Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Faith Seeking Understanding: Anselm and Karl Barth

April 21 is the feast day of St. Anselm for those churches that observe it. In honor of that day, here is an excerpt from John R. Franke's Barth for Armchair Theologians about Anselm's influence on Barth, particularly in terms of the concept of faith seeking understanding.
In the Church Dogmatics, Barth developed a form of theological discourse that was counter-intuitive to the assumptions of the time. In order to appreciate this development, it will help to reflect a bit further on the significance of Barth’s conception of his project as “church” dogmatics. In short, from Barth’s perspective, dogmatics were to be most properly written from the church, to the church, and for the church. In this way, Barth’s work is considerably different from the standard apologetic approach to modern theology that is constantly concerned with the task of critically establishing and defending the possibility of Christian belief. In contrast to the apologetic or foundationalist approach, Barth’s interest is not with the possibility of faith or the church, but rather with providing a description of theology from the perspective of the Christian church. In other words, instead of investing energy in trying to demonstrate or prove the viability and truth of Christian belief, Barth assumes it and then seeks to describe it. He thus challenged the long-standing assumptions of modern theology that the rationality of Christian faith was suspect or untenable and hence needed to derive its basic concepts from other disciplines, such as history or philosophy.
From Barth’s perspective, theology could recover its essential integrity only when it came to realize that it was utterly dependent on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, which constituted its only possible basis. Dependence on revelation means that we cannot assume that we know in advance what reality and the nature of rationality look like and then assess revelation and Christian faith by these predetermined standards. Instead we must begin with faith in Jesus Christ and only then attempt to explain the internal rationality and intelligibility of such faith. In short, we must first believe and then try to understand what we believe. While this approach, known as faith seeking understanding, had been largely dismissed in modern theology, it had an impressive pedigree in the classical Christian tradition. Barth’s own work had been moving steadily in this direction throughout his academic career, but he identified his study of the medieval theologian Anselm early in his tenure at Bonn as being of particular importance in helping to solidify this approach in his mind. What Barth saw in Anselm was a theology that moved from the confession of the church concerning God to theological understanding.
In a book on Anselm’s understanding of God, Barth observes that Anselm does not attempt to make God and Christian faith more plausible to his readers through various interpretive strategies, nor does he make understanding God a requirement for faith. Instead, he prays patiently for the wisdom he requires in order to understand something of God’s being and majesty. On this model we do not assume that we possess the truth about God in advance of our investigation or even that our investigations and discourse will be adequate for the task of seeking to understand God. In fact, we know that they will not, but we pray that in the act of our seeking and investigation and through our finite words and limited comprehension, God will be made known.
Barth’s study of Anselm provides a particularly helpful articulation of the approach to theology that shapes the Church Dogmatics. In fact, the Anselm book can be read helpfully in conjunction with it as a formal statement of what the Dogmatics is seeking to accomplish. This approach implies a more dogmatic method, in which the basis for theological reflection and investigation is to be found in the life and faith of the Christian community. This means that for Barth the work of theology or dogmatics takes the form of ongoing and extended grappling with the questions raised by Christian faith and witness and their implications for belief and practice, based on a constant, careful, and attentive listening to Scripture. In other words, theology, in Barth’s account, is scriptural reasoning in conversation with the Christian tradition in its various cultural settings. However, this should not be taken to mean that Barth ever ceased to be a dialectical theologian, merely that his conception and articulation of dialectical theology found its starting point in the church. As a result of the evolution of his thinking over the years in the direction of faith seeking understanding, coupled with his extensive and intensive work in biblical exegesis and his increasing knowledge of the classical tradition of the church, he had found the freedom to think and write confessionally from the standpoint of the church without becoming anxious about the task of securing extratheological starting points outside of the Christian faith in order to establish the possibility of theology. As Barth himself observed of his emergence in the writing of the Dogmatics: “I can say everything far more clearly, unambiguously, simply, and more in the way of a confession, and at the same time also much more freely, openly, and comprehensively, than I could ever say it before.”


John R. Franke, Barth for Armchair Theologians, Armchair Theologians Series (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 100–103.