Appreciating the Divine Virtue of Faith

William Charlton FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

William Charlton, retired lecturer in philosophy at the Universities of Edinburgh, Newcastle and Trinity College, Dublin, carefully reflects upon how Christians use the word 'Faith' for a God-given knowledge fruitful in good works.

Faith appears to us as something wild and anarchic: a leap into the dark, either daring and adventurous or rash and stupid. It can give us the strength to be heroes, or hurl us blindfolded into folly and disaster. To some it is contrary to reason; it is believing ten impossible things before breakfast. To others it takes over where reason breaks down; reason is a pitiful thing, timid and logic-chopping, and if we wish to get anywhere we must leave it behind and take faith's leap. Faith in another human being, in a lover or a leader, goes beyond what reason can prove; so does faith in a system or a cause; and so, above all does faith in God. To atheists it seems, as Saint Paul puts it, 'madness, but to those who are saved, the power of God' (1 Cor 1.18).

Catholic theologians have traditionally held that religious faith, far from being opposed to reason, is the culmination of it, a supernatural form of intelligence. 'Grace', says Aquinas at the beginning of his Summa Theologiae,'[1]'does not do away with nature but perfects it', and 'faith builds upon and perfects reason'.[2] And Catholic understanding of faith has a further peculiarity. On the face of it, belief in God includes two things, belief that God exists, and trust or confidence in him. In his great praise of faith in Romans 3-5, it is the second of these things that Paul has in mind. Abraham was justified by putting his trust in God,[3] and our salvation comes through 'faith in Jesus Christ'.[4] Abraham believed that God would fulfil the promise that he should have numerous descendants (Rom.4.17), and we too must believe that God has the power to do what he says (Rom. 4.21), but in both cases the emphasis is on the steadfast confidence of the believer[5] rather than the content of the belief. The same conception of faith seems to underlie Hebrews 11.[6] Aquinas, however, argues that faith must be capable of being expressed in words, and formulated in a series of statements or 'articles' that make up a creed.[7] Theidea that faith is the very height of rationality is an obvious paradox, and people with an eye to history sometimes object to creeds on the ground that they cause divisions and have been used to control people and justify religious persecution.[8] Nevertheless there are reasons behind both these peculiarities of the traditional Catholic view of faith.


A good starting point for any search into traditional Catholic thinking is the old 'penny' catechism. Its last chapter contained four helpful lists: the 'divine' or 'godly' virtues, the corporal works of mercy, the spiritual works of mercy, and the four 'last things'. Of the divine virtues it says:

Q: How many divine virtues are there? A: Three; faith, hope and charity.
Q: Why are they called 'divine' or 'godly'? A: Because they relate to God.
Q: How? A: Faith is believing in God; hope is trusting in God; and charity is loving God above all things, and our neighbours as ourselves for God's sake.[9]

The catechism, it will be seen, assigns belief in God and trust in God to two different virtues, though as Benedict XVI's Spe salvi points out, in several Biblical passages 'the words "faith" and "hope" seem interchangeable';[10] but is either of them to be counted as a virtue? What conception of virtue is being used here?

Today the word 'virtue' is usually applied to good traits of character, qualities which dispose us to act rightly in various sorts of situation. Honesty is a disposition to behave well in matters involving money and gain; courage has to do with danger; temperance with the more bodily pleasures; good temper with sources of irritation and resentment. There is such a failing as credulity, a disposition to believe things and trust people on bad or insufficient grounds; and it is possible also to be excessively sceptical, cynical, suspicious or mistrustful. I am not sure if there is any one quality that disposes to believe or trust on good grounds; perhaps any bad quality impairs our judgment on such things; but having good judgement is not the same as religious faith. People can be disposedto believe things on the ground that they are things which Christ said or which the Church teaches, and this could be called faith in Christ or faith in the Church; but religious faith seems to be something more than this and prior to it; it is through having it that we are disposed to believe Christ and the Church.

