AND REVEALED TRUTH
Rev. George D. Smith
so run, not as at an uncertainty; I so fight, not as one beating the
air” (1 Cor. ix 26). The
Catholic, strong in faith, might well describe his attitude towards life
in these confident words of St. Paul.
He is in no doubt as to his destiny, nor as to the manner in which
he must achieve it. God, his
attributes, his providential designs in man’s regard, man’s own duties
to his Creator and to his fellow men–all this, and much more, he knows
with a certainty that is supreme. These
religious truths are the basis of his life; his appreciation of them
determines the whole course of his existence; and if concerning them he
had the slightest real doubt, his outlook would be radically changed.
He is certain that there is a God, his Creator and Lord, whose
loving friendship he must at all costs retain; did he doubt it, his
obedience to what he conceives as divine commands would falter.
He is certain that there awaits him a life after death in which, if
he has been faithful, he will enjoy God’s eternal embrace; did he doubt
it, his life on earth would be deprived of all meaning and purpose.
therefore, a man is to lead a religious life–and a religious life is
synonymous with a good one–he must have firm and sound convictions
concerning God and his duties in God’s regard.
He must have convictions, otherwise his life will be purposeless;
they must be firm, else he will be inconsistent in practice as his theory
is vacillating; they must be sound, for upon them depends the success or
the failure of his life. The Catholic has certainty on these vital matters because God
has revealed them to him. His
hope rests upon the firm foundation of God’s word.
“Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for.”
to judge the value of revealed truth merely by its use in action would be
to estimate it incompletely. Revelation
extends the field of our knowledge, and this itself is a perfection of the
mind, the noblest faculty of man. By
revelation we receive something of the inner radiance of God’s glory; by
faith we learn divine truths of which humanly we should never have
dreamed. By faith we are
given a foretaste of the wonders which will be fully disclosed only when
we see God, no longer “through a glass in a dark manner,” but face to
face. In the meantime the
radiance is too bright for our finite minds.
We adore, but we cannot see. “Faith
is the evidence of things that appear not.”
display the riches contained in revelation is the object of the subsequent
essays. In this, the first, we must study the meaning of revelation
itself, and the act of faith by which we accept it.
RELIGION AND HUMAN REASON
Validity of human reason
Catholic theologian sets out with the supposition–which as a philosopher
he is prepared to vindicate–that the human mind is able to know truth.
If anyone, therefore, in that unhappy state of mind which despairs
of attaining certain knowledge upon any subject whatever, should hope to
find in this essay a philosophical proof of the validity of mental
processes, then he is doomed to disappointment.
The skeptic, before he can approach the study of theology, or in
fact of any science at all, must first find his remedy in a sound and true
epistemology. Nor is it
within the province of the theologian as such–although again as a
philosopher he may be well equipped–to justify the first principles of
analytical reasoning, to prove that the conclusions which issue from the
application of those principles are valid, even though they may lead the
mind into a realm of reality of which no actual experience is given, and
thus cannot be verified by experiment.
The demonstration of these and kindred truths belongs to a branch
of knowledge which is antecedent to the science of theology.
venture to hope, however, that those who read this series of essays have
remained unaffected by the wave of skepticism and agnosticism which has
swept over Europe during the last two or three centuries. It is an interesting phenomenon of religious history that the
heresy of Luther, taking its rise in a proud rebellion against the
teaching authority of the Catholic Church, issued in a pessimistic
theology which, exaggerating the effects of original sin, presented human
nature as intrinsically corrupt. The
human will, bereft of freedom, was radically incapable of pursuing the
good, the human reason was powerless to know the truth.
As man’s broken will must submit passively to the grace of God,
so much his mind now, darkened by sin, allow itself to be led by an occult
and irresistible force, a blind and unreasoning faith. The agnosticism of Kant and his disciples, which, denying the
validity of metaphysical argument, takes refuge, in order to justify
religious belief, either in the dictates of the practical reason or in an
unreasoning religious sense, is an essentially Protestant philosophy; and
of this tendency to rely upon a blind instinct in religious matters the
modern forms of exaggerated–and therefore false–mysticism, the systems
of religious pragmatism and sentimentalism, so common outside the Church,
are the more or less direct descendants.
all such attempts to disparage the powers of the human reason the Catholic
Church has remained ever aloof. Some
of her children, it is true, have not been immune from the
anti-intellectualist atmosphere of their time; but they have been solemnly
warned and, when occasion demanded, condemned by the ever-watchful
guardian of Divine Truth. Thus
the Traditionalists of the nineteenth century, convinced by the German
agnostics that the foundations of religious belief and practice, such as
the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the
soul, could no longer be justified by an appeal to reason, had recourse to
the inheritance of truth which the human race has received by tradition
from antiquity, and ultimately from God.
The suggestion was well-intentioned and, like most errors,
contained a considerable measure of truth.
The Traditionalists rendered valuable service by emphasizing the
great part played by human authority in the acquisition of knowledge; it
is true, moreover, that we receive much of our religious knowledge from
divine revelation. But these
faint-hearted apologists, by denying to human reason the power to prove
the existence of a God who reveals, rendered all faith in him
unreasonable. To save the
ship they cast away the compass; and the Church was not slow to reject
this ill-judged compromise with skepticism.
recently certain restless spirits within the Church, anxious to reconcile
Catholic doctrine with the so-called exigencies of “Modern Thought,”
formed the school known as Modernism.
Rejecting with Kant all rational demonstration of religious tenets,
and borrowing from his disciple Schleiermacher “the religious sense”
as a criterion of truth, the Modernists found the source and the
explanation of all religion in a subconscious “need of the divine.”
Thus the revelation which the Traditionalists (rightly) sought from
God the Modernists (wrongly) thought to find within the nature of man
himself. From this the way
lies open to pantheism, to the rejection of all dogmas, and indeed of all
objective religious truth. It
would be beyond the scope of this short essay even to enumerate the
manifold errors which Modernism involves; it was rightly stigmatized by
Pope Pius X as “a compendium of all heresies” (I write of
Modernism in the past tense, because for Catholics it is a thing of the
past. Nevertheless the
tendency is still strong outside the Catholic Church.)
Attitude of the Church
teaching of the Catholic Church on this all-important subject is stated
clearly by the Vatican Council(1869-1870): “Holy Mother Church holds and
teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly
known by the natural light of human reason by means of created things” (Const.
de fide cath., chapter ii). The
terms of the oath against Modernism render impossible any misunderstanding
of this definition. By
“created things” are meant, not merely human testimony, not merely a
subconscious religious sense, but the “visible works of creation”; and
lest there should be any doubt as to the manner in which our knowledge of
God is acquired, the formula tells us that it is by applying the principle
of causality to the data of experience: “God . . . can be known as a
cause through his effects.”
Church, in thus vindicating the power of human reason to know God, is but
reaffirming what St. Paul had said in his Epistle to the Romans: “The
invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen,
being understood by the things that are made” (Rom.
i 20; cf. Wisd. xiii 1-9).
But the power of the human mind is not limited to the mere
knowledge of the existence of God. Man
is able unaided to know much concerning the nature of God; he can know
many of his own duties in regard to his Creator, duties of worship, love
and thanksgiving; he can learn naturally much concerning his own nature
and destiny, his duties to himself and to his fellow men.
There is, in short, a whole body of religious truth–the truths of
the natural order–which man is able to acquire with certainty by the
normal use of his natural powers.
Necessity of revelation
while the Church is solicitous to vindicate the just rights of the human
reason, while she has no sympathy with those who unduly disparage it, she
strenuously resists the claim of Rationalism that it is “the sole judge
of the true and the false . . . that it is a law to itself and sufficient
by its natural powers to procure the good of men and peoples” (Syllabus
of Pius IX, n. 3).
She asserts the essential soundness of the human mind an its
radical capacity for learning all natural truth; but she is mindful that
man is in a fallen state, that disordered passion and the manifold
distractions of material things hamper and retard him in his pursuit of
religious knowledge. What I
have called truths of the natural order can be known and demonstrated by
the proper application of the principles of reasoning; but such a process
requires a special type of mind, it needs leisure, concentration, an
environment conducive to thought. Experience
shows that not all men have the ability to follow reasoning, be it of the
most elementary kind; some men have a practical rather than a speculative
bent. Many who have the
ability have not the leisure for these studies.
The practical difficulties become more evident when one considers
that the rational proofs of such truths as the spirituality of the human
soul, the freedom of the will, if they are to stand the test of modern
objections, require as a preliminary a long and arduous study of
metaphysics and psychology. Add
to this that religious knowledge is of paramount importance for man’s
daily life, necessary especially in youth, when the character is in
process of formation, necessary precisely at the time when, through mental
immaturity and lack of concentration, he is least likely to be able to
if we view mankind as a whole, if we consider the difficulties with which
men are beset, it is clear that, left to their own resources, very few
would gain adequate knowledge even of the truths of natural religion.
Nor does human authority offer an adequate solution of the
difficulty. History shows
that the great thinkers of antiquity–not to speak of more recent or
contemporary philosophers–have been unable to impose their doctrine
beyond a certain school. The
clamor of diverse views, the difficulty of the subject-matter, the lack of
authority in the teacher to impose belief upon those who cannot understand
his reasoning–all this rendered, and still renders, merely human
teaching authority powerless to supply the need of mankind for religious
instruction. On this subject
above all man needs an omniscient and infallible Teacher.
even though the field of religious doctrine were confined to “natural”
truth, man’s need of divine aid is apparent.
But it should be carefully noted that this need arises, not, as the
Traditionalists contended, from the radical impotence of the human mind as
such, but from other circumstances of human life which render it
practically impossible for all men to discover these truths for themselves
with any sufficient degree of accuracy and certainty.
Briefly, just as in the practical order grace is morally necessary
in order that each man may observe all the precepts of the natural law, so
is revelation necessary so that all men may reach a sufficient knowledge
of the truths of natural religion (Cf.
Essay xvii: Actual Grace).
The exaggerated claim of Rationalism is thus seen to be
here again, in a most important particular, the Church opposes the
Rationalist. According to the latter, not only can the human mind unaided
know all natural truth, but natural truth is all that there is to know.
The Church, on the contrary, teaches that there is an order of
reality above that of nature, an order of reality which is beyond the
reach of the human mind: the supernatural order.
that such an order exists does not seem a priori unlikely.
God, as St. Paul tells us, has left traces of himself in his
handiwork, and man is able from the consideration of created perfections
to learn much concerning his Creator.
