In the ‘Preface’ of his famous work, the Proslogion (English: Discourse on the Existence of God) published in 1078, the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury announces its main theme as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum). In doing so, Anselm was following the great fifth century theologian Augustine, whose approach is summed up thus: ‘I believe in order to understand’ (Latin: credo ut intelligam).
Many theologians (especially in the Latin tradition) agree that ‘faith seeking understanding’ is a good definition of theology.
The Church receives God’s self-disclosure in Christ by faith, which itself is a gift made possible by divine grace. Faith may be broadly described as the Church’s trust in the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.
Faith, however, must not be seen as just a matter of holding certain propositions to be true. It is the commitment of the whole person to the reality of God.
Faith is a human response to God. As my teacher, the late Colin Gunton, puts it: faith is a ‘responsive movement of the heart, responsive to God’s awaking movement into the world in reconciliation’.
But, as Gunton is quick to add, faith is a human response that is always enabled by the Spirit of God: ‘This human response, like all authentic human action, is the gift of the Spirit who enables people to become what they will be by relating them to God the Father through Christ’.
The definition of faith as the Church’s trusting assent to God in his revelation should not lead to the mistake – so common today – of reducing faith to subjective religious experience. Faith therefore must not be seen as a leap in the dark or as blind trust. If faith is the means by which the Church appropriates the objective revelation of God, then it is inextricably bound to knowledge, the knowledge of the living God.
Put simply, faith has to do with knowledge and understanding.
And because faith has to do with the knowledge of God, the Church’s quest to understand what she by faith holds to be true is not at all inimical to the nature of her faith.
The church’s quest for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God in his revelation begins and ends in faith. As Karl Barth has put it, faith is both the terminus a quo (English: ‘point of origin’) and terminus ad quem (English: ‘destination’) of the Church’s thinking about God.
In her quest to understand the truths about God that she has received by faith, the Church employs reason as a tool. Faith and reason are therefore not to be separated like oil and water, and theology is neither a flight from logic nor a denial of human rationality.
Anselm’s understanding of theology puts a check on the modern propensity to put asunder what God himself has joined. Faith and reason are not antithetical to each other. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, faith and reason can work in harmony with each other in the Church’s quest for deeper insights into God’s revealed truths.
As Pope John Paul II has so brilliantly put it in his remarkable encyclical Fides et Ratio (English: ‘Faith and Reason’): ‘Faith and reason are like wings on which the spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. ‘Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason’, asserts Pope John Paul II, but ‘at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents’.
It must be remembered that the Proslogion, where Anselm’s definition of theology is found, is a written in a form of a prayer. This fact is pertinent because it disabuses us from thinking that theology is a purely intellectual activity.
Although theology in some respects demands great intellectual energy and scholarly rigour, it is in essence a spiritual activity. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Church is therefore absolutely right in pointing out that in the strict sense of the word theology refers to the contemplation of God himself.
As the fourth century Christian ascetic Evagrius of Pontus has famously put it, ‘The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays’. And Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century insists that one can only do theology ‘on one’s knees’.
What is not immediately obvious in Anselm’s famous definition (although it is assumed by Anselm himself) is that theology is always a communal – or better still, an ecclesial – activity. ‘The Church receives the faith theology seeks to understand, forms individuals in it (including theologians), and hands it on to them’, observes Bruce Marshall.
Theology can never be private endeavour or an activity severed from the life of the Church. In his famous essay, The Humanity of God Karl Barth maintains that theology can be carried out only in the context and in the service of the Church:
… theology cannot be carried on in the private lighthouses of some sort of merely personal discoveries and opinions. It can be carried on only in the Church – it can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering Christian community and in rigorous service of its commission to all men.