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Chapter 20: The Relationship between God and Sinful Humankind

Question C: What is it to have faith in God?

1. What God reveals is not merely some fact about himself or some event or circumstance we can expect to befall us. Instead, God makes himself personally known, revealing himself first through the mediation of human persons and then perfectly through his Son, our Lord Jesus. There is no God beyond him who reveals himself; and now we have a way to him. This way is Jesus (see Eph 2.18; 3.12).

2. Faith is the acceptance of this personal communication. It is the beginning of our intimacy with God; without it we cannot share in the fellowship of divine family life. The entire Bible makes it clear that faith in God is necessary. Nothing can replace it—neither human wisdom nor religious experience nor good works (see 1 Cor 1–2; Gal 3.1–9).

3. As was explained in A above, God reveals himself by words and deeds (see DV 2). Deeds are not just happenings—they are actions which carry personal meaning. Unless substantiated by deeds, any set of words might reasonably be regarded as more or less empty talk. But revelation contains deeds, especially miracles and fulfilled prophecies, which everyone can understand (see Mk 2.10–11; DS 3009/1790, 3034/1813). At the same time, without the words which interpret them, God’s deeds in our world might seem merely odd and inexplicable events.

4. Now, to have faith in God is to accept his revelation, and revelation must be accepted as it is actually given. Thus, faith includes both welcoming God’s deeds and assenting to the truth of the words by which he gives propositional expression to the mystery contained in the deeds.8 Vatican II teaches: “ ‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16.26; cf. 1.5; 2 Cor 10.5–6) must be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man entrusts his whole self freely to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ [DS 3008/1789], and voluntarily assenting to the truth revealed by him” (DV 5; translation amended). The Council thus makes it clear that by faith one personally submits to God and for this very reason assents to revealed truth (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 2, aa. 1–2; q. 4, a. 2).

5. This revealed truth is heard when the gospel is preached: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10.17). The word of God comes to us in human words. Thus, a definite body of truths articulated in human language constitutes the actual content of divine revelation as it is presented to us (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, aa. 6–10). In wholeheartedly accepting these truths and in no other way do we believe in God, for this is how we welcome God’s deeds, take his promises to be true (see DS 1526/798), and enter into relationship with him as he has made himself present to us: in Jesus Christ and in salvation history, which centers upon Jesus.9

Vatican II reaffirms the traditional conviction that God’s revelation in Jesus is definitive and will be transcended only when faith gives way to vision:

. . . Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself: through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover, he confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed: that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.
  The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tm 6.14 and Ti 2.13). (DV 4)

To attempt, as some do, to reduce revelation and faith to some sort of nonconceptual, nonpropositional, mysterious contact between God and the soul of the believer is to deny that revelation really has occurred, that God really communicates himself to us in the medium of Jesus’ created words and deeds, that the Incarnation really is the fullness of revelation.

We believe by hearing. “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 Jn 2.24). “O foolish Galatians! . . . Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3.1–2). “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10.17). The faith is professed aloud by one who seeks baptism (see 1 Tm 6.12) and by all who sincerely say the Creed.

It is a common faith (see Ti 1.4), because there is only one true faith (see Eph 4.5). One who keeps it and stands firm in it can be proud of so doing (see 2 Tm 4.7). When imposters moved by godless passions, people devoid of the Spirit, create divisions in the Christian community, the faithful must remember “the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). “Beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability” (2 Pt 3.17).

Catholics find the living Jesus in the words and deeds of the Church teaching and working in the world today (see DV 7–10). For the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and his Spirit continually vivifies and builds up the Church (see LG 7–8). Jesus is present when the Church teaches (see Mt 28.20), and so heaven validates the Church’s earthly decisions (see Mt 16.19; 18.18).

