Theology is as simple as the oceans.

Recently I post, on social media, what I thought was a clever quip by Karl Barth.

“There is a story of the astronomer who, after Karl Barth’s sermon, said: ‘I’m an astronomer, you know, and as far as I am concerned, the whole of Christianity can be summed up by saying: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”’ Barth’s retort: ‘I am just a humble theologian, and as far as I am concerned the whole of astronomy can be summed up by saying “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”

From Adam Johnson’s Atonement a Guide for the Perplexed, p 13. Johnson is citing John D. Godsey, “Reminiscences of Karl Barth”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin (2002), 321.

I attempted to do more than paste the quote without context and so I preceded it with the comment: “Some might wonder why theology can’t be simple and straightforward.” I believe that this was Johnson’s context for including the quote.
A few readers assumed that I was genuinely asking why theology wasn’t more simple. Others took issue with my suggestion that theology was not simple. One person assured me that theology was simple and that we didn’t need books – merely the help of the Holy Spirit. Another suggested that theologians make things complicated – all we need is childlike faith.  Truth be told there were only two or three people making these sorts of comments but I suspect they represent a larger group within the church. History and personal experience have revealed that their tribe is not small. It’s all really very simple – we would be better off with the “theologians.” In response to this I want to offer the following analogy.  
 

Thinking theologically is like exploring the oceans.

Is theology simple? Theology is simple in the sense that the ocean has shallow shores that a child can wade out into. The ocean is “simple” in that sense. Walk out a little ways and you are in over your head. The fact that a child can wade in the shallows of the Pacific does not mean that we do not need massive ocean liners to cross, or specialized subs to explore its depths. A child can discover that the ocean is composed of water; salty water. There are waves, there are fish. The ocean is blue. It is deep. What more need we say? In a similar way, a child can conclude that God is there, and there is one God, and God is love, God is righteous, etc.. We can read these things straightforwardly from scripture. What more need we say? 
 
There are simple aspects to thinking about God, but even the simplest of things lead quickly to the depths. The shallows of the ocean shore—physically and conceptually— drop off quickly in many places. It is not a long stretch from observing the waves (a simple thing) to asking “Why are there waves? What is a wave? Why is the ocean blue? What does it mean to see something as blue? Why is the ocean salty? How does the ocean affect life on the planet?” In a similar way one might ask – what does it mean to say that God is love? Dare I mention the Holocaust? What do we mean when we say God exists? What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to say that God underwent incarnation? How is God omnipresent without a body – what is there of God to be located anywhere? Does the incarnation affect omnipresence? 
 
We might think the ocean is a straightforward thing; after all it is only water and fish. Boats float, maps direct us… if the weather is good we can make it across; why make it difficult?

We stand on the shoulders of maritime giants when it comes to our knowledge of the sea. So it is with theology. What seems “simple and obvious” today – was not always so simple and obvious. We know what we know about ocean navigation and shipbuilding because tens of thousands of men and women have taken their lives into their hands to navigate it, chart it, sound its depths, catch its fish and brave its waves. Thousands of seagoing vessels have been tested upon the sea and thousands lost. Long before this began, whole civilizations feared the sea. They were ignorant of how to navigate its deeps, and so sailors hugged the shores. Things were not always so obvious. It is a privilege to be able to pick up a book and browse the diagrams, charts, explanations, and images of the sea. What seems as simple as flipping through a book was gained at great effort and cost.  

 
Likewise there are things that seem straightforward theologically – because – for nearly every Christian, someone taught them how to understand the Scriptures and how to think about God. For many this occured from the earliest days of their youth.  A basic theology is as familiar to them as their own cultural worldview.  They, and we,  were taught how to put the sections of the Bible together into a coherent whole. Over the years we forget our teachers and wrongly assume that, “these things are just obvious.” This is not so. Thousands have gone before us, and by God’s help, have put pieces together for us.   They  have translated the scriptures diligently for us into our own language. With every word we read… merely reading before doing theology… we are being helped along by a translator who went before us. Some teacher taught our forebearers, and they taught our parents, and others in turn taught us.

