Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?


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.

Mainstream America: a new brand of legalistic fault finding.

If you grew up going to church in America, certainly among evangelicals,  I can say the word “legalist” and you get what I’m talking about. If you didn’t then this post may help. Consider it an attempt to gesture at examples from church contexts to help you get the idea of what “legalism” is like. Once we establish this concept the post moves on to  suggest that a new legalism has shown up in ~ secular society of all places! We can call this secular-legalism. Think of political correctness when you read this term. Think about how many disclaimers people have to make these days before they can say anything. There is a fear of offending everyone, and of getting sued by anyone. The point of this post, in a nutshell, is a bit of an irony. People once chided the church as begin full of legalists, and by extension, hypocrites. Today a secular version of legalism has shown up  in the public square. This is ripe for analysis.

What I say below is not analysis. I am indulging in a bit of late night rambling to illustrate religious legalism for those who didn’t grow up in “church” and thus don’t get the “irony” of it showing up in a secular context – en masse. 

Religious Legalists. A legalist was or is a person who feels the need to check up on and point out places in other’s lives where they were failing to live up to appropriate “Christian standards”. “Isn’t that car a bit too fancy, it must have cost a fortune.”  “Isn’t that dress too short?” “You let your kids watch what?” “If she were serious about being a disciple of Jesus then she would be here with us this morning.” You get the drift?

Trying to explain legalism or legalistic people (in the church) is messy because legalism is both a feature of healthy human nature and a feature of broken human nature. As a result, it has a thousand faces. There are the obviously harmful sides of legalism such as what happens when people break the strict laws in some Islamic nations and a community member points the offender out. However, in this post, I am recalling the more subtle harm done by the legalism in some churches.  This is more of a nitpicking and fault finding atmosphere created by one or more people. And honestly, I am really just trotting out the “common cultural version of it” – and not at all a deep analysis of what the real nature of legalism might be.

Note well: Legalism changes people. It causes people to start living in ways so as to avoid being pointed out by the legalist. We may share certain kinds of ideas less for fear of criticism. We may become more likely to blend in. Don’t say or do anything to stick out.

For many, legalism has was classically portrayed by the Pharisee’s in the Gospels. They accused Jesus of breaking the religious law by healing a man on the Sabbath. In telling the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk home, Jesus had supposedly given the paralyzed man leeway to “do work” on the Sabbath, thereby violating the law of Moses. The lesson was that the Pharisees’ perfectionistic zeal for their own system of religious rules blinded them to the miracles Jesus did; miracles which revealed his Messianic identity.

During the last 50 years, many people have complained that the Christian church was legalistic or hypocritical. Even if there was just one or two perpetrators in a local congregation, it was easy to blame “the church.” It became an easy excuse for people who wanted to quit attending church to point out that the church was full of hypocrites or unloving legalists. The underlying complaint was that this sort of fault finding and nitpicking contradicted Jesus’ imperatives to “love one another” or “not judge lest ye be judged”.  In response, thousands of Christian churches addressed this issue over the last 30 years and preached about the grace and loving patience of God. Churches by the thousands became more patient and accepting over the last generation. The culture in many churches has genuinely changed (in my opinion). Today many churches struggle with going to the other extreme, thanks to a, “Come as you are, anything goes” mindset.

So here is the irony…

Mainstream America, secular America if I can use that term, has developed its own version of legalism. Suddenly we find ourselves in a society of legalists of a non-religious flavor. Our nation is drowning in politically correct fault finding, criticism of things as simplistic as handshakes and minor clothing details of our leaders.  Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have fueled this secular-legalism by giving everyone a platform to comment. We have gone from believing that everyone has equal worth, to believing that everyone’s ideas (i.e. my ideas) are as good as anyone else’s. The nation’s news agencies are a big player here, by giving repeated airtime to groups from every corner calling out public figures for less than picture perfect performances. The nation’s fiberoptic networks are full of millions of critics, insulters, and backseat-drivers, trolls, shamers, grumblers. Whether the subject be a president, a local police chief, a university director, a school teacher, a parent, a pastor – everyone has a criticism to offer about their performance. Whereas the church was once blamed in past generations for legalism, now that legalistic fault finding is in full force outside the church. Whatever you are doing right now – there is a good chance you are wrong. 

