Skip to main content



In discourse concerning religion, "faith" has two rather different meanings. As a trusting and confident attitude toward God, faith (fiducia ) may be compared with trust in one's fellow human beings. As a cognitive act or state whereby men are said to know God or to have knowledge about him, faith (fides ) may be compared with our perceptual awareness of our material environment or our knowledge of the existence of other persons. This article will deal with the notion of faith as putatively cognitive, as this has operated in Western religious thought.

Faith in Classic Catholic and Protestant Thought

thomas aquinas

The key thinker for the discussion of faith in Roman Catholicism is Thomas Aquinas, who wrote on the nature of faith in his Summa Theologiae. Thomas's main points may be summarized as follows:

(1) Faith is belief in revealed truths. Ultimately the object of faith is God himself, who is not, however, known by the human mind in his divine simplicity but only discursively and by means of propositions. These revealed truths are authoritatively presented in the creeds. Thus, to have faith means to believe the articles of faith summarized in the credal affirmations of the church.

(2) In its degree of certainty, faith stands between knowledge (scientia ) and opinion. It ranks below knowledge, for although the objective cause of faithdivine truthis in itself more certain than the product of any human reasoning, yet faith's grasp of its objectsince it lacks cogent demonstrationis less certain than rational knowledge. On the other hand, faith ranks above opinion, for while opinion is accompanied by doubt and by fear that the opposite opinion may be true, faith is firm and free from all such hesitations.

(3) The objects of faith on the one hand, and of sight and demonstration on the other, are different: "the object of knowledge [scientia ] is something seen, whereas the object of faith [fides ] is the unseen." There can thus be no faith concerning matters that are objects of rational knowledge, for knowledge excludes faith.

However, some truths may be objects of faith to one person and of knowledge to another. In particular, some of the preliminary articles of faithsuch as the existence, unity, and incorporeality of Godare capable of being philosophically demonstrated and are revealed as objects of faith only for the sake of those many who are unable to follow the path of abstract reasoning. Those matters that are of faith absolutely are above reasonincapable of being arrived at by human reasoning, however expert.

Thomas's account of the relation between faith and reason is, accordingly, that they apprehend different sets of truths, the truths of faith being above reason. However, this statement must be qualified by adding that there is an area in which faith and reason overlap, since the basic theological propositionsthose of natural theologyare held to be both demonstrable and revealed.

(4) Faith is "an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God." That is to say, whereas in knowledge the intellect is moved to assent by the object itself, known either directly or by demonstrative reasoning, in faith the intellect is moved to assent "through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other." Faith does not, however, represent an arbitrary or unmotivated decision. It is a response, under the influence of divine grace, to certain external evidences, particularly miracles. As such, it is sufficiently determined by the evidence to be rational and yet sufficiently undetermined and free to be meritorious.

modern catholicism

The doctrine of faith in modern Catholicism is essentially Thomist, although a fuller apologetic context is developed than was necessary in the medieval period. Faith is defined by the first Vatican Council (1870) as "a supernatural virtue, by which, guided and aided by divine grace, we hold as true what God has revealed, not because we have perceived its intrinsic truth by our reason but because of the authority of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived" (Constitution on Faith, Ch. 3). Such a definition provokes a query, for faith, characterized as belief in various truths on divine authority, presupposes a knowledge both that God exists and that he has revealed the propositions in question. How is this prior information gained? The question is answered by the doctrine of the preambula fidei. The preambles to faith consist in the acceptance of God's existence, established by philosophical proofs, and of the validity of the biblical revelation and the authority of the Catholic church as the divinely appointed guardian of revelation. These latter are authenticated by a variety of visible signs, such as miracles, fulfillments of prophecy, holy lives, and the growth and durability of the church. The believer's appreciation of the weight of this evidence is not an exercise of faith but of reason: "The use of reason precedes faith and must lead us to it" (Denzinger, Enchiridion No. 1626, cf. No. 1651). Thus, the whole structure of belief rests originally upon the historical evidences of miracles and other manifestations of divine activity that do not establish the articles of faith themselves, but rather the fact that the omniscient God has revealed these articles. Although it is denied by Catholic apologists, the comment of John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding would still seem pertinent: "Though faith be founded on the testimony of God (who cannot lie) revealing any proposition to us, yet we cannot have an assurance of the truth of its being a divine revelation greater than our own [rationally acquired] knowledge; since the whole strength of the certainty depends upon our knowledge that God revealed it."

