Papal Supremacy Series: What is Faith?
Part of the Papal Supremacy Series. What is Faith?
I am starting a series on papal supremacy. It will go over my thought process, from my presuppositions to my conclusions. It will show how I worked my way through papal supremacy and its inevitable contradiction.
Faith is the virtue, given by God, which enables man to trust in the promises revealed by God. As St. Paul teaches, faith is ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). By faith, as Thomas Aquinas teaches, man believes and holds onto God as the object of his faith (ST IIa-IIæ, 4). God is not faith itself but its object.
The end goal of faith is charity: perfect obedience to, and life with, God. As St. Paul writes, ‘ So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor. 13:13). When the man of true faith is in heaven, he no longer has faith nor hope; he only has God who is charity (1 John 4:8). St. John Chrysostom concurs in his commentary on this verse: ‘How then is love the greater? In that those pass away’ (Homily XXXIV).
While on earth, however, faith enables man to know God and what He has revealed. To believe something contrary to what is revealed by God is to have a different faith.
It is important that every member of the Church believe certain core doctrines. To have a different faith—a false faith—is to have a different object of faith—a false god. For example, it is essential to believe that Jesus Christ is ὁμοούσιον (consubstantial) with the Father. This is not by decree of the Church but essential to what it means to trust in God’s promises. To believe anything else is to change the identity of God.
Faith is not Obedience
If faith is so important and so great, how can any man have it? Every man sins, acting against what he claims to believe. Is that not a denial of one’s faith? While faith should lead to charity, faith itself is not charity. Faith moves man to believe; charity moves man to obey. We see in the Church men who believe the truth but do not live it. As Our Lord teaches, ‘both bad and good’ are brought into the Church (Matt. 22:10). And as the Roman Catechism teaches, the baptised who lack charity can be members, though dead members, of the Church. Those who are the dead members may still have faith but lack charity. However, sadly, some members lose faith, and we need to know what that means for the faithful.
Faith Against Heretics
St. Paul teaches that guarding the gift of faith is more important than any other human, or even angelic, authority. Faith is essential to God working salvation in man. As St. Paul teaches, sinful man, enslaved to the ‘bondage of corruption’, is called by God to the ‘freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21). God brings about this freedom by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). Since faith is so central to salvation and comes from God, there is no authority able to change it. As St. Paul commands the Galatians,
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Anselm of Canterbury, reflecting on Isaiah 7:9, argues that in order to understand what you believe, you first need to believe—to have the gift of faith (Proslogion).
This is also taught in Vatican Council I’s Dogmatic Constitution on faith. It teaches,
faith, which is the beginning of man’s salvation is a supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that what he has revealed is true.
Dei Filius, D. 3008
So, when faith is received and cultivated, how does a Christian encounter the contents of the faith? The Christian learns the contents of the faith primarily through the Scriptures. Even if he receives it by means of his parents or a priest or a bishop, the source and reason for learning comes ultimately from the Scriptures. As St. Paul writes to Timothy,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Tim. 3:16-7
Reflecting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom writes:
For thence we shall know, whether we ought to learn or to be ignorant of anything. And thence we may disprove what is false, thence we may be corrected and brought to a right mind, may be comforted and consoled, and if anything is deficient, we may have it added to us...Thou hast the Scriptures, he says, in place of me. If thou wouldest learn anything, thou mayest learn it from them. And if he thus wrote to Timothy, who was filled with the Spirit, how much more to us!
St. Athanasius also teaches this doctrine. He writes against the heathens,
To be sure, the sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth.
Contra Gentes, par. 1
St. Vincent of Lérins also teaches this,
the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient.
Commonitory, par. 5
Thomas Aquinas further explains that
sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof.
ST I, art. 84
This does not mean that just anyone’s interpretation is sufficient, though. St. Vincent rightly understands that Scripture is not interpreted in whatever way but must be rightly understood according to principles like catholic consent: how it has been understood always, everywhere, and by all. And while the Christian receives Scripture and instruction from his parents, priest, or bishop, he holds to their teaching because it conforms to Scripture. Even Tradition simply reiterates and reinforces the truths established in Sacred Scripture.
Due to this, the individual believer, having faith, is responsible for cherishing the Scriptures. And when presented with the contents of the faith, he must—by means of his rational intellect—understand, analyse, and probe them. When accepted, it is truly a rational acceptance, ‘nevertheless in harmony with reason’. Therefore, this personal acceptance of faith is maintained by a personal understanding and interpretation of the contents of the faith.
This personal interpretation is not to destroy, lessen, or obscure the contents of the faith but, rather, is an indication of the Holy Ghost moving within every Christian to understand it more deeply within his own context. As the Psalmist says, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Understanding is good for all those who do it’ (Ps. 111 (110):10) and ‘I trusted; therefore I spoke. (Ps. 116 (115):10 (1)) and ‘Your law is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths. ’ (Ps. 119 (118):105) and ‘my soul knows it very much’ (Ps. 139 (138):14) The foundation of faith for the psalmist is the Word of God. As St. Augustine of Hippo notes in regard to Psalm 119 (118):105, the lantern is ‘the word which is contained in all the holy Scriptures’ (Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 119, par. 105).
The psalmist, deeply aware—and in awe—of his faith, reasons through the truths of faith in relation to his own situation. This continues to be true in the new covenant and the life of the Church. Faith, known through the Scriptures, is foundational and personal yet common to the People of God.
It is this principle of individual yet common faith that enables St. Paul to give the command presented at the beginning. St. Paul was the means by which the Lord gave faith to the Galatians. St. Paul recognises himself in another letter as a true authority in the Church:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
Exercising his authority, he commands fidelity to the truth faith. However, the Thessalonians hold to the true faith not because of the command but, as Vatican Council I teaches, ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals’ (Dei Filius, D. 3008). Therefore, to the Galatians, having received the divine faith, he commands them to hold it. And, if holding it so requires, they must reject St. Paul and the apostles and their successors, if they were to attempt to present a false faith.
This rejection of false doctrine is not just a prerogative of the Church but of each Christian to the best of his ability. Therefore, if the individual Christian, given the Scriptures by his bishop, discerns a discord or rupture between those same Scriptures and the rest of his bishop’s teaching, then he—by Pauline mandate—is to reject the latter to preserve the former.
As St. John Chrysostom teaches, reflecting on St. Paul’s anathema:
In that he anathemized evangelists and angels, he included every dignity, and his mention of himself included every intimacy and affinity. “Tell me not,” he exclaims, “that my fellow-apostles and colleagues have so spoken; I spare not myself if I preach such doctrine.” And he says this not as condemning the Apostles for swerving from the message they were commissioned to deliver; far from it, (for he says, whether we or they thus preach;) but to show, that in the discussion of truth the dignity of persons is not to be considered.
Homily on Galatians, Chapter 1
Therefore, would an apostle, even the Pope himself with his curia, fail to teach truth but instead a heresy, each Christian would be able and obliged to reject it out of love of the precious gift of faith received and out of love for the Scriptures.