Home » Additional Writings » Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22

 

Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22

 

(presented November 4 , 2000 at the Annual Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, Cleveland)

Hope as the Reconciliation of Command and Promise

Concerning the account of the akedah (“binding”) Gordon Wenham comments, “No other story in Genesis, indeed in the whole OT, can match the sacrifice of Isaac for its haunting beauty or its theological depth.”. With respect to its beauty von Rad maintains that “the narrative [is]…the most perfectly formed and polished of the patriarchal stories”, and cites this as evidence that the story existed independently long before it was gathered up into the redacted work. In other words, its literary beauty helped keep the story in the forefront of the people’s consciousness even as its theology informed and formed Israel for centuries throughout the people’s engagement with its God and the surrounding nations.

Yet the story does more than haunt. It overwhelms, and none more thoroughly than Soren Kierkegaard in his preoccupation with Abraham as the “knight of faith” (which knight is to be contrasted everywhere with the ethical hero, even the tragic hero.) Stricken by the story of Abraham and Isaac, Kierkegaard can only conclude, concerning the faith which any believer exemplifies, that “faith begins precisely where thought stops.” Just because thought stops at the inception of faith, no advice can be proffered those children of Abraham — believers — even at the outset of their journey. For in the nature of the case advice is not so much useless as impossible with respect to those whose faith is incomprehensible: “he who walks the narrow road of faith has no one to advise him — no one understands him.” Anyone who has pondered the story of Abraham and Isaac, the paradigm of scriptural faith, and still thinks she understands faith; anyone who thinks her new-found understanding enables or even impels her to “explain” it is no better than a “pious and accommodating exegete who by dickering in this way hopes to smuggle Christianity into the world.”

But of course only an ersatz Christianity can be smuggled into the world. Faith as exemplified by Abraham can never be. And since Abraham’s faith is not only the model for that of his spiritual descendants but also the condition for theirs as well (see section V), Abraham’s faith elicits unbounded admiration from Kierkegaard (“in a certain demented sense I admire him more than all others”), even as it elicits unprecedented horror as well (“he also appalls me”.) Kierkegaard knows that the faith that Abraham exemplifies and to which all others are summoned entails a confrontation with unprecedented horror and therefore the need for unparalleled courage in the face of it: “I have seen the terrifying face to face, and I do not flee from it in horror, but I know very well that even though I advance toward it courageously, my courage is still not the courage of faith and is not to be compared with it.”

I: The Story

Courage befits a test so very extreme. The “test”, of course, is not “temptation” in the sense of seduction into sin. It is Anfechtung (Luther), trial, that occasion of torment which discloses the nature, depth and scope of one’s faith; in a word, what is undeniably the state of one’s heart. In many respects the command is stupefying. Isaac, after all, has been granted to Abraham and Sarah when realistically no child could be expected. More to the point, Isaac’s survival is essential to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Having cut himself off from his entire past — “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1) — Abraham must now renounce his future, and with it the future of his people, including not only the future of his descendants but also that of innumerable nations who are to be blessed through his descendants.

The crux of the story is this. Abraham, the prototype of the person of faith, has been promised spiritual descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore. If the promise is to be fulfilled, two conditions must be met: Abraham must persevere in faith (or else he cannot be the foreparent of descendants-in-faith), and Isaac must survive (or else there will not be descendants-in-faith.) Abraham, then, is racked with this dilemma: if he obeys God and offers up his Son, then God’s promise is null and void, since Isaac has not survived. If, on the other hand, he second-guesses God and preserves Isaac, then God’s promise is null and void, since his disobedience exemplifies unfaith. Abraham’s obedience nullifies the promise as surely as his disobedience nullifies it. Abraham decides to stake everything on trusting God to fulfil God’s promises in ways that Abraham cannot imagine at this point. He will obey God even though such obedience, from a human perspective, ensures the non-fulfillment of the promise.

God tests Abraham. By means of the definite article (lit. “the God”) the text forbids the reader from finding relief in such vagaries as “Perhaps Abraham merely thought he heard God speak, merely projected an intra-psychic oddity.” While “God” (without the article) is used in the story wherever the narrator refers to the deity, the article is added whenever God himself addresses Abraham. It is the one and only, true and living God who speaks to Abraham, the God whose address is as undeniable as it is unmistakable. It is little wonder that the text obviates all sought-after speculations concerning all reductionist psycho-religious “explanations”: the story has point and force only if the God has spoken unambiguously and Abraham has heard unambivalently.

Testing as such is nothing new for Abraham. He has been tested before; e.g., with respect to the famine (12:10ff) (at which he behaved ingloriously), and again with respect to the three visitors (18:1ff.) New here, however, is the agenda of testing in the very first verse of the story, as well as the severity of a test that appears wantonly destructive.

Yet the severity of the testing does not preclude sensitivity on God’s part. “Take (your son)” has the force of “Please take.” The enclitic (“please”) is rare in a divine command, and lends the force of entreaty to the command. God manifests his awareness of the outrageous nature of his request.

As jarring as the outrageous request is, the terrible tension it engenders is heightened yet again as Abraham is told to take “your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.” By now the narrative has slowed to a crawl as the reader is forced to linger over the perseverated detail, Isaac who is loved unspeakably, and therein forced to reflect on a command whose ever-narrowing specificity fosters ever-increasing anguish. “Whom you love”, exquisitely drawn out, precludes any “escape-suggestion” that Abraham’s love for his son was deficient in any case.

The content of the test pertains, as already noted, to the promise and its (apparent) nullification. The context of the test is Abraham’s unsurpassable love for Isaac. Both are needed. Nowhere is it implied that Abraham’s love for Isaac is inordinate. God approves its intensity. Apart from a love as intense as it is proper, the dilemma concerning the promise would be but a cold abstraction devoid of human significance. Apart from the dilemma concerning the promise the story would not be trivialized (the loss of a child can never be trivial), but it would none the less lack the creation-wide significance it is meant to have.

Abraham is to give up Isaac as a “burnt offering.” Later Levitical ritual will designate this particular offering as the only one to be completely consumed. While the reader’s awareness of the conclusion of the story — the provision of the ram, God’s staying Abraham’s knife-wielding hand, the promises of God promulgated as a result of Abraham’s obedience — mitigates the story’s horror and incomprehensibility, for Abraham himself the instant of the command’s enunciation finds nothing mitigated. The test remains consummate test only if horror and incomprehensibility perdure.

The earlier command, “Go from your country, your kindred, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12:1) was undoubtedly heart-wrenching for Abraham. As difficult as this command was, that of 22:1 is qualitatively different. The earlier command included the promise of a rich future, new land, numerous descendants, blessing for all nations. The most recent command includes no such promise. In fact, obedience to it precludes future, land, descendants, blessing — for all of these presuppose Isaac’s survival.

