Adequately to appreciate one’s responsibilities regarding faith and reverence toward God, one must understand and bear in mind several essential characteristics of faith. In first making the act of faith, one accepts God’s offer of friendship and enters into communion with the divine persons. Hence, faith is much more than assenting to a set of propositions about God. Nevertheless, one cannot believe in God without believing the truth he reveals about himself and his saving plan for humankind. The communion into which one enters by faith includes other believers; it is ecclesial, not individualistic. Finally, faith is a fundamental option, which calls for faithfulness toward God.
According to the New Testament, Christians by their faith not only accept a body of truth, but accept and live in an interpersonal relationship. Christian faith is life in Jesus, Son of God (see Gal 2.20).3 Jesus brings those who believe in him into communion with the Father (see Jn 12.44–50, 14.1–11). Thus, faith and baptism into the divine family go together (see Mk 16.16; cf. Gal 3.26–27, Heb 10.22).
a) Reverence and humility prepare humans to believe. God creates all things and directs them to their proper fulfillment. His infinite majesty and mighty works as creator call for reverence. Those who are reverent not only stand in awe of God, honor him for his greatness, and acknowledge their dependence on him for every benefit, but humbly seek and accept their fulfillment according to his wise and loving plan. His plan, however, is to save fallen humankind by the gift of faith (see Eph 2.8–9); and so reverence and humility predispose men and women to accept faith when they learn that God has made it available.
b) A preliminary faith in Jesus leads to saving faith. The Council of Trent teaches that one receives saving faith (together with hope and love) only through Jesus, with whom one is united by baptism (see DS 1529–31/799–800). The rite of baptism makes it clear that those who come to be baptized seek God’s gift of faith with a view to eternal life.4 At the same time, though, faith in Jesus and acceptance of his message of salvation are prerequisites for the baptism of an adult (see Acts 2.41, 8.12, 18.8). Thus, baptism both presupposes faith and leads to it. The faith which baptism presupposes also is a fruit of the Spirit’s work (see DS 1525/797, 1529/799, 3010/1791), drawing those who hear the gospel into a human relationship with Jesus. He, as man, brings his human brothers and sisters into the covenantal communion with the Father which they seek in baptism and accept by saving faith.
c) By baptismal faith, one commits oneself to the divine persons. Just before new Christians are baptized, they (or the parents and godparents on behalf of babies) profess faith in each of the divine persons by responding to the parts of the creed, proposed as questions: “Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth? . . . Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord . . . ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church . . . ?”5 By answering “I do,” those to be baptized commit themselves to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, much as a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in making their marriage promises.
d) Baptismal faith establishes communion with God. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not only baptism by their authority but baptism into their family name.6 Thus, baptism makes one an adoptive member of the divine family: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8.15–16).7 And as families live together, so the divine persons dwell in those who, having received the gift of faith, are faithful to it: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14.23).
When people become friends, an important part of their mutual gift of self is what they tell each other about themselves and their intentions. It is part of each one’s acceptance of the other to believe and trust his or her self-communication (see CMP, 20.B). If neither believed what the other communicated, the two would not accept one another and could not be friends. God’s revelation similarly includes propositions as an essential element, and Christian faith in God includes assent to them.
a) Propositions are part of the way God reveals himself. Propositions are contents of thought which are either true or false and can be expressed in language, usually in complete sentences. In saying something is so or ought to be done, one asserts a proposition; whenever people answer yes or no to whether something is so or ought to be done, they assert a proposition. God, in revealing himself through the prophets and through Jesus, says many things are so or not so, right or wrong; thus, part of the way in which he reveals himself is by asserting propositions. But these propositions are not the whole of revelation, for God also enters into human history and acts in it. Vatican II, therefore, teaches that God’s “plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them” (DV 2).8
b) Faith in God includes assenting to the truth of propositions. One cannot give God the submission of faith without assenting to the truth he has revealed (see DV 5; cf. DS 377/180, 3008–11/1789–92; CMP, 20.C).9 Adults, in being baptized, and all Christians, in renewing their baptismal promises, assent to several propositions when they say “I do” in reply to the questions: Do you believe in the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit? Similarly, the profession of faith in the Mass accurately reflects the true situation in that it affirms faith in God the Father, in the Lord Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit by affirming the central propositional truths of faith. It is only because what one believes in believing God includes this propositional element that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10.17).10
c) The propositional truths of faith really communicate God. It is a mistake to suggest, as some do, that Christian faith is believing in God rather than believing these propositional truths. Since God reveals these propositional truths and believing them belongs to faith, to refuse to believe the truths of faith would be to refuse to believe God himself. Moreover, the suggestion implies that propositional truths of faith are mere human thoughts or even mere sets of human words, altogether separate from God. But they are not mere thoughts or mere sets of words; they are what the words convey and the thoughts grasp. Neither mere conceptual formulations and verbal expressions of faith nor objects of faith entirely separate from God himself, they are God’s self-expressions, by which he communicates himself, making known his saving plan and will (see DV 6). And how can God’s self-expressions take shape in human propositions? Just as the Word takes shape in flesh; Jesus translates divine truth into human terms. Therefore, all who have faith in God should believe all the propositional truths which they recognize to be matters of faith.11
d) One has responsibilities with regard to these truths of faith. Because the truths of faith are part of God’s self-communication, it is impossible to believe in the God who reveals himself while denying these propositional truths. Still, most Christians are unaware of some truths of faith, and so believe in God without at once affirming every one of them. One should be ready to assent to truths of faith as one becomes aware of them, and should try to understand truths one explicitly believes and resist temptations to doubt them. At the same time, because the assent of faith should be refused to propositions which do not belong to faith, one should do what is necessary to discriminate between truths of faith and other propositions, even true ones.
