“Faith Seeking Understanding”
Sunday 12 May 2019
You may remember that around the time of the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, there was a bit of discussion about the fact that he was a Welsh bishop, not an English bishop. Certainly, the vast majority of Archbishops of Canterbury have been English-born.
However, back in 1093, the man appointed to the see of Canterbury was in fact a Frenchman no less, Saint Anselm. Saint Anselm was one of the most notable theologians of the medieval period and is famous for the development of his ontological argument for the proof of the existence of God.
Now I won’t try to explain that argument today, but I would like to mention another thing for which Saint Anselm is famous. He provided us with one of the most useful and lasting definitions of the discipline of theology. He said that theology was “Faith seeking understanding”. “Faith seeking understanding”.
Saint Anselm understood clearly that we are by our very nature rational creatures and that we always have a strongly felt need to be able to describe what we mean by various proclamations of faith.
In today’s gospel, Jesus chastises the Jews for not believing even though he has told them about his mission and has performed all sorts of works in his Father’s name. And what have they failed to believe? He tells us in the last sentence of today’s reading: “The Father and I are one”.
Now it is one thing for us to say that we believe that the Father and Jesus are one – that is to make an act of faith, but it is another thing to understand what we mean by that act of faith. Understanding what we mean by our acts of faith is the work of theologizing – “Faith seeking understanding”.
So whether we are professional theologians or not, we all theologise in some way in an attempt to understand what we mean by our faith utterances.
The area of theology concerned with our understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God is called Christology. During the first few centuries of the church’s existence, there was enormous conflict in the field of Christology as the various theologians and bishops attempted to reflect on the biblical faith testaments regarding Jesus’ relationship with the Father.
These controversies reached their peak during the tumultuous fourth century when accusations of heresy flew wildly about between the different camps, and bishops were deposed and exiled, and persecutions conducted to the point of the taking of many lives. We might consider it impossible that the enunciation of articles of faith could take such a prominent place in daily life.
We have this curious description of the climate in Constantinople from a bishop of the time: “If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether God the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘God the father is greater, God the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before God the Son was created’.”
The great Christological controversies of the fourth century were instigated by a priest in the city of Alexandria in north Africa, Arius, who asserted: “… that the Word (Logos) who assumed flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) was not the true God and that he had an entirely different nature, neither eternal nor omnipotent. To Arius, when Christians called Christ God, they did not mean that he was deity except in a sort of approximate sense. He was a lesser being of half-God, not the eternal and changeless Creator.”
Now Arius found some supporters amongst the bishops in the Eastern part of the empire and the games were under way. The matter was clouded by the involvement of the various emperors of the Eastern and Western Empires. Besides, Arius, there were others who said in effect that Jesus was not really a man, that he was a divine being who only pretended to be human.
Out of the controversies that ensued, a Council was held at Nicea in 325 which gave us the theological explanation that we recite every Sunday. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.
Despite the Council of Nicea, the controversy continued to rage throughout the fourth century and did not really resolve itself until the Council of Constantinople in 381 which ultimately enshrined the essential Nicean position.
So what might we learn from this review of the Church’s attempt to theologise the act of faith in Jesus’ statement that “The Father and I are one”?
Well, firstly, we might learn from the enthusiasm that our forebears had for the process of seeking to understand their faith better. While in some instances, they went too far to espouse their positions, at least they thought it was important to be able to make sense of their faith so that they could explain to others in the process of evangelization. The study of theology is a worthwhile endeavour for all Christians, not just for professional theologians.
Secondly, we might learn from them that it is better to listen to one another and keep talking about our theological positions rather than refusing to speak with those who may differ from us. This is a principle that remains very important in our present day disagreements within the Anglican communion.
And thirdly, we should be grateful that we are the inheritors of two hundred years of our fellow Christians’ efforts to clarify and develop our understanding of the meaning of the great articles of our faith like the divinity of Jesus. After all, it is our belief in the unity of Jesus with the God the Father which makes our faith unique.
It means for us, as William Countryman says:
In Jesus, God has become one of us, so that God knows us now from the inside. And through Jesus, we at least begin to know God from the inside, too.
In other words, the unity of God and Jesus reminds us graphically of the centrality of the person of Jesus in the faith life of Christians. It is only through our knowledge of Jesus that we can have any understanding of the nature of our God. The knowledge that is needed is not necessarily an intellectual matter, but very much a relational one. The more we read and reflect on the gospels, speak with Jesus in prayer, join with him in worship of the Father, the more we will come to fathom the unfathomable depths of God.
Fr Allan Paulsen