It should be noted that in some of the more recent Catholic discussions, such as that by Eugène Joly in the article "Faith" in the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Paris, 1956), there is a tendency to move beyond a narrowly propositional conception of faith and to be hospitable to the idea of an encounter with God mediated through man's religious experience.


For Martin Luther (14831546), the chief moving spirit of the Reformation, faith was not primarily belief in the church's dogmas but rather a wholehearted trust in the divine grace and love revealed in Jesus Christ. Thus, Luther considered faith as primarily fiducia rather than fides. Indirectly it included all the fundamental Christian beliefs, but Luther's main emphasis was upon faith as a total reliance upon God's omnipotent goodness. He was not concerned with the logically prior question of our knowledge that God exists. In this he was at one with the biblical writers, who were so vividly conscious of the reality and presence of God that their writings take his existence for granted. In the Bible, as in the thought of Luther, faith is not the belief that God exists, that he is three in one, and so on, but is an attitude of trust and self-commitment to him. In a distinction that Luther himself drew, it is not belief that but belief in.

John Calvin (15091564), the first and greatest systematizer of Reformed theology, gave greater prominence to the cognitive aspect of Christian faith, defining it in the Institutes as "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit." That to which faith responds is the Bible as the inspired Word of God: "there is a permanent relationship," Calvin says, "between faith and the Word." Thus, in Reformed theology acceptance of the authority of Scripture replaces the preambula fidei of Thomism.

The philosophical question raised by this conception of faith is similar to that raised by the Roman Catholic conception: what is the nature of our knowledge that the God whom we are invited to trust in fact exists, and that he has inspired the writings which he is alleged to have inspired?

Two subsequent Protestant contributions to some extent address themselves to this question. In the early nineteenth century Jakob Friedrich Fries, influenced by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in the previous century, described faith as Ahnung (or Ahndung ), by which he meant an unconceptualized feeling, hunch, or presentiment as to the reality of the supernatural. Friedrich Schleiermacher also regarded faith as a kind of feeling (Gefühl ), a sense of absolute dependence upon a higher reality. In a different vein altogether Søren Kierkegaard, the father of modern existentialism, emphasized the objective uncertainty of the religious realm, which can be entered only by a leap of faith. He stressed the tremendous risk involved, like being "out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water."

Modern Theories of Faith

The Thomist doctrine contains most of the elements that have, in varying proportions, characterized subsequent theories of faith. The Thomist analysis treats faith as (a ) a form of propositional belief but as (b ) belief that rests upon weaker evidence than scientific knowledge, and (c ) regards it as requiring an act of will.

voluntarist theories

Nearly all subsequent epistemological discussions of faith assume that it is a cognitive attitude directed toward religious propositions. Widespread in modern discussions is the rationalist definition of faith as (to quote a typical formulation) "very firm belief, either unsupported or insufficiently supported by evidence" (C. J. Ducasse, A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion, New York, 1953, p. 74). Some such definition as this is used by a large number of religious philosophers as well as by many of those who reject religious belief.

How, from the believer's point of view, is the evidential gap supposed to be filled? Here the voluntarist theme, first stressed by Thomas, reappears.


In the famous Wager passage in his Pensées (No. 233) Blaise Pascal (16231662) recommends a purely voluntarist route to religious belief, assuming that reason can find no grounds on which to determine whether there is a God. One must decide to believe or to disbelieve; and regarding the decision as a wager, it is prudent to decide to believe. One will then gain eternal life and felicity if God indeed exists and will lose nothing if he does not; whereas if one decides to disbelieve, one will gain nothing if he does not exist but will forfeit eternal life if he does.

William James

The idea briefly adumbrated by Pascal appears in an elaborated form in William James's well-known essay "The Will to Believe" (1895). He points out that there are cases in which we may come into contact with some aspect of reality only by acting, prior to any adequate evidence, as if it existed; in these instances our faith helps to bring its object into being. For example, in the realm of personal relationships faith in an individual's good will or honesty may on occasions elicit these qualities when otherwise they would have been wanting. Precursive faith of this kind is justified by its subsequent verification rather than by prior evidence.

James then proceeds to consider religious faith. Here we have what is for many people a living, momentous, andJames emphasizesa forced option, for to refuse to say "Yes" to the claim of religion is in effect to say "No" to it. It is to miss the good that follows from believing the religious gospel, if it be true, as decisively as if one had positively rejected it. Therefore we have the right to choose for ourselves between the risk of falling into error by adopting a faith that may turn out to be false, and the risk of missing our highest good by failing to adopt a faith that may turn out to be true.