Union with Jesus makes the baptized children of God: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.26–27). Jesus, however, makes himself available as mediator between God and humankind, not by offering a separate relationship to each human person, but by establishing the community of the new covenant into which each person who is to be saved is called by a unique grace through personal faith.
The Church’s preaching calls one to faith; baptism makes one a member of the Church, the communion of the new covenant; and the Eucharist perfects faith as one’s commitment to communion not only with the divine persons but with other human persons.
a) The Church is not an optional association of Christian believers. Many who fully appreciate the importance of faith in Jesus nevertheless regard Church membership as entirely subordinate to personal faith. However, this view overlooks the intimacy between Jesus and the Church. Before his conversion, St. Paul “was violently persecuting the Church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Gal 1.13). But Jesus challenged him: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4). This identification of the Church with Jesus is clarified in the Pauline writings: Christians are baptized into his one body, which is the Church (see 1 Cor 12.12–13; cf. Rom 12.4–5; Eph 1.22–23, 5.23–27; Col 1.18, 24).12 Members of the Church are members of Jesus, living stones built into God’s spiritual house (see Eph 2.19–22, 1 Pt 2.4–9). Thus, as there is only one Lord Jesus, there is only one Church, and this community formed by faith is “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm 3.15).
b) One has faith by sharing in the Church’s faith. Jesus commissioned the apostles to preach the gospel throughout the world, so that all might believe and be baptized (see Mt 28.19–20, Mk 16.15–16). Tradition and Scripture, by which apostolic faith continues through the centuries, are committed to the Church (see DV 10). Those who accept the gospel come to the Church to seek saving faith in baptism; being baptized, “they have the duty to profess before others the faith which they have received from God through the Church” (LG 11). Thus, the Church’s faith is the norm of personal faith (see C.5.h, below). For this reason, one fulfills one’s responsibility of faith only by giving the Church’s teaching the assent due it.
c) The Church is not merely a means for reaching faith’s goal. Faith is a commitment to communion with the divine persons. The Eucharist concretely realizes this communion in the new covenant (see Mt 26.28, Mk 14.24, Lk 22.20, 1 Cor 11.25). The eucharistic communion of the Church on earth will be perfected in the eternal communion of heaven (see LG 9, 48).13 Thus, the Church is not merely a convenient, but perhaps dispensable, means by which her members reach faith’s goal. Rather, she is the kingdom in its incipient or embryonic form, and will attain her fullness in the glory of heaven (see LG 2, 48; CMP, 19.C and 33.E–F).
Since faith is God’s gift to created persons who are utterly dependent on him, it necessarily involves reverent obedience. One’s initial act of faith is never left behind, for God’s gift endures, and its free acceptance lasts as one’s basic Christian commitment (see CMP, 16.G). Since the personal relationship with God that faith establishes should shape the whole of a believer’s life, faith is a fundamental option. Closely related to faith, and flowing from it, are expressions of reverence, not only in acts of worship but in all other acts of Christian life bearing on the sacred.
a) Faith in God involves personal submission to him. Christian faith is characterized by humble and reverent submission, as Vatican II teaches: “ ‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16.26; see 1.5; 2 Cor 10.5–6) is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which one entrusts one’s whole self freely to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ (Vatican I, DS 3008/1789)” (DV 5).14
Obedience often suggests submission to rules or laws, which may be arbitrary and are at best impersonal. The obedience of faith, however, is personal submission to God, in whom there is nothing arbitrary and who asks only for trust and love in response to his loving kindness and faithfulness. Still, the submission which faith requires would be unacceptable if it were submission to any human person or mere human society. It is right and good only because God creates out of love, creatures are wholly dependent on him, and faith is the acceptance of his gift of salvation and his invitation to share in his own blessedness—a blessing which surpasses all that even good created persons could naturally hope for.