Was Abraham in torment? He cut the wood for the holocaust after saddling the asses. Surely it would make more sense to cut the wood first. Is he trying to conceal the nature of the test from those looking on? Is he postponing the most painful part to the last? Plainly he is distraught. One would expect servants to prepare animals and split wood. Yet Abraham wants to elicit no questions since he has no answers. His sole involvement in the ordeal means that it cannot be shared in any way; no relief can attenuate his pain.

No word is spoken throughout the journey to Moriah. Father and son arrive on the third day, “on the third day” being a Hebrew idiom indicating the elevated significance of an unusually dramatic moment. Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees the place “afar off.” To lift up one’s eyes before seeing similarly suggests throughout Genesis that what is to be seen is of momentous import. Abraham can recognize it, of course, in that it is the place “of which God had told him.” The reader is not made privy to what God has told him. Still, Abraham has plainly been told as much as he needs to know in order to identify the place. The fact that the reader is not told focuses attention all the more pointedly on Abraham’s determination to obey God at all costs; i.e., the details Abraham needed to know for the test to occur are extraneous to the test itself. If included, such details would only sidetrack the reader.

The drama takes a remarkable turn when Abraham, intending nothing but that resolute obedience which undeniably includes the death of Isaac, departs for the site with Isaac alone and, upon leaving the servants behind, adds, “[we]…will come again to you.” (22:5) On the one hand Abraham releases the servants in that he cannot endure seeing anyone else behold the ghastly event. On the other hand he indicates that he expects to return with Isaac, however illogical or inchoate his expectation here. Even now, then, Abraham is trusting God to fulfil the promise in a manner wholly unforeseeable yet not to be doubted. Paradoxically, the narrator speaks in such a way as to leave the reader understanding that Abraham intends nothing but the slaughter of Isaac and is therefore beside himself, even as he is relying on the promise fulfilled, an event that presupposes Isaac’s being spared.

Isaac, meanwhile, is aware that he and his father are on their way to worship, and aware, of course, that worship entails sacrifice. Unsuspecting, he calls out, “My father.” Abraham replies, “Here am I, my son.” Abraham’s heart remains knit to Isaac’s as strongly as it was the day he received the baby from Sarah. The iron-fast bond of affection only magnifies the tension as Isaac, not suspicious but certainly bewildered, notes that all is on hand for the sacrifice except the victim. “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Isaac’s trust in his father is one with his father’s trust in God.

While much religious art depicts Isaac as a child, if not still an infant, the story makes plain that Isaac is strong enough to carry wood sufficient for that conflagration required to consume his remains. He is also sophisticated enough to apprehend the accoutrements of sacrifice. Not surprisingly, then, Jewish tradition deems Isaac to be 37 years old. Then Isaac can only be willing to be sacrificed. A vigorous young adult could readily overpower a very aged father. The test for Abraham is therefore a test for Isaac as well. Isaac, after all, could not be bound unless he complied.

When an animal was on the point of being sacrificed it was not bound; rather its throat was cut, it was dismembered, and then burnt. Since Isaac submits to being bound he is not mere piacular victim. He is as much an agent in the event now as his father. To the extent that Abraham is ready to obey God at all cost, Isaac is ready to obey his father — and therefore obey God through his father — at all cost. Lest the subtlety of all such considerations distract the reader from the shock-aspect of the deed, the narrator comments, “Abraham …bound Isaac his son.” (22:9) In addition, the “knife” that Abraham poises above the prostrate Isaac is the “knife” used elsewhere to dismember a ravished concubine into twelve pieces. (Judges 19:29) The event at Moriah remains grisly. Nothing can reduce the bizarreness, horror and enormity of what is about to happen.

Precisely at the moment of the knife’s descent God (I am reading “angel of the Lord” as a circumlocution for “God”) calls, “Abraham, Abraham.” The name repeated is a Hebrew way of denoting urgency, typically a way of stopping an action that someone is on the point perpetrating. God’s forbidding the dreaded act is now as pressing as his command was heretofore persistent. God has “seen enough.” Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice is sufficient proof of his undeflectable obedience to God and unalloyed trust in him. God’s unaffected awareness and artless acknowledgement, “Now I know that you fear God” (22:12), dovetails exactly with Abraham’s utter surprise at the provision of the ram. Earlier (22:8) Abraham had attempted to remedy Isaac’s bewilderment with “God will provide a lamb”, and then had moved ahead in obedience to God on the assumption that there were no this-worldly grounds for such intervention (the proof of Abraham’s mind and heart being his raising the knife over Isaac), when the ram was brought forth. Abraham’s surprise is no more feigned than his intent to obey God at any cost. Both dimensions must be underscored: it is true simultaneously that Abraham never doubts that “God will provide” (or else he has abandoned faith’s trust in the promise-fulfilling God) and that he is genuinely astounded at the appearance of the ram (or else he has abandoned faith’s obedience to the uncompromising claim of God.) Abraham is genuinely surprised, profoundly surprised, that the promise has been fulfilled in this manner.

Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide.” In naming the place he does not mention himself. He does not seek to exalt himself, never mind memorialize himself. He wants only to magnify the act of God wherein God’s mercy and wisdom are enlarged. Nothing in the story suggests that Abraham understands himself to be anything more than an “unprofitable servant.”

The second address of the “angel of the Lord” to Abraham (22:15-18) is by no means an “add-on”, let alone embellishment, but is rather an integral aspect of the story itself. Indeed the angel’s words “are the last and most emphatic statement of the promises given to Abraham.” For nowhere else does a divine oath, “By myself I have sworn” (22:15), occur in the patriarchal stories. Again, the singularity of the divine oath (emphasized by “by myself”) is matched by the divine acknowledgement of Abraham’s singular obedience: “Because you have done this”; “[because you] have not withheld your son, your only son”; “because you have obeyed my voice.” On account of Abraham’s obedience blessing will abound. “I will indeed bless you, really bless you” (22:17), the infinite absolute of “bless” being used here alone in Genesis to underline the truth that this promise surpasses all others.

As enormous as the ordeal has been, the blessing is “super-immense.” Abraham himself will be blessed, as will his descendants, as will (by his descendants) all the nations of the earth. The content of the blessing is specified in the case of his descendants. They will be uncountable (“as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore”), victorious (“shall possess the gates of their enemies”), and used of God in his prospering others (“shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves.”) Abraham’s faithfulness is the occasion, under God, of a divinely ordained beneficence whose scope and profundity are inestimable.