Theological truth seems straightforward because we have reaped the accumulated efforts of generations of teachers – the same sorts of teachers who we take to be complicating things today. 
The Holy Spirit is certainly our guide, our helper, beckoning us to the shore to launch our craft. Somehow the Spirit points some and not others to certain insights. The Spirit did not see fit, however, to allow the church to conclude everything in a single generation. Therefore I assume that likewise, on our little lonesome—with the help of the Spirit—we would not reach the theological understandings that we possess … were we to go it on our own, without those meddlesome theologians. Similarly,  we could not scarcely reinvent  all of the maritime discoveries in a single lifetime. 
Even with all that we know about the ocean, there is much that we still do not know. There are depths of the ocean that can crush our subs. There are waves that can sink our ships. Anyone can easily get lost at sea.  Yes, there are shallows. Yes, we can make our way along by hugging the shore, but the shallows connect to the deeps. In unguarded moments of confidence or neglect… a skiff can be swept out into the depths and lost.  
Here, the analogy breaks down. The ocean is finite; God is not. We would do better to switch to talk of exploring space for an analogy that gives us the sense of exploring the infinite. Even with all that we know about the Lord God… theology is not simple. God is the God of infinities. We are dealing with the God who utters the universe into existence. In our theology we speak and think about a God who holds all of the subatomic particles of the billions of clusters of stars and galaxies together. We speak of a being who knows the location of every grain of sand, on every planet, in every solar system, in every galaxy  littered across the mind bending expanses of the cosmos. And that God could move all of those grains as easily as you blink your eyes. This is the God with whom we have to do. We do well to remember the end of Job’s story. 
Job 38:2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

The evidence is mounting that working on a PhD leads to mental health problems: here is some of that evidence.

Its seems that every week I come across an article about how unhealthy pursuing a PhD can be. I’m not talking about how “sitting is the new smoking” – that would be a problem for academics as well. Instead, I’m referring to the mounting evidence that PhD work leads to mental health problems for startling numbers of students – much higher than other segments of society.   After seeing enough of these articles I thought it was time to assemble a few of these resources into one spot for others to access.   Let me put this in arresting terms for those who may not make it past the first paragraph. Based on the statistics below, it seems that in your institution something like 1 in 4, if not 1 in 3 students is struggling with a mental health issue or is on the verge of something like it. You should also assume that they are hiding it.

Too much too soon? Let’s start again on a positive note. Our society is as sensitive as ever to mental health issues and so it seems that some are taking action on this problem already. This is good news. Earlier this year, 2019, Nature magazine included an announcement that the first international conference on mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers was taking place in Brighton, UK. See “Being a PhD student shouldn’t be bad for your health.”  It may take years however for concern and action to translate into institutional change. Institutions embody cultures – and cultures by nature resist change. Still, it is good to see people take action.  Now that we’ve gotten the good news out of the way, what exactly is the problem with PhD students world over such that an international conference is called for? It seems that the culture, demands, outlook, nature, prospects, administration—insert other nouns here—surrounding PhD work is breaking an alarming number of students.  Maybe these students are just not cut out for this sort of work? Maybe they are weak? I think there is more to the story than an oversimplified generalization.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s start with a story. After all, facts teach, but stories “reach.”  Most of the articles below tackle this crisis in terms of factoids. However, Bob Henderson has written a moving autobiographical account of his unsuccessful attempts at becoming a theoretical physicist. Every student has a story – but Bob has managed to translate his experience into a narrative that others can feel and follow. This piece is begging to be put into an anthology. Read it and multiply Bob (as a representative) by tens of thousands for each of the students statistically represented in the articles below.  If you don’t have time to read anything else in this list make time for Bob’s story:  “What does any of this have to do with physics?” Students working outside of theoretical physics will find plenty in common with his experiences. I certainly did.

