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Lecture 6: When Is Faith Reasonable?

WE HAVE been investigating a definition of faith formulated and expounded by members of the circle of John Mair. I shall now take that investigation a stage further, and shall set the scene with a prefatory comment concerning the cultural context of the definition.

There were powerful reasons why those theologians were careful in their formulations. We should not lose sight of the fact that during the thirty years from 1503, amongst many other persons no less than fifteen members of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris were investigated by the Faculty for heresy. It was a period during which both John Mair and George Lokert were active members. Those whom Faculty commissions found guilty of heresy were handed over to the civil authorities for punishment, which could be deadly since it was a period when heresy in France was regarded as akin to treason against his very Christian majesty François 1er. Indeed George Lokert was one of those who sat on a Faculty commission convened to investigate one of Erasmus's works A refutation of the erroneous censures of Noel Beda. Erasmus was sufficiently wary to remain away from Paris during this period. His translator Louis de Berquin, confident of the protection of his patrons, was less wary. He was found guilty of heresy by the Faculty of Theology, and was handed over to the civil authorities who burned him at the stake before the Cathedral of Notre Dame. That happened in 1529. One year earlier, Patrick Hamilton, who had studied under members of John Mair's circle in Paris and St Andrews, was burned outside the College of St Salvator's in St Andrews, the college of which Mair was shortly thereafter to become provost.1

It has to be said therefore that not only the sovereign importance of the saving of souls, but also—and relatedly—the consequence of being judged to have published theological errors, were bound to make theologians very careful when investigating articles of faith. This care naturally governed their approach not only to the propositions to which the faithful assented in faith, but also to the concept of faith itself. One result was the definition which I expounded in the course of Lecture Five. The further examination of the definition that I shall now make will take the form of a clarification of the relation between on the one hand reason, and on the other hand faith, as the term is understood by Mair and his colleagues.

As with earlier lectures in this series, my starting point will be the teachings of Duns Scotus, presiding genius of Scottish philosophy. I have focused on Scotus's doctrines concerning will and intellect, observing that on his analysis the two faculties are really identical and differ only in form. That doctrine can be seen as a development of his insight regarding the special unity of the human mind. A person looks out upon the world both as a spectator and as an agent, seeking sometimes to understand the world and sometimes to change it. His mind has the form of a spectator in so far as he engages in acts of understanding, and it has the form of an agent in so far as he engages in acts of will. But it is one and the same mind that has these different forms. Scotus, as we saw, called these forms ‘formalities’, and argued that the metaphysical status of will and intellect is that of distinct formalities of one and the same reality, the mind which understands and wills.

In several places John Mair invokes William Ockham's demand that entities not be multiplied beyond necessity. The demand leaves its mark at crucial places in Mair's system, and I think that we are here dealing with one of those places, his refusal to see value in the concept of a formality of the mind. Whatever Scotus wanted to say about the formalities of will and intellect could in Mair's view be better said by speaking in terms of acts or operations of the mind. To say that a faculty of will exists is to say that a mind can will, and to say that a faculty of intellect exists is to say that a mind can understand. If it is the one mind that acts in these two ways, then the faculties of will and intellect of that mind are identical with each other because they are identical with that mind.

John Mair thus subscribes as fully as does Scotus himself to the doctrine of the irrefragible metaphysical unity of the human mind. He may indeed have thought that he subscribed more fully to it, on the grounds that the unity of the mind must be less than perfect if the mind has distinct formalities.

I remain sceptical however over whether this is a substantive disagreement between Scotus and Mair, or merely a terminological one. An agent able to perform acts of different kinds takes different forms when it performs those acts. The forms are not realities separate or separable from the acts they inform. I think that if Scotus had not called the forms of intellect and will ‘formalities’, but had instead, and without changing his philosophical stance, spoken of the different ways in which the mind changes in the course of the performance of these different sorts of act, then Mair would not have objected to Scotus's account. Mair on the contrary understood Scotus's ‘formalities’ to be features or elements of the mind over and above the changes that take place in it when it wills an act or understands a proposition. I think that in so interpreting Scotus Mair was in error, and that there is in consequence hardly any daylight, if any at all, between the theories of the two men.

