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Children of Abraham

There is one thing and one thing alone that distinguishes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam from all other world religions: they all trace themselves back to the same person, Abraham. For all three of these religions, the connection to the patriarch, Abraham is a central part of their identity. These three religions, unique among all others, consider themselves in some sense deriving from Abraham.

The Jewish theologian Peter Ochs has often highlighted the importance of the common Abrahamic heritage of these three faiths in his dialogues with John Howard Yoder and in his response to 9/11. If there is any theologian who takes the issue of “Abrahamicity” seriously in terms of inter-religious dialogue, it is him.

Here is my question: what theological significance, if any, does the common Abrahamic heritage of Judaism and Islam have from a Christian theological perspective? Clearly we cannot think about Judaism and Islam the same way we think about, say, Hinduism. At some level our stories are connected. What theological difference does this connection make?

15 Comments

  1. Peter Carey wrote:

    This is a very good question, one that I have encountered from time to time in my teaching of the World Religions before I went to seminary. After seminary, the question still remains. I did find that Rowan Williams spoke a bit to this question (if I remember right) when he first spoke at Georgetown to the Building Bridges Seminar which was back in 2004 (I think)…I don’t know if I have the speech anymore, but will look.

    Thanks for posting the quotes from On Christian Theology, you were a catalyst for me to re-read some of those great essays.

    Peace to you,

    Peter Carey+

    Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  2. glenscriv wrote:

    Some thoughts from John 8:

    * There’s something to genetic descent (John 8:37)

    * But ‘doing what Abraham did’ is key (v39)

    * Without this you may as well trace your family tree from Satan (v41)

    * What did Abraham do? Rejoice in Christ’s Day (v56)

    * Why’s this important? Because there’s One more ancient than Abraham with Whom we must line up. (v58)

    Abraham is not the Rock upon which to build religious dialogue. Christ is the Rock on Whom even Abraham built.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  3. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I think we’d need to qualify what “Abrahamic heritage” means for Jews and Islam. For Jews, the connection with Abraham is in theory biological (proselytes are “adopted”). As those “elected according to the flesh” are a vehicle for God’s will to be accomplished in the world. With the New Testament, that function continues, though in transformed form. That gentiles have ended up receiving these promises whereas the majority of Jews haven’t is an anomaliy that Paul wrestles with in Romans. There’s a mystery here in God’s unfolding plan of redemption, which is tied a concrete people ontologically a unity.

    I’m not sure what Islam says about this, but somehow an “ontological connection” between Abraham and the Arabs is important. Their connection, then, diametrically opposes that of the Jews. From a Jewish and Christian perspective, they invert the Biblical story and simply co-opts the promises for the Arabs.

    I light of this, I think it’s dangerous for Christians to talk about the “Abrahamic heritage” of Islam, even for the sake of ecumenicity, as it skews the seriousness of the issue at stake. Christians can’t believe that they have an Abarahamic heritage. It is a claim that from the perspective of Judaism and Christianity is a falsification. Talk of the “Abrahamic heritage” of Islam on the part of Christians, as far as I can see, is simply a weak sell out to an alien agenda for the sake of a superficial ecumenicity.

    Or would we be content with a Hindu sect that claims its roots are actually really in Abraham, only that everyone else twisted the documents, requiring a new Prophet with new words literally out of the blue? Would we talk of the Abrahamic heritage of Hinudism?

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  4. james wrote:

    It seems like we don’t share Abrahamic heritage with Judaism but rather that is the primary issue of dispute between us. We (most of us anyway) Gentiles have no legitimate claim to descent by birth so we are illegitimate heirs of Abraham. And likewise Paul regards followers of the Law as descendants of Hagar (whose maternity Islam claims) and thus illegitimate heirs of Abraham.

    Gal 4:30 But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”[c] 31Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

    This sort of handling of Abraham is so transparently political and unfair that it eventually is abandoned for John 8′s take “Ok so you Jews ARE actually the children of Abraham, who cares?”

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 6:39 am | Permalink
  5. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    James, isn’t it the case that gentiles are adopted into Abraham (“grafted into the olive tree”)? The issue is not whether gentiles are biological descendents or not (no one claims that) but the basis of joining the family. For Jews it’s torah, for Christians it’s Christ. In Christian terms, we do have Abrahamic heritage because, as Glen said, the substance of Christian faith is the fulfilment of Abraham’s hope. It’s theologically important that we have this heritage because that is how God is at work: through a community which is ontologically a unity. Islam, with its new genealogy, severs that claim.

