Saint Anselm of Canterbury (21 April)

Apostles Anglican Church

Fr. John A. Roop

Anselm of Canterbury 

Archbishop of Canterbury and Theologian, 1109

(Romans 5:1-11 / Psalm 139:1-9 / Matthew 11:25-30)


Almighty God, through your servant Anselm you helped your church to understand its faith in your eternal Being, perfect justice, and saving mercy:  Provide your church in all ages with devout and learned scholars and teachers, that we may be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

AGUR, SON OF JAKEH, pondered things deeply and wrote proverbs about those things.  This is my paraphrase of his musings from Proverbs 30:18-19:

Three questions puzzle me; four really.

How does an eagle fly in the sky?  How does a snake slither across a smooth rock?  How does a ship navigate the high seas?  How do a man and a woman fall in love?

Science can now answer the first three of Agur’s questions about eagles and snakes and ships.  The last one — How do a man and a woman fall in love? — is still a mystery, and one that science may never penetrate.

Like Agur, you probably have questions that puzzle you.  I do.  One of the most vexing to me — both pastorally and personally — is this:  why do some people find the Gospel compelling while others don’t?

I recently listened to an episode of The Big Conversation, a podcast that features “world-class thinkers across the religious and non-religious community discussing faith, science and what it means to be human” (www.the big  The topic of this particular episode?  Christianity or atheism:  which makes best sense of who we are?  The conversation partners — the debate opponents — were Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries and atheist Alex O’Connor, each of whom has a significant online presence and following as champion of his worldview:  Bishop Barron, Christianity, and Alex O’Connor, materialism/atheism. 

Both men are brilliant:  highly educated, articulate, exceptionally capable spokesmen for their respective positions.  In the podcast, each marshaled his best arguments and each failed to persuade the other in the least.  So, I’m left with the question:  Why does Robert Barron find the Gospel compelling and Alex O’Connor does not?  That is an irreducible mystery, I think.  (Five-point Calvinists have an answer, but that is a topic for another day.)  But, whatever the reason for the different responses to the Gospel — if there is a primary reason — it is not intellect or reason.  Both men are intellectuals who have looked reasonably at the same “data” and have drawn different conclusions.  Something other than intellect is at play.

Does that mean, then, that reason has no significant role to play in the life of faith, that faith truly is a blind leap into the abyss?  Not at all.  Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of the Church of England and the “father” of the Book of Common Prayer, expressed the matter this way, as summarized by Anglican and Cranmerian scholar Ashley null:  what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  The heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  Heart, will, and mind — in that order.  The Gospel is proclaimed and one’s heart is strangely warmed; one falls in love with the beauty and truth of the story.  Then one’s will responds by choosing to live that story, to proclaim with lips and life that Jesus is Lord.  Finally one’s mind begins to justify that decision — a decision already made — by seeking fuller understanding of the faith.  Reason is important; it’s just not first.  

St. Anselm (1033 – 1109) — whose feast we celebrate today (21 April) — dedicated his life and work to providing a rational understanding of the faith, to using philosophy and the other tools of the academy to build a solid intellectual foundation for the faith, to explain the faith to believers and to justify its plausibility to non-believers.  The motto that summarizes his approach is Fides Quaerens Intellectum:  faith seeking understanding.  Notice the order there; as with Cranmer, it’s most important with Anselm, too.  Faith seeking understanding:  one with prior faith seeks a fuller intellectual understanding of that faith.  Elaborating on this further, Anselm wrote:

I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For this, too, I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.

In his classic work Cur Deus Homo:  Why God Became Man (CDH), Anselm creates a fictional conversation partner named Boso.  Boso asks questions — Anselm asks questions through Boso — and then Anselm answers them.  Occasionally, Boso waxes eloquent himself, as in this brief excerpt:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason; so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe (CDH, II).

