Why Abraham is Our Father in Faith

Antonio Filocamo, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1712)
Antonio Filocamo, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1712)

I recently discussed Jesus’ lack of faith. Faith is in “things unseen,” (Hebrews 11:1), and nothing fits that category for Jesus, since He’s God (and always has been). As a result, Jesus isn’t our model of faith (since He didn’t have, or need, any). Well, then, who are our models of faith?

One of the Biblical answers to that question is Abraham. To prove theological points, the New Testament authors will not infrequently look to Abraham. Thus, Paul treats Abraham’s justification as proof of the inadequacy of works of the law (Galatians 3:5-6; Romans 4:1-2), while James look at his justification as showing the need for good works (James 2:21) [There’s no contradiction here: “works of the Law” and “good works” aren’t the same thing.].

Abraham is also uniquely and repeatedly described as our father in faith. When Jesus forgives Zacchaeus, He says, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it’s “Father Abraham” that the rich man prays to from Hades (Luke 16;19-31). And John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized (Matthew 3:8-10),

Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

At first blush, it sounds like John is belittling the idea of Abraham’s fatherhood by saying that it’s inadequate. On the contrary, he still refers to the faithful as “children to Abraham.” John’s point is that being a biological descendant of Abraham isn’t what matters: rather, it’s about following him in faith and in works of repentance. Speaking of Abraham’s covenant of circumcision with God, St. Paul says that (Romans 4:11-12),

He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

And in Galatians 3:7-9, Paul explains that all who have faith are sons of Abraham:

So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.

So what makes Abraham so special? Two things: his primacy and his intensity.

By “primacy,” I mean simply that one reason Abraham is our father in faith is that it’s to Abraham and his descendants that God begins to reveal Himself. He creates a series of covenants with Abraham tied to faith and linked to the Promised Land. These covenants ultimately find their fulfillment in the Messiah, who the opening line of the New Testament identifies as “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). It’s largely because of this story of salvation, of God revealing Himself to one group of people as a means of revealing Himself to the world, that Matthew’s Gospel opens with the “book of genealogy,” showing how all of these Old Testament figures are related to one another and to Christ.

But there’s more to it than that: Abraham is also singular in the Old Testament for the intensity of his faith. This we see most clearly in the sacrifice of Isaac. Here, a little bit of background is necessary. In Genesis 17:19, God promises Abraham “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” Of itself, this is a promise of a miracle, as “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen. 18:11). Genesis 17 says that Abraham is ninety-nine years old (Gen. 17:1), and Abraham himself asks, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17). But God goes further with the promise, saying, “I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year,” and “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:21, 19).

So this salvific covenantal relationship between God and man, by which God is to save the world, is to continue through the lineage of Isaac. And then the unthinkable happens (Genesis 22:1-2):

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Much has been said of this trial, much more than I hope to say here. We know more about God than Abraham or his contemporaries did, and can immediately see that human sacrifice can’t be the Divine plan. But for Abraham, this request would have been shocking for another reason: it’s not simply the loss of a beloved son, but being asked to sacrifice that son, the very son through which God has promised to bless all nations. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explored this in Fear and Trembling:

Who then is he that plucks away the old man’s staff, who is it that requires that he himself shall break it? Who is he that would make a man’s gray hairs comfortless, who is it that requires that he himself shall do it? Is there no compassion for the venerable oldling, none for the innocent child? And yet Abraham was God’s elect, and it was the Lord who imposed the trial. All would now be lost. The glorious memory to be preserved by the human race, the promise in Abraham’s seed–this was only a whim, a fleeting thought which the Lord had had, which Abraham should now obliterate. That glorious treasure which was just as old as faith in Abraham’s heart, many, many years older than Isaac, the fruit of Abraham’s life, sanctified by prayers, matured in conflict–the blessing upon Abraham’s lips, this fruit was now to be plucked prematurely and remain without significance. [….]

Yet Abraham believed, and believed for this life. Yea, if his faith had been only for a future life, he surely would have cast everything away in order to hasten out of this world to which he did not belong. […] But Abraham believed precisely for this life, that he was to grow old in the land, honored by the people, blessed in his generation, remembered forever in Isaac, his dearest thing in life, whom he embraced with a love for which it would be a poor expression to say that he loyally fulfilled the father’s duty of loving the son, as indeed is evinced in the words of the summons, “the son whom thou lovest.” Jacob had twelve sons, and one of them he loved; Abraham had only one, the son whom he loved.

