Monday, July 4, 2011

The Faith of Abraham in Hebrews 11

The biblical concept of emunah (אמונה) or faith (as it is explained in the Old Testament) basically means saying amen (אמן) to the word of God. Faith is an acceptance of divine revelation. Faith says yes to whatever God says, whether that word be command, promise, or warning. The concept of faith in Hebrews is consistent with this definition, but the core component of faith for the author of Hebrews is directed to God’s promise. For the author of Hebrews, faith is not mainly an eschatological concept in the sense that it is viewed as operating primarily in the eschatological age à la Paul. Rather, in Hebrews, faith is a necessary historical constant that applies throughout salvation history, but which nevertheless possesses a very strong eschatological orientation whereby the faithful look to God for salvation and reward at the time of the realization of God’s promise at Christ’s second coming (Heb 10:35-39; 11:6). I have discussed this previously in my post “The Concept of Faith in Hebrews.”

This eschatological orientation is linked by the author of Hebrews in with the concept of realization. This is particularly evident in the author’s discussion of faith in Heb 11. A number of times in this chapter, faith is spoken of as being that which believes that God can make something either out of what is not or what is not yet. “Faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen” (Heb 11:1). By saying that faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the author means that faith believes that what is hoped for (which emerges a response to God’s promise) will one day be realized. Likewise the idea that faith is the proof of what is not seen. Here the reality of what God has promised is viewed as being not seen, i.e., before the realization of the eschatological elements of God’s promises, we do not yet experience what will ultimately be. But faith takes what is not yet seen as certain one day to be seen. Faith is the conviction that the future will be as God has said it will be. This actually means that faith can only exist so long as God has not yet brought about the things that he has promised. By definition faith can only flourish in a hostile environment, where what God has promised has not yet come true (at least in totality).

The kind of faith that accepts that the ultimate realization of what currently is not yet is the same kind of faith that belives in a Creator God. As the author to the Hebrews writes: “by faith we discern that the world has been formed by the word of God, so that what is seen has come into being not from things visible” (Heb 11:3). Faith accepts the idea that God can create something out of nothing, that God can make the invisible visible.

The clearest example of a person with the kind of faith that believes in the ultimate realization of what is currently unrealized (at least according to the literary structure of Heb 11) is Abraham. “By faith Abraham obeyed when was called to go forth to the place that he was going to receive as an inheritance” (Heb 11:8). God’s words to Abraham in Gen 12:1–3 contained command and promise. Abraham accepted both. Accepting the reality of a promised land, Abraham accepted the reality of need to set out according to God’s command. The link between faith and obedience is very strong in Heb 11:8. Faith and obedience necessarily go together. This obedience on Abraham’s part is all the more remarkable, given that “he went forth not knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8). But for faith to be faith there cannot currently be full knowledge. For faith to be faith, there must remain an element of mystery.

Faith by definition can only operate in an environment where what has been promised has not yet been realized, and often this means that faith will be lived out in an environment where virtually the opposite of what God has promised is our current reality. This too is something that Abraham experienced. “By faith [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise as in an alien land” (Heb 11:9). Canaan was the promised land, but when Abraham arrived there it was already possessed by others (see Gen 12:6). Abraham’s land by deed of promise was currently the Cannanites land by deed of possession. Yet Abraham believed that one day all of that would be his. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were fellow heirs of God’s promise regarding the land; but the fact of the unrealized nature of the full reality of God’s promise meant that Abraham and his son and grandson lived in the land as nomads “in tents” (Heb 11:9). In the midst of this time of promise not yet fulfilled Abraham looked forward in expectation at “the city that has foundations [i.e., a city that is stable and endures] whose builder and creator is God” (Heb 11:10). In other words, the current unrealized aspects of God’s promise made Abraham look to the future for an eternal and eschatological realization of what had been promised.

The idea of faith as involving the belief that God can make the invisible visible and the impossible possible is seen in the birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah and Abraham. Despite her inclination to disbelieve (see Gen 18:12), “by faith” Sarah “considered faithful him who had promised” (Heb 11:11). “So also from one man, and he moreover as good as dead, [descendants] were born, like the stars of heaven for multitude, and like the innumerable sand of the seashore” (Heb 11:12). Elderly Sarah and Abraham’s infertility was an important component of the “hostile environment” in which faith by definition must exist.

But the testing of Abraham’s faith did not stop with the problem of siring an heir. The testing of his faith reached its climax when God ordered him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice (see Gen 22:1–2). In calling for Abraham to do this, God was in effect telling Abraham to end the life of the one through whom the promise would be realized. It was akin to destroying the promise. Despite this, “by faith Abraham offered up Isaac … his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your seed be called’” (Heb 11:17–18). Abraham’s reasoning at that time must have been: Even though God has called upon me to destroy the promise by sacrificing my son, if he is the one through whom the promise will be fulfilled, then God will have to raise him from the dead. Hence, the words of the author in Heb 11:19 that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead.” The faith that believes that God has the power to make the nonexistent existent, the invisible visible, and the unrealized realized is the same kind of faith that believes that God has the power to make the dead live. Faith believes in the possibility, indeed the future reality, of resurrection.

2 comments:

Charles said...

I enjoyed this post. Thanks.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Charles, for letting me know that you found this post enjoyable.

I've been particularly struck by the emphasis in Heb 11 on believing that God can make the invisible visible or the unreal real. I just have to make sure that I keep remembering that.

All the best in your walk of faith.