There are two profoundly important propositions in this statement.  First, the deep things of the Christian faith — the complex inter-workings of the Gospel — are inaccessible to those who do not believe:  belief first, then understanding.  I have witnessed it time and again myself:  a non-believer wants to debate the sovereignty and providence of God, wants a detailed explanation for theodicy — why a good god allows evil to persist — wants a rational explanation of original sin, as if any of these complex questions could be explained in thirty seconds to someone with a radically non-Christian worldview.  No; the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason:  faith seeking understanding.  Anselm, again in Boso’s words, describes this quality of faith:

I consider myself to hold the faith of our redemption, by the prevenient grace of God, so that, even were I unable in any way to understand what I believe, still nothing could shake my constancy (CDH, II).

Faith before reason, faith even if reason fails, even if understanding is insufficient:  that is Anselm’s conviction:  faith seeking understanding.

The second proposition, and I think just as important as the first, is this:  faith must seek understanding.  Anselm said it this way:  “so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”  It is a preventable tragedy that so many young adults in our time abandon Christianity when their immature, childish caricature of faith confronts a difficult and complex world and can’t cope with it.  It is not a failure of faith, but a lack of understanding of real, mature faith.  A child will receive approximately 13,000 hours of instruction in public schools to prepare that child for high school graduation and what follows — college, vocational training, job — to prepare that child for a difficult, adult world.  In that same period, that same child will receive only something like 1000 hours of Christian formation at church, and that’s being generous and assuming the family attends regularly; most children will receive much less.  So we too often send our young adults into a world that will challenge their faith at every point armed only with a few Bible stories and some coloring sheets of Jesus.  Is it any wonder that their faith crumbles under the world’s assault?  Anselm’s words should challenge us:  “so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

Pastorally, this is vitally important, as well, not just for young adults, but for us all.  People come for help and comfort in times of great difficulty or tragedy wanting answers:  Where is God in all of this?  Why is God doing this to me?  How could a loving God allow this to happen?  And these suffering, confused people don’t just come to priests.  You know this; they come to you, to their Christian friends and brothers and sisters.  How do we answer them well?  Are we prepared for these difficult discussions?  Have we neglected to seek to understand what we believe?  I can’t count the number of times I have cringed at Christian funerals when hearing such “comforting” nonsense as this from adult Christians:  “Well, God needed him more than we do,” or “Heaven needed another angel.”  Surely that’s not the best a mature faith has to offer.  And today, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a social revolution that are driving both Christians and non-Christians to confront difficult theological issues.  Are we ready?   I am increasingly convinced that good theology — right understanding of our faith — must come before the dark days, and is not likely to develop while in the dark days.  I believe Anselm was right when he said, “So to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

It is not only Anselm who wants us to move from faith to understanding; that comes from Paul.  After deriding the world’s wisdom as so much foolishness, Paul insists that we do not despise true wisdom.  We simply have wisdom of a different sort.  Hear this extended passage from 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 2:6–16 (ESV): 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, 

  “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, 

nor the heart of man imagined, 

  what God has prepared for those who love him”— 

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 

We have the mind of Christ.  We have spiritual wisdom that we might understand the things given us freely by God.  Doesn’t that imply that God wants us to understand, that God has equipped us to understand, that God wants our faith to seek understanding?

And Paul is not alone.  In his first letter, Peter writes:

1 Peter 3:15 (ESV): [but] in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect….

We are not responsible for how the world receives our gentle, reasonable explanation of our faith, but we are responsible for being ready to present such a defense for our hope.  For our own sakes and for the sake of the world, Christians cannot linger in an immature faith with little understanding.  As the writer of Hebrews exhorts us:

Hebrews 6:1-3 (NLT):  So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.  Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding.  Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God.  You don’t need further instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.

I think that last sentence is an ideal way to summarize Anselm’s life and work:  And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.  Faith seeking understanding.

I close with a prayer of St. Anselm from the Book of Common Prayer 2019.  Though it is written in the first person, I offer on behalf of us all.

The Lord be with you.

Let us pray.

Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, show yourself to me; for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, and I will never find you unless you show yourself to me.  Let me seek you by desiring you, and desire you by seeking you; let me find you by loving you, and love you in finding you.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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