In all of this one must be careful not to undervalue the unsubstitutably human. Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience and unwavering trust are a human event/act/affirmation upon which the blessing of the whole world hangs. The thrice-uttered “because you…” can only mean that the human “dialogical partner” of God conditions God’s response. What God will do (can do?) for all the nations turns on the integrity of a human agent. Heretofore the promise of God has been grounded in the will of God; now it is grounded in both the will of God and the will of Abraham. Not only has the test found Abraham unbroken; the test has been the occasion of the crown and climax of his walk with God. And the test has permitted God to bless the whole Gentile world.

It is little wonder, then, that the oath God has sworn to Abraham will be recalled repeatedly throughout scripture (e.g., Luke 1:55), for this oath gathers up and guarantees all God’s promises to the patriarch.

II: Luther

Luther knows what is at stake in the akedah: Isaac “had the promise of God concerning the future blessing of the entire world.” Yet the command of God, in light of the promise of God, has issued in a “contradiction with which God contradicts himself.” It is humanly impossible to understand this, for we should “inevitably conclude that God is lying — and this is blasphemy — or that God hates me — and this leads to despair.” Whereas God formerly seemed to be Abraham’s friend, God now appears to have become “an enemy and a tyrant.” Confronted by the God who is enemy and tyrant, Abraham is unable to believe that he is merely being tested, since he would know that in the face of Anfechtung he must recall, cling to and declare the promise of God — and this Abraham appears unable to do, no longer having “remained sure of the promise.” As profoundly discomfited as Abraham is by the ordeal, the episode is recorded for our comfort “in order that we may learn to rely on the promises we have.”

The dialectic Luther suggests here seems bizarre. Since the promise is now the occasion of logical contradiction, Abraham cannot be sure of the promise. Yet the purpose of the story of Abraham is to teach us that we must ever rely on the promise. Notwithstanding the oddity, Luther knows that Anfechtung does not arise ultimately in the face of “woman, gold, silver, life or death”; it arises, rather, when God “shows himself differently from the way the promise speaks.” Anfechtung overtakes us when God’s self-disclosure contradicts God’s self-utterance. When faced with contradiction (apparent or real) between God’s self-disclosure and the promise, what are we to do? Luther’s answer is unambiguous: we are to cling to the promise. And yet Luther appears to contradict himself immediately as he declares that “Abraham’s faith shines forth with special clarity in this passage, inasmuch as he obeys God with such a ready heart when He gives him the command.” Here Luther identifies faith as obedience to command rather than as trust in promise. At once, however, Luther adds, “And although Isaac has to be sacrificed, he nevertheless has no doubt whatever that the promise will be fulfilled even if he does not know the manner of its fulfillment.” “No doubt” can only mean “faith.” Here, then, faith is confidence in the promise fulfilled.

Nowhere in his commentary on Genesis concerning the matter under discussion does Luther speak of the command of God in terms of the law of God, and then contrast it sharply (as is his custom) with the gospel (promise.) Were he to do this, of course, he would have to relegate the significance of the command to fostering in the hearer that despair which drives one to the gospel (promise.) Were command to be understood as law, however, the tension in the incident would disappear and the “trial” would evaporate. Throughout his exposition of Genesis 22 Luther presupposes promise and command as the one gospel of God seen from two different angles. While the law/gospel distinction is crucial in Luther’s thought as a whole and therefore characteristic of him, it is plain that so far as Abraham is concerned the command is not to be understood in terms of law but in terms of gospel. When Luther probes the three-day journey to Moriah he notes that Abraham’s reliance on the command “strengthened and preserved him.” Everywhere in Luther the law, so far from strengthening and preserving, breaks people down for the sake of that which does: the gospel. Plainly Luther relates obedience to command even as he implies promise (rather than law.) The obedience he has in mind, of course, is that obedience which pertains to (promise-quickened) faith. Obedience “does not exist where this is no divine promise.” Clearly there is a subtle mutuality between promise and command. While from a human perspective promise and command may appear to contradict each other, ultimately the promise is the meaning of the command.

Obedience to the command is no small matter. For when Abraham heard the command of God “he hastened without hesitation to carry it out. This is an extraordinary example of a description of perfect obedience.” Unlike Adam, Luther notes, Abraham does not ask why. Adam’s Anfechtung, whatever else it may have involved, did not involve contradiction. Then how did Abraham manage to meet it? He met it only “through the power of the command of God.” Although, from a human perspective, Abraham “did not have a heart of iron but was of a very tender nature…emotions undoubtedly were accompanied by inexpressible groans, sighs, sobs, and fatherly tears”, his obedience “extended to his innermost being”, there being no room in him for doubt, let alone defiance. The resilience of his obedience, insists Luther, was attributable to the fact that the command “rules and lives in him.”

Immediately the reader recalls the New Testament insistence that Jesus Christ (i.e., the gospel) alone rules and lives in believers. Once more, then, Luther is relating obedience (to the command) to gospel- (promise-) quickened faith. In this context it should be noted that Luther maintains faith to arise as we open our ears and shut our eyes. Ears (metaphorically) receive the Word of God; eyes behold what is everywhere a contradiction of the Word of God. Abraham “hears” the (promise-grounded) command, and “sees”, as it were, Isaac slain — and then proceeds to slay Isaac, trusting God to fulfil the promise.

Reason, Luther rightly sees here, is helpless before the conundrum: “If Isaac must be killed, the promise is void; but if the promise is sure, it is impossible that this is a command of God.” Reason aside, Abraham cannot doubt that God has announced both promise and command.

At this point Luther brings forward a theme that will recur throughout his discussion of the episode; viz., the sacrifice of Isaac, and Isaac’s subsequent restoration (necessary if Isaac is to have descendants) is an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. Within a few lines, however, Luther recognizes that to rely on Isaac’s being resurrected after he has been slain is to denature the event as incomparable trial. If Isaac is to be resurrected and thereby rendered the progenitor of a people, then strictly speaking there is no trial. There remains psychological tumult for Abraham (he must still slay his son), but no theological/spiritual conundrum, no trial with respect to faith in the promise of God and the future blessing of the world. Admittedly, God can continue to “try” Abraham’s trust in and love for One who visits assorted afflictions on Abraham, but appealing to the resurrection of the dead undercuts the nature of that trial which tries faith in the promise of the God whose promise has become an impossibility; i.e., tries faith in the God who has himself become an “impossibility.” Luther maintains that the Word of God is “equal to God”, as is God’s “spoken word” (i.e., God’s self-utterance.) The contradiction between the spoken utterance (command) and the Word (promise) renders God self-contradictory. God is an impossibility.

