A Redemptive Historical Biblical “Postscript” to Fear and Trembling

In this post I explore a hermeneutical possibility overlooked by Johannes de Silentio, but one which, Soren Abraham and Isaac IconKierkegaard, on the other hand might find intriguing.  In other words, given that Kierkegaard and his various pseudonyms must be viewed as distinct personae, it is reasonable to believe that Kierkegaard would be open to Scriptural suggestions in addressing the tensions presented in Silentio’s account.  For example, Johannes does an excellent job of more or less exhausting the possibilities of rationally explaining (by way of Hegel’s ethics) Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  That is, interpreted in light of Hegel’s ethics, Abraham can only be condemned as a murderer.  Why?  Abraham’s act was not for the sake of the whole but was a teleological suspension of the ethical wherein the individual’s relation to God relativizes all other relationships, and hence, relativizes the ethical understood as universally applicable in a transhistorical, transpersonal and trancultural way.  In light of the fact that Hegel’s ethics makes the father of faith a murderer, the Christian finds Hegelian philosophy to be an inadequate hermeneutic for understanding Scripture (at least with regard to making sense of the Abraham/Isaac story).  So what happens when we replace Hegelian philosophy with the Christ-event as our interpretive lens and engage in a Christotelic reading of the Abraham story?  In what follows, I explicate what a Christotelic reading might look like and explore various possibilities offered by such a reading.

Early in Genesis 3 we encounter the fall of Adam, a fall whose effects are mysteriously communicated to all of Adam’s posterity. In Gen 3:15, we read, “I [the Lord God] will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Here we get a glimpse of the Lord’s solution to the sin problem arising from the fall.  As the biblical story unfolds, we see the gravity of sin and the many ways it has ravaged humankind.  For example, in Gen 6:5 we read, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  In fact, Gen 6:5 gives us a concise statement of the problem at hand, viz., the human heart (i.e., the whole person) is corrupted and a transformed or “re-created” heart is needed.

Holding this heart problem in abeyance, we move forward to Gen 12 and the election of Abraham and his seed.  Here we gain further insight into the beginning of God’s slow unfolding answer to Adam’s sin, viz., through God’s covenant with Abraham all nations will be blessed.[1] Consequently, through Abraham’s line, we eventually have the emergence of the nation of Israel-a nation set apart by God for a covenantal relationship; hence, we have a kind of “second humanity” called by God to fulfill that which Adam forfeited.  (Here the idea is that Israel’s calling included not only obedience to the Torah but a mission to bless all nations and this blessing eventually translates into Gentiles entering into a covenant relationship with God made possible by the Messiah).  However, as the pages of the Old Testament demonstrate, Israel also suffered from the same “heart problem.”  As a result, she did not obey the LORD and failed to keep the Torah-a failure which included misunderstanding her mission to the Gentiles.  Yet, as the Torah itself tells us, the LORD himself will solve the heart problem of his people, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6, emphasis added).   How will God do this? The answer to this question provides the hermeneutical key to the Abraham story, i.e., it points us to the necessity of reading the Abraham story Christotelic-ly. Or stated slightly differently, it highlights the need to derive our hermeneutic from within Scripture itself.

Abraham and IsaacAs redemptive history unfolds, we discover that God accomplishes this “heart surgery” through the gift of His Son, the true Israelite who kept Torah perfectly and who willingly gave his life as a ransom for many.  Here we have the antitype to which the Abraham/Isaac event points and which perhaps Abraham himself caught a glimpse in his expectation of the coming Messiah.[2] That is, just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, so too the Father was willing and actually carried through the sacrifice of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.  However, there are significant differences in that Isaac, though willing to go with his father, was not fully aware of what his father has been called to do; whereas, the Lord Jesus Christ was both fully aware and willing to be sacrificed for those who hated him.  Perhaps there is also a sense (without moving into heresy??) that the Abraham story is meant to provide greater existential insight into the suffering the Father experienced (covenantally, not essentially as God’s nature doesn’t suffer change) in the sacrificial death of his Son.   [Update:  The comments seem to suggest otherwise : )].