Even the little that we naturally know of God would lead us to
conjecture that there is much more of which we know nothing; that there
are divine perfections of which no clear trace appears in the works of
creation; that besides the natural truths of religion there may be hidden
truths concerning God and things divine, “mysteries –i.e.,
truths which must remain God’s secret unless and until he vouchsafes to
make them known.
supernatural order, therefore, by its very character is outside the scope
of our natural knowledge and comprehension.
We can know nothing of it unless God wills to reveal it.
The impotence of human reason in respect of supernatural truths is
physical and absolute. Natural
truth is within the reach of the human mind.
The reasons which show an adequate and universal knowledge of this
order to be morally impossible without revelation are concerned not with
the powers of the human mind itself, but with such concomitant
circumstances as lack of ability, or time, or concentration.
But no course of study, however long, however arduous, could bring
the human–or indeed the angelic–mind to the discovery of a
supernatural truth. This
calls for a special intervention of God, for the inauguration of a divine
intercourse with man whereby he communicates knowledge otherwise
unattainable; in other words a supernatural revelation.
need of revelation is therefore twofold.
He needs it for ease and security even in the sphere of natural
research; he needs it absolutely if he is to know God’s secrets.
The first need God might have supplied by help of the natural
order, by an enlightenment or an inspiration which would have been
included in God’s natural Providence in man’s regard.
God, however, has willed to destine man for a supernatural end, and
every help that he grants is bestowed with that end in view.
Man’s twofold need is met by one divine revelation which is
supernatural in character, and in its content partly supernatural and
partly natural. By one and
the same revelation he supplies a remedy to man’s natural weakness, and
discloses truths which no finite mind could ever have learned.
Meaning of revelation
is important for a proper understanding of our subject to have a clear
idea of what is meant by divine revelation.
The word “revelation” is used in many senses.
In common parlance it often means the disclosure of a fact hitherto
unknown: “What you say is a revelation to me”; and in theology the
word sometimes has this meaning. Or,
again, it is said that God has “revealed” himself in the works of
creation; and in this sense the Psalmist signs that “the heavens tell
forth the glory of God.” Moreover,
God may manifest some truth to man by an interior enlightenment of his
mind in such a way that the favored soul is unaware of the origin of his
knowledge; he simply begins to know what he did not know before.
Of such a kind was the infused knowledge granted to many of the
saints. Such a mysterious
illumination also may be called a revelation.
The Modernists used the word in a special sense.
By revelation they meant the manifestation of a religious truth
made in consciousness by the religious sense; for them it was nothing else
than a personal religious experience.
when the Church uses the word “revelation” in connection with faith,
it has the definite meaning of a divine testimony.
Revelation is the act whereby God speaks to man, making a statement
to the truth of which he testifies. “God
who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past by the
prophets, last of all in these days hath spoken to us by his Son” (Heb.
i 1). Hence the Vatican
Council(1869-1870) describes faith as a “virtue whereby . . . we believe
that the things which he has revealed are true . . . because of the
authority of God himself who reveals them, and who can neither be deceived
nor deceive.” The oath
against Modernism, to exclude the perverted sense given to the word in
that theory, uses even clearer terms.
Faith is there defined as “a true intellectual assent given to a
truth received by hearing from without, whereby . . . we believe to
be true the things that have been said, testified and revealed by a
personal God, our Creator and Lord.”
then, is not an interior emotional experience; it is a statement of truth
made to man in a definite place, at a definite time, by a personal God who
is outside and distinct from the recipient.
Moreover it is essential to the concept of revelation as understood
by the Church that the statement in question be authenticated: the
statement is received by the believer as made by God, and accepted because
it is made by God. Infused
knowledge, therefore, unless it is infused with clear notification of its
divine origin, is not the revelation which faith presupposes.
Furthermore, this revelation is distinct from the manifestation of
his perfections which God has given to us in creation.
It is true to say that God “speaks to us in the works of nature,
inasmuch as those works “reveal” his presence and activity; it is
true, but it is metaphorical. Revelation
properly understood implies a personal intercourse between God and man,
wherein God truly speaks–i.e., makes an assertion, which man
accepts on God’s personal authority.
Supernatural character of revelation
revelation is supernatural–supernatural not only because it contains
supernatural truths, but also because the very act whereby God reveals is
beyond the ordinary course of nature.
In the ordinary course of nature God teaches us through created
things, through the voice of conscience, through our own conscious needs
and desires. By supernatural
revelation God teaches us himself. “All
thy children shall be taught of God” (Isa. liv 13).
have said that God’s revelation contains supernatural truths.
The essence of revelation does not demand that what is revealed
should be hitherto unknown or otherwise unknowable.
Much of what God has revealed man may already have discovered by
the natural light of reason; in which case the authority of divine
teaching but confirms the conclusions of the human mind.
But even if the truth revealed is a mystery properly so
called–that is, a truth which the human reason itself is incapable of
discovering or of comprehending when it has ascertained it–yet it
contains an element which is not new: the terms in which the revelation is
made are familiar. It is not
true to say that the mysteries of our faith are unintelligible. The unintelligible, the meaningless, precisely because it is
meaningless, can have no relation to the human mind. Thus an unknown language is unintelligible, because it
conveys no meaning; it corresponds to no idea in consciousness. A mystery is incomprehensible, if you will, but it is not
meaningless; it conveys a very definite meaning. The proposition that Jesus Christ is both God and man, that
he is one person who has two natures, the human and the divine, is
incomprehensible indeed; but it is not without meaning.
It is full of meaning, so full that man with his finite mind will
never exhaust it.
divine revelation is supernatural in character, if it is beyond the
ordinary course of nature, it follows that man can have no natural title
or claim to it. It is a
grace, an entirely gratuitous gift of God.
Hence, although, as we saw in the previous section, the conditions
of human existence indicate the need of some help from God for a universal
and sufficient knowledge of religious truth, yet we cannot argue from this
to the existence of a supernatural revelation.
Apologists rightly point out how wonderfully revealed truth
harmonizes with the intimate needs and desires of mankind.
But it is too little to say: “This is exactly what we needed.”
It is far in excess of what we had any right to expect.
In this as in all else God has been more than just, he has been
generously bountiful to his creatures.
Manner of revelation
how has this supernatural revelation been made? Its history may be given in the inspired words of Holy Writ:
“God who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to
the fathers by the prophets,
last of all in these days hath spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. i
1). “And Jesus spoke to his Apostles, saying: Going therefore,
teach ye all nations; . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever
I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days, even to the
consummation of the world” (Matt. xxviii 18-20).
had God so willed, he might have communicated his testimony directly to
each member of the human race as soon as he was capable of receiving it.
The contention of Protestantism is (or was) that he does so.
There is no need to insist here on the inconveniences of such a
method, had it been adopted; it would have led to hallucinations of every
sort. Sad experience has
shown how easily men may be led to think that they are inspired.
But apart from any other reason, an individualistic revelation
seems antecedently improbable because it would not be in keeping with what
we know of God’s providential dealings with mankind.
God deals with man according to his nature; and man is naturally
social. This being so, we
should have expected God to make his revelation to men as a body; and such
in fact was the case.
spoke to the fathers [i.e., to the ancestors of the Jews whom St. Paul was
addressing] by the prophets.” Whether
by visions, or by an interior illumination of the mind, or by the ministry
of angels, God entrusted his message to certain chosen men, who in their
turn were to deliver it to God’s chosen people.
Of that chosen people would be born Christ, the Word Incarnate, who
was to complete the divine message and found on earth a universal kingdom
in which God’s word would be carried to the ends of the earth until the
end of time.
Authentication of divine message
God’s message must be authenticated, his messenger must present his
credentials. In vain will the
seer claim divine authority if he cannot vindicate his mission.
Hence that all men might know that the words of the prophet were
the words of God, he marked their teaching with unmistakable signs of its
divine origin. “They will
not believe me,” protested Moses (Exod. iv 1),
“nor hear my voice, but they will say: The Lord hath not appeared to
thee . . . And the Lord said: Cast thy rod down upon the ground.
He cast it down, and it was turned into a serpent . . . that they
may believe, said he, that the Lord God . . . hath appeared to thee.”
Leaving to its proper place, the discussion of miracles and
prophecies as motives of credibility, we must remark here on the
consistent appeal made by God’s messengers to these irrefragable
evidences of their divine authority.
Suffice it to quote the words of the greatest of all the prophets,
the Son of God himself: “Go and relate what you have heard and seen.
The blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise again, the poor have
the gospel preached to them” (Matt. xi 4-5).
In answer to the Jews who ask him to say plainly if he is indeed
the Christ, he says: “I speak to you, and you believe not; the works
that I do in the name of my Father, they give testimony of me”
(John x 24; cf. ibid., 37-38; xi 41-42).
Finally, we read of the Apostles of Christ who “going forth
preached everywhere; the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with
signs that follows” (Mark xvi 20).
revelation which God made to his chosen people was a gradual one.
Speaking to them “at sundry times,” he suited his message to
the degree of culture and the condition of his hearers.
The promise that God would send a Redeemer was made at the very
beginning, and that hope, fostered by repeated revelations through the
Patriarchs and Prophets, was the heart and center of the Jewish religion.
Belief in the one true God was safeguarded by constant divine
warnings against the idolatry of the surrounding nations and by detailed
instructions for the manner of divine worship.
The precepts of the natural law were fully expounded in the
Commandments and enforced by legal sanctions.
Gradually, in the books of the Old Testament beliefs concerning the
future life, at first fragmentary and crude, become more and more detailed
and definite. Of the great mysteries of Christianity, the Incarnation and
the Trinity, we find little more than mere traces–traces, however, which
become clearer and clearer as the fullness of time approaches.
It was a period of preparation and expectation, during which truths
were successively revealed according as they served to prepare men’s
hearts to receive him who was to come.
But this progressive unfolding of God’s providential plan was not
to be indefinitely prolonged. At
last Christ came, and with him the completion of God’s message of mercy.
Definitive revelation in Christ
Son of God became man and, living in the midst of men, showed by his
fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies that he was indeed the divine
messenger whom all generation had expected; and of his divine mission he
gave still further proof–if further was needed–by the wonders that he
worked. The prophets of old
had conveyed God’s word to the chosen people alone; Christ’s message
was for the whole world. Their
revelation was but partial, to be supplemented by those who should come
after; his was definitive and complete.
They were the creatural mouthpieces of God; he, while truly man,
was God himself.
the Jews first he preached his gospel, to the nation which throughout its
history had been so signally favored by God; and by these he was rejected.
But from the beginning of his ministry he laid the foundations of
his Church, collecting a chosen band of disciples who were to be witnesses
of his gospel, not merely in Palestine, but throughout the whole world;
they were his twelve Apostles. These
with infinite care and patience he trained for their important mission; to
these he revealed “the mysteries of the kingdom of God” so far as they
were then able to bear them, promising that when he should leave them he
would send the Holy Ghost, who would teach them all truth.