Here, we meet the intensity of Abraham’s faith in its fullest. He’s faced with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: God is to bless all nations through Isaac, and he is to sacrifice Isaac. And his response isn’t to give up one belief for the other, but to hold to both, in the face of seeming absurdity, because he completely trusts the God who is responsible for both. Kierkegaard again:

If Abraham had wavered, he would have given it up. If he had said to God, “Then perhaps it is not after all Thy will that it should come to pass, so I will give up the wish. It was my only wish, it was my bliss. My soul is sincere, I hide no secret malice because Thou didst deny it to me”–he would not have been forgotten, he would have saved many by his example, yet he would not be the father of faith. For it is great to give up one’s wish, but it is greater to hold it fast after having given it up, it is great to grasp the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.

This radical act of faith in God is neatly captured in three verses in Hebrews 11:17-19,

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol.

When we talk about the Sacrifice of Isaac a prefigurement of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, we normally mean that Isaac carried the wood of his own sacrifice (Gen. 22:6) up the hill to be sacrificed (Gen. 22:14), and on the third day was received back (Gen. 22:4). The ram is the substitute for Isaac’s life (Gen. 22:13), but Abraham speaks cryptically of a lamb to be sacrificed for Isaac’s (and it turns out, all of our) sake (Gen. 22:8).

And all of that is true, but Hebrews 11 points to another dimension of this parallel. It’s only through some sort of belief in the Resurrection that Abraham’s faith makes any sense. He doesn’t know how God will restore Isaac to him, but he’s ready to believe that he will both (a) sacrifice Isaac, and (b) have descendants through Isaac. This act of faith is literally paradoxical, in the sense of “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory.” Or to put it another way, Abraham knows that (a) and (b) can’t both come true apart from divine intervention. He doesn’t know what that intervention will look like (a miraculous raising from the dead, for example, or – as happened – divine intervention to halt the sacrifice), but he acts with the full trust that God is faithful to His promises and will intervene as needed to bring their fulfillment about.

Abraham’s faith is a model of good theology. There will come points in which you encounter two seemingly irreconcilable truths, like God’s Predestination and His Gift of Free Will. How these both can be true vexes the mind, yet we believe God about both. Sometimes, brighter minds than our own come along and show how the two seemingly-incompatible truths can be harmonized; other times, we trust simply that they can be, because we trust the revealing God more than we trust our own ability to work out every aspect of theology.

Critically, Abraham’s faith isn’t absurd, for the reason that Hebrews 11 points out: he knows that if God can raise from the dead, then both the promise and the command can be true. So Abraham already has in view one possible way of reconciling this paradox. In this way, he shows us that while faith goes beyond our own abilities, that it does deal with the unseen, it’s not an idiotic faith. So we don’t affirm double truth, in which we affirm outright contradictions and laud that irrationality as faith.

Finally, Abraham’s faith prefigures the faith of the woman we consider our “mother in faith,” the Virgin Mary. In the next post, I’ll look at how Mary, like Abraham, believes in two seemingly incompatible truths, reconcilable only by Divine action.

 

9 Comments

  1. Two errors in this, one major, one minor.

    The minor error is that the “works of the Law” do not pertain to good works in general. In fact, I actually agree with you, but it is worth noting that Origen, Ambrosiaster, and Augustine would not, as they specified that Paul was speaking of both the Mosaic Law and the “Law of Nature,” which pertains to good works in general. The fact that Gal 4:5 that Christ came to redeem “those under Law” should lead us to lend credibility to what the Fathers were saying in that Paul is paying mind to both Laws, because clearly Christ did not come for those under the Mosaic covenant alone.

    The major error is that you claim that Abraham “doesn’t know what the intervention [from God] will look like,” and you speculate that maybe he considered the possibility that Isaac will be resurrected. However, this is not a maybe. We know for a fact that Abraham expected that Isaac would be resurrected, as this is specifically what Abraham is lauded for believing.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. Craig,

      I’ve heard some variation of this from Protestant exegetes before, but (1) the Bible actually doesn’t say that, and (2) that’s not what happened.

      Rather, Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol.”

      Nothing in there says that Abraham knew that the way God would resolve this paradox was by raising Isaac from the dead. Only that Abraham, sure in the knowledge of the Resurrection, believed that God would somehow fulfill His promises even though He had called upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

      But the second point strikes me as of obvious import. Isaac isn’t killed and resurrected on Mt. Moriah, except symbolically. So the way that Abraham seems to think the paradox will be resolved isn’t the way that it immediately is. Ultimately, Abraham is right to see the Resurrection as the solution here, but that’s Christ’s Resurrection primarily.

      Given these two points, I don’t see how it’s a “major error” to say that Abraham rightly believed that God would resolve this paradox, but that he didn’t know the details as to how. Your own theory has Abraham wrongly thinking that it’ll be through Isaac’s resurrection.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. I’m even more confused about the “minor error” that you say that I’m making in distinguishing good works from works of the Law… given that you then immediately agreed with me about that distinction?

      1. I don’t know why you say only Protestant exegetes teach that Abraham presumed (wrongly) that God would raise Isaac from the dead. For one, that’s plainly what the section in Hebrews you quote says.

