Who is obliged to believe what and on what grounds? (Part 1)

Blogger Drulogion has posed quite an interesting question about the relation of belief and the authority of the church. Dru starts with a story:

I once heard a story about a 16th century Jesuit mission in Brazil. After a long interaction with the people and some individual conversions, the chief decided to become a Christian (presumably bringing with him the rest of the tribe). As part of the process, the chief met with the leader of the mission to be examined. The priest began asking doctrinal questions. He asked the chief, “How many natures does our Lord have?”

The chief responded, “As many natures as you say he has, Father.”

Historically this sort of question was quite important to the Reformers and Arvin Vos’s book “Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought” (which I’ve mentioned here before) references this question several times, especially in the second chapter which discusses Calvin’s rejection of the scholastic idea of ‘implicit faith’. For instance, here is a typical quote from Calvin rejecting ‘implicit faith’:

Bedecking the grossest ignorance with this term, they ruinously delude poor, miserable folk. Furthermore, to state truly and frankly the real fact of the matter, this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith. Is this what believing means–to understand nothing provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. (Institutes 3.2.2, qtd. Vos 21)

Presumably Calvin would object strenuously to the chieftan’s response to the Jesuit missionary because the chieftan does not have faith (which Calvin holds is a form of knowledge) but rather ignorance. I think Vos does an admirable job of showing just why for Thomas faith is not a matter of blind obedience to the church (cf. pp. 28-38) and so presumably the Jesuit missionary (undoubtedly a good Thomist) would not be pleased with blind faith either. Nevertheless iI think the Chief’s response is actually quite a good one–in other words, I think it is possible for the Chief to have a warranted belief that Christ has two natures just because the Church teaches so. The Calvinist understands the chief’s response as an expression of intellectual laziness or superstitious fetishization of ecclesiastical authority. I, on the other hand, am going to try to defend the chief against these aspersions on his intellectual character. I will argue that his response need not necessarily be read in the negative way, although perhaps it could be read in this way.

Let’s start the argument with a clear statement of the problem. The most direct wording I can find is this: Who is obliged to believe what and on what grounds? I think the question can be analyzed into a couple of sub-questions. (1) Is everyone obliged to believe the same things or are some people obliged to believe more and others less? (2) What is the source of the obligation to believe a particular theological proposition? This second question also decomposes into sub-questions. (2.1) Is the authority of the church or something else a ground for the belief that p? (2.2) Is it the authority of the church, etc. either a necessary or a sufficient condition of someone’s having a belief that p?

At this point, the reader should not get her hopes too high that I will be able to resolve any, let alone all, of these questions. Indeed, I’ll be quite happy simply to point out what all is involved in each question and to gesticulate towards some relevant distinctions I think any purported solution had better take account of. We’ll begin with the first question in this post both because it seems like the easier one to tackle and because the answer to the second question seems to depend on the answer to it. The second question and it’s sub-questions will have to be addressed in a future post.

I. Is everyone obliged to believe the same things or are some people obliged to believe more and others less?

Let’s start by dividing the class of theological propositions into some subclasses. I see three divisions: preambles of the faith, principles of the faith and articles of faith.

A belief is a preamble of the faith if it is a proposition upon which the principles and articles of faith are logically dependent but is itself (at least in principle) provable on purely rational grounds. For instance, the proposition “God exists” is the classical example of a preamble. All the other theological propositions depend upon presupposing the truth of the proposition that God exists. Nevertheless, a preamble is only potentially provable, thus “provability” does not imply that everyone has to know the proper demonstration that God exists in order to have warranted belief in other theological propositions. Indeed almost everyone, it seems, have to simply accept the existence of God on the basis of faith since most of us do not know how to demonstrate God’s existence, even if we are committed to the theoretical possibility of such a demonstration.

A belief is a principle of the faith if it is neither derived from any purely rational argument, nor from any other theological proposition. Theological principles act like axioms in a geometrical system or like the law of non-contradiction in logic. We believe them on faith rather than on demonstration. They are not provable in themselves, but their truth is presupposed by all the articles of faith. “Jesus is God” seems to me to be at least one such principle. I cannot think of any rational way to justify it, nor can I imagine deriving it from any other theological proposition more basic. I do not know how many such principles of faith there are or what they would be, but I do hold that it would be possible to enumerate them all in principle.

Articles of faith are those theological propositions which are the “theorems” derived on the basis of the principles of faith, or upon other articles of faith. Let’s take an example to show how these different kinds of theological propositions all work together:

  1. Jesus is God. (Principle of the faith)
  2. The Bible reveals God because it is inspired. (Principle of the faith)
  3. The Bible speaks of Jesus and the Father and the Spirit as different persons. (Article of the faith, b/c derived in some sense from 2.)
  4. There is just one God. (This could be a preamble if one takes it to be philosophically provable, or it could also be an article since it is also a truth attested in the Scripture.)
  5. Therefore, Jesus and the Father and the Spirit must be three different persons that are all the same God in some way. (By 1-4)

This is obviously a rough-and-ready example. We obviously need to be more explicit about how 3 is derived from 2. (And in making that explanation we should also beware reducing the Scriptures to nothing more than a collection of theological propositions, taking account of its narrative structure and historical situatedness and so forth). But I think the point is clear: certain beliefs are foundational and others are derived. Those derived beliefs must be derived logically from theological principles believed on the basis of faith or other articles of the faith already demonstrated.

