Lumen Fidei and the Revelation of God’s Love as the Foundation of Our Faith

Transporting Christ to the Sepulcher by Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891)

In his encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis greatly emphasizes the importance of believing in God’s love for us. The prominence of this theme is indicated by the title of the encyclical’s first chapter, “We Have Believed In Love.” In the first three sections of this chapter, the Holy Father examines: Abraham, our father in faith; The faith of Israel; and The fullness of Christian faith. In each of these sections, God’s loving plan for us is the central object of the faith that is described. God’s love for his people formed the core of Israel’s faith, and the supreme manifestation of his love for us comes through the Father sending his only Son as the superabundant fulfillment of the promises made to Israel. Pope Francis explains:

Christian faith is centered on Christ; it is the confession that Jesus is Lord, and that God has raised him from the dead (cf. Rom 10:9). All the threads of the Old Testament converge on Christ; he becomes the definitive “Yes” to all the promises, the ultimate basis of our “Amen” to God (cf. 2 Cor 1:20). The history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability. If Israel continued to recall God’s great acts of love, which formed the core of its confession of faith, and broadened its gaze in faith, the life of Jesus now appears as the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us.1

In his comments on the coming of Christ as the culmination and fulfillment of all that Israel’s faith anticipated and hoped for, the Holy Father’s central focus is on Christ as the supreme manifestation of God’s love. The love of God formed the core of Israel’s confession, and the love of God as manifested in Jesus, now forms the core of Christian faith. Pope Francis places a decided emphasis on the central object of faith being God’s love for us as revealed in Christ.

What is it about God’s love for us, revealed through the Incarnate Word, that makes it such a central object of faith? God’s love for us is only one of a great many things we believe about God—why is this truth given such central focus? The Holy Father offers the following answer:

It is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely.2

Pope Francis here teaches a weighty truth about the nature of faith, and what must be revealed to us in order for us to entrust ourselves fully to God. It is only through the profound revelation of God’s love for us, shown definitively in Jesus’ sacrificial death, that Christ is able to overcome every suspicion we might have about God’s true intentions for us. With our doubts and suspicions about God’s love for us thoroughly overcome, we are free to entrust ourselves completely to him in faith. God’s love for us is such a central object of our faith because it enables us to overcome the fears and misgivings which could otherwise hold us back from entrusting ourselves to him completely. It is, therefore, the object of faith which makes complete surrender in faith possible.

The Fall and Subsequent Sin as Stemming from Lack of Trust in God’s Goodness
One way of seeing the importance of a faith in God’s love for us is to examine the fall of Adam and Eve as the disastrous consequence of a lack of trust in God. It was, in large part, a lack of trust in God that led Adam and Eve to disobey his commandment. Tempted by Satan, they no longer trusted in God’s good will toward them. They therefore sought to become like God apart from God:

And the woman said to the serpent, “we may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Gen 3:3-6)

Following the lies of the serpent, Adam and Eve began to believe that God’s commandment was not to protect them from harm (“lest you die”), but to prevent them from obtaining a good which he wished to hold back from them (“you will be like God, knowing good and evil”). The first sin, therefore, resulted from a loss of trust in God’s good will toward them, and a suspicion that God was trying to keep something for himself. This loss of trust led them to seek their good apart from the “one who is good.”3

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, God elevated man, from the first moment of his creation, to the gift of divine friendship. However, the prohibition of eating of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” reveals that man, a creature wholly dependent upon his Creator, “can live this friendship only in free submission to God.”4 God’s commandment was intended to protect this life of friendship, and preserve man in the good gifts which God had given and planned for him.

As long as Adam and Eve trusted in God’s love for them, his generosity in sharing his gifts, and his sincere willing of their good, their submission to God naturally followed. One who trusts perfectly in the goodness and love of God knows that he can only have our best interests at heart and, therefore, willingly, happily obeys, secure in the knowledge that obedience is the surest route to our own happiness and perfection. Such a one lives in grateful acknowledgement of his status as a creature dependent upon God for his good, and trusts in God’s sincere willing of that good for him.

It was when they began to distrust God’s plan for them that our first parents began seeking their own good apart from God and his law. Though “destined to be fully ‘divinized’ by God in glory,” Adam and Eve lost trust in God’s plan to share his glory with them.5 Thus they disregarded the truth of their creaturely status, freely rejected God’s friendship, and began to seek to be like God apart from him. Their sin resulted from a distorted image of a God who jealously holds onto his own good in a way that is opposed to the good of his creatures. As the Catechism explains, “They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image—that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.”6

With this first sin, the long human history of sin and death was inaugurated. Lack of trust was at the root of the first sin of our first parents, and remains the root of all subsequent sin: “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.”7 Every transgression reveals a lack of trust, for every transgression is, in some way, a misguided attempt to procure for ourselves some good which we think would otherwise be withheld.