Though this Christotelic reading does not solve all of the ethical tensions in the Abraham narrative, nor does it remove the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death (a necessary mystery given our finitude); however, it does provide a broader context in which to interpret God’s command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Given this larger context, we can see that God never intended that Abraham actually murder his son, but rather this event was itself a sign pointing beyond itself, a sign pointing to that future Christ-event in which ultimate existential expression of both suffering and love was displayed.


[1] See also Gen 15 and 17.

[2] See John 8:56.

14 thoughts on “A Redemptive Historical Biblical “Postscript” to Fear and Trembling”

  1. God the Father murdered his Son? This is a tough one— this would seem to contradict the Creed… among other things.

  2. Well, okay. Good point, Scott. I don’t want to say that. But I wonder if there is a way that we can rightly affirm a kind of suffering (covenantally speaking or even analogically speaking) of the Father with regard to the Son’s death. You would think that the separation that occurred was not pleasant for the Father, given that Jesus is his beloved Son. (Also, Abraham didn’t actually murder his son; so if there is an analogy to be made, that would not be one of the points of similarity).

    I’m aware of the bit about suffering requiring a material body and that’s why we can say that Jesus suffered–he suffered in his humanity etc. etc. But to say that God the Father stood aloof while Jesus, his only begotten, most beloved Son was crucified seems odd to me, especially when God reveals himself as a passionate lover. I realize that Scripture speaks in figures, types, uses anthropomorphisms etc., but again, it doesn’t seem quite right to present God the Father as a Christianized “unmoved mover.” If I recall correctly, Hans Urs von Balthasar held that in some mysterious sense suffering enters the intratrinitarian relations via the incarnation. I haven’t read HUvB in a while, but I’d definitely like to revisit that issue.

    Best wishes,

  3. I suppose what you write is interesting, but it doesn’t really respond to the spirit of the text. You respond theologically to something that was written as a poetic mediation. Fear and Trembling was intended to get certain people–SK’s Hegelian colleagues mainly–to ruminate on the illogical basis of their Christian faith (making room for SK’s “leap of faith”), causing your logical and theological response to seem odd and unnecessary. Like someone criticizing grammar at a poetry slam. Not that SK’s writings aren’t theological at times, but this particular book by Silentio is particularly poetic–he even gives it the subtitle “A Dialectical Lyric.” I think your approach would be better used on a text like Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

  4. I might need correcting on this point, but I think the term that most of the tradition has more or less accepted on this point is “impassibly suffered.” So, the point, I think, is a paradoxical one such that yes, indeed, Jesus really did suffer, while at the same time, God’s “impassibility” didn’t experience a change, but one could say that this is the nature of God to do such a thing. Of course there are versions that disagree with this (Moltmann, Altizer, and then from the atheist perspective, Agamben & Zizek).

    Also, aren’t there different versions of the Akedah? I want to say that I learned somewhere that in one of the Jewish versions, Abraham actually does kill Isaac, but somehow he comes back to life or something? I forget. I wonder if that isn’t the “main” one in their tradition? I’m ignorant on this.

  5. To add some brief input, it seems that God is spoken of in anthropomorphisms because it is always humans speaking of him–even in revelation. It is not as though it is no longer humans who are speaking of him when theology seeks to address the dynamics of the trinitarian relationship during the crucifixion event. To try to speak of the Father ‘during’ the crucifixion event in some way that is disjointed from the rest of our understanding of him would be incongruous with the mode and manner of revelation. That he has chosen to reveal himself in the crucifixion precisely because he is redeeming our humanity in that event would seem to indicate that the suffering that is proper to our nature is there communicated; the doctrine of God’s impassibility in relation to the crucifixion event seems to be a red herring of sorts, or at best a non sequitur. The revelation of redemption through incarnation-crucifixion-resurrection-ascension (the creedal movement of Jesus’ redemptive biography) is not the revelation of an impassive God, but of a deeply passionate and committed God.

