Addressing a Jewish crowd in the precincts of the Temple, St. Peter emphasizes the connexion between the Hebrew and the Christian religion by proclaiming that ‘the God of Abraham … hath glorified his servant (παῖδα; cf. RVm) Jesus’ (Ac 3:13). This Divine title, which is similarly used in St. Stephen’s speech (7:32), was full of significance. All through the OT and the NT the foundation of the true religion is ascribed neither to the Prophets nor to Moses, but to Abraham. Isaac (Gn 26:24) and Jacob (31:42) worshipped the God of Abraham, but Abraham did not worship the Elohim whom his fathers served beyond the River (Jos 24:2, 14, 15). He was the head of the great family that accepted Jahweh as their God.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all in some sense his seed, as having either his blood in their veins or his faith in their souls. To the Jews he is ‘our father Abraham’ (Ac 7:2, Ro 4:12, Ja 2:21), ‘Our forefather (τὸν προπάτορα) according to the flesh’ (Ro 4:1). To the Muhammadans he is the ‘model of religion’ (imām, or priest) and the first person ‘resigned (muslim) unto God’ (Qurʾān, ii. 115, 125). To the Christians he is ‘the father of all them that believe’ (Ro 4:11), ‘the father of us all’ (4:16). Taking the word Abraham to mean (according to the popular word-play, Ro 4:17 || Gn 17:5) ‘a father of many nations,’ St. Paul regards it as indicating that Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of the whole Christian Church.
- In the Epistles of St. Paul.—As Abraham was the renowned founder of the Jewish nation and faith, it was crucially important to decide whether the Jews or the Christians could claim his support in their great controversy on justification. The ordinary Jews regarded Abraham as a model legalist, whose faith in God (Gn 15:5f.) consisted in the fulfilment of the Law, which he knew by a kind of intuition. According to the Jewish tradition (Bereshith Rabb. 44, Wünsche), Abraham saw the whole history of his descendants in the mysterious vision recorded in Gn 15:1ff. Thus he is said to have ‘rejoiced with the joy of the Law’ (Westcott, St. John [in Speaker’s Com.], 140). In the philosophical school of Alexandria there was a much higher conception of faith, which was regarded as ‘the most perfect of virtues,’ ‘the queen of virtues,’ ‘the only sure and infallible good, the solace of life, the fulfilment of worthy hopes, … the inheritance of happiness, the entire amelioration of the soul, which leans for support on Him. who is the cause of all things, who is able to do all things, and willeth to do those which are most excellent’ (Philo, Quis rer. div. her. i. 485, de Abr. ii. 39). In these passages faith, in so far as it expresses a spiritual attitude towards God, does not differ much from Christian faith. Nor could anything be finer than the Rabbinic Mechilta on Ex 14:31: ‘Great is faith, whereby Israel believed on Him that spake and the world was.… In like manner thou findest that Abraham our father inherited this world and the world to come solely by the merit of faith whereby he believed in the Lord; for it is said, and he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness’ (Lightfoot, Galatians, 162). But the ordinary tendency of Judaism was to give Abraham’s life a predominantly legal colour, as in 1 Mac 2:52 ‘Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness?’
To St. Paul faith is the motive power of the whole life, and in two expositions of his doctrine—Ro 4, Gal 3—he affirms the essential identity of Abraham’s faith with that of every Christian. He does not, indeed, think (like Jesus Himself in Jn 8:56) of Abraham as directly foreseeing the day of Christ, but he maintains that Abraham’s faith in God as then partially revealed was essentially the same as the Christian’s faith in God as now fully made known in Christ. Abraham had faith when he was still in uncircumcision (Ro 4:11), faith in God’s power to do things apparently impossible (4:17–19), faith by which he both strengthened his own manhood and gave glory to God (4:20). Abraham believed ‘the gospel’ which was preached to him beforehand, the gospel which designated him as the medium of blessing to all the nations (Gal 3:8). And as his faith, apart from his works, was counted to him for righteousness, he became the representative believer, in whom all other believers, without distinction, may recognize their spiritual father. It is not Abraham’s blood but his spirit that is to be coveted (3:2); those who are of faith (οἱ ἐκ πίστεως) are ‘sons of Abraham,’ are ‘blessed with the faithful Abraham’ (3:7, 9); upon the Gentiles has come ‘the blessing of Abraham’ (3:14); all who are Christ’s, without any kind of distinction, are ‘Abraham’s sons,’ fulfilling, like him, the conditions of Divine acceptance, and inheriting with him the Divine promises.
St. Paul uses the narratives of Genesis as he finds them. Before the dawn of criticism the theologian did not raise the question whether the patriarchal portraits were real or ideal, To St. Paul Abraham is a historical person who lived 430 years before Moses (Gal 3:17), and who was not inferior to the great prophets of Israel in purity of religious insight and strength of inward piety. It is now almost universally believed that the faith ascribed to the patriarchs was itself the result of a long historical evolution. But, while the maturer conceptions of a later age are carried back to Abraham, the patriarch is not dissolved into a creation of the religious fancy. ‘The ethical and spiritual idea of God which is at the foundation of the religion of Israel could only enter the world through a personal organ of divine revelation; and nothing forbids us to see in Abraham the first of that long series of prophets through whom God has communicated to mankind a saving knowledge of Himself’ (Skinner, Genesis [ICC, 1910], p. xxvii).
