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Chapter 14. Anselm, Abelard, and Bernard. Questions to be addressed in this chapter. What does Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” dictum mean? How did Anselm’s ontological argument relate to this methodology? To what position did rationality lead in the doctrine of the Atonement?

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chapter 14

Chapter 14

Anselm, Abelard, and Bernard

questions to be addressed in this chapter
Questions to be addressed in this chapter
  • What does Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” dictum mean?
  • How did Anselm’s ontological argument relate to this methodology?
  • To what position did rationality lead in the doctrine of the Atonement?
  • How does the Eucharist influence theories of the Atonement?
anselm of canterbury faith s eeking u nderstanding
Anselm of Canterbury: Faith seeking understanding
  • Anselm merits a place in the history of Christian thought not for his ecclesiology or political ideas, but because of his doctrine of the atonement and especially for the influence he had on understanding the relationship between faith and reason.
  • With Anselm there seem to be two contrary impulses at work. On the one hand, he affirms the primacy of faith over reason—and he does so consistently throughout his writings. But on the other hand, he employs a strongly rationalistic methodology of proving things by reason.
  • Anselm started by acknowledging that which was believed by faith, but then wondered whether those beliefs might be proved logically without appeal to faith.
anselm s ontological a rgument
Anselm’s ontological argument
  • Essentially, Anselm argued that we can all form a concept of the greatest imaginable being. He purports, then, to show from the concept itself that the greatest imaginable being must exist in reality, not just in the imagination.
  • His argument rests on two central premises:

1. God is the greatest imaginable being.

2. It is greater to exist than not to exist.

excerpt from anselm s proslogium chapter 2
Excerpt from Anselm’s Proslogium, Chapter 2

“For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

the atonement
The Atonement
  • Anselm also has a secure place in the history of Christian thought for re-working the accepted understanding of the atonement.
  • Anselm argued that only a perfect being would have the ability to provide satisfaction for the debt owed to God by human beings by voluntarily suffering on their behalf; but justice demands that the debt must be paid by human beings. Therefore, because there must be a remedy to allow God’s plans for human beings to be realized, it is necessary that there be a God-man—one who has both the ability (as God) and the obligation (as human) to provide satisfaction.
  • Abelard agreed with Anselm that Christ’s death was in no way to be construed as paying a ransom to Satan. But neither did he think it correct to construe it as a payment to God. In fact, he found it repulsive to think that a righteous, holy God would demand the blood of an innocent person as some sort of pay-off to let guilty people off the hook.
atonement and eucharist
Atonement and Eucharist
  • For a thousand years Christians had participated in the Eucharist—a ritual of consuming bread and wine instituted at the Last Supper of Christ before his crucifixion.
  • This was incorporated into the Catholic Mass during which this text from the Gospel of Matthew was used: “Then [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28).
  • Bernard was speaking for a large portion of Christian thinkers when he rejected Abelard’s views of the Atonement because they seemed to run contrary to the article of faith that was inculcated through the mass: Christ’s death was efficacious for the forgiveness of sins.
summary of main points
Summary of main points

1. For Anselm, “faith seeking understanding” means that Christians accept the data of revelation unswervingly, then work out and explain how these things are so.

Anselm’s ontological argument is an attempt to explain in the language of logic that it is impossible for God not to exist and still be God.

3. Anselm’s view of the Atonement was that Christ as God and man was the only one who could provide satisfaction for sins through his death, but this was questioned by Abelard.

Bernard reacted strongly to Abelard and held to the dictates of faith which were reinforced by the practice of the Eucharist.