Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum

Young Man With A Skull by Paul Cezanne

Young Man With A Skull by Paul Cezanne

Before he begins looking at Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, Barth is at pains to make clear that Anselm is not, as far too many would insist, attempting to prove God’s existence outside the revelation of God.  The popular humanistic portrait of a person contemplating humanity by sitting and looking at a skull is hardly what Anselm was doing.  On the contrary, as Barth makes clear, moving step by step through an analysis and understanding of Anselm’s introductory comments and method, Anselm is insistent that one cannot comprehend that God exists without first acknowledging that God exists.  That Anselm sets his Proslogion within a doxological framework is clear from the start; as Barth notes, it begins with prayer.

As we reach the end of Barth’s analysis of Anselm’s method, there is an extraordinary series of axioms and corollaries that, taken as a whole, buttress Barth’s view that Anselm views the priority of God’s existence to any attempt to understand God’s existence, even qua existence.  Precisely because of the interchangeable nature of the words ratio and necessitas, Barth works through Anselm’s assumption that the object of faith creates its own authority, and thus creates its own ratio through which human intelligere arrives at the conclusion that the object of faith must needs exist, and exist as it does exist, precisely because this self-same object has given itself to human beings to understand.  What Barth calls, in fashionable theo-philosophical jargon, the priority of the ontic to the noetic, can only be if one accepts the authority of the object of faith prior to examining what and whether this object is.  And when doing so, the examiner can only conclude that the object of faith exists, and exists as it does, because of this faithful priority.

While pointing out that this methodological principle can be found throughout Anselm’s mature works, Barth also notes that employing it in, for example, the Cur Deus Homo, Anselm’s Christological work, does not seem to work so well, creating weaknesses within the overall approach Anselm takes in that much later work.  At the same time, Barth criticizes those who link Anselm’s Monologion with St. Thomas and the so-called “Cosmological Proof”.  Of course, I don’t believe Aquinas would have disagreed with Anselm on the necessity of the primacy of faith; it is a weakness, even peculiar blindness of Barth that rather than read Aquinas on the merits, he takes the 19th and early 20th century reappropriation of Aquinas by Roman Catholic scholars who consistently missed St. Thomas’s insistence on the necessity of grace as the proper understanding of the Great Doctor of the Roman Church.

In any case, we have reached the end of a long and important look at the setting within which Anselm does the work which follows in Proslogion 2-4.  While I believe Barth when he says that much of his work in the early sections of Church Dogmatics, Vol II, Part 1 relies upon the work he did in this smaller work, I also believe that the presuppositions he discovers in Anselm’s work are there throughout the history of the faith.  Barth’s own struggle against the attempted appropriation of Christian dogma by fascism was, I believe, a much different thing than he believed it to be.  Still, for Barth this is an important step he is taking, and I look forward to reading and discovering more with him.