The nature of faith
IN THE past three lectures I have focused upon the concept of free will. In Lectures Two and Three I examined Duns Scotus's exposition of the concept. Then I turned to John Ireland, a Scottish theologian demonstrably working in the shadow of Scotus, and considered his defence of the claim that we do indeed have free will. Among the acts commonly thought of throughout the Middle Ages as exercises of free will are assents of faith, saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith, and I shall turn now to an examination of such assents. My main task here is the presentation of a definition of ‘assent of faith’. The earlier discussions on Duns Scotus's account of intellect and will have an immediate implication for the assent of faith, for, as we shall see, such an assent involves two mental acts. The first is an act of intellect by which a probable argument is constructed and hesitant assent given to the conclusion purely as an act of intellect. And the second mental act is an act of will by which the assent to the conclusion, which had been given hesitantly, comes to be given firmly or without hesitation. As regards the definition of ‘assent of faith’ that I shall present, it will have a form recommended, and generally employed, by medieval philosophers, and the definition itself is the one generally accepted within the circle of John Mair.
As regards its form, it has two parts, the first indicating the genus of which faith is one species, and the second indicating the features which distinguish faith from the other species in that same genus. The genus in question is assent, saying ‘yes’. To have faith that a given proposition is true is one, but only one, way of saying ‘yes’, and we learn a great deal about faith by seeing what other ways there are. In the part of my discussion dealing with the species of assent with which faith can be contrasted I shall attend to two species prominent in late-medieval discussions. The first is evidentia, or ‘evident assent’, and the second, opinion or ‘opinative assent’. As we shall see, there is a perspective from which these two sorts of mental act appear as the extremes between which the assent of faith lies. I shall start therefore by saying what faith is not, focusing in particular upon the fact that it is neither evident assent nor opinion. Thus my approach to faith takes me along the Via Negativa, the most famous methodological road tramped by theologians, and my purpose in taking this route is to clarify the concept of faith by displaying its location within the complex conceptual network which is its true home.
I have been assuming that all forms of assent are alike in their dependence upon the assenter's antecedent grasp of the sense of a proposition. Assent is, after all, to a proposition, and there must therefore be a proposition in place in the assenter's mind to which he can give assent. This is at least according to the natural course of things. Some philosophers, George Lokert of Ayr being one, wonder whether absolutely speaking there need be a proposition. Lokert invokes the important theological principle: if two things are really distinct, then God could annihilate either while preserving the other. But saying ‘yes’ to a proposition is really distinct from the proposition to which the assent is given and hence, according to the theological principle I have just enunciated, God could annihilate the proposition while preserving the assent. That, at any rate, is the thesis that Lokert presents for discussion.1
This is, however, a hard thesis to accept. Must we allow the possibility that a person can assent where there is not something to which he assents? The answer is surely ‘no’. My argument against the thesis is that to assent without there being a proposition that is the object of the assent, is to assent to nothing, and to assent to nothing is not to assent at all. What, though, of the theological principle Lokert employed to reach his hard conclusion? I think that the principle, that of two really distinct things God can annihilate either while preserving the other, is inappropriately applied by Lokert to the particular case of an assent and the proposition to which assent is given. For the two are not really distinct. There is a single act of assenting to a proposition, and the assenting and the proposition are related in the act as form to content. The fact that we can make a distinction in our intellect between the assenting and the proposition does not in the least imply that the two can exist distinct from each other in reality as well as in the intellect.
The situation is comparable with our ability to distinguish between, say, the sphericity of a sphere and the content of that same sphere. That we can make that distinction in our intellect does not in the least imply that there can exist in reality a sphericity which is not the sphericity of something. For sphericity to exist is for there to be something spherical. In the same way, for an assent to exist is for something to be assented to.
