A primary question with which such self-evaluation can and should begin is the following: what is faith?
The first response we can provide to those who ask us, “What is faith?” consists of mentioning the Creed and its revealed source, the Bible.
The first response that any authentic Christian (= Traditional Catholic) is likely to give is as simple and clear as possible: “Christian Faith is the Credo.” That is, the little “poem” that we profess at every Holy Liturgy or, in the context of the Holy Rosary prayer, right at its beginning. Of course, most of us are familiar with the two main creeds, namely the Apostles’ Creed (Latin Symbolum Apostolorum or Symbolum Apostolicum) – which we quote below – and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (Latin Symbolum Nicaenum – quoted in the note):
“Credo in Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, creatorem caeli et terrae.
Et in Iesum Christum, Filium eius unicum, Dominum nostrum:
Qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
Descendit ad inferos: tertia die resurrexit a mortuis;
Ascendit ad caelos; sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis:
Inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
Sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, Sanctorum communionem,
Vitam aeternam. Amen.”[ii]
Let’s assume now that someone asks us: but what is the origin (or the source) of the Creed? Where do all these teachings expressed succinctly, in an easily memorizable form, come from? The answer is as follows: from the sacred and error-free treasure of Holy Scripture. In short, the Bible is the source of the Creed. One of the most brilliant saints and doctors of the Patristic era, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386), explains this with utmost clarity in his famous catecheses:
“For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments” (Catechetical lectures, lecture V, 12)[iii].
For the apostles and the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, reading and meditating on Holy Scripture were their “daily bread.” In the Church of that golden age, the word “theology” referred to the revealed content of the Bible, and the notion of a “theologian” was synonymous with that of “inspired authors” – the prophets and the apostles. By extension, those who read and interpreted the sacred texts were also called “theologians.” It becomes clear, therefore, why the first Creed in the history of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed, is a collection of fundamental teachings drawn by the apostles themselves from the inspired pages of the Bible.
“The act of believing is an act of the intellect adhering to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God.” -St. Thomas Aquinas
Let’s return to the crucial issue of evaluating our own faith. The first response we can provide to those who ask us, “What is faith?” consists of mentioning the Creed and its revealed source, the Bible. On the other hand, we recognize that all people use the notion of “faith” in common language. For example, we hear expressions like the following thousands of times daily: “I believe it will rain tomorrow,” or “I believe Mrs. Jones is wrong,” or “I believe the prices have gone crazy.” In all these common formulations, we use the concept of “faith,” which, however, here is understood in its subjective sense as “opinion” or “belief.” Yet, none of these statements carries the same weight as the affirmation of a Christian who says in the context of the Holy Mass, “I believe in one God, etc.” So, one is an opinion, a belief regarding a fact, a person, or any event, and something entirely different is the religious faith of a Christian. In this sense, the Roman Catechism (1566) specifies the following:
“The word believe does not here mean to think, to suppose, to be of opinion; but, as the Sacred Scriptures teach, it expresses the deepest conviction, by which the mind gives a firm and unhesitating assent to God revealing His mysterious truths”[iv].
These have been explained in their writings by those Saints and Doctors who have discussed the nature of religious, supernatural faith. Among the definitions proposed by them for faith, that of Saint Thomas Aquinas captures all the essential aspects. Here is what the Angelic Doctor teaches us:
“The act of believing is an act of the intellect adhering to the Divine truth at the command of the will moved by the grace of God” (Latin: Credere est actus intellectus assentientis veritati divinae ex imperio voluntatis a Deo motae per gratiam) [v].
Essentially, the entire article at hand was conceived and written to expose and explain this remarkable definition of Christian, supernatural faith. It is so important that it’s worth memorizing, so we can quote and explain it to anyone who asks, “What is faith?” Let us now reflect with the utmost attention on the definition of Saint Thomas.
We must note, along with Saint Thomas Aquinas, that “the act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing.”
