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Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe

  • Michael Cranford (a1)

In Romans 4 Paul turns to the scriptural figure of Abraham, a vivid personification of faith and obedience in Jewish thought. While the most obvious reason for Paul's depiction of Abraham is to undermine any use of Abraham as a counterexample to his foregoing argument, Paul turns the common Jewish conception of Abraham on its head and offers him instead as positive support for his own position. The nature of Paul's argument in the previous two chapters of Romans has been identified by James Dunn and others as rejecting the Jewish assumption that covenant privileges are strictly associated with ethnic Israel and therefore unavailable to Gentiles. Over against the Torah, Paul has instead offered faith as the identifier or boundary marker of those who are members in God's people – a difference which allows Gentiles full participation in the covenant.

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1 Cranfield C. E. B., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975) 226.

2 Most commentators recognize this fact, though Paul is typically thought to be contesting a syncretistic combination of faith and deeds, or faith seen as a good deed. See, for example, Cranfield, Romans, 229;Matthew Black, Romans (NCB; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973) 68;Doughty Darrel J., ‘The Priority of XAP1Σ’, NTS 19 (1973) 166.

3 Dunn James D. G., Romans (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988);‘Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law’ and ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Louisville: West-minster/John Knox Press, 1990) 183241. See also Michael Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity: Paul's View of Israel in Romans 9.1–13’, JSNT 50 (1993) 2741;Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (SNTSMS 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986) 110–11;Wright N. T., ‘Romans and the Theology of Paul’, Society of Biblical Literature 1992 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars, 1992) 184213. Wright reverses the emphasis suggested here and instead argues that the problem was not how Gentiles were included in God's people, but rather the sentiment that would cause Gentiles to exclude their Jewish brothers from membership in the assembly (see esp. pp. 187–8).

4 Moisés Silva, ‘The Law and Christianity: Dunn's New Synthesis’, WTJ 53 (1991) 352–3.

5 Hendrikus Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971) 84.

6 Hanson Anthony T., ‘Abraham the Justified Sinner’, Studies in Paul's Technique and Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974) 62. Similarly, see Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (ET; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980) 116. Even Watson identifies Paul's use of Abraham as a model of obedience primarily and only secondarily as a recipient of the promise of salvation (Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, 139).

7 Doughty, ‘The Priority of XAPIΣ’, 165–6.

8 George Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia (2nd ed.; SNTSMS 35; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990) 55, emphasis added.

9 Davies Glenn N., Faith and Obedience in Romans (JSNTSup 39; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 145.

10 Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (MeyerK; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978) 161–2; also Dunn, Romans, 198;Davies, Faith and Obedience, 148;Ulrich Wilckens, Der Brief an die Römer (EKKNT; Zurich: Benziger, 1978) I.261.

11 Jan Lambrecht, ‘Why Is Boasting Excluded? A Note on Rom 3,27 and 4,2’, ETL 61 (1985) 366.

12 Black, Romans, 67.

13 This and other difficulties are summarized by Hays Richard B., ‘“Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather according to the Flesh?” A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1’, NouT 27 (1985) 77–8. It will be profitable to briefly review Hays' observations with regard to Rom 4.1 here.

14 Ibid, 78–80.

15 Stanley Stowers (The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans [Chico: Scholars, 1981] 133) notes that ί ρομεν as an interrogative explanation is used to introduce false conclusions. Postulating a hypothetical interlocutor at every turn, Stowers calls these conclusions ‘objections’ (133–7).

16 This punctuation has undoubtedly been avoided because it apparently leaves εύρηκέναι (with the assumed sense of ‘gain, acquire’) without an expressed object, a condition unparalleled in the NT. If this sense of εύρίσκειν is not assumed here, however, at least one other possibility presents itself; namely, that 'Aβραάμ is not the subject but the direct object of the infinitive εύρηκέναι, whose subject is the understood ‘we’ from the preceding ρομεν. In this case, εύρίσκειν is not a reference to something tangibly acquired, but to the ‘findings’ of a discussion or inquiry, a commonly attested meaning of the word (BAGD, 325) As Hays points out (‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1’, 82), Paul uses εύρίσκειν in this sense in Rom 7.10, 21. The construction featuring this verb, an unexpressed εἶναι, and a predicate nominative or adjective is common in Paul (1 Cor 4.2; 15.15; 2 Cor 5.3; 9.4; 12.20; Gal 2.17).

