Two conversions: the mind (NOTITIA) and the heart (FIDUCIA) of faith in Blaise Pascal

If you’re a computer programmer, you’ve probably heard of the computer programme “Pascal.” If you’re also into physics then you absolutely must know about the pressure unit “Pascal.” And if you’re familiar with physics you must also be familiar with the Pascal’s mathematical theorem.

Blaise Pascal had two religious “conversions.” The first is connected to his study of Jansenism (1545–1563) which broke away from the Catholic Church after the Reformation and  the Council of Trent. Jansenism’s distinctive feature was its Augustinian doctrine that salvation is entirely of  God, which is summed up in Augustine’s famous “Grant what You command, and command what You desire” (Confessions 10, 29). The most important of God’s commands is to repent.

Matt. 4:17 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mk. 1:15 – “Repent, and believe the gospel.”
Lk. 24:47 – “repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name.”
Acts 2:38 – “Repent and be baptised for the remission of sins.”
Acts 3:19 – “repent and be converted, that your sins might be wiped away.”

All Catholics agree that when God commands someone to repent, He grants the person the grace to repent, that is, he grants the helping grace to repent: “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2003, Doubleday).

Augustine, in contrast, is not saying that God helps us  (to make the decision) to repent; for repentance, he says, is itself of grace – a gift of God. Augustine is merely being God’s humble ape:

Acts 5:31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”  33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.

Acts 17:17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18When they heard these things they fell silent. And they  glorified God, saying,”Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

The Catholic, and majority Protestant, interpretation of the above two passages is this:

With regard to Israel, God has always allowed them to repent if they want to. And the Gentiles? God decides that he will also allow them to repent, if they want to. But as for forcing anyone to repent, as for God dragging them screaming and kicking “It’s not fair; I don’t want your eternal life or anyone else’s. You said we could choose! You’ve gone and damaged your image and God’s image – me, in case you’ve forgotten – for good.”

The Reformers of the 16th Century divided true saving faith into three parts: notitia, assensus and fiducia.

Notitia comprises knowledge, such as belief in one God, in the humanity (1 John 4:3) and deity of Christ (John 8:24), His crucifixion for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3), His bodily resurrection from the dead, and some understanding of God’s grace in salvation.

Assensus is belief. This belief hasn’t yet penetrated the heart; it is still on the mental level – a mental assent. “I believe it, that settles it.” Of course, when you say that your mental assent is more of a mental descent. To understand why it is a mental descent, you need to ascend to the the third level of faith: fiducia.

Fiducia is full trust and commitment, it’s the heart knowledge of Jesus’ prayer to His Father:

John 17

24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Without the regenerative life of fiducia, one is no better off than the devils, who have enough notitia and assensus to burst – and  to tremble.

As I said, Pascal had two “conversions.” The first one was about notitia and assensus. The second was fiducia. In the fiducia faith that enables the believer to grasp the wonder of God’s plan of salvation. In Pascal, the first conversion was merely a head knowledge of grace, which erupted into a flame. Too much head ends up as heady, where the dazzle of ideas can easily be mistaken for union with Christ. This is not to say that notitia (theology – ideas about Christ) is not important. Absolutely not, for how would be able to understand the worth of what we believe without notitia; how would we be able to test all things, how would be able to distinguish the heady of “this world”  from the steady of God’s will,   how would be able to renew our minds. An important part of knowing God more is knowing about God. “Knowing God” in it purest form is fiducia. Fudica is a sovereign work of God’s mercy; a renewal, a regeneration of the believer by the Holy Spirit: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Notitia is tee renewal of the mind through testing the worth of things: 2 c Do not be conformed to this world, [1] but be transformed by d the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may e discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The Greek word for “testing” is dokimazo “discern, examine, prove.” Those who devote much notitia will probably also want to study documentary  (dokimazo) evidence of the scriptures. Some may even end up as dokitors.

Much has been written about the religious side of Pascal’s life.  For example, most psychologists reduce all religious experience to brain (dis)function. Pascal suffered from visual migrations that brought on aura experiences, which, psychologists say, might explain his religious experience. He speaks of seeing a fire during his conversion experience, and  came face to face with the presence of God. (Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, Part 3, by Bogousslavsky, et al., p. 160). If God doesn’tt exist, then that would be a probable explanation; but if He does exist, then the psychologists remain dead in their sins. This “if” is what Pascal’s wager is about. He suggests that even though the existence of God cannot be discovered through reason, through notitia, a person should nevertheless wager that God exists, because if you live accord to belief in God, you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose; whereas if you don’t believe in God, you have everything to lose. He suggests one should live as though one had faith (fiducia) and perhaps that might bring about faith.

Much as been written about the “fallacy” of Pascal’s wager. I’m not sure whether he wrote his wager before or after his second conversion (his real conversion – fiducia). As I mentioned, the biblical position (for example, Ephesians 2:1-10 discussed above) is that faith that saves is not notitia or assensus but fiducia, which is 100% God’s doing: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Now, I would think that once Pascal was seized by God (no, not by a seizure), he would have realised that notitia of any form, including his “wager” was a dead end, for the simple biblical truth that when you’re dead to Christ, only He can bring you back to life.

3 thoughts on “Two conversions: the mind (NOTITIA) and the heart (FIDUCIA) of faith in Blaise Pascal

  1. Pingback: On a Theme of Mendelsohn: Relativism, Truth and the Need for Love « OneDaringJew
  2. Pingback: Faith and Understanding: the Biblical view « OneDaringJew
  3. Reblogged this on OneDaringJew and commented:

    Many accuse Calvinists of being all logic and no fire. With logic, you can’t understand what you read, and thus the Bible would be no more than a smothering smorsgasbrod of seeker-friendly maxims. True Calvinism, is “logic on fire” (Martyn Lloyd Jones).

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