Having argued that faith is necessary for salvation, in Article 5 St. Thomas asks whether it is necessary to have explicit faith in something. Could you just be ready and willing to believe? To put the question another way, is it enough to embrace the formal object of faith or do you have to have a material object as well?
Either way you put the question, the answer is obvious. As I observed in an earlier post, you can’t actually separate out the formal and material objects, as though they were actually different objects: they are formal and material principles of one reality. You only hear the Voice of Truth when he says something. And the evidence of Scripture is overwhelming that belief in something concrete is needed.
But St. Thomas uses the occasion of the question to rehearse a distinction he made before. He says that the object of faith per se is that which makes one blessed. He hearkens back to ST II-II.1.1, where he first made the formal/material object distinction: in that Article, he argued that God is not only the formal but also the material object of faith, because all the other things we believe “only fall under faith’s assent insofar as they are ordered to God, namely insofar as certain effects of the divinity aid man in tending toward the enjoyment of God.” And he made the same distinction again in ST II-II.1.6: “Faith principally concerns those things which we hope to see in our heavenly home, in accordance with Hebrews 11:1, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for”; for this reason, those things which directly order us to eternal life pertain per se to faith, such as the three persons of the omnipotent God, the Incarnation of Christ, and things like this.”
Faith, St. Thomas seem to be saying, really is the life of heaven begun here on earth, the beatific vision in seed. God speaks only to draw us to himself and give himself to us, and anything else is secondary.
With this distinction, St. Thomas lays out a hierarchy in the objects of faith. The very central object of faith is the Trinity, the vision of which will make us blessed in heaven. Closely tied to this central object are those things that directly bring us to it, such as the Incarnation. And then on the periphery are all those things that in some way manifest the central objects of faith, like the fact that Abraham had two sons or that Israel came out of Egypt.
These reflections on faith undergird St. Thomas’s famous claim that theology is a science. In ST I.1.2, he distinguishes between sciences that proceed from principles known by the light of reason, such as geometry, and sciences that proceed from principles that they get from a higher science, like the way the science of perspective proceeds from principles that it gets from geometry. He concludes that theology is a science in the second sense, “because it proceeds from the principles known by the light of a higher science, which is the science of God and of the blessed.” The first principles of theology, which are the revealed mysteries of faith, are a sharing in what the blessed know in heaven. This is the same claim as the one made in ST II-II.1.2, ST II-II.1.6, and ST II-II.2.5, and it has the same implications about a hierarchy of topics.