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Illegitimate Children of Abraham

There are three “Abrahamic” faiths. Judaism, Christianity, Islam alone among world religions trace the beginnings of their story back to a single patriarch, all of whom claim to be his true heirs, interpreted variously of course. But herein lies the fundamental difference between Christianity on he one hand and Judaism and Islam on the other. For Christianity it is precisely not legitimate ethnic or national descent from Abraham that places one within the people of God. This is a distinctly biblical point. God is able to raise up true children of Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8), it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no value (John 6:53). The incorporation of persons into the people of God according to the Christian faith, be they Jew or Gentile is always a distinctly unnatural event.

This is clear in the Pauline corpus with regard to the Gentiles (see especially Romans 11  cf. Eph 2:12-13). However the Johannine corpus goes even further in arguing that being reborn into the true community of God’s people is a miraculous novum, not just for Gentiles, but for the Jews as well. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13). The people of God, in John’s gospel in particular are constituted not by any sort of legitimate, natural, historical succession. Rather the people of God are constituted by the miracle of being reborn by the Spirit into a radically new community that interrupts and scandalizes all “natural” communities.

Thus, from the perspective of inter-religious dialogue, one key element that distinguishes Christianity from the other two Abrahamic faiths is Christianity’s explicit denial of what the other two vehemently claim, namely that “legitimate” descent from Abraham substantiates the claims of their faith. Christians make no claim to be legitimate children of Abraham, rather they claim that their status as God’s people is derived from nothing inherent within themselves either ethnically or politically. We are the people of God solely and only because of the radical miracle brought about in Jesus Christ which shatters and scandalizes any “natural” claim to be God’s people through historical natural succession.

11 Comments

  1. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I’m uncomfortable with this. Though my knowledge of the New Testament is woefully inadequate to give a proper response, I’ll do what I can because the issue is important to me. Some thoughts:

    You say: Christians make no claim to be legitimate children of Abraham . Doesn’t Paul speak of adoption? It’s one thing to talk about the new spiritual nature of the community (agreed), it’s another to talk about the nature of the transition from “flesh” to “spirit” and what that means for the flesh that has been left behind. I think this is a key issue. There’s an eschatological dimension to this which is just awkward and can’t be easily resolved with reference to the “spirit.” Biblical theology seems to be constantly caught up in a dialectic between different poles which can’t be resolved with this fallen world. Thus, we have dichotomies between letter and spirit, flesh and spirit, heaven and earth, this world and the next, divine and human, normal time and eschatological intervention, the Old and the New etc. I don’t think it’s doing enough justice to the Bible’s understanding of salvation history to evaporate the earthly in favour of the spiritual, as if biological descent can simply be rejected now that something “spiritual” has happened. There is genuine newness in the New, but it’s always testified to in terms of the Old, which isn’t simply discarded now that the New has arrived. It is transformed, perhaps, but the crux is the relation between Old and New and not just whatever the New has brought. Again, what is the nature of the transition and is there not some form of tension that needs to be maintained?

    This is undergirded by what I take to be an important hermeneutical principle: the Old testament is as much a witness to the Truth as the New. It is not the case the the New has figured everything out, nor that the New is the fullfillment of the Old. Rather, both point to one reality and their relation to each other is dialectical. As a result, it is not enough to quote New Testament verses as a foundation for our understanding of the people of God. It needs to be balanced out with the Old Testament, and perhaps even be “corrected” by the OT, in light of the one subject matter. Thus, according to some OT theologians, the heart of the Old Testament consists in a concrete relationship between Jhwh and his elected nation Israel. Psalm 147:20 states: “He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise Jhwh!” In a real sense, a non-Jew reading the OT is reading “someone else’s mail.” The question is, what constitutes our right to be considered the addressees of these texts? Language of “ingrafting” and “adoption” in Christ seems to be the rule. The fact that the Jews haven’t believed seems to be an anomaly for Paul which he can’t understand, rather than an irrelevancy due to the insignificance of biology.

    Again, isn’t quoting New Testament verses in order to reject the election according to the flesh like reading John instead of the Synoptics, or Chronicles instead of Kings? There are different genres of witness which need to balanced with each other (as you know, of course).

    In sum, I don’t know enough of the details, but I think the tension between fleshly and spiritual election needs to be maintained. As a result, according to at least one construal, Christianity and Judaism belong on one side of the divide as the true heirs of Abraham—though in different, paradoxical senses—and Islam on the other, as a forgery. The divide you offer above is not wrong per se. It just needs to be maintained as part of a larger, eschatologically awkward whole.

    There is a fascinating online article on this, which I still haven’t had time to read in depth. If this conversation gets off the ground I may get back to it.

    Feel free to mercilessly deconstruct me!

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 1:51 am | Permalink
  2. Dan Hames wrote:

    Unnatural children of Abraham yes, yet his chilren in a far more ‘real’ way than any physical descendents could ever be.

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 2:24 am | Permalink
  3. Dan Hames wrote:

    PS- do you fancy letting us know what tobacco you favour? Just wondering how to start thinking at the kind of level you do ;o)

    And the tobacco enquiry is a serious one!

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 6:25 am | Permalink
  4. Matt Marston wrote:

    I echo some of Phil’s concerns. Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod’s perspective on the election of Israel is that it is both biological (Abraham’s seed) and in a sense unnatural (only by God’s grace). J. Kameron Carter captures this, I think, by calling Israel a “non-nationalistic nation.” In other words, Israel is not a “natural” people like other peoples. Israel’s election is an interuption just as the Christ-event is interuption into and of the world.