To these, under the primacy of Peter, he gave special powers: a
teaching authority such that to hear them was to Christ himself, that they
might preach in its integrity the doctrine that they had received from his
lips; powers of jurisdiction over all believers, that they might govern
Christ’s spiritual kingdom on earth.
Committed to the Catholic Church
this way the Catholic Church was instituted, the visible, infallible
society in which and through which the revelation of Christ was to be
preserved and propagated. The
Church, the mystical body of Christ, was to perpetuate his work, to bear
witness to the truth until the consummation of the world.
As the doctrine of Christ was the doctrine of the father who sent
him, so the teaching of the Church is the teaching of Christ who
instituted her. Just as
Christ had proved his divine mission, so the Church bears in the sight of
all men the manifest marks of her divine origin.
“The Church herself,’ says the Vatican Council (Loc.
cit., chapter iii), “by
reason of her wonderful extension, eminent holiness and inexhaustible
fruitfulness in all good things, her Catholic unity and invincible
stability, is . . . an irrefutable witness to her own divine mission.”
PRELIMINARIES TO FAITH
Faith man’s assent to revelation
studied the need, the nature and the manner of divine revelation, we now
possess the elements necessary to understand the act whereby that
revelation is accepted, the act of faith; and if in the pages which
precede points of doctrine have been touched upon which are treated more
fully elsewhere in this essay, it has been in order to provide data for
the solution of the problem before us.
fact, the nature of the act of faith has already been implied in what has
been said about revelation. Revelation
is a divine testimony. But if
God has spoken, if he has testified to the truth of a statement, then it
is man’s bounden duty to accept it by an act of belief, by an act of
faith. For our present
purpose, then, it will be sufficient to describe the act of faith as that
act whereby, on the authority of God, we give mental assent to a truth
which he has revealed. All
that is involved in such an act will form the subject of the succeeding
section, but here it should be noted that the motive of assent is not the
intrinsic evidence of the statement itself, but the authority of God who
makes it; in other words, I believe simply because God has said it.
Already it becomes clear that the act of faith cannot be made
without certain preliminaries. A
motive, before it can give rise to an act, must first be perceived by the
mind; the authority of God, then, must be known before I can make an act
of faith. I must know that
there is a God, and that he has the authority–i.e., the knowledge
and the veracity–which is to command my assent.
Moreover, by the act of faith, I give my assent not merely to a
vague generalization–“whatever it may be that God has
revealed”–but to a definite truth, or body of truth, which I know to
have been revealed. A further
preliminary, therefore, is to know “the fact of revelation”–i.e.,
that God has revealed this or that truth to which I am required to give my
Evidence of credibility–Preambles of faith
begin to see, then, that the act of faith is no “step in the dark.”
Faith is not an unreasonable credulity; still less is it a blind
instinct to believe whatever one is told.
Man is a rational being, and God does not call upon him to do
anything ill-befitting his nature. It
is reasonable, prudent, to believe what one is told by a trustworthy
witness. It is imprudent, and
even foolish, to believe a statement purporting to be made by one whose
existence is unknown, or at the best doubtful, or of whose knowledge and
veracity, even if he exists, one has little or no guarantee.
St. Thomas Aquinas has been accused of being a Rationalist, but
indeed he only vindicates the just rights of a reasonable being when he
says: “Man would not believe (revealed truth) unless he saw that
he must believe it” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 1, art. 4
Hence, before a man can reasonably and prudently believe a
statement, that statement must be credible to him; he must have
“evidence of credibility.” That
evidence of credibility he obtains from the knowledge of those preliminary
truths which we have enumerated, called for the sake of convenience the
“preambles of faith.”
How are we to
know these preambles? Should
we not, some have suggested, rely for this knowledge on the authority of
God himself, so that not only the act of faith but also its foundations
should rest upon the firm ground of God’s infallible truth?
Even granting for the sake of argument, say the Fideists, that the
existence of God and the fact of revelation can be discovered by the
unaided human mind, yet even the Catholic Church is forced to admit that
without revelation man finds it practically impossible to learn natural
truths with certainty. Is our faith, then, to rest upon so insecure a foundation?
It needs little reflection to see that such a process involves a
vicious circle, and, far from strengthening the foundations of faith,
removes them altogether. How
can I reasonably rely upon the authority of God when he reveals to me his
existence, his omniscience, his veracity, the fact that he has revealed
this or that truth, unless I am antecedently and independently of that
same authority convinced that the revealing and truthful God exists? Others have had recourse either to a blind instinct, or to an
act of will, to bring about adherence to these preliminary truths.
such systems betray that distrust of the human reason to which we referred
in our second section. The
Church, we repeat, has no sympathy with those who disparage the powers of
the human mind; nor is there any antagonism between reason and faith.
In the words of a famous preacher, “they are two sisters who
dwell together in the same home. The
hospitable doors of our soul are opened to receive these two daughters of
God. Faith dwells on high, reason a little lower.
But faith will never kill her sister; she will not betray the
hospitality accorded her to reign alone in the palace of them both” (Monsabre:
Introduction, Conf. II). “The use of reason,” says the Church in condemning
Traditionalism, “precedes faith and must lead us to it” (Denzinger,
human mind, then, must discover for itself the truths which are the basis
of faith, and these must be known with certainty.
It is not enough to conjecture with some degree of probability that
there is a veracious God who has made a revelation.
While doubt concerning the preambles of faith remains the act of
faith cannot be reasonable. No
man believes reasonably unless he sees that he must believe.
Motives of credibility
how are all men to acquire this certainty?
In the first place it is to be remarked that the existence of God,
at least, can be certainly known by the light of human reason.
In fact, so clear are the indications of this truth that the
Gentiles were upbraided by St. Paul as inexcusable for failing to
recognize it. Moreover, the
arguments which prove the existence of God show also that he is all
perfection, and therefore omniscient and incapable of deceiving. As to the third preamble, the fact of revelation, we have
seen that God accompanied his message with clear signs of its divine
origin, particularly by miracles and prophecies, and that, moreover, the
Catholic Church, founded by Christ for the specific purpose of teaching
men what God has revealed, bears upon her unmistakable marks of her divine
Miracles and prophecy
set in full relief the arguments which show the divine origin of the
Christian religion–to expound, in other words, the “motives of
credibility”–is the function of the apologist, and therefore lies
outside our scope. These
motives are many and varied; among them are some which alone are fully
convincing, others which convince only by their accumulated force; some
will appeal to all minds, others will appeal only to a few.
It is just, therefore, to that extent, that the apologist should
accommodate his procedure to the mentality of those whom he seeks to
persuade. But of the absolute
efficacy of at least one motive of credibility no Catholic may doubt,
since it has been made the subject of an infallible definition in the
Vatican Council, namely, miracles worked in confirmation of a divine
mission. “Anathema to him
who says . . . that by miracles the divine origin of the Christian
religion is not rightly proved” (De fide can. 4).
In the corresponding chapter the Council goes further; it declares
that miracles and prophecies (I make no distinction here between
miracles and prophecies, since the value of each, mutatis mutandis,
is equal in showing the divine mission of the wonder-worker or the
prophet. In fact, a prophecy
is simply a miracle of the intellectual order.)
“are most certain signs of divine revelation, and suitable to the
intelligence of all.” They
are suited to the intelligence of the learned as to that of the ignorant,
to that of the scientist as to that of the layman, to the modern mind, too
often supposed to be infallible, no less than to the mind of the ancients,
too often presumed to be lacking in common sense.
a miracle, granted the existence of God, is possible is shown elsewhere (Essay
vii, Divine Providence).
If a true miracle, which is the work of God alone, is performed by
a man as a sign that his teaching is divine, it argues an
extraordinary intervention of divine power to vindicate his claim, and,
since the true God cannot confirm falsehood, the argument is peremptory.
His statement is thus rendered credible on the divine authority.
It may not, however, be superfluous to add that the miracle as such
does nothing more. It is not
an intrinsic proof of the statement made; it is a completely adequate
motive of credibility.
Certitude in preambles of faith
human mind, then, is able to learn with certainty the existence of God; is
able, by the proper investigation of the facts, to conclude that Christ is
the bearer of a divine message, that he founded an infallible Church for
the purpose of propagating that message; and finally, by the process
indicated in apologetics, to conclude that the Catholic Church is that
divinely appointed teacher of revelation.
These things, I say, can be known and proved, and by those who have
the requisite leisure, opportunity and ability, are actually known and
proven with all the scientific certainty of which the subject is patient.
The preambles of faith, therefore, rest upon the solid ground of
while the human mind can satisfy itself by rational demonstration
of the existence of God, and by historical investigation of the “fact of
revelation,” it remains true that for a great proportion of the human
race such a process of scientific demonstration is a practical
impossibility. A secure
conviction that a good God exists is obtainable by all men, and by the
large majority is actually obtained.
But how many are able, besides justifying that conviction to
themselves, to construct a scientific proof of the existence of God which
satisfies all the demands of human reason, with all the apparatus of
objection and answer which is needed by the modern apologist?
Most men believe in the existence of God because they have
satisfied themselves, by reasons which for them are sufficient, that God
really does exist. Again, the
divine origin of the Christian religion, the divine character of the
Catholic Church, being attested by so many motives of credibility, is
known by all Catholics, can be recognized by non-Catholics.
But relatively few Catholics have either the leisure or the ability
to investigate the historical documents, to sift for themselves the
evidence required for a scientific historical demonstration: relatively
few non-Catholics would have the opportunity of thus verifying the claims
of the Catholic Church. Moreover,
the difficulty in the way of such scientific certitude is infinitely
increased when we consider the condition of the uneducated and the young.
Can these make no act of faith until they have completed a course
of philosophy, until they have satisfied their minds by answering every
objection that can be made against the existence of God, proved the
divinity of the Christian religion by a rigid demonstration, and thus
arrived at perfect evidence concerning the preambles of faith?
perfect scientific evidence is unnecessary.
The reason why one must, before believing a statement, be convinced
of the existence and trustworthiness of the witness who makes it, is that
otherwise the assent given would be unreasonable, imprudent.
Thus it is imprudent to believe a statement supposed to have been
made even by a most knowledgeable and trustworthy person, if there is
reasonable doubt as to his having made it.
advisedly, if there is reasonable doubt, because there are doubts which
are unreasonable, imprudent. Nowadays,
at any rate, whatever may have been the case years ago, it is unreasonable
to doubt the safety of traveling by rail.
It is unreasonable to doubt a proposition which you have clearly
demonstrated simply because an objection is made to it which, by reason of
your lack of ability or technical knowledge, you are unable to solve.
