Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Church History 1 Post 5
Realism and Nominalism:
Contrasting Views of Anselm and Aquinas
The middle ages produced two of the most prolific theologians known throughout the history of the church. These theologians, though close in faith, were separate in method and ideologies. Anselm (1033-1109) subscribed to the more Platonic philosophical ideology of realism, while Aquinas (1225-1274) held to the more earthy Aristotelian philosophical ideology of nominalism. This short essay will deal with the works of both men while contrasting their different approaches to the knowledge of God and understanding how they relate to the work of Christ.
Anselm is most famous for his work entitled Proslogion (“Address”) which gives his ontological argument for the existence of God. In this work he first states, “…I believe in order to understand.” For Anselm, reason is a tool to be used by the theologian to better understand what he already knows and believes. This is distinctly different from a purely philosophical perspective which states that reason alone, apart from revelation, is the path to truth and knowledge. Thus, we find that Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, though purely using reason alone, follows his already established belief of God’s existence. Anselm’s commitment to the dominant philosophy of the day predetermined the course that his arguments would take. Subscribing to the Platonic driven ideals of realism forced him to argue in absolutes alone. Realists believe that ultimate reality is found in the greatest absolute. For instance, the physical church on the corner is only a representation of the “real” established universal church. In a way, our senses deceive us or only give us glimpses, note Plato’s shapes and forms, into ultimate reality.
The Thomastic approach to theology is somewhat different. During Aquinas’s days of study a rebirth of Aristotelian philosophy was taking place. This ideology was taking form in the minds of the nominalists by stating that we only have the ability to recognize forms through experience and the senses. Thus, reality is found on the level of sense perception. “The mind knows something by forming ideas that are gathered from sensation through images.” As a contrary view, the true reality of the church, for the nominalist, is not necessarily the all encompassing ideal of the universal church, but rather the physical church located in each individual town. For Aquinas, theology and philosophy are not juxtaposed. “According to him, some truths are within the reach of reason, and others are beyond it. Philosophy deals only with the first; but theology is not limited to the latter.” It was this reasoning that drove Aquinas’s methodology in creating his complex systems of thought in Summa Theologiae. His meticulously organized system allowed for the freedom of reason to be used in subjects such as the natural sciences with the assumption that reason only has the ability to take you so far. The point in which reason can take one no further is the point at which revelation begins.
This next section will view both theologians’ arguments for the existence of God in order to differentiate between the two methodologies. “Anselm distrusted the senses, and thus starts, not by looking at the world, but by examining the idea itself of God.” By stating, “Now we believe that thou art a being than which none greater can be thought,” Anselm elevates the world of ideas above the world of the senses. On the contrary, Aquinas begins his first argument with the natural science law of motion. He states, “The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another…” Both of these men believed that “rational inquiry helps us to understand better that which we accept by faith,” but, because of their philosophical commitments, took drastically different approaches. Anselm’s approach tended to emphasize the more transcendent nature of God while Aquinas argued that nature gives us tangible witness to who God is.
The question then becomes, “How do these two methodologies interpret the work of Christ?” Both individuals worked to answer this question. Anselm, using feudal imagery, explained the incarnation by stating that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied as payment for man’s offense against God. Anselm explains,
“When we were considering God’s justice and man’s sin, God’s mercy seemed to you to vanish. But we have found how great it really is, and how it is in such harmony with his justice that it cannot be conceived to be greater or more just. For, indeed, what greater mercy could be imagined, than for God the father to say to the sinner, condemned to eternal torments, and without any power of redeeming himself from them, “Receive my only-begotten Son, and give him for yourself,” and for the Son himself to say, “Take me, and redeem yourself”? For they as much as say this when they call us and draw us to the Christian faith. And what could be more just, than for Him to whom the price paid to forgive every debt.”
Perhaps to our surprise, Aquinas begins his arguments for the incarnation and humanity’s restoration through Christ with the exact argument of atonement. He states, “Hence divine Wisdom judged it fitting that God should become man, so that thus one and the same person would be able both to restore man and to offer satisfaction.” It seems that both philosophical paths, in this case, have led to the same road. Relationally, Christ is experienced by us through his humanity. His sacrifice on the cross satisfies the necessary payment for the remission of sins. This He freely gives to us through the act of grace which for both Anselm and Aquinas were experienced in the sacraments of the church.
 Hugh T. Kerr, Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd Edition (Abingdon Press/Nashville Tennessee, 1990) page 82.
 Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001) pg. 431
 Justo L. Ganzales, The Story of Christianity (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY 1984) pg. 318
 Gonzales, 318
 Kerr, 83
 Kerr, 112
 Gonzales, 318
 Kerr, 93
 Kerr, 119