When St. Thomas gets down to saying what the “formal object” of faith is, he says it is the “first Truth.” To put his distinction in other terms, the material object of faith is a bunch of things said while the formal object of faith is the one speaking; the material object is a bunch of truths, while the formal object is Truth himself speaking. Every truth in the world is true by participating in that one Truth, and so when this one Truth speaks then its words are unavoidably true.
In the Gospel of John there is a scene when the disciples are fishing:
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
All the disciples heard the same words, “Cast the net…and you will find some.” But these were simply words to them; they did not know that these were words of the very Word of God. But there came a moment of recognition: “It is the Lord!” And at that moment, the words of this figure on the shore were accepted, “not as the words of men, but as they truly are, the word of God at work among you who believe” (1Thess 2:13).
This moment of recognition is the first moment of faith: one cannot accept anything on God’s say-so without first realizing that it is God who speaks. The next moment of faith is the acceptance of everything God has said as true because spoken by Truth himself. In the first moment of faith we cry out, “It is the Lord!” In the second moment of faith we say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
In my past reading of St. Thomas, it has seemed to me that he deals more with the second moment of truth than with the first. When he speaks of “believing,” he is thinking of someone who is already in dialogue with Truth-who-speaks. But in my conversations with people today, it seems that people most often think of “believing” as that moment when the varied and more or less confused words of men, the tortured witness of history, and the pressures of life suddenly come into focus around a single Voice. This difference in emphasis, it seems to me, plays out in terms of a particular emphasis in contemporary theology—but more on that idea later.