17 Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1’, 82. Wright follows Hays' translation of 4.1, but argues that the ‘we’ refers to both Jews and Christians, with the resultant meaning: ‘Does this [3.21–31] mean that we Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, now discover that we are to be members of the fleshly family of Abraham?’ (‘Romans and the Theology of Paul’, 191). Wright's interpretation misses the point, however. The question is not whether Gentiles now discover that Abraham is to be their fleshly forefather, but whether they can be considered part of his family when he is clearly not their forefather on fleshly terms.

18 Boers believes that Paul uses Abraham differently in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. In Galatians 3 Paul argues ‘not by interpreting the character of faith, but by trying to prove that Abraham was the forefather of those who believe in Christ and not of those who are under the Law … In Romans 4, by contrast, it is specifically the structure of faith which Paul explicates, and in terms of which the relation between Abraham and the believer is established’ (Theology out of the Ghetto, 82–3). The position adopted here is that both Galatians 3 and Romans 4 use the figure of Abraham to prove the same point. See also Michael Cranford, ‘The Possibility of Perfect Obedience: Paul and an Implied Premise in Galatians 3:10 and 5:3’, NovT 36 (1994) 242–58, esp. 250–1.

19 Thus, Dunn, Romans, 199. It is surprising that Dunn so casually dismisses Hays' appraisal of 4.1–8, since this translation of 4.1 has far more potential to rescue Dunn's thesis from the counterexample of 4.4–5 than his own traditional reading of 4.1.

20 Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1’, 88.

21 Schlier H., Der Römerbrief: Kommentar (HTKNT; Freiburg: Herder, 1977) 123;Käsemann, Romans, 106–7.

22 Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, 137.

23 Thus, Halvor Moxnes states that ‘boasting is linked to the Law and to “works”. That is, Paul sees a direct connection between boasting and the Jewish law; and it was the Jewish law which explicitly upheld the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews. Thus, “boasting” … refers to that specific Jewish boasting of possessing the law, as a sign of special status and a means of comparison with non-Jews’ (‘Honour and Righteousness in Romans’, JSNT 32 [1988] 71).

24 For counterpoints to this view, see Cranfield C. E. B., ‘“The Works of the Law” in the Epistle to the Romans’, JSNT 43 (1991) 89101;Schreiner Thomas R., ‘“Works of Law” in Paul’, NovT 33 (1991) 217–44. See also Dunn's reply to recent critics, ‘Yet Once More – “The Works of the Law”: A Response’, JSNT 46 (1992) 99117.

25 Cranfield, Romans, 227.

26 See Black, Romans, 68.

27 Contra Davies, who states that ‘in choosing the patriarch Paul has the opportunity of demonstrating that Abraham's obedience was in no way a ground for his justification before God’ (Faith and Obedience, 143). This statement is somewhat surprising, since Davies himself argues throughout that faith and obedience cannot be dichotomized.

28 Thus, note Paul's dismissal of deeds either good or bad in Rom 9.11.

29 Dunn, Romans, 201; Lambrecht, ‘Why Is Boasting Excluded?’, 368.

30 Davies, Faith and Obedience, 149. Though cf. Howard (Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56), who concedes the possibility that one might have a boast before God on the basis of works. If the basis for righteousness is not works (and, in fact, can never be works, even in the traditional view), then it is difficult to see how such a possibility might ever be realized.

31 Dunn, Romans, 202.

32 Robertson O. Palmer, ‘Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text’, WTJ 42 (1980) 265.

33 Schoeps H. J., Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961) 202. See also Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans (JSNTSup 45; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 217–18.

34 Dunn, Romans, 203.

35 Thus Cranfield, Romans, 229–30;Barrett C. K., Romans (HNTC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1957) 87;Moo Douglas J., Romans (WEC; Chicago: Moody, 1991) 266.

36 Noted by Barrett, Romans, 88.

37 Cranfield, Romans, 231;Moo, Romans, 266.

38 Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56. See also Doughty, ‘The Priority of XAPIΣ’, 165–7.

39 Thus Silva, ‘The Law and Christianity: Dunn's New Synthesis’, 353; and Schreiner, ‘Works of Law’, 228–9.

40 Similarly, Elliott states that the contrast in these verses is not to determine whether Abraham approached God by faith or works, since that point is already assumed in Gen 15.6, but ‘to establish how God “reckoned righteouness” to Abraham, whether, that is, it was under constraint (κατ φείλημα)’ (The Rhetoric of Romans, 160).