Central to their theories is the idea that the human mind is an irrefragible unity. This unity is manifest in countless ways, and no more so than in the kind of act we have been calling assensus fidei—saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith. In speaking of unity in respect of this sort of assent I have in mind the idea discussed in the preceding lecture, that faith is the product of two causes, an act of intellect and an act of will. This is not a matter of two causes, acts of will and intellect, which are temporally antecedent to the assent of faith which is their joint effect. On the contrary the willing and the understanding enter into the assent of faith as parts of its nature, intellect providing the content of the act and will providing its form, the free assenting. These two parts are separable by an act of philosophical analysis, though they are not separable in nature. In particular the act of freely assenting cannot occur except as having a content, that to which we assent, and that content is provided by the intellect.

The doctrine that the assent of faith is the product of those two causes is central to late-medieval investigations of the nature of faith. Let us therefore look more closely into the relation between faith on the one hand and intellect and will on the other. It will quickly be seen that this gives us a helpful perspective on the question of when faith is reasonable.

That John Mair attaches special importance to the idea that an act of will is a partial cause of faith is attested by the fact that the idea is presented in folio 1 of Book One of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Without doubt that Commentary is the greatest of Mair's theological writings. He begins by discussing the way in which faith is acquired by the viator, the wayfarer on his earthly pilgrimage, and he therefore has to deal with the question of what the pilgrim has acquired in acquiring faith. Peter Lombard, whose Sententiae was the most influential theological work of the Middle Ages, defines ‘faith’ as ‘the power by means of which things which are not seen are believed’. To which Mair adds this comment: ‘“Faith” is not taken to refer to all things which are not seen, but, as St Augustine says, it is taken to refer only to those things belief in which pertains to religion.’2

But if those things pertaining to religion are not seen, why are they believed? It cannot be that the evidence for them determines the intellect to believe, since in saying that they are not seen the point being made is precisely that there is insufficient evidence to compel the intellect's assent. Mair argues that the only possible explanation for the occurrence of belief is that the will plays a role, and that it is the invisibility of the things pertaining to religion that, so to say, creates a space within which the will has room to act.

John Mair finds a proof text for this doctrine in Romans 10.16, at a point where Paul the apostle is himself using Isaiah 53.1 as a proof text. Mair, relying on a Bible other than the Vulgate, though I do not know which, quotes the verse: ‘O Lord, who believes what we have heard?’, and he refers us to the Glossa Ordinaria, which asks why the Jews do not believe, and which replies that it is because they will not to. And hence, concludes Mair, to will not to believe is incompatible with the production of faith, and hence will cooperates in the production of faith.3

‘And again’, continues Mair, ‘since God obliges us to believe, and does not oblige us to do what transcends our powers, believing and not believing will both be free acts.’ In support of this position he quotes St Augustine: ‘Someone can enter a church while willing not to. He can approach the altar while willing not to. He can receive the sacrament while willing not to. But he cannot believe unless he wills to.’4 Finally in this compilation of evidence concerning the tightness of the link between faith and will, Mair quotes Mark 16.16: ‘Qui vero non crediderit condemnabitur’—‘He who does not believe will be condemned.’ (I refer to the Vulgate's verse numbering here, since neither the Revised Standard Version nor the New English Bible includes this verse). To the verse: ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’, Mair adds the comment: ‘There is no precept unless the will cooperates in its implementation.’5 That is, God would not condemn us for not performing an act the performance of which is not under our voluntary control. Yet God would condemn us for not obeying His commands. From which Mair concludes that obeying God's commands, all of them, are acts subject to our will. Since, as we have now been reminded, there is a divine precept that we believe, that is, that we have faith, it follows that whether or not we have faith is subject to our will. It would appear to follow that faith is located in the will.

