Anselm on God's Perfect Freedom
ABSTRACT According to the Catechism, "...God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever,...it proceeds from God's free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness" (section 295). Anselm and Thomas Aquinas offer significantly different analyses of divine freedom, especially freedom to create. Anselm holds that God "must" do the best. From the perspective of divine creation, setting aside the impact of creaturely free choices, ours is the best and only world God could actualize. Thomas holds that God might have made other, better or worse worlds, or he might not have created at all. I argue that Anselm's position accords better with the Catechism and is a more philosophically and religiously adequate analysis of divine freedom.
The Saint Anselm Journal 1.1 (Fall 2003)1
Anselm on God’s Perfect Freedom
Katherin A. Rogers
University of Delaware
According to the Catechism, "...God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product
of any necessity whatever,...it proceeds from God's free will; he wanted to make his creatures share
in his being, wisdom, and goodness" (section 295). Anselm and Thomas Aquinas offer significantly
different analyses of divine freedom, especially freedom to create. Anselm holds that God "must"
do the best. From the perspective of divine creation, setting aside the impact of creaturely free
choices, ours is the best and only world God could actualize. Thomas holds that God might have
made other, better or worse worlds, or he might not have created at all. I argue that Anselm's
position accords better with the Catechism and is a more philosophically and religiously adequate
analysis of divine freedom.
The most striking example of God’s free agency is his creation of our world. According to
the Catechism, “...God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any
necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will;
he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness” (section 295). But what
exactly does divine freedom consist in? This is not simply an abstract metaphysical issue. It goes
to the very center of the most heartfelt questions the believer can ask, “What is God like?” and “Why
did he make me?” Anselm and Thomas Aquinas offer significantly different analyses of divine
freedom, as is especially clear in their treatment of God’s decision to create. Anselm follows the
Augustinian, Neoplatonic line that God, in his wisdom and goodness, could not fail to do the best,
and our world is it. It is important to note that Anselm is not claiming that our world is the best
possible world simpliciter. Anselm holds that rational creatures have libertarian free will and so it
is in part up to us to choose how good a world it will be. A world with no free creatures would
certainly be a worse world than ours, but had all the free creatures in the actual world always chosen
the good, ours might have been a better world than it is. Thus Anselm holds that our world could
have been better, but from the perspective of divine creation, ours is the best and hence the only
world God could actualize. Thomas, on the other hand, holds that God might have made other,
better or worse worlds, or he might not have created at all. Though it is Anselm who allows for a
sort of “necessity” in the creation of our world, I will argue that his position accords better with the
Catechism and is a more philosophically and religiously adequate analysis of divine freedom. First
a quick discussion of Anselm’s view, then why it is preferable to Thomas’s, and finally responses
to some standard criticisms.
Throughout his work, Anselm holds that God “must” do the best. This point is perhaps most
striking in connection with his provocative claim to be able to prove the Incarnation through
“necessary reasons.” In the first chapter of his Cur Deus Homo he proposes to show “by what
reason or necessity God became man” (quo ratione vel necessitate deus homo factus sit). He
explains his method in Book I, Chapter 10, “For just as in God impossibility (impossibilitas) follows
upon the smallest unsuitable thing, so necessity (necessitas) attends the smallest reason, if it is not
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outweighed by a greater.” And throughout the Cur Deus Homo he continues to speak of various
divine acts as “necessary”.1 But, of course, the term “necessity” often means compulsion or
prohibition, and Anselm is careful to insist that this meaning cannot attach to God’s action. It is
correct to say that “it is necessary that God always tell the truth” (necesse est deum semper verum
dicere), but what this means is that God is so truthful that nothing could possibly make Him lie.2
It is legitimate to claim that it is necessary that God should complete what He has begun with
respect to human nature (Necesse est ergo, ut de humana natura quod incepit perficiat) but what we
mean by “necessity” here is the immutability of the divine honor (necessitas non est aliud quam
immutabilitas honestatis eius).3 God cannot fail to become man and so the Incarnation is “necessary”
in a way that does not suggest any sort of compulsion but simply follows from the wisdom and
goodness of God.
One might propose that in Anselm’s view the “necessity” at work here is a consequent or
“ordained” necessity such that, having chosen in some radically undetermined way to create us and
our world, God is then bound to save us by becoming Incarnate should we sin, but that there is no
inevitability to the original creation. This is not a view that Anselm expresses anywhere in his work.
On the contrary, he consistently holds that it is impossible that God do less than the best, and seems
to hold that there is, on the occasions at issue, some best to do. And there is at least some evidence
that he would not abandon this principle when the question is creation.
First it should be noted that Anselm cites Augustine as his major influence. Augustine
repeats the standard Neoplatonic line that the absolute Good cannot fail to create. In De Genesi ad
litteram IV, 16, 27 he discusses the seventh day of creation, and holds that we are told of God’s rest
so that we may understand that God has no need of creation. As perfect already He is not made
happier or more complete by creation. Nonetheless, it would be inconsistent with His goodness to
fail to create.
