Comment on John Jenkins, CSC,

"Intellect, Will, and the Assent of Faith in Thomas Aquinas"

Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame
Fall 1996

I'm in general agreement with John's explanation of St. Thomas's account of the assent of faith to the mysteries of Christian revelation. This is no small admission, since in order to reach this state I had to, at John's prompting, change my mind--or, to put it a bit less embarrassingly, "develop my thinking"--on a few of the issues he addresses. Now it would be utterly ungracious of me to repay him by complaining about the few minor infelicities that remain in the paper. So I'll leave that task to the audience and instead make some remarks that I hope will enhance your understanding of the paper by providing some context and background for it.

I. Description of John's general project

The book from which this paper is drawn (Knowledge and Belief in Thomas Aquinas, Cambridge University Press, 1997) attempts to take seriously and explain in depth St. Thomas's claim that theology (sacra doctrina) falls within the parameters of a science (scientia) as this notion is laid out in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics--more specifically, the claim that theology is a science which is, to put it technically, subalternate to the science of the blessed in heaven, who have understanding and knowledge in the full sense and hence have no need for faith. For this claim to be true, the faithful must have in the present life (i) the ability to grasp, via the gift of intellectus or understanding, the articles of the Faith as first principles revealed to us by God and (ii) the ability to judge, via the gift of scientia or knowledge, what is and what is not to be believed. The logically subsequent assent of faith provides us even now with a participation in God's knowledge and love--i.e., with the ability to see things as God sees them and to love them as He loves them. And it is the habit of such assent, the virtue of faith, that provides the foundation for the science of theology, which attempts to articulate the doctrines of the Faith in a systematic fashion, i.e., in a way that proceeds from an understanding of causes to a knowledge of their effects. In short, John is trying to help us appreciate how St. Thomas can plausibly view sacra doctrina as literally the highest science, the science that most properly deserves the name of 'wisdom' in the formal sense of the term 'wisdom' that emerges from the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

Given this perspective, we can understand St. Thomas's two great Summas as aimed at accomplishing two distinct but complementary tasks that he sets for himself:

    A. The first task is to spell out in as systematic a fashion as possible the comprehensive view of reality that is provided by the supernatural light of faith. This includes supernatural knowledge of God as He is in Himself, of creatures insofar as they emanate from God, and of creatures insofar as are ordered to God as their final cause. This is what St. Thomas is up to in the Summa Theologiae.

    B. The second task is to show that those who--like Plato and Aristotle--made some impressive headway in the search for wisdom armed only with the light of natural reason could have been led by their own principles in the direction of the Catholic Faith. This, as I see it, is what St. Thomas is up to in the Summa Contra Gentiles.

The difference between these two tasks helps explain why in the first few chapters of the Summa Contra Gentiles St. Thomas worries a bit more than he does in the Summa Theologiae about the qualms that intellectually gifted and philosophically trained non-believers might have about giving firm assent to propositions (viz., the mysteries of the faith) that are ex professo beyond the reach of our natural cognitive faculties. And it also helps explain, among other things, why the argument for the existence of a First Efficient Cause is defended at great length in the Summa Contra Gentiles but stated only perfunctorily in the Summa Theologiae. These, though, are stories for another day.

II. Hints for understanding the paper:

I would like now to say a few words that might help set the context of John's paper a bit more clearly for those of you familiar mainly with contemporary philosophical discussions of religious faith.

A. Neither John nor St. Thomas is mainly concerned with belief in God's existence--unless, that is, the term 'God' is explicitly and self-consciously being used to designate the Triune deity who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us and who puts significant demands on us. Rather, the proper objects of the act of faith are the "words of eternal life," the mysteries of Christian revelation and (on the practical side) the life of prayer and sacrificial love that they enjoin as an appropriate response to God's love for us. Interestingly, St. Thomas insists in both Summas that faith is, practically speaking, necessary even with respect to those revealed truths--the so-called preambles of the Faith--which can in principle be gotten to by natural reason without divine revelation. This needs to be emphasized, because even though St. Thomas holds--and this is teaching of the Catholic Church--that the existence of an infinitely perfect being can be proved by natural reason without the aid of divine revelation, his considered view is that outside of playing an indirect role in the conversion of a few philosophically sophisticated non-believers, the classical arguments for God's existence are pretty much irrelevant prior to the assent of faith. It would be good for teachers of introductory courses in philosophy to keep this point fixed firmly in mind when we try to explain to our students what significance arguments for God's existence have.