Briefly, without going into the vexed question of certitude and its
various kinds, we may remark that there is a state of mind which a
reasonable man demands before he will engage upon any serious undertaking.
Call it moral certitude if you will; I prefer to call it a prudent
conviction. Complete scientific evidence in many cases, either for
circumstantial or personal reasons, he cannot have. He asks those who are competent to know, in whose judgment he
has full confidence, and with the conviction thus obtained he sets out
upon his task. Absolutely
speaking, he may have been deceived; but in the circumstances he acted
prudently; it would have been imprudent, unreasonable to doubt.
here follows a consequence of vital importance for the solution of our
question. What is prudent in some circumstances is imprudent in others;
what is prudent for one person is not prudent for another.
This state of mind, which I have called “prudent conviction,”
is not absolute but relative (Obviously
this view has nothing in common with the theory of “relative truth,”
according to which a proposition objectively true to one is false to
another. I am speaking here
not of objective truth but of a subjective state of mind.)
So, for example, it is prudent for the unlearned to believe
implicitly the teaching of those who “ought to know.”
A child acts prudently on the advice, however misguided, of his
believe what their teachers, however incompetent, teach them; and to act
upon such information is prudent and reasonable–for children.
In fact, they would be imprudent to act otherwise.
now let us apply these principles to the question before us.
In order to make a reasonable act of faith the prospective believer
must achieve a prudent conviction concerning the preambles of faith: a
conviction–i.e., he must be convinced of the existence of God and
the fact of revelation: a prudent conviction–i.e., there
must be no reasonable doubt. Such
a state of mind, then, is compatible with unreasonable doubts such as we
have exemplified above. Thus
a child who learns from his teacher, or from his catechism, that there is
a God who has revealed certain truths through his Church, of which the
parish priest is an official representative, has a prudent conviction
regarding the preambles sufficient for a reasonable act of divine faith.
Again, motives of credibility which would not convince the
scientist, to the unlearned may carry a conviction upon which he could
prudently rely. Hence, a scientific demonstration of the preambles, so far
from being a necessary preliminary to a reasonable act of faith, is in
most cases impossible; in those cases, therefore, it would be unreasonable
to demand it.
in all cases the legitimate demands of reason are met.
Reason demands that no man believe a thing unless he see it to be
credible. Even in the case of
the child, even in the case of the unlearned, whatever be the objective
reliability of his grounds for admitting the existence of God or the fact
of revelation, the conclusion to which he is led–namely, the judgment of
credibility–is perfectly evident. He
concludes that it is evidently reasonable to believe on the authority of
God a truth, or a group of truths, which he is prudently convinced that
God has revealed. But it
should be carefully noted, even now, that the motives which have led to
the “judgment of credibility” are not the motive of faith.
The act of faith remains yet to be made, and its motive is quite
distinct; it is the authority of God who reveals.
Other factors in the approach to faith–The function of the will
the inquirer has reached the stage at which he regards revealed truth as
“credible,” when, further, he has realized his obligation to believe,
he is on the threshold of faith. But
before we consider the act of faith itself, we have still to take into
account other important factors in the approach to it.
In what has been said hitherto we have considered only the
intellectual activity of man; and we have purposely confined our attention
to this aspect of the question in order to stress the essentially
reasonable character of submission to divine revelation.
But man is not a mental machine.
When he thinks of a subject he does so because he wills to think of
it. As we shall see later,
the will plays a prominent and essential part in the act of faith itself.
But also in the preparation for faith good-will is absolutely
necessary. Moreover, man has
various emotions and desires which to a greater or less extent are under
his control; these too must be taken into account.
It is not simply the human mind that prepares itself for faith; it
is the whole man, a vital unity, with all the complex interaction of his
mental, volitional, and emotional powers.
first thing necessary in the approach to faith is attention to the subject
of religion; the inquirer must first make up his mind to think about God
and his duties in God’s regard. And
here, besides the effort of will, the emotional factor may well enter to
attract or to repel. Some
have begun their inquiry simply out of affection for a Catholic friend
whose good opinion they valued; others have desisted when they saw that
such inquiry would lead to self-denial.
Some have been first attracted to the Catholic Church by the beauty
of her ceremonial; others have been repelled by the squalor of an ill-kept
church. Thus the most
insignificant circumstance may exert its effect, inclining a man this way
or that; but finally it is the will that directs the mind to God.
is not only in the initial impulse, however, but throughout the
preliminary stages too, that these factors exert their influence.
Distractions must be firmly set aside that the mind may devote its
attention to a serious and difficult subject; prejudices must be overcome
so that the full force of the motives of credibility may be appreciated;
the temptation to dally with sophistical objections when they are seen to
be groundless must be suppressed; unworthy considerations of
self-interest, pride and human respect must be excluded lest they
interfere with the earnest inquiry after truth.
In short, there are innumerable ways in which desires and feelings
may help or hinder man in his preparation for faith.
The will cannot make a thing to be true which is false; the will
cannot give force to an invalid argument.
But it can and must prevent extraneous considerations from
obscuring the issue, and exclude from the mind anything that may distract
a serene and unbiased attention to the arguments proposed.
In the study of a purely speculative subject there is little danger
of such interference; one is not liable to unreasonable prejudices in the
solution of an algebraic problem. But
religion is vitally connected with man’s moral duties, and for that very
reason a purely unprejudiced and rational study of it is particularly
difficult. If a man is to
devote himself to it wholeheartedly and with unruffled mind, he needs
above all things good-will.
remains the last, and yet really the first and most important factor.
With the intellect of a Plato, with the iron self-control of a
Stoic, with all the good-will of which man is capable, he can do nothing
to prepare himself for faith without the help of God’s grace.
“No man cometh to me unless the Father draw him.”
Man’s destiny is a supernatural one, entirely beyond his natural
powers to achieve. His acts, to be salutary–that is, to be conducive to his
eternal salvation–must be supernatural, must have a quality, a modality,
which raises them above their natural power and value, making them
proportionate to a supernatural end (See Essay xvii, Actual
Grace). It is by the act of faith that man first sets himself in the
path of salvation, and, as will be seen, that act must be supernatural.
But even before this vital step is taken man must be guided by
God’s grace. God’s
supernatural providence, which wills all men to be saved and to come to
the knowledge of the truth, watches over all men, guiding them gently, but
surely, to himself. The child
who learns his religion from his mother, whose mind is gradually opened to
the wonders of God’s revelation, is acting under the impulse of God’s
grace. The unbeliever who
becomes conscious of a desire to know God, who earnestly and
perseveringly, in spite of obstacles, seeks after the truth, is being led,
enlightened and inspired by supernatural grace.
The eloquence of St. Paul would not have converted a Lydia had the
grace of God not opened her heart to hear his words.
The Apostle may plant the seed and tend it carefully, but it will
not grow unless God give the increase (Cf. Acts xvi 14; 1
Cor. iii 4-6).
In all these
preliminaries, therefore, man must do his part. He must endeavor, with good-will, to see God’s truth is
credible; it is his duty and his right as a rational being. But he must not rely upon himself. “Our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. iii 5).
His very good-will must derive from him who “worketh in us both
to will and to accomplish” (Phil. ii 13).
The urge of passion, a deep-seated prejudice, a whole complex of
circumstances for which he may be but partly or even in no degree
responsible, may blind him to the truth.
For such a one the grace of enlightenment is at hand, if he will
but accept it. His prayer
must be that of the blind man: “Lord, that I may see.”
The answer and the result will be the same: “And immediately he
saw, and followed him” (Cf. Matt. xx 30-34).
THE ACT OF FAITH
Definition of faith
In the previous
section we accompanied the believer in his progress towards the act of
faith until the stage at which, having acquired a firm conviction
concerning the preambles of faith, he forms an evident “judgment of
credibility”: “This truth, which I am convinced has been revealed by
God, is to be believed on God’s authority.”
Passing to a judgment of the practical order, he says: “I must
believe it.” Then, and not
till then, he proceeds to give his assent to the revealed truth: “I
believe this truth because God has revealed it.”
This assent is the act of divine faith which we must now study.
subject is of such vital importance that our definition of the act of
faith must be taken from the infallible pronouncement of the Vatican
Council. The Council directly defines the virtue of faith, but in
doing so it necessarily defines the act: “Faith . . . is a supernatural
virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that
the things which he has revealed are true; not because the intrinsic truth
of the things is plainly perceived by the natural light of reason, but
because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, and who can
neither be deceived nor deceive.”
Motive, the authority of God
then, is an act whereby we believe something to be true.
It is an asset to truth, and therefore an act of the intellect: for
truth is the object of the intellect (Cf. the oath against
Modernism: “Faith . . . is a true act of the intellect.”)
There is, however, this
important difference between the assent of faith and the assent of
immediate knowledge. The
assent in the latter case is caused by the perception of the intrinsic
truth of the statement; so that when it is made I say: “I see; of
course, that must be so”; and, when once the truth is seen, nothing
further is required to gain my assent.
In the case of faith, I see indeed–otherwise there could be no
assent–but I do not see within the truth itself.
I understand the terms of the revealed proposition, but neither the
analysis of those terms nor my own experience assures me that they should
be connected. The ground, or
the “motive,” of my assent to the proposition is extrinsic to it, and
that motive is the authority of God, who tells me that it is true.
In both cases there is evidence: in the former the evidence is
intrinsic, in the latter it is extrinsic.
The believer sees the truth, says St. Thomas, “as credible; . . .
for he would not believe unless he saw that he must believe” (S.
Theol., II-II, Q. 1, art. 4 ad 2).
The will in the act of faith–a
have said that when once the inward truth of a proposition is seen,
nothing further is required to evoke the assent of the mind; it is drawn
of necessity to adhere to its connatural object.
But without that internal evidence the mind, of itself, is
powerless to assent. “Faith,”
says St. Paul, “is the evidence of things that appear not” (Heb.
Revealed truth is not seen in itself; it is seen as credible, as
clothed, so to speak, in the garment of divine authority. Invested with such authority, it becomes indeed a fit object
for intellectual acceptance; but the intellect alone, eager to “read
within” (intus-legere) the truth, makes no spontaneous move to
accept it. It is here that the intervention of the will becomes
necessary. It has been seen
in the previous section that the will has an important function in the
preliminaries to faith. To
arrive at the judgment of credibility the believer must focus his
attention upon the motives of credibility and set aside all that might
distract from their unbiased consideration.
All this needs a firm and constant effort of will.
But in these preliminary stages the will has no direct causative
influence upon the assent of the mind (This, of course, is true
only of those preambles of which rational demonstration is given.
If the preambles are accepted–as
they often are–on human
testimony, then the function of the will is the same as in every act of
faith, whether human or divine).