    It seems to me that theologians influence by Barth are divided on this issue. Some see Jesus as interuption of Jewish and Gentile “natural communities,” while others see more continuity between the election of Israel/ calling of Abraham and the Christ event. Kendall Soulen, Eugene Rogers, and J. Carter are typical of the latter. I wonder if Halden would consider himself among the former.

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Phil and Matt, sorry to have ignored your good questions. The reason is not that I think they are unimportant, but that I think they are of the utmost importance! I think I will try to address this in a forthcoming post. Clearly much of what I wrote above is informed by a distinctly Johannine trajectory (though I think it runs through much of the NT as well, especially Paul).

    I agree that Israel’s election has permanent theological significance from a Christian perspective in a way that Islam clearly does not. The difficulty is precisely how this significance should be theologically construed and expressed. I do have a pretty big problem with Soulen’s brand of non-supercessionist theology which basically claims that Christ and the church have no soteriological relevance for Jews. Such notions to my mind seems utterly problematic.

    In other words I am hesitant to adopt any vision of the gospel that is not a stumbling block to the Jews as well as foolishness to the Greeks.

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Well, if that’s what Soulen thinks, I wouldn’t agree either. Childs had a profound approach to this issue, which I can’t claim to have fully grasped. He doesn’t take and easy way and avoides for example, the “soft ecumenism” of Rolf Rendtorff. I posted some thoughts on this in my post yesterday (along with, in my opinion, a profound quote from Childs) :The Judge of church and synagogue. Halden, with your knowledge of systematic theology and hence the “substance” of the faith, I’d dearly love to hear whether you think Childs is on track or not.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  7. Matt Marston wrote:

    Thanks for the response, Halden. I look forward to your post.

    I disagree, however, with your assessment of Soulen. His thought has developed significantly since his The God of Israel and Christian Theology. The problem in that book is not so much what he says, but what he leaves unsaid, I think. See his essay “Israel and the Church” in the anthology Christianity in Jewish Terms. He says there, “Christians, in my view, cannot easily yield on the idea that the resurrection of a crucified Messiah has significance for everyone” (p. 109).

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I’ll have to check that out Matt, thanks. That seems like a better direction for Soulen’s thought.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  9. Mike Bull wrote:

    Being a Jew was never a matter of bloodline, but of Covenant. Think of Abraham’s servants circumcised in Genesis 17, the Egyptians at the Exodus, Caleb the Kenizzite, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, etc. It seems the Old Testament keeps throwing us examples of people “grafted in.” The only actual bloodline of any importance is the one we are given, the family tree from Abraham to Christ.

    Regarding supercessionism, the captivity and Restoration era gave us a perfect picture of the New Covenant events. The ark-throne of God died in Babylon for the sake of a new Jerusalem with impregnable walls. Christ was the human ark. Judaism (typified by Judas) became Babylon. In the first century, the “sun, moon and stars” of Babel (Isaiah 13 swung like a knife by Jesus in Matthew 24) were the rulers of Jezebel-Judah herself.

    My point is, the captivity was a death-and-resurrection of Israel (the resurrection as predicted in Ezekiel 37) in type. The first century was the antitype. Thus, whatever remains of Judaism today is like exhumed idols from the eras of Jeroboam, Ahab*, Omri and Manasseh.

    It is not about blood. It never was. It is about Covenant, and there is only one of those, despite its various death-and-resurrection renewals.

    *Remember it was Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah that almost DID destroy this single bloodline that mattered. Jehoash was the single son who escaped, an echo of Moses and a type of Christ.

    Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 4:19 am | Permalink
  10. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    I share Phil Sumpter’s worries about your post, which may reveal some of the issues that arise from a Christian apocalyptic theology of Israel. I myself have tried to address some of these issues in an article, “Paul and Israel: An Apocalyptic Reading” in Pro Ecclesia 16 (2007):359-380. You may want to check it out.

    I wonder if we might look at Israel through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ body is raised from the dead, in glorified form, but still bearing the marks of his concrete history — including, I expect, his circumcision. Israel comes into bodily being through a series of apocalyptic miracles (Sarah’s pregnancy, the exodus from Egypt — cf. the birth narratives of Jesus), and yet persists also as a fleshly, historical body to which God keeps coming apocalyptically in judgment and resurrection. Should we not expect that the fleshly, historical body of Israel, like Christ’s own body, indeed in and through his crucified and risen body, will be raised and glorified on the day of his coming, still bearing the marks of her history in the flesh?

    Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  11. But what about Islam? No one is mentioning it. Surely ethnic and national descent is NOT essential to being a Muslim — not in the way it is central to being Jewish, even though converts are accepted to Judaism now and in the O. T..

    Of course the election of the Church in Christ is highly distinctive of Christianity, but don’t we need to make a more nuanced characterization / differentiation of Jewish and Islamic notions of “legitimate or natural descent” from Abraham? (Islam is in principle a highly universalizing faith.)

    Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

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  1. Back to Hat tip | Byrnesys Blabberings on Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 9:25 am

    [...] Inhabitatio Dei gives a helpful explanation in how Christians are the illegitimate children of Abrah…. “For Christianity it is precisely not legitimate ethnic or national descent from Abraham that places one within the people of God. This is a distinctly biblical point. God is able to raise up true children of Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8), it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no value (John 6:53). The incorporation of persons into the people of God according to the Christian faith, be they Jew or Gentile is always a distinctly unnatural event.” [...]

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