Furthermore, James adds, the Judeo-Christian religious hypothesis refers specifically to a personal God; and in our dealings with a cosmic Thou, as with our fellow humans, a venture of faith on our part may be necessary if we are to establish any positive relationship. To respond as a person to another person involves showing a certain trustfulness and willingness to "give the benefit of the doubt" and thereby anticipate proof and verification. It may be that God can or will disclose himself only to one who shows such an initial faith and is willing to venture in trust beyond what has been established by scientific proof or philosophical demonstration. In other words, it is possible that in order to gain the religious knowledge upon which our personal good depends, we must give rein to our "passional" desire to believe. Hence, James concludes, we cannot reasonably be required to adopt a methodology that would prohibit us from finding this good: For "a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

James's argument has been criticized at a number of points, chief among them being the following:

(1) His basic assumption is that there are no grounds of either reason or evidence which might lead one to accept or reject the "religious hypothesis." There is nothing to make it significantly more probable either that there is or that there is not a God; and in such a situation, says James, we are entitled to follow our desires. But many, both theists and atheists, claim that there are substantial arguments or evidences for (or against) the existence of God, and that we ought to attend to these rather than to our personal predilections. Furthermore, whatever conclusion we arrive at should be held only with the degree of conviction that is warranted by the evidence.

(2) The "precursive faith" that helps to create that in which it believes, although a genuine phenomenon, is irrelevant to belief in the existence of God or in the reality of eternal values; for if these exist, they exist independently of man's belief or lack of belief in them. In the social situations James cites, our willingness to trust someone in advance of proof of his trustworthiness may help to make him trustworthy but does not bring him into existence, and faith in the existence of a divine creator of the universe cannot bring such a being into existence.

(3) James's argument ought not to be applied only to our current live options, since "live option" is a psychological category having no necessary relation to the truth or falsity of hypotheses. We ought to heed equally every momentous and forced option. However, we cannot act upon them all, since they demand incompatible responses. We shall act, then, only upon that which we should most like to be true. So stated, the "right to believe" argument stands revealed as an invitation to wishful thinking.

(4) From the side of religion, an unfavorable comparison is made between the kind of faith recommended by James and that already possessed by the religious believer. James presumes a complete absence of grounds for belief and, in this situation, he proposes a prudent gamble. However, the religious believeras we meet him, for example, in the pages of the Bibleis convinced that he is aware of God acting toward him in and through the events of the world around him, so that at all times he is having to do with God and God with him. His concern is to draw others into this direct awareness of God, rather than to induce them to make James's gamble.


F. R. Tennant (18661958) has provided the fullest recent voluntarist apologetic for theistic faith. Faith in general, according to Tennant, is the conative element in the acquisition of knowledge. In every advance from sense data to the perception of an ordered world or from the projection of a scientific hypothesis to its observational verification, as in every successful voyage of discovery or in the invention of some new kind of machinery, there must be not only an act of theorizing or of insight but also a sustained effort of will that carries the operation through to completion. In both of these respects religious cognition shares a common structure with knowledge in the sciences and in personal life. First, there is the creation of a hypothesis: Scientific hypotheses satisfy the inclination to explain the structure and order of the universe by quantitative laws, while theological and ethical hypotheses satisfy the inclination toward teleological explanation. Second, there is the volitional investment, the venture of faith, which may eventually be rewarded with a dividend of verified knowledge. The faith venture in secular contexts is continuous in kind with that of the religious prophets and apostles. Thus, faith is the indispensable volitional component within the process of acquiring knowledge, and it plays a basically similar role in both religion and nonreligious life.

However, the kinds of verification that are possible in science and religion are importantly different, although Tennant wavers between stressing their similarity and their dissimilarity. Scientific verification consists in observing that predictions deduced from a hypothesis are fulfilled in the experimenter's observations. Religious verification, on the other hand, consists in the valuable effects of faith in the life of the believerin strengthening him as a moral agent and in his attainment of heroic life. Thus, while scientific verification leads to objective certainty, or at least to a high degree of objective probability, religious verification leads only to subjective certitude. "Nevertheless," Tennant adds, "verification such as religion claimed for its faith will satisfy most men."

