Archive for October 8th, 2009

Abraham our Prototype of Participation in Romans 4

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Some thoughts…

1. The traditional scholarly and reigning interpretation of the role of Abraham in Romans 4 is that of exemplum of justification by faith. This sort of interpretation is often quite thin, focusing merely on the claim that Abraham’s faith—not, as most Jews would have said, his obedience or faithfulness, or as others might think, his works/works of the law (whether deeds or identity markers)—was reckoned to him as righteousness. This approach assumes that faith basically means a non-doing trust (e.g., in the promise), without exploring in any depth the meaning of either faith or righteousness in the chapter, much less in Romans or Paul more broadly. The strength of this view is its apparent basis in the very Scriptural texts, especially Gen 15:6, that Paul cites. But this view over-privileges the accounting metaphor (“reckoned”) and sometimes neglects much of the second half of Romans 4, in which the language shifts from the accounting metaphor to language of death and resurrection. In other cases this sort of interpretation is much thicker, stressing at least the rather full picture of faith that emerges from this chapter: its relation to hope and its theocoentric focus on God’s ability to bring life out of death.

2. Dissatisfaction with certain aspects of these two versions of the reigning interpretation has led some scholars to look for another dimension of Abraham’s role in Romans. They would argue that Abraham’s faithfulness is in fact the focus of Romans 4, and that the chapter serves as a means of connecting the faithfulness of Abraham to the faithfulness of Christ displayed on the cross. It is this kind of faith—that is, faithfulness—that is exemplary in Abraham and that is Paul’s desideratum for the communities in Rome. Other interpreters may focus less on the nature of Abraham’s faith and more on its universal role in Romans 4, that is, to serve Paul’s thematic argument that both Jews and Gentiles who have Abraham-like faith are part of the new covenant community in Christ.

3. As tempting and promising as the “faithfulness” solution may be for those of us who prefer the “faith of Christ” interpretation of pistis christou, or as self-evidently correct as the focus on universality may be, I think we also need to look at another dimension of Romans 4 that has been neglected. I want to propose that Paul wants us to see the actual content of Abraham’s faith and the experience of that faith as a prototype of death and resurrection with Christ. If this is correct, then Abraham serves as an exemplum of Paul’s unique participatory understanding of justification by faith as co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Christ.

4. The basic argument here is very simple: Abraham’s faith was not merely an attitude of trust versus a doing of deeds or faithfulness or confidence in possession of a “boundary marker” (circumcision); nor was it merely a general theological belief in, or even a trusting posture toward, God as the one who can raise the dead or bring life out of death. Rather, because Abraham himself was functionally dead—along with his wife’s womb—his faith was that God could bring life out of his death, could transform his dead-ness into life. In other words, his faith was completely self-involving and participatory. That he was justified by faith means that he trusted the promise of life-out-of-death given to him, and that he was justified by faith means not merely that he was fictitiously considered just or righteous, but that he was granted the gracious gift of new life out of death, which was concretely fulfilled in the birth of a descendant—a very Jewish notion of life. In retrospect, from Paul’s own position of having died and been resurrected in Christ, Abraham’s experience is prospectively analogous to what Paul says about all baptized believers in Romans 6: their justification by faith means a participatory experience of resurrection out of death.

5. All of this helps us understand, in part, why the resurrection is absolutely essential to justification (Rom 4:25).

Any thoughts about this?