fides quaerens intellectum (Faith Seeking Understanding)

Today, April 21, we commemorate Anselm of Canterbury on our church calendar. He is an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury who served and quarreled with two English kings.  His motto of “faith seeking understanding” does not mean he hoped to replace faith with understanding. Anselm is the most significant theologian in the western church from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, a span of 800 years. We would do well do consider his ideas.

Faith for Anselm was not an intellectual belief, but it was more a volitional drive to love God, seek to know what God desires us to do, and to act in that manner. Faith is a willful action. Anselm stated that when faith was reduced to an intellectual act of simply believing a thing we ought to believe, then that kind of faith is “dead.”

Faith seeking understanding for Anselm means an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God. His four main works have been debated by scholars and theologians ever since they were published. Preceding Aquinas by two centuries, Anselm used a form of rational inquiry and discourse used much earlier by Greek philosophers and by some scholars as Europe climbed out of the medieval period into the renaissance of early modernity.

Unlike the Buddhists, this form of intellectual questioning of Christian faith was seen as a potential threat for two reasons. First, some in the church feared that deep, rational inquiry might threaten appropriate understanding of Revelation or that which was revealed by God in Christ.  The second concern I will quote directly from an academic author from a humanities college class.

“Second, the sense of autonomy, pride, and pretentiousness that are naturally engendered in rational inquiry were seen to be in potential, if not actual, conflict with the requisite attitude of humble and simple faith. The Gospel was regarded as more accessible to simple, uneducated folk than to any educated intellectual elite. For many in Christendom, because the content of Revelation to their thinking is already clearly and unambiguously explicit, the only appropriate response is obedience, and not at all to question why, or what does it mean, or is it really so.”

It is this idea that “the gospel was regarded as more accessible to simple, uneducated folk” expressed by church critics of Anselm in the 11th and later centuries that leads to a “dumbing down” of Christianity today and a tendency to accept uncritically anything someone who calls themselves a preacher says. In other words, “Don’t ask questions, just drink the Kool Aid.”

For centuries, the church taught the “Ransom Theory of Aonement” whereby Jesus’ death paid a ransom to Satan, allowing God to rescue those under Satan’s bondage. Anselm freely questioned this long-held doctrine saying, “Why should the Son of God have to become a human to pay a ransom? Why should God owe anything at all to Satan?” Anselm went on to say that humanity owes God a debt of honor for our sins. From that point, he developed a new “Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.”

Later development of atonement doctrine brought us the “Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement” whereby Jesus suffers the punishment for the sins of humankind. In this thought, God not only forgives our sins, but enacts justice through the death of Jesus. While this idea of the crucifixion as divine justice to erase our sins forms the staple of Baptist and evangelical preaching, I have never been comfortable with it. I am still seeking greater understanding.

But I am thankful for an Italian who was sent to Kent County England to serve as a bishop not long before the Battle of Hastings and an upheaval in England’s history, and who had the perspicacity to use the best of his intellectual abilities to bolster his faith. I am thankful for someone who attempted to raise a high bar for Christian faith saying that God can stand up to rational human inquiry. I am thankful for someone who says we don’t have to dumb down our faith for the uneducated masses. Even if I don’t agree with him.

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