Menu Close

Anselm: Three Types of Goodness and the Problem of Evil7 min read

Listen to this article

The problem of evil and suffering is the most significant challenge to the Christian view of an omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (loving) God. One way to state the problem is thus:

If God is all-powerful and loving, why did he allow death and suffering to enter creation, and why does He not do more to intervene in the evils in the world?

Of course, the great Christian theologians have not ignored this challenge, and have come up with many a theodicy to try to diffuse this problem. One of them is the great theologian and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), best known for his ideas on the relationship between faith and reason, i.e.

“Do not seek to understand in order to believe but believe that thou may understand” 1

He also coined he phrase “faith seeking understanding” as part of the life of faith:

“To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe”. 2

1. Euthyphro

The Great Courses audio on Philosophy in the Middle Ages 3 has a nice redux of Anselm’s approach to evaluating God’s goodness, attempting to resolve some of it’s philosophical challenges. The most well-known challenge is the Euthyphro dilemma, which arises out of a dialog written by Plato in 399 BCE – it poses this dilemma:

Are things morally good because they are declared so by God
Or are they good intrinsically?

If the first statement is true (often called “Divine Command Theory,” God could declare anything moral, even things we consider by their nature evil. But that seems wrong – could God call genocide good (some argue that He did just that in commanding the Israelites to conquer Canaan)?

If not, that implies that things are instead intrinsically good or bad in and of themselves. But in that case, God would not be needed to declare what is good and bad, so perhaps we don’t need God to determine what is moral.

The simple solution that philosopher William Lane Craig’s uses to split the horns of this dilemma is to posit that goodness resides in God, and does not exist separate from Him. [ref}Euthyphro Dilemma (}}. So when he declares something, it is already good, but not separate from him.

2. Anselm’s Three Goodness Answer

Anselm develops a more sophisticated model of goodness, in part because he is trying to answer broader questions about the definition and understanding of goodness. His model may also be applied to the Euthyphro dilemma, but let’s understand it first.

These measures of goodness compare the creature or creation to the absolute good of God – call that 100% good.

2.1 Measure (Potential Goodness)

The measure of goodness is how close the creature or created thing is to God in its design. That is, the amount of virtues that the thing was created with.

For instance, rocks have the virtue of strength in that they are able to resist force better than potatoes, and so are like God in some small way. However, mankind, who is made in the image of God, is much closer to goodness in design, especially and perhaps exclusively moral, having more of the potential God-like characteristics. This also implies that humans contain a greater measure of goodness than animals, though such virtues as loyalty make, for example, dogs reflective of God’s goodness in that virtue.

When God created the universe and earth and animals, he declared each of them as good – that is, in potential, they contain a certain amount of likeness to their creator. This does not mean that they contain all possible goodness like God, only that what virtues they received in creation were perfect and make them good, though they are lesser good than God.

2.2 Form (Practical Goodness of Creatures)

Within individual creatures (beings), they reach only a certain percentage of their designed goodness. This is partly due to the corruption of the entire creation with sin and death, and in the case of humans, partly due to their own decisions chosen with moral agency.

So while creatures were created good (measured goodness), in their individual instantiations, their form was less than good because they created evil as a deprivation of the good they had.

This idea of the goodness of form, in Anselm’s view, absolves God of the evil in that he created creatures entirely good (measured goodness), but through their own agency, created evil as an absence of moral good created in their poor decisions to disobey God.

2.2.1 Why did God create needy creatures?

One of the challenges to God’s goodness is that, though he created angels and humans as free agents, he created them with a need that led them away from God. That need is not necessarily a fault, but necessary for freedom – they could choose dependence on God as contingent creatures, or they could choose to put their own desires first and look for illegitimate ways to “be like God.”

In Anselm’s model, these two motivations are the need for justice (the glory of God) and the need for personal fulfillment (happiness). But when we put what is secondary (the pursuit of happiness) above what is just and right, we lose both justice and happiness. This is not a design fault, because this dichotomy, this less than 100% independence is necessary for free will. Both needs are good, but in the right priority.

2.3 Order (Entropic Goodness of Nature)

The breakdown of order and the existence of chaos in the creation is an approach to explaining natural evil. While evil of form addresses the actual goodness of creatures, order is a measure of the goodness of the creation of inanimate things (though it may cover such things as disrupted ecosystems of living things).

When storms, earthquakes, or other natural disasters kill people and damage property, that’s often called an “act of God.”  The question is, is that God doing evil (making God blameworthy and morally imperfect) or is it God merely allowing evil with a morally sufficient reason?

Of course, much ink has been spent on whether God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. There is an entire field of thought called theodicy that covers this subject.


But whether or not God is justified in allowing or even causing natural evil (such as through the curse on all creation as a judgment on the sin of Adam and Eve), separating the state of entropy (order) from measured (potential) and form (practical) goodness allows for greater specificity in the discussion of God’s goodness and the problem of evil.

  1. Schaff (13 July 2005), “NPNF1-07. St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John; Homilies on the First Epistle of John; Soliloquies”Christian Classics Ethereal Library, retrieved 2 May 2015[]
  2. “Saint Anselm”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 2000 [Revised 2007][]
  3. Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages by Thomas Williams ([]