You may or may not agree that the virtue of showing others grace was alive in the American public sector. It doesn’t matter, that virtue has died in the last five years.

Grace is dead in the public sector.  “Did she show enough remorse?” “Did they give a statement soon enough?” “Was the wording perfect?” “Are they protecting the victims enough?” “Why aren’t they releasing information quickly enough?” “Who shouldn’t be playing golf when?” “Why weren’t their disaster protocols perfect?” “Who offended who with what garment?”

This is an interesting twist. The first comment people will make is that it is nothing new. Something is new. Perhaps what is new is that we’ve all been legalists all along, but technology has given us the power to expose that fact.

Ready for one last twist? The church as a mandate to put an end to its legalism, but mainstream America does not. The church’s mandate comes from her savior – Jesus.  She knows that she has learned grace through the kindness of God, a God who in the person of Jesus Christ, came and associated with all the failures of his society. A God who heals and forgives our failures. Christians have a reason to be gracious – their God is gracious, patient and forgiving. Secular society has no such mandate and no such reason. What then will stem the growing tide of secular legalism?


Advice I’ve Gleaned From a Year With a PhD Writing Feedback Group.

For the last year, I have been participating in a group of 6 or 7 people (three postdocs, my supervisor, and a fellow Ph.D. student) reading and giving feedback on each other’s papers. We typically read book chapters prior to submission to publication, and journal articles prior to submission to publishers. From time to time a professor at another institution will send along a chapter for feedback and we all get in on it. This experience has brought a range of lessons and emotions.  Surprise, surprise, much of what I take myself to have learned is fairly traditional sounding advice for writing, but here are some suggestions on (a) the helpful kinds of feedback I see being given and (b) not helpful things people do in feedback groups.

  1. Helpful Types of Feedback I Have Observed.

As I observe the postdocs and others giving feedback, here are the comments and questions that I find are the most helpful. Perhaps someone else will be able to make use of these.