    And I’m not sure if we can use a few verse of Paul and John upon which to build a theology of election. I think there’s a mystery involved which goes beyond either/or.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  6. Chris Enstad wrote:

    There is an article in the most recent Theology Today (Volume 65 (2008): 331-335 by R. Kendall Soulen titled _The Sign of Jonah_ wherein he attempts to “develop a Christian understanding of Christianity’s relation to Judaism and Islam based upon a typological reading of the book of Jonah”. It’s quite interesting:
    The Sailors’ Conversion: A Type of Christianity
    The Ninevites’ Conversion: A Type of Islam
    Jonah’s Conversion: A Type of Judaism

    I highly recommend it and would like to hear what you think if and when you read it.

    Best,
    Chris

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  7. james wrote:

    Phil if you think it is ok to coopt the family inheritance of the Jews in a way in which they would never agree then I would say ok. But if you were to ask Jews if the discussion had anything to do with physical descent then I think the short answer would be “Of course it does”.

    This is why Paul spends a great deal of energy on this descent issue…the other Jews aren’t buying it. They already had a Abrahamic community/family with rules for adding in Gentiles. Our method of establishing a genealogy with Abraham is no more honest than Islam’s. Both seek to discredit the Jewish claim to inheritance without sufficient evidence that they are disqualified. Look at Paul groping for a cause to preempt the Jewish claim. He struggles between ethical smears and strained exegesis. Clearly he is devoted to Christ and his ‘fulfillment’ but Paul is inventing problems with Judaism to disqualify the greater part of the Jews.

    I don’t see what the Jews now gain by acknowledging our claim to Abraham’s fatherhood any more than Islam’s claim.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  8. glenscriv wrote:

    Surely the Jews *should* agree that Abraham is the father of a multitude. That is what his name means. And explicitly he is father of a multitude of nations (Gen 17:5). Literally the LORD says that he will father a crowd of nations. Genetically he fathered two: the Israelites and the Ishmaelites. Two is not a crowd. If the LORD named Abraham truly then something more than genetic descent is meant by the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  9. nony wrote:

    I can find commonality and distinction in the Jewish and Christian Abrahamic heritiage.

    Judaism/Christianity and Islam are mutually exclusive in all respects.

    Pastor-theologians like Jens Christensen (who was a scholar of Islam in his own right and also a missionary bishop in Pakistan for many years) have a far clearer understanding of this than those academics wedded to the school of “Abrahamic religions”.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    James,

    You said: <emif you think it is ok to coopt the family inheritance of the Jews in a way in which they would never agree then I would say ok

    I think that if you’re a Christian you have no choice. Just as a Muslim can’t countenance that Isaak really was the child of the promise.

    I don’t see what the Jews now gain by acknowledging our claim to Abraham’s fatherhood any more than Islam’s claim.

    From a Christian perspective, they will discover the true substance of their faith. Of course they don’t agree and of course it works them up. Just as Islamic claims about Jesus annoy Christians. I’m not saying that confessional Christian claims can become a basis for ecumenical co-existence, as if there is no real tension between the two groups. I do believe in ecumenicity, I just think we need to clarify on what basis it should take place, and levelling differences does do anyone good in the long run.

    Glen,

    interesting thoughts. I had always seen the issue in terms of ethnicity, primarily. I’ll have to think about that.

    Saturday, September 20, 2008 at 1:14 am | Permalink
  11. glenscriv wrote:

    Hi James and hi Phil, good to cross paths again.

    I think the relationship to Abraham is taught as more than ethnicity from the outset. So Genesis 12:

    2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

    Genetic descent is definitely in there – a nation will come from Abraham – but the goyim (explicitly the nations that are *not* Israel) will also share in Abraham’s blessing. Two types of relationship to Abraham are here at the very beginning.

    If I was talking to a Jew about these things I don’t think I’d turn to the NT (certainly not to begin with). On this issue I’d perhaps start in Gen 12. Maybe then flick back to Gen 9:27 to show how peoples are to dwell in other peoples. Go forward to Gen 17 noting the ‘many nations’ as well as ‘many kings’ that will come from Abe. Goto Gen 49 and we see those kings summed up in the universal king who claims the obedience of the goyim.