The intervention of the will in the act of faith itself is of a
different and more direct character.
The act of faith, though, as we have seen, it is elicited by the
mind, is caused by an act of will.
By faith, says the Vatican Council, “man yields a voluntary
obedience to God himself.” The
mind sees the revealed truth as credible, and the will bends the mind to
it is important at once to preclude a possible misunderstanding of the
function of the will in the act of faith.
The will cannot make the mind believe anything it chooses; it is
not that “the wish is father to the thought.”
Before the mind can accept a statement, even at the behest of the
will, the statement must be “credible”; it must be attested by a
trustworthy witness; and, moreover, it must not be nonsense.
Nonsense is meaningless and can have no relation to the mind.
Briefly, a revealed statement can be accepted by the mind
provided that it fulfills the conditions necessary to render it
credible–i.e., fit for intellectual acceptance.
It is seen to be not unfit for acceptance because it has an
intelligible meaning; it is seen to be positively fit for acceptance
because it is attested by an infallible witness.
In fact, since the witness in this case is God himself, who has a
right to our homage and obedience, the fitness is presented as a positive
Motive of faith further explained
will therefore now deliberately intervenes and commands the assent of the
mind to revealed truth; and the motive of the act is the authority of God
who attests that truth. This
motive, it should be remarked, is one which appeals to both mind and will,
but under different aspects. To
the mind it appeals as endowing the statement with credibility; to the
will it appeals as a divine perfection to be worshipped: his love in
revealing to be repaid by a loving acceptance on our part, his wisdom and
his veracity to be adored by an unquestioning homage (The act of
faith, therefore, involves an act of trust, of confidence in
God’s authority. But this
trust is not the act of faith itself; it is anterior to it because it
belongs to the motive of my assent. As
a consequence of my faith in what God has revealed I may then make a
further act of confidence in God that he pardons my sins; this is an act
of hope. The Protestant error
concerning the “faith that justifies” consists in confusing hope with
the faith which it presupposes. But
see Essay xvi: Sanctifying Grace).
“Since man,” says the Council which is our infallible guide in
this matter, “is utterly dependent upon God as upon his Creator and
Lord, and since created reason is absolutely subject to uncreated Truth,
we are bound, by faith in his revelation, to yield him the full homage of
our intellect and will.” Hence,
although the act of faith is an intellectual act, yet it is also an act of
homage which is in the power of the will to withhold. By faith “man yields free obedience to God.”
To explain the freedom and other properties of faith, it is
necessary to examine a little more closely the precise nature of its
motive, the authority of God (Here a preliminary remark may not be
out of place. As in many
matters of theology, where it is a question of explanations, so in this
matter theologians differ. The
explanation of the act of faith involves the science of psychology which,
although, or perhaps because, it deals with ourselves, is full of
difficulties and mysteries. It
is fair, therefore, to warn the reader that while all Catholics are
agreed–as they must be–that the motive of faith is the authority of
God, not all are agreed as to the manner in which this should be
explained. The view here put
forward appears to the writer a reasonable one, and is held by many
theologians of repute).
might seem at first sight that if a man is firmly convinced that a
statement has been made by one who is certainly telling the truth, then he
cannot possibly withhold his assent to it; nor is it apparent that such
assent would be an act of homage to his informant.
If a man accused of murder admits a fact which is damaging to his
case, the jury–granted that they find no other reason for his
admission–cannot but believe his testimony. And apart from all discussion as to the freedom of such an
assent, by no conceivable standard could such belief be termed a homage to
the veracity of the witness. The
jury accept his statement because they know that in the circumstances it
must be true. Of a like
nature is the credence that we may give to an historian whom, however
otherwise unreliable, we have proved by the application of tests to be
here and now telling the truth. Critical
students of history rely upon human testimony, but their acceptance of it
implies no personal compliment to the narrator of the event.
They believe that this happened because, and in so far as, they
know that he is saying what is true.
Is not the case the same with the act of divine faith?
I know that God has revealed the Trinity.
I know that God is Truth itself.
Surely the logical conclusion is inevitable:
the Trinity is true. Here
is no free acceptance of God’s word, no free homage to his Person.
I am forced by the laws of evidence.
there is a radical difference between the assent of divine faith and the
assent given under the circumstances above described.
The jury believe the witness, the historian believes his informant,
because and in so far as they know him to be relating what is in
conformity with reality. The
motive of their assent is the evidence that they have of the truth of the
statement; and such assent is probably not a free act; it is certainly no
personal compliment to the witness. The
believer accepts a revealed truth not precisely because he knows
that God has revealed it and knows that God is infallible.
This knowledge is the necessary condition, but it is not the motive
of his faith. He believes
because God, who is infallible, has said it.
The difference is perhaps subtle, but it is important.
The motive of the act of divine faith is not my knowledge of
that authority as accrediting revealed truth, however certain, however
evident that knowledge may be, but the divine authority itself. My knowledge is finite, my knowledge is fallible.
God’s authority is infinite; God can neither deceive nor be
deceived. If, when I believe,
I rely upon my knowledge, I rely upon what is human; if I rely upon
God’s authority I rely upon what is divine.
In the act of divine faith the believer abstracts from the
arguments which have led him to the judgment of credibility. They were a necessary preliminary; they were, if you will,
the tinder that lit the torch. But
the torch burns now by its own brilliance; the light of God’s authority
illumines revealed truth with its infinite radiance; and this is the
motive of faith: I believe because God has said it.
Reason has led me to faith. Reason
has told me that God’s revealed word is credible, and in accordance with
her advice I freely and unreservedly submit myself to the guidance of his
instructive incident in the life of the Lord illustrates the nature of
divine faith. The Pharisees, as is well known, were constantly rebuked by
our Lord for their unbelief. They
had seen, as others had seen, evident signs that Christ spoke the words of
God; and yet they stubbornly refused to believe him.
One day after they had made one of their frequent attempts to
discredit him (Matt. xix 3),
he took a little child and said: “Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not
receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, shall not enter it” (Mark
The act of divine faith has more in common with the trusting belief
of a child in his mother than with the assent of the critical historian.
For the child it is enough to know that his mother has said it, and
he believes on that authority. His
assent is a prudent one, for he has motives of credibility which for him
are sufficient; everything leads him reasonably to suppose that his mother
knows everything and would not deceive him.
But when he believes, he believes simply and solely because his mother
has said it. He does not
advert to the reasons which have led him to regard his mother as
trustworthy. His belief is an
unaffected and trusting homage of love to his mother.
So also in the Act of Faith which every Catholic child recites:
“O my God, I believe . . . because thou has said it, and thy word is
true.” To the motives of
credibility the child does not advert; he has probably forgotten them.
But the motives of credibility are not the motives of his faith.
He relies not upon them, but upon the authority of God itself.
What is true of the child is true of the Christian adult; and this
the experience of each will confirm.
When he makes an act of faith, he thinks not of the proofs of the
existence of God, not of the miracles which Christ worked, but of the
authority of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
is why faith is a “theological” virtue, this is why faith is an act of
free obedience to God; this, finally, is the reason for its sovereign
The certitude of faith
certitude of faith is supreme because the believer’s assurance rests
upon a ground more secure than all human science, upon the infallible
authority of God. “If we
receive the testimony of man,” says St. John (1 John v 9-10),
“the testimony of God is greater”; infinitely, unspeakably greater,
since God is very Truth. But,
as in regard to the freedom of the act of faith so also in regard to its
certitude, a difficulty often arises from a misconception of the precise
motive of faith. It is
sometimes urged that since no chain is stronger than its weakest link,
therefore the assent of faith can enjoy no greater certitude than the
assent given to any of the preambles of faith which are its foundation.
Metaphors are misleading here.
Even the word “foundation” may lend itself to misunderstanding.
The preambles of faith are the foundation of faith in the sense
that they are a necessary prerequisite.
But they are not its foundation in the sense of supplying the
security of the edifice. The
metaphor of the chain is no less fallacious.
There is no continuous “chain” of reasoning that leads from the
first argument which proves the existence of God to the truth, for
example, that in one God there are three Persons.
If the act of faith were the logical conclusion of such a chain,
then evidently that conclusion could have no greater weight than is
warranted by the series of arguments that lead to it.
But the act of faith is not an inference from preceding arguments.
series of truths which we have called the preambles of faith leads
logically to the judgment of credibility, but no further.
I aver, in view of my previous reasoning, that it is reasonable,
prudent, in fact obligatory, to believe that, e.g., there are three
Persons in one God. I then
proceed, impelled not by my previous reasoning, but by God’s authority,
to believe it. I believe it, not precisely because and in so far as I know
that God has revealed it, but because God has revealed it. Hence the firmness of my assent is measured not by the
cogency of any one, or indeed of the sum, of the reason which led me to
judge the truth as credible, but by the infinite weight of the divine
authority which is the motive of my faith.
although the certitude of faith is supreme, supreme as is the divine
authority upon which it is based, yet the mind of the believer is not
completely satisfied. Under
the influence of the will it holds firmly to the truth; but within the
truth it does not see; and nothing save vision can satisfy the mind.
Faith is an evidence–i.e., a firm conviction–but it is a
conviction “of things that appear not.”
As long, then, as intrinsic evidence is denied, the mental assent
is not spontaneous and requires the concurrence of the will. Hence it is misleading to compare the state of mind of the
believer with the complete repose of the mind in a truth clearly
demonstrated, or with the evidence of the senses.
In the latter case there can be little or no temptation to doubt.
The believer, on the other hand, precisely because he does not see
within the truth, may be subject to many such temptations.
But temptations are not doubts, and the believer is able by an
effort of will to dispel them, to concentrate his attention upon the
infallible motive of his faith, and thus to achieve a state of security
from error as superior to that of human knowledge as the Truth of God
infinitely transcends the fallible reason of man.
The supernatural character of faith
whole process of the act of faith, such as we have described it, does not
seem, absolutely speaking, to exceed man’s natural powers.
If we consider those powers in the abstract, there seems to be no
reason why, granted that God has made a revelation, man should not be able
for himself to investigate the preambles of faith, naturally to recognize
his obligation to accept it, and finally to believe on God’s authority
the truths that he has revealed. But
even if we grant this to be physically possible, we have seen that the
difficulties which occur even in the preliminary stages are such as to
render it extremely unlikely of achievement, without the help of God’s
grace. When, moreover, we
consider that the act of faith, being the initial step in man’s progress
towards his supernatural end, must itself be supernatural, the need for
grace becomes quite imperative.
must now, therefore, give our attention to those words of the Vatican
definition which we have hitherto neglected.
