John Pearson on the History of “Believing” vs “Believing in” and its Definition as Assent

In a previous post John Brown noted that the distinction between “believing” vs “believing in” appeared to have originated with Augustine. He likely had John Pearson’s 1659 “Exposition of the Creed” in mind, given that Pearson references the same quote from Augustine that Brown does. Here are Pearson’s comments, preceded by his opening discussion of the definition of belief [footnotes omitted].

[p. 1ff]



I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

…For the right understanding of the true nature of Christian Faith, it will be no less than necessary to begin with the general notion of Belief; which being first truly stated and defined, then by degrees deduced into its several kinds, will at last make the nature of Christian Faith intelligible : a design, if I mistake not, not so ordinary and usual, as useful and necessary.

Belief in general I define to be an Assent to that which is credible, as credible. By the word Assent *1 [discussion of patristics on assent] is expressed that act or habit of the understanding, by which it receiveth, acknowledgeth and embraceth any thing as a truth ; it being the nature of the Soul so to embrace whatsoever appeareth true unto it, and so far as it so appeareth. Now this Assent or judgment of any thing to be true, being a general act of the understanding, and so applicable to other habits thereof as well as to Faith, must be specified by its proper object, and so limited and determined to its proper act, which is the other part left to complete the definition.

This object of Faith is first expressed by that which is credible; for every one who believeth any thing, doth thereby without question assent unto it as to that which is credible ; and therefore all belief whatsoever is such a kind of Assent. But though all belief be an Assent to that which is credible, yet every such Assent may not be properly Faith ; and therefore those words make not the definition complete. For he which sees an action done, knows it to be done, and therefore assents unto the truth of the performance of it because he sees it : but another person to whom he relates it, may assent unto the performance of the same action, not because himself sees it, but because the other relates it; in which case that which is credible is the object of Faith in one, of evident knowledge in the other. To make the definition therefore full, besides the material object or thing believed, we have added the formal object, or that whereby it is properly believed, expressed in the last term, as credible, which being taken in, it then appears, that, first, whosoever believeth any thing, assenteth to something which is to him credible, and that as it is credible; and again, whosoever assenteth to any thing which is credible, as it is credible, believeth something by so assenting : which is sufficient to shew the definition complete.


But when any thing propounded to us is neither apparent to our sense, nor evident to our understanding, in and of itself, neither certainly to be collected from any clear and necessary connection with the cause from which it proceedeth, or the effects which it naturally produceth, nor is taken up upon any real arguments, or reference to other acknowledged truths, and yet notwithstanding appeareth to us true, not by a manifestation, but attestation of the truth, and so moveth us to assent not of itself, but by virtue of the testimony given to it ; this is said properly to be credible; and an Assent unto this, upon such credibility, is in the proper notion Faith or Belief.

Having thus defined and illustrated the nature of Faith in general, so far as it agreeth to all kinds of belief whatsoever; our method will lead us on to descend, by way of division, to the several kinds thereof, till at last we come to the proper notion of Faith in the Christian’s Confession, the design of our present disquisition ; and being we have placed the formality of the object of all belief in credibility, it will clearly follow that a diversity of credibility in the object will proportionably cause a distinction of assent in the understanding, and consequently a several kind of Faith, which we have supposed to be nothing else but such an assent.


Now there is in this case, so far as it concerns our present design, a double ^ testimony: the testimony of man to man, relying upon human authority, and the testimony of God to man, founded upon divine authority : which two kinds of testimony are respective grounds of two kinds of credibility. Human and Divine ; and consequently there is a twofold Faith distinguished by this double object, a Human and a Divine Faith.

Human Faith is an Assent unto any thing credible merely upon the testimony of man… As for the other member of the division, we may now plainly perceive that it is thus to be defined; Divine Faith is an Assent unto something as credible upon the testimony of God. This Assent is the highest kind of Faith, because the object hath the highest credibility, because grounded upon the testimony of God, which is infallible.