For the remainder of this lecture I shall assume that any act of assent, whether an assent of knowledge, of faith or of opinion, has a propositional content, and on that basis I shall proceed to a discussion of the principles separating these various forms of assent. An excellent starting point for this enquiry, as for much else in theology, is St Anselm's famous phrase ‘fides quaerens intellectum’—‘faith seeking understanding’, the phrase which opened this series of lectures, and the phrase which, better than any other, defines medieval philosophy. St Anselm's faith provided him with the objects which in a philosophical way he sought to understand. Most importantly he began with faith in God and he then held that faith up to the clear bright light of his intellect in order to understand as fully as possible who it was in whom he had faith. Hence for St Anselm intellect is no enemy of faith; it is on the contrary a means to its enrichment.
It is customary to interpret St Anselm as seeking to prove the existence of the God in whose existence he had previously only had faith. In so far as he provides a demonstration of God's existence he can thereafter claim to know that God exists, and not merely to have faith that He does. In short, if the customary interpretation of Anselm's Proslogion is correct then Anselm has, by the exercise of intellect alone, progressed from faith to knowledge.
But as I indicated in an earlier lecture, I believe this a mistaken account of St Anselm's project. There is strong reason to interpret him instead as seeking not to prove God's existence but, on the contrary, to give an account of its nature, a nature which is unlike that of the existence of any created thing. Starting with the concept of a being greater than which cannot be thought, Anselm demonstrates that such a being cannot not exist, as contrasted with every created thing, which has only contingent existence. The conclusion of the argument therefore. is that God has necessary existence. As Anselm also puts the point. God truly exists, by which he does not mean simply that God exists, but that he does not have the possibility of not existing. On this latter interpretation, therefore, St Anselm's acceptance on faith that God exists was not, after the successful completion of the demonstration in the Proslogion, replaced by knowledge of His existence. Far from advancing from faith to knowledge, he advanced from a less insightful to a more insightful faith, a faith which thereafter rested upon a deeper insight into the nature of the divine existence.
Neither do I think that after his discovery of the so-called ontological argument for God's existence St Anselm advanced from a lesser degree of certainty or sureness regarding God's existence to a greater degree. He never could have been surer of the existence of God than he was when, in the preamble to the alleged proof, he prayed to God for guidance. We are speaking here of a man as sure of God's existence as he was of his own.
(I add in parenthesis that perhaps I should not be using here the value-loaded term ‘advance’, speaking as I do of an advance from faith to knowledge. The interesting claim that knowledge is an advance on faith stands in need of proof, though I do not deny that the claim may be true.)
Be that as it may, it is clear that knowing that a given proposition is true and having faith that it is are not the same cognitive state. Perhaps indeed they are mutually exclusive. There is a complicated story to be told in support of this suggestion, and I shall shortly be providing that support, but for the moment we can notice the absurdity of a person claiming to accept on faith that a given object exists if the object is right in front of him and he is staring at it. I do not mean ‘staring sightlessly’—something we can all do—but staring comprehendingly at the object. He knows the object exists, for there it is, right in front of him; he does not have faith that it exists. Likewise it is absurd for a person to claim faith in the truth of a proposition if he has a demonstrative proof of it. He knows it is true, and the demonstration leaves no room for faith.
What is the difference between faith and knowledge? It is plainly not a matter of degree of conviction or certainty. A person might be every bit as certain of the truth of a proposition he holds on faith as he ever could be of a proposition he knows to be true on the basis of utterly straightforward perceptual evidence. The difference lies elsewhere. The time has come to start to unpack the notion of assent of knowledge.
Such an assent was termed by the Pre-Reformation Scottish philosophers evidentia, a word for which there is no entirely satisfactory translation. The word ‘evidence’ is inadequate for the task, for a fact could be recognised as ‘evidence’ for a claim even though it produces much less than certainty or assuredness that the claim is true, whereas evidentia implies certainty. ‘Evidentness’ is a better translation, for at least if the truth of a proposition is evident to us then we are certain or sure that it is true.
