Stump on the Nature of Faith

Coptic Image of the CrucifixionEleonore Stump in her recent work sketches an account of Aquinas’ teaching on faith that is as fascinating as it is puzzling.  The very thing that fascinates in Aquinas’ view (that the will moves the intellect to assent to propositions that it would otherwise not have) is the thing that puzzles the most (just how is the resulting belief justified?).

The Will and the Intellect

Stump explains the complicated interaction between the will and the intellect in Aquinas: Far from being unrelated faculties operating exclusively in their own spheres, the will often works with the intellect to form beliefs.  In such instances, the will can command the intellect to attend or to refrain from attending to something.  But even more than that, the will sometimes has a direct role to play in the intellect assenting to certain propositions.  This is clear when Aquinas describes the nature of faith. 

Now according to Aquinas, intellectual assent can be brought about in different ways.  For example, assent to a proposition can be brought about by the object of the intellect itself.  Such is the case when an individual assents to first principles (those propositions or assumptions that are not derived from any other) or to the conclusions of demonstrations.  Here, the first principles or conclusions are themselves sufficient to move the intellect to assent.  There is yet another way intellectual assent can be obtained.  In this second way, it is not the object of the intellect that moves the intellect, but the will itself.  “[I]n such a case”, Stump says, “the intellect assents to one proposition rather than another under the influence of the will and on the basis of considerations sufficient to move the will but not the intellect” (emphasis mine). 

Faith and the Will

Stump gives an example:

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Casaubon finds her friend and admirer Will Ladislaw in a compromising embrace with the wife of one of his friends.  Although it is possible (and in the novel is in fact the case) that there is an exonerating explanation of Ladislaw’s conduct, the evidence available to Dorothea strongly suggests that Ladislaw’s behavior is treacherous.  But because of her commitment to him, Dorothea, in spite of the evidence, cleaves to her view that Ladislaw is a good man, not a scoundrel and a traitor.  As becomes clear to Dorothea and to the reader of the novel, Dorothea’s belief based on her desires about her relationship to Ladislaw is veridical.  Without the influence of her will on her intellect, Dorothea would have formed a false belief about Ladislaw.

Dorothea’s attitude toward Ladislaw, Stump says, illustrates the will’s role in faith.  The propositions of the faith, say, the proposition ‘Jesus is the Son of God’, is not sufficient to move the intellect (in this life).  But this proposition is sufficient to move the will.  The intellect assents to such a proposition, but only because the will has directed it to do so.  This then, is the nature of faith.

Now it is evident that the proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God,” is sufficient to move the will if we understand Aquinas’ view of the will.  According to Thomas, the will by nature is an appetite for the good.  The will esteems that the greatest of goods is the happiness of the willer.  But it is also manifest that the greatest good is God Himself, so union with God is perfect happiness for the willer.  The proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God” then, directs the willer to the highest Good and the will, because of its natural hunger for goodness, is inclined to be moved by it.

Stump realizes, however, that there is a serious problem to address: This account seems to leave faith as having no epistemic justification.  Moreover, Aquinas seems to invite the charge that religious belief is simply a case of wish fulfillment.  For if the believer’s intellectual assent to the proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God” is primarily the result of the will, then what reasons are there to suppose that the proposition is justified for her? 

4 Responses to Stump on the Nature of Faith

  1. Wesley says:

    First, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as Aquinas was probably just following the dictum of St. Anslem: “faith seeking understanding” taken to a logical conclusion. In fact that description of Aquinas sounds similar to Anslem’s monologion ch.LXXIII-LXXVII where he talks about “[the good which the supremely good creator made him] is what every man ought to strive…by desire..”.

    I don’t think means there is no epistemic justification and makes faith wish fulfillment so much as demonstrates the proper interaction between the two. As she stated “Far from being unrelated faculties operating exclusively in their own spheres, the will often works with the intellect to form beliefs”

    So for Aquinas it was probably not that the intellect said “no” but the will said “yes” and the will won, so much as explaining why both an Atheist and a Christian can be exposed to the same amount of evidence and one not believe and the other embrace it. The intellect would here as a boundary concept, marking what is on a scale believable. I have talked to Atheists who would not believe if they were taken to heaven (they admitted they would probably just conclude it was a hallucination), so that in the end it’s a matter of the will to accept for reject what the intellect has analyzed.

    Ultimately each person will need varying degrees of intellectual assent to accept a proposition but it is the will that has “veto power”. If we see the intellect as a scale of gray and the will as a decider then the interplay makes sense without sacrificing an epistemological grounding,

    In short, he is explaining the “well, that’s still not enough proof for me!” phenomena, rather then denying we have a grounding in reality for faith.

    Second, does the statement:

    “The will esteems that the greatest of goods is the happiness of the willer. But it is also manifest that the greatest good is God Himself, so union with God is perfect happiness for the willer.”

    Maybe only work for the Christian? Someone without the spirit may seek their own happiness but would be turned off by the greatest good in God.

  2. Gary says:

    In studying the tri-partiteness of man, you find as 1 Thess. says, man is comprised of spirit, soul and body. The spirit is the human spirit which is quickened/made alive at the moment of belief in Christ with the regeneration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There are two tyes of knowledge according to Paul: “gnosis” or head knowledge (book smarts) and “epignosis” or experiential knowledge (living it out and experiencing it).
    In order to grow into a mature Christian, we must apply (do or obey) God’s Word (principles, commands, etc.) to our lives. As we “do” or “obey” those biblical principles, they become “epignosis” (experiential knowledge) and build up our human spirit which I like to call our framework of reference. It’s like building a brick house in our spirit–becoming more mature in Christ. Our minds are comprised of two parts: the will and emotions. The will (directive side) is where we make decisions/direct our lives. Emotions are baseless decisions influenced by our senses. As believers, if we are building our epignosis, we should be able to make decisions (our will) based upon what we have in our human spirit–experiencial knowledge. If there is none there then our decisions are based upon our emotions. If we are applying God’s Word to our lives, we will have His experienced Word to fall back on and influence our decisions. For a simple example: We kow Scripture says believers are to not be unequally yoked. This could include not being a business partner or a marriage partner with an unbeliever. If we have studied and know (“gnosis”) that verse, but have also actually applied it (obeying it), then any time, we must make a decision concerning any sort of partnership with an unbeliever, than we will make a decision based upon His Word. Sometimes believers choose to disobey His Word anyway, but then that’s where God’s discipline comes in. But if we know (“epignosis”) that principle, then, in order to for example not marry an unbeliever, then why date one either? You will never discover God’s believing mate for you if you are dating unbelievers. Light and dark do not mix. We need to ensure our will is based upon the Word, and it only can be, if we are obeying the Word, living it out each day of our lives.

  3. Chris says:

    This article fails to address a situation in which faith is so weak that the will is no longer capable of moving it however much one may desire to move it. I have expereinced such a phenomena in my own life.

  4. Chris says:

    uhm. is anyone going to respond to that one? sigh.

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