You wouldn't think being an expert in grammar was essential for a theologian. And you might be right. Anselm was the author of De Grammatico, a highly technical and all but unreadable grammar handbook - yet he was also the author of some of the most beautifully crafted Prayers and Meditations in the entire Christian tradition. Anselm held 'an understanding of reality that is based on the conviction that the harmony and unity, the beauty and fittingness that is part of God's being have been imprinted on creation'. Harmony, unity, beauty and fittingness - grammar provides the framework within which words are brought into those kinds of relations, and so words become sacraments of grace revealed.
For Anselm, words are conduits of meaning and conductors of human thought, to be brought into relation with each other to express what we perceive to be reality, truth and significance. It stands to reason that when addressing the Creator and Redeemer, the fons et origo of all beauty, harmony, unity and fittingness, that words be used with a precise care for their order, setting and fittingness. The honour, majesty, glory and beauty of God should be reflected in prayers where syntax, vocabulary and grammar become artistic disciplines combining creativity and precision. It is one of the fascinating and illuminating aspects of Hogg's book that he understands the importance of aesthetics for Anselm; there is a discernible correspondence between the creation and the Creator, between the transcendent beauty of God and human appreciation for beauty, symmetry, harmony, and unity. Hogg's exposition of the Prayers and Meditations is full of interest as he demonstrates how Anselm carefully chiselled and crafted words, then selected and set them, till they were words worthy and capable of God talk.
In the theology of Anselm, whether in his major writings on the incarnation and atonement, as in Cur Deus Homo?, or in his Prayers and Meditations, or in his more philosophical works like De Veritate, the ideas of beauty, harmony and fittingness are pervasive. For Anselm the work of God in Christ the God Man, intends the recovery of a distorted, disfigured and disjointed creation to a renewed harmony, beauty and unity in Christ. Each chapter of this demanding but rewarding treatment has been a learning experience - for once Anselm is appreciated with criticism that is both praise and appraisal. And I've learned much about his context, his purposes as a monk-theologian, and some of the inner dynamics of his theology that explain why his views on the atonement still excite informed, and uninformed, discussion today.
So Hogg's whole approach to Anselm is quite different from many other, perhaps unfairly familiar portrayals of Anselm, as an arid, cerebral, philosophically abstract thinker fixated on medieval feudal and legalistic categories. Hogg's book is a determined and erudite defence of Anselm's entire theological corpus, as deserving a more appreciative and contextual reading than most give him.
Two observations. Amongst the many things I learned in this rich book, were words what I needed the dictionary for to understand! Word like perennated, neoterized, perlustration, indagating - maybe Hogg was enacting Anslem's passion for words and grammar in his own writing. Second, this book is written by a fine scholar of medieval culture and theology, whose perceptive sympathy and extensive learning expose unfair caricatures of Anselm's Catholic theology, and he teaches in North Carolina at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary - as a Baptist who worries about our tradition's narrower tendencies, I find such theological fair-mindedness about the great Christian tradition, surprisingly reassuring.
Here is Hogg in one of many quite splendid paragraphs that place Anselm in an altogether different light, and show why this book is significant theology in its own right. He is arguing that in Christ dwells 'the fullness of creation and creator, the immanent and the transcendent, the finite and the infinite, and paradoxically, beauty and ugliness'. Exposing the nerve centre of Anselmic theology, and the underlying thesis that Anselm's theology is an aesthetic theology, a theology of beauty, Hogg goes on:
How strange that he who is supreme beauty and who communicates that beauty to all creation should become buffeted and scourged, pierced and punctured, made to drink bitter tears and endure scoffing from those who never wept; yet how glorious that although Christ was handed over to die He became the power to overcome death, and that through the loss of his life others may gain theirs. In the last analysis, then, what appears to be Christ's defeat in disproportionate suffering and discordant mocking is actually the very means by which 'the world is renewed and made beautiful by truth'. Even the moment of supreme disfigurement is, from a divine perspective, transformed into an act effecting unparallelled beauty. (page 15)