[p. 27]

I believe in God

HAVING delivered the nature of Faith, and the act of Belief common to all the Articles of the Creed, that we may understand what it is to believe; we shall proceed to the explication of the Articles themselves, as the most necessary objects of our Faith, that we may know what is chiefly to be believed. Where immediately we meet with another word as general as the former, and as universally concerned in every Article, which is GOD; for if to believe be to assent upon the testimony of God, as we have before declared, then wheresoever belief is expressed or implied, there is also the name of God understood, upon whose testimony we believe. He therefore whose authority is the ground and foundation of the whole, his existence begins the Creed as the foundation of that authority. For if there can be no divine Faith without the attestation of God, by which alone it becomes divine, and there can be no such attestation except there were an existence of the testifier, then must it needs be proper to begin the confession of our Faith with the agnition of our God. If his name were thought fit to be expressed in the front of every action, even by the Heathen, because they thought no action prospered but by his approbation; much more ought we to fix it before our confession, because without him to believe, as we profess, is no less than a contradiction.

Now these words, I believe in God, will require a double consideration; one, of the phrase or manner of speech; another, of the thing or nature of the truth in that manner expressed. For to believe with an addition of the preposition in, is a phrase or expression ordinarily conceived fit to be given to none but to God himself, as always implying, beside a bare act of Faith, an addition of hope, love, and affiance. An observation, as I conceive, prevailing especially in the Latin Church, grounded principally upon the authority of St. Augustin. *33 Whereas among the Greeks, in whose language the New Testament was penned, I perceive no such constant distinction in their delivers of the Creed; and in the Hebrew language *34 of the Old, from which the Jewish and Christian Greeks received that phrase of believing in, it hath no such peculiar and accumulative signification. For it is sometimes attributed to God, the author and original cause; sometimes to the Prophets, the immediate revealers of the Faith; sometimes it is spoken of miracles, the motives to believe; sometimes of the Law of God, the material object of our Faith. Among all which varieties of that phrase of speech, it is sufficiently apparent that in this confession of Faith it is most proper to admit it in the last acception, by which it is attributed to the material object of belief. For the Creed being nothing else but a brief comprehension of the most necessary matters of Faith, whatsoever is contained in it beside the first word I believe, by which we make confession of our Faith, can be nothing else but part of those verities to be believed, and the act of belief in respect of them nothing but an assent unto them as divinely credible and infallible truths. Neither can we conceive that the Ancient Greek Fathers of the Church could have any farther meaning in it, who make the whole body of the Creed to be of the same nature, as so many truths to be believed, acknowledged, and confessed; insomuch as sometimes they use not believing *35 in, in neither for the Father, Son, nor Holy Ghost; sometimes using it as to them they continue *36 the same to the following Articles of, the Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, &c. and *37 generally speak of the Creed as of nothing but mere matter of Faith, without any intimation of hope *38, love, or any such notion included in it. So that believing in, by virtue of the phrase or manner of speech, whether we look upon the original use of it in the Hebrew, or the derivative in the Greek, or the sense of it in the first Christians in the Latin Church, can be of no farther real importance in the Creed in respect of God, who immediately follows, than to acknowledge and assert his being or existence. Nor ought this to be imagined a slender notion or small part of the first Article of our Faith, when it really is the foundation of this and all the rest; that as the Creed is fundamental in respect of other truths this is the *39 foundation even of the fundamentals: For he that cometh to God must believe that he is. And this I take for a sufficient explication of the phrase, I believe in God, that is, I believe that God is.

*33 … [references to where Augustine articulates this distinction] Which doctrine of St. Augustin’s being taken notice of by Peter Lombard, hath since been continued by the Schoolmen; and Aquinas, Sum. ii. 2??. q. 2. S. 2. ad primum, bringing all three under one act of faith, hath been contradicted by Durandus, in 3. Sent. dis. xxiii. q. 7. S. 6… by whose subtle, but yet clear determination, (as many of his are beyond the rest of the Schools,) whatsoever is added by the preposition to believe, appears not to be a part of belief, but an act superadded to the act of faith.

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  • Samuil Kovalchuk

    “and yet notwithstanding appeareth to us true, not by a manifestation, but attestation of the truth, and so moveth us to assent not of itself, but by virtue of the testimony given to it”

    What does this mean? What is this attestation of truth he’s talking about? Does it conflict with taking something up in reference to other acknowledged truths?