existence is a fool and does not have a foot to stand on if he does not borrow things from the theist.

    Regarding your second question: I would have to say that because we are dealing with finite things there is not a 1:1 correlation. For insteance, there is in each person a longing for justice to roll down like rivers from the mountain tops, but they seek in vain in this world.

    We admire a judge who stands for what is right, but when we look at his record we will probably see that all of his rulings were not so righteous. Thus, there must exist a judge who will judge all cases with righteous judgment.

    I will say this in closing, Anselm is not thinking God into existence as much as he is pointing the person to the sun and begging him to admit that he knows there exists something so magnificent that he just can’t put his finger on if he does not worship the God of the Bible.–>

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God’s Broad Shoulders

One of the fascinating aspects of my profession is that I come in contact with a lot of Christians who want to engage with their faith in a deep way. Rather than being content with showing up on Sunday or being CINO (Christian In Name Only), these folks want to understand the Bible better and tease out the implications for their lives.

On the flipside of this, many of these same people are afraid to engage with their doubts in a deep way. It’s almost as if, doubts and questions are treated from a distance–“I don’t struggle with this, but…”

The biggest breakthrough in my own journey of faith came through (and continues to come through) engaging my doubts and questions as my own. They are not theoretical. They are honest struggles: problem of evil is the perennial one. I was in the throes of one of these bouts several years ago when a friend told me, “God can handle your doubts.”

I have used this same bit of advice for my struggling friends and self. If truth is not relative. If God is truth. Your doubts and questions will not overthrow this objective, transcendent truth. It’s not as though you are the first to struggle with doubts and fears and pain. The heavens will not collapse under the weight of your doubts. You won’t come up with a question that will cause God to close up shop. You can honestly engage with your doubts and fears and pain and suffering without having to be quick to give the typical and trite answers to matters of faith.

Go ahead, roll your burdens on God. He’s got broad shoulders.

Blow the Roof Off

Reading through Os Guiness’ new book, Fool’s Talk, for an Honors Seminar I’m leading on the art of persuasion. It is EXCELLENT.

I find that too many apologists take the defensive in explaining the Christian worldview. That has a place, but I would recommend that after you listen and listen and listen some more to the person you are engaging in dialogue, that you take the offensive. Of course, this is not being offensive, but taking the offense in showing the foolishness of the worldview. At some point the team has to score. If they only have defense, they will not score (okay, for the nay-sayers, the defense can score on a take-away…but even then there was an aggression to get the ball and not merely to prevent…BTW, prevent defense is such a great way to lose a ballgame, isn’t it?).

Here’s a juicy quote that I have underlined in the book:

From Jesus onward, the dynamic is crystal clear in Christian proclamation. “The tree is known by its fruit,” Jesus said–not by its seed (Mt. 12.33). If you had tried to persuade the prodigal son to return home the day he left home, would he have listened? If you had spoken to him the day he hit the pigsty, would you have needed to persuade him? Always “see where it leads to,” St. Augustine advised when dealing with false ideas. Follow it out to the “absolutely ruddy end,” C. S. Lewis remarked with characteristic Englishness. “Push them to the logic of their presuppositions,” Francis Schaeffer used to say. Too many varieties of unbelief are halfway houses. Too many unbelievers have not had the courage or the consistency to follow their thoughts all the way home –Fool’s Talk, p.118 (emphasis added)

Modern-day Power Encounters

I remember reading in my Perspectives Class on world mission a phenomenon called “power encounters” whereby a missionary would directly confront the idols of the day in some bombastic way to show the futility of such idols. For example, tearing down a totem pole or cutting down a tree (if these were the items of worship) in an area. While the confrontationalist in me loves the idea, I wonder how much was missed in these opportunities to really get to the heart of idolatry–namely, through teaching that idols are nothing (1Cor 8.4). Yet for those who worship an idol, it is very much a real thing.

I am currently reading Roland Allen’s formative text on mission, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, and have been immensely helped (in tandem with Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret). Regarding the moral and social condition in which Paul preached, Allen makes this side comment:

Incidentally I should like to remark that in heathen lands it might still perhaps be the wiser course to preach constantly the supremacy of Christ over all things spiritual and material, than to deny or deride the very notion of these spirits. Some of our missionaries know, and it were well for others if they did know, that it is much easier to make a man hide from us his belief in devils than it is to eradicate the belief from his heart. By denying their existence or by scoffing at those who believe in them we do not help our converts to overcome them, but only to conceal their fears from us. By preaching the supremacy of Christ we give them a real antidote, we take them a real Saviour who helps them in their dark hours” (pp.28-29)

Allen brings balance. Too often preachers can assume they are preaching the supremacy of Christ, but they never pinpoint what exactly he is supreme over. Put another way, we preachers can preach rather generically. “Jesus is Lord over all!” We declare full throttle. Yet those listening have not been helped.

What is he supreme over?

He is supreme over your doubts of salvation. Your incessant anger. Your slavery to lust and pornography. Your boring and romantic-less marriage. Your bad parenting. Your disobedient children. Your greed. Your self-doubt. Your self-aggrandizement. Your obedient children. Your good parenting. Your healthy marriage. Your pure eyes. Your self-control.

He owns you. Therefore, the world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. Instead, he sets you free to think of others. Even more, he empowers you by his Spirit to think of other more highly than yourself. Your fears that you will be passed over for the job promotion. Your self-righteousness toward your unbelieving neighbor is set under his lordship in such a way that you no longer possess the answers, but are possessed by One who does. You cannot gloat that you understand the world en esse. Rather, you are saddened by the way the world actually is.

So, Christian, we need a modern-day power encounter. Not where we smash totems. But by understanding the world around us and helping others see our need for a Savior. We limp forward together. We bind up wounds together. We use the splint our arm is wrapped in to bind our neighbors’ arms. Thereby we see that instead of hiding the idol in shame, our neighbor is free to admit the idol and know that he will not be condemned but helped.