In this section of Romans 4, Paul engages either in actual dialogue or in a bit of dialectical rhetoric with an imaginary interlocutor. Moxnes thinks the former, arguing that Paul is addressing conflict within the contemporary situation in Rome and is at pains to reorient the church’s theological understanding of the relationship between Jew and Gentiles. Longenecker, on the other hand, subscribes to the “imaginary interlocutor” thesis, contending that Paul has all of chapters 1-4 in common with his audience and is moving toward chapters 5-8 to bestow upon them his “spiritual gift.” It is possible, I think, to determine the content of this tricky passage, however, without addressing (yet) it’s purpose. The content of Paul’s argument remains the same whether he is in conflict or accord with his audience. For ease’s sake in addressing this issue, we shall assume that Paul’s dialectical focus is actually rooted in real complaints or questions at Rome.
If Paul is ultimately concerned with setting up Abraham as an example of an individual’s faith, that goal is certainly in the background here. Paul sets up an antithesis between circumcision and uncircumcision, whereas in 1-8 (and 3.21-31) it was “faith vs. works of the Law.” By changing the antithesis, Paul has not changed the content of his argument—it is still faith, but faith that is prior to circumcision. Abraham was reckoned righteous apart from circumcision, which was given as a seal (4.11). Paul reaches his point of his mini-dialectic in 11: Abraham was justified by faith prior to circumcision “so that he would be the father of all who believe without being circumcised” (4.11). Paul’s purpose clause makes it difficult to read this passage as intended to say anything beyond Abraham is the father of Jew and Gentile, and to affirm Moxnes’s emphasis over Moo’s. The point of the circumcision/uncircumcision antithesis was simply to argue that Abraham is the father of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. Rather than enter into debate over the audience of vs.12, whether Paul is referring to Jews generally by “those who are of the circumcision” or to Jewish Christians particularly, it is enough to say that Paul’s intent in 12 is to drive home his point again—it was while Abraham was uncircumcised that he believed, hence, he is father of all who believe.
In verse 12, Paul contends that Abraham remains the father of circumcision, not by virtue of his descendents circumcision, but if they follow “in the footsteps of the faith that he had while uncircumcised.” He is father of circumcision if those who are his descendents share the same faith.
It is not at all surprising, then, that Paul would turn ultimately to discuss the particular nature of Abraham’s faith (4.17-23). If he is the father of all who “follow in the footsteps of his faith” (4.12), then understanding the “content” of his faith is crucial. However, Paul clearly does not abandon his argument that Abraham is indeed father of all who believe. Rather, he presents another argument, centering upon the promise given to him, and emphasizing that it was with the result that he might become “the father of many nations” (4.13-16). This section of work will constitute the bulk of the rest of this essay. However, I will continue the loose verse-by-verse explanation that I have undertaken and then return to this passage later.
Verse 13 is dominated by Jewish concepts. “Epiangelia”, the promise, formed a central part of the Jewish faith (Genesis 12.7, 13.15-16, 15.6,18, 17.7-8,19, etc). That Abraham would be “heir to the world” is the broadest possible rendering of the Jewish idea that the covenant people would be heirs to the land of Canaan. Paul returns to the “Law-Faith” antithesis that he (seemingly) had left behind, arguing from the chronology of the Old Testament story. Abraham believed some 400 years before the Law was given. This drives home (again) the fact that it is those who are of faith who are heirs of the promise, heirs of the world. If it were those who were of the Law, “faith is made void and the promise is emptied.” Why is this the case? Moo suggests that Law observance will necessarily come up short in attempting to gain the inheritance. He suggests the logic of Romans 1-3 as a reason why, arguing that the central debate of law/faith antithesis is human inability to be righteous. Against this, Dunn suggests that any additional requirement to Abraham’s faith is to nullify the promise. “Abraham’s faith was a completely satisfactory response to the promise (otherwise Abraham would not have been “reckoned righteous”).” Dunn argues (and Moo seems to agree on this point) that based upon this, Paul anticipates the objection that the Law is meaningless and pre-emptively counters it by arguing that the Law brings about wrath, or a higher degree of culpability than the more general “wrath” that results from more generalized sin in Romans 1. In verse sixteen, Paul returns to the fact that it was so that the promise might be certain to all descendants of Abraham, including those who are of his faith. He highlights again that it is “according to grace”, presumably a Christological reference. The promise is “by faith” for the purpose that the promise that Abraham would be heir to the world would be “certain” to all those are of “the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all” (4.16).