In reflecting on the akedah Luther reminds us that the Word of God and faith in that Word are correlative, and wherever “these two are, there follows the third, namely, the cross and mortification. These three make up the Christian life.” And what is the extent of mortification? Mortification entails self-denial, to be sure, yet a self-denial so far-reaching as to involve the cancellation of everything and everyone whose significance is connected to the “self” undergoing trial. Mortification, self-denial, is nothing less than utmost deprivation. In this regard Luther comments, “Abraham has now [i.e., upon hearing the command] nothing more, so far as the promise is concerned, than he had before Isaac was born; and yet, because of God, he is ready to give up not only his son, Sarah, an inheritance, his house and his church, but even his own life. Isaac’s death included all of this inasmuch as the promise was attached to Isaac.” Isaac’s death entails an obliteration that is nothing less than total. And since, as was noted earlier, a self-contradiction in God renders God an impossibility, obedience to the command of God will not only cancel the promise of God but thereby effect the ultimate nihil. Abraham, faced with an obedience to God that effects the ultimate nihil, finds a sympathizer in Luther who suggests why Abraham told no one of his trial: no one would have understood it (the same conclusion Kierkegaard was to arrive at independently centuries later.)

As Isaac’s initial bewilderment (“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”) gives way to his awareness that he is to be the offering, Luther highlights the obedience of father and son. On the one hand Luther maintains that so profound, so moving, is this development that nothing is said about it in that “the subject matter is greater than can be expressed by any eloquence.” On the other hand, he does manage to say something: “With the exception of Christ, we have no similar example of obedience.” With his subtle grasp of so very many ramifications Luther points out that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is not only Isaac’s self-sacrifice but also Abraham’s as well. For “death has a soul and a body”, and to die “in the truest sense of the word” is not to undergo biological cessation but rather “to feel the violence of real death.” In this sense “both are killed, since they see and feel nothing but death.” And while Abraham is everywhere commended for his faith in the promise, Isaac’s faith is no less remarkable. For at the moment that the knife is held to Isaac’s throat, Isaac insists, “I am the son of promise. Therefore I must beget children even if heaven collapses.” God’s promise is so very sure, and so very sure is Isaac’s faith in the promise, that heaven will “collapse”, the cosmos will de-create, before the promise fails — even as obedience to the command precipitates the ultimate nihil.

Plainly Luther views the Abraham-Isaac story as having cosmic significance. It is no surprise, then, that he ruminates, concerning the appearance of the ram that dies in place of Isaac, on two possibilities: the animal could have been brought to the site or been brought into existence at the site. He prefers the latter. For Luther God’s provision is not a providential rearranging of what already exists; God’s provision is nothing less than creatio ex nihilo. The Abraham/Isaac promise/command matrix, together with the blessing soon to be pronounced, means that the world’s life can begin again.

The resolution of the trial finds God swearing by himself. Such singular swearing has the force, says Luther, of God’s saying, “I desire so greatly to be believed and long so intensely to have my words trusted that I am not only making a promise but am offering myself as a pledge….If I do not keep my promises, I shall no longer be who I am.” The promise made to Abraham must be fulfilled or God has annihilated himself. That God does not (cannot) annihilate himself is God’s pledge that this promise is not merely something that God has said and now makes good; i.e., as related to the faithfulness of God this promise is integrally related to the being of God. This promise, then, is like no other. For this reason Luther rhapsodizes that by the aforementioned pledge God “enlarges His promise to such an outstanding extent that it surpasses all thinking and faith.” In other words, this promise transcends thought so as to leave us unable to comprehend it, even as the enlarged promise dwarfs our faith. Yet since promise and faith are internally related, an enlarged promise must issue in enlarged faith. For precisely this reason Luther adds, “What could be said or thought that is surer and more powerful for increasing faith?”

With respect to the scope of the blessing spreading out from Abraham, Luther speaks first of David. David apprehends (Psalms 89:35; 132:11) that by God’s oath the promise “has come into my [i.e., David’s] tribe, into my line, person and body….I am he to whom the promise is attached, just as it was attached to the person of Abraham.” In short, David is now the embodiment of the original promise. But then David’s enemies must have been anticipated in Abraham’s enemies and those of Abraham’s immediate descendants. Not unexpectedly, then, Luther comments that regardless of however “powerful and violent” the enemies of Abraham’s descendants might be, victory “will be with the sand and the stars, but especially with the Son.” With the Son? Luther’s final word concerning the scope of the ever-expanding boon could not be stronger: “The blessing promised Abraham is eternal.”

III: Calvin

In his Institutes Calvin admits that Abraham’s trial concerning Isaac is quantitatively different from all tests and afflictions (the greatest of which was childlessness) visited upon Abraham earlier, since “for a son to be slaughtered by his father’s hand surpasses every form of calamity.” All such tests, however, have merely facilitated Abraham’s mortification. Now, however, Abraham is pierced by a wound that is qualitatively different, “a wound far more grievous than death itself.” Here Abraham is tormented not merely at the prospect of bereavement, but rather at a faith-obedience wherein “the whole salvation of the world seemed to be extinguished and to perish.” The exercise of faith issues in “the destruction of faith.” It is little wonder that Abraham finds his “piety” a consuming “distraction.”

Calvin’s reference to “piety” is significant. For him pietas is a noble word and carries none of modernity’s pejorative freight; viz., a saccharine, cloying, ethereal, self-indulgent and meritorious religiosity. Pietas, rather, is “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” In his earlier catechism, written more expansively than the compressed Institutes, Calvin had said, “True piety consists rather in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death.” Paradoxically it is Abraham’s piety that is now ultimate spiritual threat. To adore God is now one with abhorring him. Previous tests presupposed the veridicality of the promise; this test ensures its cancellation, and with it even the possibility of humankind’s salvation. The cancellation here, moreover, entails an inconsistency in God that renders God thoroughly opaque and therefore utterly untrustworthy. If trusting a treachery “proves” faith, what is the nature of the faith proved thereby? If to exercise faith is to be left with none, and not to exercise faith is to be left with none, then what is meant by “faith?” Lest the reader think that Abraham might be “hearing things” in all of this, Calvin, reading the text with exquisite attentiveness, insists Abraham cannot doubt that God has spoken.

In view of the fact that Calvin is notorious for insisting that word and faith cannot be sundered, he displays his own “distress” when, in the context of proving faith, he speaks uncharacteristically of the “disappearance of the word.” While Calvin everywhere else maintains that the word can no more disappear than God vanish, here he magnifies the uniqueness of Abraham’s test by insisting that God tries Abraham’s faith by drawing Abraham into a contest with God’s own word. Amplifying this, Calvin avers (again uncharacteristically) that “God would shake the faith that Abraham had placed in His word, by a counter-assault of the word itself.” In short, God would test Abraham by juxtaposing word as promise (previously vouchsafed to Abraham) and word as living voice of the One whom Abraham knew with undeniable immediacy, “since all occasion of doubt is removed.”