41 A more likely antithesis is suggested by Paul himself later in Romans. Paul sets Abraham's justification in 4.5 against the workman's wage in 4.4 which is not reckoned κατ χάριν. Paul later states that the ‘free gift’ (χάρισμα, 5.15a) is by grace (χάρις) and results in justification (5.16b) and righteousness (5.17b), making ‘free gift’ equivalent to the state of affairs we find in 4.5, and in contrast to 4.4. In Rom 6.23, however, Paul does not contrast the free gift with an alternative means of salvation based on human effort, but with the natural consequences of disobedience. The free gift results in life, but the wages of sin result in death. Similarly, in 5.15a Paul states that ‘the free gift is not like the transgression’. In both these cases, Paul sees a qualitative difference in the causal relationship between the human response and each of two resulting eternal destinies. One comes by grace and the other by necessity (‘what is due’). Seen in this light, the antithesis of 4.4–5 does not contrast two ways of gaining righteousness, but instead argues that the way God reckons righteousness is unlike how the natural consequences of human action are normally meted out. This point surfaces in chaps. 5 and 6 without a hint of two dichotomous roads to salvation.

42 Pointed out by Gale Herbert M., The Use of Analogy in the Letters of Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964) 174.

43 Cf. Moo (Romans, 266), who notes that Paul's argument is unclear in vv. 4–5 due to the disrupted parallelism. The perceived lack of clarity is more symptomatic of Moo's expectations of where Paul is going than where, in fact, Paul's argument ends up. See also Wilckens, Römer, 1.262;Käsemann, Romans, 110.

44 Gale, The Use of Analogy in the Letters of Paul, 174.

45 Dunn, Romans, 204–5. See also Lloyd Gaston (‘Abraham and the Righteousness of God’, Paul and the Torah [Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1987] 61), who notes that 4.5 parallels Gal 3.8, such that ‘godless’ must refer to the Gentiles. Cf. Käsemann, who states that ‘Abraham is ungodly, in so far as he cannot be called “good”, measured against the standards of the Jewish and Greek worlds. He does not deal in works. For that very reason he is, on the other hand, the prototype of faith, which always has to be viewed in antithesis to a piety of works’ (‘The Faith of Abraham in Romans 4’, Perspectives on Paul [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971] 85). Käsemann misses the fact that Abraham was not ungodly in a moral sense, nor would such a claim have been convincing to a Jewish listener, who could recount the many tests of Abraham's obedience prior to Genesis 15. The term ‘ungodly’ must refer not to Abraham's sinfulness but to his status as an uncircumcised Gentile. Cf. Wilckens, Römer, 1.263.

46 This point amounts to a significant departure from Dunn's position. For a more detailed discussion of these boundaries, see Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1–13’.

47 Dunn, Romans, 206. I would nuance this somewhat differently, and instead say that David envisages a forgiveness which goes beyond the bounds of ethnic Israel – not beyond the bounds of the covenant. The idea here is that the covenant is envisaged as larger than any one ethnic group (cf. Rom 1.16). Dunn adds the following citations as examples of terminology identifying those outside the covenant: Ps 28.3; 55.3; 92.7; 101.8; 125.3; cf. 1 Mace 1.34; 2.44; cf. Paul's own use elsewhere – 6.19; 2 Cor 6.14; 2 Thess 2.3, 7.

48 Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56; also Gaston, ‘Abraham’, 61–2.

49 This is especially marked in Rom 2.1–29, where the phases of Paul's argument reveal the growing specificity of the Jewish position being rebutted.

50 Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto, 89.

51 BAGD; Rengstorf K. H., ‘σημεῖον’, TDNT 7.219, 258.

52 Dunn, Romans, 209.

53 Thus, Barrett, Romans, 92;Moo, Romans, 274;Cranfield, Romans, 236;TDNT 7.949.

54 Barrett, Romans, 91.

55 Cranfield, Romans, 238.

56 Käsemann goes too far when he states that ‘only the Christian is the true Jew, and Abraham is called the father of the circumcision only as the father of Jewish-Christians’ (Romans, 116). Rather, Paul is arguing that Abraham has never been the forefather of Jews who did not have faith, at any stage in salvation history.

57 See Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1–13’.

58 Dunn, Romans, 213–14.

59 I have argued this point elsewhere (‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1–13’).

60 Cranfield, Romans, 240.

61 Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1’, 93.

62 Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto, 84.

63 Hanson, ‘Abraham the Justified Sinner’, 66.

64 Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto, 91. While the object of Abraham's faith (4.17) and that of the Christian (4.24) are ultimately the same (cf. Käsemann, Romans, 128), Paul never treats Abraham's faith as exemplary. The fact that believing Gentiles have faith like their forefather is assumed, not prescribed. It is a premise in Paul's argument which explains why Gentiles are as much Abraham's offspring as believing Jews.

65 Boers, Theology out of the Ghetto, 84.

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