But there is much more to evidentia
than that. It is a technical term in Pre-Reformation philosophy and has to be treated on that basis. John Mair tells us that evidentia
is ‘(1) an assent which is (2) true, (3) unhesitant, (4) caused by principles which necessitate the intellect, and (5) in thus assenting the intellect cannot be deceived’.2
David Cranston gives a definition which, at least verbally, does not accord entirely with Mair's. He tells us that evidentia
is ‘(1) an assent, which is (2) true, (3) naturally caused, (4) unhesitant, (5) whether or not the intellect, in thus assenting, can be deceived’.3
The disagreement between the two definitions lies chiefly in the fact that Mair holds that the person giving evident assent cannot be deceived whereas Cranston speaks about a person being able to give such assent ‘whether or not in thus assenting he can be deceived’.
In fact the disagreement here is verbal but not substantive. A distinction is made by both men between what happens according to the routine working out of natural processes, and what can happen by God's absolute power when He causes to happen an event that would not have occurred but for a special act of God. A distinction is also made between those assents whose content is of such a nature that not even God could cause us to be deceived when we make them, and those assents in which we could not be deceived except by a special act of God. When Mair affirms that in giving evident assent we cannot be deceived he has in mind assent in which we cannot be deceived in so far as God is not interfering with the ordinary course of nature. On the other hand when Cranston affirms that a given assent can be evident whether we are being deceived or not, he is acknowledging the fact that God can by a special act cause to happen something that would not have happened had nature taken its course.
Both men affirm that evident assent is sine formidine
, that is, unhesitant. Mair helps us to understand this deployment of the term ‘unhesitant’ by saying that its inclusion in the definition is intended to rule out suspicion, conjecture or opinion as possible forms of evident assent.4
It is easy to see why conjecture and suspicion are excluded by the term ‘unhesitant’, but it seems odd to say that an assent cannot be given in the form of an opinion if it is unhesitant. The obvious point to make is that a person can hold an opinion with just the degree of assurance with which he assents to propositions whose truth he is able to demonstrate with impeccable logic. So why say, as Mair and Cranston do, that an opinion is an assent given hesitantly? The answer is that ‘opinion’ is being used as a technical term, and among the defining features it is declared to have is precisely the hesitation or lack of assurance with which the assent is given. And with it is contrasted evident assent.
What kinds of thing come under the heading ‘evident assent’? The question is important, for through its answer we reach a clue regarding the nature of faith. My assent to the proposition that there is a sheet of white paper before me is an evident assent. So also is my assent to the proposition that I am seated at this desk. These are true propositions, and I give my assent with assurance. And the assent is naturally caused, in that I have merely to open my eyes and look, and I see the paper, and see the desk. The unhesitating assent to the propositions in question is something over which I exercise no voluntary control. Certainly my will is not involved. We are here quite close to the etymological root of the term ‘evident’. There are some things that we see to be true, and especially we are naturally given to accepting the evidence of our own eyes. That is surely the securest sort of ground for assent. I know something happened because I saw it happen. Such assent is called natural evident assent.
But secure as it is, it is not the most secure possible. Here we must remember that discussions about assent took place within a theological context. God's power could not be ignored. Was there not after all the theoretical possibility that God might cause us to be deceived? George Lokert considers his assent to the proposition that the wall he is looking at is white. The wall is a substance with properties such as its colour, shape, texture, and so on. And Lokert sees the wall as a substance with these various properties. But might God not annihilate the substance of the wall while retaining in place those various properties? Surely He could, and if He has done so, then Lokert is after all not looking at a wall, for a wall is a substance with a certain form and God has annihilated the substance.5
Some features of this example are puzzling, but the crucial point for us is that Lokert and his colleagues recognised that our perceptual knowledge is not so securely based that we are absolutely secure from deception in giving assent on the basis of the plain evidence of our senses.
