Posts Tagged ‘Anselm’

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?

What sin isn’t, and why it’s important

May 30, 2009

To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, a misunderstanding of what sin is gives us a deficient and sometimes dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel. It is important to make sure we understand what sin is, and communicate it clearly, if the gospel is not to be misunderstood or even distorted. I realise this even more given a couple of discussions I’ve been in this week about whether certain actions are sinful or not without reference to what sin is, at the level of its essential nature.

The sunday-school definition of sin I learned was that sin was the bad things we do and the good things we don’t do – but I think this really is insufficient. In the Bible, sin is spoken of more often in the singular (“sin”) rather than the plural (“sins”) – the problem of human sin is not primarily ethical (in terms of some totting-up the actions we do or don’t do) but ontological – we are sinful at the deepest levels of our being and need a rescue from this. Sin is also relational – it has no meaning outside of the terms of relationship to or alienation from God. Perhaps Anselm was onto something when he defined sin as “not giving to God what is due to him”. Anselm was talking primarily about homage, but his point can be developed to include opposing idolatry, unbelief and self-worship in all of its forms. Sin is much, much more than our actions.

Ignoring this can lead to all kinds of deficient presentations of the gospel – if we imagine the problem of sin as primarily ethical then we are likely to end up with a moralistic gospel where salvation is primarily about us doing good works (or even where it is primarily about enabling us to do good works). It may lead to a legalistic approach to the Christian life where we judge ourselves and others based on our external actions, and end up in moral dilemmas when we find that certain actions we think of as inherently sinful are permissible or even necessary in some situations.

A different distortion of the gospel can be seen in the analysis of sin found in some Liberation theology: sin is seen as oppression or unjust social structures. This has the distorting effect both of locating sin outside of ourselves (sin is something done by other people, or impersonal forces) and thus failing to recognise that our own hearts are corrupted by sin; and of equating the defeat of the power of sin by Christ with social justice and political liberation. This is far too small a horizon within which to encapsulate redemption!

Both the legalist and liberationist definitions of sin also fail to be relational – in fact, they do not have to mention God at all to function as ethical or political guides for action. Our problem in these models is not shown to be as serious as it is – alienation from God and hostility towards him. We may be seen as moral failures, but not as rebels. Or we may be seen as victims only, rather than seeing God as the most aggrieved party in all human sin. When we do this, we minimize the scale of our problem and end up looking at salvation in correspondingly insufficient categories. What the proclamation of the gospel needs is a correct theology of sin which shows what it is. We need to be honest about how bad the wound of humanity is, and not attempt to treat it with moral or political first-aid kits. Only when sin is seen to be as serious as it is can the full glory and wonder of Christ’s rescue for us be seen.