6. Vatican I teaches explicitly and definitively that one must assent to all the truths the Church proposes as revealed: “Moreover, by divine and Catholic faith everything must be believed that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief either in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal teaching” (DS 3011/1792). No doubt some truths of faith are more important than others (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, a. 6, ad 1; 2–2, q. 11, a. 2, ad 3). But while assigning those more value, faithful Catholics accept even the least central truth of revelation as a precious part of God’s total message.10

Still, there is more to revelation than the propositional truths included in it. Only by the fellowship of those who hear God’s word and adhere to it, who benefit from his saving deeds and respond to them, can the message of God’s revelation in the Lord Jesus remain in the world and be delivered to the whole of humankind, to every member of which it is personally addressed. Vatican II teaches: “Therefore the apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Th 2.15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (cf. Jude 3). Now what was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life, and the increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (DV 8). In this way, revelation remains alive in the world not only in the teaching and belief of the Church, but also in the liturgy and the holiness generated by sharing in it, and in the guidance of the Church’s pastors and the cooperation of her members in living the truth in love.

The whole rich experience of God revealing himself abides in the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church. St. Irenaeus refers to this whole reality as the true gnosis: “The true gnosis is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the Body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts” (FEF 242). Divine revelation is total personal communication, and the Church hands it on totally.

From the riches of this whole, the Church always can bring forth new truths and make the faith bear fruit (see LG 25). In doing this, the Church does not suppose that she can add anything to God’s revelation (see DV 4 and 10). Nor does the Church suppose that revelation occurs apart from the fleshly signs, the words and deeds, which God uses. Rather, the Church believes that the Spirit, who teaches nothing on his own, continues to unfold the revelation of God in the Lord Jesus and so to lead humankind to the full truth of God himself (see Jn 16.13).

7. The commitment of faith is the fundamental option of Christian life (16‑G). This fundamental option is a unique case of morally upright commitment. A morally upright commitment to intimate friendship always makes demands. Thus, it is inherent in faith, as a commitment to personal friendship with God, to make practical demands on those who believe. This is why, as Vatican II teaches, the “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (GS 43).

The People of God are in a disastrous situation when they exhibit lack of fidelity, mercy, and remembrance of him (see Hos 4.1–3), that is, lack of living adherence to his word. The faith which saves is the faith which works through love (see Gal 5.6). Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter heaven; it is necessary to do the Father’s will and build one’s life on the solid foundation of faith (see Mt 7.21–27; Lk 6.46–49). One who listens to God’s word but does not act on it is like a person who looks in a mirror, “and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing” (Jas 1 24–25). Clearly there is no room for the notion that faith is a gift which makes no demands.

While the gift of faith makes demands, it also carries with it the power to fulfill these demands. Against the view that a justified person “is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church, but is bound only to believe,” the Council of Trent teaches definitively that those who are justified can and must keep all the commandments of God and the Church (DS 1570/830; cf. DS 1536/804). It is not compatible with this teaching to suggest that any Catholic is unable to live up to the moral requirements of faith (see DS 1568/828).

8. In sum, God reveals himself by sensible signs, chiefly by the bodily existence and the words and deeds of his Son. Faith is no aconceptual intuition, nor is it the acceptance of some ancient information. Rather, faith is the hearing of God’s word and adhering to it, the full human and personal experience of the personal relationship God seeks to initiate with all humankind. Catholic faith is adhering to God in the Catholic Church by accepting the belief of the Church, worshipping according to this belief, and trying to live up to it in the whole of one’s life.11

