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Preparing For Theology 3: Faith Seeking Understanding

Preparing For Theology 3: Faith Seeking Understanding

One of the most beautiful descriptions of what intellectual Christian faith involves was penned in the year 1077. In the first chapter of his Proslogion, Anselm writes these stirring words:

I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created in me this your image, so that I can remember you, think about you and love you. But it is so worn away by sins, so smudged over by the smoke of sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do unless you renew and reform it. I do not even try, Lord, to rise up to your heights, because my intellect does not measure up to that task; but I do want to understand in some small measure your truth, which my heart believes in and loved. Nor do I seek to understand so that I can believe, but rather I believe so that I can understand. For I believe this too, that “unless I believe I shall not understand” (Isa. 7:9).

Healthy theology is faith seeking understanding. The order here is important. I don’t have faith because I figured everything out; I am able to make sense of things because I start with faith. I do not fear learning (as if it will hurt my faith). It is because of my faith that I eagerly seek to learn, explore, and grow.

I think that faith seeking understanding is a beautiful phrase that carries weight and force far beyond its simplicity. For example, faith seeking understanding takes faith seriously (as the starting point, no less), but takes understanding with equal seriousness. A non-rational faith applies favorably only to children; but the kind of “faith” children show is not the kind of faith called for by mature believers. We are saved by faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God – but children are innocent and need not show “saving faith.” Our faith is (in a sense) to be child-like, but not childish. An irrational faith would be the very opposite of theology: faith rejecting understanding. Theology, then, is simply the pursuit of rational faith.

Discipleship is a call to virtue; this must apply to an open mind and a desire for correction–the marks of a truly wise and truly spiritual person.

In the second place, faith seeking understanding makes an ethical demand upon us: it requires the virtue of intellectual honesty. We are believers in God seeking to more fully understand God, gaining knowledge of the Holy One, his will and his ways. We are not seeking “ammunition” or more “planks” upon which to express or argue our deeply-held beliefs. That would be “faith seeking opportunity to persuade.” This approach would look for some book, some person, some website, or some reference source that gives some support for some of our ideas, and then look no further (due, perhaps, to fear). Faith seeking understanding implies I really want to know what is true. The Christian 10th grader does not go to her biology classroom assuming the only valid textbook is Genesis 1-2. The college sophomore should not avoid astronomy or studies in ancient history assuming the Psalms renounce the fundamentals of astronomical distances or that no important history was left unrecorded in the Bible. The Christian preacher does not neglect critical Biblical scholarship with a wave of his hand, identifying such commentaries and reference works as nothing more than fictive works of theological imagination. Instead, we seek to understand, and are open to hearing challenging ideas. We do not abandon faith in our search; we begin with faith; our studies are sustained by faith; and we conclude our studies in faith. Yet our faith seeks to know what is true. We are not simply playing intellectual games—gaining fodder to attack those who challenge our assumptions. We welcome challenges to our assumptions, and seek to assume that which is true. Discipleship is a call to virtue; this must apply to an open mind and a desire for correction–the marks of a truly wise and truly spiritual person.

Discipleship is a call to virtue; this must apply to an open mind. Click To Tweet Third, faith seeking understanding is a continuous project, lasting one’s lifetime, affecting cultures and generations outside the reach of any one individual. It is ongoing and everlasting, since we are discussing faith’s search for knowledge of God. One never “arrives” at perfect theology; we are always in the process of refinement, since both the search and thirst for knowledge is never quenched.

And we should expect growing pains in the process. This is true not only for each of us as individuals, but also as a group of believers who worship together. We ought to recognize that differences (even strongly held ones) are part of the life of the people of God (Rom 14:1-19). And we are called to accept each other in Christ, and to be patient with ourselves and each other, seeking to help, to understand, and to grow together (Rom 15:1-7).

Recommended Resources For Further Reflection
Audio (sermon): Tim Keller, Come and See
Audio (sermon): Tim Keller, Noah and the Reasons of Faith: Faith as Understanding

(photo credit: Anne Davis)

Nathan Guy

Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.

Categorized: Christ & His Kingdom , Healthy Theology: A Starter's Kit , Preparing For Theology
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