But what could be more secure than assent based upon the evidence of our own senses? Yet it was held that many things could. A century before Descartes John Mair and his colleagues took ‘I exist’ as their model of a proposition in giving assent to which we could not be deceived even by God's exercise of His absolute power. Assent to such a proposition was termed ‘highest evident assent’, which Gilbert Crab of Aberdeen defined thus: ‘Highest evident assent is certain, naturally caused assent, through which, in assenting, the intellect cannot be deceived whether by a natural or a supernatural power.’6
Propositions that were classed as necessary truths also were regarded as fitting objects of highest evident assent. George Lokert states baldly: ‘There is no necessary proposition which is given anything but absolute [i.e. highest] evident assent. Since a proposition is necessary it is impossible for a power to be deceived in assenting to it.’7
On this view, in saying yes to ‘A whole is greater than each of its parts’ I cannot be deceived even by God. I can assent to the proposition that the wall I am looking at is white, and be in error because God has, so to say, tampered with the evidence. He has annihilated the substance of the wall while preserving the various qualities. But the proposition ‘A whole is greater than each of its parts’ is of such a nature that, however much God tampers with whatever evidence I might be relying on for my assent, I cannot be deceived in saying ‘yes’. There is no pause. Having grasped the sense of the proposition, I give my assent unhesitantly and with absolute assurance that I am right.
In distinguishing between highest evident assent and natural evident assent, the Pre-Reformation Scottish philosophers did not focus on a distinction between degrees of unhesitancy. The distinction was made entirely on the basis of the fact that we can, absolutely speaking, be deceived in assenting to some propositions, and absolutely speaking cannot be deceived in assenting to others. I am, after all, just as unhesitant in assenting to the proposition that this sheet of paper is white as in assenting to the proposition that a whole is greater than each of its parts. But this matter is not entirely plain sailing, and I should like here to indicate the nature of the problem. The exposition will set the scene for the introduction of my discussion on faith. It is precisely in this context that my Scottish philosophers introduced their discussions of faith.
A naturally evident assent is one through which the assenter can be deceived by an act of God, though if nature runs its ordinary course, that is, without divine interference, the assenter is not deceived. We often give naturally evident assent. How do we manage it? One answer is that there is nothing we can do about it. There are original features of our nature upon which we rely by nature. One such is the trust we place in our senses. That is just us. We are dealing here with a process which is not subject to voluntary control. I cannot look at this sheet of paper and withhold my assent from the proposition that it is white.
The doctrine of naturally evident assent is not free of difficulty, and I should like here to speak briefly about the problem. I should emphasise that the problem I have in mind is not one which worried our late-medieval Scottish philosophers, but a version of it has worried philosophers ever since Descartes' discussion of it in his Meditations. The problem at issue arises from the fact that all the philosophers I have been discussing held that there are two aspects to God's power. First there is the ordinate power of God by which He works through nature, so that whatever happens in the ordinary course of nature happens in consequence of God's will, and secondly there is the absolute power of God by which He can produce an effect which would not occur if nature were left to run its ordinary course.
In the light of their acknowledgement of these two aspects to God's power—for they are not two powers but two aspects to the one power—our philosophers were surely logically well placed to draw the conclusion that their so-called naturally evident assent was not after all naturally caused, but was instead caused at least partially by an act of will. If I know that God by His absolute power is able to override nature and annihilate a substance while preserving the qualities, I must acknowledge the possibility that I am being deceived when I believe that this sheet of paper is white. In that case I am surely entitled to conclude that if I say ‘yes’ unhesitantly to the proposition that this sheet of paper is white I must be doing so partly by an act of will.
I might of course try to argue that since God is no deceiver He would not interfere with nature in such a way as to leave me in error as to what substances there are in the world. But I would still be committed to saying that my will contributed to my assent. For it is only by an act of will that I firmly assent to the premiss that God would not deceive me. And if that firm assent is by an act of will, then so also must be my firm assent to the conclusion that this sheet of paper is white, which I draw on the partial basis of that premiss.
Nevertheless our late-medieval philosophers were not attracted to this line of reasoning. They were convinced that there are indeed such acts as natural evident assents, and saw no reason to assign a role to the will in the production of assent to propositions affirming the existence of objects which are immediately present to their senses. Our philosophers seem to have taken the view that theological knowledge concerning God's absolute power to deceive a person who says ‘yes’ to such propositions, can have no practical effect on the assenter. Though he knows that God could deceive him, he remains utterly incapable of believing or opining that he actually is being deceived. For example, whatever my views about God's power, I cannot believe, while staring at this paper, that it is perhaps not white. With respect to such basic matters as the contents of the physical world in which we live, our late-medieval Scots did not have a belief system very different from that of all other mortals. Though there was available to them theological material upon which one could base a philosophy thoroughgoing in its scepticism, they made no attempt to develop such a thing.