When the catechism lists the godly virtues, it is using the word 'virtue' to express a broader idea than it usually expresses today: the idea of any kind of excellence or useful quality. It therefore covers knowledge and skill as well as good traits of character: the ability to play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language would count as an intellectual 'virtue', and so would knowledge of history or geography. Now Aquinas denied that faith is an intellectual virtue (ST 1 a 2ae q. 62 a. 2), but only on the grounds that the arts and sciences concern the natural order and are acquired naturally, whereas faith concerns God and comes as a supernatural gift. He nevertheless regarded it as a kind of knowledge, the knowledge we need to work out our salvation. We cannot love Godor hope for eternal happiness unless our minds have some apprehension of God and supernatural beatitude, and we have this by faith.[11]

Propositions to be Believed

It is because faith is a kind of knowledge that Aquinas says it must be capable of being put into words. The argument[12] is highly abstract, but may be put like this. Knowledge involves truth; in knowing anything we think truly; and to think truly we must have thoughts of a certain complexity, we must think something definite about something definite. We think truly in thinking that things are present or absent which are present or absent, and in thinking things have or lack properties that they have or lack. The words we have in our vocabulary signify the things we think to be present or absent, and the properties we think they have or lack; and their presence or absence, or something's having or lacking them, isexpressed by the way we put those words together in sentences, by the constructions we use. If we cannot say what things we are thinking about and what thoughts we have about them, we cannot claim any truth for our thoughts. This seems reasonable, and that faith aspires to some kind of truth is something even those mistrustful of creeds might hesitate to deny.

What are the truths that we have to grasp by faith? The ancient creeds, the Apostle's, the Nicaean and the Athanasian, contain different numbers of articles, formulated to meet different difficulties,[13] but today the chief things of which we are said to be assured by faith are that God exists and Jesus Christ was the son of God, both human and divine. If we believe these things, we shall be disposed to think it a good ground for believing anything else, that it was revealed by God to the Jews of the Old Testament, or taught by Christ or by the Church he founded. In point of fact it is a traditional strategy of Catholic apologists to say that we must first satisfy ourselves on rational grounds God exists and that Christ claimed to bedivine and founded a church, and then it will be rational for us to believe the rest of what the Church teaches on its authority and that of Scripture.[14]

To many people this strategy seems to demand too much of reason and too little of faith proper; but even if we find it attractive, two things may give us pause. First, faith is commonly supposed to be limited to things we cannot know by natural reason. If we can really assure ourselves by natural reason that God exists then that is not an article of faith, and the same goes for Christ's divinity, if, as apologists claim, we have good rational grounds for thinking that he claimed to be divine, that he was neither mad nor a fraud, and that he rose from the dead. Secondly, although the sentences 'God exists' and 'Jesus Christ was both God and man' look as if they state things someone might believe, they are not straightforward statements, and it is not immediately clear what believing themwould amount to. I shall take the second difficulty first; discussing it will make it easier to deal with the first.

'Existence' of God

'God exists' is a grammatically correct sentence, similar in construction to 'Claudius snores'. It consists of a name or singular term and an intransitive verb. The verb is in what is called the 'simple' as contrasted with the 'continuous' form. In 'Claudius is snoring' the verb is continuous. Whereas the continuous 'Claudius is snoring' tells us that Claudius is doing something, namely snoring, now, the simple 'Claudius snores' tell us that Claudius is in the habit of doing this thing, or that he does it from time to time. Does 'God exists' declare that God is in the habit of existing, that he exists from time to time? Clearly not; we should prefer to declare that he is doing something now. But 'God is existing' (or 'Claudius is existing', for that matter,) does not look like a correctEnglish sentence, and if the verb 'to exist' signifies something a thing does, either always or from time to time, what is it? Some theologians cling to the belief that existing is a very basic activity, something we have to do before we can do anything else, but this belief has been abandoned by nearly all philosophers. If Hamlet believes that Claudius snores, it is correct to say 'Hamlet believes Claudius exists'; but that sentence tells us only that Claudius comes into a thought Hamlet has; it does not report a complete thought that Hamlet might have all on its own.

