Personal Faith: St. Augustine

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The place of St. Augustine (354-430) in the history of faith is central. On the one hand, he synthesizes the most important developments of the notion of faith of the post-Biblical and early Patristic period; on the other hand, as the first great Latin Christian author, he opens the way to more significant intellectual and spiritual developments in Western Christianity. His spirituality became exemplary for half a millennium after his death and inspired new waves of theological reflection in the Franciscan tradition, the Protestant Reformation and both Catholic and Protestant spirituality. Finally, his genius shone forth with renewed vigour in the twentieth century, when both theology and philosophy searched for new ways of understanding the role of faith in the context of modernity.

Two kinds of faith

The three most important developments of the Patristic age ending with Augustine in the West are the surfacing of the mystical interpretation of faith, the important appearance of the Latin vocabulary in the history of faith and Augustine’s renewed notion of faith. The mystical interpretation of faith comes to the fore in Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who speaks of ‘two kinds of faith’, one resulting in knowledge, the other in opinion. As to the first kind, Clement offers a number of approaches: logically, faith is that by which we accept the highest axiom in a universal demonstration, the axiom which cannot be known but whose supposition leads to knowledge. In this sense, faith is the mind’s highest action. He also mentions some images taken from the Gospels, such as the parable of the mustard seed, as indicative of the power of faith. Finally, Clement offers a cosmo-theological schema of faith, according to which the faithful ascend through all the regions of the universe - the mundane, the planetary and the sphere of the fixed stars - until they reach ‘the perfect number which is above the nine’ and thus receive ‘knowledge of God’.1

Clement does not say too much about the second kind of faith: he attributes merely a mundane function to it in accordance with Plato’s notion of belief (pistis) as a probable opinion. While Clement is not detailed in his arguments, it is clear that he emphasizes the function of faith as the basis of mystical knowledge. He suggests that

‘faith is power in order to salvation and strength to eternal life’.[1] When the Gospels speak of faith, they refer to this mystical gift to human beings, a gift without a natural analogy. The analogy which Clement uses is clearly the Hebrew meaning of faith as ‘firmness’ or ‘steadfastness’. Clement defines faith as ‘the faculty of uniformity and perpetuity’ which is capable of conceiving the ultimate and unmovable God.[2]

The development of Latin theology was defined by a unique linguistic situation. In Greek, both ‘faith’ and ‘to believe’ come from the same root pist-. In Latin, faith as a noun comes from fides and the verb from the root cred- (as in credo.) This made many of the Latin authors perceive two kinds of faith and thus helped them to define the terms more accurately than the Greek writers did. For the Latin authors, the articulate individuality of the act of faith became even more emphatic; and in the same way, the propositional content of faith received an equally definite treatment. For Tertullian, faith is such that it conflicts with our everyday views. Contrary to legend, Tertullian never pronounced the sentence credo quia absurdum est, ‘I believe for it is an absurdity’. What he actually said was, ‘The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed - because it is shameful. The Son of God died: it is immediately credible - because it is silly. He was buried, and rose again: it is certain - because it is impossible’.[3]

  • [1] Clement, Stromata, II, XII.
  • [2] Clement, Stromata, II, XI.
  • [3] Tertullian, Treatise on the Incarnation, ed. and trans. Ernest Evans (London: SPCK, 1956), p. 19.
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