The Taser's Edge


Forming Faith in Aquinas’s Treatise on the Virtues

As I finished up my paper for Happiness, Virtue, and the Life of Friendship this week, I really felt like it was a pile of crap.  What was supposed to be a close reading of the second half of Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on the Virtues became not quite that.  What it did seem to become is a little bit interesting (possibly more evidence that I didn’t follow the assignment):

Forming Faith: Augustine’s Enchiridion, Aquinas’ Treatise on the Virtues, and Beyond

In his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote that he would speak of faith, hope, and love.  The definition of faith which emerged was a set of beliefs to which Christians assent.  He made it clear, however, that humans cannot simply assent.  God’s grace prepares us and draws us to faith, continually equipping us along the way.  In Aquinas’ Treatise on the Virtues, reply to Question LXII, Article 3, he writes that faith is concerned with “things to be believed,” giving a similar connotation of faith-specific tenets to which Christians must assent.  For Aquinas, too, it is clear that humans cannot simply grasp and attain to faith.  At the same time, it is difficult to understand what the process of growing (being habituated) in faith looks like in practical terms.

This becomes apparent in areas of conflict.  For instance, if the orthodox Christian faith affirms of Jesus Christ that “through him all things were made,” but the heterodox Christian claims instead that Jesus was made by God and that thus not all things were made through him, on what basis does the first Christian counter?  Aquinas might respond, as he does in his response in Q.LXIV, Art. 4: “the measure and rule of theological virtue is God Himself…our faith is regulated by divine truth.”  Admittedly my example of heterodoxy is a crude example, because the Creed was formed against just this opinion.  However, on what basis would Aquinas argue for the authority of the church council’s decision against any opinions contrary to those of the Church?

If faith, as a theological virtue, is “infused in us by God alone” (Q. LXII, Art. 1, Response), then is there not a need for a higher faculty in order to discern between what is actually faith infused by God and which is either imperfect (a semblance of?) faith or false (counterfeit?) faith?  That is, both the heretic and the orthodox Christian claim that their belief is “regulated by divine truth,” perhaps even “made known to us only by divine revelation in Sacred Scripture” (Q. LXII, Art. 1, Response).  Who then is the arbiter to decide whose is the true faith or true belief and whose is false?

Aquinas would seem to first claim Scripture, since he places such emphasis on it, followed by some conception of Christian tradition (hence the many references to Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, etc.), as well as somewhere philosophy, with reason and prudence being used at every step of the way.  However, when both sides have marshaled all their Scriptures, their theologians, their philosophers, and their reason, as well as whatever claims of divine inspiration, what breaks the deadlock?  One possible answer would be to develop an ecclesiology in which the Church is the body with God-given ability to teach rightly, but this is not present in the present treatise.

Furthermore, if means are found to break the deadlock, whether by debate, communal discernment, submission to authority within the Church, the use of violence, the passage of time, or any other means, what of those who still do not assent to the truth?  Are they being hard-hearted, refusing the grace of God, who is gifting them with true faith, if they would only receive it?  Or might they simply have not received the grace of God to believe rightly?  The question of defining the inculcation or habituation of faith thus becomes a question of how deeply election goes.

Do the forms of Christian worship and Christian life become all the more important for this reason, and does Aquinas either assume this or speak to it elsewhere?  Through lives and worship services of fasting and feasting, containing rhythms of confession and absolution, the repetition and eventually confession of the creeds, sharing in the Lord’s Table, passing and receiving Christ’s peace, God habituates faith into the members of the Church.  How might such considerations shape Christian worship, transform interfaith conversations, and encourage love among disagreeing Christians?  How might such concerns apply to theologies of Christian evangelism and conversion?


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