It is noteworthy that the basic features of the classic Thomist analysis of faith reappear, although in a very different setting, in Tennant's theory: (1) Faith, as acceptance of the religious hypothesis, is propositional. (2) Faith is of the same cognitive order as scientific knowledge but is based upon a lower degree of evidence. (3) Faith is not concerned with the material world itself, which is an object of knowledge, but with its teleological meaning. (4) Faith is distinguished by the conative element within it from ordinary belief and knowledge. Whereas the act of will can, in Thomism, appeal for rational justification to such external evidences as miracles and fulfilled prophecies, in Tennant's philosophy it appeals to a comprehensive teleological argument for the existence of God.

This propositional and voluntarist tradition, which has so largely dominated the scene since the time of Thomas, has been criticized on the following grounds: (a ) Actual religious faith is not, from the believer's point of view, analogous to a scientific hypothesis but with a weaker verification. It is a direct awareness of God, with its own assurance that is not dependent upon philosophical argument. (b ) As (putatively) a direct awareness of God, faith is not primarily a form of propositional belief; rather, it is a form of religious experience. Theological beliefs naturally grow out of it but are not themselves the primary objects or content of faith.

faith and freedom

A very important connection has long been recognized between faith and what may be called the cognitive freedom of the human mind in its relation to God. The first writer to note this connection was the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, who said, "And not merely in works, but also in faith, has God preserved the will of man free and under his own control" (Adversus Haereses, IV, 37, 5). The theme is continued in Augustine and in Thomas's view that faith is a sufficiently free act to be meritorious. Pascal stated that God's self-revelation in the Incarnation took a deliberately veiled form, so that no one could be compelled to find God in Jesus Christ, and yet so that all who were willing to find God there might do so: " willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their hearts, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their hearts, he so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given signs of himself, visible to those who seek him, and not to those who seek him not" (Pensées, No. 430). Søren Kierkegaard also spoke of the divine incognito in the Incarnation. The same theme is continued by the twentieth-century Protestant theologian Emil Brunner and by many other writers.

The basic thought behind this emphasis, at any rate in the modern writers, is that God, having created man as personal, always acts toward him in ways that respect and preserve man's freedom and responsibility. For this reason God does not reveal himself to man in his unveiled glory, for in a direct, unmediated awareness of infinite perfection man's frail moral autonomy would be destroyed. Therefore, the divine presence is always mediated through the events and circumstances of a world that God has created to be a relatively independent sphere of interaction with his human creatures. Man's personal autonomy is protected by the fact that he can become conscious of God's activity toward him only by an uncompelled response of faith. Thus, men are not only free to obey or disobey God; they also have the prior and more fundamental freedom to be conscious of God or to refrain from being conscious of him. The human mind displays a natural tendency to interpret its experience religiously, but this tendency acts only as an inclination that can be resisted and inhibited. Man is thus cognitively free in relation to God. Faith is the correlate of freedom and is related to cognition as free will is to conation.

faith as interpretation

Closely related to this emphasis upon man's cognitive freedom is a contemporary theory that regards faith as the interpretative element in religious experiencethat which constitutes it as religious experience in distinction from any nonreligious experiencing of the same field of data. Here "interpretation" does not mean intellectual interpretation or theory construction, but something more akin to the interpretative processes which take place in sense perception. From the point of view of epistemology, faith is thus analogous to the phenomenon of "seeing as," which was brought to the attention of philosophers by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (II, xi). We may look at a puzzle picture, seeing it now as a meaningless disarray of lines and now as the outline of, say, a human face. This is an instance of purely visual interpretation. But the concept of "seeing as" can be expanded into that of "experiencing as," referring to the way in which a situation apprehended through our sensory apparatus as a whole is experienced as having some particular kind of significance; that is, as rendering appropriate some particular dispositional response on our part. To cite religious examples, when the Old Testament prophets experienced the events of contemporary Israelite history as mediating the presence and activity of God and as speaking a divine imperative to them, they were undergoing a religious mode of "experiencing as." Again, the apostles whose witness constitutes the message of the New Testament saw, but were not compelled to see, Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, it is always true of the religious mode of "experiencing as" that the data in question are in themselves ambiguous and capable of being responded to either religiously or naturalistically. More strictly, the two types of interpretation are not alternatives on the same level but are different orders of significance found in the same field of data. The religious significance of events includes and transcends their natural significance. Those events the prophets saw as acts of God can also be seen as having proximate natural or human causes; and the person of Christ, seen by Christian faith as divine, is depicted in the New Testament as being at the same time genuinely human. From a theological point of view, this systematic ambiguity, which is the precondition of faith, serves to protect man's freedom and autonomy as a finite personal being in relation to the infinite God.