“This faith,” says the Council, “which is the beginning of
man’s salvation, is a supernatural virtue, whereby, inspired
and assisted by God’s grace, we believe,” etc. And later in the same chapter, quoting the Council of Orange
(529) the Council asserts the absolute impossibility of a salutary faith
“without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gives
to all men sweetness in accepting and believing the truth.”
is necessary for the act of faith, in the first place, to make it
supernatural; to give it that quality which makes it conducive to a
supernatural end, in other words, to make it salutary.
If that supernatural character is needed–as we have seen that it
is–even in the preliminary steps to faith, still more is it needed in
the very act by which man submits to God’s authority.
“By grace,” says St. Paul (Ephes.
ii 8), “you are saved through
faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God.”
For faith man must strive to his utmost; he must use all human
endeavor to learn the truth and to submit to it.
But all his striving, all his endeavor, would be utterly useless
without the grace of God. He
might even–we have surmised that it is not impossible–make an act of
faith unaided; but that act would not serve for his salvation unless it
were made under the inspiration and assistance of God’s grace.
It must be inspired by grace.
God does not wait until man conceives the desire to believe; he
puts that desire supernaturally in his heart.
It must be assisted by God’s grace.
In the very act of submission to God’s truth, the mind is
enlightened, the will is strengthened by God, who works in us “to will
and to accomplish.”
grace of God is essential; but to none is it ever lacking.
If even during man’s progress toward faith God enlightens the
mind and strengthens the will, anticipating every act with his grace,
still more abundantly, when the act of faith itself is to be made, will
God give his supernatural help. It
is not the lack of grace that man should dread, but rather his own power
to resist it.
grace does more than make the act of faith supernatural; it renders it
easy and delightful. The Holy
Spirit gives “sweetness in believing.”
Grace enlightens the mind, setting in vivid relief the desirability
of paying intellectual homage to God, giving to it a supernatural insight
into the meaning even of mysteries, and into the treasures of grace and
glory which will be the reward of our faith.
Grace helps the will to adhere firmly to God’s word, putting
aside all considerations of self-interest, all distractions of worldly
things, to cleave to God, the inexhaustible source of every good (The
effects which, in those who have the supernatural virtue of faith, proceed
from that virtue are produced in others by actual grace. Cf. Essay
xviii: The Supernatural Virtues).
Faith God’s gift–Perseverance in faith
the fullest sense of the term, therefore, faith is God’s gift.
Hence it is for man to treasure and preserve it.
Until we see God face to face the mind will be restive, and
temptations to doubt will be frequent.
The will must be prompt to reject them, and in this task man has
always the abundant help of God’s grace.
He who has once committed himself to the keeping of God’s Truth
need not fear that he will be deserted in time of temptation.
But he must do his part. He
must take all those measures which are humanly possible to guard his
treasure against attack. The
mind of man is fickle; error seduces by its very novelty, sophistical
reasoning by its display of ingenuity.
The Church, therefore, while she encourages her more learned
children to study, in order to refute, the written works of those who
attack the faith, wisely forbids the dissemination, and above all the
indiscriminate reading, of such books.
She knows well that many who have the intelligence to understand an
objection have not the ability to find, or even to understand, its answer;
that not all the faithful have the leisure or the power to meet reason
with reason and learning with learning, and to rebut the objections so
of the faithful who are troubled with such difficulties will do well to
meditate upon these infallible words of the Vatican Council: “Although
faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between
faith and reason; since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses
faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, and God cannot
deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.
The false appearance of such contradiction is mainly due, either to
the dogmas of faith not having been understood and expounded according to
the mind of the Church, or to the inventions of opinion having been taken
for the verdicts of reason.”
further duty regarding perseverance in faith arises from what was said in
the previous section. It was
there established that in order that the act of faith may be reasonably
made it is sufficient to have a conviction concerning the preambles which,
relatively to the circumstances of the individual, is prudent. But what is the duty of the child, for instance, when he
grows to manhood and discovers–as he may–that the motives upon which
he relied for his judgment of credibility no longer satisfy him?
Is he to give up his faith until he has once more gone over the
preliminary ground and satisfied himself concerning the preambles?
answer of the Church as far as Catholics are concerned is peremptory: a
Catholic can never have a just reason for abandoning the faith that he has
once embraced. And the first
reason of this is that the Catholic has constantly before him an
absolutely, and not merely a relatively, sufficient motive of
credibility–namely the Church herself, divinely instituted, and assuring
her children “that the faith which they profess rests on the most secure
foundation” (Vatican Council,
loc. cit., chap. iii).
The second reason is that faith is not only a supernatural gift of
God, but is accompanied by the graces necessary to preserve it.
God’s providence will not allow the faithful to lack the helps
which they need to protect their faith.
The ever-watchful Father, to whom his children daily pray, “Lead
us not into temptation,” will never allow them to be in such
circumstances that the loss of their faith would be inculpable.
Whatever be the greater or lesser degree of blame that may attach
in individual cases, whatever be the mysterious means that God may use to
protect his faithful ones, it is certain that “God does not abandon us
until we first abandon him” (St. Augustine, De natura et
gratis, c. 26).
is clear, then, that in this matter the Catholic has serious duties.
Not only must he avoid temptations against the faith, not only must
he pray for an increase of faith, but he is bound to take care that his
mental development in secular branches of study shall be accompanied by
equal development in the knowledge of his religion.
If he feels difficulties regarding fundamentals it is his duty to
inquire of those who are able to solve them; and here he needs a humility
of mind which recognizes that what he does not know is well known to many
others. There can be little
doubt that many defections from the Church are due to a culpable lack of
knowledge–culpable because the ordinary means of information upon this
important matter, whether they be Catholic books, sermons, or
instructions, have been culpably neglected.
it is otherwise for those who belong to non-Catholic religious bodies.
None of these possesses, or indeed claims exclusively to possess,
those characteristic marks of divine institution which so clearly
distinguish the Catholic Church. Although
members of such bodies may indeed assent by divine faith to some truths
which are revealed by God, yet that very grace of faith, which strengthens
Catholics in their adherence to the Church which Christ has instituted as
the pillar and the ground of truth, will lead others to correct their
errors and to submit to the infallible teacher of God’s word.
The essential differnce in this matter between the position of
Catholics and that of others is that whereas other religious bodies do not
claim to be divinely instituted as the only infallible teacher of divine
revelation, Catholics by their very faith profess that the Church is their
divinely appointed guide. As
Tertullian said to the unbelievers of his day, “We need no curious
searchings, when we have Jesus Christ; we need no further inquiry, when we
have the gospel. When we
believe, we need to believe nothing more.
For this we believe at the very beginning, that there is nothing
more to believe” (De
praescr., c. 9).
Necessity for salvation
word in conclusion on the necessity of the act of faith.
That in all adults a supernatural act of divine faith is necessary
as an indispensable means of salvation is the doctrine of the Catholic
Church, and may be readily inferred from all that has been said concerning
faith and supernatural revelation. The
primary truth of that revelation is that man is called to a supernatural
destiny which consists in the vision of God face to face.
Of this destiny man could know nothing without revelation, and
knowing nothing could never strive for it.
Hence, in all who are able to act rationally and to think for
themselves the first and indispensable step towards salvation is their
recognition, by an act of divine faith, of God as their supernatural end.
“Without faith,” says St. Paul, “it is impossible to please
God” (Heb. xi 6). That act
of faith, it is clear, must embrace at least implicitly every truth that
God has revealed, for the motive of faith, the authority of God, applies
equally to them all. As to
the minimum that must be known, and therefore believed explicitly, so that
even its inculpable ignorance would exclude from the hope of salvation, it
is commonly held that the two truths mentioned by St. Paul (Loc. cit.)
are sufficient: “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and is a
rewarder of them that seek him.” But
however few, however many be
the truths believed, they must be accepted by an act of faith strictly so
called. It is not enough,
therefore, to hold, simply because one thinks it reasonable to hold, that
there is a God who will reward those who seek him.
It is necessary for salvation to hold this because God has
revealed it, whatever be the means by which God’s word has been made
known. And the reason is that
the reward which is in store for man is a reward which he could never have
expected without God’s revelation.
apart from exceptional cases, it is normally necessary to know and to
believe explicitly far more than the two truths mentioned, for Christ has
instituted his Church to teach all that God has revealed.
And this brings us to the subject of the next section.
THE CHURCH AND THE OBJECT OF FAITH
The Church the appointed teacher of revealed truth
necessary condition for the act of faith, as we have seen, is that the
believer should know what God has revealed; the object of faith must be
presented to him as credible on the divine authority.
But it is evident that, so far as the act of divine faith as such
is concerned, it matters little by what means it is thus presented.
The study of Jewish and Christian literature simply as historical
documents may convince a person that certain doctrines are revealed by
God; in that case he is bound to believe such doctrines on the authority
of God’s word. There are
undoubtedly many outside the Catholic Church who, inculpably rejecting or
not knowing her claim to be the infallible guardian of divine truth, yet
believe some Christian doctrines by a supernatural act of divine faith.
They have their motives of credibility, they have the assistance of
God’s grace; they have, in short, all that is necessary for the act of
divine faith which we have described (See Essay xvii: Actual
the antithesis is to be noted–these are exceptional cases.
They presuppose inculpable ignorance of the Catholic Church, the
divinely appointed means for the teaching of revealed truth.
Although by God’s admirable mercy many outside the Church are
enabled providentially to believe some small part of that divine doctrine,
yet these must be content, as it were, with crumbs from the table of that
rich repast which is spread for those who dwell within.
“That we may be able to satisfy the obligation of embracing the
true faith and of constantly persevering therein, God has instituted the
Church through his only-begotten Son, and has bestowed on it manifest
marks of that institution, that it may be recognized by all men as the
guardian and teacher of the revealed word” (Vatican Council, loc
cit., chap. iii).
This, then, is the way of approach to God’s truth which Christ
himself has ordained: a visible Church with a living teaching authority,
infallible because the Holy Ghost is with her, preserving her from error (Cf.
Essay xx: The Church on Earth).
Revelation complete in Christ
revelation made to the Apostles, by Christ and by the Holy Spirit whom he
sent to teach them all truth, was final, definitive.
To that body of revealed truth nothing has been, or ever will be,
added. The duty of the Apostles and their successors was clear: to
guard jealously the precious thing committed to their care and to transmit
it whole and entire to posterity. “Therefore,
brethren,” says St. Paul, “stand fast, and hold the traditions which
you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thess. ii
14). “Hold the form of sound words which thou has heard of me in
faith and in the love which is in Christ Jesus . . . The things which thou
hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who
shall be fit to teach others also” (2 Tim. i 13; ii 2).