  • Framing. “Framing” is a great word I was introduced to. This has to do with how you “set up” your paper for the reader. Sure there is your core argument such as “Penal Substitution is the theory that Christians should take as the foundation of their understanding of the atonement” (or pick your own title) … but you can frame that conclusion (and its supporting arguments) in various ways. I have seen writers suggest that a paper can be “saved” by reframing it so that even though the paper is largely written, its  thesis and argument can be framed differently in a way that makes the argument/thesis jump out as contributing legitimately to a certain conversation, whereas before that might not have been clear. Here are some example framing comments :
    • My paper is directly responding to person X’s view.
    • My paper is adding to this conversation of writers from event X.
    • My paper is meant to introduce problems with other views that I don’t think others are giving enough attention to.
  • Scope. Are you doing too much in this paper. One way I hear this asked indirectly is by the suggestion that, “Perhaps you have two papers here!”   Perhaps the writer could spin a second paper off of the first, and at the same time reduce the first paper to something more focused, more effective in its argument and more appealing to read.
  • Focus. What are you arguing? Is your thesis clear?  When I started writing philosophy papers I was taught to minimize the introduction and get right to the thesis. I have to admit that in a recent paper I wrote, I completely forgot that piece of advice! Becuase one of the readers was less familiar with the theologian I was writing about, the lack of a clear thesis made the paper pretty unpleasant for him to read. It was embarrassing. Some writers need to go back and re-write their introduction at the end of the paper to make sure that what they’ve written matches what the first paragraph (and thesis statement) states they are doing.
  • Unanswered objections. When you have a room full of philosophers, sometimes the objections just start coming as a part of the conversation. Nevertheless, there is a role to be played by readers pointing out objections you’ve failed to address. If one is submitting a paper for publication it the more objections one can help relieve the reader of, the better.  Sometimes a writer will attempt to evade the objection by changing the core of their paper. That takes hard work. Sometimes they can just tighten up the wording here or there. Sometimes they may add a comment that adjusts their framing/focus in a way that makes the objection no longer relevant. Sometimes they soften their claims from something like, “This is the best way to deal with this issue” to “this is one reasonable way deal with this issue that brings many merits with it.”  Sometimes writers bite the bullet and say, “See Xs work on this objection. I am willing to take their position on this issue, I’m not dealing with that in my paper.” As noted below, very often writers have already done much of their writing and may not have time or energy to make substantial changes to a work, so they have to find less dramatic solutions to the above problems.
  • Arguments that could be added or tightened. Like the above, there are comments that help the writer tighten their argument or suggest that they add to the paper in order to strengthen it.
  • Organization. At times readers are distracted by where a section of the paper is sitting relative to the rest of the paper. Often comments will be overhead suggesting that the author move “this section” to the beginning or further back. Perhaps a paragraph should be relegated to a footnote because the reader gets lost and it disrupts throughflow.
  • Title suggestions. This is more for fun – but comments get made here. I think I’ve heard one or two people joke about click-bate, by referring to a title that was so catchy it just makes people want to read the article. There is more to a good title than you might think. I certainly haven’t made a good habit out of trying to draw my readers in through my titles. Dr. John Thompson (not a member of our reading group) advocated using a two part title because this was your momentary chance to grab the readers attention as they scan journal article titles to decide what to read.
  • Minor grammatical points. In our reading groups, we don’t spend time talking about grammar unless it deals with clarity. Grammatic errors, citation changes are made in a document and emailed or handed to the author at the end of the reading session.
  • Suggesting other resources and references for the author to cite, add, review before publishing. I wrote a paper on Calvin and had a question from another professor about Calvin’s role in the Geneva consistory. As an expression of his desire to help my paper, my supervisor pulled a book off his shelf and suggested I look at a particular chapter to see if there was any guidance on the particular question.
  • Suggesting what journal a person might try submitting an article to. This can be such a big help for those who are still new to the submission and publishing process. However, ignorance on the part of the writer may signal a need to spend more time becoming familiar with the journals in their field.

2. Treating others as you’d want to be treated. Or.. unhelpful things to avoid in a feedback session.

It was only through experiencing my own feelings during feedback that I began to queue into thoughts about how I approached others papers. Having someone fire questions at you is a part of the academic process, but it can be uncomfortable. There are two sides to this issue. Some say that is part of life in the guild (they are certainly right) but I personally think there is a practical duty you owe others if you are participating in a feedback group; a duty to not assume anything that comes out of your mouth is useful; a duty to carefully pick comments that are constructive.   In a feedback group, participants are there for input, advice, and help before they send their writing out into the wild.  This should provide boundaries that guide the questions we ask the writer. Here are a few things that I notice occurring (rarely but they seem easy enough to spot when they do occur) that I appreciate less during a paper feedback sessions.

