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Saturday, 17 November 2012

Report on 'St Anselm of Canterbury and His Legacy' at Blackfriars, Oxford, 15 November 2012

Report by Ian Logan

An audience from across the UK attended the launch of the new book on Anselm, St Anselm of Canterbury and His Legacy, a collection of essays by an international group of Anselm scholars.

The host was Fr Simon Gaine OP, the Regent of Blackfriars. The speakers were the editors of the volume, Dr Giles Gasper, Durham University, author of St Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance, and Dr Ian Logan, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, author of Reading Anselm’s Proslogion: the history of Anselm’s argument and its significance today.

Fr Simon Gaine OP - Welcome address
Fr Simon spoke of the origins of the volume in the international conference held at Canterbury in 2009 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of Anselm's death. He went on to ask: ‘Who was St Anselm of Canterbury?’ An Italian who became a monk and abbot in Normandy then an archbishop in England. A respected teacher, a defender of church rights, but also a church reformer, a powerful spiritual writer of an influential collection prayers and meditations, a theologian and philosopher of brilliant originality. He left no lasting school of thought in the way that Augustine and Thomas did, but nevertheless his influence has been and continues to be great as the wide-ranging set of essays in this volume indicates. It is this influence, this legacy, that the volume captures.

Anselm has an important place in Christian thought, summed up in the phrase 'Faith seeking understanding' - a phrase he invented and which is always used whenever there is discussion of the relationship of faith and reason. Anselm is one the greatest exponents of the application of reason to faith.

 In this set of essays the editors first set out a picture of Anselm, who is 'refracted', as they put, it in the various essays presented in this volume. One of the intentional merits of the volume is that it contains much fresh scholarship from both established and young, up and coming scholars. From this volume, it is clear that Anselm studies are in a vibrant state. Interest in Anselm continues to grow apace. This volume will only serve to facilitate that growth.

Dr Giles Gasper - Anselm and the Bible: Narratives of Exile 
Anselm of Canterbury is famous for his insistence that he would establish positions of argument without reference to authorities and to the Bible as seen in the Monologion, Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo. What place then does Anselm give to biblical quotation within his theological scheme?

In his third Prayer to the Virgin Mary Anselm focuses on the role of the Virgin in carrying and bearing the creator of the world. Anselm alludes to the creation of light and the darkness that precedes it in the book of Genesis. To darkness, demons and sin, Mary’s child is the solution and salvation.

The opening chapter of the Proslogion is based around a compelling biblical narrative of exile. The chapter moves through a sequence of quotations from Matthew, Exodus, and Psalms, in which the consequences of the sin of Adam are explored. The desperate state of mankind and the need for grace is evoked. Anselm ends his opening with Genesis 1.27 ‘And God created man to his own image’, to reinforce the point that the image remains, but with a need for God to renew and redeem it. He then invokes Isaiah 7.9 on faith and understanding.

This ‘lyrical’ introduction, to use von Balthasar’s terminology, is important in setting up Anselm’s dialectical argument. Anselm provides biblical support for his statements, occasionally counter-posing the dialectical and the lyrical or biblical. Dialectic identifies what the argument is and how best to address it. The lyrical and biblical provide a reminder of both the reasons why this is beneficial, and of the limitations of human reason.

Dr Ian Logan - Some suggestions concerning the origin of the phrase, ‘than which nothing greater can be thought’ 
The phrase ‘than which nothing greater can be thought’ is central to Anselm’s argument for God in the Proslogion. Ian suggested that it is possible, even likely, that this phrase was derived by Anselm from the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who uses the identical phrase in his Natural Questions to describe the magnitude of the world. The fact that the phrase is used by Anselm as he addresses the unbeliever (the ‘fool’ of the Psalms, ‘who says in his heart, There is no God’) supports this view. Anselm was a dialectician, and in dialectical argumentation one of your first tasks is to get your opponent to agree to the terms you are using. In using this term, Anselm is inviting the unbeliever to accept a term an unbeliever uses, which he is therefore unlikely to identify with God as understood in Catholic thought, whose existence Anselm is seeking to prove.

The difficulty with this line of thought is that there are no known extant manuscripts of Seneca’s Natural Questions predating the early 12th century and Anselm wrote the Proslogion in the last quarter of the 11th century. Similar phrases can also be found in Cicero, Augustine and Boethius. However, the fact that Anselm uses exactly the same words as Seneca and that Anselm rarely uses quotations, suggests that this is an explicit quotation from Seneca and is supposed to be recognised as one. As such it throws light on Anselm’s intentions in his little book, the Proslogion, and indicates that Seneca’s work was known prior to the early 12th century.

Announcement 
After a stimulating question and answer session, the editors of the volume announced their intention to facilitate the establishing of a society or association for Anselm scholarship and that they are inviting expressions of interest from potential supporters and members. With this in mind, a one day conference at Blackfriars, Oxford, in 2013 is being planned, followed in 2014 by a full conference.

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