Barth on Anselm (3): Sola Ratione

I’m about half-way through Barth’s Anselm book.  Barth is the theologian I am reading in 2011.  Next year it will be Augustine.  I’ve chosen Barth because I learn from engaging with him, though where he differs from evangelical theology, I side with evangelical theology.  For me, the great value of engaging with Barth has been precisely because he is different from evangelical theology.  Its an enlarging experience to try to understand why he makes the moves he does, what are the values that drive him in different directions from evangelical theology.  Sort of like an American baseball player studying the Japanese baseball league to learn from the differences.  If I can understand why Japanese baseball is different, I can play better – in America.

One of the ways I differ with Barth is in his interpretation of Anselm.  I think he helpfully draws out the basically faith-based approach of Anselm’s Proslogion, but overdraws consequences from this, minimizing the contact point between believer and unbeliever too much (at one actually claiming that dialogue between them is meaningless [p. 65]!), and making Anselm closer to a fideist than he actually was.  As Charlesworth, another Anselm scholar, objects, he almost makes Anselm into a precocious Barthian.  (Its interesting to note the similarities between Van Til and Barth in their theological epistemology, despite Van Til’s attacks on Barth.)

One thing that was interesting, however, was Barth’s interpretation of Anselm’s phrase “by reason alone.”  This is a famous and difficult statement, because it seems tough to square with Anselm’s later prioritizing of faith over understanding.  Scholars do all kinds of weird things with this, but I’ve been of the conviction for some time now that Anselm is not inconsistent with himself (as Charlesworth argues) and that the meaning of “by reason alone” must be interpreted within Anselm’s historical context.

In a medieval world in which florilegia were among the most common theological documents and citing authorities was considered standard theological argumentation, arguing “by reason alone” was set in opposition to tradition more than faith.  It was a statement of method more than epistemology.  By it Anselm signified his intention to not assume Christian authorities in his argumentation, so that an unbeliever could be convinced, not to take a position on the “faith verses reason” discussions you find in a Philosophy of Religion textbook.  That faith was necessary for this logical argumentation to be effective is evident from his other statements, such as “unless I believed, I would not understand.”  Anyway, that’s my take.

On this point Barth makes an interesting comparison:

“Anselm’s [sola ratione] is as liable to be understood or misunderstood as was Luther’s sola fide in its context.  It cannot be understood as if Anselm had written solitaria ratione.  Authority is the necessary presupposition of Anselm’s ratio, just as works are the necessary consequence of Luther’s fides.” (44)

Could we say: just as we are justified by faith alone, but its impossible to have faith without works – so also we can engage in theology/apologetics by reason alone, but its impossible to have reason with faith?  Hmmm.

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