Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where did the phrase "Faith Seeking Understanding" come from?

Over the years, I have heard some said that it was from Augustine of Hippo, some said it was from Anselm of Canterbury, and some Karl Barth. So one fine afternoon I decided to trace and locate the exact source of this phrase, not its various translations.

The original language of this phrase is in Latin "fides quaerens intellectum."

Starting with Augustine, the nearest I get from him is "crede ut intelligas" which easily translated to "believe that you may understand."

I found a similar expression in Anselm's work Proslogium, chapter 1:
"I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand ("credo ut intelligam"). For this also I believe, --that unless I believed, I should not understand."
(Emphasis added)
Karl Barth in his book on Anselm outrightly used the famous phrase as its title Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's proof in the existence of God in the context of his theological scheme (UK: SCM Press, 1960). Barth's book suggests to me that it was Barth himself who coined the phrase, yet I harbored suspicion that the maxim must have came much earlier due to its popularity. Then I found Daniel L. Migliore's statement about this phrase in his introductory textbook on theology:
"This definition, with numerous variations, has a long and rich tradition. In the writings of Augustine it takes the form, "I believe in order that I may understand." According to Augustine, knowledge of God not only presupposed faith, but faith also restlessly seeks deeper understanding. Christians want to understand what they believe, what they can hope for, and what they ought to love. Writing in a different era, Anselm, who is credited with coining the phrase "faith seeking understanding," agrees with Augustine that believers inquire "not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things that they believe." For Anselm, faith seeks understanding, and understanding brings joy. [...] Standing in the tradition of Augustine and Anselm, Karl Barth contends that theology has the task of reconsidering the faith and practice of the community, 'testing and rethinking it in the light of its enduring foundation, object, and content... What distinguishes theology from blind assent is just its special character as 'faith seeking understanding'."
(Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991; Second edition, 2004], 2)
Migliore thinks the same. It came from Anselm, but he does not give the exact source from which Anselm used the expression. It was not until I came across Oxford University's Blackfriars' philosopher Ian Logan's book Reading Anselm's Proslogion (USA: Ashgate, 2009), page 24, that I got the answer:
"...the text of the Proslogion, which Anselm originally entitled 'Fides quaerens intellectum'."
So it was Anselm after all. I've missed this when I skipped the preface of Proslogium, where Anselm wrote:
"Et quoniam nec istud nec illud, cuius supra memini, dignum libri nomine aut cui auctoris praeponeretur nomen iudicabam, nec tamen eadem sine aliquo titulo, quo aliquem, in cuius manus veniret, quodam modo ad se legendum invitarent, dimittenda putabam: unicuique suum dedi titulum, ut prius Exemplum meditandi de ratione fidei, et sequens Fides quaerens intellectum diceretur. Sed cum iam a pluribus cum his titulis utrumque transcriptum esset, coegerunt me plures, et maxime reverendus archiepiscopus Lugdunensis, Hugo nomine, fungens in Gallia legatione Apostolica qui mihi hoc ex Apostolica praecepit auctoritate, ut nomen meum illis praescriberem. Quod ut aptius fieret, illud quidem Monologion, id est soliloquium, istud vero Proslogion, id est alloquium, nominavi."
English translation (I can't read Latin):
"In my judgment, neither this work nor the other, which I mentioned above, deserved to be called a book, or to bear the name of an author; and yet I thought they ought not to be sent forth without some title by which they might, in some sort, invite one into whose hands they fell to their perusal. I accordingly gave each a title, that the first might be known as, An Example of Meditation on the Grounds of Faith, and its sequel as, Faith Seeking Understanding. But, after, both had been copied by many under these titles, many urged me, and especially Hugo, the reverend Archbishop of Lyons, who discharges the apostolic office in Gaul, who instructed me to this effect on his apostolic authority --to prefix my name to these writings. And that this might be done more fitly, I named the first, Monologium, that is, A Soliloquy; but the second, Proslogium, that is, A Discourse."


Alex Tang said...

I always thought it came from Anslem. Thanks for validating it.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex,

You're welcome :)

pearlie said...

Thanks for this. I've been fascinated by this phrase ever since I became actively, seriously and more formally seeking an understanding with and for my faith back in 2002/3. and I've actually named the folder in my PC, "FSU", with all related pdf books and papers and whatnots :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi pearlie,

You are welcome. This is indeed is concise and meaningful phrase to start conversation besides summarizing our Christian's attitude to understanding anything of God :)

wonderingrose said...

Great research on this .... and on a couple of the other posts I followed after landing on this page. Will be back for more reading !!

Veronica Harris said...

Thank you, I've just met the phrase but it wasn't accredited to anyone. It's a great definition of theology.

Veronica Harris said...

Great to know where that phrase originated. I've just come across it describing theology, as a quote but unreferenced

Young Kwon said...

Thank you for your fine research. I first encountered the phrase in my seminary years and read Migliory's book but you really solidified its meaning and origin for me.

MLauzon said...

Thank you for your clarification. I'm studying for a Revelation exam and was finding the reference to Anselm confusing. Have been taught that this phrase came from Augustine. Now I see that the thinking has been passed down nicely through the ages.