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Definition

Perfect being theology stems from the theological meditations of Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who sought to reason from biblical statements about God to what God, as perfect, must be like. Today, perfect being theology often does not start from biblical foundations, leading to much confusion and idolatry within current attempts.

Summary

Perfect being theology is the attempt to reason from a conception of God to particulars about what God must be like. This type of meditative, theological reasoning stems from two works by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), the Monologion and the Proslogion (1077–78), wherein he developed the idea of God as the most perfect being from biblical statements about God. This is the basis of the ontological argument, that since (1) God is the most perfect being, and because (2) to exist is better than to not exist, then (3) the most perfect being must exist, and therefore (4) God must exist. Later scholastic and Reformed theologians did not heavily rely on Anslem’s arguments, favoring cosmological arguments from theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Perfect being theology being done today shows the weakness of Anselm’s method: if the first principle of the argument is not a biblical truth, the “god” that is reasoned towards is a reflection of the theologian more than the biblical self-revelation of God.

God as the Greatest

Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), in two works, the Monologion and the Proslogion (1077–78), developed the idea of God as the most perfect being, as a way of developing a systematic understanding of the godhead. As the God “than which there is not a greater,” he is the object of our service and worship. From this, we get “perfect being theology.” Anselm developed it in terms of classical theism. Further, he thought that the idea of God as the most perfect being could be developed into a proof based on God being the most perfect being, and a perfect being not being able to fail to exist. This is the basis of the ontological argument, the argument for God’s existence from consideration of the idea of God alone.

The “idea of God” here does not mean an image of God in the mind’s eye. Such an image must necessarily be limited and inadequate. Images of God, whether physical or mental, are forbidden. Rather, it is the concept of God. The human approach is to devise mental or literary images of God, but the Bible does not encourage such an approach. The Monologion is a continuous, demanding meditation on the being of God.

Perfect Being Theology in the Reformed Tradition

Divine perfection in later Reformed theology was understood as the corollary of divine necessity and independence, his uncreatedness. God does not need anything; he is underived, complete. Perfection is not among God’s attributes, but each of these can be understood as perfections, for they are complete.

John Owen strikes this same note of the connection of perfection with divine self-sufficiency.

God is absolutely perfect; whatever is of perfection is to be ascribed to him; otherwise he could neither be absolutely self-sufficient, all-sufficient, nor eternally blessed in himself. He is absolutely perfect, inasmuch as no perfection is wanting to him, and comparatively above all that we can conceive or apprehend of perfection (Works, vol. XVI, 95).

Because of the weakness of Anselm’s method, and the fact that there is no trace of such a proof of God’s existence in Scripture, it is fair to say that the scholastic, Reformed and Puritan theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rank the ontological argument of Anselm below the cosmological proofs developed by Aquinas in his “Five Ways.” Such arguments do not start from an idea of God but rely on facts about our world, following the Apostle Paul’s approach in Romans 1 and 2, and in his preaching to the Gentiles in Athens and Lystra (Acts 14; 17). Like Aquinas, in their natural theology, a theology derived from God’s general revelation, the Reformed have little or no interest in the ontological argument.

Divine Perfection—Later Development

There is a weakness of Anselm’s method in the Proslogion, a longer and more elaborate book than the Monologion. His key question is “is it better to be … (“x”) … rather than not”? If the answer is “yes,” then the gap is filled with a perfect-making attribute. Some of the answers to questions are a little unexpected. For example, that it is better for God to be eternal than in time, better to be triunity than not, better to be a creator than not, and so on. However, Anselm also assumes throughout that God is greater than can be thought, dwelling in inaccessible light.

The Danger of Subjectivism

But this is not a good method unless we have a developed, agreed upon way of determining what the idea of God is. Anselm himself thought of such theology as a discipline, of developing one’s thinking of the Biblical assertions about what and who God is like. In his hands, it is not a self-indulgence, creating the “God I want”, but of thinking hard about the Lord God of Scripture and in contemplating his perfections. Meditating in this case does not involve the emptying of the mind but filling it with and focusing on the revealed truth about God’s essence. Both books mentioned earlier were addressed to God, constructed by Anselm as meditations. They cover not only the being of the one God, who is simple, but also God as Creator and his triunity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, including their work in the economy of redemption. Perfection covers not only God as he is in himself, but also in his works in creation and how he has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such an approach, what Katherin Rogers calls “the medieval view,” stays near to the testimony of Scripture and so is less speculative and related to our culture, as we shall see.

This description of the method of proving the existence of God may sound like a way of inventing a God, of devising a God whose character is what I consider to be the most admirable. If the ontological argument is employed in this fashion, then a deist or a pantheist or a universalist will each develop a different concept of God from that envisaged by Anselm. For each is concerned with a different idea of divine perfection. His method of theological development is prey to subjectivism or to the relativism of human culture.

The Testimony of Scripture

In Scripture, God and his works are said to be perfect (Job 11:7; Ps. 18:30; 19:7; Matt. 5:48). When in Scripture men and women are said to be perfect, this is as a reflection of God’s own perfection, as in Christ’s command, “Be perfect as God is perfect,” referring to a creaturely, derived perfection. In some cases, “perfect” is used in a different sense, to mean “complete.” A person able to bridle his whole body is “perfect” (James 3:2). The writer of Hebrews, in explaining God’s covenant made with Abraham, refers to God, who sealed the covenant with an oath, and because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself (6:13). The idea behind this greatness is that of a perfect being, one than whom a greater cannot be conceived, a biblical idea. The greatness is not that of size or shape or weight but of God’s essence. So he himself is the greatest in power and knowledge, of justice and love and wisdom, and so on. It is in the same vein that Hebrews also says of Christ is that he is a “great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). “Perfect” is a recurring theme in Hebrews (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28; 10:1; 11:40; 12:23). Christ our Savior is made perfect for ever through suffering, and being made perfect he became the source of perfect, eternal salvation to all who obey him, the righteous who are made perfect. Perfection has distinct Christological focus in the New Testament.

Modernity

In our modern culture it is more usual to think of God’s perfection as his power and goodness exercised in the achieving of pleasurable and life-fulfilling human states. In modernity, God is above all things “omnibenevolent” in respect to his creation, especially in the case of those who are created in his image. As we have seen, God bound himself by covenant to Abraham. Besides fulfilling these obligations, does God have other duties? And does he have rights? And is his will to make us all happy all the time? So divine perfection is conditioned by the culture, not by Scripture.

Following this changeable understanding of perfection, perfect being theology (as it is called) is currently employed in the philosophy of religion as a common standard to which people from otherwise differing theological positions may find a unified philosophical standard, for forming arguments, testing one’s intuitions, and so forth. One way is of thinking as the greatest being, as one who alone is worthy of worship. Another is to follow Anselm’s persistent questioning in the Proslogion: is it better to be “x” than not?

So if a person already holds that God is in time, then her intuitions may conflict from those of Anselm. That is, she may bring to perfect being theology a conclusion that she has arrived at from elsewhere. Nowadays, perfect being theology has become a much more flexible tool, taking in or reflecting what God is like, which may be from various sources. Such theology is inventive in this bad sense, being about the idea of a God people would like to have, and reasoning about such a God.

Further Reading


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.