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As understood in this article, faith means belief in God and acceptance of His revelation as true. The concept of faith will be treated as it is seen in the Bible, in patristic tradition and the teaching of the Church, and in dogmatic theology.


For the inspired authors of the Sacred Scriptures, faith is indeed an act of the intellect assenting to revealed truth; but since God's revelation in the Bible is often concerned with the future, that is, since the object of divine revelation is frequently God's promises to Israel, biblical faith is often a belief in God's fidelity to His promises and therefore confidentia (confidence, trust) as well as fides (faith, belief). This can be seen by examining the writings of the older books of the OT, the writings of Judaism, i.e., of the Jews in the last few centuries b.c. and the first Christian century, and finally the writings of the NT.

In the older books of the Old Testament. In these inspired writings, faith plays a very important preparatory role in the salvation history of mankind. At sundry times, God spoke to His chosen people of the OT and demanded of them faith in His word. God thus surpassed the barriers of the natural order and drew aside the veil disclosing the supernatural order of life and truth in Him. Various divinely revealed truths formed a part of Israelite faith and were considered as guiding principles for religious and spiritual conduct. Such truths were, e.g., the existence of one God, the election of Israel as God's chosen people, God's special covenant with Israel, and Israel's ultimate messianic salvation.

Terminology. The most common Hebrew root employed to express Israel's faith in God is 'mn, of which the basic meaning is firmness, certainty, reliability, and trustworthiness. From this root are derived the adjective 'ēmûn (faithful: 2 Sm 20.19; trustworthy: Prv 13.17), the nouns 'ĕmûnâ [steadiness: Ex 17.12; security: Ps 36 (37).3; fidelity, faithfulness: 1 Sm 26.23; Hb 2.4, and often predicated of God, as in Dt 32.4; Ps 35 (36).6; etc.] and ĕmet, for original 'ement [trustworthiness: Ex 18.21; Jos 2.12; constancy, fidelity, faithfulness: Gn 24.27, 49; Is 38.1819; Ps 24 (25).10; 39 (40).1112; etc.; truth, reality: Dt 22.20; Jer 9.4; Is 59.1415], and the adverb āmēn (amen or surely, in an assent to something said: Nm 5.22; Dt 27.1526; Jer. 11.5). As a verb this root is used only in the reflexive (niphal) form ne'man (to prove faithful, reliable, true, etc.: Gn 42.20; Dt 7.9; 1 Sm 25.28; etc.) and in the causative (hiphil) form heĕmîn (to hold as trustworthy, to trust, to believe: Gn 15.6; 45.26; Dt 9.23; etc.).

Since Israel's faith was closely connected with the idea of trust in Yahweh, another verb, when used with God as the object, that implicitly connotes faith is bāa (to feel secure, to rely, to trust: Dt 28.52; Is 31.1; etc.), with its corresponding noun bea: (security, trust: Is 32.17; Jgs 8.11), which is used mostly as an adverb (securely, confidently: Dt 33.28; Prv 10.9; etc.). A similar verb that may connote the idea of faith is āsâ (to seek refuge, to trust: Dt 32.37; Jgs 9.15). Furthermore, since the Israelite's attitude of faith often looked to the future, Hebrew verbs meaning to hope were used (especially in the later OT writings) with a connotation of faith, such as qāwâ or qiwwēh (e.g., Gn 49.18; Is 40.31;49.23), yiēl [e.g., Ps 30 (31).25; 32 (33).22], ikkēh (e.g., Is 8.17;30.18), all of which, with God as the object, signify to wait for Him with confidence, to hope in Him, and therefore, implicitly, to believe in His promises.

Characteristics of Old Testament Faith. The Israelite concept of faith came to denote the peculiar relationship existing between God and Israel, especially the bond of the covenant between them. The faith of Israel was a particular form of life of a people chosen by Him and standing in an active relationship with Him. The Israelite's relationship to God that is designated by the verb heĕmîn (to believe) often implied an assent of the mind, confidence in the heart, and obedience in the will. Abraham, for instance, who was still childless in his old age, believed without wavering in the Lord's promise that He would give him numerous descendants, and this faith of his was accredited to him as a meritorious deed (Gn 15.6a passage that is often quoted, to show what true faith is, in Rom 4.3; Gal 3.6; Jas 2.23). Isaiah warned the Israelites that without faith in Yahweh they would not survive (Is 7.9; 28.16). According to Habakkuk, "the just man, because of his faith, shall live" (ab 2.4)another favorite quotation on faith in the NT (Rom 1.17; Gal 3.11; Heb 10.38). The necessity of faith is seen also in those OT passages that tell of how God's people at times rebelled and refused to believe in Him, so that God had to chastise them for their lack of faith (Nm 14.112; Dt1.2646; 9.2224).

Israel's ideal attitude toward God is often described by the term yir'at yhwh (Is 11.23; Prv 1.7, 29; etc.), traditionally rendered as "the fear of the Lord," although it means rather reverence for Yahweh, the standing in awe of Him, and therefore obeying His word on faith (e.g., Gn 22.12; Dt 6.2; Jos 22.25; etc.), as is clear, e.g., from Ex 14.31: "They feared the Lord and believed in Him." It is a faith that inspires confidence, which forms the theme of many of the Psalms [e.g., Ps 33 (34).511; 39 (40).26; 55 (56).45, 12].

In the OT, to believe in God means to recognize and acknowledge the relationship that God has entered into with Israel. This reciprocal relationship that comes from Israel's encounter with God is of the essence of Israelite faith. God is the originator of the covenant relationship, and the stipulations of the covenant are His commandments (Dt 5.14). Faith, then, means the acknowledgment of God's commands and implies obedience on the part of man. Faith, too, expresses the acknowledgment of God's promises and His power to fulfill them [Ex 4.1, 5, 89, 30; Ps 105 (106).12, 24]. In the OT, therefore, faith in God includes the whole relationship that exists between God and man. It has for as qāwâ or qiwwēh (e.g., Gn 49.18; Is 40.31; 49.23), yih its object God's omnipotence, His purpose in choosing His people, His love for them, His constancy and fidelity, and the fulfillment of His promises. Not to believe in God means to become an apostate [Ex 14.31; 19.9; Nm 14.11; Dt 1.32; 32.20; Ps 77 (78).22]. Faith thus sums up all the ways by which men express in their lives their relationship to God. According to Isaiah, faith denotes a special form of existence for those who depend on God alone (Is7.9). The chosen people of God have their particular manner of life and are established through their faith (Is 28.1416; 30.15). For Israel, faith is the only possible mode of existence; all other attitudes in independence of God or all obligations toward anyone else than God are excluded; God alone, His plan and His will, together with the proper attitude of man, are the only important factors.

In Judaism. In the last few centuries b.c. and in the first Christian century, the ancient OT heritage of faith was taken over, with its leading ideas retained, by both the Palestinian and the Hellenistic Jews. The faith of the Jews was closely related to their past history and thus included the idea of loyalty or fidelity. It was related also to the future in the sense that God would certainly fulfill His promises, which now took on strongly messianic and eschatological overtones. But their faith in God was concerned especially with the present, inasmuch as Israel was called upon to obey God's commandments and remain faithful to His covenant. Faith in God tended, therefore, to determine every aspect of their lives.

The writings of this period show the stress that the Jews put on faith in God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses were signaled out as models and exemplars of faith and obedience (Sir 44.1923; 1 Mc 5.52; Jdt8.2229; Jubilees 6.19; 18.119; 21.2; Psalms of Solomon 16.14). Abraham's descendants were distinguished from the godless and impious by reason of their fidelity (Wis 3.9; Sibylline Oracles 5.158, 426; Enoch 46.8; 4 Ezr7.131). It was stated that to know God is complete justice, and to know His power is the root of immortality (Wis 15.3; see also Enoch 46.8; 4 Ezr 7.131; Apocalypse of Baruch 54.21). In the rabbinical writings, faith was often characterized as obedience to the Law rather than as loyalty to God whose saving acts were experienced in the past or as confidence in Him whom they were called upon to trust in the future. The individual was conscious of the fact that he belonged to God's chosen people and that salvation would be bestowed on the faithful and pious (Syriac Baruch 54.5; 57.22; 2 Ezr 7.24). Other characteristics of faith that were expressed were its simplicity (Wis 1.1), its ultimate victory (2 Ezr 7.34), and its ability to preserve the faithful amid adversity (2 Mc 15.24; 16.22; 17.2).

According to Flavius josephus, faith in divine providence meant trust in God (Ant. 4.60; Ap. 2.170). For philo judaeus, faith was understood within the framework of Hellenistic Judaism; faith meant belief in one God and trust in His providence (Op. Mund. 170172; Virt. 216). Philo viewed it as both confidence in God's help and belief in His promises (Sacr. Ac. 70; Vit. Mos. 1.225; 2.259; Leg. All. 3.308; Mut. Nom. 166; Abr. 275). He understood faith also as a turning away from the world of birth and death and a turning toward God who is eternal, whereby man finds that security which he is seeking. "To trust God is a true teaching, but to trust our vain reasonings is a lie" (Leg. All. 229). "He who has sincerely believed in God has learned to disbelieve in all else, all that is created only to perish" (Praem. Poen. 28.30). "Turning to God is an attitude of the mind" (Conf. Ling. 31) and "the most perfect of virtues" (Rer. Div. Her. 96; Virt. 216; Abr. 270). It is no small task to attain this (Rer. Div. Her. 93); it is a prize that Abraham acquired (Migr. Abr. 44); it is associated with the virtue of piety (Migr. Abr. 44); and it is the best sacrifice to be offered to God (Cher. 85), who is the best possible truth and the most certain good.

In the New Testament. Here faith is intimately connected with salvation history. To believe in Christ means to accept and have faith in the events of His life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. It is to believe, not only that these events really took place, but, what is more important, to believe in the significance of these events for man's salvation. These truths were preached by the Apostles and disciples of Christ to men and women of all nations, who were called upon to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, in the design of God, a personal relationship came to exist between Christ and His followers. This relationship or attitude of mind is analogous to that which God unfolded in the OT with respect to His chosen people, where faith in God was often expressed in terms of loyalty, trust, and obedience. In the NT, faith means the acceptance and acknowledgment of Christ's existence here and now, as well as the submission of man's mind and will to Him as the cause of Redemption and eternal beatitude.

The LXX had already used the noun πíστις (faith) and the verb πιστεύειν (to believe) to translate the corresponding Hebrew words; the NT continued to use these words in the same way, but here they occur more frequently than they do in the OT. Classical Greek seldom employed these terms in a religious sense, except to indicate a belief in the existence of the gods. In the NT, to believe means to rely on, to trust, or simply to have faith (Mk 13.21; Jn 4.21; Acts 27.25; Rom 4.17). The noun faith can mean loyalty or trust as well as belief (1 Thes1.8; Phlm 6; Heb 6.1), just as the adjective πιστóς (faithful) can mean loyal or trustworthy as well as believing (Mt 25.21, 23; Lk 16.1011; 1 Tm 3.2; 3 Jn 5; Rv 2.10,13).

In the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. In the first three Gospels faith often signifies confidence rather than intellectual assent. The faith, for instance, that Christ demanded before performing a miracle was belief in His power and confidence in His goodness (Mk 5.24, 26; 9.2324). Such is the faith that He rebuked His disciple for lacking (Mt 6.30; 8.26; Mk 4.40; Lk 8.25) the faith that He praised in the centurion of Capharnaum (Mt 8.1). This kind of faith is able to work miracles (Mt 17.20; 21.21; Mk 9.23; Lk 17.6), and the lack of it prevents their performance (Mt 13.58; 17.20; Mk 6.5).

God is the primary object of faith (Mk 11.2223; Mt1.22); but faith in Him is intimately related to the mission of His Son in whom God is revealed (Mt 12.28). Thus, faith also in Jesus as the messiah and son of god is necessary. Belief in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God became the outstanding characteristic of the early Christians, who were called simply "the believers" (Acts 2.44; 4.32). Those who hoped to be cured by Jesus acknowledged His power and special relationship to God; they proclaimed Him the Son of God, at least in a broad sense (Mt 8.29; 14.33; Mk 1.24; 3.11; 5.7). Even demoniacs and unclean spirits called Him the Son of God or Messiah (Lk 4.41).

Faith is a free act on the part of man; i.e., it is within man's power to believe and be saved or not to believe and be judged and condemned (Mk 16.1516). On the first Christian Pentecost, many people believed the gospel and "accepted the faith" (Acts 2.41, 44; 6.7). Peter reminded the Jews that they must firmly believe in the divinity of Christ and His mission on God's word, which is more certain than human eyewitness, for God's testimony is greater than that of man (see also 2 Pt 1.1618).

On occasion, Jesus asked His disciples to acknowledge Him, i.e., to express their belief in His messiahship (Mt 10.3233; Mk 8.38). Faith in Christ means the remission of sins (Mk 2.5; Lk 7.4850; Acts 10.43; 26.18); it is a necessary condition for salvation (Acts 4.12; 16.31;11.17; 15.711). Faith in God or in the words of God was sometimes demanded because of His written testimony in the Law and the Prophets (Lk 1.20, 45; Acts 24.14;26.27; 27.25). Jesus insisted that the testimony of John the Baptist must be accepted and believed as well (Mk 11.31; Mt 21.32). As in the OT, faith in God meant an encounter with God, so also in the NT, to believe in Christ or "have faith" in Him means for the Christian to encounter God through Jesus Christ His Son. Even the enemies of Jesus who stood by His cross understood this truth, though they would not accept it (Mt 27.42). Christian converts believed the same (Acts 9.42; 16.31, 34;18.8), and above all others, St. Paul himself (Acts 22.19).

In the Pauline Epistles. One of the most strongly stressed teachings in the Epistles of St. Paul is the necessity of faith in Christ for salvationa firm, personal faith that leads a man to receive Baptism and thereby become incorporated into Christ. For Paul, the process of the faith consists in preaching, hearing, accepting, and understanding the gospel, which is the word of God. The faith preached by Paul was proclaimed all over the world (Rom 1.8; 10.17; 1 Cor 2.5; 15.1; 2 Thes 1.3, 5). In the language of Paul, to believe means to become a Christian (1 Cor 1.21; 3.5; 14.22; 15.23). While preaching is the contributing cause, faith is really effected by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2.45; 1 Thes 1.45). Faith is a free gift of God, and man therefore needs the grace of God if he is to be saved (Eph 2.8). To believe in Christ is to suffer with Him (Phil 1.29); it is the breastplate of the soldier of Christ (1 Thes 5.8) and a shield against all evil (Eph6.16).