For John Mair the situation is rather more complicated. He wonders in which faculty, will or intellect, faith should be located, and his response makes it clear that he believes it to be in both for it is a product of two partial causes. Since one of the two partial causes of an assent of faith is an act of opinative assent, and the other partial cause is the act by which the hesitation of opinion is made firm or unhesitant, it should be concluded that the assent of faith is located in both faculties, intellect and will. It is in intellect because the inference of an opinative conclusion from the premisses of the probable argument is a purely intellectual act. Will contributes nothing to this part of the assent of faith since the premisses of such an inference are a purely natural cause, and therefore not at all a free cause, of the conclusion. In addition will is a partial cause of the assent of faith, because the act of rendering firm or unhesitant the hesitant assent of opinion is a free act and not one that is merely naturally caused.

Nevertheless, we should recognise the relative ordering of these two partial causes. The definition of faith that we have been considering has the form of a definition per genus et differentiam—it states the genus of the species we call ‘assent of faith’ and then indicates the features that differentiate that species from other species in that genus. An assent of faith is generically an assent, and assent is essentially an intellectual act. What differentiates the assent of faith is the role of the will in giving firmness to what otherwise would be an opinative and therefore a merely hesitant assent. Primary location depends upon the generic feature of the species and secondary location depends upon features which differentiate the species from other species in the same genus. It follows that the assent of faith is located primarily in the intellect and secondarily in the will. Thus we find Mair affirming: ‘Since believing [credere] inheres in the intellect and is an assent, it is really an act of intellect and primarily inheres in that faculty. And if per possibile or per impossibile intellect were separated from will, the assent of faith would inhere in intellect and not in will.’6 Mair's point is however that even though separation of the two faculties would leave the assent of faith in intellect rather than in will, nevertheless what would be in intellect would not be precisely an assent of faith but just an assent of opinion. For without the act of will the assent could not be of faith. Mair is therefore committed to the doctrine that though the assent is primarily in the intellect, for without an act of intellect there would be no assent, it is secondarily in the will for, granted the occurrence of the act of intellect, there is then required an act of will to transform the assent into one of faith.

Let us focus upon the doctrine that faith is located primarily in the intellect. A link between faith and intellect is of course invoked in Anselm's projected title to his ProslogionFides quaerens intellectum (‘Faith seeking understanding’). For the last time in this series of lectures I shall turn to St Anselm's phrase. He let his intellect play upon the object of his faith and sought, in a work unsurpassed in philosophy, to clarify the nature of the divine existence. His faith sought understanding, and by the end of the intellectual activity that found expression in the Proslogion his concept of the divine existence was more deeply informed by reason. In that sense, which is not a negligible one, his faith had become more reasonable.

From this perspective a person's faith is reasonable to the extent that it is a faith thought through, so that the credal propositions to which assent is given are well understood by the assenter. He is not merely saying ‘yes’, but also has a clear grasp of what it is to which he is saying ‘yes’. On this account a person's faith is unreasonable if he has little or no understanding of these religious formulae to which he gives his assent. He has not sufficiently mixed his intellect with the formulae.

This account of reasonable faith gives rise to a second distinction. It is one thing to have a deep understanding of a proposition to which we say ‘yes’ as an act of faith and it is another to recognise that we have grounds for giving that assent. Having faith is not merely a matter of understanding a proposition but also of assenting to it. And granted that the proposition is well understood we can also ask whether it is reasonable to say ‘yes’ to it.

