Abelard’s Legacy: Why Theology is not Faith Seeking Understanding
Ralph Norman (Canterbury Christ Church University)
Australian eJournal of Theology, 10 (May 2007)
It is often claimed, with reference to Anselm, that theology is faith seeking understanding. This is intriguing, because Anselm never used the word “theology” in any of his writings and was born a generation before the word began to be used in Europe. It was Abelard that introduced the word to the Latin west and gave it a professional and technical meaning: reasoning about faith that proceeds in accordance with the principles of methodological doubt. This method influenced Aquinas, and was harmonized with negative theology in his thought. Such styles of theological method challenge the common acceptance of the Barthian slogan, ‘faith seeking understanding’, in today’s theology.
In his book on Anselm, Karl Barth identified the task of theology as one of faith seeking understanding. This definition has since met with such approval that it is now difficult to find many professional theologians that would disagree with it. This is intriguing because in the long period between Anselm and Barth the phrase faith seeking understanding is curiously uncommon. Even more tantalizing is the fact that Anselm himself would not have described theology as faith seeking understanding; actually, it would have been impossible for him to do so because he was born a generation before the word “theology” began to be used in Europe. Anselm never used the word “theology”. Whatever faith seeking understanding was for Anselm, it could only be described as theology anachronistically and, I think, rather inaccurately. Perhaps the widespread use of this methodological slogan in both protestant and catholic circles today may best be interpreted as evidence of the extent to which contemporary theology continues to be influenced by the remarkable rhetorical power of Barth’s work. A closer look at the evidence means that the description of theology as faith seeking understanding is open to some radical questions.