For the Twitter crowd, the  eleven words of this blog title do the job:  “I don’t think there is anything darker than doing a PhD.” The web is full of individual stories of the darkness, like this one here.

A 2016 article from the Economist covers some of the drop-out stats on PhD programs, explains how the interests of students and institutions are misaligned, repeats the the well known paucity of jobs, and suggests that the earning potential for many PhD’s is barely better than that of students who grab a quick MA degree. See, “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time.” While this article has nothing to say directly about mental health, it sketches some of the landscape that PhD students become aware of during their work; a landscape that contributes to their struggles.

More to the point, this article in the Atlantic in 2016 paints a picture of the dire job prospects for PhD’s. See : “The ever tightening job market for PhD’s.” Here are four charts from the Atlantic article that capture some of the discouraging landscape that students look out at… even as they put all of their eggs into a single basked labeled “PhD.” 

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In addition to the dire reports from the external world surrounding graduate students, there is the internal phenomenon of “imposter syndrome.” First identified in the 1970’s, it plagues academics, be they beginners or veterans. Five professors share their fears here.  It affects those in privileged social positions, and effects even more so those from minority groups.  In my own life it feels like deep guilt for receiving funding for a PhD program that someone else “deserves more and would do more more with were they given what I was given.”

The causes of mental illness seem to be varied. For example, those working in the humanities face loneliness and isolation whereas those working in the hard sciences face other challenges. See here: “Studying for a humanities degree can make you feel cut off from humanity.”  There is the additional problem in many research institutions where graduate students and postdocs seem to be a source of cheap labor for institutions. See: “Are PhD’s just cheap labor for universities?” If the causes of mental health are varied then the solutions will need to be varied.

Aetiologies aside, we are talking about PhD students here. This calls for research.  Here are five sources.

Research  from Belgium: Woven throughout most of the recent postings is a regular citation of one particular study coming out of Belgium. All the blog posts cite it. Researchers in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced some sort of psychological distress and one in three was at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. This research may become “that” piece of research that started the avalanche of work in a particular field by activating widespread latent suspicion. See: “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.” 

Research from the U.S. A 2015 study from Berkeley – the Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report. The report states the alarming finding that, “About 47% of PhD students and 37% of Master’s and Professional students score as depressed. Students in the Arts & Humanities fare poorly on several indicators and 64% score as depressed.” The reports also offers predictors of wellbeing – such as the amount of sleep students were getting, how included they felt in the department, their living conditions and how they perceived their future career prospects.

Research from NatureBiotechnology. This Inside Higher Ed article from 2018 summarizes a study in NatureBiotechnology. It echos the finding of other research that there is a correlation between mental health problems and students struggling with a work-home-life balance. The research also suggests that dangers for mental health problems affect students working in fields beyond the hard sciences: “The survey’s 2,279 respondents were mostly Ph.D. candidates (90 percent), representing 26 countries and 234 institutions. Some 56 percent study humanities or social sciences, while 38 percent study the biological and physical sciences. Two percent are engineering students and 4 percent are enrolled in other fields.” This research cites, among other things, relationships between students and their supervisors as a key to the problem. (Here is a graphic taken from the Inside Higher Ed article, which in turn appears to be taken from the original study). Note the clarifications below the charts: 

Research from Harvard: here is a 2018 study of economics PhD students from Harvard. Here is the abstract: “We study the mental health of graduate students at Economics PhD programs in the U.S. Using clinically validated surveys, we find that 18% of graduate students experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety – more than three times the population average – and 11% report suicidal ideation in a two-week period. The average PhD student reports greater feelings of loneliness than does the average retired American. Only 26% of Economics students report feeling that their work is useful always or most of the time, compared with 70% of Economics faculty and 63% of the working age population. Depression and symptoms of anxiety increase with time in the program: 25% of students in years 5+ of their programs experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression or anxiety compared with 14.5% of rst-year students. Many students with signicant symptoms of mental distress are not in treatment. We provide recommendations for students and faculty on ways to improve student work conditions, productivity, and mental health.” 