Of what good things could He laudably feel no need if He had not made anything?
For He also could be said to need no good things, not by resting in Himself from the
things He has made, but just by not making anything. But if He is not able to make
good things then He has no power, and if He is able and does not make them, great
is His envy. So because He is omnipotent and good He made all things very good.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is generally safe to assume that Anselm
followed Augustine.4 And there is further evidence that Anselm holds that failure to create our
actual world would mean that God does less then the best. He argues that there is a perfect number
of rational creatures and then a perfect number of created natures such that “we dare not say of the
1 For a list of passages in which God’s action is described as “necessary” see Rogers (Neoplatonic Metaphysics,1997)
2 Cur Deus Homo Book II, Chapter 17.
3 Cur Deus Homo Book II, Chapters 4--5.
4 Rogers (Neoplatonic Metaphysics,1997) pp. 14--18.
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nature of the smallest worm” that it is superfluous.5 And in Monologion 33 he says that God speaks
Himself and what he makes in a single Word. But the Father’s begetting the Son is not contingent
in the life of God, and if the creation of our world occurs in that begetting, then Anselm seems to
be saying that God could not fail to create.
But doesn’t the claim that God’s decision to create is inevitable render the divine act of
creation unfree? If freedom must entail indeterminately open options, then a choice that could not
be otherwise is not free. But by Anselm’s definition, freedom does not require indeterminate options
and in this, I take it, he is in the company of many if not most western philosophers, including
Augustine and Thomas. Anselm explicitly rejects the view that freedom is the ability to sin or not,
since he wants a definition which can apply univocally to men, angels, and God. But the good angels
in their present state cannot sin, and God never could.6
I am not aware of any theist until the twentieth century who seriously suggests that God has
“morally significant” freedom. The God of Anselm, Augustine, and Aquinas is the standard for
value, and necessarily does what is best.7 Assuming that the Catechism is not wildly at odds with
the classical theism of these pillars of Christian philosophy, when it says that creation, “...is not the
product of any necessity whatever,...” this phrase must be interpreted in less than its broadest sense.
God himself is a necessary being. In his perfect being and simplicity, he just is an act, and that act
is necessarily perfectly and infinitely good. The question is not, “Does creation involve any
necessity?” Obviously it does. The question is whether or not the necessarily perfect divine action
inevitably produces one best creation, our world, which is the position I have attributed to Anselm,
or might it have ended in some entirely different creation, or no creation at all, as Thomas holds.8
Anselm defines freedom as “the ability to keep rightness of will for its own sake” and being
able to choose otherwise is not a requirement for this ability.9 Interestingly, Anselm does conclude
that rational creatures, in order to merit praise and blame, must, at some point in their careers as
agents, have been able to choose between radically open options. Created agents do need the sort
of “morally significant” freedom that involves being able to choose between good and evil. This
is the only way in which the creature, which exists entirely per aliud, can make a choice on its own.
In Anselm’s view, in order to be free and praiseworthy a being must be able to choose a se, from
itself. But God exists entirely a se, and so, while open options are very important in creaturely free
choice, they are completely irrelevant for God. God’s inevitably willing the best due to His wisdom
and goodness does not conflict with divine freedom.10
5 Cur Deus Homo Book I, Chapters 16 and 18.
6 De libertati arbitrii I. On Anselm’s doctrine of the univocity of language about God see Rogers (Neoplatonic
Metaphysics,1997) pp. 199--215.
7 It is incoherent to posit God’s actions falling short of his nature since he is perfectly simple. See Katherin A. Rogers,
Perfect Being Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000) pp. 120--26.
8 Summa Theologiae I, Q.25, articles 5 and 6.
9 De libertati arbitrii 3.
10 Anselm’s indeterminism comes out clearly in De casu diaboli. See my “Anselm’s Indeterminism” in The Anselmian
Approach to God and Creation (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997) pp. 91--101.
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Thomas, on the other hand, insists on God’s freedom of indifference. That is, though God
does not have morally significant freedom, there are options open to him such that he has no reason
to prefer one over another, and he can choose among them. It is plausible to interpret Aquinas’
position as almost the inverse of Anselm’s. Anselm held that creatures need libertarian, morally
significant choice, while God’s freedom does not entail options. For Thomas, the created will
voluntarily chooses on the basis of what it prevolitionally deems preferable, so the agent does not
have literally open options at the moment of choice.11 Were the created agent confronted with two
equally desirable objects, it could not move at all, barring the introduction of some external cause.