It is impossible to exaggerate the manner in which Calvin has heightened, in expounding this narrative, the tensions in his own theology. Calvin rigorously maintains that the word alone is the author and object of faith. “Word” and “faith” always imply each other. Any deviation here bespeaks the “fanaticism” of the 16th Century radicals. Since the word is now self-contradicted, no human reasoning can reconcile the immolation of Isaac (word) and the promise concerning his descendants and the salvation of the world. This singular simultaneity of self-contradiction has the force of making “full trial” of Abraham’s faith. Such a trial is “full” not in the sense of “not partial” but rather in the sense of a novum, unprecedented, categorically different from the trials that have tested Abraham and all believers. Whereas temptation to disobey God is normally “shaken off” by recalling and clinging to the promise, such recourse now appears impossible, since “God, in a certain sense, assumes a double character.” While word-quickened faith is kept constant as we “apply all our senses to the word of God”, such application is now useless since the word itself (God himself) has become the problem, God now being two-faced. God’s “forked tongue” can only bespeak a Jekyll-and-Hyde monstrosity. Calvin reminds the reader that when believers are assaulted they are always to arm themselves with the word, “the sword of the Spirit.” Now, however, he asks rhetorically what the predicament of believers must be if God at this moment attacks believers with that weapon wherewith he had previously protected them. While the predicament cannot be untangled at the level of thought, the predicament can still be lived. Abraham, forswearing the futility of immobilizing himself before it or speculating beyond the concrete occurrence of the unmistakable summons, wrestles with the test by faith. In it all he remains the paradigm of the person whose faith keeps him fixed on the immediacy of the command of God. Faith, in moments of dreadful testing, fixes itself to the immediacy of the command, obeying the command while trusting the promise. Calvin exalts the obedience of Abraham by pointing out that while believers of less rigorous faith are prone to be carried off “in whatever direction the breath of a doubtful vision may blow”, Abraham resolutely obeys God when, from a human perspective, he is faced not by a doubtful vision but by undeniable nightmare; and when from a believer’s perspective, he is faced with a command incomprehensible in itself, ruinous for his family, and catastrophic for the wellbeing of the world. As if the “double character” of God were not enough, horrible on account of the confusion it engenders, God appears to gloat in his torturing Abraham by mocking him: God’s requiring Abraham to exercise faith by obeying the command to wield the knife becomes itself the knife that dismembers the promise. As a result Abraham is commanded, as an act of faith, to “cut in pieces the charter of his salvation” — and that of the whole world’s.

Then is Abraham’s faith anything more than irrationality or impulsiveness? Is he merely a self-negating inverted romantic? Little if anything could be said to spare Abraham (and therefore Calvin) this accusation were Genesis 22 the whole history of Abraham’s engagement with God. While the test with Isaac is certainly unparalleled, it is not the only test or the first. In light of Abraham’s decades-long, rich acquaintance with God and his understanding of God arising from this intimacy, Abraham, Calvin insists, concludes, notwithstanding the present crisis, that God “could not be his adversary.” Abraham’s having concluded this much, however, still does not permit him to see “how the contradiction might be removed.” All of this is to say that Abraham, not yet permitted to walk by sight, must continue to walk by faith; he can reconcile promise and command only “by hope.” Again, however, such hope is never wishful thinking; Abraham’s history of “walking” with God saves hope from the charge of irrationality, impulsiveness or romanticism even as it allows Abraham to affirm the fact of such reconciliation, content to leave the manner of it with God.

At this point in his amplification of the narrative Calvin appears to have said as much as he wants or needs to say. Apparently mesmerized by the story, however, and unable to let it go, he circles back relentlessly upon the contradiction between command and promise and all its consequences for a world unaware. Having already told his readers that God has contradicted himself by reason of his word (something Calvin will admit here in light of the intractable text of Genesis 22 yet something he will deny as absurd everywhere else in his theology), Calvin now directs our attention to a similar problem: Isaac is the only pledge of grace. This sole pledge is now to be taken away, leaving — leaving a graceless God? (Again, such an implication occurs nowhere in Calvin outside the Abraham/Isaac story.) Admittedly, in view of the age-facilitated infertility of Abraham and Sarah, the occasion of the conception of Isaac was one of human impossibility. The destruction of the only pledge of God’s grace, however, is the occasion of a divine impossibility, for the pledge and he of whom it is pledge cannot be separated: destruction of the pledge is the self-willed destruction of God. Whereas the promised conception of Isaac had required Abraham to trust God in a way that redounded to Abraham’s praise as well as God’s, now Abraham is to trust God in a situation that renders God, promise, faith and blessing a farrago of inconsistency and incomprehensibility. Still, says Calvin, in all of this there remains the fact of a promise whose meaning is affirmed in the face of what appears to void the promise of meaning. Abraham’s test, Calvin adds laconically, is the prototype of test for every believer: God “reduces all their senses to nothing, that he may lead them to a complete renunciation of themselves.” With self renounced and understanding immobilized, Abraham suspends trying to “measure, by his own understanding, the method of fulfilling the promise.” Instead Abraham relies on the “incomprehensible power of God.” He will cling to the promise of God not only in the face of human impossibility but even divine.

At this point it is important for the reader to understand, in view of what Calvin has said already, that God’s power is “incomprehensible” not in the sense that God is to be counted on for a mighty act whose mightiness is beyond human comprehension; rather, God’s power is “incomprehensible” in that God is to be counted on to resolve his “double character.” He whose nature is mercy now wills the disappearance of his only pledge of mercy (grace.) Since “pledge” and “promise” imply each other, God’s power is “incomprehensible” at present in that the promise is to be vindicated (and Abraham’s faith with it) precisely where promise (and therefore pledge) wills its self-obliteration.

Still mesmerized, Calvin circles back yet again, examining the story from yet another angle of vision. Isaac is the “mirror of eternal life and the pledge of all good things.” “Mirror”, one of Calvin’s commonest metaphors, is never mirror only. When Jesus Christ, for instance, is said to mirror God, Calvin never means that those beholding the Nazarene are given a substance-less reflection. Similarly, when the sacraments are said to mirror Christ, Calvin never suggests that believers receive elements that somehow deceptively depict Christ but are devoid of him. The purpose of a mirror, for Calvin, is to render substance accessible. Then the death of Isaac as “mirror” can only mean the disappearance of eternal life. And since “eternal life” is uniquely the life of God, the death of Isaac entails the death of God. It is this human opacity and divine impossibility, “incomprehensible”, according to Calvin, that God’s power can remedy.

Unable to let the matter go, Calvin returns to it once more, stating that the death of Isaac does not merely wound Abraham’s “paternal heart”; it tramples upon [God’s] own benevolence.” Everywhere in Calvin God’s “benevolence” is his inmost nature turned outward salvifically upon the world. If God’s benevolence has been “trampled” (i.e., pulverized), then God himself has been de-natured.

