Skip to content

Perfect Being Theology

The idea of ‘Perfect Being Theology’ gets short shrift from modern Reformed Christian theologians, even from some who should know better. The phrase is associated with St. Anselm, and with his ontological argument for God’s existence, which some have regarded as a stroke of genius. Here I am less concerned with that proof than with the idea of God as a perfect being, or as the sum of perfection; ‘God is a being than which no greater can be conceived’ is a premise of that argument but it is worth thinking about it on its own account.

If he is the Creator of all that is, then by definition no one thing other than himself is as great as he is, let alone greater than he. Click To TweetIt is more or less agreed that ‘perfect being theology’ is the brainchild of St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). But where does St. Anselm get that idea from? Kevin Vanhoozer thinks that ‘he might have pulled it down from the metaphysical shelf’, whatever that means. But is the idea not central to the Bible’s account of God? Consider, for example, what the writer to the Hebrews says:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely. I will bless you and multiply you’……For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, [the reference here is certainly to Gen.22.16 ‘ By myself I have sworn…’] so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope ‘set before us’. (Heb. 6.13-4)

This is a significant and interesting argument. (I reckon that it’s one of the most significant statements in the whole of Scripture.) It goes something like this:

Necessarily, anyone who swears an oath, swears by someone greater than themselves.

Necessarily, had there been a greater than God, then God would have sworn by that greater.

He swore by himself.

Therefore, there is none greater than God.

Therefore, God is the greatest being.

But that may be thought to be a little too quick. Perhaps we ought only to conclude that God is the greatest in respect of veracity, or faithfulness, leaving it an open question as to whether he is the greatest in love , or mercy, or….

So perhaps we ought to conclude the argument:

There is none greater than God in respect of veracity, or faithfulness.

Therefore, God is the greatest being in respect of faithfulness.

It is interesting, however, that regarding the greatness of God, the writer makes his point in an unqualified way, referring to the one besides whom there is no greater, and not simply to some attribute of that being. It seems an appropriate inference from what he is saying to suppose that he is talking about the being of God, and therefore saying, or implying, that he is a being than which none greater can be conceived. Not simply that he has this or that feature which is an instance of something than which no other instance can be considered greater.

Where does the writer of Hebrews, or the writer of Genesis, get this idea from, that God is a being than which a greater cannot be conceived? I suggest that he does not get it from the metaphysical shelf, but from reflecting on the biblical teaching that God is the Creator of all that is. If he is the Creator of all that is, then by definition no one thing other than himself is as great as he is, let alone greater than he. For there is one God, and he is the only creator of all that is. This conclusion is supported by the second commandment, which makes a sharp distinction between that which is in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth; that is, is a created something or other, and that which is God. Such created objects are not fit objects of worship, any more than they are fit objects to swear by. The only such object is he who is uncreated, the greatest.

Of course there are other biblical data to support the wonderful verses of Hebrews in their assertion about God’s unsurpassable greatness. David refers to the greatness of God, and the fact that there is no God besides him (2 Sam. 7 22); Nehemiah refers to the great, the mighty God (Neh. 9.32, also Jer.32.18, Titus 2.13). Besides, the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods (Ps. 95.3); he is to be feared above all gods (Ps. 96.4. 77.13); he is greater than all gods (Ex.18.11); his greatness is unsearchable (Ps. 145.3). (Perhaps I should apologise for all this proof-texting, but I know of no other way to draw attention to these data of Scripture.)

A strong human intuition that arises from or is strengthened by reading the overall presentation of the being and character of God in Scripture, is the instinct that tells us that none is greater than God, and that God alone is worthy of worship. How could God be worshipful if he could have been greater than in fact he is? If there is a being greater than God then why is he not God instead? It is hard to see, from these data, and from the intuition, what objections there can be to the idea of God as the most perfect being, or as that than which a greater cannot be conceived.

It may be that the animus against perfect being theology is not so much due to the idea of God as the most perfect being, as to St. Anselm’s procedure in his work the Proslogion. It is a pity (to my mind) that Charles Hodge is rather dismissive of this method in the Introductory Chapter to his Systematic Theology. He says that his method is ‘to a greater or less degree’ reduced all the revealed doctrines of Scripture to a philosophical system. But a careful reading of Anselm shows how inaccurate that is. Yet Hodge is somewhat ambivalent. Later on he refers to the Cur Deus Homo? as ‘epoch-making’.God is ‘living, wise, good, happy, eternal, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. Click To Tweet

If you have never read this short work, with its carefully-constructed, spare, lean, chapters, then I urge you to do so. It consists of a series of short, elegant arguments, by which Anselm develops a doctrine of God from what we earlier concluded, that the idea that God is the sum of perfection is wholly and purely biblical, the one than whom no greater can be conceived.

How does he do this? Once Anselm has stated a version of his ontological argument, establishing the existence of the God than whom no greater can be conceived, he proceeds by successive applications of the claim that whatever is better to be than not to be must be true of God, than whom no greater can be conceived. So, for example, it is better to be just than not just, blessed than not blessed, perceptive than not perceptive, and the same with omnipotence, mercy and impassibility; as well, God is ‘living, wise, good, happy, eternal, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. And (for those who think of Anselm as neglecting the Trinitarian life of God), he claims that God’s Trinitarian character expresses his supreme goodness. Is this a priori reasoning? In a way, yes, but the premises of the reasoning are biblical themes and biblical doctrines, as with the Trinity. Is it speculative? It is hard to see how it is. Does the exact character of God’s life, his wisdom, his happiness etc. not have to be drawn from Holy Scripture? Yes of course. But not for a minute does Anselm deny this. There are numerous supporting references to Scripture in the work.

Finally, far from being a piece of a priori, logic chopping theology which some love to excoriate, it is worth noting that the Proslogion is a Christian meditation. Think of that. Theology as meditation.

Picture credit: The praying monk 

Paul Helm

Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, and publishes online at his blog Helms Deep. the author of several books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in ConversionHuman Nature from Calvin to EdwardsThe Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.

Back to Top