ST II-II.2.1

In Question 2, St. Thomas turns to the act of faith.  In Article 1, he considers “faith” very generically, in a way that applies to natural as well as to supernatural faith.  His layout is straightforward and helpful:

• Knowledge holds firmly that X is true because it sees it to be so
• Opinion holds weakly that X is true, but thinks maybe not because it can’t see it to be so
• Doubt is balanced between thinking X is true and thinking it is not, because it can’t see it to be so

Faith, he concludes, is something in between knowledge on the one hand and opinion or doubt on the other:  faith holds firmly that X is true but does not see it to be so.  This is a perfectly universal definition of what it means to “believe,” applying to my faith in my friends and even to cases where belief is irrational.

However, the way St. Thomas handles the first objection seems incomplete to me.  Here’s the objection:

Cogitatio enim importat quandam inquisitionem, dicitur enim cogitare quasi simul agitare. Sed Damascenus dicit, in IV Lib., quod fides est non inquisitus consensus. Ergo cogitare non pertinet ad actum fidei.

Damascene says that “faith is a consent that is not inquisitive,” while “thinking” always involves inquisitiveness, and so faith can’t be a kind of thinking.  Here’s how St. Thomas replies:

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod fides non habet inquisitionem rationis naturalis demonstrantis id quod creditur. Habet tamen inquisitionem quandam eorum per quae inducitur homo ad credendum, puta quia sunt dicta a Deo et miraculis confirmata.

There is, he says, an inquisitiveness, a search, on the way to believing—one looks into miracles and finds out whether these things have been said by God and so on—but once belief arrives the inquisitiveness is over.  After all, faith doesn’t seek a demonstration that X is true, or it wouldn’t be faith.

It seems to me that we need to make another distinction.  When my wife proposes a sentence for my belief, sometimes I accept that these words go together to form a true sentence just because I don’t happen to see the connection between the words for myself.  For example, my wife might say, “The kids had sandwiches for lunch today while you were at the office.”  I didn’t happen to be at home at lunchtime and so I couldn’t see the truth of the connection between “the kids” and “had sandwiches,” so I just believe my wife and that’s the end of it. I don’t bother myself anymore about it.

But sometimes the reason I can’t see the connection between the words is because I don’t actually understand all the words.  For example, suppose an excellent doctor says to me, “The tests show that your cerebral blood flow is blocked by thrombosis, so collateral circulation has developed, but the collateral vessels are prone to aneurysm.”  In this case, not only have I not seen the tests (like just happening not to be home for lunch), but I don’t actually know what “thrombosis” or “collateral circulation” or “aneurysm” mean.  In this case I immediately accept what he says:  he is an excellent doctor, and if he is sure than his conclusion must be true.  But it would be strange if I didn’t feel inquisitive, given that I don’t fully understand what he said, and especially given its high relevance to my well-being.

The same distinction, it seems to me, applies to supernatural faith.  If Scripture says that Paul left his cloak at Troas, I accept that on faith because Scripture doesn’t lie and anyway I wasn’t there, and then I don’t bother my head about it anymore.  But if Scripture says that my salvation depends on the fact that Jesus is God incarnate, the reason I take this statement on faith is not just because I happen to lack access to firsthand evidence but because I don’t fully understand the terms “God” and “incarnate” anyway.  They are mysterious.  I immediately accept the statement as true, but it would strange if I did not feel inquisitive about it given that I don’t quite grasp what I am assenting to, and especially given its high relevance to my well-being.

So as regards whether statement X is true, faith is like knowledge:  it ends the inquiry, as Damascene indicates.  But as regards statement X itself, faith is like opinion or doubt:  it provokes the mind to action.

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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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