Still haunted, Calvin comes back to the conundrum, this time stating that Isaac “was not a son of the common order but one in whom the person of the mediator was promised.” Calvin insists in Institutes and Commentaries alike that there is no knowledge of God (i.e., no participation in God’s life) apart from the mediator. Then the death of the person of Isaac plainly implies the non-existence of the mediator. Abraham’s obedience incontrovertibly deprives humankind of its sole saviour and thereby dooms it.

Calvin is so very reluctant to move past the perplexity he needs to point out only once in that he is evidently aware of its inherent shock: the person who embraces all of the foregoing embraces it as an act of faith. Calvin appreciates the correlation between an affirmation of the “incomprehensible” and a risible instance of the ludicrous, for he maintains that Abraham left the servants behind, on his way to Moriah, lest they find him “a delirious and insane old man.” While Calvin is speculating here, the speculation is none the less profound. Abraham is “insane” in that he is about to do what only psychotics do; “delirious” in that Calvin assumes Abraham to be hysterical. Abraham is understandably hysterical, for Isaac’s cry, “My father”, is a “new instrument of torture.”

Like Luther before him, Calvin maintains that Isaac is no infant but rather is middle-aged. Isaac “voluntarily” surrenders himself, and does so, says Calvin, only because he is “acquainted with the divine oracle.” In view of Isaac’s willing collaboration, therein rendering his death self-sacrifice, Isaac is bound not lest he change his mind and bolt at the moment of immolation but rather lest anything extraneous impede his act. Again like Luther before him Calvin states that the sight of Isaac slain would be enough to kill Abraham. In other words, Isaac’s willing submission renders Abraham’s obedience a joint perpetration on the part of father and son, even as it renders father and son joint victims. Abraham’s unalloyed obedience in faith destroys faith, son and Abraham himself. There is no other conclusion. And in view of Calvin’s understanding of the person of God inherent in all the acts of God, the destruction of the promise (act) is also the destruction of the promiser.

As a result of Abraham’s unvarying obedience God has come to know that Abraham fears him. Did God not know as much already in light of earlier tests? Yet as Calvin has averred repeatedly, this test is categorically distinct; this text exposed a “double character” in God and summoned Abraham to obey and trust the God self-exposed as such. Isaac’s release completes and terminates Abraham’s “true trial.” Verus, (“true”) has the force of real, actual, genuine. The concrete actuality of the akedah has become the reality of Abraham’s life, even the reality (albeit hidden) of the world, since the akedah lends the world its unacknowledged but no less real truth and substance: a divine blessing whose ramifications are inestimable.

Yet something can be “estimated”, even counted on: (i) even though Israel’s enemies will overrun her occasionally, Israel’s enemies can never defeat her definitively; (ii) the victory promised to Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his people “so far as they adhere under one head.” Calvin, it should be noted, adduces both without indicating any inconsistency or even tension in the two-fold outcome. Israel will never be exterminated; neither will the church (Christ and his people.) While Calvin does not develop at this point in his Genesis commentary anything approaching Paul’s treatment of Israel and the church in Romans 9-11, or even his own understanding that Jesus Christ, the one and only mediator, was salvifically present to Israel under the economy of the torah, his unelaborated conclusion to the story that preoccupies Israel to this day (no ram appeared at Auschwitz) is as sobering as it is pregnant.

In his examination of Genesis 22 Calvin says nothing about the relation of Isaac and the church. Yet the reader may legitimately ask after and probe this relationship, for in his exposition of Genesis 21:1 Calvin writes, “in his [Isaac’s] very birth God has set before us a lively picture of the church.” What does Isaac’s birth portend for the church, even as the arm of the sacrificer is stayed, but only at the moment of the church’s unconditional willingness to give itself up to death in demonstration of its trust in the promise? And how firm is the church’s confidence that “God never feeds men with empty promises”?

IV: Kierkegaard

Throughout Fear and Trembling‘s sustained reflection on Abraham Kierkegaard appears always to have two adversaries in mind: philosophical speculation (especially Hegel’s metaphysics) and ethics.

Hegel maintained that Christianity was merely a pictorial representation in concrete, colourful images of a truth that the philosopher could apprehend by means of rising to the standpoint of the Absolute through pure thought. To say this, Kierkegaard knew, is to say that the philosopher can apprehend a supposed higher unity in which God and humankind have been brought together, “God” now being no more than the essence of humankind.

Hegel’s understanding of religion, of course, includes his understanding of faith. And since philosophy “goes further” than religion, philosophy necessarily goes further than faith — only, says Kierkegaard, to turn wine into water. Similarly, a society popularly imbued with Hegel’s dilution is unable to comprehend the significance of Genesis 22 even as it disdains the biblical narrative as no more than “bourgeois philistinism.”

Philosophy, meanwhile, is not aware that it denatures faith, for philosophy insists that it comprehends faith even as it supersedes faith. In all of this theology is seemingly unaware that its mandate is theos, God. Instead theology “sits all rouged and powdered in the window and courts its favours, offers its charms to philosophy.” Theology has prostituted itself to philosophy while preening itself on an intellectual sophistication superior to the crudeness of Abraham and Isaac. After all, “it is supposed to be difficult to understand Hegel, but to understand Abraham is a small matter.” With mordant irony Kierkegaard turns the vocabulary of “further” back upon his opponent: overwhelmed at Abraham, Kierkegaard glories in the fact that in 130 years the patriarch “got no further than faith.” While “got no further” waggishly suggests that Abraham was stalled, Kierkegaard knows that Abraham, not the philosophical speculators, had alone moved on to existence. Existence cannot be gained or entered upon by means of the “thought experiments” of the metaphysicians, but only as the detachment of “worldly understanding” is left behind in favour of radical commitment.

The radical commitment is to God; not the “God” of philosophical constructs but the One who summons every would-be believer to Abrahamic trial. Such trial has nothing to do with the glib summaries of those who “recite the whole story in cliches: ‘The great thing was that he [Abraham] was willing to offer him the best.'” Neither is such trial the facile escape into religious ethereality of those who speak offhandedly of a post mortem resolution to Abraham’s conundrum. The trial, rather, is enduring the contradiction between promise and command. This contradiction is nothing less than “absurd.” As faith paradoxically embraces the absurd (in all of this the “this-worldliness” of Isaac and promised blessing must be kept in mind), faith is vindicated and confirmed not in an ethereal eternal but in the temporal: Isaac, having been given up, is given back in this world. Isaac lives, and the promised blessing is operative in the temporal. For this reason Kierkegaard underscores, for the benefit of philosophers and romantics alike, “Abraham had faith for this life…specifically for this life.” By way of reminder of the link between the absurd and the temporal Kierkegaard adds, “Only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.”

