How faith begins

[This is the third in a series of posts about faith.  Here all the posts in order: 1. Is faith circular? 2. Everyday faith. 3 How faith begins. 4. What revelation really is. 5. What is supernatural about faith? 6. Faith and love.]

In this series of posts about the theological virtue of faith, I began by asking how we come to believe that God is revealing and whether this is something we hold by faith.  Then I looked at some aspects of everyday, natural belief to see what basis nature might provide for grace.  In this post, I want to look directly at the supernatural virtue of faith and trace its beginning.

While natural belief always includes an element of discovering the speaker’s true identity, in the case of supernatural faith this element is quite explicit.  A created agent—a prophet, a priest, an organization, an apparition—makes a claim to this effect:  “I do not speak on my own behalf but on behalf of one who has authority over you, and this is the message, etc.”  Here the need to discover the true identity of the source of the message is out in the open, and the claim in fact is that the first source of the message is some person other than the human person, organization, or apparition one can see.  In other words, part of revelation’s claim is the claim to be revelation.

The searcher’s mind responds first, and if all goes well the response will be something like this:  “This claim has been made, and there is good evidence for the claim.  If true, the claim would give me something I need, and in fact if the claim is not true then I can’t get that thing I need.  So the question is urgent.  I need to say whether the claim is true or false.”  That is as far as the searcher’s mind can go on its own:  this is a well-supported claim about something urgent for me personally.  But because the evidence is not demonstrative, the mind cannot settle the issue without a decision, and decisions are the domain of the will.

At this point the searcher’s will can respond to the claim in various ways.  It might respond by delaying, despite the urgency of the question; it might decide in the negative, despite the credibility of the claim, whether through fear or through egoism; or the will might respond in favor of the claim.  A missionary or a pastor needs an intimate familiarity with the dynamics of delay and denial, because these are the road blocks he needs to surmount.  For our purposes, only the last response is interesting, the response that leads to faith.  In this case, the searcher’s will moves the intellect to assent to the claim.

Because the claim is “I do not speak for myself,” something very important happens when the decision is made in favor of the claim:  at that very moment, the speaker of the claim changes in the searcher’s eyes.  In virtue of the fact that will moves the mind to say, “This claim is true,” the speaker ceases to be the created agent and begins to be the authority on behalf of whom it spoke.  So long as the searcher hesitated, considering the claim, the speaker remained for him merely a creature; but by the very fact of the searcher’s assent, the speaker is divine.  “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1Thes 2:13).

Now, if this assent were only a movement of the mind, then two steps would be needed:  (a) this authority exists and (b) I submit to it.  The mind having realized that the authority exists, the will would have to fall into line as a subsequent response.  But because the final movement of the mind is provided by the will, it follows that the one movement of assent is simultaneously on the intellect’s part a conclusion that the authority exists and on the will’s part a decision to submit to it, since the will could not will in favor of such a thing without desiring to submit to it.  When I do not want to submit to an authority, then its existence chafes at me, and I wish it would go away; on the other hand, an authority which I will to exist is one that has my submission already.

To sum up, three things happen at the moment of the decision of faith:  (a) the speaker changes from a creature to God; (b) the intellect decides in favor of the claim that this authority exists; (c) the will submits to the authority.  And yet these are not three movements in sequence but one reality, one movement, seen from various angles.  The assent to the authority’s existence is on the mind’s part a conclusion that the authority exists and on the will’s part a submission to that authority.

This is part of the answer to the question raised in my original post.  Do I fall into a vicious circle if I believe on God’s authority and yet include among the articles of belief the fact that God has spoken?  No, because the mental assent to this fact is the same movement as the volitional submission to God’s authority.  There would be a circle if these two things were separate and one had to come before the other, but there is no moment before faith’s assent when I hold that God’s has spoken, and there is no moment during faith’s assent when I do not submit to God’s authority.

But one could say more about the difference between natural and supernatural faith.  Over the next two posts, I’ll lay out the rest of what I have come to in my own reflections.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Christopher Carter
1 year ago

Where does “But because the final movement of the mind is provided by the will” come from? I’ve enjoyed this so far Dr., thank you. I’ve definitely had an overly rationalized understanding of faith but reading about how the will moves the mind to assent, and that trusting someone is a decision based on an accumulation of probabilities and experiences has been helpful for me to start to grasp the distinction. You mentioned faith occurs naturally because the human face is invisible. This means certain causes are unknown to the mind and thus there must be a decision to trust.… Read more »