Yet God, who created humanity out of love and seeks only to share his own goodness with us, did not leave us in our woeful condition, but came to save us and regain our trust. But how can wounded humanity be healed? How can we be brought once again to trust in God, and acknowledge him as our beneficent creator? Pope Francis places such a great emphasis on faith in God’s love for us as fully revealed on the cross, I suggest, precisely because it is the answer to this pressing question.

Pope Francis’s encyclical, as the following quotation indicates, draws from the Gospel of John in its emphasis on the cross as proof of God’s love for us:

The clearest proof of the reliability of Christ’s love is to be found in his dying for our sake. If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 15:13), Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts. This explains why the evangelists could see the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour, the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth. It was then that Saint John offered his solemn testimony, as together with the Mother of Jesus, he gazed upon the pierced one (cf. Jn 19:37): “He who saw this has borne witness, so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth” (Jn 19:35).8

In what follows, taking Pope Francis’s lead, we will look at the theme of the cross as the proof of God’s love for us in the Gospel of John.9

The Gospel of John and the Need for the Manifestation of Love
Toward the end of his Gospel, John gives us his reason for writing: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”10 The proximate literary purpose of the Gospel is the writing of signs. But the signs are written for the sake of faith. This faith, in turn, leads to eternal life.

Yet, we must look more closely at what the signs that John writes about are meant to reveal. After his account of Jesus’ first sign, the miraculous transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, John tells us: “This Jesus did as the beginning of his signs at Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”11 The proper office of the signs about which John writes is to reveal Jesus’ glory. The revelation of this glory is what leads to faith. Yet, when reading John’s gospel, one sees that the preliminary miraculous signs are largely ineffective. Jesus performs many signs and wonders, but they do not lead to widespread belief. This is because many do not understand and respond to what the signs properly signify. As we shall see, it is the culminating sign of John’s Gospel—the supreme manifestation of God’s love through the cross—that makes the meaning of the preliminary signs clear.

In the preliminary signs, the majority of people see a man of great power who can lead Israel on a military campaign; or a man to be followed owing to his ability to give bread to the people; or even a man who will bring the wrath of the Roman authorities down on their heads.12 What they do not see is the glory that is proper to God—the glory of self-giving love. Because of this, even after Jesus had performed numerous signs, the people failed to grasp the true glory that the signs properly signified and, therefore, did not believe in him: “Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him.”13 The signs that Jesus performed did not effectively reveal his true glory to the people as a whole: they did not reveal the glory that is proper to Christ and leads to faith and life in his name. The preliminary signs were sufficient for the people to realize that there was something intriguing about Jesus. Anyone could see and recognize that he had power, whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not; yet, they did not see Jesus’ true glory, which leads to life-giving faith.

We will look at two examples of this, where the signs that Jesus performed allowed the people to perceive in some way that he was mighty and glorious, but also where the glory they perceived was not the glory of love that leads to true faith and everlasting life. John recounts the way the people reacted to the sign of the feeding of the five thousand in the following way:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself … When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your full from the loaves. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life.”14

The people perceived Jesus’ power in the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. They even, in some sense, saw his glorious power. Yet they failed to see that the sign was ultimately an anticipation of Jesus’ sacrificial gift of self when he obediently offered his life for us on the cross. This same sacrifice is made present and communicated to us in the Eucharistic Bread of Life, which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves anticipates. Yet, the only glory that the people saw in this sign was the glory of an earthly king who could feed the people. The preliminary signs are understandable only when viewed with the interpretive key of the sign—the manifestation of the glory of Jesus’s love for us shown on the cross.

Even those who were bitterly opposed to Jesus saw his great power revealed in his signs. John recounts the reaction of the chief priests and Pharisees as they held a council following Jesus’ raising of Lazarus.

So the chief priests and Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take from us both our holy place and our nation.”… So from that day, they took council how to put him to death.15

The chief priests and Pharisees spoken of here saw that Jesus performed signs, but they failed to understand their true signification. They merely saw Jesus’ signs as a disturbance that would lead to the destruction of their earthly power. They, therefore, set themselves up in opposition to him.

So, it is not just any perception of Jesus’ signs that leads to the kind of faith that brings the believer to eternal life. St. Thomas Aquinas makes an important distinction between supernatural faith that is a gift of grace and comes from the will being directed to the good, and faith that comes from a kind of exterior compulsion of signs. He argues that even the demons are compelled to the second kind of faith: “The demons are, in a way, compelled to believe, by the evidence of signs, and so their will deserves no praise for their belief.”16 St. Thomas contrasts this kind of demonic faith to life-giving faith which comes from grace: “Faith, which is a gift of grace, inclines man to believe, by giving him a certain affection for the good.”17 Jesus is not looking for any kind of faith, but faith that comes from a grace that inclines man to believe through an affection for the great good that is believed in. Yet man, distrustful of God, is not able to have this kind of faith as long as he sees God as an enemy, or someone who will take away his earthly kingdom.