The second major adversary for Kierkegaard is the realm of ethics. Everywhere in this part of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard relentlessly contrasts the “single individual” (or the “knight of faith”) with the universality of the ethical.

To act ethically is to embody a universal principle. Put more sharply, to act ethically is for the agent to “annul his singularity in order to become the universal.” From an ethical standpoint a father ought always (i.e., universally) to love his son more than he loves himself. For this reason a legitimate ethical protest would be Isaac’s crying out, “Do not do this: you are destroying everything.”

In light of the legitimacy of the ethical protest, why does Abraham set off with fire and knife, one thing only in mind? He does so for God’s sake and for his own sake; i.e., he does it because God has commanded it, and he does it inasmuch as faith exists only as faith is exercised, it being impossible for faith to be “thought” philosophically.

As different as faith and the ethical evidently are, they remain frequently confused. Such confusion is manifest whenever it is argued that since the ethical is universal, the ethical is also divine. The argument here traces duty back to God, since ethical duty (e.g., with respect to neighbour) is “essentially duty to God.” Perceptively Kierkegaard draws our attention to the crucial consideration here: “in the duty itself I do not stand in relation to God.”

Commensurate with the aforementioned contrast Kierkegaard distinguishes the ethical hero from the knight of faith. In giving up himself for the universal the ethical hero enjoys the security of knowing that others understand him and admire him; and if his heroism is tragic too, others will weep over him as well. No one, on the other hand, understands or admires the knight of faith. It would be preposterous to suggest that anyone would weep over Abraham. Instead Abraham can be approached only with a horror religiosus, akin to that with which Israel approached Sinai. At the same time there is a singular privilege vouchsafed to the knight of faith: she alone says “you” to God, whereas the ethical hero, related ultimately to a principle (the ethical universal), merely speaks of God in the third person. This lattermost point is pivotal: in the realm of ethics we do not meet, engage, or contend with the living God himself; we can do no more than speak about him at the level of hearsay.

None of this must be taken to suggest that the ethical is unimportant. Kierkegaard’s point, however, is that since faith alone is “an absolute relation to the absolute”, the single individual determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, never vice versa. The single individual may be summoned to what ethics forbids (e.g., the slaying of Isaac), but the single individual is never summoned to stop loving. Abraham loved Isaac — or else Isaac’s death was no sacrifice but simply murder — for Abraham was no Cain. Needless to say, however, the loneliness of Abraham (and therefore of any believer) is his inability to make any of this understandable to even one other human being. Since no one can foster the understanding requisite for faith, no believer can help someone else into faith: “either the single individual himself becomes the knight of faith by accepting the paradox or he never becomes one.”

All that Kierkegaard has said to this point about the ethical, the universal, faith, and absolute relation to the absolute yields his notorious assertion concerning the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” With the regularity of a tolling bell Kierkegaard avers throughout the latter half of Fear and Trembling that either there genuinely is such a suspension, either Abraham does exist in an absolute relation (higher than the category of the ethical) to the absolute (God), “or else Abraham is lost.” In light of philosophy’s incomprehension of all that Kierkegaard has said about the suspension, together with the human horror that surrounds the particular absurdity pertaining to Isaac, he does not hesitate to say that not only is Abraham’s life the most paradoxical that can be thought; it is so paradoxical that it cannot be thought. Still, the foregoing must never be regarded as unique to Abraham. He is prototype, to be sure, but as such is always to be imitated by those who have never settled for the cheap edition of him that the church is forever trying to sell. He remains the “guiding star that saves the anguished.”

Kierkegaard repeats several times over that what passes for faith in Christendom in fact is not; viz., “infinite resignation.” Infinite resignation is a movement prior to faith; in fact it is the last stage before faith, but never faith itself. Infinite resignation, it must always be understood, is a movement in thought not in existence. It is born of a concentration of the person in a goal or purpose which integrates that person. Infinite resignation gains the person an eternal consciousness; specifically an eternal consciousness “in blessed harmony with my love for the eternal being.” Kierkegaard’s point (contra Hegel) is that even an eternal consciousness is still only consciousness; it is not yet existence. Faith alone embraces existence, and does so only by means of a “leap.” This leap is always a qualitative transition that nothing can precipitate or effect incrementally. Again, infinite resignation yields peace and rest, the irreducible pain of life being yet the occasion of a peculiar kind of comfort. The pain of existence (i.e., of faith), on the other hand, can never be lessened.

While infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, it is not for that reason to be slighted. Indeed, in infinite resignation we become aware of our eternal validity, without which we could not “grasp the whole temporal realm”, albeit only by virtue of the absurd. Aware of our eternal validity, at the point of infinite resignation we resign the infinite (here I am convinced that Kierkegaard is distancing himself from Hegelian metaphysics with its preoccupation with the infinite as well as from a popular religious romanticism that likes to speak languorously of the infinite); we resign the infinite precisely in order, as knights of faith, to inherit the finite. Finite Isaac, it must be said again, once given up is given back, with untold blessing for a finite world. At the point of infinite resignation we are convinced that the impossible is just that: impossible — and hence the resignation. Faith, on the other hand, moves “beyond” infinite resignation (here Kierkegaard turns Hegel’s vocabulary back on Hegel himself) and “passionately acknowledges” (i.e., endorses or owns) the impossible. The single individual knows that we can be saved only as faith, itself a paradox, grasps the absurd. Such faith is forever the antithesis of the detachment of philosophy and forever the antithesis of the immediacy of the heart’s spontaneous inclination. Such faith is always the paradox of existence.

 

In light of all that has been said concerning the absurd, paradox, leap and existence, and the fact that the single individual can be neither understood nor admired, Kierkegaard is correct when he contends that the believer is finally a witness, not a teacher. A witness to what? A witness to grace, certainly, and also a witness to faith. For it is the single individual who alone can affirm, in the face of the absurd, Jehovah-Jireh, “God will provide.” And Abraham’s total existence, says Kierkegaard, is gathered up in that one Hebrew word. Existence, contra Hegel, is indeed “beyond” all philosophical thought-experiments.

Kierkegaard’s exclamation remains challenging, profound, and dismaying all at once: “No one is as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?”

V: Comment
A

Martin Buber, likely the Jewish thinker of greatest influence on the church in the 20th century, watched with sadness and horror as the best of his philosophy students at Berlin University in the mid-1930s appeared in class wearing swastika armbands. Soon these students were telling Buber that the horizon-filling goal of serving Naziism’s restoration of Germany’s glory was the telos that asked of them the suspension of all ethical considerations. Shortly they were highly-placed officers in the dreaded SS.

