Abraham’s Faith

A source of perennial confusion, especially in Protestant/Catholic discourse, is the role of “the Law” and its bearing on the New Covenant. Often the entire “Old Testament” portion of the scriptures is considered the “Old Covenant” and that gets conflated with “The Law,” when in reality the Law (the Torah) is merely one of the iterations of the attempted fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and promises. (I’m currently writing what is an attempt at a total analysis of Abraham’s life in terms of covenants and types, and this is one set of thoughts which arose from that.)

An underrated set of verses:

[Gal 4:21-24] 21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

So, from Abraham emerge two covenants – the one corresponds to Hagar, the other to Sarah. It is obvious that St. Paul refers to Jews of his time as part of the covenant of Hagar, and Sarah as the inheritor of the fullness of the promises given to Abraham:

[Gal 4:28-31 ESV] 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

I happened upon a series of statements made by a Protestant a week or so ago which is interesting to dive into on my way to discussing the “two covenants”:

“Abraham was made righteous prior to his circumcision.”

Definitely. But let’s ask, how did the sacrifice of Isaac relate to this? There is a sharp contrast delivered by St. Paul and St. James. which paints a rather beautiful picture. I’ll deal with them in respective order; those of the Protestant persuasion focus nearly entirely on Paul’s words without the needed contrast of James’. Romans 4 should be read in its entirety, but for space reasons I’m clipping the relevant bits below:

[Rom 4:1-3, 9-10, 13-17, 22 ESV] 1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” … 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. … 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring–not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. … 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”

I had an extended debate with a Protestant minister on Faith and Works who constantly referred to “the whole testimony of the scripture” as well as verses from Romans to reinforce Sola Fide. And it sounds reasonable because it is based in a partial truth – as soon as Abraham’s will had assented to the sacrifice of Isaac, his faith made him righteous.

However. Let me pose a question that is relevant since the Reformation:

Was Abraham’s physical act of laying Isaac on the altar and being fully prepared to sacrifice him necessary for his justification?

In other words, was Abraham’s justifying faith complete at the pre-Moriah mental assent, or was it only completed when Abraham offered the sacrifice?

I’ll quote St. James at length for the full context:

[Jas 2:14-26 ESV] 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

The objection to this is “yes, of course Faith is proven by good works after the fact, but it was only the Faith itself that saved. James is only talking about good works that we are to walk in after our faith has saved us.”

Interpreting “works” as referring to “good works” is also not precisely what is written. Would just any good work “complete” our faith in the sense that Abraham’s sacrifice did for him?

What is written is “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?”

By good works, many seem to believe that certain good actions or virtues – charity, patience, meekness, etc. – these follow from our faith and are evidence of them, but the evidence of a thing is not its completion. For example, the fact that I walk a particular dirt path and leave footprints is itself evidence that I am walking that path, but it is not a mile marker or the end of the pathway.

And this is not what happened in Abraham’s case. Abraham’s faith was incomplete unless he was willing to sacrifice precisely what was promised to him – his begotten son by Sarah. He “accounted that God is able to raise up even from the dead.” Abraham did many good things and many bad things along the pathway, but once he offered Isaac, his Faith was in a sense “more perfected” than it was before.

James makes it perfectly clear:

24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

This is the description of a specific act of Faith that accompanies mental assent; obviously, if a person is aborted from completing that faith through no fault of their own, they remain justified (since they would have completed it); but if there is an obligation associated with Faith which is left incomplete, James argues that faith is no longer salvific. In other words, a person could choose to walk the path, leave many footprints, but fail to reach the end.

One might object that the obligation of Faith is merely to believe; can the Protestant not find many verses that seem to say that the only obligation of Faith is belief itself? Where can we establish that an obligation of some specific action accompanies the mental assent which is the seed of faith?

A Protestant might argue that the repetition of the Passover yearly was fulfilled in Christ; but was not the Passover referring back to Abraham? In that sense, since Christ’s sacrifice is the Passover for the Church, was there not to be an instituted participation in the sacrifice of Christ as St. Paul describes?

[1Co 11:23-29] 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

St. Paul says that anyone who participates in such an act as the Cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty concerning that body and blood, because they are participating in the sacrifice with improper preparation. One might argue that participation in this “sacrifice” was meant merely as a remembrance, but the words Paul uses and its context appear to make it incontrovertible that he is treating it as a sacrifice:

[1Co 10:14-21] 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

It is crucial not to understand this in an esoteric way. It is meant very specifically in that Paul contrasts idolatry, participation in the offering of sacrifices to demons, with the proper sacrifice in which Christians participate when being present and participating in the Eucharist.

As the Passover delivered the Jews from Egypt and the instituted Passover was a formal requirement for being a part of the Israelite community each year, the Passion delivered the Jews from the bondage of the law and into the New Covenant, and participation in the Eucharist is a formal requirement (where possible) for being a part of the Christian community.

“Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” John 6:54

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