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  • Opining the articuli fidei:Thomas Aquinas on the Heretic’s Assent to the Articles of Faith
  • M. V. Dougherty

THOMAS AQUINAS’S ACCOUNT of the infused virtue (habitus) of faith presupposes that some intrinsically intelligible truths are beyond the range of the natural cognitive abilities of human beings. The possession of the virtue of faith allows the believer to transcend certain natural epistemic limitations so that he can assent to truths that are necessary for salvation. Consonant with the Catholic theological tradition, Aquinas refers to such truths as the articles of faith (articuli fidei), and stock examples include propositions concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation.1

In light of the many and well-known texts from the Corpus Thomisticum that highlight the disproportion or incommensurability between the articles of faith and the natural cognitive abilities of human beings, it would not be unreasonable for one to assume that faith is required to assent to such articles of faith [End Page 1] in this life. Such an interpretive assumption could be expressed as:

A1: A human being can assent to the articles of faith in this life if and only if the human being is fortified with the infused virtue of faith.

One might be led to ascribe A1 to Aquinas when one considers that he criticizes the Pelagians precisely for maintaining that the assent to matters of faith is caused by nothing other than free will.2 Still further, one might think that strong evidence for A1 is Aquinas’s claim that “free will does not suffice for believing, since those things that are of faith are above reason.”3

I argue, however, that A1’s identification of the virtue of faith as a necessary condition for the assent to the articles of faith does not adequately reflect Aquinas’s position, despite the many texts that may suggest such a view.4 That Aquinas does not endorse A1 can be made evident by examining his largely overlooked account of the epistemic state of the heretic (haereticus). To be sure, most commentators who explore the Thomistic treatment of heresy focus on the psychology of error underlying the heretic’s denial of one or more of the articles of faith.5 In the present paper I take an alternate path, however, focusing on those epistemic acts whereby the heretic gets its [End Page 2] right, so to speak, by correctly assenting to some of the articles of faith. Aquinas maintains that the heretic does not possess the infused virtue of faith yet still assents to all the articles of faith except for the one or more articles that he denies. Bereft of faith, the heretic “holds those things that are of faith by another mode than through faith.”6 This seemingly anomalous epistemic condition deserves consideration.7

I. Intellects without Faith

The heretic appears to be cognitively privileged, since without faith he assents to the things that are of faith, seemingly overcoming without divine assistance the aforementioned disproportion between the limited range of reason and the articles of faith. Aquinas is aware of the apparent difficulty; in the Summa theologiae he defuses the rather unusual objection that heretics appear to have greater cognitive capacities than the faithful, since heretics routinely and unassistedly assent to those higher truths without possessing the virtue of faith.8 Aquinas concludes that the heretic holds the articles of faith by opinion (opinio), not faith.

What makes one a heretic? Frequently Aquinas identifies obstinacy (pertinacia, instantia) as a necessary condition for heresy.9 The cause of heresy is at times identified with pride [End Page 3] (superbia).10 On Aquinas’s account, heresy is a species of unbelief (infidelitas) and every heretic is a schismatic.11 But the heretic does get many things right. If one were to deny all of the articles of faith, one would not qualify as a heretic, but would simply be a nonbeliever or an apostate. So, apart from the denial of an article (or a few articles) that specifies heretics as the distinct kind of heretic they happen to be, heretics for the most part succeed in assenting to most—but not all—of the articles of faith.

Although the...


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