The one true God is the object of faith (1 Thes1.89). Christ as man leads man to the knowledge of God, but Christ as God is the goal of the Christian's life (Rom 10.89; Gal 2.16; 1 Cor 3.2223; 15.24, 28; Phlm5). The motive for believing God is the testimony of God Himself (Rom 4.3, 2324; 1 Thes 2.13). There is only one true faith (Eph 4.5), to be defended against false teachers (1 Tm 6.12; 2 Tm 4.7), and one must be ready and willing to die for it (Phil 1.2730).

Faith in God means the Christian's conviction that God has been and always will be faithful to His promises, which He is all-powerful to fulfill. Therefore, the Christian believes that, since God has loved man and sent His Son into the world to redeem man by His sacrifice on the cross, God will raise the Christian from the dead as He has raised Christ from the dead (Rom 3.25; 4.325; 2 Cor1.9; Gal 3.6; 1 Thes 1.89) and that Christ will return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead (Rom 10.9; 1 Cor 15.114; 1 Thes 1.10; 4.14; 5.910). Faith is, therefore, first of all an act of man's intellect whereby he freely submits to the authority of God and confesses, at least implicitly, the truth of His divine testimonies (Rom 1.17; Gal 3.11; 1 Thes 2.13).

As an act of the will, faith demands that the Christian make his conduct conform with the teachings of the gospel; in this sense St. Paul often speaks of "obedience to the gospel" (Rom 1.5; 10.16; 2 Cor 10.5; 2 Thes 1.8). Christians are called upon to remain firmly grounded in the faith and to persevere in it (Rom 11.20; 1 Cor 15.2;16.13; 2 Cor 1.2324; 13.5; Col 1.23; 2.7; 1 Tm 2.15). Their faith must be a living one, of which Paul himself was a model (Gal 2.20; Ti 3.8; 1 Tm 5.8). It must be guarded and protected (Rom 12.3; 11.2022; 1 Cor 2.14; 2 Cor 6.1415; 1 Tm 1.19; 6.10). Faith can also be developed and perfected (Rom 10.10; 11.2022; 2 Cor 10.15; Eph 4.13; Phil 1.25; 2 Thes 1.3).

Faith is closely related to hope and confidence: "For we in the Spirit wait for the hope of justice in virtue of faith" (Gal 5.5; see also Rom 4.20; 5.12; 1 Thes 1.3;5.8; 1 Cor 13.13); and as one of the charismatic gifts (1 Cor 12.9; 2 Cor 8.7; see charism), faith inspires such confidence as to move mountains and perform miracles (1 Cor 13.2; cf. Mk 11.23). But faith also operates through charity and love (Gal 5.6, 2223; 6.810). Together with hope and charity, faith is one of the triad of virtues that have lasting value on earth and are the means whereby eternal happiness is attained (Rom 10.1315). However, along with hope, it will give way to the direct vision of God in the future life, where charity alone endures forever (1 Cor 13.13; 2 Cor 5.7).

Since Christ by His death and Resurrection reconciled man with God and effected man's redemption, faith in Christ and His redemptive work continues to reconcile sinners with God and obtain the forgiveness of their sins (Rom 3.25; 1 Cor 15.17). It is by faith, and not by the works of the Law, that man becomes just and holy in the sight of God (Rom 1.17; 3.28; 4.3; Gal 3.56; see justification). Faith, therefore, is the determining element of the Christian life and the characteristic mark of Christian unity (Rom 3.22; Gal 3.7).

In the Epistle to the Hebrews. Faith is defined in Heb 11.1 as "the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that are not seen." These words are commonly understood in the sense that faith gives the Christian the assurance ([symbol omitted]πóστασις) that his spiritual hopes will find fulfillment and the conviction (γεγχος) that the divine revelations that surpass knowledge derived from the senses are true. Faith, therefore, is the acceptance of God's word concerning both His promises and the truths He has revealed. The patriarchs and heroes of the OT, by their sufferings and even martyrdom, were exemplars of this faith that rests on God's word (Heb ch.11). Faith gave them the power and strength to bear adversity patiently. Faith enabled them, as it enables Christians, to grasp the fact that heavenly realities were created by God (Heb 11.3); without faith it is impossible to please God, and he who desires to come to Him must believe that He exists and is the rewarder of the just (11.6).

Faith is also an act of the will, as manifested by the exemplary obedience of those who were renowned for their good deeds and virtuous conduct (11.439). "Fullness of faith" provides the Christian with assurance of obtaining divine mercy and grace and to believe with unshaken confidence and perfect tranquility that heaven itself will ultimately be possessed (4.16; 10.2223). Confidence (παρρησíα), which has a great reward, must not be lost; it is the source of supernatural life in God (10.3538). Faith, therefore, inspires and stimulates Christians to orient their whole lives toward Jesus Christ, who is "the author and finisher of faith" (12.2).

In the Johannine Writings. Faith is a central theme in the writings of St. John. Although the noun "faith" occurs only a few times (1 Jn 5.4; Rv 2.13), the verb "to believe" is found frequently. According to St. John, believing is not only an act of the mind, assenting to revealed truths; it is also an act of man's free will. Yet, while man's moral disposition plays a role here, faith is a gift of God (Jn 6.37, 39, 64; 8.47; 1 Jn 4.6; 5.1), for no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws him (Jn6.44).

In a few instances, according to John, the object of faith is God (Jn 5.24; 12.44; 1 Jn 5.10), but more often it is Christ. To believe in Jesus means to accept Him as the Messiah (1 Jn 5.1); He was sent by the Father (Jn8.2829; 11.42; 16.2730; 17.2021), and He is the Son of God (3.16, 36; 6.40; 17.27; 20.31). Jesus said to Philip, "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" (14.1011). For John, Christ is the one mediator between God and man; He is the "light that has come into the world" (12.46), "the life" whereby everyone lives (11.2526), and the Savior of the world (4.42; 1 Jn4.14). Through and by faith the whole man is united to Christ; "to believe in Christ" (Jn 3.21; 6.35, 37, 4445) means to live His life (1 Jn 5.1012) and to partake of Him as food and drink (Jn 6.35, 50). Faith motivated by charity consists in observing Christ's commandments (1 Jn 2.35; 5.3; Jn 8.31, 51; 14.2123); to believe in Him means to acknowledge and obey Him (Jn 6.69; 10.38;16.30; 17, 78; 1 Jn 4.16). On the other hand, lack of faith in Him is sinful (Jn 16.9; 8.21, 24; 9.41; 15.2224) and leads to death and eternal damnation (3.18, 36; 5.24, 29). Through faith we become sons of God (1.12; 1 Jn 3.12) and heirs of the kingdom of heaven (Jn 3.1516, 36; 5.24;6.40, 50; 8.51; 11.2526). He who believes enjoys a foretaste of everlasting life even here on earth (3.18, 36;5.24), and Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, will raise up on the last day (5.26; 6.3940; 11.25).

The faith demanded of a Christian is inspired by the many miracles wrought by Christ in confirmation of His divine origin and mission (2.11; 4.53; 5.36; 9.33;10.2538; 11.42; 14.11; 15.24). Faith in Him springs also from His preaching, His predictions, and their fulfillment (2.22; 13.19; 14.29). Moreover, the justification of Christ's claims is attested by God the Father, John the Baptist, and the Scriptures (4.4142; 5.24; 6.6869; 17.8, 20; 1 Jn 5.10). Yet Christ Himself says that faith based on His word as preached by His Apostles is better than that inspired by the sight of His miracles (20.29; see also2.2324; 4.48). On the part of the believer, good works favor the acceptance of faith (3.21), whereas evil deeds, such as spring from pride and hypocrisy, hinder its reception and operation (3.1920; 8.44; 5.44; 9.41; 12.4243).

Finally, in the Revelation to St. John, Christ appears as the faithful witness of God's revelations (Rv 1.5:19.11); He is the "Amen" (3.14; 19.4), i.e., the affirmation that God's words are trustworthy (21.5). Christians who do not "disown the faith" (2.13) are united faithfully with Christ, the Lamb of God. If they have "the patience of the saints," keep God's commandments, "have the faith of Jesus," and "suffer and accept suffering as Christ did" (2.1013; 13.10; 14.12), Christ Himself will be their eternal reward (22.20).

Bibliography: p. antoine, Dictionnaire de la Bible suppl. ed. l. pirot (Paris 1928) 3:276310. r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 4:913917. f. baumgÄrtel and h. braun, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 2:158897. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adapt. l. hartman (New York 1963) 744750. a. gelin, "La Foi dans l'A.T.," Lumen Vitae 22 (1955) 432442. j. duplacy, "La Foi dans le Judaisme," ibid. 443468. p. benoit, "La Foi dans les évangiles synoptiques," ibid. 469488. m. boismard, "La Foi selon Saint Paul," ibid. 489514. p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456) 2:101103. r. bultmann and a. weiser, Faith, tr. d. m. barton, in g. kittel, Bible Key Words, v. 10 (London 1961) 133. p. heinisch, Theology of the O.T., tr. w. g. heidt (Collegeville, Minn. 1955) 4348. p. michalon, "La Foi, rencontre de Dieu et engagement envers Dieu, selon l'A.T.," Nouvelle revue théologique 75 (1953) 587600. j. lebreton, La Vie et l'enseignement de Jésus Christ, 2 v. (16th ed. Paris 1947) 2:471490. j. bonsirven, L'Évangile de saint Paul (Paris 1948) 177185, 198212; The Theology of the N.T., tr. s. f. l. tye (Westminster, Md. 1963). j. huby, "De la connaissance de foi dans St. Jean," Recherches de science religieuse 21 (1931) 385421.

[c. h. pickar]


Faith in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and in the official magisterium of the Church is treated next, and it is followed by the theological analysis of faith.

Patristic tradition. The Fathers of the Church were more concerned with the content of faith, the gospel of salvation, than with reflective analysis of the act itself. But this very concern with the content of the gospel determined their view of faith: the unwavering assent to the full, correct message of salvation as delivered by the Apostles and their authentic successors (cf. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 3, ed. S. Weber, Freiburg 1917; Basil, Moralia 80.22, Patrologia Graeca 31:867868). However, two parallel ideas contributed to a deepening theology of faith. In one, the apologete, explaining Christianity to an unbelieving world, insists that the gospel is accepted not out of credulity, but out of a reasonable and free commitment. Thus St. Justin (d. 165) devotes lengthy treatises to exposing the reasonableness of such commitment, especially in view of the patent fulfillment of prophecies [see prophecy (theology of)]. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215), living in the intellectual capital of the world, head of the first Christian school, advocates philosophy as a useful preparation for faith and proposes Christ as the "Teacher." At the same time, he inaugurates a thesis that becomes a commonplace with the Fathers, especially Augustine. He quotes the Septuagint version of Is 7.9, "unless you believe you will not understand," and notes that since belief precedes understanding even in natural education, it is fitting that knowledge of God should begin with humble acceptance of His revelation [Stromata 2.16, ed. T. Camelot and C. Mondésert, Sources Chrétiennes, ed. H. de Lubac (Paris 1941) 38]. Thus Christian faith is considered a reasonable, free act of commitment and acknowledgment. A second strain in patristic writing refers to faith as a gift of divine illumination. This stems from the sacramental liturgy, which even in its inception seems to have called Baptism "illumination" (e.g., Eph 5.14; Heb 6.4) and is often found in sermons explaining the baptismal creed (e.g., Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5, Patrologia Graeca 33:505524). Faith is not merely a natural prudential assent to the highly probable but a special gift of God whereby men are enlightened and share in the divine knowledge [cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 7, ed. G. Archambault (Paris 1909); Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 2.4]. Expressions like "eye of faith" or "light of God penetrating our soul" are common. Faith is not a leap in the dark, but a leap through the dark into light. It is, in fact, a refashioning of human intelligence to the Divine Wisdom and Word, Jesus Christ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Isaia 5.1, Patrologia Graeca 70:1188).

Both currents flow into the theology of Augustine. Deceived by the "presumptuous promises of reason" offered by the Manicheans, he learns that humble belief must precede knowledge. Yet, belief is reasonable and appropriate, for it is the intelligent acceptance of the report of a reliable witness, Christ, perfect Wisdom. His treatises in defense of the reasonableness and necessity of belief [e.g., On Faith in Things Unseen, ed. F. McDonald (Washington 1950); On the Utility of Believing, ed.J. Zycha, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 25:1] are complemented by the profound appreciation of the gift of divine illumination and inspiration expressed in the homilies on the writings of St. John [Tractate on Gospel of St. John 26.27, ed. R. Willems; Corpus Christianorum 36; On the First Epistle of St. John 3.13, ed. P. Agaësse, Sources Chrétiennes, ed. H. de Lubac (Paris 1941) 75]. Faith or belief, made perfect by love, grows into "luminous understanding" of divine truth.

Augustine bequeathed to subsequent theologians a terse definition of faith: "To believe is to think with assent" (On the Predestination of Saints 2.5, Patrologia latina 44: 962). Medieval theologians utilized this definition within the framework of Aristotelian psychology. These efforts were summed up and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology of faith will be incorporated in a subsequent portion of this essay (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 14; De ver. 14).

Teaching of the Church. The first official teaching on faith was issued by the Second Council of Orange in 529, and defined against the Semi-Pelagians that faith, although a free act, resulted, even in its beginnings, from the grace of God, illumining man's mind (cc. 57, H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 375377) (see semipelagianism). The teaching of Trent is better dealt with elsewhere (see justification). It is sufficient to note that this council makes it clear that the reformers' interpretation of faith primarily as trust in God's mercy and forgiveness departs from the traditional emphasis. Rather believers, "awakened and assisted by divine grace, conceive faith from hearing, and they are freely led to God. They believe that the divine revelation and promises are true, especially that the unjustified man is justified by God's grace" (Session VI, ch. 6; H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1512).

Vatican I. The most important and complete doctrinal statement on faith was issued by the Vatican Council I. This constitution De Fide Catholica was proposed as a remedy for two serious errors that had infected theology during the first half of the 19th century (see semirationalism; fideism). The constitution must be read with these errors in mind. It was intended to correct the perspective that they had distorted; it was not an attempt to gather all the elements involved in faith into a perfectly balanced, complete synthesis. The first two chapters of this constitution affirm the existence of God and His selfrevelation to men: first in His creation, then in the word that He spoke "in former days by the prophets, and in these days by his Son" (Heb 1.1). The fathers then state that created reason owes to this revelation of Uncreated Truth the complete homage of intellect and will by faith, (see revelation, theology of). Faith is then defined: "faith, which is 'the beginning of salvation,' the Catholic Church holds to be a supernatural virtue. By it, with the inspiration and help of God's grace, we believe that what He has revealed is true, not because of its intrinsic truth seen by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God revealing it, who can neither deceive nor be deceived" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3008).