First and foremost, we have the subjective dimension of faith, which pertains to that part of the human soul that receives faith: it is about the intellect – the true “eye of the soul,” which is to the soul what physical eyes are to the body. What strikes us in the definition of the Angelic Doctor is the absence of any reference to emotions, passions or feelings. I mention this because many modern (and modernist) thinkers have wrongly conceived religious faith in emotional, rather than intellectual, terms. However, Saint Thomas unequivocally states that faith is an “act of the intellect.” Why? Because through faith, we are taught by God Himself those supernatural truths that are not accessible to our knowledge. No matter how great thinkers may be, they can never, ever, by the power of their reason alone, attain dogmas such as the creation ex nihilo, the birth of the Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary, or the mystery of the Holy Trinity. I repeat: none of these revealed dogmas can be obtained through rational speculation. This does not mean that they are irrational, but, as Saint Dionysius the Areopagite would say, they are supra-rational. That is, they surpass the capabilities of our minds. Therefore, we can only acquire them through an act of humility of the intellect, which accepts these truths revealed to us by God.
Next, we have the objective dimension, external to the subject who believes. It is precisely the sum of those “mysterious truths” (Roman Catechism) of divine origin contained in the Revelation transmitted to us through the written text of Holy Scripture and through Holy Tradition. The relationship, the connection established between the human intellect and the Revealed Truth, is one of “adherence,” of “assent” that we give to these Truths not by virtue of a human act of understanding but by the command of the will moved by divine grace without which faith would not be possible. To better understand the strength of this “adherence,” we can think about the notion of “adhesive:” it is the thing that allows for a solid attachment to a flat surface. In other words, our mind “sticks,” “adheres” – firmly and without hesitation, as the Roman Catechism says – to the truths revealed in Holy Scripture, in the Credo.
At this point, we must note, along with Saint Thomas Aquinas, that “the act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing” (Latin: Actus autem credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile, sed ad rem)[vi].
So, we believe what the statements of the Credo express, that is, we believe in the existence of the Supreme Being, God, as well as in the existence of those supernatural beings and realities, the Angels and the Saints, which are not accessible to our ordinary knowledge. In short, faith introduces the “unseen world” of the spirit into our lives. Clearly, for this very reason, faith is not of the same nature as intellectual knowledge based on reasoning or scientific knowledge based on what is perceived through the senses. This is precisely why we need the impulse of divine grace to help us adhere to all the truths of faith in the supernatural world.
The mere fact that we accept and adhere to the revealed truths of the Creed shows that our will has been set in motion by the love of God Himself who, as Saint John the Apostle teaches, “first hath loved us”.
God Himself is the one who helps us believe. At this point, Saint Thomas makes a remarkably encouraging statement: “Charity is called the form of faith.”[vii] So, love (i.e., charity) is the “form,” the “essence,” the “core” of our faith. And the love referred to here is not human love – but divine love. This means that the mere fact that we accept and adhere to the revealed truths of the Creed shows that our will has been set in motion by the love of God Himself who, as Saint John the Apostle teaches, “first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). Isn’t this teaching, this thought, the one we should turn to whenever we feel abandoned, discouraged, overwhelmed by everything we see in the Church and the world today?
So, this is how we can recite the Creed: by meditating on the fact that every word we say, firmly and without hesitation adhering to its divine content, is the result of the manifestation of God’s love through the grace He has given us to set our will in motion so that we may accept His revealed Truth. I find this truly comforting in our present dark times.
May the Hope be with you!
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[i] This definition of modernism was proposed by Saint Pope Pius X in the context of the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis published on 8 September 1907. The English translation of the encyclical can be read here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html [Accessed October 16, 2023]
[ii] Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem cæli (cœli) et terræ, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia sæcula. Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum non factum, consubstantialem Patri; per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de cælis (cœlis). Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est,
Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas,
Et ascendit in cælum (cœlum), sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria, iudicare vivos et mortuos,
cuius regni non erit finis.
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit. Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per prophetas.
Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum,
Et vitam venturi sæculi. Amen.
[iv] Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, Issued by Order of Pope Pius V, Translated into English with notes by John A. McHugh, O.P. and Charles J. Callan, O.P., New York, Joseph F. Wagner, 1934, p. 14
[v] Summa Theologiae, II-II, Quaestio 2, Articulus 9.
[vi] Summa Theologiae, II-II, Quaestio 1, Articulus 2, obj 2, ad 2.
[vii] Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 4, Art. 3.