b) The act of faith is a Christian’s fundamental option. Abraham, the model of faith, listens to God, accepts his promises, and risks everything to act on them (see Gn 12–22; cf. Rom 4.1–3, Heb 11.8–19). Similarly, in making the commitment of baptismal faith, one renounces Satan and accepts Jesus, setting aside desires, goals, and commitments—such as greed for wealth, escapist pleasure seeking, and selfish ambition—incompatible with life in the new covenant because they are sinful. So faith requires Christians to undertake a new way of life, based on love, which fulfills all the commandments (see CMP, 30.I). Faith, therefore, is a fundamental option (see CMP, 16.G.3–6); it is the fundamental option of Christian life.
c) The fundamental option of faith initiates an ongoing relationship. This Christian fundamental option is not merely an option for moral goodness, but a personal commitment to God, revealing himself in Jesus, with whom one is joined by membership in his body, the Church. As a free choice, moreover, the act of faith endures, provided it is not revoked (see CMP, 2.E.6). But like the marriage promises a man and a woman make to each other, faith, as the acceptance of a personal relationship, must be implemented by many further choices that preserve and nourish it. Thus, responsibilities distinct from the act of faith itself must be fulfilled if faith is to survive and flourish as the basis of one’s Christian life.
d) Faith should be embodied and expressed in reverent actions. Any authentic religion seeks to honor God by actions which embody and express reverence for him. For Christians, living in communion with God by faith, all such religious acts flow directly from faith. At the same time, they are distinct from it inasmuch as they involve more than the commitment of faith itself. Hence, besides persevering in the act of faith, one must fulfill responsibilities to profess one’s faith, to think and speak reverently of God, and in other ways to act toward God with the reverence and humility which shape faith itself.
3. See John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 268–69.
4. The baptismal rite formerly was clearer on this matter than now: see Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 103–4.
5. See The Rites, 99–100, 146, 207, 222, 233, 245, 251–52.
6. See the Greek of Mt 28.19. Cf. W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible, 26 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 362.
7. See CMP, 30.H. For the New Testament theology of Christian baptism as the communication of the Spirit, see David Michael Stanley, S.J., “The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism: An Essay in Biblical Theology,” Theological Studies 18 (1957): 169–215.
8. A valuable study: René Latourelle, S.J., Theology of Revelation, with a commentary on Dei Verbum (Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1968), 313–488.
9. See Paul VI, General Audience (24 Apr. 1974), Inseg. 12 (1974) 368–69, OR, 2 May 1974, 1: “Baptism implies a precise and resolute doctrinal commitment. . . . You understand that, right from the first apprenticeship, doctrinal commitment is fundamental and solemn for those who wish to abide by the authenticity of the Christian profession; and that faithfulness to this commitment cannot be called obsolete and rigid integralism. It does not permit so-called pluralistic judgments.”
10. John Lamont, “The Notion of Revelation,” New Blackfriars 72 (1991): 335–41, cogently criticizes nonpropositional theories of revelation and defends a position quite similar to the one explained here.
11. St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2, points out that faith does not terminate in propositions (enuntiabilia) but in the reality, and some take this remark to mean that the propositional truths of faith are mere formulations, of limited and merely relative value. But that misinterprets Thomas’s position (which is clear enough from aa. 1–2 as a whole): Although faith is in the primary truth (God), it takes propositional form, because realities are in a knower according to the knower’s mode, and truth in humans is propositional; see Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Theological Virtues, vol. 1, On Faith, trans. Thomas à Kempis Reilly, O.P. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1965), 51–90. Propositions are not (as many since Kant suppose) constructs which express but also block some more direct experience or intuition of reality, but are the way by which human persons identify with the realities they know. Faith is not peculiar in terminating in the reality rather than in propositions; the same thing is true, as Thomas expressly says, of science.
12. CIC, c. 96: “By baptism one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it”; c. 204, §1: “The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God.” See LG 1, 7, 8, 11, and 31. On the Church as new covenant community according to the New Testament: Viktor Warnach, “Church,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, ed. Johannes B. Bauer (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 101–16.
13. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 53: “The Church is communio; she is God’s communing with men in Christ and hence the communing of men with one another—and, in consequence, sacrament, sign, instrument of salvation. The Church is the celebration of the Eucharist; the Eucharist is the Church; they do not simply stand side by side; they are one and the same.”
14. John Paul II, General Audience (13 Mar. 1985), 5, Inseg. 8.1 (1985) 639–40, OR, 18 Mar. 1985, 12, considers this concise and rich statement of Vatican II to be a technical definition of faith.