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Book review: Anselm: A very short introduction by Thomas Williams

08 September 2023

Alexander Faludy on an archbishop’s thought

ST ANSELM of Bec (1033-1109) is generally accounted the finest theologian to have held the see of Canterbury — which he did from 1093 until his death. In this new volume, Thomas Williams gives us an able and concise tour through Anselm’s ideas as set forth in his the great works, the Monologion (Monologue), Proslogion (Discourse), and Cur Deus Homo (“Why [did] God [become] Man?”).

In logical order, Williams takes us through Anselm’s arguments, starting (chapters 2 and 3) with the nature and knowledge of God (the Monologion and Proslogion). This includes Anselm’s famous “Ontological” argument that — to state it crudely — the mere postulation of God as possibility in fact implies the necessity of God’s existence.

Williams offers modifications to traditional presentations of Anselm’s metaphysical speculations. But it is the sketch of Anselm’s efforts to provide a logically necessary foundation for God’s work as Creator and Redeemer in chapters 3 to 6 (summarising Cur Deus Homo) that readers will find most stimulating.

Along the way, Williams deftly dismisses lazy claims that Anselm’s account of “satisfaction” is identical with penal substitution: “Christ does not suffer in our stead, but for our sake. The difference may seem slight, but to Anselm it is crucial. His view is not that God the Father does something to Christ instead of doing it to us, but that Christ does something on our behalf that we cannot do for ourselves.”

Williams focuses on Anselm as thinker, but conveys much about his life and ministry in chapters 1 and 7. Turbulent relations with William II and Henry I concerning royal power over the Church twice forced him into exile (1097-1100 and 1103-06). That story anticipates the tensions that later precipitated the martyrdom of Anselm’s successor, St Thomas Becket (1170).

A forgotten detail of Anselm’s story was his summoning (with Henry I) of a primatial council (September 1102) to enact strict canonical legislation against “sodomy” — especially among clerics. Anselm claimed “that up to now this sin has been so common that hardly anyone was ashamed of it, and for that reason many heedlessly gave themselves over to it.”

The General Synod’s present wars over human sexuality appear to stand in a long tradition of dispute.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


Anselm: A very short introduction
Thomas Williams
OUP £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

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