The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith
By Avery Dulles, S.J.
Oxford University Press. 299 pp. $35

Without “faith it is impossible to please God,” the Letter to the Hebrews declares (11:6), but what faith is, how it works, and what it does are matters on which the Church has not been entirely of one mind. On this subject, it has spoken with a multitude of voices, quite a few of which are in conflict, despite the fact, as Avery Dulles notes, that since New Testament times it has been commonly agreed that faith is the acceptance “of God’s word or promises as true and trustworthy, and a commitment to live accordingly.”

Dulles has produced a masterful survey of Christian thinking about faith, in the process exposing many of the issues entailed in its exercise. And though his expositions of what has been thought about the nature and function of faith are brief, they are also specific, careful, meticulously fair, and a model of how such a book should be written.

The book falls into two parts. The first is an historical sketch that begins with a chapter on the biblical teaching about faith and then marches forward steadily through the patristic era, into the Middle Ages, into the modern period, and concludes with developments in the late twentieth century. What one might not expect in a book written from a Catholic perspective, and one that concludes by formulating a synthesis out of many of the ideas that have been explicated, is that the Protestant side of the equation is also in full view. The Reformers’ views are explored as well as those of succeeding Protestant thinkers, some sympathetic to the Reformers, such as the Puritans and Karl Barth, and others remote from their thinking, such as Schleiermacher and Ritschl.

This historical survey provides the backdrop to the second part of the book, which seeks to analyze the nature and function of faith as it has thus been framed by the past. Dulles switches from a chronological accounting to describing the patterns of thinking about faith evident in the past, which he calls “models.” There thus emerge seven main ways of thinking about faith: propositional, transcendental, fiducial, affective-experimental, obediential, praxis, and personalist. Different though these ways of thinking are, Dulles nevertheless insists that they are often complementary to one another, not contradictory, and that it is hard to miss “the real and virtually unanimous consensus among Christian theologians about many fundamental points. It is generally agreed, for instance, that faith is a gift of God, that it rests on revelation, and that it is necessary to salvation.”

Such unanimous consensus, however, by no means resolves the debate about faith. It does not settle the question whether faith must work through doctrine given by divine revelation, or whether it can function in the absence of such doctrine, since doctrine may be considered as simply a human response to the divine. Nor does this consensus settle the question of whether faith comes as an inner word of love, even as a substitute for the outer word of truth. Does faith have to have God as its explicit object? Does faith work in conjunction with knowledge or as an alternative to knowledge? If salvation is by faith alone, can faith live alone, unaccompanied by works of love and obedience?

Questions like these are addressed in the concluding chapters as Dulles seeks to “gather up the principal elements of the central Christian tradition and to restate them from the point of view of contemporary Catholic theology.” The book ends with the results summarized under thirty-six theses about Christian faith, such as, “Faith is foundational,” “Faith can be lost,” or “Faith is a constant and universal possibility.”

Dulles’ mastery of the subject, his control of the secondary literature, and his economical, even terse, style mean that this book would stand out even if there were many others in the market on the same subject, which there are not. Two features of the book, however, are worth pondering.

The first is the assumption that there is an identifiable “central Christian tradition” with respect to what faith is. The reality, I suspect, is a bit messier than this, for faith does not stand alone but is a part of how we think about many other things: salvation, the Bible, obedience, the sacraments, and the Church. The moment faith is placed in this larger context great fissures begin to appear in “the central Christian tradition.” When Dulles describes faith, for example, as “a natural impossibility, a miracle of grace, a sheer gift from God for which one can only ask on one’s knees,” he is speaking for a broad swath of Christian thinking across the ages. Yet when this statement is put into the larger theological framework in which it must function, it takes on rather different meanings-in Luther as compared with Thomas Aquinas, in Barth as compared with Origen.

This is true, too, within shorter time frames in which comparisons are made. Vincent of Lerins could write his Commonitoria in the fifth century creating consensus out of the gathering accumulation of teaching and practice in the churches, but many years later as Abelard looked back, he noted in his Sic et Non that there were 158 topics on which there was significant theological disagreement, and quite a few of these impinge upon the meaning of faith.

In 1535 Luther wrote a preface to Robert Barnes’ Vitae Pontificum in which he said that he had initially thought that the case against the papacy should be made from Scripture, but now he was delighted to see that it could be made from history as well. Thus did the ground of controversy shift and, in the following century, there followed a massive outpouring of studies, on both sides, that armed themselves with patristic opinion. The Reformers and their followers argued that, in effect, the Reformation was a contest between patristic and medieval Christianity, and that it marked the triumph of the former over the latter. Thus Calvin claimed that “if the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory-to put it very modestly-would turn to our side.” Even if the Reformers’ contention was only partly right, it does raise questions about the existence of this “central Christian tradition” and the continuity between the patristic period and the medieval. The profound disjunctures in understanding within and across periods lead one to wonder whether this “tradition” is more of an article of faith for the author than a demonstrable fact.

This leads us to a second point. There is a curious tonal ambiguity to the book. In the first section, in which he presents the history of the Church’s thought about faith, Dulles appears to be agnostic regarding which sources count as authoritative. The book opens with a twelve-page summary of biblical teaching on faith, but the Bible seems to carry no special authority in Dulles’ historical account. Similarly, though he considers in somewhat briefer space Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, Dulles writing as a historian seems not to grant these councils special weight. In the second half of the book, however, when he writes as a constructive theologian, Dulles cites the Bible and the major councils as authorities. The bifurcation between the historian’s techniques and the theologian’s creates a chasm into which Protestants have fallen with some regularity in this century, and there are dangers in the bifurcation for Catholic scholars as well. This is, nevertheless, a learned, commanding, and sure-footed study. It is intended for use as a theological text. The expositions, however, are so compact, the style so economical, that the reader has to supply quite a lot of understanding for the book to be effective. This, then, is no book for neophytes. It is, however, a solid and welcome addition for those more advanced.

David F. Wells is Professor of Theology at Gordon-Cornwall Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., and author of No Place for Truth.