From a “Revealed” Psychology to Theological Inquiry: James Alison’s Theological Appropriation of Girard
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From a “Revealed” Psychology to Theological Inquiry
James Alison’s Theological Appropriation of Girard

In the course of my efforts to distinguish and relate the methods and achievements of René Girard and James Alison, I have developed the hypothesis that a particular pair of theological terms might provide a helpful conceptual tool for carrying out this task—fides quae creditur and fides qua creditur. These terms were given their classic formulation within Protestant scholasticism at the beginning of the seventeenth century, where they were used to distinguish between two dimensions of Christian faith: the “object” or “content” of faith (fides quae), and the kind of activity that faith is or the form that it takes within the subject (fides qua).

My proposal, stated most briefly, is that Alison’s use of Girard’s work represents a shift from a psychological explication of a portion of the content of Christian faith to a theological inquiry that employs Girard’s mimetic psychology to more fully understand the dynamic process by which Christian persons come to hold their beliefs. If this is so, then employing a particular understanding of the conceptual distinction between fides quae and fides qua could bring significant methodological clarity to the work of both Girard and Alison. [End Page 121]

For the limited purposes of this paper, I will confine myself to sketching the component parts of this hypothesis. First, I will briefly situate my usage of these terms within their historical context. Second, drawing from Eugene Webb’s work, I will explain my characterization of Girard’s thought as a “revealed” psychology. Third, I will suggest that theologians interested in Girard might understand this revealed psychology as an insightful description of original sin, which is a portion of the content of Christian faith. Finally, I will present Alison’s work as a theological appropriation of Girard’s mimetic psychology, which is initiated by a religious experience arising from Alison’s discovery of Girard. This experience leads Alison to come to a new understanding of the disciples’ experience of the risen Christ and then to an understanding of the dynamics of Christian conversion, that is, an understanding of the fides qua.

A Conceptual Tool—Fides Quae and Fides Qua

Traditionally, Christian theological treatments of the notion of faith have distinguished between faith’s objective and subjective dimensions. This distinction becomes especially pronounced within the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century. Luther and Calvin, among the reformers, sought to emphasize the subjective dimension of faith in response to a tendency to place increasing importance on the “true” content of divine revelation to be affirmed by the believer.1

Within the movement of Protestant Scholasticism that followed the Counter-Reformation, some theologians began to employ the terms fides quae creditur (“the faith which is believed”) and fides qua creditur (“the faith by which it is believed”) more or less systematically to thematize the distinction between faith’s objective and subjective dimensions. According to Karl Barth, the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard, drawing upon a distinction first made by Augustine and then developed by Anselm and Peter Lombard, was the first to use this precise terminology to give a systematic account of faith.2 The relevant difference in the use of the these two phrases within this context is the identification of faith as that which the person believes to be true (fides quae) and faith as an act, relation, or process within the person that leads and enables him or her to believe what they believe (fides qua). Gerhard, following Peter Lombard, recognizes the complexity of the subjective dimension of faith and he develops a threefold formula for articulating it. In his formulation, the fides qua consists of fiducia [End Page 122] (personal trust, or profession), assensus (firm assent or acknowledgment), and notitia (explicit apprehension of God and of God’s desire for humanity). Whether the subjective dimension of faith is described as an act, a relation, a process, or even a virtue (in the Thomistic sense) varies according to the philosophical and theological perspectives of individual theologians.

Although this pair of terms makes a useful conceptual distinction between two...


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