Reflections on Piety in Theology

One aspect of researching church history that I find most enjoyable is being able to read and interact with Christian thought before our time. Over the span of 2,000 plus years, the church has produced many great minds that have positively influenced the way in which Christians today do theology. One such individual that deserves honorable mention is none other than Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury whose dates are 1033-1109. In the course of my seminary studies, I have found myself consistently gravitating towards the works of Anselm; something about them very much interests me. In the amount of time that I have spent reading Anselm, I have come to realize that Anselm possesses something that I aspire for in my own pursuit of theology. Anselm has an incredible ability to display the deep truths of Christian theology with an even deeper passion. Anselm clearly is one of the most devoted writers that I have personally ever read, and recognizing this truth leads me to consider some implications for the way in which Christians should do theology today.

Being a seminarian has always been a very good experience for me thus far. I enjoy reading, discussing, and debating profound theological/philosophical truths (that is, when I understand them, which isn’t often) with anyone and everyone. Though being able to engage on this level has many benefits, there is a clear and present danger which Christians must be weary of—the danger of becoming exceedingly academic. Throughout the history of the church, this sort of danger has crept in and has caused some problems. An example of this would be the rift between the so-called “Reformed Scholastics” (Beza, Turretin, and Voetius) and the Pietists (Spener, Francke, and Zinzendorf). The Pietists charged the academically minded Reformers with being too intellectual while the Pietists perhaps went too far in elevating the experiential aspect of the faith. To this debate I would add—why not both?[1] It seems that there must be a balance between the two, and in many ways I have found that in Anselm.

Anselm is known for providing the church with essential writings, two of which, I would argue, ought to be read by all Christians—Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) and his, Proslogion. Anselm’s Proslogion is where many have identified the origins of the Ontological Argument for God’s existence, where God as a perfect being must necessarily exist.[2] While this article is not intended to plunge the remarkable depths of Anselm’s argument proper, it is extremely worthwhile to consider Anselm’s purpose for writing in its full context. The reader will quickly come to understand that Anselm’s work takes the form of a prayer in which Anselm is desperately seeking out God. Anselm poetically writes from a Christian perspective,

Teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek You if You do not teach me how, nor find You unless You reveal Yourself. Let me seek You in desiring You; let me desire You in seeking You; let me find You in loving You; let me love You in finding You…For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.[3]

Anselm’s intent is clear. His desire is to engage in submissive theology, theology that is done with his knees bowed before the Lord. This is a crucial insight for how one approaches the discipline of theology; it must not be done lightly. Thus, Anselm is able to produce a writing that has had a major influence in history of philosophy and thought while at the same time being able to maintain a biblical devotion.

Again, Anselm provides another example of submissive theology in his Cur Deus Home?.  Anselm pens,

Something else which makes me hold back from complying with your request is that not only is the subject-matter precious, but, in conformity with the fact that it is about someone beautiful, “with beauty excelling the sons of men” (Ps. 44:3 Vulg.), it is itself correspondingly beautiful in its logic, beyond the reasoning of men. On this account, I am afraid that, just as I am invariably annoyed by bad painters when I see the Lord himself depicted as of ugly appearance, the same fault will be found with my, if I presume to plough through such beautiful subject-matter with an unpolished and contemptible style of writing.[4]

As Anselm prepares to create one of the most important theological documents to date concerning why Christ became a man, he hesitates due to the realization that what and whom he is writing about is nothing less than beautiful. Everything about the God-man is absolutely stunning to Anselm. Once again, Anselm intricately weaves his piety into a profound theological tract. Should we not approach our theological studies in the same way? I think we ought!

Church, when we engage in theology (which should be every moment of the day) we must recognize who it is that we are theologizing about. Our God is Kingly (Isaiah 6) and is deserving of our praise. We are not worshiping the god of deism who is out there somewhere but cannot be found. We do not worship the lifeless gods of the Pagans, or the arbitrary god of Islam, but the covenant Lord of the Scriptures who interacts passionately with His people. Let’s follow Anselm’s attitude and give thanks to God always when doing theology. Besides, the Apostle Paul stated, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do ALL to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31emphasis mine); even our theology.

WORKS CITED

Anselm. Anselm of Canterbury The Major Works. Edited by Brian Davies and G.r. Evans. , Cur Deus Homo?. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

———. Anselm of Canterbury The Major Works. Edited by Brian Davies and G.r. Evans. , Proslogion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.


[1] Be both but careful and balanced. We should probably be able to be both at any time. Situations that we find ourselves in are always different and perhaps at times we will need to be one more than the other. But whatever the case, we should seek a healthy balance.

[2] Essentially, (1) God is perfect; (2) Perfection entails existence; (3) Therefore, God exists.

[3] Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G.r. Evans, Proslogion, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 87.

[4] Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G.r. Evans, , Cur Deus Homo?, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 267.

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