Here is Scientific American discussing the above research and other findings: “The Emotional Toll of Graduate School.” Every article, blog post, and comment adds to the picture.

Research out of Germany. This recent blog posting that reviews some of the above research also includes similar research of PhD students in Germany. The end of the article suggests changes that should/could occur at the administrative level to begin allaying some of these problems. See: “Addressing the mental health crisis among doctoral researchers.”

This 2017 posting from the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences , likewise cites the Belgium study (and others). The posting cites an interesting line from the Belgium study – The greatest predictor for experiencing mental health challenges was having difficulty taking care of family needs due to conflicting work commitments. It also notes some of the things that supervisors might look out for and frames this as an ethical issue for institutions. Citing a spike in Twitter conversation on the issue, this article includes a comment from one conversation partner – “[I]t is a public secret that fear of stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one’s future career often inhibits people suffering from mental health issues to make it public,” they write. This lack of visibility is problematic because feeling isolated can cause students’ mental health to deteriorate even further. It also means that there is less pressure on institutions and people in power to tackle the issue.” The speaker, wisely calls for action rather than demonization of academia. See “PhD students face significant mental health challenges.

The lists of links above should be enough to paint an initial picture of what is afoot. The articles and blog posts are legion. I tend to believe that realty is more complex than we take it to be and thus so  are solutions that will alleviate the problem. Note that I said the problems are complex not merely complicated – we are dealing with systems, cultures, and communities of agents here – not just layers in a network stack or parts of a battleship. Following the breadcrumbs will, I suspect, lead to social and institutional vices we don’t want to change—as students or institutions. That prospect calls for a separate blog post – a post I may not be qualified to write. Any sociologists in the house?

Dire predictions aside, let me leave off where I began. If you know PhD students, you know people struggling with mental health and hiding it. If you know  someone interested in going in getting a PhD (i.e. translate that as “interested in teaching at the college level”) there is a high probability that you know someone who will struggle with mental health in their future. One immediate thing that can be done is to scan some of the above articles for simpler concrete changes that can be made in the shortrun before systemic issues such —like economics and academic culture—can be addressed in the long run.

 

 

Learning Theological Latin

This page has a few of the thousands of Latin resources for those learning classical, Medieval, Neo-latin or (somewhere in all of those) ecclesiastical Latin for theological study.

Theological Latin

Many of the resources below are for Classical Latin. I’ve been told by some that at the beginners level it doesn’t really matter what sort of Latin textbook one uses; just get started. It is in the style and vocabulary that ecclesiastical Latin will differ from Classical (and of course from classical Latin poetry). Even within theological sources written in Latin, author’s can differ. Younger theologians who have done work that required them to learn Latin have remarked to me that the Vulgate is easy to read; Aquinas is easy to read; Augustine is more difficult due to the quality of his Latin and the Dun’s Scotus is very difficulty to read due to his poor quality Latin.

The textbooks I see students using to learn/teach Latin primarily include John Collins Ecclesiastical Latin and Wheelock. I am being tought latin in an intensive course using Moreland and Fleischer.

  • John Collins
  • Wheelock
  • Moreland and Fleischer
  • New Saint Andrews Latin Course Online – I’ve seen a few students talk about this resource. It is not free but it is an entire Latin course with high quality vocabulary cards and instructional videos.

Regarding Dictionaries. In class we were advised to purchase the Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary as a first time dictionary. I also found that the Collins Latin Concise dictionary (2nd ed) was nice and small with ample extra resources for a good all in one book. Both are quite affordable on Amazon and the size of a regular paperback rather than a large dictionary. The Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin by Leo Stelten was also recommended for those doing theological work and find the above to dictionaries insufficient in their definitions.

