Abraham, Faith, and One-Ended Sticks
When building a biblical theology, how one understands key biblical concepts is extremely important. A habit of too narrowly defining key biblical concepts due to various historical and personal reasons (e.g., historical theological debates and plain old personal laziness just to name a few) has plagued the modern evangelical church, and this has not been without significant negative impact on her health and theological depth.
Take the common evangelical understanding of the concept of “faith.” Many in the evangelical church understand “faith” as mental action, an intellectual agreement with core theological doctrine. Perhaps the most common verse that comes to mind for most would be Eph. 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Here many get the most often understood expression of “faith” as an intellectual act and as an opposite of “works.” But while “faith” does contain some aspect of intellectual belief or agreement (such as is seen in Eph. 2:8–9) and while doctrine is important, the Bible actually expresses a more multifaceted and nuanced understanding of "faith." For example, in Hebrews 11, the author offers a lengthy exegesis of Old Testament narrative in an effort to define “faith.” One inescapable conclusion concerning his argument is that he sees faith and the action of obedience as closely tethered. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out” (Heb 11:8). Over and over again in Heb 11, faith, which is defined as an assurance and conviction in Heb 11:1, is the driving force for obedience and action.
R.W. Moberly in his book The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A study of Abraham and Jesus, reflecting on the story of Abraham and its exegesis in Hebrews 11, wrote, “This is what true religion entails: a trusting obedience of God which means relinquishing to God that which is most precious; a self-dispossession of that on which one’s identity and hopes are most deeply based; a recognition that response to God may be costly, or even more costly, at the end of one’s life as it was earlier on; a recognition that the outcome of obedience is unknown and can not be predicted in advance; a recognition that the religious community to which one belongs and which tells this as one of its foundation stories can only become complacent at the expense of the essence of its own identity. This is to say that to the extent that the institutional forms of a religious community, whose purpose is to enable and preserve openness and responsiveness to God becomes devoted to maintaining their own existence at the expense of the very qualities they exist to foster, they deserve no less than the full critical impact of their own identifying charter.”
The story of Abraham and his demonstration of faith is indeed a dangerous story to have at the center of one’s theology. Then again, the story of Abraham’s faith is a prime example utilized by several New Testament authors. This thankfully doesn’t leave the evangelical Christian with much choice concerning the central place of Abraham’s faith in one’s construction of the concept of faith. Biblical faith is a faith that leans into the future of God’s promises through Jesus Christ, that flows from a place of assurance in Jesus Christ, and that manifests in actions of conviction from Jesus Christ. This is biblical faith. This is true religion.
In the end, Abraham’s story of faith leaves me with the conclusion that trying to define “faith” in God apart from actions of obedience to God is kind of like trying to think about a one-ended stick. Lord, may my faith in you reflect a level of assurance and conviction that moves me toward radical acts of obedience to Jesus Christ my Lord.