Claudius in Shakespeare's play is a human being, and therefore both a material object and an intelligent agent. As a material object, he can affect other material objects and be affected by them; as an intelligent agent he can be harmed or benefited. Hamlet thinks Claudius exists if he thinks of him in either way, if he thinks 'Claudius makes noises in his sleep' or 'Claudius wants to have me killed'. God is not a material object, and to think that God exists he must come into our thought as an intelligent agent with purposes. We believe he exists if we think that the universe exists because God wants it to, and that there is a purpose for which he wants the natural order to continue. The old catechism says that God made us to know, love and serve him in this life, and to be happy withhim for ever in the next, and the belief in God which is the basic article of faith, is the belief that the natural world exists at least partly in order that there may arise people who know, love and serve him while alive, and are happy with him after death.

'Faith' in God

To what extent is this a matter of faith? That there is a life after death is perhaps something we believe because God or Christ has said so; for the moment, I leave that aside.[15] But that the natural order exists because God wants it to is an explanation we have grounds for accepting, independently of any supernatural revelation. The reasons for accepting it do not form the kind of deductive proof we require in logic or pure mathematics, but they resemble the arguments used in a court of law to establish innocence or culpability.[16]

So far belief in the existence of a benevolent creator might seem to need no supernatural assistance. But the belief that something occurs for a purpose, or because someone wants it to, is not idle. It does not consist simply in a sentence to that effect said aloud or under one's breath. Belief and desire are not independent. Really thinking anything whatever involves readiness to behave accordingly, and thinking that someone or something has a purpose involves wanting to further or frustrate that purpose. Anyone who believes that the world exists because God so desires, and in order that living things may arise and thrive, must either share his desire for their well-being for his sake, or (a horrible thought) hate them because they are his creatures. Someone who believes that the worldexists for no purpose may nevertheless recognise that it contains living things that can be harmed or benefited, and may desire them to thrive for their own sakes; the belief that there is no God does not entail indifference to the well-being of living things generally, but merely excludes loving them for God's sake; a person, however, who really is indifferent to their well-being cannot, whatever he says, believe in the God of the Bible or the Koran.[17]

To say that belief in the existence of persons involves this sort of engagement with them sounds like a questionable piece of philosophical theory. So it is: many philosophers still hold that beliefs are like pictures, which may contain information but which of themselves do nothing. But it is finding favour in high places in the Church. In a recent papal document we read: The Christian message is not only "informative" but "performative." That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known - it makes things happen and is life-changing.'[18] The term 'performative' was applied by J L Austin[19] to utterances like warnings and promises, these being at the same timeinstances both of saying and of doing. Faith which is performative is both a believing and a doing.

If belief that God exists requires loving all living things for God's sake as well as for their own, it is inseparable from charity, which according to the old catechism involves loving 'our neighbours as ourselves for God's sake'. It is natural for us as human beings to have concern for some people and some animals for their own sake. We can care for every living thing everywhere only through God, and perhaps only through a God who has dwelt among us.

It is often said that creation is a mystery surpassing our understanding, and that might seem to be a reason why we need faith to believe in a creator. But we must beware of misusing the notion of a mystery: we should not use it to hide intellectual confusion.

'We are inclined to conceive creation as a kind of super-craftsmanship. We say "I can understand how people can make vases out of mashed up newspapers, and even how

they can make glass out of sand, but God made the universe out of nothing, and that is a feat beyond my human powers of comprehension." But we are here using the wrong model. Craftsmanship is an ability to bring about a desired outcome; the craftsman knows upon what he must act and how, in order to make that outcome inevitable; and that upon which he acts must be already there. The notion of a kind of super-action upon nothing is incoherent. The model we should be using is rather that of action which issues from free choice, the voluntary action of an intelligent agent. Understanding such action is not knowing what the agent does to make it inevitable, but grasping its reason or purpose. It is that of seeing something as issuing from free choice, as done for a purpose. This is a differentkind of intellectual achievement from seeing how a craftsman produces an effect, and it is the only type of understanding that fits creation. Grasping the purpose of the whole order of nature is not different in character from grasping the purpose of a single intelligent human act, but it is more of an adventure. It involves a leap: a leap intellectual and imaginative in more ways than one.'