Reason and Faith. The intention of the council was to distinguish clearly two orders of knowledge: natural knowledge called ratio, and supernatural knowledge called fides. This distinction is made first in terms of the source of knowledge or object of the mind: natural reason grasps truth by seeing the intrinsic evidence of things; faith does so in virtue of the authority of God revealing. This is the first definitive statement: faith is an act of real knowledge, but of an order essentially distinct from reason. The phrase "authority of God revealing" is expanded only by the words "who can neither deceive nor be deceived." This addition makes explicit the point that "authority" does not simply involve the submission of will to power in obedience, but more fully a submission of intellect to an infallible and omniscient witness. Thus the authority of God revealing is in some way a manifestation of His knowledge and veracity.

Second, the council distinguishes the two orders of knowledge by clearly indicating that faith is supernatural, that is, the virtue of faith and its acts are possible for man only by the grace of God. No one, it states forcibly (quoting the Second Council of Orange), "can consent to the gospel preaching, in the way he must to be saved, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit" (ibid. 3010). Clearly this faith is in the fullest sense a gift of God, not possessed unless given.

This insistence on the essential element of divine grace has three important consequences: (1) The acceptance of the authority of God revealing takes place only by illumination of the intellect by the Holy Spirit. This acceptance is not essentially the work of reason preceding the act of faith, but the work of grace within the very act itself. (2) The faith here spoken of is not only that faith which is informed with charity but "faith in itself," that is, the act of assent that can exist without sanctifying grace. Thus, even if faith is "dead," it is the result of actual grace. (3) The effect of grace is proportioned to the powers informed: intellect is illumined and will is attracted to the good. It seems then that one can say that grace is so necessary to this act that no miracle alone, not even a resurrection from the dead, can convince and complete belief [see miracles (theology of)]. If grace is lacking, the act of faith is not simply less certain or less easy; it is simply impossible. Divine grace does not merely make salutary a natural act of belief; it provides the very intrinsic possibility for faith.

Role of Reason. After such a drastic distinction between faith and reason in terms of object and ability, the fathers of the council might seem to be hard pressed to find any place for reason at all. But they do not hesitate to affirm that this faith, although distinct from reason, is still an intellectual act and that reason has a most important role in the preparation of our minds for faith. They are very realistic in saying this, for God has in fact willed to join to the internal aid of the Holy Spirit certain arguments and signs. These signsthe events of sacred history, miracle, prophecy, the marvelous figure of the living Churchall exist in the natural, visible order. They are open to the scrutiny of man's mind, and study of them will reveal the manifest work of God (ibid. 3010).

But even granting that God has provided such external signs of His revelation, what role can they possibly play in an act so utterly under the causality of God's action? The council does not dwell on this problem. It merely states that reason can render revelation credible (see faith and reason).

Summary. The principal elements of this dogmatic statement are (1) faith is an act of knowledge of an essentially different order from natural knowledge; (2) the distinction is one of nature and supernature; faith has as its formal object the authority of God revealing and can be made only with the aid of grace; (3) despite this distinction, faith and reason are in accord and, in fact, cooperate in the human act of response to revelation; (4) since faith is not the inevitable and mathematically unavoidable result of arguments, but due to concurrence and cooperation with grace, faith is a free act; (5) since reasons do not induce supernatural faith as its essential cause, a fortiori no reason is sufficient to induce infidelity; (6) faith is necessary for all men to be saved.

See Also: analogy of faith; apologetics; certitude of faith; faith and reason; gÜnther, anton; hermes, georg; hermesianism; mystery (in theology); preambles of faith.

Bibliography: r. aubert, Le Problème de l'acte de foi (3d ed. Louvain 1958). h. bars, The Assent of Faith, tr. r. halstead (Baltimore, Md. 1960). g. brunhes, Faith and Its Rational Justification, tr. w. a. spence (St. Louis, Mo. 1931). g. de broglie, "The Preambles of Faith," Theologie und Glaube 7 (1959) 4752. h. f. davis, "The Act of Faith: A Comparative View of Catholic and Protestant Theology," ibid. 1 (1953) 119122. j. mouroux, I Believe, tr. m. turner (London 1959). p. a. liÉgÉ, Catholicisme 4: 137097. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350), Tables générales (1951) 153771. r. schnackenburg et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 4:913931. c. h. ratschow, et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 2:15861611.

[a. r. jonsen]


The 20th century witnessed a move away from what some theologians regarded as an overly intellectual view of faith, according to which faith tended to be regarded as simply identical to the propositional content of the Church's dogmas. Theologians using the tools of personalist philosophy objected to a primarily intellectual description faith. The Second Vatican Council, reiterating the doctrine of Vatican I, emphasized that faith is a response of the whole person to God's free revelation (Dei Verbum 5). It also suggested that the lack of such a full response was one of the causes of the birth of modern atheism (Gaudium et spes 19). After the council, the theologies of liberation made a more direct challenge to the classical account of faith, objecting that it did not take account of the social aspect of faith. For a description of these developments in the late 20th century, see beliefs. The present article describes the form and act of faith.

From a semantic analysis of the Greek noun πíστιςand the Latin equivalent fides, faith in general is to be described as a firm persuasion whereby a person assents to truths that are not seen and cannot be proved but are taken on trust in the reliability of another. This descriptive definition contains two elements: one intellectual, namely, the firm persuasion, and the other affective or fiducial, which is the commitment of oneself to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of a witness. Though the affective element in faith is often stressed more than the cognitive, it is the latter that really takes priority. πειθω, in the passive voice, from which πíστις is derived, primarily means, as does the Latin credere, "to be persuaded," which points to an act of the intellect assenting at the command of the will for moral rather than severely intellectual reasons. Furthermore, any act of believing implies the acceptance of something as the truth, and truth is the proper object of the intellect, even though the intellect may assent to it under the influence of the will.

This general notion applies by analogy to believing what men say and believing what God says. In human dealings, one often takes ordinary truths and facts on trust in the reliability of the testimony of another human being. Such faith is a dependable source of much human knowledge as well as a necessary foundation for human relationships, although the noetic value of scientific knowledge strictly so called, is admittedly greater. Divine faith is the fiducial assent to revealed truth given because of the authority of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is always an infused, supernatural, and essentially mysterious gift, and consequently it cannot be fully comprehended, although it is capable of analogical explanation, and indeed an explanation involving strict analogy and not merely literary metaphor. The psychological elements present in human faith can be applied proportionately to divine faith. Divine faith cannot exist as reserved to the strictly natural order, although it is possible to assent to divine and revealed truth for merely natural and human reasons, but acquired and natural faith of this kind is not formally, but only materially, divine, as would be the faith professed by a rationalist or a formal heretic.

Specific concept of faith. A purely subjective explanation of the nature of faith based on a psychological analysis and phenomenological description of the act of believing is likely to lead, if the method is exclusive, to antidogmatic positions such as are implied by one or another of the following: (1) the purely affective commitment proposed since the time of Martin Luther by many Protestant writers who wished to dissociate themselves from the concept of faith-assent of Catholic theology; (2) a philosophical, rationalist concept of faith based on the criticism of I. Kant; (3) the semirationalist theory of faith proposed by G. hermes and A. gÜnther and condemned by Vatican Council I; (4) the fideist concept of faith proposed by L. E. bautain, or the traditionalist concept of A. bonnetty, both of which were also condemned by Vatican Council I; (5) the Modernist and immanentist concepts of faith; (6) the existentialist faith affirmed by S. kierkegaard and Karl Barth.

Catholic tradition recognizes these subjective aspects of the theology of faith and of the act of believing. However, its concept of faith is primarily objective, looking more to who and what is believed.

Formal object of faith. Since faith as such is an assent to truth, divine faith is an assent to First Truth (Veritas Prima ). This is its proper object. But three phases of truth can be distinguished: ontological truth, or veritas in essendo, which is identical with reality; logical truth, or veritas in cognoscendo, which is identical with intellectual knowledge; and moral truth, or veritas in dicendo, which is the conformity of the external locution to the known truth.

The formal object of Christian faith is God Himself, or First Truth in essendo, i.e., taken in the ontological sense. The formal object of any habit of knowledge is the particular aspect of the object that it primarily grasps and is the reason for all that it knows of the object. In the actual economy of salvation in which man is elevated to the supernatural order, the first thing that he knows supernaturally is God Himself, the First Truth in essendo, that is, God as He is in Himself, in His essence, His divinity, His innermost life, or briefly, to use the scholastic formula, Deus sub ratione deitatis. Although First Truth and the Deity as It is in Itself are abstract theological expressions of a kind that theologians often prefer to concrete ones because of their exactitude, they nevertheless mean God in the concrete, subsisting in three Divine Persons, as these, together with the sum of all divine perfections, have been revealed to man. Consequently God, the First Truth ontologically, is not only the First Truth believed (the primum credibile ) but also the formal object of faith in all the truths and mysteries that have been revealed. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, "nothing comes under faith except in relation to God" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 1.1). This is the common and constant doctrine of the Church. The first article of faith, with which in one form or another all the symbols begin and on which all the other articles are based, is: "I believe in God, One and Triune."

Formal motive of faith. The formal motive of faith is God Himself speaking, or First Truth in dicendo, as this connotes and implies First Truth in cognoscendo, or God's own knowing. Like faith itself, the motive of faith is complex and mysterious. Yet in its normal development two preparatory stages can be distinguished, each involving a cumulus of outer motives, before reaching the definite motive for the final assent of the act of believing. The initial dispositive motives, and these are normally indispensable, are to be found in the knowledge of divine revelation, both active and passive, acquired through the consideration of the preambles of faith and the evidences of credibility. This process is known as the resolutio apologetica of the motive of faith. In the second stage, also dispositive and normally necessary as preliminary to faith, one learns of the proposition of the revealed truths by the ordinary and solemn magisterium of the Church, which is the infallible rule of faith. This is known as the resolutio catholica of the motive. The magisterium, though an integral part of the situation for a Catholic, does not, according to a classical view from which St. Robert Bellarmine and others differ, form an essential component of the motive of faith; it does not decide why one believes, but rather why one's belief is committed to this credal statement rather than that: there is not, then, a specific virtue called "Catholic faith" distinct from "divine faith."

However, the ultimate and inner motive of faith is the authority of God Himself speaking, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, as was defined dogmatically by Vatican Council I (H. Denzinger, Enchridion symbolorum 3008, 3032). This is to be understood as distinct from the objective evidence on which natural, and even religious, knowledge of truth may be based. The dogmatic formula stating the proper and ultimate motive of divine faith agrees with the scholastic formula above, namely, that it is First Truth in dicendo, implying First Truth in cognoscendo. Thus faith is the firm assent at the command of the will and under the inward motion of God's grace to the saving truths and supernatural mysteries God has revealed, based on the infallible veracity of God's testimony, who cannot deceive (because He is infallibly true) nor be deceived (because He is omniscient). The teachings of the Scriptures are clear and emphatic on this matter. The revelation contained in the Bible carries with it the infallible guarantee of the veracity of the divine communication made to mankind through the patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Law and through Christ and His Apostles in the New. The infallible authority of this revelation is both preceptive, and consequently demands humble obedience, and also magisterial, and therefore demands a firm assent to all its teachings.

Integral object of faith. This includes all that God has revealed. Everything to which the formal motive of faith extends must be embraced by the integral object. The formal reason for believing is the authority of God, and this exists equally with respect to anything and everything that God has in fact revealed. "By divine and catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition, and those which are proposed by the Church, either by way of solemn pronouncement or through the exercise of her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed" (ibid. 3011).

[t. urdanoz/eds.]

Act of faith and its attributes. The theological treatment of the act of faith goes into the subjective and psychological aspects of faith to which reference was made above. St. Thomas analyzed the psychology of the act of faith with the help of St. Augustine's statement that to believe is to think (cogitare ) with assent (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 2.1; In 3 Sent. 23.2.1; De ver. 14.1). St. Thomas's analysis must be seen against the background of opinion on the subject among his immediate predecessors, none of whom had dealt with the problem with a comparable precision.

Peter abelard (d. 1142) contented himself with contrasting faith with scientific knowledge: one has knowledge with respect to things he sees, but faith is an intellectual act concerned with things not seen. Other theologians understood Abelard to mean that faith was to be classified with mere opinion. Hugh of Saint-Victor (d.1142) sought to supply the deficiency and defined faith as a kind of certitude of mind about absent things, stronger than opinion, but weaker than scientific knowledge. For him, the knowledge involved in faith constituted only its material element, the substance of faith consisting in the affective element of the firmness of belief (Patrologia Latina 176:35, 531). In this Hugh related faith to the other acts of the mind more broadly, and he made an effort to account for its certitude; but he made the mistake of identifying the act of faith with one of its properties. Alexander of Hales (d. 1245) used the definition of St. Augustine, but he isolated the term "assent" and understood the thought (cogitare ) to apply to the judgment prior to belief. St. Albert the Great also used Augustine's definition, but he did not try to unite the thought and the assent into a single act. The consideration or thought, he held, was not essential to the act of faith itself. It consisted in the search for motives of credibility or in the mind's reflection upon the truth already assented to (St. Albert the Great, In 3 Sent 23.3). Like Hugh, Albert saw faith as an affective act because of the lack of evidence for the assent. Faith has knowledge as the material element and the affective act as the formal part.

St. Thomas's Analysis. Faced with this confusion of opinion, Thomas had these things to attempt: the clarification of the relation between faith and the other acts of the mind; a satisfactory explanation of the certitude of faith; a more precise definition of the interrelated roles of intellect and will in the act of faith; and a clear-cut distinction between the intellectual activity preceding the act of faith, that involved in the act itself, and that following upon the act. Substantially he proceeds as follows:

The object of faith is truth. From this it follows that the act of faith belongs to the intellect, and in order to understand its proper nature, one must see it as an intellectual operation. But an act of intellect will either be an act of simple apprehension or an act of composition or division, i.e., an act apprehending the agreement or disagreement between concepts. By simple apprehension, concepts are formed of the natures of things, e.g., man, animal. In this act there is per se neither truth nor falsity, just as there is neither truth nor falsity in simple, incomplex terms. But, as has been shown, the object of faith, per se and formally, is truth; and consequently faith cannot consist in simple apprehension, but must be an act of composition or division, or, in other words, an act of judgment.

Now with respect to a judgment, the intellect may be either determined or undetermined. If undetermined, the indetermination may be negative, in which case there is nescience, and there is neither assent nor thought. Or the indetermination may be positive, as in the case of doubt, in which there is thought without assent and the mind fluctuates between contradictory alternatives.

The intellect determined in its judgment is determined either objectively or subjectively. If it is objectively determined, the determination will be either absolute and total or partial and dependent on some sign or indication of truth. The determination is absolute and total in the case of immediate or intuitive knowledge, in which case there is assent without need of consideration or thought. But the determination is also absolute and total when the knowledge is mediate, as in a conclusion arrived at by demonstration, and in this case there is assent following upon thought. But the determination is partial and incomplete, on the other hand, when the evidence is partial and incomplete. If the evidence is but slight, there is suspicion; if it is weighty but inconclusive, there is opinion, and the mind is inclined to accept one rather than another of contradictory propositions. In these cases, there is at most a limited assent coupled with continued consideration, because the mind is not at rest.

