Anselm of Canterbury on Grace and Free Choice

Andrew B. Schoedinger


In his treatise The Harmony of the Foreknowledge, The Predestination, and the Grace of God with Free Choice St. Anselm argues that free choice coexists with God’s Grace. He wants to dispel a controversy of his day that one or the other but not both is a prerequisite for salvation. The dispute arises from seemingly incompatible passages in the Bible. On the one hand, some passages in the Divine Scripture indicate that salvation is solely dependent upon the Grace of God, viz.. «without me you can do nothing» [John 15:5] and «It is not of him who will nor of him who runs but of God, who shows mercy» [Rom. 9:16]. On the other hand, Scripture instructs that we possess free choice. «Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it» [Ps. 34:13-14]. How is this apparent incompatibility between grace and free choice to be resolved? Notwithstanding that all creatures owe their existence to God’s Grace, human beings possess the ability to pursue good as a function of His Grace. Without this ability to will rightly no one would be capable of choosing to pursue good. We did not acquire this ability by our own efforts. Nor did we acquire it from some other human being. Consequently, the source of it is God. According to Anselm there are three senses in which one speaks of the will: [a] the instrument-for-willing, [b] the inclination of this instrument, and [c] the use of this instrument. The will qua instrument-for-willing is the ability to will; that is, the capacity to exercise free choice. The inclination of the instrument-for-willing is comprised of two tendencies: [a] the inclination to will what is beneficial and [b] the inclination to will what is right. The use of the will pertains to cognitive activity the object of which is that which is willed.

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