At the beginning of Chesterton’s autobiography, he describes an aspect of life that all of us are familiar with, yet might never have realized requires quite a bit of faith—our birthday. He writes:
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874…(The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, Chpt. 1).
We take our birthday on faith. I believe I was born on October 22nd, but I don’t remember it. I doubt any of us remember our birthday. Nevertheless, I am certain of my birthdate, and I am certain because of the testimony of others.
In this post, we will articulate faith’s definition and distinctions, as well as speak of the Church regarding the question of doubt.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).
Faith, whether natural or supernatural, presupposes both a message and a messenger. The message is required to provide the content of our belief, and the messenger is required for its delivery.
The messenger is also needed to compensate for our lack of “seeing” (either in the literal or intellectual sense) the object of our belief. Intellectually, we “see” some things to be true when certainty follows directly from the message itself: such as, that triangles have three sides or that 4 is an even number. Included, would be principles like the Principle of Noncontradiction, which according to Aristotle, is “self-evident” (Metaphysics, Bk. IV, IV).
What is “seen” is not believed. But for those things which we don’t quite “see” (such as the date of our birth) we need faith, and our faith rests primarily on the trustworthiness of the messenger.
I believe my birthdate was the 22nd of October because of my parents’ testimony. I have never seen the birth certificate, checked the hospital records, nor interviewed the staff that night. Why? Frankly, because the messengers’ word is sufficient.
Almost our whole intellectual lives are based on this kind of faith. From our school teachers to parents, doctors, or other “experts,” we acquire the vast majority of our knowledge on the sole grounds that they “said so.”
This is natural faith: faith produced naturally and about natural things. Now, let us turn to the supernatural.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
Supernatural faith (also known as “saving faith” or “theological faith”) is, for one thing, a Divine gift.
Faith is a gift, both in the contents of its message (since it contains what otherwise could not be known) and also in our ability to believe it. For, faith requires not only that it “come from what is heard” (Rm. 10:17), but also that it come from the heart: the assent of the will. And one’s willful assent, is itself God’s gift, as Scripture attests:
…no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
And, as was said before, because the content of faith’s object is not “seen” one must rely on the trustworthiness of the messenger to believe it.
Who is the messenger providing the content of supernatural faith? It is God Himself, and for two reasons: The first, is that if God’s inner life (and the way to Him) is to be known, only He who knows it can reveal it to us. The second is that in order for this faith to be in God, we must hear God Himself speak. For, if He does not deliver the message to us, then our faith would not be a faith in Him but in someone else.
In other words, one can not have faith in God, merely by believing what others have said about Him, or even in believing the Bible itself. Written works require interpretation, and if that interpretation comes from oneself, then it is just faith in oneself. Here is St. John Henry Newman:
Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other;—to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book, such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more? Are not these two procedures distinct in this, that in the former you submit, in the latter you judge? (Sermons to Mixed Congregations, Discourse X) (“a living authority” for St. John Henry Newman is the Catholic Church).
Moreover, besides hearing God speak we must also be aware that it is, in fact, He who is speaking. If this were not the case, then our faith in Him would not be on purpose. It would be an accidental faith in God. But faith without choice is not faith.
Therefore, assuming that God would not leave mankind without the revelation of Himself (as well as the means to reach Him). Then, the question is not if God has spoken to us, but how?
Now, he could do so in one of two ways: either immediately (through some direct illumination to all mankind) or mediately (through the voice of another). And clearly, the innumerable and diverging opinions about God removes any possibility for the former, so it must have been the latter.
Summarizing what has been said thus far, supernatural faith requires both a message and a messenger. Moreover, since the message itself is not “seen,” it must be believed and believed primarily on the trustworthiness of the messenger. Further, for this faith to be a faith in God, it must be God Himself who gives it. And, since God has not chosen to speak immediately, then it follows that he has spoken by the voice of another.
And, it goes without saying, that if God does speak, whatever he says will be necessarily true or infallible.
So, where is this “voice” through which God is speaking? Fortunately, we don’t have to look very far, for the only entity today that even claims to speak infallibly (regarding God and the means to reach Him), is the Catholic Church. Here are her words:
…the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals…(Pastor Aeternus, Chpt. IV)
However, as we said, because we must also be able to recognize when God is speaking, the Church continues:
Moreover, in order that we may satisfactorily perform the duty of embracing the true faith and of continuously persevering in it, God, through His only-begotten Son, has instituted the Church, and provided it with clear signs of His institution, so that it can be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word. (Dei Filius, Chpt. III).
What are these “clear signs of His institution?” The Church proclaims:
For, to the Catholic Church alone belong all those many and marvelous things which have been divinely arranged for the evident credibility of the Christian faith. But, even the Church itself by itself, because of its marvelous propagation, its exceptional holiness, and inexhaustible fruitfulness in all good works; because of its catholic unity and invincible stability, is a very great and perpetual motive of credibility, and an incontestable witness of its own divine mission (Ibid.).
This is the Catholic Church’s exclusive boast, to be (through St. Peter and his successors) God’s “voice,” and messenger of supernatural faith.
What then of doubt? It is excluded. For, if God speaks then there is no doubt that what he says is true. Thus, the teachings of the Catholic faith are assured, making any voluntary and obstinate doubt simply irrational. In the Church’s words:
Therefore there is no parity in the condition of those who have adhered to the Catholic truth, by the heavenly gift of faith and the condition of those who led by human opinions, follow a false religion. For those who have received the faith under the Magisterium of the Church can never have any just cause for changing or doubting that faith (Ibid.).
Yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t have questions. In the words of St. John Henry Newman:
Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Chpt. 5).
So let us praise God for our doubtless faith, and plead his grace that we, who have been given so great a gift may persevere in it.