Contemporary scholars find it necessary to distinguish sharply between "faith" and "beliefs." "Faith" is considered more basic, more personal; as having to do with one's fundamental orientation—if not in a religious sense to God—then in one's basic stance toward life. "Beliefs," on the other hand, are considered to be secondary, more intellectual; they have to do with the conceptualization of religious matters and their formulation as doctrines.
Until recent years "beliefs" and "faith" were nearly synonymous for Catholics. In its religious sense, "beliefs" has been taken to mean the teachings and formulas of the Church. The totality of "beliefs" has been called "the faith," while the act of belief has traditionally been considered to be the virtue faith made concrete through the acceptance of what God has revealed.
Historical Background. The tendency in Catholic theology to identify faith with the act of belief can be found in its classic form in the work of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, faith, or fides, along with hope and charity, is one of the three theological virtues. These virtues result from sanctifying grace and direct one toward supernatural happiness. Hope and charity mutually perfect the will, the former enabling one to intend the will of God, the latter enabling one to become like God in one's heart. Faith specifically perfects the intellect by enabling one to give intellectual assent to the truths that God has revealed. "To believe," or credere, for Aquinas, is "an act of intellect assenting to the divine truth by virtue of the command of the will as moved by God through grace" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 2.9). It is with this sense of "belief" that Aquinas identified "faith."
In addition to the relationship between fides and credere, there is another classical distinction in Catholic theology that underlies the contemporary distinction between "faith" and "beliefs." This is the distinction between fides qua creditur, the faith by which one believes, and fides quae creditur, the faith that one believes. The difference is between "faith" taken as the virtue that empowers one to believe and "faith" taken as the beliefs that one accepts.
When the Protestant Reformers called for "faith alone," they used a meaning of "faith" different from that of Aquinas and more in line with the New Testament writings of Paul. "Faith," or Glauben, for Martin Luther, became an all-embracing category for describing one's relationship of trust with God. What Luther meant by "faith," was something like what Catholics meant by "faith," "hope," and "charity" combined. This semantic difference, along with the complaint that Catholic theology had become too intellectual by placing undue emphasis on the acceptance of correct doctrines, to the neglect of one's personal relationship with God, led the Reformers to stress the difference between "having faith" and "accepting doctrines."
Need for the Distinction. Several factors have led contemporary scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, to distinguish sharply between "faith" and "beliefs."
First, in English-speaking countries, the common use of the word "faith" corresponds more with the traditional Protestant meaning than with the traditional Catholic meaning. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's view of "faith" as a centered act of the total personality that includes the emotions, the intellect, and the will, has gained much popular acceptance. Also popular is the view of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez who insists that "faith" is not simply assent but must include commitment and action. Identifying "faith" with "beliefs" in English is thus often more confusing than helpful. It should be noted, though, that the problem is not simply a semantic one confined to English; it is as well a conceptual matter that can be found in Latin, French, German, and potentially in any language.
Second, the need to distinguish between "faith" and "beliefs" can be seen in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. In the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Raimundo Panikkar, for example, "faith" is used to describe the most fundamental thing that all religious persons share. "Beliefs" is used to describe the intellectual areas concerning which religious persons tend to differ. Without a clear distinction between "faith" and "beliefs" interdenominational and interreligious dialogue would have less of an identifiable common basis.
Third, the need to distinguish between "faith" and "beliefs" has arisen in the social and natural sciences in these areas where they interface with religious studies. In the philosophy of science, F. R. Tennant finds in "faith" the common root between scientific "knowledge" and religious "belief." In psychology, James W. Fowler has constructed a theory of how faith develops in individuals through an identifiable sequence of measurable stages. Fowler attempts to measure the state of religious maturity of the individual in a way that is distinct from any particular set of beliefs. Contemporary studies in the sociology of knowledge by Thomas Luckmann, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah indicate that beliefs comprise a major dimension of a socially-constructed reality that requires consideration apart from issues of "faith."
Fourth, the need to distinguish between faith and beliefs can be found in theological discussion surrounding the question of religious truth. Contemporary theologians, with the support of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio ), find that within beliefs there can be discovered a "hierarchy of truths." Some truths are more centrally related to the foundation of Christianity than are others. When beliefs are sweepingly identified as "the faith," such discriminate rankings are more difficult to make.
Furthermore, many scholars raise questions about the truth status of beliefs without wanting to call into question the truth of one's fundamental relationship with God or the transcendent. Some theologians, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Raimundo Panikkar, James W. Fowler, and George Lindbeck, have displayed a tendency to emphasize the strictly secondary nature of beliefs in relation to faith and to stress the limitations of their truth claims. Other theologians, such as Bernard Lonergan and David Tracy, emphasize the nature of beliefs as public claims to truth. While agreeing that faith is more basic and more important, they stress that despite inadequacies of formulation and conceptualization an essential claim to truth is intended in "beliefs."
Fifth, the need to distinguish between faith and beliefs has arisen in a 20th century movement within Catholic theology to correct unfortunate tendencies toward intellectualism. Aquinas may have been readily able to distinguish between faith and the act of belief, but that did not mean that all who followed him could do so. From a Catholic point of view, the problem, was not so much one of allowing faith to be identified with the act of belief as it was of allowing faith to become detached from grace; that is, it seemed to become possible in Catholic theology to link faith with the act of belief in such a mechanical fashion that one could forget that faith is a gift from God that will transform one's very mode of perceiving. Theologians such as Pierre Rousselot and Roger Aubert tried to reaffirm the connection between faith and grace by describing faith as the "eye of love," as the mode of perception that flows from sanctifying grace. To stress the connection of faith with grace is necessarily to stress the way in which faith is distinct from beliefs, for it entails considering "seeing with the eyes of love" in a way that is prior to the acceptance of any particular set of doctrines.
Bernard Lonergan has drawn upon this approach in formulating the distinction between "faith" and "beliefs" that provides part of the underpinning of his outline of theological method. The distinction allows Lonergan to grant a high place to beliefs or doctrine while maintaining the ability to refer back to the religious experience in which doctrine finds its ground. This move away from intellectualism can also be found in contemporary catechetics in the distinction between formation in faith and the transmission of beliefs.
Today the distinction between "faith" and "beliefs" is commonplace among both Catholic and Protestant theologians, although there remain some areas in need of further clarification. Theologians generally agree that faith should describe one's fundamental relationship with God or the transcendent, yet there is some debate concerning whether faith should be considered to be more of a fundamentally human (Tracy) or a fundamentally religious (Lonergan) character. "Belief" is used by theologians to mean both the act of accepting religious doctrines and to refer to a particular doctrine that is accepted. In the latter sense, belief sometimes denotes a statement or a formula, sometimes a concept, and sometimes a formula or concept inclusive of the reality to which it is intended to refer.
Although both faith and beliefs have a wide range of meanings, the need to distinguish between them usually stems from the recognition that beliefs are cognitive while faith is more than cognitive. The contemporary distinction between "faith" and "beliefs" can generally be taken to mean that one's fundamental relationship with God should be confused neither with the act of believing (credere ) nor with that which is believed (fides quae creditur ).
See Also: faith.
Bibliography: j. w. fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco 1981). b. lonergan, Method in Theology (New York 1972). r. panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York 1978); Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics (New York 1979). w. c. smith, Belief and History (Charlottesville 1977); Faith and Belief (Princeton 1979). d. tracy, Blessed Ridge for Order (New York 1975); The Analogical Imagination (New York 1981). h. de lubac, The Christian Faith (San Francisco 1986). w. kasper, An Introduction to Christian Faith (New York 1980).
[d. m. doyle]