The Meaning of “Abraham Believed God” in Romans 4:3 -- By: Richard Holst

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 59:2 (Fall 1997)
Article: The Meaning of “Abraham Believed God” in Romans 4:3
Author: Richard Holst


The Meaning of “Abraham Believed God” in Romans 4:3

Richard Holst

I. Abraham’s Faith and Propositional Revelation.

For his argument that Abraham was justified by faith rather than by works of the law in Romans 4, Paul selects as his textual base Gen 15:6. He does the same in Gal 3:6 to the same point, but there the argument moves from a consideration of Abraham’s faith to the priority of the Abrahamic covenant over the Mosaic covenant and the centrality of Christ as the seed of promise.

The choice of Gen 15:6 shows that, for Paul, faith is neither a work nor an intuition but persuasion of the promises as they are summed up in Christ.1 By drawing attention to the covenantal orientation of Abraham’s faith Paul shows that he understood the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God,” between subjective faith and its objective content. It also implies that he understood the relation of each to the other.

To argue, in contrast, that “Abraham believed in God rather than in the promise itself” and that “he clung to the God who had promised rather than to what had been promised”2 is to introduce a false and misleading dichotomy. If Abraham clung to God, it was to the God who revealed himself in and by his word. Narratives of theophanies involving the patriarch establish the priority of the word as the mode of divine self-disclosure.3 Commenting on Paul’s treatment of Abraham’s faith, N. T. Wright says, “the nature of that faith (not in the sense of an analysis of the act of believing but in the sense of an analysis of what is believed) is of vital

importance for his work.”4 The distinction is important—the knowledge of God is mediated through his word.

Rom 4 makes clear that God’s self-disclosure through the word of promise is the reason for Abraham’s subjective faith, and that apart from it an analysis of his faith is impossible. The position has been put like this: “According to the apostle, there were two facets to Abraham’s faith. One was personal and the other propositional, the latter being essential to the intelligibility of the former.”5

As indicated, the propositional facet of Abraham’s faith is the wo...

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