    It might be contentious at that point but I’d submit that these verses don’t really work unless we view the goyim *as* goyim (and not simply ethnic Israelites by conversion). But straight from Genesis I’d submit that the best explanation of all this is that Abraham would father an ethnic nation but it’s purpose was to bless the nations through its King. And even those other nations are said to be blessed in Abraham, though their relationship to him is not genetic.

    For confirmation I might flick onto Psalm 72 to see how Israel’s Ideal King is also the worldwide ruler – and that this is written about in deliberately Abrahamic terms:

    All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call Him blessed. (Ps 72:17; cf Gen 12:2,3)

    The Abrahamic blessing comes through the Abrahamic King – but it comes to the goyim.

    I’d probably go to lots of places in the prophets too. But even from that small selection I think it’s more than possible to show that Paul’s understanding of Gentile inclusion is not “strained exegesis” at all (James’ phrase).

    Saturday, September 20, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  12. Just wanted to let you know I really appriciated this blog and I’m linking you from my own website, http://www.exegeek.com

    Jeremy

    Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  13. Kelly Head wrote:

    The philosopher Saul Kripke’s causal understanding of reference has enormous implications for the Abrahamic religions. In Naming and Necessity Kripke opposes a descriptivist understanding of reference that would pick objects out based on their identification with a description. In the case of the Abrahamic religions, a descriptivist would argue that you’re dealing with different God’s insofar as each bears different descriptions. Kripke offers a different understanding of reference according to which objects are identified by names which are rigidly designated to them and passed along a causal chain. So, in the case of “the God of Abraham” the three Abrahamic religions would be referring to the same God insofar as they can trace a causal chain of reference back to the Patriarch. This is a powerful idea and may provide an important challenge to that host of Christians who assume that the God of Islam is a different God. I’m not saying that Islam uses the same description as Christianity, but I think that it refers to the same God.

    Here’s a bit more from Wikipedia:

    Naming and Necessity

    Kripke’s three lectures constitute an attack on descriptivist theories of proper names. Kripke attributes variants of descriptivist theories to Frege, Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Searle, among others. According to descriptivist theories, proper names either are synonymous with descriptions, or have their reference determined by virtue of the name’s being associated with a description or cluster of descriptions that an object uniquely satisfies. Kripke rejects both these kinds of descriptivism. He gives several examples purporting to render descriptivism implausible as a theory of how names get their reference determined (e.g., surely Aristotle could have died at age two and so not satisfied any of the descriptions we associate with his name, and yet it would seem wrong to deny that he was Aristotle). As an alternative, Kripke adumbrated a causal theory of reference, according to which a name refers to an object by virtue of a causal connection with the object as mediated through communities of speakers. Kripke holds that the meaning of a name simply is the object it refers to. To show this, he points out that proper names, in contrast to most descriptions, are rigid designators: A proper name refers to the named object in every possible world in which the object exists, while most descriptions designate different objects in different possible worlds. For example, ‘Nixon’ refers to the same person in every possible world in which Nixon exists, while ‘the person who won the United States presidential election of 1968′ could refer to Nixon, Humphrey, or others in different possible worlds.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  14. Derrick wrote:

    I was just taking a quick homework break and thought I would briefly respond to Kripke’s theory of a causal understanding of reference

    1.) Just as a brief observation the two examples given of Aristotle and of Nixon, albeit from a wikipedia source, seem to beg the question. Of course in a fairly abstract sense we could, if Aristotle died at two, still say he is Aristotle. The same goes for Nixon even if he never won the Presidency. But the concept of a proper name as a rigid designator, using as it does the “possible world” hypothesis to make its point, is such an abstract concept as to make it almost useless. Certainly Aristotle and Nixon in some sense may be said to be named by their proper names regardless of circumstance, but in order to even illustrate the point of the continuity of the proper name as a rigid designator which survives even given different circumstances the example had to specify which Aristotle and which Nixon it was talking about in order to make a comparison between the Aristotle we know and the hypothetical one that died at two. The causal understanding of reference here cannot elide the descriptivist criterion because even as a rigid descriptor proper names mean nothing except to designate some “abstract entity X” outside of the context that a descriptivist reference creates.