- In the Epistle of St. James.—St. James (2:21–23) uses the example of Abraham to establish the thesis, not that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law’ (Ro 3:28), but that ‘by works a man is justified, and not only by faith’ (Ja 2:24). While the two apostles agree that Christianity is infinitely more than a creed, being nothing if not a life, they differ in their conception of faith. The meaning which St. James attaches to the word is indicated by his suggestion of believing demons and dead faith (2:19, 20). St. Paul would have regarded both of these phrases as contradictions in terms, since all believers are converted and all faith is living. Asked if faith must not prove or justify itself by works, he would have regarded the question as superfluous, for a faith that means self-abandonment in passionate adoring love to the risen Christ inevitably makes the believer Christlike. St James says in effect: ‘Abraham believed God, proving his faith by works, and it was counted to him for righteousness.’ With St. Paul righteousness comes between faith and works; with St. James works come between faith and righteousness. Had St. James been attacking either Galatians or Romans, and in particular correcting St. Paul’s misuse of the example of Abraham, his polemic would have been singularly lame. Such a theory does injustice to his intelligence. But, if he was sounding a note of warning against popular perversions of evangelical doctrine, St. Paul, who was often ‘slanderously reported’ (Ro 3:8), must have been profoundly grateful to him. See, further, art. James, Epistle of.
It is interesting to note that Clement of Rome co-ordinates the doctrines of the two apostles. Taking the typical example of Abraham, he asks, ‘Wherefore was our father Abraham blessed?’ and answers, ‘Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?’ (Ep. ad Cor. § 31). If the two types of doctrine could be regarded as complementary sets of truths, justice was done to both apostles. But the difference assumed a dangerous form in the hard dogmatic distinction of the Schoolmen between fides informis and fides formata cum caritate, the latter of which (along with the ‘epistle of straw’ on which it seemed to be based) Luther so vehemently repudiated.
- In the Epistle to the Hebrews.—The writer of Hebrews bases on the incident of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek (He 7; cf. Gn 14) an argument for a priesthood higher than the Aaronic order (v. 11ff.). To the king-priest of Salem Abraham gave tithes, and from him received a blessing, thereby owning his inferiority to that majestic figure. As Abraham was the ancestor of the tribe of Levi, the Aaronic priesthood itself may be said to have been overshadowed in that hour and ever afterwards by the mysterious order of Melchizedek. This is the conception of the writer of Ps 110, who identifies God’s vicegerent, seated on the throne of Zion, not with the Aaronic order, but with the royal priesthood of Melchizedek. When the Maccabees displaced the house of Aaron, and concentrated in their own persons the kingly and priestly functions, they found their justification in the priestly dignity of Melchizedek, and called themselves, in his style, ‘priests of the Most High’ (charles, Book of Jubilees, 1902, pp. lix and 191). Finally, when Christ had given a Messianic interpretation of Ps 110, it was natural that the writer of Hebrews should see the Aaronic priesthood superseded by an eternal King-Priest after the ancient consecrated order of Melchizedek.
For divergent critical views of the Abraham-Melchizedek pericope of Gn 14 see Wellhausen, Comp.2, 1889, p. 211f.; Gunkel, Genesis, 253; Skinner, Genesis, 269f. Against Wellhausen’s theory that the story is a post-exilic attempt to glorify the priesthood in Jerusalem, Gunkel and Skinner argue for an antique traditional basis.
The writer of Hebrews illustrates his definition of faith (11:1) by three events in the life of Abraham.—(1) The patriarch left his home and kindred, and ‘went out not knowing whither he went’ (He 11:8). His faith was a sense of the unseen and remote, as akin to the spiritual and eternal. In obedience to a Divine impulse he ventured forth on the unknown, confident that his speculative peradventure would be changed into a realized ideal. The doubting heart says, ‘Forward, though I cannot see, I guess and fear’; the believing spirit, ‘Look up, trust, be not afraid.’—(2) Abraham remained all his life a sojourner (πάροικος καὶ παρεπίδημος = גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב, Gn 23:4) in the Land of Promise (He 11:9). He left his home in Chaldæa, and never found another. Wherever he went he built an altar to God, but never a home for himself. He was encamped in many places, but naturalized in none. His pilgrim spirit is related to his hope of an eternal city—a beautiful conception transferred to Genesis from the literature of the Maccabæan period (En. 90.28, 29, Apoc. Bar. 32.3, 4 etc.).—(3) By faith Abraham offered up Isaac, ‘accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead’ (He 11:19). Here again the belief of a later age becomes the motive of the patriarch’s act of renunciation. The narrative in Gn 22 contains no indication that the thought of a resurrection flashed through his agonized mind.
Literature.—F. W. Weber, Syst. der altsyn. Palästin. Theol. aus Targum, Midrasch, u. Talmud, 1880, ch. xix.; J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians, 1865, p. 158ff.; Sanday-Headlam, Romans5, 1902, p. 102ff.; W. Beyschlag, NT Theology, 1894–96, i. 364ff.; A. B. Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, 1896, p. 116f.; G. B. Stevens, Theology of the NT, 1901, p. 289; B. Weiss, Biblical Theology of the NT, 1882–83, i. 437ff.
RVm Revised Version margin.
ICC International Critical Commentary.