Hence this important consequence: when the Church teaches that a
truth–e.g., the doctrine of original sin–is revealed by God,
she does not mean that God has just now revealed it to her; but, in virtue
of her office as the infallible custodian and interpreter of God’s word,
she declares that this truth is contained, and always has been contained,
in the deposit of revelation committed to her care.
In other words, when the Church teaches a revealed truth she draws
upon the “sources” of revelation.
Sources of revelation
are these sources? It would
be true, in a sense, to say that there is but one source of
revelation–namely, divine Tradition–understanding thereby the body of
revealed truth handed down from the Apostles; and it is in this sense that
St. Paul uses the word when he urges Timothy to “hold the traditions
which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle.”
Nevertheless, since a great and important part of that tradition
was committed to writing and is contained in the inspired books of Holy
Scripture, it is the custom of the Church to distinguish two sources of
revelation, Tradition and Scripture, the former name being reserved for
that body of revealed truth which was not committed to writing under the
inspiration of the Holy Ghost, but has been handed down through the living
teaching authority of the Catholic Church. We must deal briefly with each.
Tradition and its organs
first, that oral tradition is a source of revelation distinct from
Scripture there is little need to demonstrate.
The manner in which Christ instituted his Church is a sufficient
indication of this. He
instituted a visible society to the rulers of which he gave power to teach
infallibly; in other words, he founded a living teaching authority.
He may indeed have given his Apostles instructions to write some
account of his life on earth, and of the chief points of his teaching; but
the Gospels themselves do not tell us so.
At any rate not all of them did, or if they did their writings have
not come down to us. But he
told them explicitly to preach the gospel to every creature; and
the accounts that we have of the early apostolic ministry–and the
Pauline texts above quoted–show that it was by oral instruction that the
revealed word of God was chiefly propagated.
St. Paul, in fact, presupposes as a necessary prerequisite for
faith the hearing of the word and the preaching of the
gospel (Cf. Rom. x 14-17).
tradition which is a source of revelation is divine Tradition; and this
differs from human tradition not only because it is of divine origin, but
also in that, unlike its human counterpart, it is divinely guaranteed
against corruption and alteration. Daily
experience offers examples of statements which, made to one person and by
him related to another who, in his turn, relying partly on a faulty memory
and largely on a vivid imagination, relates them with embellishments to a
friend, are brought back to the original speaker mutilated, mangled, and
Tradition is authoritative and infallible; infallible because
authoritative–that is, transmitted through the teaching authority of the
Church, under the assistance of the Holy Ghost.
may demand that the Church should exercise her teaching office in a solemn
manner, either by an infallible pronouncement of the Head of the Church,
by the definitions of an Ecumenical Council, or by the authoritative
proposition of some creed or formula of belief; all such statements of
doctrine form a part of divine Tradition.
Ordinarily, however, the Church teaches the faithful through their
more immediate legitimate pastors, and their universal consensus on a
point of doctrine–expressed either in official pronouncements, in
catechisms issued by episcopal authority, or through other channels–is
an organ of divine Tradition. Similarly
the universal practice of the Church, if it essentially implies a dogmatic
truth, is a source of divine revelation.
Thus St. Augustine rightly pointed to the universal practice of the
Church of baptizing children as an indication that the doctrine of
original sin is divinely revealed. Moreover,
many of the theologians of the early centuries of the Church, conspicuous
for their sanctity and learning, are called “Fathers.”
The consensus of these, similarly, considered as witnesses to the
general belief of the Church, is an indication that the truth which they
unanimously hold to be divinely revealed is in fact a part of the deposit
of faith. The same is true of the consensus of later theologians.
For although neither Fathers nor theologians as such
represent the teaching authority of the Church, yet they are witnesses to
the universal belief of the faithful which is the result of that teaching.
Hence, finally, the belief of the faithful themselves, expressed
unanimously, is a further indication that a truth is contained in the
deposit of faith. For the
faithful, considered as a body, believe infallibly what they have been
other source of revelation is Sacred Scripture.
The books of the Old and New Testaments are held by the Church as
sacred, not merely because they contain revealed doctrine, not merely
because they are free from error, but because they are the work of God
himself. God is their author.
This is not the place in which to deal with the important subject
of inspiration; it is treated fully elsewhere in this work (Essay
V: The Holy Ghost). Suffice it to note here that inspiration is a supernatural
work of God. Hence we can
know nothing of it except from revelation.
No natural perfection of a book–e.g., the fact that it
contains true and holy doctrines, that its perusal gives rise to pious
thoughts–can show it to have been written under the supernatural
influence of the Holy Spirit. We
can know that God is the author of a book only through the testimony
either of God himself, or of the writer whom he has used as his
instrument, provided that he was conscious of being divinely inspired.
In the latter case, unless the sacred writer is able to present
divine credentials for his assertion, the testimony is but human and
fallible. Whether therefore,
in regard to inspiration in general–that there do in fact exist divinely
inspired books, or in regard to the canonicity of the sacred books–that
this or that book is divinely inspired, our sure and infallible knowledge
can come only from divine revelation.
Now we have seen that the complete divine revelation is transmitted
to us from Christ through the Apostles in the divine Tradition of the
Church. Hence the only
certain guide as to the inspiration and canonicity of all the books of
Sacred Scripture is the authoritative pronouncement of the Church.
“I should not believe the gospel,” says St. Augustine,
“unless I were impelled thereto by the authority of the Catholic
Church” (Contra ep. fundament., c. 5.
With regard to some books of Scripture that revelation may be found
in Scripture itself, where we find the testimony of Christ and his
Apostles to the inspiration of many of the books of the Old Testament.
Moreover, it may still be not unnecessary–although
it has been done so often before–to
point out that the Catholic is not guilty of a vicious circle in arguing
“from the Bible to the Church and from the Church to the Bible.”
The Catholic apologist does indeed argue (partly, not entirely)
from data found in the Bible to the divine institution of the Catholic
Church; but at this stage he does not use the Bible as inspired, but
simply as a trustworthy historical document.
The logical sequence, therefore, is not simply “from the Bible to
the Church and from the Church to the Bible,” but rather from a trustworthy
Bible to a divinely instituted Church.
Then follows an act of faith (made on the authority of God and
under the direction of his Church) in the inspiration of the
since the Church is the divinely appointed custodian of revelation, it is
evidently her office to preserve not merely the letter of the Scripture,
but also their meaning. The
Church, therefore, is the authentic and infallible interpreter of
Scripture. Nevertheless, this
intimate connection between Tradition and Scripture does not imply that
the inspired writings are not a source of revelation distinct from the
oral Tradition which transmits them to us.
The Church, infallibly assisted by the Holy Ghost, tells us what
God has revealed. In the
Scriptures it is God himself who gives us his revelation.
But so deep is the reverence in which the Church holds the inspired
word of God that she guards it most jealously, encouraging scholars,
indeed, in their endeavors more profoundly to penetrate its meaning, but
keeping upon them a salutary check, lest human ingenuity should corrupt
the wisdom that is divine.
then, are the two sources of divine revelation: Tradition preserved by the
living and infallible teaching authority of the Church, and Scripture, the
inspired word of God: sources of truth which the Church preserves pure and
undefiled, and from which she derives that divine revelation which she
proposes for belief in all ages.
the Church, therefore, teaches as divinely revealed, that most certainly
is revealed by God and must be believed on the divine authority.
These truths, revealed by God–i.e., contained in Tradition
or in Scripture, or in both, and taught by the Church either in her solemn
definitions or in her ordinary teaching–are called by the technical name
Divine and Catholic faith
little reflection will serve to show that the act of faith by which a
Catholic believes the dogmas of the Church does not differ essentially
from the act of divine faith. The
motive of faith is always the authority of God who reveals.
Yet such an act of faith has an additional perfection, in that,
besides accepting the authority of God, it includes also submission to the
Catholic Church as the infallible and authentic interpreter of revelation.
This act of faith is therefore called by the special name of
“divine and catholic” faith. It
is divine because its motive is the divine authority; it is catholic
because the truth is accepted as divinely revealed on the authority of the
infallible Catholic Church.
the infallible authority of the Church is by no means confined to the
teaching of “dogmas.” The
Church is not only the teacher of revealed truth, she is also its
guardian; and in the office of protecting God’s truth against error she
needs to pronounce infallibly upon many matters which, although they are
not formally revealed by God, are nevertheless intimately connected with
revelation. It cannot be too
strongly emphasized that Catholics are bound under pain of grave sin to
believe the truths thus infallibly taught by the Church.
They are not dogmas, indeed, because in themselves they have not
been revealed by God. Hence
the motive of the assent which we give to them is not the divine
authority. We believe them on the authority of the Catholic Church,
inasmuch as she is exercising her office of guardian of revealed truth, an
office committed to her by God himself.
Evidently, therefore, refusal to believe them would be a serious
sin against the virtue of faith (Cf. Essay xviii: The
Supernatural Virtues. Since
the motive of this assent is the authority of the Church, such faith is
thus duly stressed the strict duty of Catholics in this matter, we may now
proceed, without fear of being misunderstood, to explain more fully the
important distinction between what for purposes of convenience I will call
these “secondary truths,” and “dogmas” in the proper sense of the
word. The distinction is
important for at least three reasons, for upon it depends the
understanding (1) of what is meant by “heresy,” (2) of what is meant
by the “immutability” of Catholic dogma, and (3) of the restrictions
placed upon theological discussion. The
third point will be dealt with in the last section; of the first it is
sufficient to say that “heresy” is the willful denial of a dogma” (Ibid.)
with the second we must deal here more fully.
dogma, then, as opposed to a secondary truth, is a truth contained “in
the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a
solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching, proposes for
belief as having divinely been revealed” (Vatican
Council, loc. cit. chap. iii). That the sources of revelation are two has already been
sufficiently emphasized. Two
points, however, in this definition need to be explained, since the
neglect of either may lead to the exaggeration or to the undue limitation
of the field of dogma.
the first place the truth must be contained in either of the
sources of revelation. That
is to say, it must have been revealed by God either expressly or in
equivalent words–i.e., as the theologians say, “formally.”
Hence from the field of dogma properly so called are to be excluded
those truths which are only connected–however intimately–with
revelation. Thus a truth
which is deduced by human reasoning from revealed truth–a theological
conclusion–even though it may be infallibly taught by the Church and
therefore binding on our assent, is not a dogma.