    2.) As another elaboration on the first point (and indeed this is a major point of Robert Jenson’s two volume Systematic Theology) theologically it must be questionable whether this concept does justice to a proper understanding of God. If one allows this causal understanding of reference to stand, along with the heuristic provided by the two examples, then to understand “God” as a rigid designator to which reference refers successfully given an authentic diachronic pedigree, then as a counterexample Christians could name God successfully had Jesus not been raised by him, or Jews could name God successfully had the exodus never occurred and that this God would be the same God. But it is precisely Jenson’s point that when Jews were asked “who is God” they would answer “the one who rescued us from Egypt,” or Christians similarly “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Minus the descriptive references we are left with an abstract entity.

    Indeed if Kripke holds that “the meaning of a name is simply the object it refers to” we should again ask which “object” does the designator “God” name? It is of the upmost importance to Christian theology that God is named essentially in the economy of his dispensations so that Gods act in the world essentially mediates God’s being to us. To be sure this is an ontological question, but it has bearing on this subject because the descriptivist penumbras of context used to specify an “object” are here theologically deemed as essentialist descriptions of who God is. God is not “accidentally” (in the Aristotelian sense) the one who liberated Israel from Egypt, or covenanted with Abraham, or raised Jesus. Indeed if we are to follow EITHER the more radical interpretations of Barth (McCormack, Jenson etc…) and say that God’s act determines his being OR even the more “right wing” ontologists (Molnar, Hart, in some sense Pannenberg) to say that God’s being determines his act, either way the rigid designator “God” means very little outside of its descriptivist references to history, as this history identifies God essentially.

    While I certainly do not believe all this obviates the claim that indeed there is a legitimate descent of Islam from Abraham (this is incontrovertible) and ironically given the nature of this post I dont have a lot to say on the actual relation between Islam and Christianity, but to say that with all the doctrines and history of Islam they are “naming” the same God along the lines of Kripke’s theory seems either incorrect, or if true, simply too abstract to be helpful and so I have to echo an earlier statement by Phil that in some sense it would be an artificial device for a “superficial ecumenicity”.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Kelly Head wrote:

    Derrick,

    In response to 1), you’re being a bit dismissive about a book that is widely regarded as one of the seminal works in 20th century philosophy of language. Furthermore, I don’t see how a concept’s degree of abstraction is inversely proportional to its degrees of usefulness. Much of mathematics seems to be a good counterexample to your assumption. One might even argue that the descriptivist’s account of God, according to which we designate God by a list of criteria (omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly loving), is far more abstract than the God whom we know through the causal chain of our partriarchs (“the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”).

    In response to 2), the group which “Christians” rigidly designates would not exist in the possible world you give as a counterexample because Christ’s resurrection is essential to this group’s identity. You misunderstand the theory’s application, so this doesn’t count as an objection to it. Also, we agree that history identifies God in some sense, but you argue that God is identified essentially by history. I’m guessing this means that God couldn’t have done otherwise without negating his identity in regard to raising Jesus from the dead or liberating the Jews from Egypt. Assuming this is the case (it has some problems in my opinion), how particular does this history have to be? If God had raised Jesus after 4 days instead of 3, would that make a difference to God’s identity? What about raising him after 2,000 years? “The God who raised Jesus from the dead” is still being referred to in all of these cases. Or, must we assume that this is the “best of all possible worlds,” and that God couldn’t have done otherwise than raise Jesus from the dead in the three days according to the exact way it occured in our possible world? It sure seems that Jesus thought things might have gone differently when he prayed in Gethsemane (or else we run into the problem of Jesus praying for an impossibility).

    Lastly, I offered this as a starting point, not as a way of saying, “We all worship the same God, so we should just forget our differences.” That would of course be “superficial ecumenicity.” We still have to figure out what constitutes proper worship, and that may include having a proper understanding of God’s character and actions in history. However, I think it makes a big difference to say, “Muslims worship God differently (or inproperly if you like), as opposed to, “Muslims worship a different God.”

    Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

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  1. Final Edition - Weekly News 9/26 « The Church of Jesus Christ on Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    [...] – Weekly News 9/26 Starting us off our last edition of the weekly news is a question asked by this blogger on the common hertiage of Abraham among the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, [...]

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