The eyes of faith

When he uses the expression ‘the eyes of faith’,[1] Augustine applies one of his favourite ideas to the problem of faith. He likes to underline the importance of the ‘inner person’, the spiritual and contemplative nature of the soul, and he also enjoys applying terms of external perception to spiritual or ‘inner’ perception.[2] In such expressions, Augustine follows neo-Platonic patterns, but he adds his characteristically personal emphasis. It may not be sufficient to call his understanding of faith ‘affective’, because there is much more at stake in Augustine than mere affectivity: it is about a new and emphatic notion of faith. The ‘eyes of faith’ or ‘eyes of the heart’ refer to the most personal dimension of the believer. It is a new and deep perception of individual human personhood that determines Augustine’s notion of faith.

One example that illuminates this point is his famous distinction between faith as an act that believes (fides qua creditur) and faith as a content to be believed (fides quae creditur). In making this distinction, Augustine follows the traditional distinctions between kind and individual or form and matter. However, he ingeniously perceives that, in matters of faith, it is not only the regula fidei, the rule of faith or the general contents, which really count. He certainly emphasizes that faith in Christ is the most important thing, but he observes that the way a human person believes, his act of faith, is fundamental. It is the believer who is called by Christ to salvation and the believer’s answer - always under the influence of God’s grace - is decisive. It is personal faith - elicited by God - that informs the soul so that she becomes prepared to receive salvation.

Augustine expresses this point in a beautiful way when he compares the individual act of faith to the individual countenance (facies) of a human person. We can speak of a ‘human face’ in general, just as we can speak of certain dogmatic contents of faith. However, a ‘human face in general’ is actually meaningless. What we see is always the concrete face of a concrete human person, a face ultimately unique and non-interchangeable with any other human face. Similarly, the act of faith must be ultimately personal and non-interchangeable. Essentially, faith is a personal matter; the ‘eyes of faith’ are my eyes and my seeing; they are ‘deeply seated within me’, as my personal matter. In this way, perhaps the distinction between fides qua, the faith by which we believe, and fides quae, the faith which we believe, hides this epoch-making insight into the personal nature of faith. Our face expresses our faith, at least in the sense that our faith, just as our face, must be ultimately personal.[3]

Study questions

  • 1. What is the highest end of faith for Clement of Alexandria?
  • 2. What is characteristic of St. Augustine’s synthesis of earlier notions of faith in the Bible and patristic literature?
  • 3. What is instrumental and personal faith for St. Augustine?
  • 4. What are ‘the eyes of faith’?
  • 5. Why is a human countenance so decisive in Augustine’s understanding of faith?

Further reading

Augustine, Confessions (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1955).

Dulles, Avery, The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Levering, Matthew, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013).

Stump, Eleonor and Kretzmann, Norman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).


  • [1] Augustine, The City of God, trans Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. XIV, 9, 563.
  • [2] As in his often-cited sentence: Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas. ‘Do notgo outside, return to within yourself; truth dwells in the inner man’. Augustine, De vera religione, 39, 72.
  • [3] See Augustine, ‘On the Holy Trinity’, in Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans.Arthur West Haddan; First Series, vol. III (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1956), pp. 6-475 (XIII, 2, p. 346) especially this: But that which is believed is a different thing from the faith by which it is believed. For the formeris in things which are said either to be, or to have been or to be about to be; but the latter is in themind of the believer, and is visible to him only whose it is; although not indeed itself but a faithlike it, is also in others. For it is not one in number, but in kind; yet on account of the likeness,and the absence of all difference, we rather call it one than many. For when, too, we see two menexceedingly alike, we wonder, and say that both have one countenance.
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