While the concept of “the teleological suspension of the ethical” may have much or little credibility in the context of Kierkegaard’s exposition of Abraham’s existence and therein that paradigmatic faith whose nature cannot be subsumed by either metaphysical thought or popular romanticism, in the context of Nazi ideology such a “suspension” has none. Grave danger attends any claim to such a suspension in any context. If a telos can suspend ethics, then the question has to be asked if any telos can suspend any ethical consideration. If not, then there have to be specified both those tele that do effect such a suspension and the reason for the suspension.

Imagine someone announcing in church that she has received a divine summons to slay her offspring. It is inconceivable that fellow-congregants would nod knowingly, all the while telling her they understood why she must proceed and assuring her of their support throughout it. Instead they would insist she undergo psychiatric assessment, thinking her to be psychotic. Now imagine that she submits to such assessment and is shown to be non-psychotic. It is still inconceivable that anyone would agree that, horrific as the deed appears, she must proceed as an act of faith. Most likely assertions would tumble out of many that God does not ask such hideous things of his people. If the woman in question were to reply, “Why not?”, then likely it would be said that God would not or cannot, on the grounds of the character of the God we apprehend through his self-disclosure. Willful slaying of one’s offspring is not the sort of thing that the God known in the church asks of his people, not the sort of thing that can be regarded as bringing honour to him in any way. This being the case, the question must be asked concerning Abraham: why would anyone concur that Abraham was divinely summoned to slay Isaac? If God’s character forbids such today, why would it not have forbidden it then? Conversely, if God’s “voice” rendered sacrifice non-murder then, why would it not do as much today?

A clue to coming to terms with the aforementioned question is suggested by Luther and Calvin in their insightful discussion of the akedah: in view of Isaac’s consensual complicity, the son is as much sacrificer as the father; and in view of the fact that Isaac’s death is tantamount to a fatal knife-thrust in the heart of Abraham, the father is as much the sacrificed as the son. Father and son are one in offering up and in being offered up; father and son are one in their obedience, their suffering and their trust.

I am convinced that a fruitful way ahead, in light of the critical comments adduced already in this section, is to consider the simultaneity of Father and Son with respect to the Atonement, presupposing as it does the homoousion as reflected in the apostolic confession of Jesus Christ and articulated in Athansius’s assertion at the Council of Nicaea. In the context of the Arian heresy, Athanasius insisted, following the apostles, that the Son was of the same nature as the Father, not merely of a similar nature. If Father and Son were merely of a similar nature, then the Father’s appointing the Son to the cross on behalf of humankind would be no more than the Father’s appointing an innocent yet hapless third party to misery in the interests of appeasing a wrath the Son did not share. Yet precisely because Father and Son are of the same nature, same substance, same identity and being, the Son’s free, self-willed identification with sinners is the Father’s; the Son’s sinbearing love is the Father’s; the Son’s cry of dereliction is the Father’s heart-cry of self-alienation for the sake of sinners that demonstrates Father and Son to be one in their judgement of humankind, one in their determination to redeem it, one in their self-identification with it, and one in their pain suffered for its restoration.

The Son’s God-forsakenness (not merely his feeling he was) for the sake of humankind, together with the Father’s self-same “God-forsakenness” means that no human being is — or can be — God-forsaken. Looked at from a different angle, the cross means that that to which God appointed himself at Calvary no human being will be appointed to now: namely, the sacrifice of one’s offspring.

Abraham and Isaac are together a prolepsis of God the Father and Son. The prolepsis, however, having been fulfilled in actuality in the event of Good Friday, is thereafter rendered impossible as prolepsis; i.e., any slaying of one’s offspring could thereafter be regarded as murder only, never as sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac are not an instance, or even the instance, of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” They are, rather, an instance of the unity of Father and Son in the event of the cross, no subsequent “anticipation” ever being possible in the light of this anticipation’s definitive fulfillment. What Father and Son did in the cross is nothing less than that “one oblation…once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” Such an act needs no supplementation or duplication; neither does it permit one.

B

The force of Genesis 22:1-19 is that hope alone reconciles promise and command of God. Such hope, however, must always be distinguished from wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is but “dead” hope; “living” hope, on the other hand, is rooted in the event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3) From a biblical perspective, hope is always a future certainty grounded in a present reality. Any lessening of hope as certainty merely denatures “hope” and moves it in the direction of wishful thinking. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is that reality which is ultimately the fulfillment of the promise of Exodus 3:14: “I shall be who I shall be.” In the resurrection of his Son, God definitively resolves any suggestion or imputation of a “double character” (Calvin) in his kingdom-establishing event. The resurrection is that act of God whereby promise and command are reconciled; hope is the human counterpart that finds promise and command reconciled in the believer. Accordingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is ultimately the truth and reality that gave Isaac back; hope, that which gave him back to Abraham, the resurrection beings the guarantee of all the promises of God to all believers. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead; because his resurrection and all it implies is the truth of the world (albeit hidden and therefore unacknowledged), as well as the truth of the church (an “open secret” and therefore acknowledged in faith), hope can never finally disappoint God’ s people. The future certainty of what is hoped for pertains to all the promises of God, whether now only partially fulfilled or not yet fulfilled at all. They will be fulfilled, and will be seen to be such.

Instances without end can be recited with respect to promises that appear to remain unfulfilled, as well as of commands that seem to perpetuate the non-fulfillment. One such promise/command appears to be the promise that the powers of death will not prevail against the church (Matt. 10:18), even as the church, defined by the gospel and charged to live by the gospel, must announce Jesus Christ with no little urgency in season and out of season. (2 Tim. 4:2) Related to the command to announce the gospel is the promise that God’s word does not return to him fruitlessly (Isaiah 55:11), as well as (among others) the promise that whoever hears the herald of the Lord hears that selfsame Lord himself. (Luke 10:16)

Yet the command appears to vitiate the promise, as the church dwindles numerically (at least in the west) week by week. The gospel has been promised to be fruitful beyond our imagining, while the command to declare it appears to ensure the church’s fruitlessness. After all, the gospel appears too narrow in an age of inclusiveness, too sharply-defined amidst the blurred vaguenesses of pluralism, too confident of its effectiveness in a time of polite opinions, too real for an era that prefers romanticism, too specific for those who like generalities, too precisely parameterized to suit the taste of those who want no boundaries. It appears that insofar as the church attempts to live by the gospel it will die by the gospel. Then what is the church to do?

Like Abraham of old it can trust God to fulfil promises in ways that the church cannot see at present. It can obey the command of God even though its obedience must render all such fulfillment hope. Or it can second-guess God and attempt to ensure the fulfillment of the promise by “improving” on the command as it resorts to gimmicks, entertainment, sure-fire techniques, agendas that “work” with other institutions and whose “success” the sociologist can explain.

For those who have agonized with Abraham there is only thing to be done: live in hope, confident that hope will see, in God’s own way and in God’s own time, the reconciliation of promise and command.

Victor Shepherd      January 2000