Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought

Anselm and His Arguments

After the general discussion of the Middle Ages, we now come to two men in the 12th century, in that period which I have described as the beginning of the new developments, namely Anselm of Canterbury and Abelard of Paris.

Anselm’s basis for his theological work is like that of all Scholastics, the assertion that in the Holy Scriptures and its interpretation by the Fathers, all truth is directly or indirectly enclosed. It is that concept of faith or tradition which is not a special act of individuals but is, so to speak, the spiritual substance of the reality in which we are. Therefore the phrase credo ut intellegam –. “1 believe in order to understand,” not “I understand in order to believe.” Belief, which is not belief but which is participation in the living tradition, is the foundation; and the interpretation1, the theology, is built on this basis.

The content of eternal truth, of principles of truth, is grasped by subjection of our will to the Christian message, and the consequent experience out of this subjection. This experience is given by grace; it is not produced by human activities. Here the term “experience” becomes important. Experience, again, must be distinguished from what we mean today by “experience,” if we mean anything at all – -which is very questionable, since the word has such a large use that it almost has become meaningless. In any case at that time experience means not religious experience, generally speaking – such a thing ” didn’t exist at that time — but experience meant participation in the objective truth which is implied in the Bible and which is authoritatively explained by the Church Fathers.

In this experience every theologian must participate. Then this experience can become knowledge. But this is not necessarily so. Faith is independent of knowledge, but knowledge is dependent on faith. We can again use the analogy I have used last time, when we say: Natural science presupposes participation in nature, but participation in nature does not necessarily lead to natural science. On this bass, reason can act entirely freely in order to transform experience into knowledge. Anselm was the great speculative thinker, in a period when the word “speculation” had not yet the meaning of looking into the clouds, but of analyzing the basic structures of reality – which meaning you should always have.

Knowledge based on experience leads to a system. Here we come to one of the features of all medieval thinking. The medieval thinkers knew that in order to think consistently, you must think systematically. In the term “systematic theology,” with which we are dealing in this institution, there is still the remnant of this insight, that knowledge, in order to be consistent, must have the character of a system. Today if somebody uses the word “system” ,except in this old fashioned phrase “systematic theology,” he is attacked, just because he thinks systematically and not sporadically and fragmentarily. But the Church cannot afford –- what every individual thinker can – -to have here an insight and there an insight which have nothing to do with each other, and usually contradict each other. But the Church needs something which is consistent, where everything has some connection with every other thing. The bad element in systematic theology is if you derive from principles, consequences which have no foundation in experience to which the Devine is present in sacramental terms. But this is not the meaning of “system.” The meaning of system is, to order experiences cognitively in such a way that they do not contradict each other, and that they give a whole of truth; for, as Hegel has rightly said, the truth is the whole.

Reason in this way can elaborate all religious experiences in rational terms. Even the doctrine of the Trinity can be dealt with rationally by reason, on the basis of experience. In other words, autonomous reason and the doctrine of the Church are identical. It is again to be compared with our relationship to nature, where we say: mathematical structure and natural reality belong to each other. The mathematical reason is able to grasp nature, to order and to make understandable natural movements and structures. In the same way theological reason is able to make understandable and to connect with each other the different religious experiences, which are not religious in the general sense, but experiences on the basis of the Christian tradition.