  • Don’t make them defend something they aren’t trying to defend. If a person has written a paper about topic A, but not about topic B (even though B is related in some way), it does not help the writer for you to unload all your passionate arguments about B. If for example, someone is writing a paper on Barth’s methodology and she introduces his doctrine of election as an example of his methodology, it does the author little good  for you to press her for a defense of Barth’s doctrine of election as if this was the point of her paper. If her paper had been on “Why Barth’s Doctrine of Election is Surely Right” then that would be a perfect question, but it wasn’t her thesis, so what are you trying to accomplish? If you want to talk about B, at least preface it with the comment, “This doesn’t seem to be exactly on your topic so perhaps we can talk about it later, but I was curious to get your thoughts on topic B (e.g. Barth’s doctrine of election)…”
  • A feedback session is not your chance to make sure you unload every question and objection you can think of. Before I say this I can already imagine the response – that – outsiders will not be merciful to our writing, so it is better that we suffer at the hands of friends. That is probaby true. Perhaps I should delete this point. Still, I think there is a practicality line that we cross where some criticisms seem genuinely constructive and others just eat up conversation time because it is unclear exactly how important that question is. What do you think? Is it better to just point out what you took to be obviously good and not-good or is it better to look hard to find something wrong with a paper.
  • It certainly is not a time to humiliate and tear down that person in an effort to make oneself feel intellectually superior. This is something I’m sure goes on in other groups but fortunately not ours  – I hope. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t have any qualms about stating that feedback should be done as an expression of service to others and not of service to one’s own emotional needs to feel intellectually superior. Please don’t reach for the sophomoric response and claim that by tearing someone down we are loving them. A question, that seems useful to me is “How can I treat this person like I would want to be treated and help them improve their paper?”
  • Does it really help the author to talk about the paper they should have written? It depends here on how you say this. On one hand, this is a piece of advice that is hard for the author to make use of at the moment. They spent all their time writing this paper. They need help on this paper. Ideally, we can help them with their current project. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to  suggest, “Here is an idea for a future paper.”
  • Being overly harsh on a paper because you don’t prefer the content. Liberation theology is not my area of focus, but that is a completely separate discussion from whether Jones has written a quality paper on Liberation theology. State the fact of the matter, “Look, I’m not a big fan of X, but from my limited perspective this seems good here, and that seems unclear there… etc..”
  • Failing to point out the positives strikes me as inaccurate feedback unless there are no positives anywhere.  I think we can give positive feedback without suggesting a work is publication ready. The act of seeking feedback also involves seeking outsider input on what one has done well. I don’t see the harm in being realistically positive, especially if one is going to follow with some criticism. If a writer has done something well, then tell them – “I really like this section”, “That comment seems spot on”, “nice choice of words.”  Etc.. Saying nothing positive and listing out 4 complaints can paint an inaccurate picture and thus constitute inaccurate feedback (unless there are in fact no positives)   Again the goal isn’t to create a soft unrealistic experience for poor writers, but positive feedback is an essential part of life, growth, performance improvement, etc.. If a writer has done a good job and you only have two minor points, say that, “I think this is a great paper and I only have two points.” If you are nervous about premature accolades then say that, “I am hesitant to compliment the paper too quickly…  It seems to me that it is good except for two issues, but perhaps others in our group are more equipped to make an overall evaluation. “


I suspect that I have learned more than I at first thought, merely by participating in my first year with this feedback group. If only my writing would automatically rise to the quality of feedback I’ve overhead! Personally, I hope to take peoples work, emotion, and goals into consideration without doing them the disservice soft-pedaling my advice (not that I’m the place to give much advice yet to PhD’s well beyond my current level of education!

Discovering myself in the Matrix… the other matrix.

 (This is one of two posts moved from a separate site that I began blogging on before choosing to set up my own site).

I am in the second quarter of my Ph.D. program at Fuller Seminary (I’m working in Systematic Theology with a concentration on anthropology an interest in analytic philosophy/theology). I am reminded of a matrix I ran into when studying Instructional Design at Florida State University – the competency matrix. It is a simple matrix, and I’ve no idea where it originated. It applies as easily to those going through more academic theological or philosophical work as it does to other workplace skills. One starts out in the purple box and moves around counter clockwise. In graduate school, one spends more or less of their time in the bottom left quadrant. Many of us are painfully aware of vast fields where we lack “competence”. By “competence” I mean the ability to work with a properly tuned mental map/matrix/scaffold of philosophical or theological concepts in discussions. This includes knowing parts of this mental map affect other aspects. Ideally, it would include knowing what are useful works vs current-authoritative works vs classics in the literature regarding topic X.

As one goes through graduate work they slowly move into the green (bottom right) quadrant depending upon their freedom to work, study, and use material. I assume that one reaches “unconscious competence” (upper right quadrant) after they’ve taught sufficiently long enough that concepts and ideas flow for them in a second nature fashion.

If you are a student like I am, facing your incompetence “consciously” (i.e. quadrant II) I think it is important to remind you not to hang your “self-worth” on this. That is a huge temptation to those in academic work. If possible, shift your perspective to be actively grateful for the privilege of learning, the privilege of becoming aware of a new field. Gratitude, (I believe I got this from Jeffery Schwartz who teaches at UCLA) has a powerful impact on the brain and mental health.