'Divinity' of Christ

Believing that Christ was divine is different in character from believing that God exists, and it is harder to say in what it consists. The doctrine of Christ's divine nature was developed over several centuries, and the creeds do not offer any neat formulation. Believing that Christ was the son of God is certainly not believing that Christ stood to God in the causal relationship in which Isaac stood to Abraham or Heracles to Zeus, the model that seems to lie behind the passages in the Koran which criticise this belief. Nor is believing in Christ's divinity thinking him identical with the Creator. It cannot be detached from believing that there are three Persons in God. We are taught that 'all things were created in, through and in relation to' Christ (Col. 1. 16-17) but the creedsattribute creation chiefly to God the Father, and belief that God created the world does not of itself involve loving all living creatures for Christ's sake.

When, speaking informally of two human beings, we say one thinks the other is God, and worships the ground he walks on, we are summing up many thoughts and actions, and although the cases are not quite parallel, to say that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ is to sum up beliefs, attitudes and practices which may vary slightly from one Christian or group of Christians to another.

Perhaps a minimal condition of believing that Christ was the son of God is believing not just that he existed in the time of Tiberius but that he exists now. If he is dead and gone in the same way as Shakespeare or Darwin, surviving at best and rather problematically in a paradise beyond space and time, his nature cannot have been divine. But belief that he is here still can take various forms. The Catholic Church teaches that Christ is present in the Eucharist as a causal agent, somehow giving us bodily strength and health, and Catholics' acceptance of that teaching is expressed in the way in which they receive that sacrament, but the doctrine of Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist is one with which even Catholics today have difficulty, and it would be unrealistic to make it thecentre of the belief that Christ was the Son of God.

The first Christians attached great importance to the name of Jesus: 'Let it be known to all of you and to the whole people of Israel', says Peter addressing the Jewish hierarchy after the healing of the lame man, Acts 4.10-12, 'that it is in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead, that this man now stands in your presence healed. This is the stone that was despised by you, the builders, but has become the keystone. And salvation is in none other. There is no other name under heaven given to men in which we are to be saved.' The gospel of John in a number of different passages attributes to Christ claims to be the unique means of salvation. In Jn 6 he says it is only through an intimate relationship with him as an individual livingorganism, through eating his flesh and drinking his blood that we can have eternal life. In Jn 10 he describes himself as the gate of the sheepfold through which people must enter to have salvation and life in abundance. In Jn 15 he takes the image of the vine, traditionally used to represent the Jewish people, and says that he himself is the vine from which we are to draw life as branches. The letter to the Hebrews teaches that Christ is a unique high priest, not to be succeeded, whose offering of himself on the cross is sufficient offering, once and for all, for human sins (7.23-7; 10.11-12).

Belief in the divinity of Christ certainly includes belief that salvation is through him alone. Different Christians have had slightly different conceptions of salvation. For some it is being freed from sin - and that in itself may be conceived in various ways. We could take the view that Christ's sin-offering atones for the sins of all human beings, past and future. Most Christians believe that it is natural for us to have a life after death, and if that is correct, Christ cannot strictly speaking save us from the finality of death, since death is not final anyhow; but he may save us from Hell, from unending misery after death. If, however, it is not in our nature to have life after death, if we are mortal in the sense that death for us is the natural end, then we can say that Christsaves us from extinction at death by giving us a share of his own divine life; in the words of the priest at Mass, we become partners in the divinity of him who was so good as to share in our humanity.[20] But whatever precisely we take salvation to be, belief that Christ was the divine son of God must involve regarding his part in it as non-negotiable. God might have given the same laws to someone other than Moses, or revealed the contents of the Koran to someone other than Mohamet, but only Christ

himself can save us, and if he was not divine, our salvation is an illusion.

