The motto “faith seeking understanding” is considered one of the classical definitions of theology. The statement is originally translated from the Latin fides quaerens intellectum. “Faith seeking understanding” means that faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ prompts a questioning search for deeper understanding.
The exact phrase “faith seeking understanding” was introduced by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), a monk, theologian, and Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Proslogium.
Before Anselm, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) coined a similar Latin phrase: Crede ut intelligas, or “believe that you may understand.” Augustine believed that knowledge of God comes before faith in Him, but faith in God brings with it a constant desire for deeper understanding. To phrase it simply, Christians earnestly want to understand what they believe.
Anselm agreed with Augustine. He believed that faith is required for understanding, but also that reason is essential to understanding. To Anselm, Christian faith sets in motion a quest to know and understand God and what we believe about Him.
Faith, according to Anselm, causes believers to seek understanding for the joy of knowing God and loving Him. In his book Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Daniel L. Migliore explains, “For Anselm, faith seeks understanding, and understanding brings joy.” Anselm himself wrote in Proslogium, “I pray thee, O God, let me know thee and love thee so that I may rejoice in thee.”
The Bible promotes the idea of faith seeking understanding. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment adjures us to love the Lord with all our minds (Matthew 22:37). Speaking to the disciples in one of His post-resurrection appearances, Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Faith is what overcomes the world (1 John 5:4), but that faith is accompanied by an understanding of God: “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true” (verse 20).
In a discussion of Anselm’s motto, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy clears up two misconceptions. Many have mistaken “faith seeking understanding” to mean that Anselm hoped to replace faith with understanding, but this is far from true. Faith for Anselm is an active love for God in pursuit of deeper knowledge of God.
Second, many philosophers have thought “faith seeking understanding” pertains only to believers because it begins with faith. But Anselm believed that reason alone was enough to convince even a moderately intelligent person of God’s existence. Anselm’s book Monologion begins with these words: “If anyone does not know, either because he has not heard or because he does not believe, that there is one nature, supreme among all existing things, who alone is self-sufficient in his eternal happiness, who through his omnipotent goodness grants and brings it about that all other things exist or have any sort of well-being, and a great many other things that we must believe about God or his creation, I think he could at least convince himself of most of these things by reason alone, if he is even moderately intelligent.”
Anselm’s motto of “faith seeking understanding” formed the foundation of the medieval theological and philosophical system known as Scholasticism, which sought to unite faith and reason into one coherent system.