But the intellect may also be determined subjectively, by the choice of the will. Generally in this case the assent is a partial one, accompanied by a recognition of the possibility that one may be wrong. If this possibility is seen as considerable, the limited assent amounts to suspicion. If the possibility is seen as slight, there will be opinion.

So far could St. Thomas go with Aristotle's account of the psychology of judgment. He argued that in the act of divine faith there is a case of the will moving the mind to assent, but to a perfect and complete assent and one that excludes all deliberate fear of being in error. But how account for the perfection of the assent when the intellect is not determined by its proper object? St. Thomas admitted that the intellect cannot be intrinsically satisfied, except when determined by evidence it sees and that in the act of faith it is not so determined. Consequently, the mind's natural inquisitiveness is not set at rest. It remains unsatisfied because it does not see the evidence. Hence, faith essentially allows for reflective consideration, for search, for thought. The believer assents with full certitude, but his intellect is uneasy in the absence of its proper object. Even while it assents, its determination is from without. It is under constraint and continues to look for that which will set it at rest. This search does not result in assent, for the mind already has assented, with an assent caused by the will. The movement of the will is accounted for by the fact that assent appeals to the will as a good. St. Thomas explains the process thus: "Sometimes the intellect cannot be determined to either of the parts of a contradiction, either immediately by understanding the terms (as happens in the case of first principles), or mediately in virtue of the principles (as in the case of conclusions reached by demonstration). It is determined by the will, which chooses to assent to one of the parts because of a consideration sufficient to move it, but not sufficient to move the intellect, namely, that assent seems a good and fitting thing. And such is the disposition of the believer" (De ver. 14.1). This is true even of human faith, in which so often it is apparent that a man believes what he wants to believe, i.e., what seems good to him to believe. In the case of divine faith, the good that appeals to the will is the promise of eternal life.

Certitude and Inquietude of Mind. Does the intellect achieve its own good when it is determined thus by the movement of the will? Not immediately in the way most congenial to its nature, for it does not see. But this is more than compensated for by its elevation to an act far beyond the capacity of nature. An object is attained by the intellect through the assent, and in this object and in the certitude of this knowledge the believer's intellect is infinitely elevated above any other human knowledge.

The movement of the will, however, would be unreasonable and imprudent if the intellect were not moved to assent to something true. The will moves reasonably to assent only when a truth not evident is attested by competent witness. There must be evidence of credibility, reasonably satisfying in the circumstances to the mind; otherwise the will, moving the intellect to assent, would be misguided by an imprudent judgment of the mind.

From this one can see the meaning St. Thomas attaches to the thought (cogitatio ) in his interpretation of Augustine's credere est cum assensione cogitare. The thought is a sort of movement of the soul in search of truth it does not fully possess, a straining toward clarity of vision. This is to be carefully distinguished from the thought that precedes the act of faith, i.e., the search and inquiry of the mind into the motives of credibility. The cogitatio that belongs to the act of faith itself is the striving for understanding of the things believed and exists simultaneously with the assent.

The utter certitude of faith derives from the fact that the intellect in its assent surrenders itself to God, the First Truth, Subsistent Truth, the source and cause of all created truth. It would be contradictory for the mind to accept God in this light and at the same time to retain fear of error.

Therefore, faith is different from the understanding of first principles or the knowledge derived from demonstration in that, unlike these, its assent is not objectively determined; it is unlike subjectively determined opinion, or human faith, because its assent is not partial or hesitant, but is firm and certain. Hence, the act of faith is an act sui generis and, though analogous in some respects to other acts of the mind, is nevertheless reducible to no other act of mind or will.

Involved in this act, on the one hand, is the firmest adherence of the mind and, on the other, searching thought, because the mind's desire is not set at rest. Because there is assent, there ought to be truth for its object, and even truth that is in some sense evident. But because this truth is First Truth, inevident in itself, the mind still strains to see and know. And although it does not see, it nevertheless holds firmly to the truth and has no fear of error. Its perfect determination comes not from an object seen, but from the will. But because the intellectual appetite is not satisfied, the mind in itself is not at rest. In it at the same time are absolute determination and a certain stirring or ferment that comes of its want of satisfaction. There is an assent together with a restlessness of the mind, the assent implying the calm of something settled and fixed, the stirring of mind an inquietude. This antithesis is forced on faith by the character of its object: as true it is deserving of assent; as First Truth, supernatural and inaccessible in itself, it is altogether beyond the grasp of the human mind and hence remains obscure and unseen, and this explains the inquietude.

Supernaturality. Among the ancients, the Pelagians denied the essentially supernatural character of the act of faith and held that no internal grace was necessary either for belief or for progress in faith. The Semi-Pelagians taught that no grace was needed for the beginning of faith or the devout will to believe (pius credulitatis affectus ), although they did admit that grace was necessary for the complete act. A more modern variant of this error was introduced by G. Hermes and his disciples during the 19th century. They distinguished two kinds of faith: the faith of knowledge and the faith of the heart. The first they understood to be speculative in character, and to coincide more or less with what theologians commonly call fides informis, or dead faith, i.e., faith not informed by charity. It was their contention that such faith could be the effect of natural demonstration. But for faith of the heart, which was living, practical faith (fides formata ), or faith informed by charity, they acknowledged grace to be necessary. Among the Modernists there were those, on the other hand, who tended to deny the need of grace even for faith of the heart, for they looked upon faith as a sense activated by a need for the divine hidden in the subconscious, without the intervention of any judgment of the mind.

According to Catholic teaching, grace is necessary: for the act of faith and its increase (against the Pelagians); for the beginning of faith and the devout will to believe (against the Semi-Pelagians); for fides informis, inasmuch as this is supernatural and the gift of God and not the fruit of demonstration (against Hermes). The theological explanation is based on the supernatural character of the mysteries, which are altogether beyond the grasp of natural reason, to which faith assents; reason must be elevated to be capable of grasping them, and this supposes grace. Moreover, the proper effect of faith, which is to initiate supernatural justification and the life of sanctifying grace, is essentially supernatural and demands therefore a supernatural cause.

Reasonableness. Faith is acceptable to reason in the sense that reason perceives the mysteries to which it assents to be worthy of belief. Some have exaggerated the function of reason in faith to the point of identifying faith with knowledge. Such was the mistake of Hermes, Gunther, and J. frohschammer during the 19th century. Others have fallen into the opposite error of minimizing the role of reason, to the extent even of claiming that faith is a blind action or movement of the mind. Fideists, traditionalists, Modernists, and others adopted this view in different ways. For fideists, speculative reason can know nothing with certainty. Everything must be held on divine faith, which thus becomes the supreme criterion of truth, even in philosophy. Traditionalists held that reason is impotent so far as the knowledge of religious truth is concerned. Others have maintained that such is the debility of the mind in its apprehension of religious truth that one must look to practical reason and feeling as a basis for faith, thus emphasizing the volitional character of faith at the expense of the intellectual. Some have gone to the length of attributing credibility as well as faith to grace alone, and have conceived rational credibility of a purely natural kind as impossible.

On the other hand, a contrary extreme of opinion is represented in post-Reformation apologetics, which came, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, to place a great (and some think an undue) emphasis on the function of reason in the steps preparatory to the act of faith [see G. De Broglie, "La vraie notion thomiste des praeambula fidei, " Gregorianum 34 (1953) 341389]. The motives of credibility tend to become arguments concluding with certainty to the truth of revealed doctrine. One "proves" the fact of revelation, and with this established it is difficult to see how the act of faith that follows remains a free or necessarily supernatural act.

All Catholic theologians agree that the truths of faith are worthy and deserving of belief and that this credibility is objectively apparent simply in the natural light of reason, though sometimes it may happen that special grace and the interior assistance of the Holy Spirit may help an individual to come to a sound judgment of credibility on grounds that seem objectively insufficient to justify it. Not only can rational evidence precede the act of faith, but it should. To believe without adequate evidence would be rash. The judgment of credibility is required by man's rational nature, and to believe without it could not be accounted virtuous. There is evidence available to provide grounds for a morally certain judgment of credibility, and in the normal approach to the act of faith there should be as much consideration of that evidence as is necessary to reach such a judgment.

But there is a noteworthy difference among Catholic theologians in their understanding of the nature and object of the judgment of credibility. The earlier theologians, and particularly the Thomists, did not understand the investigation preceding the act of faith as aimed at a certain judgment with regard to the fact of revelation, but at demonstrating the moral fitness and necessity of accepting that fact by faith. It was considered as essentially a prudential judgment, and not one in which the assent of the mind is compelled by the evidence. If this view makes it possible to lay less stress on the demonstrative value of one's thought on the preambles of faith, it does not on that account make the foundation of faith less secure. The certainty and security of faith does not come from the certainty of the reasoning that precedes the act of faith. The act of faith, as St. Thomas saw it, remedies any weakness in one's grasp of the truth of God's existence, and it will also compensate for any insufficiency there may have been in one's perception of the evidences of credibility. "Faith, considered in itself, sufficiently embraces all things that accompany, follow, or precede it" (In 3 Sent. There is an incomparably clearer perception of credibility that is the effect of faith, than any that could be had by natural argument. "The faithful see them (the things that are of faith), not as by demonstration, but by the light of faith that makes them see that they ought to believe them" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 1.5 ad 1).

Liberty. When Christ preached the gospel, not all believed who saw the miracles and signs. Some of those who heard Paul preach became believers, and some did not (Acts 17.3234). In fact, faith is invariably represented in the Scriptures as a free, meritorious commitment made to God. That it is essentially a free act was defined by Vatican Council I (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1814). The assent of faith, to be prudent, must be justified by evidence. But the evidence of the motives is not what causes the will to move the intellect to its assent. The act of faith is not in any sense the conclusion to an apodictic syllogism. It is essentially a supernatural thing. The evidence of credibility may indeed be established with moral certainty. But the assent of faith must rest upon a supernatural motive, and to see this motive as supernatural the mind must be enlightened and given a power of perception that it does not have by nature, and the will must be made capable of responding to the attraction of supernatural good. This is effected by grace. But the enlightenment of mind is not such as to compel assent, and grace leaves it within the power of the will to submit itself freely to God's authority.

Certitude. The assent of faith follows upon what is recognized as the divine certification of a truth, and it is, moreover, vivified by a divine grace. From this it follows that the adhesion of the mind to the truth accepted in this way has a firmness greater than can be achieved through the operation of the ordinary laws of thought. There is, consequently, a strength in divine faith, when this is compared with natural opinion, belief, and knowledge, that is altogether unique. Its certitude rests upon a supernatural motive, and as such it is of its nature greater than any natural certitude, even that which is called metaphysical (see certitude). Scientific certitude may indeed have a greater element of indubitability about it; it is possible to doubt a truth of faith, since faith is a free act, while it is impossible to doubt that which is scientifically evident. But as long as one adheres to the proper motive of faith, he has stronger and more trustworthy reason for believing than he has for assenting to the truth of what he sees or has apodictically demonstrated.

Necessity of faith. The act of faith is a contingent fact and does not of its nature require existence. Inquiry here is therefore concerned with hypothetical necessity, or the kind of necessity that arises in consequence of a desire to achieve some end, the end in question being the attainment of salvation. Hypothetical necessity in the strict sense is the necessity of something needed to make the attainment of an end possible, but in a looser sense a thing is sometimes called necessary that merely facilitates the attainment of an end that could, absolutely speaking, be attained without it. In this context, one is concerned with hypothetical necessity in the strict sense, and asks therefore whether the act of faith is strictly necessary to salvation.

In discussing the necessity of anything to salvation, theologians distinguish between a necessity of means and one of precept. There is a necessity of means when the end cannot be obtained without it. The nexus between means and end may be founded on the very nature of the two, as when sanctifying grace is said to be necessary for salvation; or it may be founded on the fact that God has so ordained it, as when Baptism is said to be necessary for salvation. When there is necessity of precept, the means are, by divine prescription, indispensable to the attainment of the end, but provided one is aware of the obligation of employing the means in question and provided also that it is not physically or morally impossible to employ them.

A few theologians, seeing an analogy between the necessity of faith and that of Baptism and pointing to the sufficiency, acknowledged by the Council of Trent, of Baptism of desire when Baptism of water is impossible, have argued that the desire of faith will suffice for salvation. A few others, among whom was Juan de ripalda, though he advanced the opinion more for the sake of discussion than for the purpose of defending it as true (De fide 17.10.145), have taught that faith in the broad sense (fides late dicta ) in some circumstances can be sufficient for salvation. By faith in the broad sense they understood natural knowledge of divine and moral truth, acquired from natural sources, but supernaturalized, so to speak, by the help of grace given by God to evoke and to assist the natural processes of reason.

The question is concerned with the necessity of the act of faith. There is no need to inquire about the necessity of the habit, the infused virtue itself, because this must always exist when there is sanctifying grace (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1528, 1561). The act is evidently not necessary to baptized infants who die before reaching the use of reason, for these are saved through no act of their own. The question therefore concerns adults, i.e., those who have reached the use of reason and are morally responsible for their actions.

The Scriptures declare faith as an act to be necessary, and the necessity is clearly one of means. "My just one lives by faith. Faith is the substance of things to behoped for, the evidence of things that are not seen.By faith we understand that the world was fashioned by the word of God without faith it is impossible to please God. For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek him" (Heb 10.3811.6). The faith in question is actual faith: "By faith we understand." That it is a necessity of means appears in the words "without faith it is impossible to please God" (cf. also Mk 16.1516; Gal 2.16). This doctrine has been repeated by the councils. Trent declared faith to be "the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1532). Vatican I repeated this in the following words: "And since without faith it is impossible to please God, and to attain to the fellowship of His children, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification; nor will anyone obtain eternal life, unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end. And that we may be able to satisfy the obligation of embracing the true faith, and of constantly persevering in it, God has instituted the Church" (ibid. 3012; this passage is also quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 161). In these last words at least there is reference to actual faith, but this faith in the context is so closely associated with the faith without which it is impossible to please God the faith, in other words, that is necessary by a necessity of meansthat it is impossible not to identify the two. Furthermore, the necessity of the act of faith for adults not yet justified is declared by the Council of Trent by its inclusion of this act among the steps necessary to justification (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1525,1532). It is de fide that actual faith is necessary, by a necessity of means, to the salvation of adults not yet justified.

It cannot be said that the declarations of the councils refer only to the need of faith, without specifying its object as natural or supernatural, and that therefore the assent with the grace of God to religious truths known through natural reason might satisfy the necessity for those to whom revealed truth has not reached. In 1679 Innocent XI condemned a proposition stating the sufficiency of faith in a broad sense (ibid. 2123), and Vatican Council I expressly declared that the faith that is the beginning of man's salvation is a supernatural virtue, whereby inspired and assisted by the grace of God, man believes that the things He has revealed are true because of the authority of Him who reveals them. Therefore the council spoke only of the faith that falls under faith's proper motive, and its object therefore must be revealed truth qua revealed.

Similarly, the desire or intention of faith is not sufficient to satisfy the necessity affirmed by the councils. The parallel between the desire of Baptism and the desire of faith will not permit the conclusion that faith in desire can be enough. The desire of Baptism is already an act of supernatural charity, and as such it produces its effect. But the desire of faith is not an act of supernatural charity. Moreover, a person with faith can wish, explicitly or implicitly, to be baptized, and yet be prevented by circumstances from having what he wants. Faith, however, is an internal act, and its desire cannot be frustrated in the same way. If a person seriously wants to believe, he can believe.

Necessity of explicit belief. The necessity of believing something explicitly follows as a corollary from the necessity of the act of faith. In any act of faith, something must be believed explicitly, because one cannot believe anything implicitly without some explicit belief in which the implicit belief is contained. Post-Tridentine theologians not only regard it as de fide that there must be some explicit belief, but also that two truths, namely, that God is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb 11.6), must be explicitly believed. It is important that the two truths mentioned be understood in a super-natural sense, that is, as referring to God the author of grace, and to God who holds out a supernatural reward to those who seek him. This is clear from the context in the Epistle to the Hebrews. St. Paul said that one coming to God must believe these truths, and to believe in this immediate context has a precise meaning, for just a few verses before faith is defined as the substance of things hoped for, etc. The things hoped for, the things not seen, are supernatural. They constitute eternal life, which is supernatural beatitude of a kind that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human heart has conceived (1 Cor 2.9).

At all times belief, at least implicit, in the mysteries of the Incarnation and Trinity, is necessary for salvation; and since the Council of Trent, theologians generally add that this is necessary by a necessity of means. "He is that stone, rejected by you, the builders, that has become the chief stone at the corner. Salvation is not found elsewhere; this alone of all the names under heaven has been appointed to men as the one by which we must needs be saved" (Acts 4.1112; cf. Gal 2.16). Before the coming of Christ, implicit faith in these mysteries sufficed for ordinary men at least, but with the full revelation of grace, explicit faith became necessary. It has been debated among theologians whether explicit belief in the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Redemption is necessary by a necessity of means or of precept. Before the great voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, the orbis terrarum in the popular consciousness of Europeans was the circle of lands about the Mediterranean. It was possible for men to think that the gospel precept "Going, teach ye all nations" had been more or less adequately fulfilled and that people everywhere had been given a satisfactory opportunity to consider the claims of Christianity. Hence, earlier theologians found no difficulty in reconciling the need of explicit faith with God's mercy and His will respecting the salvation of all men.

But when the geographical discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries had made Europeans aware of the existence of vast numbers of human beings to whom no word of Christ could possibly have reached through the agency of natural causes, there was a renewed interest in the question of the possibility of salvation for those who had never heard of Christ. There arose, in particular, a controversy concerning the necessity of explicit belief in the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity, and this point has continued to be debated down to the present time. The argument concerns a point of considerable subtlety on which the scriptural evidence is not conclusive, and the whole issue has been more than a little beclouded by ambiguities caused by different senses given by different authors to terms used in the discussion. It is generally admitted by theologians that any view taken on this question is a matter of opinion, and views are advanced by their proponents not as certain, but only as probable, or at most as more probable.

Explicit belief necessary by precept. All theologians agree as to the existence of a divine precept obliging men to believe the truths of the Christian religion. As affirmative, this precept obliges people to learn explicitly and to accept the principal truths of the faith; as negative, it forbids disbelief in any revealed truth. The existence of this precept is evident from the fact of revelation itself. If God communicates truth, it is that men might believe, and to refuse belief is to withhold the honor due to divine wisdom and truth. It is stated explicitly in the Gospel: "Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe, shall be condemned" (Mk 16.1516).

Nevertheless, it is admitted that every man is not obliged to know and believe all revealed truth explicitly. This would not be possible. It is enough that some revealed truth be believed explicitly, and the rest be accepted implicitly in some general proposition such as "I believe all the truths which God has revealed and which the Holy Catholic Church believes and teaches." To some extent the obligation of explicit belief is a relative one. Those responsible for the instruction of others in the faithpriests, parents, teachers of religionare obliged ex officio to have a more extensive knowledge of the faith. The well-educated and those who enjoy positions of prominence or leadership in their communities are also expected to have a more thorough instruction in religious truth, partly as a precaution against the dangers to which their faith will be exposed if their religious education does not keep pace with their culture in other matters, and partly because to them is directed more particularly the injunction of St. Peter to be ready at all times with an answer to those who may ask an account of the hope that they cherish (1 Pt 3.15).

The obligation of explicit belief is not altogether relative and variable. There is an absolute minimum to which any normal adult is obligated. In the common opinion of theologians, this minimum includes: (1) Truths necessary to right thinking about Christ and the work of Redemption, or in other words, the truths contained in the Apostles' Creed. That this is obligatory is evident from the constant practice of the Church in requiring an explicit profession of belief in these as a preliminary to Baptism. (2) Truths necessary for right living: the Ten Commandments, the special duties of one's state in life, the laws of the Church that everyone is required to observe. (3) Knowledge of the means of sanctification: the Our Father, the Sacraments that are received by everyone, i.e., Baptism, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, and the other Sacraments when there is occasion to receive them.

The obligation to have explicit knowledge of the above is considered to be grave. There is also an obligation of precept arising from the common custom and practice of the faithful to know the sign of the cross, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Creed, and the Commandments by heart, but this is not generally held to bind gravely. Parents and those responsible for the instruction of others are gravely obligated to teach their charges those things necessary for them to know, either by a necessity of means or of precept.

Bibliography: c. mazzella, De virtutibus infusis (Rome 1884). c. pesch, Praelectiones dogmaticae, 9 v. (4th ed. Freiburg 191022), v. 8. l. billot, De virtutibus infusis (Rome 1905). p. lumbreras, De fide (Rome 1937). a. liÉgÉ, "Faith" in The Virtues and States of Life, ed. a. m. henry (Theology Library 4, Chicago, Ill. 1957) 159. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961). s. harent, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 6.1:55514; 7.2:17261930. j. b. bainvel, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, v. 5 (Paris 191122) s.v. "Fidéisme," "Foi." j. a. de aldama, "De virtutibus infusis," Sacrae theologiae summa, 4 v. (Madrid 19581962) 3:46219. m. scheeben, in Wetzer und Welte's Kirchenlexikon, 12 v. (2d ed. Freiburg 18821901) 5:616674. r. aubert, Le Problème de l'acte de foi (3d ed. Louvain 1958). a. stolz, Glaubensgnade und Glaubenslicht nach Thomas von Aquin (Rome 1933). m. d. chenu, "La Psychologie de la foi dans la théologie du XIIIe siècle," Études d'histoire littéraire et doctrinale du XIII e siècle 2 (1932) 163191. b. duroux, La Psychologie de la foi chez s. Thomas d'Aquin (Tournai 1963). g. de broglie, Pour une théorie rationelle de l'acte de foi (Paris 1955). k. rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, v. 2 (Einsiedeln 1957) 994, 115141. j. maritain, La Signification de l'athéisme contemporain (Paris 1949); Approaches to God, tr. p. o'reilly (New York 1954). j. mouroux, I Believe: The Personal Structure of Faith, tr. m. turner (New York 1959). m. l. guÉrard des lauriers, Dimensions de la foi (Paris 1952). m. c. d'arcy, The Nature of Belief (New York 1931, new ed. St. Louis 1958); Belief and Reason (London 1944). j. h. newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (New York 1870; pa. 1955). i. forest, "The Meaning of Faith," Thomist 6 (1943) 230250. j. c. murray, "The Root of Faith: The Doctrine of M. J. Scheeben," Theological Studies 9 (1948) 2046. j. pieper, Belief and Faith (New York 1963). h. u. von balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (London 1968). john paul ii, Fides et ratio (Vatican City 1998). a. r. dulles, Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (New York 1994).

[p. k. meagher/eds.]


views updated May 23 2018


FAITH , in probably the best-known definition of it, is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Although this definition itself comes from the Christian scriptures, specifically from the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, it can, mutatis mutandis, be applied across a broad spectrum of religions and religious traditions. Whether or not the term faith appears in those traditions is, at least in part, a matter of how various terms are translated into modern Western languages. More importantly, however, faith is used, even in Judaism and Christianity (where it has been the most successfully domesticated), to cover an entire cluster of concepts that are related to one another but are by no means identical. If there is truth in the contention that faith is the abstract term with which to describe that attitude of the human mind and spirit of which prayer is the concrete expression, then one or more of these concepts may probably be said to play some part in every religious tradition, and in that sense at least, "faith" may likewise be said to appear there. Hence an enumeration of these discrete concepts, each of them in some way a synonym for faith, may serve to provide, if not a logical definition, then at any rate a cumulative description, of it.


In its most fundamental meaning, faith has been defined as faithfulness, and as such, it has been taken as an attribute both of the divine and of believers in the divine. The Latin adjective pius, for example, was used in Vergil's Aeneid to describe pius Aeneas or pius Achates, but it also appeared there in such a phrase as pia numina to characterize the reciprocal fidelity that the gods manifested in their dealings with human beings; something of both senses, presumably, attached to the word when it became a standard part of the official title of the Roman emperor, most familiarly in the case of Antoninus Pius (r. 138161 ce). Pius went on having both meanings also in postclassical Latin, as the usage of the "Dies Irae" attests. The reciprocity implied in the concept of faith when predicated of human social relations, where (as in the notion of "keeping faith" with someone) "faith" has become almost synonymous with "loyalty," has carried over likewise into its use for the divine-human relation. Wherever the gods were said to promise something in that relation, faith would seem to be an appropriate term for their keeping or fulfilling the promise. Converselyand much more customarilyit was the appropriate term for the loyalty or "fealty" (that English word is indeed derived, via medieval French, from the Latin fidelitas ) that the gods in turn rightly expected of mortals. In those religions in which the initiates received a mark on their body as a sign of their special bond with the divine, these marks have often been seen as a pledge and a reminder to those who wore them that they were expected to remain faithful to the terms of that special bond. The consequences of a breach of faith-as-faithfulness formed the basis for practices of discipline, punishment, and in most traditions possible reinstatement, though only after a period of purgation and testing (see "The Community of Faith," below). Even where the other connotations of "faith" discussed below have appeared to predominate, this emphasis on faith-as-faithfulness, both divine and human, has never been absent, pertaining as it does to the very concept of adhering to the practices, structures, obligations, or beliefs of any particular way of having faith. When it has been divorced from some or all of those other connotations, however, faith-as-faithfulness could all too easily be reduced to the formalism and external propriety that the prophets and critics in many religious traditions have attacked.


Faith as faithfulness has expressed itself not only in loyalty but in obedience, yet obedience has meant even more than faithfulness. The precise content of such obedience has varied enormously with the content of what was perceived to have been the divine will or law. Obedience, therefore, carried both liturgical and moral connotations. An imperative to reenact, periodically or once in a lifetime, the acts of the divine model required the obedient and meticulous observance of the demands that those acts had placed upon the believer. Initiation into the faith involved learning the specific methods of such ritual observance, with rites of passage frequently serving as the occasion for such learning. Where the divine will was conceived of as having laid down rules not only for ritual actions but for ethics, the obedience of faith meant moral behavior in conformity with divine commands; thus in Hinduism, dharma as moral law required righteous conduct. Ordinarily there was no explicit antithesis between ethics and ritual action, which together were the content of authentic obedience, often enjoined in the same gnomic saying or story. But the declaration of the prophet Samuel in the Hebrew scriptures, "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Sm. 15:22), articulated the awareness, which other religions have shared with Judaism, that faith-as-obedience was above all a compliance with the moral imperative. Presupposed in those words was the belief, central to Judaism, that the moral imperative had been made known in the historical revelation of the word of God to Moses, and through him to the people of Israel. But they have been no less applicable in those religious and philosophical traditions that have emphasized the inner imperative of conscience rather than the outer imperative of law as the norm of ethical action: Here, too, faith has been above all obedience, in Immanuel Kant's formula, "the recognition of all our duties as divine commands." Even where faith has been defined primarily as trust or as worship or as creed (see below), obedience was inevitably a constitutive element of it.

Faith and Works

The definition of faith as obedience, and yet as somehow not reducible to obedience, points to the perennial and unavoidable problem of the relation between faith and works. On the one hand, even the most theocentric versions of faith have found themselves obliged to assert, often in self-defense against the charge that they were severing the moral nerve, that they were in fact reinforcing ethics precisely by their emphasis on its vertical dimension: It has been a universal conviction of believers, across religious boundaries, that "faith without works is dead." On the other hand, those religious systems that have appeared to outsiders, whether critical or friendly, to equate faith and works and to be indifferent to any considerations except the "purely" moral ones prove, upon closer examination, to have been no less sensitive to the dialectic between works and faith. Especially since the Enlightenment, Western critics of traditional supernaturalism have taken Confucianism as the ideal of a religion that eschewed metaphysical subtleties to concentrate on the one thing needful, and they have either criticized traditional Western religions for not conforming to that ideal or reinterpreted them in accordance with it. For in the Analects Confucius repeatedly professed ignorance about the mysteries of "Heaven" and avoided discussing the miraculous phenomena in which conventional faith had sought manifestations of supernatural power; even the question of personal immortality did not admit of a clear and definite answer. Rather, he concentrated his attention on works of piety and of service to others, preferring generosity to greed and virtue to success. All of this Confucius (like many other religious teachers) called "the way," but it is an unwarranted modern reductionism to see in this attitude a moralistic preoccupation with works alone, at the expense of "faith." For "Heaven," which he said had "infused the virtue that is in me," was the authentic source of the works themselves, as well as the ultimate foundation for the serenity that made the works possible. The faith of Confucius may have been less detailed than that of some teachers in its information about the ontological status of "Heaven" and similar speculative questions, but he knew and expressed a confidence in its providential care as the basis for the works with which he and his disciples were to serve the will of "Heaven."


