The Christian Faith: All or Nothing?



One of the most convicting (i.e., terrifying) theological passages I ever read had to do with lack of faith. Now, a reasonable guess as to its content would be something about the threat of Hell – maybe a Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God sort of thing. But it wasn’t. In fact, one might reason that it could not be – for it would be odd to fear Hell as an unbeliever (who would not fear something he did not believe in), and a believer need not fear Hell because they are believers. And belief saves, right? Well, as one who thought he had the faith thing down pretty well, it never really occurred to me to be overly concerned about the outcome of my disbelief (not having any that I was aware of).

But then I read Thomas Aquinas.


In Summa Theologiae II-II Q. 2, Thomas Aquinas is dealing with the nature of faith. In Article 1 Aquinas says of faith that, ” ‘to think with assent,’ does not express completely what is meant by ‘to believe’: since, in this way, a man thinks with assent even when he considers what he knows by science.” The point here is that what we know by some demonstration (rationally or empirically) does not necessarily require an act of the will. I can think 1+1=4 without assent, and I can think 1+1=2 with assent – but neither require my will to really engage. This becomes important when, in Article 3, Aquinas points out that, “in order that a man arrive at the perfect vision of heavenly happiness, he must first of all believe God, as a disciple believes the master who is teaching him.” Real faith requires an act of the will – otherwise a person could not be rewarded or punished concerning it (how unjust would it be to punish mere ignorance, or reward an accident?). The second part of the last quote is important too: a disciple believes his master based on the authority of the master – not because the master happens to teach things with which the disciple happens to agree.

Now, after his discussion of the nature of faith, Aquinas applies it to other questions regarding lack of faith.

Demonic Faith

Summa Theologiae II-II Q.5 deals with the “faith” of demons and heretics. As to demons, Aquinas says they do not have faith even though they have knowledge and assent. This is, again, because,

“the believer’s intellect assents to that which he believes, not because he sees it either in itself, or by resolving it to first self-evident principles, but because his will commands his intellect to assent. . . . and in this way faith is not in the demons, . . . for they see many evident signs, whereby they recognize that the teaching of the Church is from God, although they do not see the things themselves that the Church teaches, for instance that there are three Persons in God, and so forth.”

So the problem for demons is that they only assent to what they see – what is evident. Thus they can affirm many of the same things that Christians can (e.g., Christ’s resurrection) because those things are knowable as objects of the intellect. But because they do not believe truths of faith (that cannot be demonstrated by intellectual means), they do not have true faith. The interesting thing about demonic “faith” here is that for humans the same thing can be said.  There are some truths of Christianity that can be demonstrated with various degrees of assurance (historical details found in the Bible and archaeology, truths of philosophy, etc.). This is the distinction between natural and supernatural faith: the former requires only naturally discovered reasons for assent and simply gives in to them. Supernatural faith requires an act of God.

Well, my faith was obviously not demonic, so I happily read the next Article. Here’s where things began to get uncomfortable for me.

Heretical Faith

In the next article, Aquinas considers the “faith” of heretics. This is the section that folded me like a towel. Aquinas asks, “Whether a man who disbelieves one article of faith, can have lifeless faith in the other articles?” This is his answer:

“Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith. The reason of this is that . . . the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. . . . he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.”

What jumped out at me here was that if true faith is a willful trust in an authority concerning things which cannot be intellectually demonstrated, then true faith necessarily precludes disagreement with that authority. Think of it this way: If someone says they have faith in Christianity, yet disagrees with one of its truths of faith, it would have to be because  that person thought he had proven (intellectually) that what Christianity teaches falsely about something not available for intellectual demonstration. But this makes no sense – truths of faith, by definition, are not open to such a process. This also shows that he was not really assenting to an authority – his “faith” was merely agreement with that authority based on his own opinion. Thus, when the authority teaches something that does not happen to square with his opinion, he feels free to reject it (example). Now, however rigorous the process by which his opinion was reached, it is based on demonstration of some kind and therefore not based on submission to authority (i.e., true faith).  This person’s disagreement, then, shows that this person had only natural faith in the teachings of Christianity to begin with – those which could be demonstrated to his satisfaction. This is not the same thing as the supernatural faith which assents to spiritual authority and so is rewardable by God.

My Faith

Now, I’ve always prided myself on the fact that my faith was based on facts, that I had not simply made the dreaded “blind leap”. That I had “reasons for the faith which was in me” (1 Peter. 3:15). But had I unwittingly made myself the arbiter of Christian truth? Was the theological and/or apologetic method I was taught helping others to do the same? By trying to ground everything I believed (either directly or indirectly) on proof, had I missed out on true, supernatural faith? Am I, in reality, only trusting in myself as the authority in spiritual matters?

I am not prepared to give an easy answer to these questions. What I can say, though, is that my approach to the Christian faith has changed in accordance with this view. While I definitely think that many of Christianity’s teachings can be backed up with evidence from various disciplines, and that  none of Christianity’s teachings can be proven false, I do not  fool myself into thinking that everything making up the Christian faith can be “proven” (in fact, many of the most important parts are those that cannot be).

God, I think, gives enough light for those who wish to see and leaves enough darkness for those who do not (Pascal, Pensées 430). Supernatural faith is a gift from God, but it is one that must be acted upon freely. I believe that this is as it should be. God’s justice is shown in that it really is ultimately up to each person to decide whether they will trust Him and His revelation or not (which makes sense out of the rewards and punishments of the afterlife), and God’s love is shown in that he is willing to let us choose him without coercion. But coercion here would include intellectual demonstration. So if we only believe what God says to the extent that we are convinced by the evidence, that actually indicates a lack of true faith. Maybe more of us need to apply 2 Corinthians 13:5 to ourselves than we might have thought. I know I do.

“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”