Handouts for Individual Grammatical Concepts

Latin Instructional Video’s

Classical Texts Online

  • The Latin Library – online texts of the books of 54 classical authors.
  • Downloadable Loebs You can download the entire Loeb Classics library in PDF format! (Scanned by Google)
  • Perseus Digital Library at Tufts
  • Aquinas.cc – The Aquinas Institute has been working on new translations of Aquinas’s works. They have put online a side by side Latin/English parallel of their translation. They’ve done most of the Summa, Contra Gentiles, and other works.

Vocabulary Resources

  • Diedrich-Lodge latin frequency vocab list. At the turn of the century it was calculated that this list of words showed up frequently in classical and medieval texts. Learning these words would allow one to recognize 85% of the words in most classical and medieval texts.

Dictionaries & Lexicons

  • See the theological Latin section above for info about the dictionaries we used in class.
  • lexilogos.com/english/latin_dictionary.ht This site has several links to dictionaries including Perseus.
  • online-latin-dictionary.com   This is an excellent dictionary. Not only will it find Latin forms, it will give you a link that allows you to see the full paradigms and declensions for the word you’ve searched.
  • Whitaker’s Words is a magical little tool that teachers warn one not to use until they’ve gone through their course and learned the forms on their own. This is also found online here.

Latin Grammars & Textbooks

 Answer Keys

Is your Easter pagan? Cheapened? Or beyond comprehension?

(“Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection”, by Eugene Bernand 1898)

It is not uncommon to hear people say – to Jesus followers – that Easter is Pagan.   Such talk is – vague. We would do well to ask people if they are referring to the origins of the word “Easter”, the commercialized eggs and rabbits, or the Christian remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. Christians, the world over, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus throughout the year, but especially on Easter, known more widely as Pascha. This practice goes back to the earliest days of the church… and its celebration at this time of year was connected with the timing of Passover, not Spring fertility festivals.

It is helpful here to look up the “Quartodeciman” controversy. This Scrabble dominating word comes from the Latin word for fourteen in Leviticus 23:5 (Lev 23:5 mense primo quartadecima die mensis ad vesperum phase Domini est) – On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover.  Early Christians like Polycarp reported that John had taught them to practice the annual remembrance of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection on 14 Nissan, the Jewish calendar day associated with Passover in Leviticus. Other Christians, from Rome, eventually insisted that Christians should celebrate the resurrection on the closest Sunday after this day. Nisan 14 did not always fall on a Sunday. Polycarp traveled to Rome in the 160’s and discussed this with a bishop there named Anicetus. They agreed to disagree on this occasion. Later, in good Christian fashion, subsequent believers over it.  Christians in the East who maintained their celebration on the 14th of Nisan were called something like fourteener’s or quartodecmians.
The point here is that Christians have always celebrated the Resurrection annually – around Mar/April – based on Passover timing. This was in complete independence of any German or Anglo-Saxon spring rituals. As the gospel spread and Christianity moved into various cultures, this dating no doubt intersected other festivals that were in fact, Pagan. The story there is less clear. Venerable Bede has a famous comment in the 8th century about the name Easter as a name/time having Pagan origins in the name of the month we call April. In a recent Christianity Today article Anthony McRoy gives the famous quote from Bede and puts a question mark over the accuracy of this story. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/april/was-easter-borrowed-from-pagan-holiday.html
It is helpful to distinguish between the practice of celebrating the resurrection of the Savior and the “word” used to label this date (i.e. Eastern, Resurrection Sunday, Pascha). Furthermore, there is always the obvious point that the name of the Easter celebration in non-Germanic languages is not Easter, but rather a cognate of the word Pascha… which relates to Aramaic/Hebrew words for Passover like pesach.
As to Eastern bunnies and painted eggs… well…. you can figure that one out.
The threat to followers of Jesus in this country is not that they might participate in a pagan ritual this Spring. That is a simplistic understanding of intentionality. It seems no more possible to do that than that you might honor the Norse gods by naming the days of the week after them (Thursday, Friday). No, the danger is more subtle. If a mother hands a child a chocolate bunny and some eggs to hide, the danger isn’t that somewhere inside the child’s heart is planted a desire to pay a little homage to the gods of fertility.
No, the danger is that the reality of what we confess happened in history – is cheapened by commercialization – candy, gifts, games, meals, new clothes. Funzies. The God beyond deep space, the maker of galaxies, took up a body to die for humans, for sin, for righteousness. This is mind bending. Yet it is, if not guarded, cheapened by our eagerness for Hershey chocolates and Bob’s Buffet.
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In the cross and resurrection, we are reminded that the God who knows the locations of all the electrons in the cosmos – took flesh upon himself, that he might take your sin in his own body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). This is profoundly personal; again it borders on unbelievable. God is like this?  It doesn’t seem right, but then again, God is not like us. His hunger for righteousness goes far deeper than ours. His pleasure in revelation. In touching hearts.  In the end, the cross and resurrection are not about us; not initially. It certainly is not about chocolate eggs and pastel colors. The cross and resurrection are first about God’s goodness. Because God is good, infinitely good, he comes to earth, takes our sin, dies our death for us.  But this is God in flesh. Death cannot hold the prince of life. He comes back from among the dead. In grace he takes believers with him; through grave, resurrection, and ascension to his throne. In his eyes we are already seated there (Ephesians 2:6). The age to come has broken in upon us, and in Christ, we have a foretaste of what is coming. [1]
At your home this year, what is Easter about? Probably not pagan gods. Hopefully not candy and bunnies. Something beyond comprehension has happened. The God of Passover (i.e. pascha) has done something greater still. He has come. He has died. He has risen. He has taken believers with him!
[1] Biblical eschatology portrays the ultimate future of Christ and the believer on a renewed earth, not a disembodied heaven. However we also have language about being seated in the heavenlies in Christ.