But this is not the case with God’s will. “The divine will, however, which by its nature is
necessary, determines itself to will things to which it has no necessary relation.”12 Thomas holds
that, having once chosen to create a given world, God’s goodness requires that he see to it that that
world is perfectly ordered internally. So God does not have the freedom to produce an inherently
badly ordered creation. But with regard to creation itself, God has freedom of indifference. He is
perfect in himself and does not need any creation, so it is indifferent whether his perfect act should
terminate in our world, some other world, or not end in any creation at all.13
But herein lies the problem for Aquinas’ position. The Catechism says that “God created
the world according to his wisdom...he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and
goodness.” The implication is that pointing to God’s wisdom and goodness offers an explanation
or a reason for why he made the world. But on Thomas’s analysis, there is no reason why God made
the world. That is, God had no preference for making our world rather than some other world or no
world at all. All the options were indifferently good, and he simply chose. His wisdom might have
issued in a world with nothing but cosmic dust, or it might not have issued in any created world at
all. Thomas can grant that our world is a better world than the world of dust or nothing, but God
chose it arbitrarily and he does not view his choice of our world as preferable to the equally open
options of a world of dust or nothing.
This seems to me to introduce a very disquieting arbitrariness at the heart of things. No
reason can be given for why things ultimately are as they are. One of the great advantages of theism
over its ancient and powerful rival, naturalism (the universe is just atoms and the void) is that the
theist can point to an ultimate meaning and purpose to the world. Insisting on divine freedom of
indifference with regard to creation reintroduces unreason at the very source of things. The religious
believer is inclined to give some content to the idea that God made the world including the believer,
out of love. Doesn’t that mean that God wanted this world with these people, to be? If God’s love
might equally have issued in a world of dust or nothing, then it is hard to see what that love means
to us. There would have to be an overridingly powerful philosophical or religious reason to insist
on God’s freedom of indifference in the face of these costs.
One such reason might be the indisputable point that the rational creature owes an enormous
debt of gratitude to its creator. But if, in his wisdom and goodness, God could not have failed to
11 ST I, Q.82, art. 3, ad 2.
12 ST I, Q.19, art. 3, Obj. 5 and response.
13 ST I, Q. 19, art. 3.
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make us, then, the argument goes, we need not feel grateful. The underlying principle seems to be
that gratitude is the wrong response to a benefit bestowed, unless the giver had the freedom of
indifference not to give it. But it is hard to see what could ground such a principle. Even in human
affairs it does not hold. Suppose you are glad to be alive and express gratitude to your parents for
bringing you into being. If they should respond that they always wanted a child like you, it never
occurred to them not to have children, and they are as happy as can be that you were born, I do not
see why this should lessen your gratitude. But what if they should respond that not having a child
was as viable an option for them as having a child and so in the end they tossed a coin? It came up
heads and they had you. You are a good child and they are very happy they had you, but not having
children would have been equally as good and they would have been just as happy had you never
been born. In that case it seems appropriate that you would not be as grateful to your parents.
Instead you should be happy about the chance outcome of the coin toss.
But this response to the issue of gratitude raises what is for Aquinas the strongest reason to
insist on divine freedom of indifference. If your parents would not have been as happy had they not
had you, then your existence fulfills some need for them. They could not attain their goal of
happiness without you. But surely we do not want to say that God is limited and imperfect such that
he needs creation to “complete” him. Aquinas writes that: “...God wills things other than Himself
in so far as they are ordered to His own goodness as their end.” But one only wills something by
necessity if one cannot achieve one’s end without it. God does not need anything outside himself
to make him perfect, and so there is no necessity in his willing any creature. God does not need any
creature as a means to his ends, and thus regarding creation God has freedom of indifference.14
(Given this argument it is hard to see why Aquinas holds that God “must” ensure the perfect internal
order of a world once he has chosen to create it. Would making a world, but failing to order its
elements properly leave some lacuna in the divine perfection?)
Anselm, following Augustine, rejects the underlying assumptions of this argument. God’s
inevitably willing creation is not a matter of willing the means to achieve an otherwise unobtainable
end. Creation is not a means to some further end at all. For the Augustinian, creation out of love
is God’s willing the good creature to exist because it is good. Certainly all good is entirely derived
from and dependent upon God, but God’s act of creation is an outward-turning choice, made not out
of some need to perfect himself, but out of an abundance of wisdom and goodness. God loves our
creation for itself, not for what it can do for him. Here the analogy between human love and divine
love fails. Even the purest human love is rooted in a radically weak and limited being for whom
complete happiness is a distant ideal. Human love cannot help but be self-serving. God’s love is
identical with his necessarily perfect being, and creation does not add to that perfection, but rather
expresses it. Being perfect love, God would not settle for the possible worlds of dust or nothingness.
But still, continuing the analogy with the parents, on the Anselmian/Augustinian analysis,
14 ST I, Q. 19, art. 3 and ST I, Q.25, art. 5. In discussing the choice of created agents Aquinas seems to advance a
compatibilist position as a sort of third option between necessity and indifference, but in Questions 19 and 25 the clear
implication is that God wills either necessarily, as in the case of willing his own goodness, or indifferently, with no third