There is a difference between grasping a proposition and judging whether it is true or not. And it is surely obvious that grasping a proposition is, in some sense of the term, antecedent to assenting to it—though perhaps we do not have to say that the antecedence is temporal, for there are propositions to which we say ‘yes’ as soon as we understand them. On such occasions understanding and assent seem to occur simultaneously. It does not follow of course that the assent is unstoppable. Granted parallel moves that he makes in other contexts, George Lokert is logically committed to holding that since grasping a proposition and saying ‘yes’ to it are different acts, it would be possible for God to preserve the first act, the apprehension, while preventing the occurrence of the second, the assent. Without doubt Lokert held that we are so constructed as to give unhesitant assent to certain propositions; the fact that we give such assent is an original feature of our nature. But God could have created us differently, and might yet interfere with the ordinary course of nature to produce in us on occasion an act contrary to the one that nature would produce if left to its own devices. Thus God could, by the exercise of his absolute power, cause us to dissent from the proposition ‘A whole is greater than each one of its parts’ after we had grasped the sense of the proposition. The point is that by the exercise of His ordinary power, His potentia ordinata, He causes us to give unhesitant assent to such propositions as soon as we grasp their sense.
Let us here continue to attend to the ordinary course of events. If evident assent is (1) true, (2) unhesitant, (3) naturally caused, and (4) of such a nature that the assenter cannot be deceived, then we might suppose that inevident assent is assent from which one of these four features is absent. Either it is untrue or it is hesitant or it is not naturally caused or it is an assent through which the the assenter can be deceived. It therefore comes as a surprise to read David Cranston's definition: ‘Inevident assent is assent which is certain, without hesitation, and purely freely caused, for example, the assent to this: “God is three and one”. It cannot be caused in the human intellect without a command of the will. And every such assent is called an assent of faith. So Augustine says on this matter: “No one can believe without willing”.’8
But the term ‘faith’ is ambiguous, and Cranston is quick to elucidate. He writes: ‘“Faith” has two senses. In one sense it is an assent to a proposition which is formally or equivalently commanded in the law of God… In the second sense it is any assent which is freely caused by the authority of the speaker, whether or not it is commanded [by God].’9
The first of these two senses—that faith is assent to a proposition commanded in God's law—is the narrower sense and is included in the second one—that it is assent freely caused by the authority of a speaker, whoever it may be. Cranston is here acknowledging that not all faith is religious faith, and his position on this matter seems unexceptionable. But there are grounds for puzzlement in the fact that he identifies the assent of faith as the only sort of inevident assent. There are surely many other sorts. One is the assent of opinion, which is like evident assent in being naturally caused, but is unlike evident assent in that it is given hesitantly and in giving it the assenter may be deceived.
I believe the explanation is that, of the three kinds of assent that our philosopher-theologians discussed, evident assent, assent of faith and finally opinative assent, it was the first two, evident assent and the assent of faith, that were regarded as of especial interest. The first of these, evident assent, is bound to interest the philosopher, and the second, faith, is bound to interest the theologian. The third, the assent of opinion, was of interest partly because consideration of it enables us to learn more about evident assent and faith by seeing what they can be contrasted with, and partly because opinative assent plays a crucial role in the assent of faith. As regards inevident assent, faith was much more a matter of professional interest to the philosopher-theologians of Mair's circle than was opinion. And for that reason they sometimes wrote, as David Cranston did, as if faith were the only kind of inevident assent. Nevertheless, for the reasons just given, opinative assent could not be ignored. In addition, as I indicated at the start of this lecture, from a given perspective faith lies on an axis between evident assent and opinion. I should like to explore this perspective here.
