Academic journal article Theological Studies

Sensus Fidei: Faith "Making Sense" of Revelation

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Sensus Fidei: Faith "Making Sense" of Revelation

Article excerpt

SINCE THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL much has been written on that elusive ecclesial reality sensus fidelium.(1) The theological literature has focused mainly on its function as a criterion in the reception by the faithful of church teaching. Two texts from Vatican II have been seminal in the discussion. Lumen gentium no. 12 states that, because of its anointing by the Holy Spirit, the whole body of the faithful possesses a sure sense of the faith.(2) Dei Verbum no. 8 states that the Holy Spirit enables the apostolic tradition to progress by means of such a lived sense of the faith, in conjunction with two other factors, the work of theologians and the authoritative teaching of the magisterium.(3)

This ecclesiological function of the sensus fidelium as a criterion of theological knowledge will not be addressed here. A full examination of theological epistemology would need to demonstrate the necessary critical relationship of sensus fidelium not only with Scripture and tradition but also with the magisterium and contemporary theology.(4) Elsewhere I have proposed that the integration of these five criteria could be developed in terms of a theology of reception.(5)

My focus in this article is much narrower. I wish to explore not so much the sensus fidei fidelium (the sensus fidei of the whole body of the faithful), but rather the sensus fidei fidelis (the sensus fidei belonging to the individual believer within the community of the faithful). There is a certain terminological confusion in the literature regarding this issue. Some writers use the terms sensus fidelium and sensus fidei synonymously when referring to the communal sense of the faith (as in Lumen gentium no. 12). Others restrict sensus fidei to the sense that an individual believer has of the faith, and for the communal sense they employ the phrase sensus fidelium. For the sake of highlighting the interplay between individual and communal faith, I follow the latter usage.(6)

Nowhere have I found a developed theology of how this sensus functions in the individual. Although the disciplines of spirituality and moral theology deal with the reality, it is often without explicit reference to the term. Even extended systematic works on the theology of faith lack precision as to the nature and function of an individual's sensus fidei.(7) This article is a very tentative and far from complete attempt to sketch out the beginnings of a systematic theology of sensus fidei fidelis.


As a background theory for examining this phenomenon of human understanding of God's revelation I will be drawing upon the philosophical hermeneutical tradition, with its emphasis on the entwinement of the hermeneutical triad: understanding, interpretation, and application.(8) Understanding within experience, it is claimed, is already an interpretation out of a familiar framework from the past that enables an application of meaning to one's present context. This insight is further captured in the notion of "the hermeneutical circle." A dialectic exists between our understanding of "the whole" of a subject matter and our understanding of "a part." Understanding is a movement back and forth between a sense of the whole and a sense of the part. What we are already familiar with (tradition, the past) gives us a framework for understanding the unfamiliar (the new, the present). In turn, one's understanding of the new in terms of the old leads to a different understanding of the old. Thus, the hermeneutical circle displays an ongoing dialectic between whole and part, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new, the past and the present.

A more specific theological hermeneutics is the discipline that examines the questing and questioning dynamic of "faith seeking understanding." Such questing and questioning in the academic discipline of theology is a process no less at work in the individual's life of believing.(9) There is perhaps no more succinct definition of sensus fidei than this: sensus fidei is faith seeking understanding, interpretation, and application. …

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