Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Anselm

iStock_000015086817_Medium

Can faith and reason be compatible? Does reason support the truth claims of Christianity? Many people today believe in a false dichotomy that forces faith and reason into separate categories—but thinkers like St. Anselm, a medieval Italian, have offered compelling arguments for integrating faith and reason. St. Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence was a significant, though controversial, contribution that still impacts Christian apologetics. Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of St. Anselm—and why he matters today.

Who Was St. Anselm?

After joining the Benedictine order as a monk, St. Anselm (1033–1109) became a high-ranking ecclesiastical figure serving in church leadership in France and England. Ultimately he became archbishop of Canterbury. Throughout his adult life, St. Anselm sought to reform the church and monastic life. He was a major Catholic theologian and philosopher and made important contributions to Christian doctrine, philosophical theology, and apologetics. Though an Augustinian in his basic approach to theology and philosophy, St. Anselm contributed his own unique and powerful insights to Christian thought. He was also known for his rich devotional life; some of his prayers and meditations have been preserved in his writings.

What Did St. Anselm Write?

Among several works, St. Anselm’s two most important apologetics-related books are Cur Deus Homo (Latin: “Why the God-Man?”) and Proslogion (Latin: “Discourse”). In Cur Deus Homo, he explains and defends why Jesus Christ the Savior must be both God and man (a single person who has both a divine and a human nature) in order to reconcile a holy God with sinful humanity. In Proslogion, St. Anselm tackles the relationship between faith and reason and the arguments for the existence of God.

What Did St. Anselm Believe?

Perhaps St. Anselm’s three most important ideas or arguments for the God of Christian theism are the following:

  1. Once a person becomes a believer via divine grace, the Christian then uses his or her mind to uncover the necessary reasons behind the historic Christian faith. Thus, Anselm’s approach to reflection begins in faith but then achieves understanding through reason. Ultimately faith and reason are understood to be compatible.
  2. The biblical God is the greatest conceivable being (a being “than which none greater can be conceived”) and thus God’s existence may be known through the rational reflection of God’s perfect nature. St. Anselm’s ontological argument is understood as a pure a priori rational argument for God’s existence and is considered the most controversial and contested of all the so-called traditional proofs for God.
  3. St. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement says that humanity’s fall into sin injured God’s honor. Therefore, humankind must render satisfaction to a righteous God, but only God can truly make amends—and He did, through Christ’s sacrifice.

 

CRASH COURSE_ ANSELM

Why Does St. Anselm Matter Today?

Philosophers have been divided over the viability of St. Anselm’s ontological argument.1 However, contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has defended a form of St. Anselm’s ontological argument, reinforcing that it shows belief in God is rational.2 So philosophers, both Christian and non-Christian, are reflecting upon St. Anselm’s ideas almost 1,000 years after his death.

St. Anselm of Canterbury is revered as a doctor of the Catholic Church and has been called the greatest Christian thinker between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He is also known as the father of scholasticism for his major contributions to medieval theology and philosophy. He is known for his ability to successfully combine the challenging roles of church leader and scholar.

St. Anselm has also influenced evangelical protestants. For when evangelicals suggest that faith and reason are compatible or that unbelief is unreasonable, they are affirming some of St. Anselm’s ideas.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal

Reflections: Your Turn

St. Anselm suggested that the person who has faith should seek understanding. How do you view faith’s relationship to reason?

Resources

  • See The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm with the Proslogion by St. Anselm.
  • For an analysis of St. Anselm’s life and thought, see A History of Apologetics by Avery Dulles.

Endnotes

  1. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun Sweis, eds., “A Modal Version of the Ontological Argument” and “Lowe on ‘The Ontological Argument,’” in Debating Christian Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 61–83.
  2. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 85–111.

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Anselm

  1. May 3, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Reblogged this on Is Christianity True? and commented:
    Another great Christian Thinkers 101 post by Kenneth Samples

    • May 3, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Thanks, Steve, for another reblog.

      Ken Samples

  2. Andrew Foster
    May 3, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Awesome Blog! I have often used a version of Anselm’s quote regarding seeking to believe in order to understand on my computer screens.
    in my opinion, faith and reason are teammates that combine to give me a much stronger understanding of God, the universe and this life that I live.

    • May 3, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Andrew:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I really like the idea of viewing faith and reason as “teammates.”