Belief that Christ has this central place is expressed most obviously in religious practices: addressing prayers to him and through him, taking part in communal worship and so forth. Less obviously, it is expressed in concern for other human beings. I said that Christians do not love all living creatures for Christ's sake; but if they think he died for all human beings, and wanted all human beings to share God's life through him, then we must either want to advance his purpose or want to frustrate it; we must either love our fellow men for his sake or hate them to spite him.

Knowing Flows Into Loving

Belief, then, in the divinity of Christ, like belief in the existence of God, is inseparable from charity. It also requires devotion to a person who died two thousand years ago in Jerusalem which is quite unlike any attitude we have towards great men and women of the past whom we admire. Would we die rather than deface a picture of Socrates or Joan of Arc, as people have died rather than deface a crucifix? To hold to faith in Christ in the face of human cruelty or natural disaster may require a fortitude that seems to transcend what is natural. Mere judgement that as a matter of history Christ did say and do the things reported in the Gospels is unlikely to be enough.

Wittgenstein said that the human body is the best image of the human mind,[21] but it is a misleading one. The body consists of parts, of bones, blood-vessels, nerves, organs like the eye and the heart, which are distinct whether we recognise their distinction of not. We discover its composition, we do not invent it. But the things we distinguish in the mind, thoughts, beliefs, desires, feelings, moods, dispositions, are not similarly present in nature waiting to be discovered. We introduce them in order to discuss, explain and modify human behaviour; and since human behaviour occurs and gets discussed only in societies, which have different histories, institutions and physical environments, the psychological vocabulary of one society mustnot be expected to match that of another. Words for parts of the body have equivalents in every language, but words like 'shame,' and 'honour,' and even 'belief, 'love' and 'mind' do not.

'Faith', 'hope' and 'charity' are words that belong to the vocabulary of English, and it is clear that they are not understood in exactly the same way even by all English speakers. As we saw at the beginning, the old catechism uses the two words 'faith' and 'hope' where some people would use the one word 'faith'. Overlooking such divergences in linguistic usage may have hardened divisions between Catholics and Protestants in the fifteenth century. But besides recognising the elusiveness of the meanings people attach to psychological words, we must recognise that the mental phenomena to which speakers refer are not really discrete from one another in the same way as bodily parts. Mental life is something continuous, without internal boundaries. The notions of intellect and will or desireare schemata that we (following the philosophers of ancient Greece) impose on human life for the purpose of describing and influencing it; and the notions of faith, hope and charity are further schemata fitted on by theologians as life rises above what is natural. All human action has, we might say, both a cognitive and an appetitive aspect: it expresses knowledge, belief and awareness of the agent's surroundings, character, desire, aversion. Action which is assisted by what theologians call God's 'grace', action that has that gratuitously bestowed beauty, has the same two aspects; the traditional Catholic terminology is that it is an exercise, on the one hand, of the virtue of faith, on the other of hope and charity, which both, as Aquinas says {ST 1 a 2ae q. 62 a. 3) relate toappetition or will (voluntas).