        Second, a plethora of Fathers wrote specifically that (in the words of Ephrem the Syrian) that Abraham “decided in his mind and accepted the idea that ‘God is able to raise men even from the dead.'” Chrysostom wrote Abraham “was…persuaded God would also raise him up after he had been slain in sacrifice” (Hebrews, Homily 25:2). Origen wrote, “‘…thinking that God is able to raise him up even from the dead.’ The Apostle, therefore, has reported to us the thoughts of the faithful man…Abraham, therefore, hoped for the resurrection of Isaac and believed in a future that had not yet happened” (Homily 8 on Genesis, Chap 1). Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “Likewise, when he bound Isaac to the altar…he did it with the faith that in Isaac his seed would be as numberless as the stars of heaven, believing that God could raise him from the dead.”

        Concerning “the minor error” I’d point you back to my original reply and ask that you read the paragraph in full. I’d agree that the immediate context and situation Paul was writing about was the Jewish law. However, several church fathers read Paul more broadly, and in light of Gal 4:4-5, they had justification in postulating that Paul was referring to perhaps more than merely the Mosaic Law, but also the Law of Nature.

        God bless,
        Craig

        1. Hi Craig,

          I admit I read here often but I until now I’ve never interjected (usually because I think someone else can do better).

          On your minor point – you stated originally:

          ‘The minor error is that the “works of the Law” do not pertain to good works in general.’

          And you continue to stress that point in your reply above. But I think you are actually missing the point. You haven’t tried to understand what Joe means by “good works”, nor does your response address how “good works” actually refers to something deriving from the “Law of Nature”. I think what we’re doing here is arguing past each other, by not having a clear understanding of what we mean by “good works.”

          I would rather let Joe explain “good works” (since it was his original statement), but I will try to at least give a short explanation. To me, it is rather self-evident – that the good works are motivated by faith, but also in a sense complete it (as an example, Abraham’s faith would have been incomplete had he not actually gone through with carrying out the sacrifice of Isaac until God stopped him).

          And what you call a major point, I’m seeing as being more a technicality than anything. I don’t think you and Joe are disagreeing all that much. I think perhaps you (and as Joe suggests, the Protestant exegetes in general) presume that Abraham knew exactly ‘that’ and ‘how’ God would resurrect Isaac; whereas Joe is making the case that the Scriptures really don’t tell us much about Abraham’s expectations – except that he knew God could even raise Isaac from the dead. Let’s read again the quote:

          “He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol.”

          This doesn’t say Abraham expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after he slayed him, but that he believed God “[could] raise men from the dead.” It basically says Abraham believed God _could_ raise Isaac from the dead if it came to that – because he firmly believed in God’s promise through Isaac. And really, that’s what is important – that Abraham believed God would keep all his promises. _How_ God would keep his promise strikes me to be a little secondary (which I think is given a certain validity in the sense that God did _not_ resurrect Isaac, but as Paul says, received Isaac back as a “symbol” of the Resurrection). If raising Isaac from the dead would have been a more necessary or fundamental way of fulfilling that promise, God would have done that.

          Maybe I’ve also missed your point … just giving my 2 cents 🙂

          Tom

  2. Before we quibble, may I compliment the author on a moving reflection on the faith of Abraham, weaving in these profound quotes from Kierkegaard (making for a nice synthesis of Catholic, Existentialist and Protestant literary thought).

    In particular, thanks for highlighting “Abraham speaks cryptically of a lamb to be sacrificed” (Gen. 22:8), which I never really grasped before. Has to be one of the most incredible prophecies of the Bible when seen with the eyes of faith.

    1. We studied that particular passage in Year 1 of the Denver Catholic Biblical School. Cryptic indeed. Abraham does find a ram in the nearby bushes….but a Lamb is nowhere to be found. And never is, until…..

      Yes, it was indeed a revealing bit of foreshadow….

  3. Dear future father. A little levity for your great series ..This is from letters published in The Boston Pilot in the 1950s:

    Hebrew (Eber) meant originally a stranger, a foreigner. The first person so designated in Holy Writ (Gen. 14:13) was Abraham (forefather of the Israelites, who was not a Jew) because he was a foreigner in Canaan, who had come from the other side of “the great river,” Euphrates. The name was later given to “the language of Canaan” (Isa. 19:18), and was applied to “Jews” who spoke the “holy language” in contrast to the Hellenic “Jews,” who spoke the Greek language only.

    Thus, it can be said that Abraham was an Ante-Semite

    1. Remember the iconic National Lampoon cartoon, where two restaurant patrons are staring wide-eyed at a sad little legless frog, on a low cart, wheeling himself out of the kitchen under a sign proclaiming “Try Our Frog’s Legs..’

      And the cartoon caption…?

      “That’s not funny, that’s sick….”

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