    Thanks for indulging my digression from the centerpiece of this post. As always, I am interested in your thoughts on this line of thinking.

  6. Micah,

    There’s nothing in my post that speaks against SK via Silentio writing as a poet, as F&T is no-doubt one of SK’s pseudonymous works—a work classified in the corpus as a whole as “aesthetic.” Nonetheless, I don’t buy the read of SK that presents the aesthetic works as part of his development into a religious writer. Rather, I seek both the pseudonymous works and those written under SK’s own name as religious through and through. SK himself in fact rejects this development thesis [Cf. The Point of View of My Work as an Author]. In all of SK’s works, he wants to challenge the reader to think through the implications of authentic religious existence (which for him means Christianity).

    So when it comes to F&T, I take this to be a work primarily about faith, albeit from an outsider’s point of view (Silentio’s). I do agree that he has a version of Hegelianism in view as his “opponent”. Specifically, he wants to highlight the inadequacy of Hegel’s ethics to deal with Abraham’s faith as exhibited in his obedience to God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. (He has other “opponents” in view as well: the “Christendom” of the Danish Church of his day, philosophers who don’t take faith seriously but view it as something inadequate, something to be overcome etc.).

    Regarding the often misunderstood “leap of faith,” in no way do I see SK as promoting some kind of irrationalism, though he would be quick to accept supra-rationalism (that some truths are beyond are ability to comprehend exhaustively). This is not to deny that some of his characters make statements whose implications are problematic, even contradictory. (Nor is it to deny that some of SK’s own views overlap with some of his characters; his authorship is complex by design). For SK (and he is clear about this when writing under his own name), Christian existence is not something that can be simply willed into being without divine aid. Faith is a gift; yet, faith does require that a genuine decision be made—the individual must choose to accept the gift. SK should not be read as promoting a kind of irrational leap into the dark. Rather, the “leap” highlights the fact that faith is not simply a natural and unavoidable development in a person’s life—it is a gift; thus, in that sense faith displays is a certain discontinuity with a person’s past. A new mode of existence has been made possible with faith and this comes about by grace and via a genuine human decision.

    Given what I’ve said above, I don’t think that SK would have been averse to my post. After all, it was to him that the “Postscript” was addressed (not to Silentio : ).


  7. Hi Eric,

    I’m glad you joined us. I don’t know about the other Jewish versions–perhaps other versions did claim that Isaac was killed. Do you see Silentio (or SK) as having has any other version that the Genesis account in mind in F&T? Of course there are improvisational meditations on the Gen theme in F&T, but it still seems that the Gen account is the “main theme” upon which the improvisation is built.

    I’m familiar with impassibility language, but I’m not sure that I find it satisfying. I certainly don’t want to suggest the God’s nature changes or develops etc. etc. But impassibility as it is typically presented still “feels” more like Aristotle’s unmoved mover than YHWH of the OT and NT. I wonder how a Newman-esque application of the Creed on this point will come to view impassibility 100 years from now (given the insights of Christian thinkers like von Balthasar etc.).

    Best wishes,

    Hi Mel,

    I appreciate your contribution, as what you say resonates with me. I do understand the cautionary points that Scott is stressing, I’d just like to hear something that brings the two views together (if possible): (1) that God in his essence doesn’t change and (2) that YHWH is not some kind of distant deity that stands aloof while his Son suffers (as you point out, that’s not how he is presented in Scripture). Also, to simply say well, that’s just an anthropomorphic way of getting at the “real (philosophical) truth about God–which only the elite, intellectual philosophers can grasp, just doesn’t seem right either. That approach almost seems to go the route of complete negative theology where at the end of the day we are more or less confined to silence. There is something respectable about that approach and definitely something to be learned from it; but it ultimately leaves me unsatisfied). I’ll readily acknowledge that we will never know God in an exhaustive and comprehensive way; but, he seems to have gone to great lengths so that we can know him (Incarnation, divine revelation, creating a sacramental universe, providentially guiding his Church throughout the ages etc.) even if our knowledge is incomplete and always finite.

