Faith Seeking Understanding

Anselm (1033-1109) was the archbishop of Canterbury who quipped the motto fides quaerens intellectum (Faith seeking understanding). The motto should not be taken to mean, that one day, the goal is to replace our current faith with the “understanding” we have gained. It is not as if the faith we have right now will just have to do till one day our much superior intellect will rescue us and overcome, then we can toss “faith” aside because we have “understanding”. This sort of faith is pointless and meaningless. It is what Anselm calls a dead faith when faith merely “believes what it ought to believe”.

Will we believe only because we have verified the claims of faith? Do we move from trusting God’s revelation to trusting our own investigations? “Faith seeking understanding” is not meant to place “faith” in a position subordinate and subject to our inspections. Anselm was not hoping to replace faith with understanding, rather the whole of our life is faith. Then what is “faith” for Anselm? The faith, to which he refers, is to love and trust God. This is an active faith which seeks to know God as he is revealed, which is to embrace the mystery of God.

Historically, the relationship between faith and reason has been treated with two extremes: rationalism and fideism. Rationalism is forming our theological beliefs on the basis of our own innate reasoning. Fideism on the other hand refuses to discuss, argue, or offer evidence because it views faith as opposed to reason. However, the Reformers found the balance of both extremes. Because they argued that our reason, like the rest of our faculties had been corrupted and tainted by sin. Is something wrong with our reason? Mike Horton gives a helpful illustration of a drunk driver. The car is not the problem, the driver is inebriated, and he is the problem.(1) We can do many good and proper things with our reason, but it must be liberated to from its hostility to God. Christianity is not hostile to reason, but rejects secular reasoning which begins with a bias opposed to God who has revealed himself in Scripture and preeminently in his Son. Fideism stops asking questions, but faith asks and seeks.

Perhaps the beautiful irony of the Christian faith, is that we often end up where we started. We begin a life of faith, growing in love and adoration of God’s amazing grace. Eventually we are simply led back to adoration and praise. In the effort to seize the truth we find ourselves seized by it.(2)

“I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”(3)

  1. The Christian Faith, loc. 2236 Kindle
  2. The Christian Faith, loc. 25464 Kindle
  3. as quoted in The Christian Faith, p.23