Saturday, 26 December 2009

Fides Qua, Fides Quae

Fides qua and Fides quae may be literally translated as “the faith with” which one believes, and “the faith of” the believer, or more colloquially, the belief "in" and the belief "that". Others might refer to "actual faith” and "historical faith". It is an old distinction in theology which acknowledges the difference between the subjective faith that is exercised by the believer, and the objective content of the faith (de fide) in which he believes.

Luther touches on this distinction in the sermon extract I posted on Christmas Day, referring to the “first and second (types of ) faith”, and I find the Lutheran version of this distinction to be most evangelically sound and pastorally useful. Luther puts it something like this: It is not sufficient to merely believe that Christ was born and placed in a manger in Bethlehem (the fides quae in its bare essentials as it relates to the Christmas story); that is good as far as it goes, but it really goes no farther than the Turk (or as we would say today, the Muslim). It is not yet the belief, or rather, the faith (as in fides qua), that the Christ that was born and placed in a manger in Bethlehem is my Saviour, who came into the world in such a manner to rescue me from sin, death and the Devil, not with silver or gold but with his own precious blood and his holy life, und so weiter.

Of course, to put it like that makes it sound terribly egocentric, but it must be remembered that Luther was guiding people towards a sure and certain faith in a time when the popular religious teachers, nay, even the Pope, were purveyors of doubt and uncertainty for their own advantage. Put it in that context, and one can understand that Luther’s language and creative re-interpretation of this old distinction was a way of driving the objective content of the faith home to the subjective believer who was groping for assurance of salvation in the midst of much religious darkness.

In this new, evangelically reconceived Lutheran version of the distinction, then, there exists some tension between fides qua and fides quae, such that a person may have an imperfect, or even deficient understanding of the fides quae, and yet be saved, provided that said imperfection or deficiency does not fatally undermine the basis of that saving faith.
So, for example, one might have an imperfect understanding of the Trinity, and still be saved, provided the Godhood of the Son who became flesh for us is not denied, thus preserving his infinitely valuable satisfaction for our sins, on which saving faith rests.
Or, in speaking of the more grave matter of serious deficiencies in understanding the fides quae, one may hold, erroneously, to an unevangelical doctrine which can, in fact, undermine the possibility of saving faith (e.g. semi-Pelagianism, or faith + works), and yet, by a felicitous inconsistency, one may in one's heart of hearts trust in the merits of Christ alone for salvation, and thus be saved. There are numerous examples of such from church history, which I do not have time to go into now, but which I may post on in the future (in my post on Mary MacKillop, I suggested her case as a possible example of this, although this is merely hypothetical conjecture, as I have no 'hard evidence' to back this supposition up.)

The Lutheran use of the distinction between fides qua and fides quae also serves as a necessary corrective to a religious formalism that would make intellectual acceptance of dogma or doctrine salvific in itself, without an accompanying lively trust in the realities that those dogmas and doctrines teach and guard.

Of course, all this does not mean that grave deficiencies in understanding the fides quae creditur should be tolerated in the church, but it does assure us that their accidental intrusion into the life of the church does not necessarily negate the preaching of the Gospel or the salvation of souls (to cite an extreme case, even after the anathematisation of the Gospel, a grave error, Luther continued to hold that those under the Pope could be saved). But, if an unevangelical doctrine (i.e. a doctrine not consistent with the Gospel) was defined as de fide (of the faith) and persisted in, such a dangerous situation could occur.

May God preserve the Lutheran Church from such an error.


David Cochrane said...


Thank you for unpacking this distinction further. It helps clarify the battle im having within myself. I never want to judge another person of whether he or she has saving faith. It is not my vocation but rather my temptation.

God's peace. †

acroamaticus said...

Thanks for that comment, David.
It's encouraging to know that this reflection helped you. This is a distinction that you find in the old Missouri theology.