    Best wishes,

    p.s. I hope that I am not interpreted as suggesting that we ought to do away with the Creed or change the Creed. I am just “thinking out loud” as one might in a conversation with a friend.

  8. Does a reservation against God’s impassibility risk conceiving God with a “univocity of being” metaphysic and isn’t this one thing that impassibility seeks to preserve? Just wondering.

  9. Hi Wayne,

    I don’t think so. As I said, I’m open to an analogical understanding of God’s suffering–something like Eric’s description of “impassible suffering” (the phrase itself seems to suggest an analogical idea, as we humans only have experience with suffering that involves change, mutability).

    Perhaps I’m missing your point. : )

    I’m actually surprised that the discussion has become focused on this one issue. Oh well, that’s how dialogue “works”.

    Best wishes,

  10. Sorry, I just recently finished reading Weinandy’s “Does God Suffer?” and he seemed to make a pretty big deal out of this. Anyway, I’ll certainly have to think more about this. Always good to read your posts!

  11. Hi Wayne,

    I need to think more about it as well! So perhaps it is a good thing that the comments moved the discussion in this direction.

    With all good wishes,

  12. Thanks for your extensive responses to all of us, Cynthia. When I say that theology is anthropomorphic, I don’t think that in any way demotes its reliability; rather, we are theomorphic (created in the image and likeness of God) and so anthropomorphisms are, in effect, glorifying to God because they get at the heart of his creating and redeeming purposes–our relationship with him as who he is by being who he created us to be (namely, human and therefore limited). As you say, we cannot know God exhaustively, but we can know him truly and intimately because he has chosen for us to–that choice was initiated at our creation in his image.

    The concept ‘unchanging’ is an important one insofar as it distinguishes and differentiates God from us (Creator from creature), but (as you indicate in your response to Wayne) what are we capable of meaning by it? It seems that the immutability of God is itself an instance of negative theology. When we say immutable, unchanging, we are simply saying not mutable, not changing, not like our cars that rust or our wine that sours or fickle friends or erratic thunderstorms. But even on my most imaginative days I don’t know what we are affirming apart from the creedal events, which are events in time and space. I think what is at stake in discussions of immutability is God’s Godness, whatever we might mean by that. I think ‘unchanging’ has become synonymous with ‘Godness’, but as I queried earlier, why? And why in relation to the suffering of Christ on the cross? Given that the Incarnate one is the fullest revelation of God to us, why would ‘unchanging’ be our gold standard for ‘Godness’? I suppose that was all I meant earlier by my possibly insulting reference to red herring or non sequitur arguments.

    My apologies for another long, tangential comment to this post. Again, thanks for indulging.

  13. I guess “where I’m at” with the God-language is something along the lines of St. Thomas’ doctrine of analogy as articlualted in the Summa Theologiae (1a q13 a10 corp.) (Although, I’d like to spend a lifetime reading Balthasar and others in his vein who make Thomas’ view more historically friendly; that is, a view which would integrate Thomas with Hegelian insights as well as the insights of Gadamer and Newman).

    If you are interested, I did a series on analogy and univocity a few years back:
    http://percaritatem.com/2008/01/13/part-ii-denys-turner-on-scotus-univocity-and-inference/ (Part II deals with Thomas’ doctrine of analogy).

    As to protecting God’s immutability (with regard to his essence), I think that’s pretty important, as we don’t want a God that is arbitrary, saying one thing today and then contradicting himself tomorrow (using the terms “today” and “tomorrow” as temporal markers for us, since God knows everyone in one act). However, God’s immutability doesn’t preclude God revealing himself progressively in history, and as we know history is “messy.”

    Best wishes,

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