by Michael CranfordThis article was originally published in New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 71-88.
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,1 Paul turns the common Jewish conception of Abraham on its head and offers him instead as positive support for his own position.2 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.3 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.
Silva remarks that Dunn does not appreciate how damaging Romans 4 is to his position, however, with its sharp antithesis between working and believing. Further, Silva asks why such a critical passage as 4.4-5 has played no significant role in the development of Dunn’s thesis, with the implication that Dunn has intentionally underplayed its importance.4 The relative significance of 4.4-5 has yet to be weighed, but Silva’s criticism is valid. As a latter development in Paul’s argument, the figure of Abraham, with its sharp ‘faith-works’ terminology appropriated by the Reformers, must either follow logically from Dunn’s perspective on Romans 1-3 or else stand at complete odds with it.
A primary issue to be resolved is how the figure of Abraham functions with regard to Paul’s argument in Romans 4. The traditional view is that Abraham is an example of Christian faith, demonstrating how we, as individuals, can be justified. If this is true, then the emphasis of Romans 4 is not primarily on the consequences of Abraham’s belief but on the mechanism of belief itself. Strong support for this comes later in the chapter, Boers argues:
The decisive factor for the relation between Abraham’s faith and the faith of the believer, according to this chapter, is the fact that it is the same God who is the object of the faith of Abraham (4:17, cf. 5) and of that of the Christian believer (verse 24). The connection between them is established in verse 23 with the statement that the justification that was announced to Abraham, was not announced on his behalf only, ‘but also on our behalf’, i.e., on the behalf of Christian believers.5
Similarly, Hanson concludes, ‘Thus Abraham’s justification fulfils exactly the same function which is required at the point in Romans where it comes: he is the prototype of believing Christians, a sinner (whether from Judaism or from the Gentile world) justified by faith’.6
Proponents of this view naturally set Abraham’s faith over against his good deeds, emphasizing that it was by his faith alone that God pronounced him righteous. Similarly, it is by faith and not good deeds that God now pronounces the Christian righteous. While there are many problems with this view, not the least being that it forces a Western individualistic perspective on a scriptural figure who is consistently viewed as symbolic of his progeny (cf. 4.13), the most critical flaw is that it dichotomizes faith and obedience in a way which would be completely unintelligible to a Jewish reader. As Doughty notes of 4.1-5,
It is important to recognize . . . that for the pious Jew this argument would hardly have been convincing or even understandable. . . Paul’s interpretation of the Genesis text [15.6] is a tour de force. For the radical distinction he makes here between pistis and erga cannot simply be derived from the text itself. This distinction breaks in such a decisive way with the traditional understanding of Judaism that his interpretation would be impossible for a Jewish reader to comprehend.7
Not only would this dichotomy be unconvincing to the Jewish or Jewish- Christian reader (cf. James 2.17-24), but it stands at odds with Paul’s earlier expressions of the connection between faith and obedience (1.5; 3.3; and implied in 2.7, 10, 13).
The interpretation of Romans 4 offered here is one in which Abraham is not viewed as an example of Christian faith, but is instead used by Paul to show why Gentiles can be considered members of God’s people. Gentiles share in the covenant because they, too, are children of Abraham. As Howard states, ‘The idea is that the Gentiles are blessed not simply like Abraham but because of Abraham’.8 Abraham provides the reason why Gentiles experience salvation, not the example of how an individual becomes saved. In Jewish thought, Abraham was viewed as the paradigm of obedience, but this obedience was directly connected to his having passed on covenant privileges to Israel.9 Paul breaks from this Jewish understanding in Romans 4 by showing that Abraham has passed on covenant privileges to all who believe, and not just to those who are members of ethnic Israel. This break is therefore not over belief and obedience as competing soteriological paradigms, but over Jewish ethnicity and faith as competing boundary markers of God’s people. (more…)