Anselm v. the Apologists

“I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.” –Albert Camus

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt an ontological argument for God’s existence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anselm of Canterbury wrote two tracts that set out to demonstrate the existence of God. The first one is called Monologion, and the second, Proslogion. Often the Monologion is skipped over in its entirety and the Proslogion is read only for its early chapters. Indeed, this lack of a thorough reading is made evident by the fact that Anselm’s texts are seldom interpreted appropriately. What results is Anselm only becoming known for two things, the satisfaction theory of atonement and the ontological argument. Both of these were crowning novelties of his mind’s output, but they’re each often presented in ways that grossly misrepresent the heart of his writings.

I have shown how to properly read Anselm’s account of satisfaction atonement without its Calvinist derivative here. In this installment, it is my task to free his ontological argument from the apologists, who do to his ontological argument what Calvin did to his atonement theology—they make it forensic and cold. I apologize for the length of this post, but it is something I have long desired to put forth. First, I will examine the way that Anselm is often misused by Christian apologists, and then seek to portray the impetus of the Proslogion in a manner that is more appropriate to its author.

I. Misunderstanding Anselm’s Ontological Argument

The way Anselm’s ontological argument is typically presented is as follows:

1: The greatest possible being can be imagined to exist.

2: It is greater to exist in reality than to just be imagined to exist.

3: The greatest possible must exist in reality or it is not the greatest possible being.

4: The greatest possible being, therefore, must exist.

This argument is vicarious and easily refuted. In fact, if this is actually Anselm’s argument, then it was swiftly disseminated in the first portion of Guanilo’s rebuttal. Guanilo was a contemporary of Anselm who sought to show the absurdity of Anselm’s ontological argument, understood in this way, by supposing the following scenario:

1: It can be thought that a “lost island” exists, which is the greatest possible island.

2: It is greater to exist in reality than to just be imagined to exist.

3: The greatest possible island must exist in reality or it is not the greatest possible island.

4: The greatest possible island, therefore, must exist.

Since everyone knows that this “lost island” most certainly does not exist in reality, despite one’s ability to think that it does, it is possible that God likewise does not exist in reality despite one’s ability to think that God does. Worth noting here is that Guanilo was a devout Christian, and he didn’t object to anything else in Anselm’s argument other than that listed above. He thought it was salvageable by substituting the word “understand” for the word “think”—that is, one who truly understands who God is (rather than one who merely thinks of God) cannot doubt that God must exist. In fact, he believed that this is what Anselm was getting at, and seems to have been simply trying to get Anselm to alter his word choice to avoid this potential misunderstanding.

Typical to today, when listening to theologians like Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig (the former of which I have a great deal of respect for), one might hear Anselm’s argument presented along with language about “possible worlds”. While this language indeed is foreign to Anselm’s original argument, it is often accepted as uncritically as Calvin’s penal language is surrounding Anselm’s satisfaction atonement.

Anselm was not interested in possible worlds; he was interested in one specific world. The world that was his focus was that of his audience, the world found within the monastery. In fact, he wouldn’t have written the Proslogion if not for his dissatisfaction with the Monologion, and he wouldn’t have written the Monologion if not for his monastic brethren beseeching him to rationally articulate God’s existence without the aid of the Bible or Church authorities (its purpose was to be used to guide meditation upon God). This is crucial for understanding what he thought his initial ontological argument actually accomplished, and why he responds how he does to Guanilo.

II. God is not an island

Curiously, in Anselm’s response to Guanilo he begins by saying “Since it is not the Fool, against whom I spoke in my tract, who takes me up, but one who, though speaking on the Fool’s behalf, is an orthodox Christian and no fool, it will suffice if I reply to the Christian.”[1] If Anselm’s argument was meant to be an nomothetic argument of pure reason, able to persuade atheists, fools, and fellow believers alike, then it seems odd that he would address his interlocker’s concerns by way of their shared faith. Even more odd is the fact that, after re-stating Guanilo’s refutation, he remarks, “Now my strongest argument that this [Guanilo’s rebuttal] is false is to appeal to your faith and to your conscience.” [brackets mine][2]

It should be clear by this point in Anselm’s reply to Guanilo that Anselm is no apologist and he is making no appeal to reason alone by which a non-believer might be convinced to believe God exists from a position of non-faith. Instead, Anselm is a master of contemplative theology whose meditation on the greatness of God has been totally lost on countless Christians due to this ongoing misunderstanding of his intentions.

His reply to Guanilo was hardly a private letter; he was so proud of it that he asked scribes to attach both Guanilo’s reply and his response to it at the end of the actual text. The reason that Guanilo’s corresponding argument pertaining to the lost island fails to properly replicate Anselm’s claim about the greatest possible being, namely God, is because it fails to consider what attributes are entailed in his conception of “God”. Namely, God is no island. In fact, an island is just a good thing—a good object in a world full of objects—that can be discernably placed on the ladder of ascending good beings, as discussed in the Monologion. Anselm himself says:

Now, I truly promise that if anyone should discover for me something existing either in reality or in the mind alone— except ‘that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-bethought’— to which the logic of my argument would apply, then I shall find that Lost Island and give it, never more to be lost, to that person.”[3]

For Anselm, God is not just the greatest being of a certain kind atop other less-great beings of that kind. God is the source of being itself, the one who creates all beings from their previous non-being. God, as the greatest imaginable reality, is a being beyond all other beings, with no beginning and no end. If God were merely a being of a certain kind—even the greatest of such—like Guanilo’s lost island, then God wouldn’t discernably be God.