There are two distinctions to be drawn between evident assent and opinion. The first is that in giving evident assent we cannot be deceived, whereas we can be deceived in holding an opinion. The second is that evident assent is given without hesitation, whereas we opine only hesitantly. There was a commonly held view that the two sorts of assent differ not merely in degree but in kind or species. In that case the question of hesitation is not of primary importance in distinguishing between these two ways of saying ‘yes’, for there is a scale of hesitation on which total absence of hesitation is located as a terminus. Being more hesitant, less hesitant, and unhesitant, differ in degree rather than in species. Perhaps therefore in seeking to identify the crucial difference between the two ways of saying ‘yes’ it would be better to focus on the fact that in giving the one sort of assent we cannot be deceived and in giving the other we can.
George Lokert, who is very clear about the need to posit a specific difference between these ways of saying ‘yes’, draws the conclusion that ‘therefore no evident assent can become inevident, or vice versa’.10
Yet counter-arguments come readily to mind. What should be said about the case of a person who initially says ‘yes’ to a proposition on the basis of an argument which has sufficient plausibility to produce hesitant assent, and then discovers a demonstrative proof of that same proposition, one which establishes the necessity of the proposition, leaving no room either for deception of the assenter or for hesitation by him? Is this not a case in which, contrary to Lokert's dictum which I have just quoted, inevident assent becomes evident? And should we not say likewise as regards a case in which a person first accepts a proposition hesitantly on the basis of a probable argument and then has a visual experience of the kind which underpins evident assent to that same proposition? Surely we should say here also that the proposition has not changed but instead the mode of assent has; what was inevident has become evident. Perhaps Lokert's answer to these points would be that an assent of one kind has not become
another; instead an assent of one kind has been replaced
by an assent of another. But he does not supply an argument in support of this particular deployment of the distinction between becoming and replacement.
Where does faith stand in relation to evident assent and opinion? According to our late-medieval Scots it stands in an intermediate position, sharing a feature possessed by each of them and possessing in addition a feature which distinguishes it logically from both the others. Faith and evident assent have this in common, that each is given without hesitation. Faith and opinion have this in common, that they are inevident. But in what sense is faith inevident if an assent of faith is given unhesitantly? The question takes us to the heart of the matter.
It should be remembered that evident assent and opinion share the feature of being naturally caused. The alternative to natural causation is free causation. We are back to the great divide, between intellect and will, investigated by Scotus. Sometimes we say ‘yes’ on the basis of an exercise of intellect where the will is not engaged, for example, where we say ‘yes’ to a proposition because it is seen to follow logically from a set of propositions to which we have already assented. The point is that it was generally acknowledged that not every assent is like that. Many are based in part upon an act of will. Gilbert Crab of Aberdeen is helpful on this matter. He writes as follows: ‘Some acts are natural, others are free. A natural act is one which is produced necessarily by a necessity of nature when everything requisite for its production is in place. For example, seeing is a natural act in relation to the faculty of sight… But a free act is one which is produced only contingently when everything necessary for its production is in place, for example an act of will.’11
And this distinction, between natural acts and free ones, is then applied by Crab to the two ways of saying ‘yes’, evident assent and the assent of faith. In particular, he elucidates as follows: ‘Faith is freely caused, because an act of will is required for it to be caused.’12
But even knowing that an assent of faith is a free act and not merely a natural one, we still need to determine what aspect of the assent is subject to will. Are all aspects of it? Well, not according to Lokert and his friends. They hold that saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith has two partial causes, one natural and the other free. It will be helpful here to focus on the fact that for those philosophers an opinion is never a purely irrational assent. Every opinion is based upon some premiss or other, though the premiss is not sufficient to justify an evident assent to the conclusion. An opinion is always based upon what was termed a motivum probabile
, that is, grounds sufficiently strong to justify the person in saying ‘yes’ so long as his assent is merely hesitant (tantum formidolosus
). Faith was said to have precisely the same sort of basis as opinion has, that is, a motivum probabile
, and hence every assent of faith is supported by grounds sufficiently strong to justify only a hesitant assent. But there is then a second stage in which the person wills to adhere firmly to the proposition which is supported by the motivum probabile
and wills also not to seek reasons for holding the opposite position.13
Since the person who has exercised his will in this way adheres firmly to the proposition in question, his assent is unhesitant. But it does not follow from this that by an act of will the assent which began as an opinion has become evident assent. The reason for this is that evident assent is caused by purely natural causes whereas faith is caused not only by natural causes but also by a free cause, namely an act of will. Causes of the two sorts concurrunt—they cooperate with each other in producing assent. It is on this basis that faith was seen as located between evident assent and opinion. As with evident assent faith is unhesitant, and as with opinion the natural cause which contributes to its production is a motivum probabile.