We have already observed that from the perspective of the late-medieval Scots upon whom these lectures have been focused an assent of faith can conceptually speaking occur only in the context of an inference or argument. To say ‘yes’ as an act of faith requires having reason for saying ‘yes’ hesitantly to the proposition. It is not merely that there is a reason why the person should say yes; he has made that reason his own. It is his reason for assenting. The assenter has, then, antecedently a motivum probabile, a reason he recognises as a plausible one, for holding the proposition as a matter of opinion. It does not require faith for him to give hesitant assent. Whatever we should call the act of will by which a person moves, without additional evidence, from a ‘no’ or from nothing to a hesitant ‘yes’, it should not be called faith. Faith is reached by moving from the hesitant assent of opinion to unhesitant assent. If for a person's assent of faith to be reasonable it is sufficient that he have evidence sufficient by itself to support a hesitant assent, then by definition, that is, by the late-medieval definition I have been expounding, all faith is reasonable.

And yet there is something bizarre about this claim. Let us accept, with John Mair and his colleagues, that an assent of faith has some rational basis, sufficient at least to support an opinion. Let us also remind ourselves that they held that an assent of faith is a product of two partial causes, one natural and the other free. The natural cause produces an opinion. As a result of the free cause, the act of will, not only do we say ‘yes’; we also cease to look for reasons for saying ‘no’, for the matter has been settled. ‘Yes’ has won.

It is the gap between the hesitation of opinion and the firmness of faith that here interests me. What justifies the move from the one to the other? The answer seems to be that nothing does. The evidence, such as it is, takes us to the stage of assenting hesitantly. It is will and not intellect that takes us further. If the evidence were sufficiently strong by itself to compel us to give unhesitant assent we should no longer be talking about faith but about some other cognitive state. Evidence, after all, counts as a natural cause, not a free one. And without a free cause an assent of faith cannot be given. And in so far as we cannot provide grounds, in the form of evidence, justifying the move from hesitant assent to unhesitant, the move is not sanctioned by reason, and to that extent it is unreasonable. That is why I said there is something bizarre about the claim that every assent of faith is reasonable. The premisses that I have just produced appear to support the conclusion that no assent of faith is reasonable.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the conclusion of this argument is not that it is unreasonable to give an assent when we give an assent of faith; the conclusion is instead that the lack of hesitation in giving that assent is unreasonable. For it is not the act of assenting, but the fact that the assent is given unhesitantly, that is not sanctioned by reason. Is the absence of justification for the lack of hesitation sufficient to make the assent of faith unreasonable? If it is, then this is presumably on the basis of the principle that an act as a whole is unreasonable if any part of it is not sanctioned by reason. I am not enthusiastic about this principle. I agree that it would be unreasonable to assent to a proposition in the absence of sufficient evidence to justify even a hesitant assent, but there is clearly a difference in kind between assenting firmly in the absence of evidence justifying any sort of assent, and assenting firmly in the presence of evidence justifying an assent of sorts even if only a hesitant one. I do not think that an assent has to be fully supported by evidence every inch of the way in order to be sufficiently supported to count as reasonable. To say otherwise would be to insist upon an unreasonable criterion of reasonableness.

It was noted in Lecture Five that authority and testimony fall under the heading of motivum probabile, that is, the kind of evidence that motivates us to give opinative assent. Authority and testimony are not quite the same thing, but they are very closely related. A person who testifies to something speaks as a witness. Suppose that such a person tells me that a given event occurred. On the basis of his testimony I form the opinion that it did indeed occur, that is, I give my hesitant assent. But, as we have seen, it was the view of Lokert and his friends that I can decide to trust the person, take him fully at his word, throw in my lot with his testimony, and give not hesitant but wholehearted assent to what I have been told. An authority on a topic is treated as a witness to the truth; to recognise someone as an authority is to treat what he says as testimony to the truth. Even without investigating his arguments we give assent, at least hesitant assent, to his conclusions. And how can we not, if we accept him as speaking with authority? The link between testimony and authority is thus plain.

Authority, considered in this light, was central to the whole enterprise of philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages. One can hardly read any dozen lines by any medieval philosopher or theologian without meeting with an auctoritas—an authoritative text. We are, again and again, told that support for a given proposition is provided by Aristotle or St Paul or St Augustine, or an Old Testament prophet, who said much the same thing as is expressed in the proposition, or who said something from which the proposition in question can be deduced.