B. There seems to be a difference in emphasis between the accounts of the assent of faith found in the disputed questions De Veritate and the later Summa Theologiae. My tentative way of characterizing the difference is this: The DV account emphasizes ways in which the act of Christian faith is similar to those ordinary everyday acts of faith that characterize any healthy teacher-learner relationship (broadly construed), whereas the ST account emphasizes the distinctiveness of the teacher-learner relationship when the teacher is Christ revealing to us mysteries of salvation that are beyond our natural cognitive powers to prove or even to grasp. One point worth noting is that the DV account lends itself a bit more readily to what John calls a 'voluntarist' interpretation. Still, I can't see any essential conflict between the two accounts. Ross and Stump, for instance, clearly go too far even as readers of the DV account, since they seem to turn every type of teacher-learner relationship into one in which the learners are engaged in wishful thinking--or some similarly foolish epistemic practice--when they willingly accept the word of their teachers. Still, the ST account goes into much more detail about exactly how grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit enter into the act of will which prompts the assent of Christian faith.

C. A further point. To interpret the paper correctly, you must keep in mind that John is implicitly making two assumptions about St. Thomas's account of faith:

    1. St. Thomas's account of faith is not meant to apply first and foremost to philosophically sophisticated believers and only by analogy to others; rather, philosophically sophisticated believers are a special subclass whose peculiarities should be left aside until after the essential core of the account is on the table. So to enter the spirit of John's paper and of St. Thomas's account of faith, you should keep before your mind cases from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in which ordinary people profess their faith in Jesus--e.g., Peter and the other apostles; the Samaritan woman at the well; the Canaanite woman who begs for the "crumbs from the children's table"; the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to cure his servant; the man born blind; the father who cries out, "I do believe; help my unbelief!"; the thousands of converts on Pentecost. On the side of unbelief, think of the Pharisees and Herodians; more poignantly, the rich young man; and, perhaps most poignantly of all, those disciples who no longer walk with Jesus after hearing him say, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you." The case of philosophically sophisticated converts and believers does not differ from these in essentials, but it can raise questions about antecedent argumentation that might taint one's account of faith if they are considered too soon. (Just for the record, St. Thomas thinks that, once the Good News has been preached to an individual, the presence of intellectual obstacles to the assent of faith is by and large a matter of pride and concupiscence, so that one who needs a lot of arguments lacks rectitude of will. Perhaps the Summa Contra Gentiles is a bit more accommodating to the gentile philosophers precisely because it assumes that they have not been catechized.)

    2. St. Thomas's account is meant to apply first and foremost to a perfect act of faith--an act of faith which is, to use St. Thomas's expression, informed by charity. Such faith is prompted by a will that is correctly oriented toward its ultimate end as grasped by the supernatural light of faith. This is important because the two relevant gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding and knowledge, are not operative in the absence of charity, and hence faith is not present in its most perfect state. So even though, strictly speaking, the habit of faith can still be present without charity, it would be a mistake to focus on such a case in rendering an account of faith, and this is why it is perfectly alright for John to ignore such 'unformed faith'. Furthermore, it is precisely because John is concerned with perfect faith that it is incumbent on him to show why a morally defective intention cannot figure in the assent of faith.

III. Faith and the will

The theme of the last section of the paper is the proper and crucial role played by affection in our perception of both goodness and truth. As most of us know from personal experience (and this is especially so for smokers), one's formed character can affect one's perception of good and evil. St. Thomas believes that the same thing holds for our perception of truth in general and not just moral truth. (He did not, of course, invent this insight--it's at least as old as Plato's cave and is one of the principal motifs of both the Old and New Testaments). What John is out to show is that because of the demands that Jesus's Good News puts on us and because of our inclinations toward pride, cowardice, and concupiscence, each of us is able, as it were, to see the bad news in the Good News and to that extent be resistant to the assent of faith. As John puts it, defects in moral character can have profound epistemic ramifications. This is why faith requires not only an act of will, but an act of will that involves an upright intention.

One minor cavil. John makes rather heavy weather of the distinction between diachronic and synchronic accounts of freedom. I don't think we have to choose between them, and I don't think that St. Thomas thinks so, either. Whether or not the drunk could have refrained from uttering the racial slur at the very moment he uttered it, he is still blameworthy as long as paradigmatically free acts led up to that moment. Whether or not we call the utterance free (or voluntary) is a secondary issue--perhaps not a merely verbal issue, but close enough for present purposes. Likewise, the main question John is concerned with here is whether one is praiseworthy for believing at a given time or blameworthy for not believing at a given time. And any plausible account of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness will allow them to range beyond paradigmatically free acts as long as the acts for which one is praised or blamed are traced back in an appropriate manner to such paradigmatically free acts.