Quickly, as I close up, another challenge here is that in contemporary academics their fields of literature and research are so vast, that one will always be incompetent in more areas than they are competent in. This is true for all humans. (What constitutes competence is a marvelous question here.) As Christians, my concept of self should be impacted by Paul’s presentation of the “body” of Christ – that I am not a lone ranger competing for prominence with others but am instead part of a community of diverse people whose skills and strengths work together for Christ’s agenda.  My hope is to work towards competence in a few areas that I hope will be useful to others,  meaningful to myself, and most importantly pleasing to God.

Until next time!

First blog post

Welcome. Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017. I write from the first floor of the Hubbard Library of Fuller Seminary (see photo).  German class starts in a few hours… but first, lets launch!

Why this blog? Here are five reasons.

First, I’ve heard others advise young theologians to blog rather than to not blog. “Start a blog, get your ideas flowing, connect with followers who work at various schools and churches.” This makes sense. Today people expect to be able to find the information they want,  about you, your church or your product online. If you aren’t easily found online (or extremely local) it’s as if you don’t exist.  As I finish out the first year of my PhD program, and look towards the possibility of teaching or writing for wider Christian audiences, I thought that I would follow this advice.

Second, I wanted to share with my own local church family(ies) ( I teach among Plymouth Brethren assemblies) what I have been up to. Curiosity combined with an absence of information breeds rumors. It is not typical for someone to attend a seminary if they came up in a Plymouth Brethren assembly. Several do, but it isn’t encouraged. What is very rare is to go on for a PhD. What is extremely rare is for someone in my position to do so at a place like Fuller Seminary, or to pursue an MA in philosophy, as I did from 2013-2016. So I feel that I need to tell my story and do some explaining for those that I minister and worship among. I want to share what God has done, what our family learned as we moved from Florida to California four years ago, and so many other things.  For example, some people in my circle(s) of fellowship still can’t figure out why I’m in school at this age; they don’t understand what a PhD is about, and why I can’t use the idea that they dreamt up (15 seconds ago over the phone) for my dissertation topic. Along with this theme, is the desire that friends from 2500 miles away (Florida) can keep up with our family and my ministry.

Third, writing is healthy. It is cathartic. In previous generations women and men would journal, these days they blog. Furthermore, it is  an important part of one’s walk with God to be able to look back and see the way that He has led us, cared for us, etc. (See point five below for more). Without some record of passing years, one’s life easily becomes a moving spotlight, where all but the most significant memories of the past are forgotten. Alternatively, a blog gives me a place to quickly dump ideas (one can start “posts” without publishing them) so that my mind is free to focus on other pressing issues without worrying that I’ve lost a juicy realization. This aids in focus and clarity.

Fourth, I hope to have a place to put advice for others contemplating PhD work. I don’t consider myself as “the” person to go to for advice, but those who wind up doing this kind of thing (and its one of the hardest things a person can do – see here for an example) it always helps to read the reflections of those doing this sort of thing.

Fifth, I hope the site will serve as a testimony to myself (in years to come) of how God worked, led, and provided. Let me frame this with a memory. I recall learning in a spiritual formation class at Talbot School of Theology that an extremely healthy thing for adults to do is to be able to make sense of their history/story. It is healthy and receiving to be able to look back at one’s life and say “This was not good, but I learned/grew/came-to-terms-with-it.” It is healthy to be able to say, “That made no sense to me 5 years ago and was extremely frustrating, but based on where I am today, this makes good sense…. I can see God’s work.”

So with that in mind, it helps me to be able to have a place to put questions and reflections from day to day so that in years to come I can look back and see what God has down, how I’ve grown, how things were resolved.  Equally important, is to perhaps have a place where I can capture stories that I can share with my kids. I’m not sure that WordPress will be around 20 years from now, but who knows.

That is enough for now. It’s time to do German.