Such a confidence in the providential care of "Heaven" underlies the definition of faith-as-trust. In the classic formulation of Martin Luther, "to 'have a god' is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart," because "it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that makes both God and an idol" (Large Catechism ). Many of the conventional metaphors for the divine in various traditions, from "rock" and "mountain" to "mother" or "father," have served as representations of the conviction that "the trust and faith of the heart" could appropriately be vested in such an object, and that the divine object would prove worthy of human trust. Conventional practices like divination and prayer may likewise be read as expressions of the belief that the divine willif it could once be known, or perhaps even if it was mysterious and ultimately unknowabledeserved trust. The historic triad of faith, hope, and love (best known from the New Testament, but paralleled elsewhere) has made it necessary for expositors to clarify the distinction between faith and hope as they were both applied to the expectation of future blessings. However, the definition of faith-as-trust has been a way of focusing such expectation on the reliability of divine providence in both prosperity and failure: For good or ill, the ways of the divine will could be counted on, even though the details of their specific intent might not be discernible at any given moment. Such faith-as-trust even in the inscrutable goodness of the divine order presupposed a pattern of divine guidance in the past, which made it safe to conclude that there would be a continuity of such guidance into the future. Historically as well as psychologically, therefore, it is difficult to conceive of faith-as-trust in the absence of such a pattern, be it the outcome of the individual's own cumulative autobiography or of the history of the community to which the individual has come to belong (or of both). Once established on the basis of this pattern of divine guidance, faith-as-trust has implied that the vicissitudes of the moment could not, or at any rate should not, undermine the confidence that ultimately the object of that trust would be vindicated. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, "Faith is a profound sense of security in regard to both the present and the future; and this assurance springs from confidence." In the choruses of the Greek tragedians or in the reflections of the Muslim mystics or in the discourses of Job, the ambiguities and difficulties of such confidence in the face of concrete reality have served to deepen the understanding of trust and to transform Pollyanna-like optimism into mature faith-as-trust.


This combination of mystery and reliability in the divine will, even after that will has made itself known, has introduced into the definition of faith the element of dependence and submission. For if obedience to the divine will was the completion of the circle of faith in the moral realm, dependence on the divine will was the way faith-as-trust affirmed the relation of human weakness to divine power. In those traditions in which the divine has been seen as creator and/or preserver, faith-as-dependence has been, in the first instance, an affirmation of the origin and derivation of humanity and of its world; in those traditions that have tended not to distinguish as sharply between "being" as applied to the divine and as applied to human beings, dependence has been the basis for identifying the locations of both the divine and the human within the "great chain of Being"; in those traditions that have emphasized the recurrence of patterns known to be embedded within the very structure of the cosmos, dependence has made it possible for the community and its individual members to participate, through myth and ritual, in such patterns; and in those traditions that have interpreted human history as the arena in which the will and way of the divine could above all be discerned, dependence has employed the recitation of the decisive events in that history to reinforce the sovereignty of God as the one who was active and knowable within, but always transcendent over, such saving and revelatory events. Thus in Islam (a term that is commonly translated into English as "submission," but that might perhaps as well be translated as "dependence"), the saying of the Qurʾān, "God causes whom he wills to err, and whom he wills he guides; and you shall assuredly be called to account for your doings," gave voice to the Prophet's conviction that the believer must depend on the divine will regardless of circumstances, but that such dependence did not preclude human accountability. In Islam, the Five Pillars of Faith were the specific moral and cultic duties for which every Muslim believer would be held accountable, yet the first two Pillars (the recitation of faith in the oneness of God and the daily prayers) were declarations of the paradoxical affirmation that God was not dependent on creatures or their performance of these duties but would be sovereign regardless. That paradox has been central to the definition of faith-as-dependence in many religious traditions, with theories ranging all the way from thoroughgoing determinism to apparent moralism (for example, to use the terms familiar to the Western tradition, all the way from Calvinism to Pelagianism) as efforts to come to terms with both poles of a dialectical truth.


In one way or another, each of these definitions of faith has been derived from faith-as-experience. For even the most transcendent notions of the mystery of the divine will have, by their very act of affirming the mysteriousness of that mystery, laid claim to an experience in which the individual believer or the community tradition has caught a glimpse of just how mysterious the divine could be. Although mystics and prophetsand, following their lead, historians and philosophers of religionhave often spoken of such experiences in isolation from the continuum of human consciousness, that is not, of course, how they have actually occurred. From the biographies of seers and saints it is obvious that these experiences often came in response and in reaction to specific moments of exaltation or depression, in feverish intensity or in the excitement and release of love and death. That inseparability of faith-as-experience from all the other experiences of life has persuaded some observers of the phenomenon to see it as in fact the sublimation and "supernatural" reinterpretation of an essentially "natural" event. Ludwig Feuerbach, both as historian and as philosopher, penetrated deeply into this aspect of faith-as-experience; and Freudian psychology has been especially successful in explaining religious experience in its relation to the totality and complexity of how the human mind has attempted to cope with all the data of its experience. But in opposition to the reductionism that has frequently been represented as the only acceptable conclusion from this quality of faith-as-experience, the philosophical interpretation of religion, systematized perhaps most effectively by Rudolf Otto, has sought to identify what was distinct about this experience even if it was not separate from other experience. Otto's formulation, which has since become all but canonical, is "the experience of the Holy." He called it "a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion," and declared that "there is no religion in which it does not live as the real innermost core, and without it no religion would be worthy of the name." Yet precisely because faith's experience of the holy has upon further reflection come to include the recognition of its inherent ineffability, the language of faith has drawn upon other experienceaesthetic, moral, intellectualto be able to speak about the unspeakable at all.

The Community of Faith

In the sacred literatures of religious faith, faith-as-experience has often been described in highly individualistic terms: How the poet or prophet has come to know the holy in personal experience has dominated how he or she has described that experience for others, so that they in turn, one at a time, might also come to share in such an experience and duplicate it for themselves. Individualism of that kind underlay, for example, the recurring definition of religion as "what one does with one's solitariness." Except for passing moments of intense mystical rapture, however, such individualism has been shown to be illusory. And except for occasional glossolalia, the very language in which the individual has spoken about faith-as-experience has been derived from the history of the community, even when that language has been aimed against the present corruption of the community or when it has been directed toward the founding of a new and purer community. When examined in its total context, moreover, it becomes apparent that the individualized experience of faith has repeatedly taken place during or after corporate worship: The setting of the private vision has often been the temple itself; or when the vision has come in the solitude of the desert or in the privacy of the soul, it has come as a consequence of participation in the ritual of the temple or as a response to instruction in the lore of the community's tradition. Just as the distinction between the experience of faith and general human experience has engaged the interest of psychologists of religion, so sociologists of religion have probed the connection (in the formulas of Joachim Wach) between "religion and natural groups," as well as then the "specifically religious organization of society." The community of faith, as coextensive with the family or tribe, has conferred its authority on that social organization in marriage, war, and commerce, and has derived its sanctions from it in turn. Then exclusion from the believing community was identical with ostracism from the natural community. But with the more sophisticated identification of the specific nature of faith has come a distinction between the two, often through the emergence of an ecclesiola in ecclesia as a more precisely delineated community of faith or (using a pejorative word in a nonpejorative sense) a "sect."

Faith and Worship

The community of faith has always been a community of worship; in fact, worship has been far more explicitly a part of its definition than has faith. Western observers of "primitive" societies have sometimes been prevented from recognizing this, either (as in the case of some Christian missionaries) by too particularistic an understanding of worship or (as in the case of some modern anthropologists) by too reductionistic an understanding of ritual. One of the most important scholarly sources for the new and deeper recognition of faith-as-worship has been the investigation of the interrelation between myth and ritual: Myth came to be read as the validation, in the deeds of the ancients or of the gods, of what the ritual now enjoined upon believers; and ritual acquired a new dimension by being understood as not merely outward ceremonial performed ex opere operato but as the repetition in the believers' actions of what the myth recited in words about the divine actions that had made the world and founded the community. Amid an infinite variety of ritual forms and liturgical prescriptions, therefore, worship has defined "faith." For example, the fourth and last of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as formulated by Gautama Buddha himself was the recognition of the methods by which the believer could overcome the inner yearning for pleasure out of which the misery of dukkha sprang. Similarly, the eighth and last part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism consisted in proper meditation, which was inseparable from the first seven. Methodologically, the task of discovering the specifics of the faith expressing itself in a particular worship ritual continues to challenge the ingenuity of historians of religion, as is manifested by their disputes over the meaning of (to cite an example present in several traditions) the ritual of circumcision. Even the widely shared assumption that the ritual antedated the myth, which in turn antedated the theological explanation of both, must be modified by the repeatedly attested rise of new rituals out of the composition of the myth or after the adoption of the theological doctrine. Yet in the absence of any verifiable statistical data it does seem a safe generalization to suggest that, even more than faith-as-obedience to a moral imperative or commandment, faith-as-worship has defined faith for most of the human race through most of its history. Even the term orthodoxy, which has acquired the meaning "right doctrine" in most of the languages where it appears and which carries that meaning also when it is used in a secular sense for political or literary theories, really means "right worship," as the Russian translation of the word, pravoslavie ("the right way to celebrate"), demonstrates.


Yet orthodoxy does mean primarily "right doctrine" now, and one of the definitions of "faith" is "credo" (which is the Latin for "I believe"). Because so much of the history and interpretation of world religions has been the work of Christian thinkers trained in the doctrinal theology of the several Christian churches, early scholarship in "comparative religion" regularly consisted of a review, doctrine by doctrine, of what the various religions were perceived as having taught. As often as not, such reviews were organized according to the schema of categories devised by Thomistic or orthodox Lutheran and Reformed systematic theologians, even, for example, in so sensitive a treatment as Karl Friedrich Nägelsbach's Homeric Theology (1840) and Post-Homeric Theology (1857). The artificiality and arbitrariness of imposing these categories from the outside on literary and religious traditions having an integrity of their own led later generations of scholars to employ greater caution in claiming to have discovered "doctrinal" meanings (in the sense in which Christian theology spoke of "doctrines") in non-Christian religions, even sometimes in postbiblical Judaism. Significantly, however, one outcome of the tensions that have arisen between various of those religions and modern thought (see "Faith and Knowledge" below) has been the development, within the traditions themselves and at the hands of their own faithful devotees, of something very like systematic doctrinal theology, which has included comparative judgments about their relation to other traditions and their "doctrines." As already suggested, nevertheless, the definition of faith-as-credo has been especially prominent in Western and Christian thought.

In medieval usage, for example, the Latin word fides must commonly be translated as "the faith" rather than simply as "faith," because it referred in the first instance to the content of what was believed (fides quae creditur ) rather than to the act of believing (fides qua creditur ), and specifically to one of the orthodox creeds of the church, generally the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed; once defined, orthodox doctrines were binding de fide, by the authority of the faith. To "have faith," then, meant first of all to "hold the faith" as this had been laid down in the apostolic "deposit of faith" and legislated by church fathers, councils, and popes. And even the repudiation of the medieval system by the Protestant Reformation, a major plank of which was Luther's elevation of faith-as-trust over the Roman Catholic faith-as-credo, still retained, and in some ways even intensified, the insistence on right doctrine, a knowledge of which and an assent to which were the necessary presupposition for a correct faith-as-trust.

Faith and Tradition

Acceptance of a "deposit of faith" has implied some notion of tradition as that which has been traditum, first "handed down" and then "handed on." Although the thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment drew a sharp distinction between "traditionary religion" and "natural religion," vastly preferring the latter to the former, it was in fact only the former that was to be found in the history of religion; eventually even the "natural religion" of the Enlightenment acquired a certain traditional content and was transmitted from one generation to the next by way of an intellectual tradition. "Traditionary religion," therefore, has defined itself and its faith on the basis of received tradition. The myth of how holy things have happened; the ritual of how holy acts were to be performed; the rules of conduct by which the faithful were expected to guide their lives; the structure through which the holy community was founded and governed; the doctrine by which the community gave an account of the myth and ritualall these expressions of faith have been the subject and the content of the holy tradition. In all those religions that have ascribed normative status to a holy book, the question of faith-as-tradition has taken a special form, as they have sought to deal with the question of the relation between the revelation in the book, as given once and for all, and the continuing revelation in the tradition. Reformers in each of those groups have drawn an antithesis between the purity of the original scripture and the accretions of later tradition, which needed to be expunged, while defenders of tradition have posited a continuity between the scripture and the tradition, sometimes by characterizing them as "two sources of revelation" but sometimes by describing the ongoing tradition as the process through which the properly validated authorities had gradually made explicit the content of the faith already implicit in scripture. Thus a twentieth-century Russian Orthodox thinker, Vladimir Lossky, defined tradition as "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the natural light of human reason." By setting faith into the framework of such a theory of tradition, Lossky and his counterparts in other faiths (who could have used much of the same language, substituting other proper names) have sought to combine the static view of tradition as a "deposit of the faith" in the past with a dynamic view of tradition as "living faith" in the present and future.

Faith and Knowledge

Whether it has been interpreted as a second channel of revelation for faith or as the development of a truth already implicitly present in the original deposit of faith, tradition has been a way of knowing the truth. Faith, therefore, has been taken to be a species of knowledge, differing from ordinary knowledge by its superior claims: An arcane character, a transcendent content, privileged channels of communication, or divine certainty (or all of the above). So long as such claims remained publicly uncontested, faith could stand as objectively sure, even when subjectively the individual believer might question or doubt it. There is no reason to suppose that such existential questioning and doubting have ever been absent from the experience of faith, and plenty of reason to find evidence of their presence in the artifacts and literary remains of various religious faiths from the past. What has made the situation of religious faith in the present unique, however, is the gravity and the universality of the tension between faith and knowledge. One by one, each of the world faiths has been obliged to confront the competing truth claims not only of other faiths, as it had perhaps done before, but of other forms of knowledge that seemed to render any faith-as-knowledge, regardless of which faith was involved, superfluous or absurd. The identification of faith with accounts of miracles and similar wondrous events that a later generation has found to be, quite literally, incredible has undermined the authority of the faith itself. Orthodox methods of harmonizing away contradictions in the authoritative tradition through allegory or a theory of multiple meanings have not been able to withstand the pressures of the historical method of dealing with the tradition. The discovery or invention of alternate means of dealing with those crises of life and needs of society for which faith had served as the divinely prescribed cure relegated it to a secondary status as a superstitious nostrum still needed only by those who did not know any better. When Immanuel Kant said in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that he had "found it necessary to deny knowledge of God, freedom, and immortality in order to find a place for faith," he was speaking for believers in many traditions who have salvaged faith by making it invulnerable to the claims and counterclaims of knowledge; but in so doing, they have also brought into question most of the other functions of faith. At the same time, the very challenge of knowledge to faith has produced a clearer understanding both of faith's relation to other aspects of human experience and of its distinctive meaning and power.

See Also

Doubt and Belief; Knowledge and Ignorance; Obedience; Orthopraxy; Physics and Religion; Tradition.


Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. London, 1854.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. London, 1928.

Heiler, Friedrich. Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion. Oxford, 1932.

Hügel, Friedrich von. The Mystical Element of Religion. 2 vols. London, 1961.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, 1902.

Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God. Scarsdale, N.Y., 1974.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. New York, 1928.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Faith and Belief. Princeton, N.J, 1979.

Söderblom, Nathan. The Living God: Basal Forms of Personal Religion. Oxford, 1933.

Wach, Joachim. Sociology of Religion. Chicago, 1944.

Jaroslav Pelikan (1987)


views updated May 18 2018


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)


views updated May 29 2018


In the United States, "faith" generally connotes two things: (1) a religious tradition, such as the "Christian faith" or the "Jewish faith," and (2) belief in or devotion to a particular religion, tradition, or ideology.

According to the first sense, there is no single American faith. In contemporary America, it is more appropriate to speak of "faiths" rather than of "faith." All major world religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—can claim significant numbers of adherents in the United States. In addition to these classical traditions of both East and West, American religion includes a wide variety of new religions and homegrown faiths, from the tribal religions of Native Americans to Mormonism to the Nation of Islam. The 1993 edition of The Encyclopedia of American Religions lists 1,730 different religious organizations grouped into 19 families; 10 are Christian, 9 are not. While the United States has always been a religiously diverse nation, the scope of that diversity has broadened since the end of World War II. Faith in contemporary America may take a remarkable number of forms.

In the second sense, adherents of various religions are understood to "have faith" in the distinct doctrines, beliefs, and practices of their tradition. Faith is a quality of commitment or belief. Thus Jews have faith in the Hebrew God as expressed through Jewish tradition, kinship, and righteous living. Buddhists, who may or may not believe in a God or gods, have faith in a body of wisdom and practices that provide spiritual well-being and compassion. Muslims have faith in God as revealed in the Qur'an through the Prophet Muhammad. In the United States this definition of faith is nearly universal and malleable. Even those who hold no organizational affiliation may consider themselves people of faith. Outside of religious traditions, some might profess "faith in humanity," "faith in nature," or "faith in America." Indeed, having faith has sometimes been identified with the American character. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower was said to have commented, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don't care what it is." Because of such diversity and its porous nature, faith may be expressed in terms of family or ethnic tradition, personal conversion, intellectual assent, institutional membership, existential experience, social service, worship, ritual, or sacramental practice.

For all its generality in contemporary culture, however, Protestant theology and ideology still color the word "faith." In spite of national religious diversity, Americans have been overwhelmingly Protestant. Although the percentage is lower than in the past, roughly two-thirds of all Americans still profess Protestantism. Their theological and cultural understandings of "faith" have shaped much of the nation's religious ethos.

For Christians, faith means believing in a triune God embodied in Jesus Christ and known through biblical revelation. Faith has tended to mean assent to certain doctrines, particularly those beliefs surrounding the person and mission of Jesus. But understandings of faith throughout church history have not been static. The word "faith" has meant many things; most are interpretations of the simple New Testament definition, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Differing definitions of faith have often led to internal Christian conflict.

Two major arguments about the nature of faith have shaped American religious history. The first argument sparked the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Late medieval Roman Catholics believed that faith involved human and divine cooperation. God offered the grace of faith to humankind primarily through the vehicle of the church's sacraments. People, in turn, could accept God's gracious gift or reject it. If they cooperated with God's grace in the Mass, baptism, and other sacraments, they would grow in faith and might one day merit a heavenly reward. Those who rejected or fell from the grace offered by the church were faithless and could expect to be damned.

The German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued that faith was solely and completely God's work. Faith was not a result of any human action. It was a disposition given to sinful humans as a gift from God. A person with faith could recognize that God was his or her savior, God having justified (made right) the sinner to enjoy a holy life and eternal bliss. Early Protestants understood that faith resulted in trust and gratitude—attributes both given by and directed toward God. Luther argued that the Catholic view, that justification followed a faithful life, was incorrect. Rather, he believed that God first justified men and women, and a faithful life of gratitude and Christian service followed. The repercussions of Luther's reformation of faith included a greater emphasis on the laity, the elevation of the Bible over tradition, and the diminishment of priestly authority.

Luther's insights brought into focus much of the religious and social discontent of his day. In the following 150 years, various forms of Protestantism took hold in most of northern Europe, and these early Protestants founded the colonies that would become the United States. Only small numbers of Catholics settled in the eastern seaboard colonies; Protestant pluralism dominated the embryonic nation's religious culture. As in Europe, the issue of the nature of faith divided Protestants and Catholics—along with a host of related concerns about the church and religious authority. In early America, however, historic Protestant ideals—such as the belief that faith should be discerned by the individual rather than mediated through the church—won the day. Elements of this broadly Protestant worldview still influence American culture.

A second argument over the nature of faith also affects contemporary religion. In the eighteenth century, an intra-Protestant debate caused deep divisions within traditional Protestant communions. Many of the early reformers stressed the personal experience of faith. First-generation Protestants often recorded dramatic spiritual transformation along with their intellectual conversion to Protestant doctrine. Such fervor, however, was difficult to maintain. Succeeding generations of Protestants tended to locate faith in the mind. Thus faith was assent to certain dogma such as justification by faith alone and the rejection of papal authority. Serious and sober Protestant piety emphasized catechesis (doctrinal instruction), holy living, and good deeds. By 1700, most Protestants understood faith in scholastic and moralistic terms.

Some radical Protestant groups rejected these views in favor of a more experiential style of faith. This impulse, known variously as Pietism, Puritanism, or evangelicalism, castigated traditional Protestantism as "dead orthodoxy" and sought to "reform the Reformation." Although differing in particulars, these movements shared a concern for "heartfelt religion" and emphasized the human ability to know God through the senses. They envisioned churches full of "lively piety," places where all believers would lead devoted and earnest spiritual lives. The heart, not the head, was the seat of faith.

In Europe, traditional Protestant churches often persecuted these minority groups by charging their leaders with heresy, limiting their ability to preach, and jailing the overly zealous. Many advocates of Pietism fled to the colonies. From Puritans and Separatist Baptists to Moravians and Methodists, America proved fertile ground for the new style of purified Protestantism. Throughout American history, traditional, churchly Protestantism clashed with pietistic Protestantism, but rarely with more flair than during the ministry of George Whitefield (1714–1770). In the eighteenth century, Whitefield's dramatic, consumer-oriented revivalism spread the message of heartfelt faith across the colonies and spurred other evangelists to do the same. In midcentury, the conflict between the two styles fueled much religious conflict and caused a number of denominational splits. Partisans of the "Old Light" (the traditionalists) and the "New Light" (the evangelicals) vied for authority and popular support. Although the victory was neither easy nor complete, those on the side of heartfelt faith came to dominate American religion for the next century and a half.

Protestant conflicts over faith have had profound effects on American religious life. Arguments over faith have led to near-continuous denominational schisms and internal questions regarding the appropriate practice of piety. Some denominations, such as the Episcopalians and the Lutherans, struggled with the issue of how much they should adapt to the prevailing pietism. In the case of the nineteenth-century Episcopal Church, two church parties—the High Church and Evangelical parties—created their identities around the question of adaptation. High Church Episcopalians sought to retain Anglican sacramentalism; evangelical Episcopalians saw themselves as dignified revivalists. The first understood faith as tradition and liturgical devotion; the second understood it as conversion and personal piety.

The question of adaptation also affected non-Protestant religions. In the nineteenth century, Roman Catholics borrowed from evangelical Protestant styles and created parish missions intended to kindle personal devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Reform Jews adopted ideals of Protestant church organization and social concern. Muslims argued that their faith promoted the greatest social equality and liberty of the individual conscience. Religions that had little or no missionary concern in their native setting became more zealously evangelistic in the United States. American Protestant converts to other religions often—and successfully—used Protestant categories and practices to "Americanize" seemingly "foreign" religions. Thus, for many religious groups, the practice of faith—or even adopting the language or category of faith—took on Protestant overtones. While some of the impulses for reform within these religions were rooted internally, American Protestantism shaped these changes as they became enculturated.

Although American understandings of faith grew from theological conceptions, the term has broader civic connotations as well. Faith often refers to hope for or optimism regarding the future—especially the future of the nation and the potential of the American people. Political institutions carry religious or semi-religious national aspirations. Americans speak of "faith in democracy" or "faith in the president." This broad definition is rooted in generalized, and often romanticized, Protestant culture. For much of American history, faith formed an intrinsic part of the nation's creed and mission as God's new Israel. Protestant Christianity—and eventually a wider range of religions—allowed Americans to place themselves in cosmic history and participate in God's biblical plan. So while individual Americans were expected to have personal faith in God and a particular religion, generalized faith grounded civil piety and nationalism.

However important as a theological and a civic ideal, faith fell out of favor in some circles in the twentieth century. After the Civil War, secular philosophies and the natural and social sciences offered explanations for human history and the nature of the universe that were alternatives to those of traditional biblical accounts. Contrary to previous American expectations, faith and learning were in tension with one another. Some faith traditions, such as liberal Protestantism and Reform Judaism, adapted to the new learning. Others, however, resisted. Faith became equated with dogmatism, fundamentalism, and ignorance. The conflict between biblical traditionalism and secularism led to a diminishment of public expressions of personal faith in certain social classes and elite cultural institutions such as universities. Although most Americans no doubt continued to have faith, particularized faiths—especially pietistic faiths—were perceived as threatening to the common good.

In 1957, Harvard theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) redefined faith as "ultimate concern." Anything—nationalism, materialism, sexuality—that offered "the fulfillment of one's being" was faith. Tillich pointed out that everyone, even those cultural elites who scorned traditional religion, had faith. Whether faith is rightly placed in the God of justice or misplaced in human selfishness, Tillich believed faith to be the dynamic of human history. Tillich's definition of faith as ultimate concern influenced academics and church leaders. It widened the circle of what counted as faith, giving scholars and believers access to the category once again without the associated dogmatism.

When the twentieth century began, many scholars believed that religion would wither in the face of the secular onslaught. By Tillich's time, however, it had become obvious that this analysis was incorrect. Since World War II, the United States has experienced a dramatic series of religious renewals—from the upsurge of mainline religion in the 1950s and 1960s to the evangelical revivals of the 1970s and 1980s and the spirituality boom of the 1990s. Although not without eliciting some controversy, sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have argued that the United States is more religious now than in the past.

In the instance of contemporary movements, however, most (but certainly not all) believers have been careful not to define faith too narrowly. Mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and Jews tempered dogmatism with liberal learning and social activism. Evangelicals, often wrongly construed as rigid fundamentalists, abandoned many of the moral taboos of earlier generations and engaged broad political and social issues. The language of spirituality and spiritual journey, a kind of neomysticism, has given many people a faith without the baggage of institutional religion or doctrine. Thus, while the number of faiths was multiplying and the United States was becoming more obviously diverse, American citizens were less reluctant than their grandparents to "have faith" in something and to express it in the public arena. From the faith of the Puritans to the millennial pluralism of faiths, redefined by and constantly defining the culture, Americans see faith as part of their national birthright.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Civil Religion; Creeds; Evangelical Christianity; Mainline Protestantism; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Secularization; Tillich, Paul.


Albanese, Catherine. America: Religions and Religion, 3rd ed. 1999.

Campbell, Ted A. The Religion of the Heart: A Study ofEuropean Religious Life in the 17th and 18th Centuries. 1991.

Corbett, Julia. Religion in America, 3rd ed. 1997.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching ofAmerica: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy,1776 –1990. 1992.

Marsden, George. Religion and American Culture. 1990.

Melton, Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions. 1993.

Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers: The SpiritualJourneys of the Baby Boom Generation. 1993.

Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith. 1957.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in AmericaSince the 1950s. 1998.

Diane Hochstedt Butler Bass


views updated May 21 2018


Faith as the heart of religious adherence is chiefly a Christian concept and a matter of Christian self description that has been used in the West to describe not only Christianity but other religions as well. In many other religions there are strong analogies to the Christian concept of faith, but they are still by and large analogies. Thus, this entry will deal with the Christian concept of faith and only analogously with other religions.


Faith would appear to be one of the chief problems in the relations between science and religion. Not only do Christians believe certain things that appear to conflict with scientific accounts of the world, and that are in principle inaccessible to scientific method, it is a theological virtue and necessity to believe them. To believe certain things about God (credere Deo ) is to believe them because one believes God (credere Deum ) (i.e., because one believes what God says and reveals because God is God); and one is willing to do that because one believes or trusts in God (credere in Deo ). This is according to the definition of Augustine of Hippo (354430), reiterated by Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274). According to them, it is this sort of faith, never mere belief, that defines a Christian. As Augustine observed, the devil believes the same things as the saint but cannot, of course, be considered to have faith because the devil does not trust in God. The reformers Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) did not use this same formula; both, however, insisted that Christian faith always involved an inner element of trust and assurance. Never was it mere belief of facts or propositions.

Explanation or virtue?

This way of stating the problem, by stressing the inner aspect of faith, has not always been emphasized in debates over faith since the Enlightenment. Beginning with John Locke (16321704), who certainly had the ground prepared for him by others, and continuing through David Hume (17111776), philosophical and even theological concern with the concept of faith has largely been, with a few exceptions such as Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) and John Henry Newman (18011890), over what is believed. Such a perspective assumes that religious beliefs are formed in much the same way as scientific beliefs or that religious beliefs answer to the same sort of inquiries as scientific beliefs. In this case, religion is assumed from the outset to be an explanation for, say, how the world came to be; as such it competes directly with scientific accounts. It can then be assessed on the same methodological bases as scientific accounts. Locke, for example, thought Christian beliefs were credible because, he argued, one could (1) demonstrate that God exists and (2) have reason to believe what God had revealed whenever the propositions proposed for belief were attended by miracles, which served as evidence of their divine origin. Once one had such good reasons for belief, one could give one's will to propositions about God. Hume did not dispute this approach; he simply argued that one cannot demonstrate the existence of God and that miracles, though possible in principle, were never actually believable because they were, by definition, violations of what is normal. Thus, he argued, one should always be skeptical about miracles and reports about miracles.

Although Christians, on the Augustinian understanding, certainly confessed numerous objective beliefs about God, it was the inner virtue of trust that was paramount; trust was always prior to belief, and always linked to it. For Locke and Hume and the philosophical tradition after them, however, the relation between outer confession and inner trust is reversed: One ought not to give one's assent to God until the evidence dictates it. Even then, faith should be proportioned to the degree of certitude possessed by the evidence. Whether faith that is formed by certain or even highly probable chains of reason is actually faith is, of course, disputable, for there is no special personal virtue in committing oneself this way. Neither is there anything to be discovered by faith since the assent depends entirely on external evidence, accessible in principle to anyone who does not have faith.

On this account, then, faith and science would be comparable. Both are seen as explanations, and both depend on comparable sorts of evidence, giving answers to the same sort of inquiries. For example, religion and God might be considered explanations upon inquiry by early human ancestors into "how we got here." If primitive people were concerned by human and cosmic contingency and felt the need to explain it, so too are modern people, but they have much higher standards, such as the ones that Locke and Hume proposed. Or so the argument goes.

