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Faith and Understanding

By R. J. Rushdoony
February 01, 1998

St. Anselm is one of the great but neglected men in the history of philosophy. Anselm (1033-1109), born of a noble family in Aosta, Lombardy, made his mark in the culture of monasteries, and he later became Archbishop of Canterbury. In his day the monasteries, long central to thinking, were shortly to give way to the universities, and the result was also seen in a shift in presuppositions, to an Aristotelian foundation. Thus the work of a great theologian and philosopher did not receive the attention it deserved. Anselm was profoundly Pauline in his theology, and he has been called the last of the church fathers, and "the second Augustine."

In various areas, notably the doctrine of the atonement, he is the key orthodox theologian. In philosophy, his premise was, credo ut intelligam, I believe in order that I might understand.

As against this, Abelard, an Aristotelian, sought to understand in order to believe. Whereas for Anselm faith precedes understanding, for Abelard (1079-1142) understanding must precede faith; rationalism must establish what we can believe. For Abelard, all things must be brought to the bar of reason for verification, whereas Anselm began with the Christian Faith; for him a basic faith, premise, or presupposition must undergird all reason. For Abelard, because of his rationalism, free will was basic because reason gave to man a sovereign autonomy of judgment. Every teaching of the church should be doubted until its truth is ascertained.

But Abelard had begun with faith, although he did not quite say so. Abelard's faith was in rationalism rather than in God and his enscriptured word. Now Abelard held that he could prove the dogmas of the church by means of rationalism, but, in so doing, he shifted the center of authority from God to man's rationality. Anselm was the more profound philosopher and reasoner; but, by opposing rationalism, he came to be viewed by some as simply a confuser of issues. For rationalism, knowledge is obtained by reason, which has a higher authority than sense perception and especially more than revelation. The empiricist will use rationalistic means to accompany his sense perception; like the rationalist, he is independent of external authority, God in particular.

For Anselm, no more than a blind man can see the light can a man without faith know God. Anselm was not always consistent in his presuppositionalism, but his basic premise bore fruit later in John Calvin, and in his followers. In the U. S., Cornelius Van Til has been the great figure in this presuppositionalist school of thought.

For presuppositionalists, no more than the Bible tries to "prove" God does the theologian or the philosopher try to do so. God is the foundation of all reasoning and proof. The scientist Harold Clayton Wrey (b. 1893), a chemist, once noted, "Not one of the existing theories about the origin of the world does work without the presupposition of a miracle." The evolutionist must presuppose, with the rationalist, billions and trillions of miracles.

Dmitri Kessel and Henri Peyre, in Splendors of Christendom (1961) (a book given to me by my associate, Andrew Sandlin), carry this quotation from the American writer, Allen Tate: "Man is a creature that in the long run has got to believe in order to know, and to know in order to do." Tate's comment echoes Anselm, Calvin, and the Puritans. It is commonplace to characterize the culture of the United States as pragmatism. This is a truncated observation. The Puritan theology echoed Anselm and Calvin. It gave faith the priority, and its intense practicality came from its abandonment on the popular level of all rationalism in favor of action. Paul, in Romans 2:13 declares, "For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified" (see also James 1:23-27; 2:20-26). The basic premise of Christian reconstruction is this emphasis on faith with works, "to know in order to do," in Tate's words.

The sterility of rationalism is that its goal is debate and more debate, contentiousness as a way of life. It produces monumental works of reasoning, and little more. Men cannot be reasoned into heaven, although they can be put to sleep.

Rationalism shifts the center from God and his law-word, his summons to believe and obey, to man as rationalist, sitting in judgment upon God and man. The arrogance of rationalism is its assumption that man the philosopher can sit in judgment over God and man, and all things else. We cannot be Christians on our terms, only on God's terms. Our conversion is not the result of a bargain with God but rather our total submission on his terms only. Man is a creature, God's creature, and he must use his reason to think God's thoughts after him, not to attempt to establish what God has already ordained, not to seek to provide independent premises for knowledge.

For Calvin, man's conscience has a noetic function; it is an aspect of God's witness in man's being whereby man, even in his depravity, knows the judgment of God. Sin and conscience both have their noetic effect; they shape man's knowledge and his relationship to God. Rationalism creates an artificial man, one in whose being neither sin nor conscience have any part. Such a mandoes not exist.


Topics: Philosophy, R. J. Rushdoony, Puritanism, Church History

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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