That an authority said something is never treated as conclusive evidence of the truth of some other proposition, but it is evidence of sorts, a reason for assenting to it even if not a conclusive reason.7 It becomes, so to say, the default position, something to accept unless and until a contrary proposition can be shown to have a firmer basis. Aquinas discusses this matter in the Summa Theologiae pt. 1, q. 1, a. 8, in the course of his enquiry into whether the science of sacred doctrine proceeds by way of argument. It is easy to construct a case for saying that it should not proceed by way of argument. For, he reminds us, St Ambrose declares: ‘Remove arguments from the place where faith is sought’ (De fide Catholica 51.1). But it is especially in sacred doctrine that faith is sought. Hence sacred doctrine is not argumentative. In any case, Aquinas continues, if it is argumentative, then at any rate it surely does not proceed on the basis of arguments from authority. They are ill suited to the dignity of sacred doctrine for, as Boethius declares, arguments (loci) from authority are the shakiest (infirmissimi) of all.

There is, of course, an air of paradox surrounding the fact that Aquinas argues on the basis of the authority of Boethius for the claim that authority is the weakest of all arguments. But an air of paradox is not the same thing as a contradiction, and Aquinas is not here guilty of contradiction. He begins by stating that arguments from authority are especially appropriate to sacred doctrine because the principles of the doctrine are acquired by revelation and hence the doctrine itself should be believed on the authority of those to whom the revelation was granted. It is true that arguments from human authority are the weakest, but an argument founded upon the authority of divine revelation is the strongest (efficacissimus).8

The matter is not entirely plain sailing however. For, of course, God's word is in need of interpretation and it is the interpretation of human beings upon which we must rely. It follows that the argument from authority is always to be treated as sufficient to ground only an opinion, never to ground an evident assent. That Aristotle asserted a given proposition is a reason for saying ‘yes’ to it, but only hesitantly, for the argument from authority can always be trumped by an argument which appeals, say, to a logical principle. In short, since Aristotle or St Augustine, whose writings have informed the thinking of civilised people for centuries, have asserted a given proposition, it is reasonable to accept the proposition on their authority, so long, of course, as one always recognises that at a later stage a reason may emerge for rejecting their word.

In practice authorities were rarely shown to have been wrong, for if on a not wildly implausible interpretation of what they said they can be shown to have been correct, then why not adopt that interpretation? To do so would not require one to be excessively charitable, for after all it was from such thinkers that their successors gained, in large measure, the intellectual standards which they in their turn used in order to establish the truth. This outlook does not make it impossible to reject an auctoritas, but it certainly requires one to produce strong evidence on behalf of a contrary position before saying even hesitantly that the auctoritas is wrong.

Even if it is reasonable to assent, though hesitantly, to a proposition if it is supported by an authority, what should be said about the further stage, the exercise of will in the direction of saying ‘yes’ not hesitantly but firmly? Surely that is unreasonable? Yet it may not be entirely so. Lokert speaks about the assent of faith as an assent made by a person who wills to adhere firmly to a given proposition and wills also not to seek reasons for supporting the opposite position.9 Since the person has assented firmly, there is no reason why he should seek evidence in support of the opposite position. But it is an important feature of Lokert'? doctrine that he does not describe the person of faith as refusing to countenance evidence to the contrary if he happens upon it. If he meets with such evidence then, as a reasonable person, he will treat it on its merits and may withdraw his assent of faith. In this respect his behaviour contrasts with that of a person who gives evident assent to a proposition. Such a person may reasonably consider himself entitled to disregard subsequent evidence to the contrary. Since he is already in possession of overwhelming evidence in favour of the proposition to which he gives evident assent, it follows that evidence to the contrary must be in some way faulty, or at any rate of insufficient weight to overturn his assent. Plainly a person who says ‘yes’ as an act of faith is quite differently situated in relation to evidence which works against his assent. He would indeed be acting unreasonably if he rejected out of hand evidence which conflicted with his faith.

