Faith Seeking Understanding (Anselm)

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 nice summary of his longer Reformed Dogmatics. 

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Simplicity of God

Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works  The Bible teaches that our triune God is simple.  This means he does not have parts; he is perfectly one and completely free of composition.  Anselm (d. 1109) mused on this quite well in Proslogion.

“What are you, Lord, what are You; what shall my heart understand You to be?  You are, assuredly, life, You are wisdom, You are truth, You are goodness, You are blessedness, You are eternity, and You are every true good.  These are many things, and my limited understanding cannot see them all in one single glance so as to delight in all at once.  How then, Lord, are You all these things?  Are they parts of You, or rather, is each one of these wholly what You are?  For whatever is made up of parts is not absolutely one, but in a sense many and other than itself, and it can be broken up either actually or by the mind – all of which things are foreign to You….”

“Therefore there are no parts in You, Lord, neither are You many, but You are so much one and the same with Yourself that in nothing You are dissimilar with Yourself.  Indeed You are unity itself not divisible by any mind.  Life and wisdom and the other [attributes] then, are not parts of You, but all are one and each one of them is wholly what You are and what all the others are.  Since, then, neither You nor Your eternity which You are have parts, no part of You or of Your eternity is anywhere or at any time, but You exist as a whole everywhere and Your eternity exists as a whole always.”

Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, p. 98.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Anselm: Faith and Reason

Product Details  (This is a repost from November 2009)

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Bengt Hagglund’s History of Theology.  Here’s a section from chapter 17 where Hagglund talks about Anselm (d. 1109).

“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

That Your Joy May Be Complete (Anselm)

Here’s a great prayer from Anselm in his Proslogion, which he wrote in 1077-1078.

“I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You.  And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness.  Let the knowledge of You grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete; let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality.  Lord, by Your Son You command, or rather, counsel us to ask and you promise that we shall receive so that our ‘joy may be complete’ [John 16:24].  I ask, Lord, as You counsel through our admirable counselor.  May I receive what You promise through Your truth so that my ‘joy may be complete’ [ibid.].  God of truth, I ask that I may receive so that my ‘joy may be complete’ [ibid.].  Until then let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it.  Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the Lord’ [Matt. 25:21], who is God, Three in One, ‘blessed forever.  Amen’ [Rom 9:5].”

This quote, and the entire Proslogion, is found in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works ed.  Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), among other places.

shane lems

A Prayer of Anselm: “Truth and Understanding”

  Many of us may have heard Anselm’s (d. 1109) famous line, “I believe so that I may understand.”  That famous line is part of a longer (and outstanding) prayer we may not have heard.  Here it is (at least part of it).  Read it slowly and deeply.

“I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that You have created Your image in me, so that I may remember You, think of You, love You.  But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless You renew and reform it.  I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it.  But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ [Is. 7:9].”

Amen.  This prayer puts us in our rightful place before God: bowing at his feet, in need of everything.

The quote is found in Proslogion, which can be found in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.

shane lems

God, Injustice, and Mercy (Anselm)

 The deep philosophical, theological, and practical question has been uttered for countless years: “If God is good, why is there evil and injustice.”  A better and more humble question was asked by Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109): “How do You spare the wicked if You are all-just and supremely just?”  He asked this and similar questions in a prayer-like manner, which is found in chapters 9-10 of his Proslogion.  Here’s a small part of it.

“For though You are all-just and supremely just You are, however – precisely because You are all-just and supremely just – also beneficent even to the wicked.  You would, in fact, be less good if You were not beneficient to any wicked man.  For he who is good to both good and wicked is better than he who is good only to the good.  …And though perhaps it is apparent why You should reward the good with good and the bad with bad, what is indeed to be wondered at is why You, the all-just One who wants for [lacks] nothing, should bestow good things on Your wicked and guilty creatures.”

“O God, how profound is your goodness!  …It is from plenitude of goodness that You are gentle with those who sin against you….  O mercy, from what abundant sweetness and sweet abundance do you flow forth for us! …When You punish the wicked it is just, since it agrees with their merits; however, when You spare the wicked it is just, not because of their merits but because it is befitting to Your goodness.”

That is the prayer of faith seeking understanding, the prayer of the man who was humbled before the majesty, goodness, and justice of God.  Rather than put God on trial by asking him “why injustice and evil?” we should follow Anselm and put ourselves on trial and ask “why mercy and grace?”  Or, in other words, we should pray Psalm 8 in light of Titus 3.5 every day.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Anselm’s “De Concordia”

The Western Canon XI: Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and Theology
 I’ve been reading through Anselm of Canterbury’s De Concordia, which was one of the last things he wrote before his death in 1109 AD.  De Concordia is no easy read, since it deals philosophically with the difficult topics of God’s foreknowledge and predestination as well as human freedom.  In fact, I’m still wrestling through some things he says, and I’m not sure I’m totally in agreement.  However, it is worth the read.  Here’s a sample:

“If one rightly grasps the meaning of the word foreknown, by the very fact that something is said to be foreknown, its future existence is declared.  For it is not foreknown unless it shall actually be, since the object of knowledge is what is actually the case” (p. 437).

“Predestination is the equivalent of pre-ordination and pre-establishment; and therefore to say that God predestines means that he pre-ordains, that is, to bring it about that something happen in the future.  But it seems that whatever God decrees to happen in the future shall happen of necessity.  Therefore, whatever God predestines shall happen of necessity” (p. 449).

“It should also be understood that the word ‘foreknowledge,’ as also the word ‘predestine’ are not used of God literally, for in him there is no before or after, but all things are present to him at once” (p. 450).

De Concordia is an interesting read, that’s for sure!  This also reminds me that the discussions of predestination and the will certainly did not originate with the Canons of Dort or John Calvin.  By the way, this book, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) is under $10 at the WTS bookstore.  If you’re into historical theology, or you want some primary sources for medieval theology, I’d recommend this book.  For that good price, you get a solid paperback (c. 500 pages) which contains other works such as Monologion, Proslogion, and Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), among others.

shane lems

sunnyside wa