The Meaning of Faith

News: Commentary
by Church Militant  •  •  January 25, 2018   

A matter of the mind and the heart

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By Cole DeSantis

Catholics throughout the world have recently completed one of the first major phases of the liturgical cycle, the Christmas season. One recurring theme that shows up when one meditates upon the Incarnation is faith. For example, Jesus looked no different than any other human, yet He was God Incarnate, thus making Him the most intimate manifestation of God. One cannot accept this or fully appreciate this without faith.

Mary was told by the angel that she would be the mother of the Son of God. Mary, a young peasant girl from Nazareth, couldn't have foreseen all that would happen over the course of Jesus' life; yet, she still accepted God's sovereign plan of salvation. She remained faithful even after hearing from Simeon the ominous words that "a sword shall pierce your own soul," which pointed forward to the pain she felt at Christ's death.

Joseph was told by an angel to remain with Mary in spite of her becoming pregnant under strange circumstances which, to those unaware of God's plan, would have negative social ramifications. He was also told to bring his family into Egypt to protect them from Herod's impending wrath. All of these things he obeyed with the utmost faith in God's will. While meditating all of this, we also look forward to Christ's Second Coming. Meditating upon the Second Coming instills within present-day believers the same faith which the experiences surrounding Christ's First Coming instilled into Mary, Joseph and Jesus's immediate followers.


The necessity of faith is thus a common theme in the Advent and Christmas seasons. But what constitutes faith? Faith is something multi-dimensional in nature. Because it is so multi-faceted, certain aspects of it tend to be isolated and held up more than others. The two aspects of faith that most define this particular virtue are faith as a sense of trust in God and faith as something that takes place in the intellect, a movement of the intellect beyond its normal abilities which is born out of the indwelling of God's grace.
The two aspects of faith that most define this virtue are faith as a sense of trust in God and faith as something that takes place in the intellect.

The first definition was, in many ways, emphasized by various Protestant thinkers as a part of their larger view on justification. The latter view of faith is what is emphasized in more philosophical-oriented theological discourse, particularly when discussing the relationship between faith and reason. These two definitions seem on the surface to be unrelated, but when one looks at the Christian tradition, one sees how not only are they not unrelated, they are, in fact, mutually implicative.

One common term for "faith" used in early Greek translations of Scripture is pistis, which according to Strong's Greek Concordance means "assurance," "belief" or "conviction." This term can also refer to "the system of religious ... truth itself," particularly with regard to the Gospel message. Yet, the term pistis could also imply a sense of trust. It is for this reason that the term pistis, within the context of the Bible, also has the connotation of a sense of reliance upon Christ for salvation. This can be seen in related terms, including pistĕuō (translated as "to entrust" or "to have faith in"), pistikŏs (meaning "trustworthy" or "genuine"), and pistŏs (meaning "trustworthy," "faithful," "sure," or "true").

So, for the Greek-speaking writers and audiences of the Bible, faith could include a series of beliefs revealed by God to be assented to, the act of assenting to such truths and a sense of trust in the one who reveals these truths. This can be seen in the earliest known words ever recorded as being directly attributed to Christ in the Bible, that is, the words of Mark 1:15, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." Here, Jesus is calling us to metanoeite, which means "to repent," but also "to reconsider" or "to think differently" or "to feel compunction." This word is closely related to the word metanoia, which means variously "to feel compunction," "repentance" or "reformation." Sorrow for sins, a change in one's view of themselves and of God and faith in the Gospel are thus presented as going hand-in-hand.