I have now spoken of three ways in which an assent of faith might be said to be reasonable. The first way requires a person to have mixed his intellectual labour with the proposition at issue, and to have acquired a deep understanding of it. St Anselm's investigation into the nature of divine existence is a paradigm of such intellectual labour. The second way requires an assent of faith to be based on an inference whose premisses are sufficient to support at least hesitant assent to the proposition in which faith is subsequently placed. And the third way requires the person who says ‘yes’ as an act of faith not to seek to make himself impervious to appeals to his reason, where the appeals take the form of the display of evidence against his faith.

Willingness to countenance evidence to the contrary is reasonable in virtue of what some philosophers termed the ‘obscurity’ associated with faith. Mair's colleague at Paris, Gervaise Waim, affirmed that: ‘faith is imperfect because it is not clear assent as evident assent is’.10 He explains: ‘Clarity in truth or falsity is a reason why we assent to or dissent from some propositions as soon as we know their terms. But there are propositions whose truth is so obscure that the intellect would be unable to assent to them unless it had help from somewhere else.’11

Waim's position therefore is that assent to an evident proposition is more perfect than an assent of faith. An evident proposition is recognised as true as soon as the proposition is understood. The will plays no role. In the case of our saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith, our understanding of the proposition is insufficient by itself to enable us to assent without hesitation. Its truth therefore is obscure to us. In virtue of this obscurity the firm assent, when made, is imperfect, because obscurity is an imperfection.

Some may wish to take a different approach and to draw a different conclusion. It might be pointed out that it takes more to give firm assent to a proposition whose truth is obscure to us than to one whose truth is clear. Since the intellect is involved in such an assent and since the will also is involved, more of the human spirit is expressed in an assent of faith than in evident assent, and in one respect therefore an assent of faith is more perfect than is an evident assent.

This conclusion, however, must be held lightly. Assent to an evident proposition may represent a great triumph of the spirit for, as Aquinas reminds us, what is evident in itself is not always evident to us,12 and a considerable effort of will might be required before a person is in a position to give evident assent. And on the other hand the acceptance of a proposition on faith may be a product of laziness—indicating a preference for asking an authority rather than for taking the available step of thinking the matter out for oneself and thereby becoming an eye witness to the truth, rather than trusting someone else who is an eye witness to it.

I should like to make one final point about the relation between faith and reason, a point which applies as much to non-religious as to religious faith, though it is really the latter that I have in mind here. There are cases in which it is reasonable to say ‘yes’ as an act of faith. Let us suppose that we recognise a person as speaking with authority when he says that there is a God. That person may himself be assenting as an act of faith to the message he transmits, for he himself places his faith in some other person's word. A chain can be formed in which all links after the first say ‘yes’ as an act of faith on the basis of their recognition of the authoritative nature of the word of a preceding link. But those later links in the chain cannot suppose that the first in the chain faithfully accepted God's word for it that God exists. He would need to know that it was God he encountered. And how would he know that?

At the start of Genesis 12 we read: ‘Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee.… So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken unto him.’ This was one of the great moments in human history, yet we are told so little. There is nothing that I would more like to know about anything than the content of the experience that Abraham underwent. He could no more have been taking God's word for it that God exists than you my audience, now, can take my word for it that I do. It is too late for you to take my word for it that I do, because you have met me. It is I whom you already know to exist who would be telling you that I do. Likewise God's saying ‘I exist’ could not have conveyed to Abraham information that he did not already have as a result of encountering God. There was thus no room for such an act by Abraham as taking God's word for it that He exists. Abraham was no doubt a man of faith in respect of his acceptance of God's word that his seed would be a mighty nation, but he was not a man of faith in respect of knowing that God was addressing him. On the contrary Abraham participated in the event that others would believe occurred because they had faith in Abraham's testimony.

