1. Devorah Dimant, “Use and Interpretation of the Mikra in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 394.
“Abraham–‘found faithful when tested’–the formula used of Abraham also in Sir 44:20 LXX, and is composed of an allusion to Gen 22:1 ‘God tested’…and to Neh 9:8 ‘you have found his heart faithful to you’. The second part of the verse is a slightly altered reproduction of Gen 15:6 (influenced by the formula applied to Phinehas in Ps 106:31).”
Genesis 15:6 states, “And [Abraham] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (NRSV). In Romans 4, Paul applies this to Abraham’s justification at a specific point in his life: In Genesis 15, God promised that Abraham would have children, Abraham believed God, and God considered Abraham to be righteous on account of his faith. Paul points out that this all occurred before Abraham was circumcised, meaning that God does not declare people righteous on account of circumcision.
Many Protestants conclude that all one has to do for God to consider him or her righteous is to trust in what Christ did on the cross. As Paul says in Romans 4:5, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” As Luther says, Christians are snow-covered dung: they are sinners, yet God accounts them as righteous when they accept his free gift of salvation.
James, however, appears to interpret Genesis 15:6 differently. In James 2:21-24, he states: “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James seems to associate Abraham’s justification with his willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
There are all sorts of interpretations of Genesis 15:6 in the history of biblical interpretation. I Maccabees 2:52 goes with the akedah view: “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” In medieval times, the Jewish exegete Rashi went with the Pauline interpretation. Nachmanides, however, said that the verse means Abraham believed God and accounted God as righteous, meaning the passage wasn’t about Abraham’s justification at all, but rather Abraham’s praise of God. Some maintain that Genesis 15:6 was not a specific incident but rather a summary of Abraham’s life: throughout his life, Abraham believed God, and God considered his faith righteous.
What’s interesting is Psalm 106:30-31: “Then Phinehas stood up and interceded, and the plague was stopped. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.” This is referring to the incident when Phinehas killed a man who was with a Midianite woman (Numbers 25). God then grants Phinehas a covenant of eternal priesthood.
Apparently, deeds other than believing God can be accounted as righteousness. That makes me wonder: when Genesis 15:6 says that God accounted Abraham’s faith as righteous, does that mean God is declaring Abraham righteous apart from works? Or does it mean that God was pleased with Abraham’s faith and reckoned it as an act of righteousness: When Abraham believed, God put a checkmark in the “good” column? Abraham could still earn marks in the “bad” column, however. Suppose he did not circumcise himself or his family? Genesis 17:14 states, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” And what if he chose not to sacrifice his son?
2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 744.
Hegesippus (second century C.E.) “felt perfectly at home in the Catholic church of his day which had ascended from, or rather never yet ascended the lofty mountain-height of apostolic knowledge and freedom.”
I’ve been reading something like this throughout Schaff: many of the early church fathers did not understand justification by grace through faith alone. Rather, they focus on avoiding hell by doing good works. I’ve wanted to comment, but I usually find something more interesting in Schaff that I write about instead. Today, however, I had pretty slim pickings.
I’m not going to comb through the early church fathers right now, but my impression is that they indeed did believe that Christ’s blood brings forgiveness of sins to those who have faith. But it doesn’t stop there for them. Barnabas thought that alms could also atone for sin. Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas warn believers that certain sins could lead them to hell.
There’s one lady who witnesses to me every now and then: She says that one can know he or she will go to heaven by accepting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. When I told her that I go to a Latin mass, she responded that she used to be a Catholic, but she was never sure that she was saved. After all, Catholics say that committing a mortal sin can lead a believer to hell, provided he doesn’t repent!
I admire and envy her sense of peace. And I can see some scriptural basis for it. Paul says in Romans 4:5: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” This passage seems to say that one doesn’t have to do good works to be saved; rather, one has to trust the one who justified the ungodly. And when a person has that kind of trust and assurance, he or she can truly love (Galatians 5:6). I’d rather my love flow from my assurance and peace rather than love in order to be saved. It’s a difference between running down-hill and climbing up-hill!
The problem is that Catholics aren’t getting their views on mortal sin from nowhere. Paul says in I Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers– none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21 has, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
If people are saved by trusting in Christ’s sacrifice apart from works, then how can any sin disqualify believers from the kingdom of God? Yet, Paul issues such a warning. When Paul says that people are justified by grace through faith, apart from works, does he mean that’s how they become Christians, not how they maintain their salvation? Is he talking about how people get into the door–by receiving God’s free grace? Even Catholics affirm that God’s the one who gets the ball rolling–with his undeserved grace!
3. “God’s Love for Israel,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 62.
“‘The Lord is my helper’ (Ps. CXVIII, 7). The matter is like two men who come to the judgment seat, and they are afraid of the judge. It is said to them, ‘Fear not, let your hearts take courage.’ So Israel will stand at the judgment before God, and will be afraid because of the Judge. Then the angels of the service will say to them, ‘Fear not, do you not recognize Him? He is your fellow-citizen, as it is said, ‘It is He who will build my city’ (Isa. XLV, 13); and then they will say, ‘Fear not the Judge; do you not recognize Him? He is your kinsman, as it says, ‘The children of Israel, the people related to Him’ (Ps. CXLVIII, 14). Then they will say, ‘Do you not recognize Him? He is your brother, as it says, ‘For my brethren and friends’ sake’ (Ps. CXXII, 8). And even more, He is your Father, as it is said, ‘Is not He thy father’ (Deut. XXXII, 6). (Midr. Ps. on CXVIII, 7 (242b, 10)”
I haven’t checked out the scriptural references to see what exactly the rabbis are doing with them, but there are two points I want to highlight: First of all, this appears to be another example of a rabbinic grace passage. Luther could have said the same thing, only he would have added stuff about the incarnation and Christ being our brother! At the same time, there are other rabbinic passages that do not exclude works from consideration at the judgment. One can perhaps reconcile those with this one by remembering the rabbinic statements that God has both mercy and justice, or that God will purify certain Jews in Gehenna before they can enter eternal bliss, or that God will give his people the benefit of a doubt (see Cursed Soil, Fellowship with God, Weighing Deeds). Put together, these passages convey the message that both works and grace will play a role in the last judgment.
Second, this passage affirms that God is the Jews’ brother and father. I’ve heard Christian sermons and read Christian books claiming that Jews in Christ’s time did not call God “Father.” That’s why they say Christ was so radical when he opened the Lord’s prayer with “our Father.” But the rabbis believed that God was the father of Israel, and there is scriptural basis for this view. God calls Israel his firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23). Moreover, there are biblical passages in which God can be like a father to individuals, not only an entire nation:
Psalm 27:10: “If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.”
Psalm 68:5: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Psalm 103:13: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.”
Proverbs 3:12: “for the LORD reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
I’m not sure if Islam has the same sort of idea. The Koran emphatically denies that God has a son (4:171), but that’s usually in response to the Christian idea that Jesus actually is God, or the (fictitious) rabbinic view that Ezra and the rabbis were divine (9:30-31). I’m not sure if it sees God as a father in the sense that he loves and takes care of people as a father would his children, although, of course, it is quite clear that Allah is compassionate! When I was at Harvard, I heard a Christian speaker tell us about a Muslim who converted to Christianity when she heard its concept of God as a father. Could she have found the same idea in her own religion, or does Islam primarily conceive of God as a righteous autocrat and judge?