Anselm: Faith and Reason

   Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Bengt Hagglund’s History of Theology.  Here’s a section from chapter 17, specifically on Anselm. 

“Anselm, like Augustine before him, represented that position with respect to faith and reason which was customarily characterized by the expression, ‘I believe in order that I may understand’ (credo ut intelligam).  Basing their opinion on the words found in Is. 7:9 (Vulgate), ‘If you do not believe, you will not understand,’  those who follow this line emphasize that faith is the presupposition of a rational insight into revealed truth.  As Augustine put it, understanding is the reward of faith.”

“Anselm developed this position in more detail, among other places, in his Proslogion.  It is clearly expressed, for example, in the following passage: ‘I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate Thy depth, for by no means do I compare my intellect with it; but I desire to understand, to a degree, Thy truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand’ (Ch. 1).”

“The credo ut intelligam concept presupposes that theology and philosophy can be harmonized.  That which forms the content of faith, and which man comprehends by faith, can also be understood by reason – at least to some extent.  Faith and the principles of reason are not antithetical.  It is the task of theology to present the content of faith in such a way that it can be understood and comprehended. …[Faith] has the primacy, for man does not come to faith through reason; but on the contrary understanding comes by faith.  The role of reason is simply to make clear, a posteriori, that the truths of faith are necessary even as seen from the point of view of logic and reason.  For it is only after one has grasped revealed truth in faith that he is able, through rational discussion and meditation, to perceive that that which he believes is also agreeable to reason.”

Good stuff.  In a day where values and feelings rule over truth and logic, it is good for Christians to remember that our faith is not irrational.  Many great theologians followed this Augustininan/Anselmian perspective.  For just one example, Herman Bavinck wrote Our Reasonable Faith, a masterpiece of theology.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

10 thoughts on “Anselm: Faith and Reason”

  1. credo ut intelligam reminds us that our faith is not ir-rational for all of the reasons mentioned, but don’t forget Anselm’s other famous line:

    Fides quaerens intellectum – Faith seeks knowledge.

    The basic tenants of our faith are plain enough for a five year old to understand, but at the same time faith must never be reduced to something a-rational; just a warm fuzzy that soothes our feelings- a resident of our hearts that is banned from our heads. Instead, child like faith should instill a thirst for child like inquisitiveness that is not quenched until we finally stand in glory.


  2. Shane, when I grow up I want to be just like you.

    Seriously, I’m grateful for your posts and written encouragement.


  3. Of course Shane is the one doing most of the heavy lifting here! I really would like to be posting more; it just doesn’t happen as much as I want it to. Congrats especially to him on the 100,000 mark!

    As for the post, again … very excellent!


  4. Hello Shane, I really enjoyed the quote. I think it is actually affirming what I already think, but do you think, because faith is not void of reason, can an atheist have faith? With reference to the statement, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” as so many Christians will say trying to discount atheism. As if one is required to have faith to be an atheist. Thanks for any light you can shed or any more quotes you might have.


    1. Brandon – thanks for the comment (and nice woodworking website!).

      Faith (in a general sense, not in a “saving faith” sense) is common to everyone. Bavinck (which I saw you own – bravo!) in volume I page 566 (and following) speaks this way: “Believing in general is a very common way in which people gain knowledge and certainty. In all areas of life we start by believing. Our natural inclination is to believe. It is only acquired knowledge and experience that teach us skepticism. Faith is the foundation of society and the basis of science.”

      Later he says, “Belief is the foundation and bond uniting the whole of society. If people accepted the proposition ‘I ought not to believe what I do not see,’ all the ties of family, friendship, and love would be ruptured.” (Bavinck refers to Augustine here). Apart from believe (in a general sense), society would collapse!

      In other words, a scientist has to believe the scientists before him; he has to believe the written testimony of a whole host of those who have gone before him. He has to believe, for example, that man evolved from a gob of cosmic snot – though he cannot absolutely prove it, he does trust other people’s testimony even if he has done much work himself. If he rejected (disbelieved) the majority of scientists before him, he would reject tradition and be viewed as a nut or a sham.

      You’ll have to get Bavinck’s “Certainty of Faith” to dig deeper into this; and see the pages around 566 in volume I of his Dogmatics. From a scientist’s perspective, though not necessarily Christian, see Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge.” Among other things, Polanyi stresses how all acts of doubt also include acts of faith (i.e. to doubt A you have to believe B). Lesslie Newbigin also mentions this in “Proper Confidence.”

      Hope this helps!



      1. Shane, that’s very helpful, thanks!

        I see the general sense of faith – being ‘trust’ in what you don’t see or what you may have to accept based on the testimony of someone else realizing that our knowledge is only in part. I will certainly look deeper into Bavinck.

        Thanks for the help, and for checking out the web-sites!



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