It is no accident that in discussing faith the late-medieval philosophers link authority and testimony so closely. What I have just been speaking about is the situation of any person who accepts something on authority. He cannot suppose that what he accepts on that basis has only ever been accepted on that same basis. Someone must have a different sort of evidence for the truth of the proposition that others accept on authority. If I take someone's word for it that a given mathematical proposition is true, I must suppose that someone can prove that it is, or at least that he has a rational insight into its truth, unlike myself who can assert with confidence that it is true, not because I can see that it is but because someone who can has reported his findings.

I think that this is a logical point, just as it is a logical point that if I accept something on the authority of a witness it is because I believe that the witness saw what he reports as having happened and was not simply relying on the authority of another for the account that he gives me. At this logical level there is no difference between religious and non-religious faith. The difference emerges when we seek clarification concerning the nature of the experience that the witness had. If someone reports the words of a human being he encountered, we can imagine the meeting. But how are we to imagine or conceive Abraham's encounter with God? I shall not attempt here to answer that question. But Lord Gifford would be well pleased if a future Gifford lecturer took that further step.

In these lectures I have been exploring a set of ideas that were to the fore in philosophical and theological discussions in Scotland at the time of the founding of the University of Aberdeen. Much of what I have been saying would indeed have been said to those earliest generations of Aberdeen students, and it was certainly familiar to Hector Boece, first principal of the University of Aberdeen and friend and colleague of John Mair at the University of Paris. Especially familiar to Boece and his students were those medieval Scottish discussions of the concept of faith that I have been exploring. I argued at the outset that for medieval philosophers faith was the space of philosophy. For not only was much of their philosophising conducted in the pages of their theological treatises, but more importantly their faith gave direction to their philosophy, and gave urgency to it. They did not philosophise as a form of entertainment. Their philosophy related directly to pastoral concerns regarding the salvation of souls.

But as well as the content of their faith, they also attended to its form, the fact that it was faith, and not demonstrative knowledge or mere opinion. What, then, is it to give an assent of faith rather than of demonstrative knowledge or opinion? The answer provided by the Pre-Reformation Scots was given in terms of a particular relation between acts of intellect and will. Such acts, and the relations between them, were examined in great detail by Duns Scotus, and of especial interest are his conclusions regarding will as the faculty of freedom, where freedom is understood as the power to produce opposite effects.

Yet do we have such a power? Many of the medieval discussions regarding the possibility of freedom occur in the theological context of an account of God as omniscient. If God knows from all eternity what we shall do, does His knowledge leave us with any room to manoeuvre? Surely God's omniscience implies determinism. John Ireland, whose arguments on behalf of the faith are influenced by Scotus, sought to rebut this line of attack, for he recognised that the faith would be a sham if the doctrine of divine omniscience were indeed incompatible with human freedom. Distinguishing between divine intellect and divine will, he argues that God wills into existence creatures with will, and then leaves us to do what we will to do. He knows our acts but does not will that we perform them. He commands us, but does not will us to obey. If He willed us to obey then we would do so for what God wills to be will be, but we are free to disobey.

John Ireland rebutted the claim that our faculty of free will is a sham. Such a rebuttal provided space for the analysis of the concept of faith that was made by John Mair and his colleagues. The assent of faith, on their analysis, constitutes a special sort of unity of acts of intellect and will, two faculties which, as Scotus teaches, form a special sort of unity in the human soul.

In those late-medieval writings, Scotus's shadow is clearly discernible, even when he is being directly contradicted, as sometimes he is, by members of Mair's circle. Scotus is the presiding genius of Scottish philosophy, and he was assuredly in ghostly attendance upon those faithful men in the companionable circle of John Mair as they argued their way through the decades that preceded the Scottish Reformation and the establishment of a new order in this country.

  • 1.

