Why Is Faith by Hearing?

Faith, as St. Paul wrote in Romans, comes by hearing. But why?

In other words, why doesn’t faith come through reading? Couldn’t reading through the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, or devotional works also bring us to faith? Yet, in Romans 10 and again in Galatians 3, Paul insists that faith comes through what we have heard.

Certainly the limits of technology at the time of Paul meant that the earliest Christians would have heard Scripture read aloud at the liturgy, rather than read the books of the Bible alone at home. But Paul was writing for the ages, not just his time. His words in Romans and Galatians have all the character of bold statements about an important truth, rather than a trivial comment about contemporary technological realities. (Read the texts in Romans here and Galatians here.)

The answer begins by going back to Abraham, the classic biblical model of faith, as Pope Benedict XVI writes in the encyclical Lumen Fidei. We first meet Abraham in Genesis 12 and his first recorded act is to hear the voice of God: “The Lord said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

There is no burning bush here. No pillow or cloud of fire. Just a voice calling out to him. And so it is for the rest of the story, which reaches its memorable climax with a voice telling the then-renamed Abraham to sacrifice his only son.

The story of Abraham illustrates a crucial truth about the difference between hearing and seeing (or reading). The word that is heard implies a relationship between the one hearing and the one speaking. While reading is a solitary act, involving one person and a text, hearing always involves another. As Benedict puts it in Lumen Fidei:

Faith thus takes on a personal aspect. God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally, to a “Thou” who calls us by name.

It is through the act of hearing that this personal relationship grows, Benedict writes. As we listen we become familiar with the voice of the speaker: we really begin to know the other person in a way that is not possible with the printed word, according to Benedict. This takes time—and that’s a good thing:

Faith is also a knowledge bound to the passage of time, for words take time to be pronounced, and it is a knowledge assimilated only along a journey of discipleship. The experience of hearing can thus help to bring out more clearly the bond between knowledge and love.

This is the difference between faith that comes through hearing and what we get solely through reading. Both bring knowledge but only hearing brings knowledge that leads to love. Faith through reading (or sight), on the other hand, is faith that has become mere intellectual assent, a faith that does not blossom in love. (For more on this, see my previous discussion of the faith of the demons.)

In the New Testament, the supreme example of faith is Mary. The words of God she received from the angel were as awesome and terrifying as anything said to Abraham—she had been filled with grace, she was to give birth to a son of God, a king like David, not through normal means of reproduction, but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Mary accepted this—and nine months later gave birth to God Incarnate.

Mary did not just hear the word of God. Through her the Word became flesh. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger puts it in Mary: The Church at the Source: “Mary welcomes the Holy Spirit into herself. Having become pure hearing, she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.”

The Incarnation, as well as Mary’s perpetual viginity and fullness of grace, are, of course, unique. Yet Mary is still a model for all of us. How?

This brings us back to our starting point: the liturgy. At Mass, we hear the Word of God read to us in the liturgy of the Word. Then, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, we receive the Word made flesh, under the species of bread and wine. We are thus called, like Mary, to bring Christ to others. As St. Paul wrote in Galatians 2, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”

This is not to say stop reading your Bibles, or shelve those devotionals and saint biographies. But it is a call to remember how we should be reading them, especially Scripture. It is a call to “read” Scripture in such a way that we “hear” the words of God. Praying through Scripture, meditating on the gospel stories, saying the rosary—all are ways to read the Bible in the spirit of hearing it. And perhaps, if we listen attentively to what the word of God has to say, we will hear the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the silence of our hearts.

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Very true and well put. 2 comments to start a discussion:
    1. It is vital to learn how to hear God’s voice, to hear Him speaking and counselling and reproving and encouraging and loving. So many Christians barely believe that’s possible, or only for top Saints
    2. When Scripture is read at the Mass, look up at the reader and hear him – don’t follow words on a printed sheet with your head down. That’s reading.

  • Pope Benedict called the Church to the ancient practice of Lectio Divina as a way of authentic, personal hearing of the written words of God (Holy Scripture), so as to hear and believe the one Word of God. He said to The International Congress commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dei Verbum, in 2005:
    ….(begin block quote)…
    I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.

    …..(end block quote)…..

    Lectio Divina, rightly engaged, can help us listen so as to hear, and hear so as to believe – and believe so as to live – that Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword, that pierces to the depths of a man to transform him.

  • David

    I have had Bible quiet times since the 1970’s. In the past couple of years, I moved to reading smaller portions (usually the daily reading) and reading them slowly and aloud in attempt to really hear. Progress not perfection – sometimes I get too rushed. However, it is better when I was trying to do, say a chapter a day or Bible in a year plan and not really engaging.

    I have heard people say that at mass we should just listen with arms at our side as a solder receiving instruction. I don’t think I’m there. Sometimes looking at the words keeps me from distraction and helps me hear.

  • noelfitz

    Whenever I see an article is by Stephen I know it will be challenging, thought-provoking
    and show a deep knowledge of Scripture. Those of an evangelical background show up the lack of Biblical knowledge of us cradle-Catholics.

    Jesus in his teaching started by reading the Scrolls and then explaining them. Both Jesus
    and Paul had a deep knowledge of the Bible, and we are a people of the Book.

    In Acts 8:26-31 we read.

    26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road… 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

    I would quibble a bit with Stephen who wrote:

    “Both bring knowledge but only hearing brings knowledge that leads to love. Faith through reading (or sight), on the other hand, is faith that has become mere intellectual assent, a faith that does not blossom in love.”

    Faith is a gratuitous gift of God and is through Jesus, from God, not through reading. We
    do not earn it either by our study or hearing.

    Oh dear! do I sound like a Protestant.

    Jesus used the Scrolls and his preaching centered on explaining the Bible.

    One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

    The basis of Judaism and Christianity is love:

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep
    these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you

    Again, as Stephen tells us hearing counts, but reading CE also helps!!!!

  • Librarian50

    Some of us older folk no longer hear so well. So I am one of those who follow words on a printed sheet with my head down. Also the sound systems vary from church to church and even where you sit. I am also sorry to say in my diocese we have had a few foreign born deacons, and even priests, who are so difficult to understand, everybody must use a misselette, I read and meditate on the daily Scripture every day. The monthly publication “Magnificat” is popular in my parish.for this. Or just cut out the weekly readings from the bulletin and put it in your Bible. What David is describing is the ancient practice of Divina Lectio (different from Bible study).

  • Aha! There go my pat theories, shipwrecked on rocks of reality… Thank you, noble bibliophile!

  • Gallibus

    What is significant is that communication addressed to one personally, directly by means of speech or in a letter, is so much more intimate than simply reading about someone else’s experience – that is why the Messages, as given to the mystics, and in particular the Messages: True Life in God, are so intimate and powerful. A letter is so intimate because it allows the writer to express thoughts in the context of the particular relationship with the reader, without interruption, and in a way that is both personal and intimate. Also, which is important, is that reading the intimate communication of someone allows us to explore the personality of the writer – this leads to really knowing that person at a deeper level.