Unlike God, an island has a beginning and an end. Unlike an island, God’s existence is necessary for everything else that exists to exist. That is, if God is properly thought to be that by which every being even comes into being, then God must exist or no being exists. This makes the contemplation of God’s existence categorically distinct from that of the lost island.

The place whereby an atheist or theologian might object to Anselm’s argument is not the second premise, which Guanilo parodies with his lost island scenario. Instead, it is within the first premise that dissent is permissible. That is, the possibility that God, as defined above, might exist at all. Guanilo was right to make the distinction between Anselm’s wording, and he was right to suggest that what Anselm meant by the word “think” was better captured by the word “understand”; for if God, understood as Anselm’s faith defines him, can possibly exist then God surely must exist. I don’t think Anselm would necessarily disagree, as suggested by his own words in the Proslogion: “No one, indeed, understanding what God is can think that God does not exist.”[4] What seems clear at this point is that Anselm misunderstood Guanilo’s concerns, just as Guanilo misunderstood the initial intent of Anselm’s words, and ultimately the two end up talking passed one another.

The important thing to notice from this section, however, is that the logical conclusion that Anselm arrives at in his ontological argument is dependent upon his foundational understanding of God (founded as it were by the orthodox faith that he and Guanilo shared). At this point, let me conclude with a clarified presentation of Anselm’s ontological argument, accompanied by a meditation akin to its original (devotional) usage.

III. Anselm’s Ontological Argument as Testimony to the Greatness of God

As we have seen, faith lingers throughout Anselm’s argument. Rather than the conception of the one who by reason alone inevitably arrives at faith, Anselm’s impetus inspires something more akin to one who inquires by reason, sees by faith, and confirms their faith by continued contemplation (understanding). After all, he initially wanted to title his second tract, which contains his ontological argument, “Faith in Quest of Understanding.”[5] Key here is that faith is primary and reason is only used for clarifying faith—hence, a faith understanding itself. It is not the reverse; it is not reason seeking faith. As such, let us consider Anselm’s argument in light of this context and glimpse at its devotional ramifications:

1: The greatest possible being possibly exists.

2: If the greatest possible being possibly exists, then it does exist.

3: The greatest possible being does exist

Anselm’s argument broken down:

1: God possibly exists. As noted above, it is often supposed that the first premise is merely that the greatest possible being can be imagined (i.e. one simply imagines a being greater than all other beings). This doesn’t quite cause much difficulty for non-believers, but it should. After all, the first premise is the one that not everyone can agree upon, because, to put it rather crudely, this premise is a euphemism for “faith”. This simply is to say; God, as presented in orthodox Christianity, possible exists (i.e. can be thought to exist).

2: If God possibly exists, God must exist. God is the being beyond all other beings by which all beings came into being from non-being. It’s absurd to compare this being to a lesser being like an island. At maximum, God is beyond all thought, and at minimum is the greatest possible thought. If a proper understanding of God can be placed before one’s heart after much contemplation and seeking, then of course God must exist or what has been reflected upon is less than God or something else entirely. Succinctly put: if God, then God.

3: God exists! This is where the awe that’s peeked at in the second premise reaches its crescendo; this is where the one who manages to contemplate God’s existence must pursue its implications, for they cannot manage to un-think this God. God isn’t the type of being that—such as a lost island—may or may not exist somewhere “out there.” God’s existence is central to one’s entire worldview.


One cannot simply say, “if God exists, there he is, over there, lost at sea like the island!” If God who is omnipresent exists, he exists everywhere at once; if God who is omnipotent exists, he exists behind all else, thunderously bringing it all into being; if God who is omniscient exists, he exists knowing all things as they seek to know him; if God who is all loving exists, he exists as the glue by which all things are held together in love and mutuality, bridging the gap between every molecule of our DNA. If God who is thought to exist by faith, can be imagined, he cannot be imagined to exist in any sort of limited way—in a modest or non-affective way; it is either all or nothing with this God. Either God is impossible, or he demands us to find him in everything.

The power of Anselm’s original ontological argument is that it compels one to discard any semblance of a lukewarm faith or lethargic agnosticism. One cannot think God is possible, and remain unmoved or apathetic. If God exists, then he requires our utmost and our whole being must seek to rejoice in him. It is therefore no wonder that the fool is the one who discovers this and turns away—how foolish it is to be confronted with the balm of our souls through which we are offered infinitive wholeness and close off our hearts in disbelief.

In conclusion, I believe Anselm’s intent was this. He wanted to demonstrate to his fellow monks that their faith can be confirmed by reason, and by seeking to further understand their faith, they must meditate upon the greatness of God. The Proslogion is spiritual formation! This meditation upon the greatness of God will expand one’s mind and heart, as the wonder of God grows exponentially through these thoughtful tracts (or, meditations).

Camus was also right. I wouldn’t die for the ontological argument that is espoused by the apologists, or critiqued and rejected by the Thomists and Kantians. However, for the ontological argument of Anselm, whereby one sees God in all things as the most infinite, greatest being—for this argument I would most certainly agree to live. I invite you to read the Proslogion with fresh eyes and ears and behold the wonder of our matchless God.



[1] St. Anselm (1998-09-10). Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 111). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] p. 114

[4] p. 89.

[5] P. 83.

Author: Toy Adams

Toy Adams is a pastor in Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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