    Events referred to in this paragraph are discussed in A. Broadie, George Lokert: Late Scholastic Logician ch. 1.

  • 2.

    ‘Tertio modo accipitur [sc. credere] proprie pro assentire sine formidine propositionibus quae pertinent ad salutem. De quo dicit Magister libro iii, dist. xxiii, cap. ii: Fides est virtus qua creduntur quae non videntur. Quod tamen non de omnibus quae non videntur accipiendum est sed de his tantum quae credere ut ait Augustinus in Enchiridio ad religionem pertinet.’ Mair, In Primum Sententiarum fol. 1 recto, col. 2.

  • 3.

    ‘Pia affectio enim supponit pro actu voluntatis connotando quod velit illud quod concernit religionem et nolit illud quod ei adversatur ut patet ad Romanos x ubi apostolus introducit illud Esaie liii: Domine quis credit auditui nostro, ubi Glossa Ordinaria proponens dubitationem quare Judaei non credunt dicit quod non credunt quia nolunt. Et sic nolle repugnat generationi fidei et per consequens velle ad generationem eiusdem concurrit.’ Mair, In Primum Sententiarum fol. 1 verso, cols, 1–2.

  • 4.

    ‘Rursus cum deus obliget nos ad credendum et non obliget nos ad illud quod transcendit vires nostras liberum erit credere et non credere secundum illud Beati Augustini Homilia xxvi: Intrare ecclesiam potest quis nolens, accedere ad altare nolens, recipere potest sacramentum nolens, credere autem non nisi volens.’ Mair, In Primum Sententiarum fol. 1 verso, col. 2.

  • 5.

    ‘Nullum enim est praeceptum nisi ad eius impletionem concurrat voluntas.’ Ibid.

  • 6.

    ‘Sed quia [credere] inhaeret intellectui et est assensus realiter est actus intellectus et ei primo inhaeret. Et si per possibile vel impossibile intellectus separaretur a voluntate intellectui ille assensus inhaereret et non voluntati.’ Ibid.

  • 7.

    For discussion of this point see C. F. J. Martin ‘The argument from authority’, in Peter Geach, et al. The Past and the Present: Problems of Understanding: A Philosophical and Historical Enquiry.

  • 8.

    ‘Dicendum quod argumentari ex auctoritate est maxime proprium huius doctrinae [sc. sacrae doctrinae] eo quod principia huius doctrinae per revelationem habentur. Et sic oportet quod credatur auctoritati eorum quibus revelatio facta est. Nec hoc derogat dignitati huius doctrinae nam licet locus ab auctoritate quae fundatur super ratione humana sit infirmissimus locus tamen ab auctoritate quae fundatur super revelatione divina est efficacissimus.’ Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1, 1, 8 ad 2.

  • 9.

    ‘Communior opinio inter doctores dicit assensum fidei causari a… actu voluntatis quo aliquis vult ita esse vel firmiter adhaerere tali propositioni et non quaerere rationes ad oppositum, etc.’ Lokert, Scriptum in materia noticiarum sig. f 5 recto, col. 2.

  • 10.

    ‘Fides habet imperfectionem ex eo quia non est assensus clarus sicut evidentia.’ Waim, Tractatus noticiarum sig. i 1 verso, col. 1.

  • 11.

    ‘Claritas in veritate vel falsitate est causa quare alicui propositioni statim cognitis terminis assentimus vel dissentimus. Aliqua vero est cuius veritas est tam obscura sic quod ratione talis obscuritatis in veritate intellectus non habito subsidio aliunde non poterit illi assentire.’ Waim, Tractatus noticiarum sig. h 3 recto, col. 1.

  • 12.

    ‘Dicendum quod contingit aliquid esse per se notum dupliciter uno modo secundum se et non quoad nos alio modo secundum se et quoad nos’—Something can be self-evident in one or other of two ways, either self-evident in itself and not to us, or self-evident both in itself and to us. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1, 2, 1 c.