However, neither Jews nor early Christians actually seemed much given to this sort of speculation about cosmic origins. Rather, they conceived of their relations with God in much more personal categories. Since their relations with God were personlike, they required personal sorts of concepts for discussing matters about God, and such concepts require certain personal virtues, such as openness, loyalty, truthfulness, and love. These factors are central in the Augustinian definition of faith, where what is believed is important, but what is more important is the inner, personal nature of faith. In Christianity this inner aspect of faith was never meant to be static; faith was considered to develop and transform the believer through the exercise of the personal virtues. According to the biblical witness, this is a transformation whereby a person in faith is "in Christ" and Christ is in the believer. Faith is thus theologically never a set of beliefs simpliciter about God and Jesus Christ; it is the very means by which God dwells in the lives of the faithful. It is important to recognize that much of what is believed about God, as in the analogous case of believing things about other human beings, can only be discerned by those whose developing life in faith equips them with the proper sensibilities. These sensibilities rarely include the epistemic distance and methodological indifference that scientific inquiry requires. These sensibilities require the thinker to put his or her own thoughts into question.

A holistic approach to faith

To approach faith in this way can cause one to reconceive many (but not all) of the problems commonly thought to exist between science and religion. If the heart of faith is a personal openness and an ongoing moral and spiritual transformation of the thinker, then there is a certain shift in the weight given to faith's "what is believed" when one considers the relations between science and religion. To be sure, the objective beliefs of faith are never irrelevant to faith; nevertheless, if the thinker who holds them is in the process of transformation, surely what is believed is continually subject to ongoing interpretation. Any literalism that suggests that a human thinker enjoys a God's-eye view is not tenable. Furthermore, insofar as faith stretches itself to see the world as God created it and seeks to reproduce itself through the rational teaching of others, it is not innately unscientific, unmethodical, dogmatic, or credulous. It can invite method, freedom of opinion, and critical judgement. Barring therefore any definitive reductionism by science, discussion between faith and what science proposes may always be open ended.

In addition, many of the personal habits and dispositions required for faith may contribute to the personal habits and dispositions needed by scientists who want to do cooperative research with intellectual integrity. Insofar as faith requires deep self-reflection on the moral stance of the thinker and on the purposes of human knowledge gained by research, and insofar as it causes the scientific questioner to put him or herself into question, it may even cause one to look at how science contributes or does not contribute to overall human flourishing, including aesthetic, moral, and spiritual flourishing, since science is a function of beings for whom these things are vital.

If, however, approaching faith in this Augustinian way lessens the need for direct confrontation with science over one's specific beliefs about the world, it also raises what may be a deeper problem, namely, the difference in the way faith and scientific method think and imagine. Newman suggested that if faith's appeal to the human mind should ever be overcome, it will not be because faith has been out-reasoned, but because the human mind has lost the ability to imagine itself approaching the world by any method other than the scientific, and because it must always provide explanations of the sort provided by science, for which a distanced and impersonal approach is required. This would result, in the poet T. S. Eliot's phrase, in a "dissociation of sensibility" whereby faith's native imaginative means and sensibilities for dealing with the world and human life are replaced with other incommensurate sensibilities, thus effectively overcoming faith.

See also Atheism; Christianity; Spirituality


allen, diogenes. christian faith in a postmodern world: the full wealth of conviction. louisville, ky.: westminster/john knox press, 1989

aquinas, thomas. on faith: summa theologiae, 22, qq. 116, trans. and ed. mark jordan. notre dame, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1990

aubert, roger. le problème de l'acte de foi, 3rd edition. louvain, belgium: publications universitaires de louvain, 1950.

augustine. homilies on the gospel of john. in vol. 7: the nicene and post-nicene fathers (first series; 18861889), ed. philip schaff. reprint, grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1974.

buckley, michael j. at the origins of modern atheism. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1987

dulles, avery. the assurance of things hoped for: a theology of christian faith. new york: oxford university press, 1994.

kierkegaard, søren. philosophical fragments; johannes climacus (1844), trans. and eds. howard v. hong and edna h. hong. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1985.

kierkegaard, søren. concluding unscientific postscript to philosophical fragments (1846), trans. and eds. howard v. hong and edna. h. hong. princeton. n.j.: princeton university press, 1992.

louth, andrew. discerning the mystery: an essay on the nature of theology. oxford: oxford university press, 1983.

newman, john henry. an essay in aid of a grammar of assent (1870). westminster, md.: christian classics, 1973.

smith, wilfred cantwell. belief and history. charlottesville: university press of virginia, 1977

springsted, eric o. the act of faith: christian faith and the moral self. grand rapids. mich.: eerdmans, 2002

wolterstorff, nicholas. john locke and the ethics of belief. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press. 1996.

eric o. springsted


views updated May 18 2018


Few notions elicit more debate and vague associations than the family of concepts associated with the word faith and its various approximate synonyms (e.g., belief). Needless to say, the English faith has no exact equivalent in the languages of Asia. The word means many things in English and in other Western languages as well, and the proximate Asian equivalents also have many meanings in their Asian contexts. This is not to say that faith cannot be used as a descriptive or analytical tool to understand Buddhist ideas and practices, yet one must be aware of the cultural and polemic environments that shaped Buddhist notions of faith.

Semantic range

The most common English theological meanings are the ones that have the most questionable similarity to historical Buddhist belief and practice: acceptance of and secure belief in the existence of a personal creator deity ("belief in"), acceptance of such deity as a unique person with a distinctive name, the unquestioned acceptance of this deity's will, and the adoption of the articles of dogma believed to express the deity's will. Buddhist notions tend to occupy a different center in the semantic field: serene trust, confident belief that the practice of the dharma will bear the promised fruit, and joyful surrender to the presence or vision of one or many "ideal beings" (buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc.). The articles of belief and systems of practice that constitute the Buddhist path are seldom set up explicitly as direct objects of faith, but confessions of trust and declarations of commitment to various aspects of the path are common ritual practices (taking the refuges, taking vows, etc.).

The objects of faith can be all, any, or only one among the multiple buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities of Buddhism. Nevertheless, Buddhists often confess their total trust in a particular deity or buddha or bodhisattva identified by a unique name and by personal attributes that are considered distinctive and superior to those of any other deity (e.g., the cult of AmitĀbha or the cult of Shugs ldan).

A sense of the range of Buddhist conceptions of "faith" can be derived from a glance at some of the classical Asian terms that are rendered into English as faith. The term śraddhā (Pāli, saddhā), for instance, may signify belief, but generally refers more to trust and commitment. It is sometimes glossed as "trust or reliance on someone else" (parapratyaya, Abhidharmakośa VI. 29), but, etymologically, it derives from an old Indo-European verb meaning "to place one's heart on (a desire, goal, object, or person)," which appears in Latin in the verb crēdō, and subsequently in English as creed, credence, and so on.

A connection between this mental state and other positive states is suggested in a variety of ways. For instance, in the abhidharma literature the word śraddhā refers to one of the mental factors that are always present in good thoughts (kuᖴalamahābhūmika, Abhidharmakośa II. 23–25). Already in the sūtra/sutta literature, śraddhā is one of the five mental faculties necessary for a good practice (the five indriyas or five balas), which include mindfulness and persevering courage.

These meanings are associated also with the idea of conviction, committed and steadfast practice, or commitment as active engagement, a range of concepts expressed with the term adhimukti or adhimokṣa (Pāli,adhimutti or adhimokkha). The attitude or cognitive-affective state expressed by this word is characteristic of the preliminary stage in a bodhisattva's career: the stage of acting (caryā) on one's commitment (adhimukti), or adhimukticaryābhūmi.

Examined from the perspective suggested by the above range of usages, faith would be a sui generis psychological state, an extension of the ability to trust or rely on someone or something. In this aspect of the denotation of śraddhā, and adhimokṣa, faith is also a virtue necessary for concentrated meditation, and is closely related to, if not synonymous with, the disciple's ardent desire for self-cultivation or the zeal required for such cultivation. In this context, faith is also the opposite of, or an antidote against, the sluggishness, dejection, and discouragement that can arise during long hours of meditation practice.

However, such monastic or contemplative definitions of faith do not exhaust the Buddhist repertoire. As noted previously, Buddhist concepts of faith include as well affective states associated with the attachment and trust of devotion. Such states are sometimes subsumed under the category of prasāda (the action noun corresponding to prasannacitta). This term has a long history in the religious traditions of India; it means etymologically "settling down," and evokes meanings of "serenity, calm, aplomb," as well as conviction and trust. Furthermore, among its many usages, it expresses both the "favor" of the powerful (their serene largess, their grace) and the acceptance or recognition of this favorable disposition on the part of the weaker participant in the relationship (serene trust, confident acceptance). The latter feeling is not only serene trust in the wisdom of a teacher or in the truth of the teachings, but the joyful acceptance of the benevolent power and benediction of sacred objects and holy persons. Thus the proper state of mind when performing a ritual of devotion is a prasannacitta: a mind in the state of prasāda, that is, calmly secure, trusting, devoted, content, and loyal.

East Asian usages

These Indian concepts were usually rendered in Chinese with a term denoting trust, xin, where the accent is on confidence, rather than on a surrender of one's discursive judgment. Nonetheless, xin also could denote surrender and unquestioned acceptance, absolute trust, and a believing mind and will. The later meanings played a major role in both nonliterate practice and the theologies of faith of some of the literate schools.

The first element in this polarity (faith that does not exclude knowledge or direct apprehension of religious truths) is seen, for instance, in the classical Chan school notion of xinxin: "trusting the mind." This refers to the conviction that the searching mind is the object of its own search—that is, buddha-nature. Such conviction is understood as a nonmediated, nonreasoned confidence born of the immediate apprehension of a presence. Expressed in terms of a process or a practice, this faith is the experience of the mind when one is not manipulating or organizing its contents with discursive thoughts. The trusting mind itself becomes the object of trust.

This is the theme of the Xinxinming (Stanzas on Trusting the Mind), a poem attributed to the "Third Patriarch" of Chan Buddhism, Sengcan (d. ca. 606 c.e.), in which "mind" or "thought" is the perfect goal of the religious aspiration that is the act of faith. It is "perfect like vast empty space, lacking nothing, having nothing in excess." What keeps us from experiencing the mind in this way is our penchant for "selecting and rejecting." By contrast, "the trusting mind does not split things into twos"; not splitting things into twos is the meaning of "trusting the mind" (or "the trusting mind" xinxin).

The idea of faith (xin) also appears in a formulation attributed to Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238–1295), who describes three essential aspects of meditation practice (chan yao). These are: the faculty of faith, persevering commitment, and doubt. Faith is "the great faculty of trusting" (daxingen), which links the idea to the earlier abhidharmic notions of trust and faith as a natural faculty. It is clear that this trust precedes full knowledge or understanding because the other two aspects of practice are great tenacity of purpose or persevering commitment (dafenzhi) and a great feeling of doubt or intensely felt doubt (dayiqing).

This use of the term xin is ostensibly different from the meanings accepted by other important strands of the East Asian tradition in which we find an opposition between examined trust and the surrender of self-knowledge. The Pure Land schools (Chinese, jingtu; Japanese, jōdo) in particular understood that the prasannacitta of the Indian tradition implied a surrender of the will to pursue a life of holiness or the desire to attain awakening by one's own efforts. However, even among the most radical formulations of the Pure Land traditions, where the trusting practitioners are clearly separated from the object of their faith and are incapable of achieving holiness on their own, the desired state of mind has the distinct marks of Buddhist notions of mind and faith. Thus, in some of the more radical Jōdo shinshū formulations the devotee's surrender is not so much an act of belief as an acceptance of grace: One surrenders one's own capacity to discriminate and believe, and one accepts the Buddha's own believing mind (shinjin), so that one's faith is in fact adopting, as it were, the Buddha's own trustworthy mind (shinjin)—sharing the merits, wisdom, and compassion of the very object of faith. Affectively, this theological view is linked with the ideal of joyful trust (shingyō), the joy and bliss of trusting, which ultimately, or eschatologically, may be said to be synonymous with the joy of seeing the Buddha Amitābha face to face (at the time of death or in the pure land).

Summary Interpretation

Ideals of nondiscursive apprehension straddle the dividing line between faith and knowledge, humble surrender and recognition of a state of liberation that cannot be acquired by the individual's will. In some ways the tradition seems to assume that one has faith in that which one respects and trusts, but also in that which one wishes to attain, and that which one imagines oneself to be or able to become.

See also:Pure Land Buddhism; Pure Lands


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Gómez, Luis O., trans. and ed. The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light: Sanskrit and Chinese Versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras (1996), 3rd printing, corrected edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Gómez, Luis O. "Prayer: Buddhist Perspectives." In Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Vol. 2, ed. William M. Johnston. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

Gómez, Luis O. "Spirituality: Buddhist Perspectives." In Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Vol. 2, ed. William M. Johnston. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

Hara, Minoru. "Śraddhā in the Sense of Desire." In Études bouddhiques offertes a Jacques May, ed. J. Bronkhorst, K. Mimaki, and T. Tillemans. Special issue. Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques 161, no. 1 (1992): 180–193.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. "Belief." In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Park, Sung-bae. Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Faith and Belief. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.



views updated May 29 2018

Faith. The disposition of believers toward commitment and toward acceptance of religious claims. It has a distinct importance in Christianity because of Paul's insistence on justification by faith alone (Romans 4. 5, 9. 30; Galatians 3. 2), and his inclusion of faith in the three paramount virtues (along with hope and love, 1 Corinthians 13. 13). In this sense, faith can only be received from God as a gift of grace, and becomes the means through which belief is formed (fides qua creditur, ‘faith by which it is believed’). But faith also becomes ‘the Faith’, the gradual accumulation through time of that which is believed by Christians, faith as assensus, assent (fides quae creditur, ‘faith which is believed’).

For faith in Buddhism, see ŚRADDHĀ; in Islam, see ĪMĀN.


views updated May 23 2018

faith / fā[unvoicedth]/ • n. 1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one's faith in politicians.2. strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion. ∎  a system of religious belief: the Christian faith. ∎  a strongly held belief or theory: the faith that life will expand until it fills the universe.


views updated May 14 2018

151. Faith

See also 285. MYSTICISM ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

a reliance, in a search for religious truth, on faith alone. fideist , n. fideistic . adj.
referring to or having a pure and genuine faith.
the branch of theology that studies the characteristics of faith.


views updated Jun 08 2018

faith faith will move mountains with the help of faith something naturally impossible can be achieved; originally with biblical allusion to Matthew 17:28, ‘If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say unto this mountain; Remove to yonder place; and it shall remove.’ The saying is recorded from the late 19th century.

see also confession of faith.