Faith can thus effect a real change in man. This is obvious when we look at the Pauline account of faith. In Romans 4, St. Paul, using as an example the call of Abraham, clearly sees faith as trust in God's promises, through which we receive the grace of justification. This trust in God is something that also prompts within us obedience to the one whom we trust — thus, in Romans 1:7, after speaking of receiving the "grace of apostleship," St. Paul also speaks of "the obedience of faith," the term used here, hupakŏē, meaning "obedience," "compliance," "submission" or "attentive hearkening." Trust in God thus also requires submission to His will, a constant desire to follow God's law. Yet, in the letter to the Hebrews, it is written:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into Heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet He did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)

Jesus, though God, is capable of empathizing with us because He entered into the human condition and assumed our nature and in doing so underwent all the trials and tribulations of humans, yet overcame and conquered them. It is thus written that we should approach God with "confidence." This confidence is also something closely associated with holding "firmly to the faith we profess." Faith is thus something we profess and believe in; yet, this profession of faith is intimately tied with, and something born out of, a confidence that, through the mediation of Christ, we will receive the grace of salvation. Faith as belief and faith as trust in God is thus intimately intertwined: we believe in God because we trust God, and we trust God because of what He did in and through Christ; through this sense of trust — which itself is a gift from God — we feel sorrow for our sins, a desire to repent, we have zeal for doing God's will and thus have a radical openness to God's justifying grace.

In the Medieval and modern periods, faith became more and more defined within the Catholic tradition in terms of the mind assenting, with the help of God's grace, to certain truths that transcend the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. We see this in the Summa Theologiæ, I-II, Q. 109, A. 1, where St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that God is the primary cause of all things, insofar as God is the one who sets all things in motion and guides them in their activity. Yet, in doing so, God bestows onto created things the intrinsic capacity to act. God thus moves all things in such a way that they move themselves to act of their own accord.

Knowing the truth can be seen as a movement of sorts of the intellect towards an understanding of a certain truth claim. With the knowledge that is within man's capacity to understand, God moves the intellect to grasp it in accordance with its natural ability to move towards truth. There are certain truths about God which the intellect can know through its own power; yet, there are certain truths which transcend the capacity of the intellect to understand through its own effort. It is thus necessary for us to have the grace of God in order to know those truths, which transcend the capacity of the human mind to understand since the grace of God moves the mind beyond its normal, natural movements.

Faith is thus the movement of the mind by grace beyond what it is normally capable of, towards truths which surpass natural knowledge. As he states in the Summa Theologiæ, II-II, Q. 1, A. 4, faith "implies assent of the intellect to that which is believed." That which the intellect assents to through faith cannot be directly perceived either by the intellect or the senses. This is because, as he says in the next article, the first principles of faith are not self-evident first principles, but rather they are realities which humans, in their present state of affairs, cannot perceive in their fullness by their own effort.

Yet, even this more epistemological approach has existential elements to it. Since these truths transcend man's understanding, we must take a leap into the unknown and trust the One Who reveals them, even though it is utterly transcendent of our ability to understand and trust that these truths can and will direct us to an end which humans long for from the very depths of their being but which we can never fully appreciate in this life.

So, faith is a matter of the mind and the heart. In the contemporary Church, it is quite common to see faith reduced to one or the other. If one doesn't feel emotionally excited about the Faith, similar to what one sees in Evangelical Christian megachurches, then that is seen as a sign that one lacks faith. Unfortunately, such people are easily misled, as they are enthusiastic about Christ, His Church and His plan of salvation but do not necessarily have a proper understanding thereof.

Yet there are others who do not take the Faith beyond the ivory towers of academia or the pulpit. The in-depth study of the Faith is thus seen as something only for a special elite. One does not have to have a doctorate in theology to be saved, but all faithful Catholics are called to understand the Faith to the full extent of their ability. By the virtue of faith, we assent to certain truths which transcend the capacity of the human mind to understand, because, through this same virtue, we, by God's grace, trust in the One who, in a definitive act of self-disclosure, manifests Himself to us. In doing so, we then are given the ability to delve deeper into the spiritual mysteries which we, by faith, have accepted. Doing so serves as the means by which we receive the grace whereby we are turned away from our sin and give of ourselves completely to God. It serves as the means by which we receive God's justifying grace. Thus, faith is often accompanied by repentance.

Cole DeSantis is a candidate for the Master of Arts in theology at Providence College, a Dominican school in the diocese of
Providence, Rhode Island.


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