Two things in particular come under the heading of motivum probabile, namely authority and testimony. A person reports an event that he has witnessed, and I believe him. Though he might be speaking falsely about what he saw, even speaking falsely in saying that he was a witness at all, I have no reason to think he is speaking falsely, so I trust him. Part of what is involved in my trusting him is that my assent to the proposition that the events took place as reported is unhesitant. And my unhesitant assent is partially caused by an act of will. I decide to trust him. If I were not to decide to trust him, but instead were to allow nature to take its course by saying ‘yes’ with only the degree of hesitation warranted by the evidence, then my assent might indeed be hesitant. It would, in the technical sense of the term, be only an opinion of mine that the events occurred as reported.
For our late-medieval Scots any proposition to which we say ‘yes’ as a matter of faith is a proposition to which we have antecedent grounds for giving assent. I sometimes hear the phrase ‘blind faith’. I am not certain what the phrase means though I am certain that it is a term of disparagement. But if it signifies an assent of faith given by a person who does not have antecedent reason for giving at least hesitant assent then John Mair and his friends would without doubt dismiss the concept of blind faith as self-contradictory. In other words if the premisses are insufficiently strong to support at least an opinion that the proposition is true, then there is no room for faith in its truth.
There are propositions to which we would, more or less hesitantly, say ‘no’—propositions, in other words, from which we dissent though without assurance. We can by an act of will turn that hesitant ‘no’ round to a hesitant ‘yes’. A further act of will can firm up that hesitant ‘yes’ to an unhesitant one. To reach purely by an act of will a hesitant, or even an unhesitant assent, from a hesitant dissent is perfectly possible and indeed all too human. But if we say ‘yes’ hesitantly as a result of an act of will, then that assent is not an opinion. And if on that basis we then say ‘yes’ unhesitantly as a result of an act of will, then we are not saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith.
The two points that I have just made are strictly terminological. That is, first, if by an act of will a dissent is turned into a hesitant assent then it is incorrect to apply the term ‘opinion’ to that hesitant assent. And secondly, if that willed hesitant assent is then willed into being unhesitant assent then that latter assent is not correctly termed an act of faith. These points, however, though terminological, are not merely so, and are not to be despised. It is always important to write in such a way as to be understood, and our philosophers were seeking to establish the meanings of crucial terms so that they could make their substantive theological and philosophical points with reasonable assurance that they would be correctly understood as they picked their way over theological battlegrounds on their way to a clear statement, and a clear understanding, of the truths that save.
It is plain that any theologian, especially of the Pre-Reformation period, would have several powerful reasons for being interested in clear definitions of terms relating to faith. And in that case there is no cause for wonder that the meaning of the term ‘faith’ itself was thought an appropriate object of investigation. My task in this lecture has been to show the way in which some Scottish philosopher-theologians of the Pre-Reformation period sought to place the concept of faith within a complex network which included also the concepts of evident assent, opinion, reason, natural causation and, especially, intellect and will. Those Scottish philosophers would have rejected the concept of blind faith as self-contradictory, for all of them accepted as a conceptual truth the fact that an assent of faith has an evidential basis. This point gives rise to the question: When is faith reasonable? It is to that question that I shall devote the next lecture, which will also be the last.