See also Atheism; Augustine, St.; Bad Faith; Belief; Brunner, Emil; Calvin, John; Existentialism; Fries, Jakob Friedrich; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; James, William; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Luther, Martin; Miracles; Pascal, Blaise; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Tennant, Frederick Robert; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Traditionalism; Truth; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


The article on πίστις by Rudolf Bultmann and A. Weiser in Vol. VI of Kittel's Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart, 1959) treats authoritatively the various biblical concepts of faith: It was translated by Dorothea M. Barton as Faith (London, 1961). Historical treatments of the idea of faith occur in D. M. Baillie, Faith in God (Edinburgh, 1927) and W. R. Inge, Faith (London, 1909). The distinction between faith as trust and as cognition is developed in Martin Buber, Zwei Glaubensweisen (Zürich, 1950), translated by Norman P. Goldhawk as Two Types of Faith (London, 1951). The cognitive aspect of Christian faith is defined in John Calvin, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Basel, 1536; 5th ed., 1559), translated by F. L. Battles as Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (London, 1861). Thomas's teaching on the nature of faith occurs in Summa Theologica (IIII, 17), translated by Anton C. Pegis in The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. II (New York, 1945). Thomas's teaching on the relation between faith and reason is contained in Summa Contra Gentiles (I, 38), which was translated by Anton C. Pegis as On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Garden City, NY, 19551957).

Contemporary Roman Catholic discussions of faith include G. D. Smith, "Faith and Revealed Truth," in The Teaching of the Catholic Church (New York, 1956), Vol. I and Eugène Joly, Qu'est-ce que croire? (Paris, 1956); the latter was translated by Illtyd Trethowan as What Is Faith? (New York, 1956). Also see H. J. D. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Freiburg, 1952).

Protestant neoorthodox conceptions of faith are represented by Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik (Zürich, 1932), Vol. I, Part 1, translated by G. T. Thompson as The Doctrine of the Word of God (Edinburgh: Clark, 1936); H. F. Lovell Cocks, By Faith Alone (London, 1943); and F. Gogarten, Die Wirklichkeit des Glaubens (Stuttgart, 1957), translated by Carl Michalson and others as The Reality of Faith (Philadelphia, 1959).

The conception of faith as Ahnung occurs in F. H. Jacobi, David Hume über den Glauben, oder Idealismus und Realismus (1787), in Werke (Leipzig, 1815), Vol. II; and J. F. Fries, Wissen, Glaube und Ahnung (Jena, 1805), edited by Leonard Nelson (Göttingen, 1905). See also R. Otto, Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr, 1909), translated by E. B. Dicker as The Philosophy of Religion (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931).

Christian existentialist views of faith occur in Søren Kierkegaard, especially in Philosophical Fragments, translated by David F. Swenson (Princeton, NJ, 1936) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, also translated by David F. Swenson (Princeton, NJ, 1941); and in G. Ebeling, Das Wesen des Christlichen Glaubens (Tübingen, 1959), translated by Ronald Gregor Smith as The Nature of Faith (London, 1961).

The classic attempt to base faith on a moral foundation is in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God (Cambridge, U.K., 1918); D. M. Baillie, Faith in God (Edinburgh 1927); and J. Baillie, The Interpretation of Religion (Edinburgh, 1929) contain more recent endeavors to the same end.

Modern voluntarist theories of faith are found in William James, The Will to Believe (New York: Longman, 1897); James Ward, Essays in Philosophy (London, 1927); and F. R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology, Vol. I (Cambridge, U.K., 1928) and The Nature of Belief (London, 1943).

The view that faith operates not only in religion but also in many other spheres of life has an extensive literature, including Arthur Balfour, The Foundations of Belief (London, 1885); W. R. Inge, Faith (London: Duckworth, 1909); B. H. Streeter, ed., Adventure: The Faith of Science and the Science of Faith (London, 1927); Alan Richardson, Christian Apologetics (London, 1947); Raphael Demos in the symposium Academic Freedom, Logic and Religion (New York, 1953); and H. R. Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper, 1960).

J. H. Newman's Illative Sense theory (A Grammar of Assent, London, 1870) is discussed in M. C. D'Arcy, The Nature of Belief (London, 1945). Paul Tillich's view of faith as "ultimate concern" occurs in Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper, 1957).

The conception of faith as the interpretative element in religious experience is expounded in J. H. Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY, 1957).

John Hick (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Faith." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Faith." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (August 14, 2018).

"Faith." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.