Science, Philosophy and Religion?

Last week I wrote a short piece the for the Fuller Analytic Theology blog. These are my thoughts on a recent talk that Dr. Hud Hudson gave during our weekly fuller Analytic Theology presentation. Hudson’s paper was titled “A Metaphysical Bridge.” It dealt with the interface that analytic philosophy can provide for dialogue between science and religion.

“Hud Hudson, professor of philosophy at Western Washington University, delivered the second of Fuller’s 2018 Analytic Theology lectures. Besides having a cool name, and a voice that our team deemed radio-ready, Hudson’s paper evinces a truly collegial spirit.  In his three-part paper, “A Metaphysical Bridge,” he suggests that analytic philosophy can play the role of a bridge (i.e., interface) between science and religion in dialogue…”

Read the rest here..  analytictheology.fuller.edu/crossing-hudsons-bridge/

(Image Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/6483098881 )

Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966-chagill

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1966), by Marc Chagall

There are likely several reasons, but let me share a Facebook post I wrote up today that may give us one reason that the testing of Abraham’s faith was important, if not necessary.  (Facebook post begins below)…

Among other things, the testing of Abrahams faith gives others epistemic access to something they could not get otherwise. This may have been the only way to give other humans epistemic access to something about Abraham that until that point, only God knew. This was something nobody else would see unless an extreme event took place thereby making the story possible to tell… and tell appropriately… in the New Testament chapter on faith (i.e. Hebrews 11).

The extreme nature of Abraham’s faith was a thing that was true even if God had not asked Abraham to offer Isaac. It seems, as with the story of Job, that God would not have risked in this way, had he not possessed profound faith in Abraham. Never the less had the event not taken place it may not have been possible for anyone else to experience the mind-bending depth of Abraham’s faith… or to understand the reason he is called the father of the faithful. It may not have been possible for us to access the story, which proves what kind of faith is possibe – for some of us.