Love Alone is Credible: The Glory of Love
We have seen that sin entails a lack of trust in God. Jesus’ preliminary signs were not able to gain the trust of a suspicious people: they were not able to reveal God to the people as he is in himself, a God of love and mercy. Yet, Jesus does tell us about the sign that is credible; the sign that will draw men into him through life-giving faith; the sign that drives the lying ruler from the world: “‘Now is the judgment of this world, now will the ruler of this world be driven out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.’ He said this to show by what death he was to die.”18 Christ’s sacrificial suffering and death is the sign. It is the sign that allows man to trust once again in God. If man fails to regain his trust in God, he cannot have the faith which John wrote his gospel to communicate, the faith that gives “life in his name.”19 Only a profound revelation of God’s love could be the true sign that reveals the genuine glory of God—his glorious love. Hans Urs Von Balthasar is profound in his reflections regarding the credibility of the glory of divine love that shines forth from the cross:

For it is precisely here, {the atonement through suffering love} in this deed, that genuine divine love begins and ends, a love that overwhelms us and exceeds all capacity to think it—and thereby becomes completely evident as love. Ultimately, there can be absolute faith only in this deed, because only such a deed, if it should happen, is absolute love, love as the absolute, as the ungraspable epitome of the wholly-other God: “We believe the love God had for us”(Jn 4:16)….. It thus becomes clear that faith is ordered primarily to the inconceivability of God’s love, which surpasses us and anticipates us.20

The only kind of faith that can lead to life is the faith that comes from grace, wherein the will is drawn to believe because of its affinity for the good.21 Yet man, so long as he distrusts God, is incapable of having this kind of faith.

It is only the revelation of God’s glorious love for us that allows the one who distrusts God to regain trust and come to a life-giving faith. It thus becomes clear why Christ saw his true glory revealed on the cross as the sign that makes God’s infinite love for us known. To a distrustful son or daughter of Adam, love alone is credible. This is why God’s love for us as concretely realized in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice is such an important object of faith.

The sin of Adam, and all subsequent sins, involves a lack of trust in God. Man is a creature who obtains every good thing from God. Yet, when man fails to trust God, and seeks his good in what is properly from himself alone, in opposition to and apart from God, sin and death are the inevitable results.

It is precisely Christ’s revelation of his glorious love for us on the cross that heals the lack of trust that is the condition of fallen and sinful man. God’s glorious love, expressed in Jesus’ sacrificial gift to us, is alone capable of bringing fallen humanity to a life-giving faith. For in this definitive sign, we see that God only wills our good, and is supremely worthy of our complete trust. Once this trust is restored, we can, without fear, acknowledge our creaturely status. We can trust that all good things come from God, because we know that God’s sole wish for us is to grant us a share in his own glorious life of love. I submit that it was because of considerations similar to these that Pope Francis focuses in so keenly on God’s love for us as revealed in Christ as the content of our faith. For this love, as the Holy Father says, “is something I can believe in”—something which overcomes fallen man’s suspicions, and manifests the profound depths of God’s generous willing of our good.22

  1. Lumen Fidei §15.
  2. Ibid., §16.
  3. Matt. 19:16.
  4. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., (Vatican City: Libreria EditriceVaticana, 1997), §396.
  5. Ibid., §398-399.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., §397.
  8. Lumen Fidei §16.
  9. In what follows, I am indebted to Dr. Michael Waldstein for the insights he offered to me in a class on the Gospel of John and in our conversations.
  10. RSV, Jn. 20:30-31.
  11. Ibid., Jn. 2:11.
  12. See Jn. 6:15; 6:26; and 11:48 respectively.
  13. RSV, Jn. 12:37.
  14. Ibid., Jn. 6:15, 26-27.
  15. Ibid., Jn. 11:47, 53.
  16. Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, 5 vols. trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981), II-II, q. 5, a. 2, ad 3.
  17. Ibid., II-II, q. 5, a, 2, ad 2.
  18. RSV, Jn. 12:34.
  19. See Jn. 20:31.
  20. Von Balthasar, Hans Urs, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 100-101 (emphasis added).
  21. See ST II-II, q5, a. 2.
  22. Lumen Fidei §16.
Dr. Jeffrey Froula About Dr. Jeffrey Froula

Jeffrey Froula is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. He received his doctorate from Ave Maria University in Florida. His doctoral dissertation focused on hope as a Christocentric virtue in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.