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  3. Rita Gorski
    May 10, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Interesting to me that your recent articles highlight men with great intellect that are some of our greatest Christian teachers/thinkers. A group I’m involved with are reading that only faith matters and that our reason/mind/intellect are kind of “of the world,” and we shouldn’t trust them. I’m using some of the information in your blogs to introduce another way of looking at it – that using our god-given minds can enhance and enlarge knowledge of this great and awesome God and can even lead people to faith. Thank you.

    • May 10, 2016 at 9:58 am

      Rita:

      Keep up the good work. We need to communicate to our brothers and sisters in Christ that careful thinking honors God (Acts 17:11).

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. May 10, 2016 at 11:08 am

    In a private, after dark conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus reasoned

    “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do the [a]miracles that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born [b]again, you cannot see (understand/reason/perceive) the kingdom of God.”

    Likewise, Paul wrote that the natural man cannot accept, understand or perceive the things of God. They are foolishness to him. He cannot reason them. He cannot understand for they are discerned only through the Spirit.

    A certain level of reason (observation and conclusion) precedes faith, which is followed faith and then understanding. Observation and conclusion (reasoning) followed by faith, followed by reason & understanding, provided by the HS.

    On the other hand, Westerners seek to understand before they will believe. Nicodemus believed the evidence obvious to all but those blinded by their willful disobedience. Their lives were already committed to self first, putting on airs as important religious leaders, giving money, praying and fasting “to be seen by men,’ while ignoring the core truth and purpose of the OT Law, the two greatest commandments, the poor, their own parents, etc. So, unlike Nicodemus and any other closet believers among the Sanhedrin, most religious leaders did not respond to the plain evidence right before their eyes.

    God requires that we respond to the reasonable and clear evidence he has given us, to the evidence of his creation and the moral law he has written on our hearts… at least.

    “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His [u]miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you,Bethsaida! For if the [v]miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in [w]sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the [x]miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless, I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” Matt 11.21-24

    All who pleased God in the days from creation to the coming of Jesus were those who responded to the evidence of creation and the moral law written on their hearts (and the occasional Word from God via the prophets, miracles, etc.), as evidenced by their sincere commitment to the observance of the Law given through Moses.

    Epistemology is a challenging process because the god of science reigns supreme today, and yet as good as science is, all scientific evidence, discoveries and conclusions are provisional. More than half of what we think is true today will be “proven” false in the future. In their first class at medical school, most students are told “Half of what we teach you over the next few years is false. We just don’t know which half.”

    With that in mind, we must approach and respond to scientific evidence carefully, knowing that the “truth” does exist and that God has created an orderly universe for us to discover by reasoning with our minds.

    Personally, I believe that the evidence clearly reveals that God does in fact exist and that without him, nothing would exist that does exists. I think someone famous once said that a long time ago.

    Thanks for your good investment in the minds of those who will use them.

    • May 10, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      Michael:

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments about Scripture and epistemology. Recognizing the provisional nature of scientific knowledge is a critical point.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • george bonnar
      June 30, 2016 at 4:08 am

      I agree with your analogy. It behooves me that men of science still deny the existence of GOD,especially,the notion,that the universe came from nothing.I read an article which stated that steven hawkings claimed that he could produce via quantum mechanics,sub- atomic particles from empty space. That conclusion was flawed from the very beginning,since space Is something. So I emailed his college noting his misstep. No reply.

      • June 30, 2016 at 9:36 am

        Thank you, George.

        It is amazing how “nothing” in astrophysics is so often “something.”

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

  5. May 10, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Thanks Ken for another Crash Course on history’s great thinkers. Faith and humble reason reinforce each other toward eternal truth and life. The absence of faith reinforces foolishness, pride, and self-destruction.
    God gave man a mind to use, to worship and enjoy Him forever. But after the fall of Adam we are all born into a state with a mind that has been hijacked by sin. Absent the grace of God to renew our mind, man uses his/her mind against God, rationalizing reasons to ignore Him and rebel, and to put self above our sovereign perfect Creator. But when given the gift of faith from God to know and follow Him in Christ, our mind taps into the source of all truth and wisdom.
    So when we are safe in the light of Christ, we should not fear using our minds, to ponder the depths of God’s power, love, and glory. Our saved mind will not lead us astray in the end, despite our inevitable stumbles and trials on this side of heaven.

    • May 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm

      MadeFromDirt:

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments about the place of faith and reason especially given humankind’s fallen condition.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: