Faith: A Theological Virtue

The Perfection of the Intellect

Theological Virtues: Faith by Raphael
Baglioni Retable. Theological Virtues: Faith, by Raphael (1483-1520). 1507. Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican State. Leemage/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The First Theological Virtue

Faith is the first of the three theological virtues; the other two are hope and charity (or love). Unlike the cardinal virtues, which can be practiced by anyone, the theological virtues are gifts of God through grace. Like all other virtues, the theological virtues are habits; the practice of the virtues strengthens them. Because they aim at a supernatural end, however—that is, they have God as "their immediate and proper object" (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913)—the theological virtues must be supernaturally infused into the soul.

Thus faith is not something that one can simply begin to practice, but something beyond our nature. We can open ourselves to the gift of faith through right action—through, for instance, the practice of the cardinal virtues and the exercise of right reason—but without the action of God, faith will never come to reside in our soul.

What the Theological Virtue of Faith Is Not

Most of the time when people use the word faith, they mean something other than the theological virtue. The Oxford American Dictionary presents as its first definition "complete trust or confidence in someone or something," and offers "one's faith in politicians" as an example. Most people understand instinctively that faith in politicians is an entirely different thing from faith in God. But the use of the same word tends to muddy the waters, and to reduce the theological virtue of faith in the eyes of nonbelievers to nothing more than a belief that is strongly, and in their minds irrationally, held.

Thus faith is opposed, in the popular understanding, to reason; the latter, it is said, demands evidence, while the former is characterized by the willing acceptance of things for which there is no rational evidence.

Faith Is the Perfection of the Intellect

In the Christian understanding, however, faith and reason are not opposed but complementary.

Faith, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, is the virtue "by which the intellect is perfected by a supernatural light," allowing the intellect to assent "firmly to the supernatural truths of Revelation." Faith is, as Saint Paul says in the Letter to the Hebrews, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). It is, in other words, a form of knowledge that extends beyond the natural limits of our intellect, to help us grasp the truths of divine revelation, truths that we cannot arrive at purely by the aid of natural reason.

All Truth Is God's Truth

While the truths of divine revelation cannot be deduced through natural reason, they are not, as modern empiricists often claim, opposed to reason. As Saint Augustine famously declared, all truth is God's truth, whether revealed through the operation of reason or through divine revelation. The theological virtue of faith allows the person who has it to see how the truths of reason and of revelation flow from the same source.

What Our Senses Fail to Fathom

That does not mean, however, that faith allows us to understand perfectly the truths of divine revelation. The intellect, even when enlightened by the theological virtue of faith, has its limits: In this life, man can never, for instance, fully grasp the nature of the Trinity, of how God can be both One and Three.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, "The light of faith, then, illumines the understanding, though the truth still remains obscure, since it is beyond the intellect's grasp; but supernatural grace moves the will, which, having now a supernatural good put before it, moves the intellect to assent to what it does not understand." Or, as a popular translation of the Tantum Ergo Sacramentum puts it, "What our senses fail to fathom / let us grasp through faith's consent."

Losing Faith

Because faith is a supernatural gift of God, and because man has free will, we can freely reject faith. When we openly revolt against God through our sin, God can withdraw the gift of faith. He will not necessarily do so, of course; but should He do so, the loss of faith can be devastating, because truths that were once grasped through the aid of this theological virtue may now become unfathomable to the unaided intellect.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "This may perhaps explain why those who have had the misfortune to apostatize from the faith are often the most virulent in their attacks upon the grounds of faith"—even more so than those who never were blessed with the gift of faith in the first place.

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Richert, Scott P. "Faith: A Theological Virtue." ThoughtCo, May. 14, 2016, thoughtco.com/faith-a-theological-virtue-542120. Richert, Scott P. (2016, May 14). Faith: A Theological Virtue. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/faith-a-theological-virtue-542120 Richert, Scott P. "Faith: A Theological Virtue." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/faith-a-theological-virtue-542120 (accessed December 13, 2017).