Why does access to this kind of knowledge about Abraham matter? Because millions too will be put to the test, not by God but by humanity, satan, our own selves… It comes to all of us at some time, the question, “When may I stop believing in God? When may I throw in the towel?” What Hebrew speakers refer to as the Akedah – the “binding” of Isaac – gives … some… help to those in the crucible.

Hebrews 11:17-19 strikes me as additionally helpful on this story. One thing that the Hebrews retelling to the Akedah does for the reader is that it exposes (beyond the story itself) something else that it may not have been possible to see by any other means. Here I refer to the way Abraham thought through the fallout of this event. Hebrews 11 gives us a detail we don’t find elsewhere (more on that detail below).

We could propose all sorts of alternative scenarios that might expose to the onlooker how deeply Abraham believed God (e.g. what if God asked Abraham to get up at 3am every morning and sacrifice 10 lambs and pray… wouldn’t that show the depth of his faith? Perhaps, but not like the Akedah does.  Had God not publically stress tested the faith of Abraham (like an engineer testing the strength of the wings up an airplane by bending the wings in an extreme fashion) I’m not sure we would have gotten the full effect.   Had God, for example, told us merely a counterfactual, a hypothetic, it would not have ministered to us in the same way. Nor would it have revealed to us what was deep within Abraham. Had God said, “Abraham’s faith was so deep that had I .. ever asked him to sacrifice his son… he would have.” … No…. this does not have the depth that a real event does. The gut-wrenching request takes us to the heart of the matter.  “Abraham, go… offer up your son on a mountain I will show you.” Silence.

That’s the basic point if you want to stop reading. Again, epistemic access to something about Abraham’s quality of faith (… being gestured at in the very chapter that unpacks the nature and results of faith – Heb 11)… something we wouldn’t have access to (a) without a particular detail in verses 11:17-19 and (b) without Abraham actually going through the event.  Let me unpack point (a) just a bit more.

It is important to remember the huge covenantal theme hangs over the life of Abraham like a banner. God made this man huge promises, from which several of the other major Biblical Covenants (i.e. the Davidic, and New Covenants, on which Christian salvation/gospel is based. These all flow out of the Abrahamic Covenant.  It is rather easy to show how the cross-work of Christ is a fulfillment of the “bless the world” component of the Abrahamic covenant. Much hangs on this man and his son. Now that covenant is in jeopardy if Isaac dies.

Abraham’s faith is so extreme – that even in the face of this – he doesn’t doubt that God will keep his promise through Isaac. Even if Isaac dies. Paul would later write that Isaac was a “child of promise”, a miracle baby. God now asks Abraham to cut the thread upon which all the covenant promises hung…. to give back the covenant child.

Note that Hebrews 11:18 stops and makes it obvious that the Covenant promises hung on this youth Isaac. Verse 18 states, “Of whom it was said In Isaac your seed will be called.” No Isaac, no promises. No seed. No Christ? Anyhow, Hebrews 11:17-19 also shows us the content of what Abraham was thinking through, in addition to his deep pain over Isaac. “What of God’s promises? How will this work if my son dies? It must work. God will keep his promises. How? How?” 

The thought process that then goes through Abraham’s mind – and gets exposed only in Hebrews 11:17-19 is telling —-> Abraham so believes that God will keep his promises, that he figures God will raise Isaac…. perhaps having no theological precedent of resurrection.

Conclusion.  So when people get rightly.. hung up on whether this was ok for God to ask of Abraham, we might want to rephrase the question. Was it ok for God to take a person (whom he no doubt had profound confidence in) … to take him through a situation that would expose for all the world what this man’s faith looked like… IF… this was the only way we could genuinely see the nature of this guys faith. Yea leaving Ur of the Chaldees shows us his faith. Yea letting nephew Lot pick the well-watered plains of Jordan shows us his faith… But this… the Akedah… really shows us. Without the event, we’d never know it. The author of Hebrews wouldn’t have anything to point back to of this profound depth.