Thus varying practical or devotional applications of revealed
truths are not dogmas; the infallible decisions of the Church on points of
historical fact, such as the ecumenicity of certain Councils, though they
are closely connected with revealed truth, are not, properly speaking,
dogmas. Nor does the use of
certain philosophical terms in the proposition of revealed truths
consecrate as a dogma any tenet proper to that philosophical system.
the other hand, a truth, to be a dogma, need not be contained expressly in
the sources of revelation. It
is sufficient that it be revealed at least in equivalent words. Thus if two statements are revealed which together involve a
third, then that third is revealed equivalently. If, for example, it is expressly revealed that man has
free-will, and that Christ has a true human nature, then it is
equivalently revealed that Christ has free-will.
In this and many similar instances the third proposition is not
deduced by human reasoning, but gathered directly from the meaning of what
God has revealed.
the second place, it is to be observed that to be a dogma a revealed truth
need not be solemnly defined by the Church.
It is sufficient, as the Church herself has repeatedly declared,
that it be proposed as being divinely revealed in her ordinary official
teaching. But this at least
is necessary. Hence,
regularly, a private revelation–i.e., a revelation made by God
for the benefit of one individual or group of individuals–binds only
those to whom and for whom it is made.
It is not intended for all the faithful, it is not accompanied by
any divine guarantee that it will be transmitted to others without
adulteration, nor is it, as such, contained in the deposit of faith
committed to the Church. The
approbation granted by the Church to these revelations means nothing more
than “permission, given after due examination, to publish them for the
edification and utility for the faithful” (Benedict
XIV: De Beatif., etc., lib. 2, c. 32).
Moreover, by such approbation the Church does not–at any rate
infallibly–guarantee even their authenticity (Pius X: Encyclical Pascendi).
Truths so revealed form no part of the dogmatic teaching of the
Immutability and development of Catholic dogma
thus, so far as space allows, cleared the ground of misconceptions, we may
now answer the questions: What is the meaning of the immutability of
Catholic dogma? Does it in
any way develop?
answer to the first question is contained in what has already been said.
The revelation of Christ is definitive.
He, with the Holy Spirit whom he sent, has revealed to his Apostles
all truth. But a dogma, as we
have seen, is a truth which is contained in that revelation.
Therefore dogma, in the sense that it proposes for belief no truth
which was not thus revealed to the Apostles and by them handed down to the
Church, is immutable.
undoubtedly a certain development is to be admitted. The subject is most complex and demands a far fuller
treatment than can possibly be accorded it in the present essay; we must
be content with the merest outline. In
the first place clearly any “development” must be excluded from dogma
which would result in the adulteration of the original meaning of God’s
revealed word. This would be
incompatible with the immutability already established.
Thus the view that dogmas, being mere symbols to represent the
evolution of the universal religious consciousness, may in course of time
come to mean the opposite of what they meant before; the view that dogma
develop in the sense that they are re-stated–and this often means
contradicted–to suit the practical or scientific needs of the age; these
and similar views must be definitely rejected as incompatible with the
essential immutability of divine revelation.
then, does dogma develop? Albertus
Magnus (Quoted by Franzelin: De
Divina Traditione . . . p. 260) succinctly
describes this development as “the progress of the faithful in the
faith, rather than of the faith within the faithful.”
In other words, the whole of revealed truth is contained in the
sources of revelation, but in the course of ages it has undergone, and
still undergoes, a process of “unfolding,” whereby the faithful, under
the infallible guidance of the Church assisted by the Holy Ghost, arrive
at a fuller understanding of the truths which God has revealed.
Of this “unfolding” process, however, the cause is not the
understanding of the faithful, but the infallible teaching authority of
the Catholic Church.
is inevitable, in the nature of things, that a body of truth committed to
human understanding should undergo a process of development.
The truth is apprehended by the mind now under one aspect, now
under another; every new point of view is a development.
A universal truth contains implicitly its application to many
individual cases; every such application is a development.
The human mind relates one statement to another by a logical
sequence, and thus, is enabled more fully to understand them both; the
fuller understanding of truth is a development.
Such development occurs in every science.
But there is this important difference in regard to revealed truth,
that whereas in human science progress is made from the totally unknown to
the known, often from error to truth and vice versa, in the
development of dogma there are no such vicissitudes, because the only
cause of development in Catholic dogma is the infallible teaching of the
may study revealed truth, may find new modes of expression, may discover
or set into clearer relief new implications thereof; the denial of a truth
by heretics may orientate discussion towards aspects of the truth hitherto
but little studied; old formulas may be found to be not false, but no
longer adequate, in consequence of misunderstanding or misconstruction,
for the controversial needs of the day; the devotion of the faithful may
lead to a greater emphasis being laid upon certain aspects of the truth.
But when all is said and done, it is the Church, assisted by the
Holy Ghost, that unfolds the truth, since, until she has embodied in her
official teaching the results of theological study or of devotional
impulse, there is no development in Catholic dogma.
illustrate this development of revealed truth “in one and the same
doctrine, one and the same judgment” (Vatican Council, loc
cit., chap. iv, quoting Vincent of Lerins: Common., n. 28),
many examples might be taken from history.
One characteristic instance must suffice.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Lady was
solemnly defined by Pope Pius IX in the year 1854.
It was defined, not as a conclusion drawn from revealed doctrine,
but as being contained in the revealed word of God.
And, in fact, if we examine the sources of Revelation (Scripture
and Tradition) we find that this is so.
In the Scriptures, as interpreted by Tradition, this truth is
implicitly contained in the statement that Mary is “full” of grace,
that between her and Satan there is complete enmity, such that she could
never have been under Satan’s power.
During the first three centuries we find in Tradition the constant
teaching–as a doctrine divinely revealed–that Mary is the new Eve,
that she plays a part in the Redemption analogous to that which Eve had
played in the Fall–i.e., that she is ever on the side of the
Redeemer against sin. Hence
the Fathers teach that she is all-pure, so much so that St. Augustine, in
spite of his insistence against the Pelagians upon the natural sinfulness
of mankind, yet refuses to mention the name of Mary in connection with
sin. With the impetus given
to devotion to our Lady by the Council of Ephesus we find lyrical
outbursts, especially among the Eastern Fathers, extolling the purity of
our Lady, and–from the seventh century onwards–not infrequent mention
of the feast of her Conception. Differences
of opinion among the theologians of the Middle Ages as to the precise
essence of original sin prevented many of them from explicitly exempting
our Lady from this hereditary taint; but with the clearer understanding of
that doctrine came the explicit statement and universal belief that not
for one moment of her existence was our Lady stained with original sin.
history of this dogma is very instructive as showing how a particular
truth, implicitly contained from the very beginning in a more general one,
may, under the successive influence of theological study, devotional
impulse, and even theological disagreement, come to be explicitly
understood, universally believed, and, in the end, solemnly defined by the
the dogmas of the Church, though they are the most important part of her
doctrine, form but a part of her infallible teaching. Besides dogmas strictly so called, our heritage includes a
wealth of doctrine derived from revealed truth, the fruit, in great
measure, of the loving meditation of our forefathers in the faith and of
the devoted study of theologians.
may be briefly described as the science of revealed truth.
Presupposing revelation and faith, it applies the scientific method
to the study of revealed truth. The
theologian not only accepts the truths which God has revealed, but he
links them together in their logical sequence, showing the connection of
one with another, their mutual harmony and their analogy with the
conclusions of human reason. Nor does he deal only with revelation as such, by applying to
revealed truth the principles of human reasoning he deduces conclusions,
and these in their turn he links up with other conclusions and with other
revealed truths, thus forming a complete and harmonious system.
Sources and Method
chief sources used by theology are, clearly, the sources of Revelation:
Scripture and Tradition. The theologian shows how the various dogmas of the Church are
contained therein, traces their development from implicit to explicit
belief, the different aspects under which they have been studied at
different periods of the Church’s history, and deals with the heresies
and the controversies that have arisen in regard to each.
But he does not confine his study of Tradition to the truths which
have always been believed as revealed by God.
He investigates the conclusions which in the past have been drawn
from revealed truth, testing the consensus of Fathers and theologians
concerning them as a criterion of their accuracy, and as indicating the
common belief of the faithful on matters closely connected with
other sciences, theology has
its subsidiary sources. Chief
among them is philosophy, by means of which the theologian is able not
only to demonstrate the preambles of faith, not only to show that the data
of revelation are in perfect harmony with the conclusions of human reason,
but also to gain a most “fruitful understanding even of mysteries.”
These must, of course, remain veiled in a certain obscurity as long
as we walk “by faith”; yet by the aid of philosophy the theologian
vindicates their reasonable character, defends them against the accusation
of absurdity, and is able to learn much of their meaning.
As we have already seen, the terms in which mysteries are revealed
are familiar to us. Philosophy
enables the theologians to define more accurately the meaning of those
terms, and in this way to acquire a better understanding of the mystery
philosophy, though useful in theology, is subsidiary, and must take a
subordinate place. There
comes a stage in the study of mysteries where the philosopher must bow his
head and be content, and even rejoice, to walk by faith alone. Moreover, he must submit to learn from revelation the limits
of his own science. If a
philosophical tenet is found to be in contradiction with a revealed truth,
then the philosopher must retrace his steps to see where he has wrongly
reasoned. To this extent the
theologian must always argue a priori.
If a truth is certainly revealed by God–and that, through the
infallible teaching of the Church, he can always ascertain–then any
human conclusion or hypothesis, whether it be philosophical,
historical, or scientific, which contradicts it, is most certainly
erroneous. The theologian, on
the other hand, must beware lest in such matters he himself introduce
confusion by expounding the word of God otherwise than the Church
other sciences, especially history and the natural sciences, are used as
subsidiary in theology. These
are valuable as supplying knowledge concerning the created universe, and
particularly concerning the nature of man, the most noble of God’s
visible creatures. But they
too must be used under conditions and safeguards analogous to those
already described. It has been said before, but it is worth while repeating,
that between the natural revelation which God has made of his perfections
in the universe and the supernatural revelation which he has given us
through his Church, there can be no real contradiction.
In God’s providence the one is complementary to the other.
important observation must be made before we conclude.
Theologians are fallible and therefore they differ.
In the essays of the series of which this is the first, there will
be set forth not only the dogmas of the Church, not only quite certain
theological conclusions which, since they are taught by the infallible
Church, must be accepted by “ecclesiastical” faith, not only more
remote conclusions which, by reason of the common consent of theologians,
it would be “rash” to deny, but also other statements, intended to
explain, to amplify, or philosophically to justify some doctrine of the
Church, statements which have not the same infallible certainty.
On these matters, in which the integrity or the security of
revealed truth is not in question, theologians enjoy freedom of
discussion. Upon such
controversies, since the sincere object of the participants is the fuller
understanding of revealed truth, the Church looks with no unfavorable eye,
solicitous ever to promote charity among the disputants with that
single-minded desire for truth, and loving appreciation of the word of
God, which are the heart and soul of theology.
George D. Smith