We’re exploring the response of Restraint – when confronted with an apparently contradictory doctrine, might it not be a good idea for the believer to simply admit that she doesn’t know what it means? Last time we looked at the idea of “implicit faith”. What, if anything, is wrong with this? Consider this exchange:
Doubter: Do you believe X?
Believer: Heck yeah.
Doubter: Doesn’t X appear to be inconsistent with itself?
Believer: Um, yes.
Doubter: But then X seems false to you. How can you believe it?
Believer: I don’t claim to understand X. Rather, I have implicit faith in the Church. She teaches X, and I trust her, so in a sense, I believe X as well.
Doubter: No, you don’t believe it – you don’t grasp the content of the doctrine X.
Believer: Let’s not quarrel over words. I’m committed to X, because I’m committed to whatever Mother Church teaches, and she in fact teaches X (whatever it is). In her language, I “implicitly believe” X.
This would be a good place to bring in one of the greatest philosophers (and theologians) of all time: St. Thomas Aquinas (aka “The Dumb Ox”). He voices an objection to the “implicit faith” doctrine, then answers it.
Objection 3. Further, if the simple are bound to have, not explicit but only implicit faith, their faith must needs be implied in the faith of the learned. But this seems unsafe, since it is possible for the learned to err. Therefore it seems that the simple should also have explicit faith; so that all are, therefore, equally bound to have explicit faith.
[Now Aquinas answers Objection 3] On the contrary, … I answer that, The unfolding of matters of faith is the result of Divine revelation: for matters of faith surpass natural reason. Now Divine revelation reaches those of lower degree through those who are over them… just as the higher angels, who enlighten those who are below them, have a fuller knowledge of Divine things than the lower angels, as Dionysius states (Coel. Hier. xii), so too, men of higher degree, whose business it is to teach others, are under obligation to have fuller knowledge of matters of faith, and to believe them more explicitly.
…Reply to Objection 3. The simple have no faith implied in that of the learned, except in so far as the latter adhere to the Divine teaching. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 4:16): “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ.” Hence it is not human knowledge, but the Divine truth that is the rule of faith: and if any of the learned stray from this rule, he does not harm the faith of the simple ones, who think that the learned believe aright; unless the simple hold obstinately to their individual errors, against the faith of the universal Church, which cannot err, since Our Lord said (Luke 22:32): “I have prayed for thee,” Peter, “that thy faith fail not.” (source)
The objection here is: one ought not just commit to “whatever those learned guys think” because learned guys sometimes go wrong, believing falsehoods. (Every philosopher knows this is a huge understatement!) One at least ought to know to what one is committing.
Aquinas’s answer, if I understand it, is this. Ditchdigger Dan commits to whatever Pedro the priest teaches, insofar as Pedro’s beliefs match infallible church teaching. But that “insofar” clause is weasly, it seems to me. We’re concerned with truth here – isn’t it risky and unreasonable to just commit to whatever Pedro thinks? Sure, ’cause Pedro is fallible. So we’re basically saying, Ditchdigger Dan only commits to the true parts of what Pedro thinks. Now, if this is what Dan is doing, he can’t really go wrong. Dan could commit to whatever Johnny Rotten thinks, “insofar as Johnny adheres to divine teaching.” Or Paris Hilton.
But wait – this is nuts. When you take someone as a sort of epistemic exemplar, you don’t merely commit abstractly to what they believe (or truly believe). You listen to them, and are strongly inclined to accept their testimony. You use them as a reference source. So it matters a great deal whether you pick Pedro or Paris, the Pope or Calvin, Jesus or David Koresh. And presumably God will hold Dan accountable for his choice. I don’t see that Aquinas gives a good answer to his objection 3.
In any case, according to Aquinas himself the whole Restraint stance, even with “implicit faith”, won’t do, when it comes to some central (and famously problematic) Christian doctrines. He says the Incarnation and the Trinity doctrines can’t be only implicitly believed – at least, not if you want to be saved.
Next time: Resolution. A Stalinist story about implicit belief.