But how does this threefold classification of theological propositions advance our discussion of who is obliged to believe what? I am sorely tempted to claim that all Christians are obliged to believe the principles of faith, but are not necessarily obliged to know how to derive the various articles of faith from them. This solution would have the merit of limiting the number of obligatory beliefs to a few quite simple statements such as “Jesus is God”. Furthermore, a person who held those principles as true could also be said to believe in all the articles of faith implicitly, as the principles contain the articles conceptually. Given a quick enough mind and an able teacher, anyone who believed the principles could be shown why he must also believe the articles.

If this is the case, then the Chief’s response to the missionary is a perfectly apt one. The chief will believe that Christ has two natures because he presumes that the missionary is capable of giving him a good demonstration of how the principles he already believes will imply the belief in the two natures as an article of faith. This isn’t a blind submission to authority–it’s the quite reasonable submission to authority that everyone practices in ordinary day to day life. I believe in quarks, not because I have any idea how they are proved, but because physicists as a whole seem to know what they are doing and they believe in quarks, therefore I presume that if I had the time, inclination and ability I could in principle learn how the existence of quarks is proven. Since I lack the time, inclination and ability, I judge that it’s better to trust the physicists, but it would hardly be fair to take my submission to the authority of the physicist as somehow morally culpable. For the same reason, I can’t see any good reason to take the chieftan’s submission to the teaching of the missionary as somehow morally culpable.

Note that this response would also establish a sort of hierarchy of belief-obligation as well. The chief is obliged to believe just the principles, but the missionary has the additional obligation of being able to demonstrate at least some of the articles just because that is his vocation. Presumably a bishop or theologian would have an even greater obligation. Note that if someone were to object that most bishops or theologians couldn’t actually perform any of these demonstrations I would simply respond that stupidity isn’t an objection because my account is prescriptive rather than descriptive. If a theologian cannot actually tell you why you should believe in the trinity he is a bad theologian. By the same token, the Chief might believe in the trinity because the church tells him to without being able to tell you why you should believe so, but that doesn’t make him a bad Christian.

I think this view has much to commend it, but I hesitate for two reasons. First, I do not, at the moment, possess a complete enumeration of what I have called the principles of faith. Now the fact that I don’t possess such a list yet is not a definitive objection since it holds open the possibility that I might possess such a list in the future. The problem would come if somebody could show that in principle it is not possible to have a complete list of these principles. I don’t know exactly how that argument would go, but I can conceive someone putting forward a pessimistic inductive argument over the history of theological polemics. Surely if it were a matter of separating the principles from the articles then deducing the latter from the former there would have been much more consensus in theology than we actually observe. Mathematical “heresies” seem to be much tamer than theological ones and this very fact would seem to indicate that something is too neat about the foundationalist picture I have sketched above. It might turn out, after all, that there isn’t in principle any way to separate the principles from the articles. Certainly, empirically speaking there doesn’t seem to be much agreement between theologians about what the principles of faith would be, which is why theological heresies are much wilder than mathematical ones: the mathematicians have more consensus on the axioms of their field.

The second worry about the picture I sketched above is that there are some things which might seem to be articles of faith (like belief in the Trinity–cf. my rough argument above) which are in fact obligatory to believe for all Christians. Certain conciliar decisions would seem to make this so. In response to this one would either (1) have to show that belief in the Trinity is itself a principle rather than an article or (2) one would have to abandon the idea that only principles are obligatory for all Christians to believe, which dissolves the whole point of making the distinction between principles and articles in the first place. (1) seems like an attractive avenue of attack if I am pressed in this direction, but I admit I’m not sure how the argument for it would go at this moment.

5 Responses to Who is obliged to believe what and on what grounds? (Part 1)

  1. wtm says:


    This is all very interesting, and I can see the Thomistic influence (and influence from Vos). Keep coming with the good stuff.

    But, of course, I must protest the poor light in which you have cast Calvin. Isn’t this a bit unfair for a man whose program of reform was so centered upon education? Does it make sense that someone who was so passionate about catechesis would look down on those who do not yet have a good knowledge of doctrine? I think not. Calvin would never let the cheif stay in that state of ignorance of Christ’s two natures, but I can hardly picture him turning the chief away.

  2. […] Posted by wilken in theology. trackback This is from a very good philosopher in training to be theologian. Few people out there is of his capacity as you will […]

  3. scholasticus says:


    I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Calvin. But my understanding of his position is that what is called for is not just implicit but also explicit faith in at least some of what I have called the articles of faith. In other words, Calvin is so interested in education (which is a good thing) because he thinks that all Christians have a responsibility to have explicit knowledge rather than simply an implicit faith in the articles insofar as they are implied by the principles. Now surely Calvin in actual point of practice would not insist that every Christian ought to know–let alone understand!–that it is necessary that Christ have two wills, for instance. But what principled reason would Calvin produce for why it is necessary to have explicit faith in some articles but not in others? In other words, why is it presumably necessary that all Christians hold that God is a trinity, but not necessary that they all hold that Christ has two wills?

    If your response includes the words ad hoc, I’ll shoot you.


  4. […] action under certain circumstances. (I’ve written about this at some considerable length before.) However, I don’t think submitting to the Pope’s authority in sense [B] (through […]

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