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  • Can Dead Faith Assent to God?A Brief Reflection on St. Thomas's Account of the Relationship between Living and Lifeless Faith
  • Jeffrey M. Walkey

St. Thomas Aquinas, like many within the Christian tradition, makes a distinction between living and lifeless faith. Living faith is faith that is accompanied by charity, or what St. Paul calls "faith working through love."1 Love, or charity, is the form of living faith. This is the faith that enables the believer to be ordered toward and attain their beatifying end, namely, union with the triune Lord. Lifeless faith, on the other hand, is faith that lacks charity. It is what we call, following St. James, "dead" faith.2 It is to no avail. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, however, as we shall see below, even lifeless faith enables one to assent to the truths of the faith on the basis of the authoritative testimony of the revealing God. That is to say, in lifeless faith the intellect of the believer conforms to the mind of God, at least with respect to the intellect and its object, namely, the true. More specifically, in lifeless faith the intellect is able to assent to the articles of faith as revealed by God and mediated by the Church. In short, lifeless faith, which flows from [End Page 1181] the same habit or disposition as living faith, is perfect with respect to the intellect, though imperfect with respect to the will. It assents to God and the articles of faith, though, without charity, which is to say that it assents without loving and living in accordance with that to which assent is given in faith.

Some interpreters have challenged this claim. The late Princeton philosopher Victor Preller maintained that lifeless faith is incapable of conforming the intellect of the believer to the mind of God. Without living faith, one does not and cannot do so.3 We see this in his rigorous "reformulation" of St. Thomas in Divine Science and the Science of God. He notes, "Unless God 'takes the opportunity' of infusing the intentional forms of live faith, the mind of the 'believer' will not be conformed to the being of God."4 He suggests that those without living faith "do not refer to God or conform the mind to God. … This [conformity] is not done by the communication of intelligible forms, but the ordination of the whole soul, intellect and will, to the Word or Image of God."5 Such conformity, insofar as it requires the ordination of both the intellect and the will, obtains only in living faith. A further consequence of Preller's interpretation is that, without living faith, or what he calls here "live faith," one cannot even in principle assent to the truth "God exists."6 [End Page 1182] Only believers, which are, for him, only those with living faith, can assent to the truth "God exists."7

There are good reasons, both exegetical and systematic, for thinking that the interpretation of Preller is incorrect on this point. In order to make this clear, the following discussion will be threefold. First, I shall consider St. Thomas's distinction between Christian credere, on the one hand, and other kinds of cognition, namely, scire and opinari, on the other. This discussion sets forth the principles of faith, the relationship between those principles, and the objects or ends of its act. Second, I shall discuss what, for St. Thomas, is the essential notion of faith, the roles of the intellect and will, and the relationship between the theological virtue of charity and this essential notion. This discussion maintains, following St. Thomas, that the essential notion of faith resides primarily in the intellect, being perfective of it, whether or not it is accompanied by charity. Moreover, the will-act that is a part of faith is not charity, but a prior or preexistent (and graced) will-act that is further elevated and perfected by charity. So, while charity perfects faith (and its prior will-act), it does not constitute faith. With or without charity, faith heals the believer from unbelief vis-à-vis God and the truths of faith. Lastly, third, I shall consider...


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