I said earlier that faith in Hebrews 11 seems to be rather trust or confidence in God than belief that can be put into words. The chapter begins, however, with a puzzling statement that perhaps applies to both: 'Faith is the substance (?) of things hoped for, the proof (?) of things not seen.' The Greek word hypostasis translated 'substance' here can mean various things, including hope, confidence, or promise, so the first part of the statement might be saying only that faith is a kind of confidence in what we hope for. But the word was also used for real existence, and Aquinas takes the statement to mean that faith is the beginning to exist in us of the divine life we hope for.[22] This interpretation is followed inBenedict XVI's Spe Salvi n.7 and developed in a meditation on eternal life here and now which describes it as a unity. Although the virtues of faith, hope and charity are all gifts of God, not qualities we can acquire naturally, we need not suppose that they are three separate gifts, like socks, gloves and a woolly muffler. There is only one gift, the gift of divine, eternal life; we live with it while we are on earth by doing what we believe God wants us to do, even in the most difficult situations, for his sake. But this life has several aspects, or, as we might say, dimensions. It is steadfast and persevering, it seeks the good of others, and it is rational and conscious, an exercise of thought. If we wish to pick out and label this last aspect, we may call it 'faith'.Catholics sometimes use the phrase 'practising the faith' for going to church; but the suggestion of Spe Salvi is that the exercise of the virtue of faith is the cognitive dimension of the whole of our supernatural life.

See last November's editorial, Mysterium Fidei, for a meditation upon the act of faith.


[1]laq.l a.8ad2.
[2]John Paul II, Fides et ratio s. 43.
[3]Episteuse toi theoi (Rom. 4.3); the verbpisteuein must mean 'to trust'.
[4]Pistis Iesou Khristou. Rom. 3.22,26: not the faith Christ had, though Christ did have trust in God, cf. v.25, Mt. 27.43, but the faith we have in Christ.
[5]An 'interior' or 'subjective attitude': cf. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 7
[6]Here too Abraham is given as the exemplar of a man with faith. Eusebius records early divergent opinions on whether Romans and Hebrews are by the same hand, but the thought in Rom 4 and Heb 11 is very similar.
[7]Summa Theologiae22L2ae q 1, arts 2, 6-9.
[8]So, for example, Anne Primavesi, Gaia and Climate Change, London, Routledge, 2009, ch. 10.
[9]The 'penny' catechism (still sold for one penny in my childhood) derived from the pre-Reformation 'Primers', and expanded over the years; this quotation is taken from a slender version printed in Newcastle in 1790.
[10]Section.2. The passages Heb. 10. 22-3,1 Pet 3.15 and Eph 2.12 are cited.
[11]'The theological virtues direct man to supernatural beatitude as he is directed by natural inclination to his natural end. But this happens in two ways: first, by reason or intellect, insofar as our mind contains certain general first principles, known to us by the light of natural intelligence, by which we proceed rationaly in thinking and acting, and secondly by tightness of desire, moving us towards what is known to be good. Both these are defective when it comes to supernatural beatitude — hence in regard to each, something must be added supernaturally to man to direct him to his supernatural end. And first, as regards the intellect, there are added certain supernatural principles, which are grasped by divine illumination; these arethings to be believed, and faith is to do with them' iTla 2ae q 62 a 3. 'By faith the intellect apprehends what it hopes for and loves' ST\ a 2ae q 62 a 4.
[12]5T2a2aeq. 1 a. 2
[13]So Aquinas ST 2a 2ae q. 1 a. 6. The word 'article', he remarks, is used to express the idea that they are related to one another like the limbs that make up a living body; the truth is a sort of organic whole, not a series or list.
[14]This strategy is pursued with elegance and clarity by R A Knox in The Belief of Catholics, London, Benn, 1927.
[15]Whether the immortality of the soul can be proved by human reason is a traditional subject of debate among theologians. Aquinas argued that it can, Scotus that it cannot. I return to the question (but without offering an answer) when considering below what salvation is salvation from.
[16]See my 'The Doctrine of Creation', Heythrop Joumal29 (2008) pp. 620-31.
[17]Cf 1 John 2.4: 'Someone who says 'I know him [sc. God]' but does not keep his commandments is a liar.'
[18]Benedict XVI Spe Salvi ss. 2, 4,10
[19]How to Do Things with Words, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962.
[20]Eius divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus estparticeps.
[21]Philosophical investigations, pt. 2 s. iv
[22]ST 2a 2ae q. 4 a. 1. The word translated 'proof, elenchos, normally means disproof rather than proof; but the corresponding verb, elenchein, can be used for the informal establishing of something positive.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2009