About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Source of Certitude | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude | by Thomas Dubay, S.M.

Print-friendly version

In the Church of the New Testament faith involved a submission of the intellect, not to a book, but to a living authority. The Apostles submitted their judgment to the oral teaching of Jesus. The first to hear the apostolic group were required to submit their minds to the message proclaimed to them. It is easy to accept a book, for one can make the book mean almost anything one wishes, but to accept a living teacher requires a self-emptying, for the living teacher can correct misinterpretations derived from his word.

The Apostles gave no one a written volume to be understood variously as each one chose. No, they proclaimed a message, and they tolerated no contradiction of it. Even if an angel from heaven were to appear and teach something other than St. Paul taught, the angel was to be anathema (Gal 1:6-9). Faith, he said, came from an authoritative proclamation (Rom 10:17); it did not come from one's private understanding of a book.

To the extent that a person follows his own personal judgment he is not practicing the virtue of faith. Faith is a response to a teacher, an authoritative teacher. This is why it does not waver, whereas private views do waver from one time to another. Once I am sure that God has spoken either directly or through a teacher he himself has established, I accept with no hesitation and with no later change whatever that teacher presents to me now or may present in the future. Otherwise, I am operating according to my own judgment, and that obviously is not faith. People who accept of the Church's teaching only what they "see" and approve are not living by faith. They are doing nothing meritorious or salvific, for they are merely following themselves. Their beliefs and moral ideas shift and waver, for things appear differently to them from one time to another. They are tossed to and fro precisely as St. Paul says we ought not to be tossed by every gale of doctrine.

One of the chief reasons why some religiously minded people do not enter the Catholic Church is that they are not prepared to make the act of faith, that is, the act of submitting their judgment to a living authority. The problem is not that the evidences for a divine origin of the Church are lacking. On the contrary, they are clear and abundant. What is lacking is the attitude of a mind willing to accept what it does not see simply on the authority of a teacher. These people may profess a great appreciation for Scripture. They may see its beauty, but they are not willing to surrender their belief that their views are superior to another's. They will not bring themselves to admit that a teacher who contradicts their ideas could be divinely authorized. This is why the root obstacle to faith is pride.

Certitude is a communal enterprise. No one attains the solidities necessary for a full human life as a rugged individualist. Infants learn dozens of basic facts (including their parents' identity and their own) only within the bosom of the family. Trades are still learned from others who have mastered them. Fledgling astronomers, physicists, biologists, medical or law students all pick up their assumptions and principles and procedures from their respective academic communities. No one begins alone.

Even the experts in a given field usually wish their conclusions to be tested and criticized by their peers. Before an author submits his typescript to a publisher he asks a few colleagues to give it a critical reading. Only the arrogant presume that they are oracles of unquestioned truth. All through human life secure conclusions are the result of cooperative work. Authority operates everywhere.

So it is also in the divine economy of salvation. Taking human beings as they are, God has chosen to bring us to himself not through mere reasoning but through a proclamation he himself authenticates. Since this volume is not a textbook of fundamental theology, I have not investigated the fact of a divine revelation and a commissioned Church. Crucial as these realities are, they nonetheless lie beyond the plan of this work.

What we should at least notice here is that our certitudes communally and individually within the Church derive from objective historical facts and not from mere philosophical theory. There is a threefold linking that founds our security.

1. The Christ event grounds its own reality and certitude. "The risen Jesus manifests himself to his disciples and thus creates in them an experiential certitude regarding his Resurrection; this certitude then finds expression in the Christian kerygma." [1]

2. The apostolic community, the early ecclesia, enjoys a primary and privileged position in mediating this Christ-event to the entire world. This first Christian community experienced the risen Lord and received an abundance of his transforming Spirit. They had no doubts about their proclamation, for it was rooted in what they could not possibly deny: their day by day experience of Jesus of Nazareth culminating in his Passion and death and crowned by the staggering experience of his risen life. "For this reason, the apostolic Church is normative for the Christian faith of every age, not simply because it is not possible to come in touch with the Christ-event except through the testimony of the apostolic Church but also and above all because the apostolic Church came into being through a privileged grace and revelation of Christ." [2]

3. Within this early Church were conceived and from her womb were born the New Testament writings. These compositions were authored by her members and attested to by the whole community under the guidance of her leaders, the Apostles and their successors. Thus the New Testament and the apostolic Church are interlinked as normative for all later ages. They in turn are tied in with the unshakable Christ-event. The Spirit of the risen Jesus, who transformed the apostolic community on Pentecost, also inspired the Scriptures and continues to dwell in the Church which Jesus founded. This risen Lord through his Spirit is the radical ground of our certitude, for he caused the Resurrection, inspired the New Testament and dwells in the pilgrim Church.

This ecclesial community in unbroken continuity from the first century to the twentieth and beyond cannot betray its indwelling Lord for he is with her until the end of time (Mt 28:20). She cannot teach error, for "when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you to the whole truth" (Jn 16:13). This Spirit is given to the Church forever, not just for the first century (Jn 14:16). Human beings cannot have a more secure source of certitude.


[1] Juan Alfaro, "Theology and the Magisteriurn", in Problems and Perspectives of Fundamental Theology, eds. René Latourelle and Gerald O'Collins, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 343.

[2] Ibid., 344.

Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., is a well-known retreat master and expert in the spiritual life.

A Marist Priest, Father holds a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America and has taught on both major seminary level for about fifteen years. He spent the last twenty-seven years giving retreats and writing books (over twenty at last count) on various aspects of the spiritual life.

Ignatius Press has published several of his books, including Fire Within, Happy Are The Poor, Faith and Certitude, Authenticity, The Evidential Power of Beauty, and Prayer Primer. He has presented many series on EWTN, including an extensive study of the spiritual life of St. Teresa of Avila and a series on the life of prayer.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius