Faith and Epistemology


What is the extent of knowledge? How does one come to know something? Are there things we know intrinsically without having to experience first-hand? All of these questions, and many more, can be categorized under the heading of Epistemology. Epistemology, simply put, is the study of knowing. Throughout church history, there have been many thoughts as to how epistemology relates to our faith in Jesus. In other words, what is required to have what we call “faith”? Can we reduce faith to simply another epistemological category, an acknowledgement of truths? Recently, I read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra gentiles. When reading the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas, it is evident that he was a very capable apologist in the medieval church. Throughout the first few chapters of his work, Summa Contra gentiles, Aquinas seeks to explain the differences between two separate types of truth: truths of reason and truths of faith.

Truths of reason is that which we can discern from reason and logic(1). Aquinas would argue that there are natural truths about God, distinguishable through human reason. This thought is backed up by Scripture (see Romans 1:20). We can use apologetic arguments, such as the Kalam Cosmological argument or the Transcendental argument, to use reason and logic to demonstrate that God exists. Truth of faith, however, is not discernible by mere reason. Specifically, Aquinas says, “For the human intellect is not able to reach a comprehension of the divine substance through its natural power.”(2) This can also be shown through Scripture (Job 36:26, Isa. 55:8-9) Aquinas says that doctrinal truths, such as the Trinity, cannot be extrapolated from our ability to reason from physical evidence. Aquinas would argue there is no empirical data to prove the Trinitarian nature of God outside of the revealed truth of Scripture. He would also say, though, that our “faith” in this revealed truth is based solely on the truth of reason that we can discern from evidences that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and reliable through fulfilled prophecy and miracles(3). It appears that Aquinas’ version of “faith” was not quite what we think of as faith, though some have believed his views of faith were slightly misunderstood.

This understanding of truth played a large role on Aquinas’s understanding of “faith”. William Lane Craig, in his book Reasonable Faith, states, “With Aquinas, we see the reduction of faith to an epistemological category; that is to say that faith was no longer trust or commitment of the heart, but became a way of knowing, complementary to reason. Faith was essentially intellectual consent to doctrines not provable by reason.”(4) This means that having “faith,” according to Aquinas, is agreement with the truths of the Bible and believing them to be true. As William Lane Craig says, simple agreeance is different than trust, love and commitment to a relationship with Christ. Aquinas does recognize that grace is required to allow us to have faith in things that are of the divine nature of God(5). However, this grace given faith is equal to knowledge and an agreeance to that knowledge.

But is this the picture of faith that we see in the New Testament? Is true faith no more than an epistemological understanding of certain truths within a book that we accept the authority of based on veridical evidence? The answer is no. Do not misunderstand, reason is important to the Christian faith insofar that we are able to use God-given reasoning abilities to comprehend a correspondence between our faith and reality - such as, using apologetic arguments to demonstrate the existence of God. It is also important to have a knowledge of the life and work of Jesus and to believe they truly happened. However, faith in the Bible is much deeper than simply believing Christ existed. I can believe with all my heart that Nashville is the capitol of Tennessee, but I do not put my hope in Nashville to save me from anything.

It is true that the Bible often uses the phrase, “believe in Him” in reference to unbelievers placing their trust in Christ, the Greek this is translated from is pisteuo eis auton. This Greek phrase used in verses such as John 1:12 and John 3:16, connotes a placing of personal trust (faith) in Jesus. This use of the word “belief” in the New Testament is wholly unique in the ancient Greek writings. This is more than belief as we know it in our culture. It is utter and complete surrender to the work of Christ. When Jesus is calling us to believe in Him, we must not simply stop at an intellectual acceptance of who He is and what He has done, but a trust in what His life, death and resurrection accomplished for us.

While Aquinas was a wonderful apologist, I do have to disagree with his view of faith and belief in Summa Contra gentiles. I do not seek to over simplify Aquinas’ view of faith and it may have changed over the course of his life to line up more cohesively with the Biblical definition of faith. I do think it is important, though, to look at this view of faith in his quintessential work and see how it has also permeated in our own culture as well. There is, of course, a relationship between epistemology and faith. As our knowledge of God increases, so should our faith. It is part of the process of sanctification (growth towards conforming to Christ). However, let us never settle for simple intellectual assent on matters of faith. Let us love God with all our hearts, souls and minds (Matt. 22:37).

  1. Summa Contra gentiles 1.3

  2. Ibid 1.3

  3. Ibid 1.3

  4. Summa Contra gentiles 1.9, 3.154

  5. Summa Contra gentiles 3.152


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