Verse 17 is clearly composed of two distinct parts. In the first, Paul cites Genesis 17:5. Either Paul is using material that his audience would have accepted against them (Moxnes) or he and his audience both accept this argument (Longenecker). Either way, Paul is using “many nations” to refer to the inclusion of the Gentiles by faith. The second half of the verse Paul writes, “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” This is, perhaps, the most crucial passage to my argument, and I will return to it later. Two items at this point deserve note: first, Paul transitions to describe the object of Abraham’s faith. Second, as a formulaic expression of God’s creator-power, 4.17b is an echo of the distinct creator-creature theme in Romans 1.
By employing the creatio ex nihilo language in verse 17, Paul emphasizes the nature of Abraham’s faith. A brief excursus into the Genesis story is necessary here to illuminate Paul’s argument. Genesis 15 recounts God’s promise to Abraham that his descendent would be of his own lineage, and that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. It is Abraham’s belief in God here that is “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Chapter 16 records the story of the birth of Ishamael, who is born when Abraham is 86. Interestingly, 13 years later God appears to Abraham and expands the promise of the inheritance that was recorded in 15.7-8 to include all of Canaan. It is from this account that Paul quotes verse 17a, and yet in verse 22 Paul repeats the quotation from 15.6. What should we make of Paul’s use of the story, then? The continuity between the two stories is the obstacle in the way of the promise, namely, Abraham and Sarah’s inability to procreate. It is in light of this that Paul uses the formulaic expression of verse 17, stressing God’s creative power. In short, Abraham might be said to believe that the promise would come true, that he would be the father of many nations, and yet Paul emphasizes the fact that his faith is in God, who is able to create out of nothing. No matter which account from Genesis Paul refers to, at issue is whether Abraham thinks God is ability to do what he promised, even in spite of his “dead body” and Sarah’s “dead womb.”
Continuing our sub-thesis of developing links between Romans 4 and 1, contained within verses 20 and 21 are two allusions to Romans 1. Paul writes that Abraham grew strong in faith “and gave glory to God”. This seems a clear allusion back to Chapter 1 verses 20 and 21, where the sinful Gentiles, though knowing God “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (21). These textual parallels are furthered by Paul’s statement that Abraham was persuaded that God “had power to do” that which He has promised. This stands in clear contrast to those who rejected the qualities of God that have been made plain in creation, namely his “eternal power and divine nature.” These textual parallels seem to provide enough warrant for the conclusion that Paul is intentionally alluding back to Romans 1, to establish Abraham as the antithesis of the Gentile pagans whose degenerate lifestyle as a result of “worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator” Paul is at pains to depict.
A brief word on Paul’s conclusion to this section of his argument. In verse 22, Paul had returned to Genesis 15:6 explicitly, in order to reinforce the conclusions that he has just drawn, namely that it is only through those who are of the faith of Abraham who are justified, and that all men stand in need of this justification, both Jew and Gentile. Paul makes this latter fact clear when he contends that the content of Abraham’s faith is the same as the content of those who believe in Christ, for the simple reason that the same creative power is at work in both instances. We believe in “Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (24), just as Abraham who believed in “God who gives life to the dead” (17). This passage, then, forms a bridge between the argument in Romans 4 and what will follow in 5-8.
What, then, can we conclude of our survey of Romans 4? Paul’s purpose in writing seems to be to delineate who the children of Abraham are. Paul’s insistence that justification comes through faith alone, and that it is open to Jew and Gentile in 3:29 clearly indicates that Paul is either using Abraham in a polemical way against those who hold otherwise, or is explicating material that he has in common with his audience. On either account, Paul is arguing that justification comes through faith and nothing else—subsequently, it is available to all who believe. This might amount to a simple affirmation of the “new perspective” treatment of justification. However, I am at great pains to demonstrate that even though Paul’s purpose is communal, the basis of his argument is entirely anthropological, as I will now argue.