Whose Understanding?

So I’m reading about various medieval approaches to the relationship between faith and reason for a class on the history of Christian thought, and I stumble upon an oddly familiar statement from Anselm of Canterbury. Developing the Augustinian method of “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm wrote that “The correct order is to believe the deep things of the Christian faith before undertaking to discuss them by reason” (Cur Dues Homo 1.2, emphasis mine).

This method should be relatively unproblematic for those who recognize only one authority for understanding the truth (e.g. the Catholic church). But for a Protestant like myself, who has heard Anselm’s method echoed by teachers with radically divergent interpretations of the “deep things” of the faith, the question naturally presses: Whose understanding? Which authority should I accept before applying reason? Moreover, how does this epistemology cohere with Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, or with the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12?

What do you think? Is there a list of nonnegotiables for you, things that must be accepted by faith without reason? Or do you see the relationship between faith and reason differently?

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5 Responses to Whose Understanding?

  1. markedward says:

    Notably, Acts 17 specifically points out how the Bereans DID what the Thessalonians DIDN’T, and as a result this made the Bereans ‘more noble’. (I wonder if Paul had this Berean-Thessalonian contrast in mind when writing 1 Thessalonians 5.21?)

    Meaning, we’re outright told that it is BETTER to question and test theological assertions before accepting them, not to just swallow them and worry about the matter later.

  2. Casey says:

    I would guess many would be like me: it was my parent’s understanding that I trusted, only later throwing out what I reasoned wasn’t good. I know that’s not the most helpful answer, but it is a true one.

  3. Casey says:

    “The *correct* order.” Is this really a thing? I’m probably out of the loop, but doesn’t everyone know people who pinpoint either faith or reason as having been instrumental in themselves? Some people end up convinced, some people end up with their beliefs confirmed, just like in everything else in real life. It would be odd to say, “What is the correct order for your belief that butterflies fly: someone told you and you believed them, or you saw one?” Ignore me, as in previous conversations I am out of the loop regarding the actual arguments going on behind the scenes.

  4. I wonder if the breakdown could be understood better in terms of asserted believe (faith) seeking meaning (understanding). So, i.e. I can assert the NT identifies Jesus as the Son of God. This statement is pretty straight forward, as the text says it pretty plainly. So, beginning with a position of faith, I assert I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But, to seek understanding, I must ask what it means that Jesus is the Son of God, my faith involved asserting a truth stated in the text, but my desire to seek understanding requires me to ask what this assertion from the text might mean, regardless of preconceived notions.

  5. Dan B says:

    In terms of a modern epistemology, this understanding seems to most closely accord to an anti-foundationalist way of looking at things. Ultimately, any inquiry into truth and value is going to be in media res, because there are a plenitude of inescapable givens that you as a person work with. I think of Wittgenstein’s analogy of the spade in his Investigations – you can keep digging through the layers and foundations of what it is you think you believe, but eventually your spade will turn, and you’ll simply have to say “this is simply what I do.” Obviously not that Anselm (or Augustine, or any Patristic for that matter) had such a concept in mind, I doubt they were even in the territory of that conceptual framework; rather, I just see an anti-foundationalist perspective to possibly work towards justifying such a way of looking at things. Some may call it circular reasoning, but when you try to trace out the origins of any sort of belief, we eventually have to admit that its origin may lie in our given ‘forms of life” (another Wittgensteinian term), which are inescapable.

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