8. While not denying that in revelation God’s self-communication is mediated by finite entities, some Catholic authors talk of faith as if it were a knowledge-experience of God without any ecclesially determinable content, and as if beliefs were always generated only as a product of theological reflection upon this protean faith. See, for example, Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1980), 24–29, 45–48, 60–62, 73–76, and 232–37; Gerald O’Collins, S.J., Foundations of Theology (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971), 24–30. Although O’Collins makes many sound points, he mistakenly thinks of propositions as if they were constructed expressions of some more fundamental grasp of reality, rather than as integral parts of the interpersonal relationship of revelation and faith. Such analyses set up a false dichotomy between the personal and the propositional. An important underlying factor is the supposition, developed by Karl Rahner, that there is a universal, transcendental relation of revelation-faith between man and God: “Revelation,” Encyclopedia of Theology, 1460–66. The argument for this hypothesis is that God wills all to be saved, and faith is required for salvation (see LG 16; AG 7). So far, so good, but the further step that there is no faith without accessible revelation is not evident and not warranted by Vatican II’s teaching, which seems rather to point to a faith merely implicit in the effort of upright persons to follow conscience as it leads them toward God. Certainly, Dei verbum deals exclusively with what Rahner calls “predicamental revelation.” Thus, the views of revelation which McBrien calls “subjective” and “mediating” (op. cit., 222–23) can be set aside inasmuch as they depend on an unnecessary theological hypothesis. Faith is not a knowledge-experience of God without any determinable content, but a personal acceptance by a conscious, free choice of him revealing himself; at the limit, for one who has not heard the gospel, this acceptance is merely implicit in the openness to truth and religion of upright persons pursuing these goods as best they can.

9. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 29–79, stresses the role of religious experience, but fails to clarify what he means by “experience.” Thus, his treatment is profoundly ambiguous. Sometimes, it might be understood as asserting that revelation is only completed when God’s words and deeds are appropriated in faith (78): “So for believers, revelation is an action of God as experienced by believers and interpreted in religious language and therefore expressed in human terms, in the dimension of our utterly human history.” But more often Schillebeeckx’s treatment seems to overlook and even deny the essential role of true propositions (62): “Religion is not concerned with a message that has to be believed but with an experience of faith which is presented as a message.” Thus, he seems willing to relativize doctrine to some sort of ineffable religious experience (63): “What the Christian community will be concerned to say in constantly changing situations, through constantly new forms of expression, even in philosophical concepts of a very complicated kind, is ultimately no more than that in Jesus Christ it experiences decisive salvation from God.” Such a treatment of revelation allows individual theologians to substitute whatever opinions please them for the sacred dogmas declared by the Church, understood as the Church understood and understands them, and in this respect is at odds with the definitive teaching of Vatican I (see DS 3020/1800, 3043/1818).

10. See Pius XI, Mortalium animos, 20 AAS (1928) 13–14; The Papal Encyclicals, 201.9. Vatican II teaches that there is an order or hierarchy of truths of faith, since they are more or less close to the central mystery (see UR 11), but this teaching in no way undercuts the fact that every truth of faith is accepted on the same principle—namely, that it belongs to divine revelation, its explanation, or its defense—and so the denial of any one truth of faith is equally infidelity toward God revealing. On this point, see J. T. Ford, “Hierarchy of Truths,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 16:208, especially the quotation from Archbishop Andrea Pangrazio’s Vatican II speech proposing and explaining the idea. Denis Carroll, “Faith and Doctrine,” Irish Theological Quarterly, 46 (1979), 111–22, summarizes views of Karl Rahner, P. de Letter, and Olivier Rabut which would accept as consistent with faith a deliberate denial of some truths of faith—a “lightening of the burden.” The arguments summarized rest on blurring the significance of the hierarchy of truths of faith and ignoring the distinction between ignorance (of some doctrine by a believer) and denial (of a doctrine by one limiting the commitment of faith). These positions are very similar to indefensible theories of fundamental option (criticized in 16‑E) and more or less approximate the modernist conception of faith condemned by Pius X (see DS 3484/2081).

11. Of course, this is not to say Christianity is not a religion of the Spirit. But Spirit and institution are not exclusive, and Christianity from its origin is institutional, public, and social: B. C. Butler, O.S.B., “Spirit and Institution in the New Testament,” in Studia Evangelica, ed. F. L. Cross, 3 (1961), Texte und Untersuchungen, 88 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966), 138–65.