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‘Realities side by side’: God's patience and Abraham's humanity in Genesis 18:16–33

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2016

Jeremy J. Wynne*
Whitworth University, 300 W. Hawthorne Road, Spokane, WA 99251,


This paper argues that in Jesus Christ ‘real humanity’ is revealed as a gift of the patient God, who gives time and space to creatures. While Karl Barth's work in Church Dogmatics §30.3 focuses on God's patience as a mode of his redeeming presence, §44.3 opens up towards, but leaves undeveloped, a providential mode of patience, in which God constitutes his people by choosing them and giving them all they require to hear his Word and respond in obedience. Recognising God's patience in these distinct modes allows biblical instances of divine–human dialogue to be heard in new and compelling ways. For example, it allows Genesis 18:16–33 to be understood as foregrounding Abraham's joyful responsibility to engage with God, making that event, in all its contingency, the description of who Abraham is as real man. In this way, a complete theological anthropology has at its heart God's own perfection of patience.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Bavinck, Herman, God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, trans. Vriend, J., ed. Bolt, J. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 213–14.Google Scholar

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3 Claims to ‘real’ or ‘true’ humanity should be understood normatively, as referring to how a person has actualized the humanity to which she is summoned, a use which admits of degrees; cf. Kelsey, David H., Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 205Google Scholar.

4 All parenthetical citations are to Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, 13 vols, ed. Bromiley, G. W. and Torrance, T. F. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–75)Google Scholar.

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7 In §30.3, Barth is actually developing the biblical concept of God's patience alongside and through that of wisdom. The latter is a distinct topic for theology because ‘God not only wills but knows what He wills. And He knows not only what He wills, but why and wherefore He wills it . . . [namely] His own meaning, plan and intention’ (II/1, p. 423).

8 One thinks here of the remarkable case of the deluge, in which God's reason for destroying the world – namely the evil inclination of the human heart – is also the reason he will never do it again (cf. Gen 6:5; 8:21).

9 Tanner, Kathryn, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 28.Google Scholar

10 Dafydd Jones, Paul, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2008), p. 169Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., p. 234.

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21 The slow process of Peter's conversion to global Christian mission offers another compelling example of this (see Acts 10).

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24 Eichrodt, Walther, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. Baker, J. A. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1961), p. 292. Contrast the diabolical usage in Gen 19:5Google Scholar.

25 Walter Moberly likens the key interpretive move to the typological reading, which, for Christians, bridges Old and New Testaments – The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), pp. 139–40.

26 E.g. Gunkel, Hermann, Genesis, trans. Biddle, M. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), pp. 200–5Google Scholar.

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29 If, as Robert Jenson has argued in Canon and Creed (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), the second article of the Apostles’ Creed comprises ‘recitative appropriation of acts of God by which his Son Jesus is indeed our Lord’ (p. 49), then one may envision a second article which not only begins, ‘and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who as the Word given to Moses led Israel out of Egypt’ (pp. 30–1), but also, as a matter of canon, includes God's disclosure to Abraham (Gen 18:19).

30 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 208.

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34 E.g. Ephrem the Syrian (Comm. Gen. 16:1), Chrysostom (Hom. Gen. 42:12, 19, 23–4), and Calvin (Comm. Gen. 18:17–18). The possibility that a text's meaning may depart in this way from the most direct sense of the words rests on the distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts; see Nicolas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), p. 191.

35 MacDonald, Nathan, ‘Listening to Abraham – Listening to Yahweh: Divine Justice and Mercy in Genesis 18:16–33’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004), p. 35Google Scholar.

36 Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, vol. 1, p. 293. Less persuasive is Kelsey's assertion that ‘in creating, God precisely does not give Godself. To the contrary, what God gives in creating is thoroughly other-than-God’ (p. 214). This is based on Claus Westermann's dubious distinction between blessing as a state and deliverance as an event (p. 166). For the passage at hand, God's abiding presence includes his concrete address of the creature.

37 Knight, Douglas, ‘Time and Persons in the Economy of God’, in The Providence of God: Deus Habet Consilium ed. Murphy, F. A. and Ziegler, P. G., (London: T&T Clark, 2009), pp. 136, 141Google Scholar.

38 Charnock, Stephen, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter, 1853), p. 479Google Scholar.

39 For the community of faith, the negative side of divine patience is the ‘apparent delay of God's promises’ in which injustice and evil are given scope. Cremer, Hermann, Die christliche Lehre von den Eigenschaften Gottes (Gließ: Brunnen-Verlag, 2005), p. 84Google Scholar.

40 The phrase is closely related to ‘length of spirit’ (), which suggests calmness in the face of disorder or calamity (e.g. Eccl 7:8). I am grateful to Jim Bruckner, who has pointed out in private correspondence that, in other places in scripture, functions as a word of healing and restoration (e.g. Isa 58:6–9), an image of flesh as it grows or lengthens over a wound (e.g. Jer 33:6).

41 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, vol. 2, p. 494.

42 Barr, James, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: OUP, 1962), p. 263Google Scholar.

43 On the distinction between providential and redemptive modes of divine perfection, see my book, Wrath among the Perfections of God's Life (London: T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 109–14.

44 Gunton, Act and Being, p. 74.