Repeating Abraham

In his Conferences, John Cassian relates the story of a monk who failed in his discretion. This monk, who remains unnamed, is tempted to repeat the sacrifice of Abraham, who was called to give up his only son Isaac:

Why also should I speak of one (whose name we had rather not mention as he is still alive), who for a long while received a devil in the brightness of an angelic form, and was often deceived by countless revelations from him and believed that he was a messenger of righteousness: for when these were granted, every night he provided a light in his cell without the need of any lamp. At last he was ordered by the devil to offer up to God his own son who was living with him in the monastery, in order that his merits might by this sacrifice be made equal to those of the patriarch Abraham. And he was so far seduced by his persuasion that he would really have committed the murder unless his son had seen him getting ready the knife and sharpening it with unusual care, and looking for the chains with which he meant to tie him up for the sacrifice when he was going to offer him up; and had fled away in terror with a presentiment of the coming crime. (Conferences 2.7)

This reminds me of the comments of Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling, a lengthy meditation on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Fear and Trembling, 30)

What distinguishes Abraham from Cassian’s deceived monk? For Kierkegaard, the difference between Abraham and a murderer is faith. For Cassian, the difference between Abraham and the monk is discernment–or more properly, obedience to the discernment of the elders. But how would Cassian have counseled Abraham? Surely he would have counseled him that he had not heard God properly, that his act could only be murder, that such a sacrifice would not be in faith. For Kierkegaard, the counsel of others is impossible; it must be avoided because it cannot be undertaken:

But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. (Fear and Trembling, 74)

Perhaps there is something to both analyses. On the one hand, by the time God’s command comes to Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he had already had revelations from God on several occasions (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-22; 18:1-33). We could say that he was accustomed to discerning the voice of God; he had developed a habit and virtue of discernment. So then when God comes to him with the demand to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham recognises the voice of God and obeys.

On the other hand, Abraham has faith in the voice of the true God. Cassian’s monk, on the other hand, is deceived by a demon masquerading as an angel of light. In the grammar of Scripture, one can only have “faith” in the true God; to believe in false gods is not to have faith at all. In the case of Cassian’s monk, he fails to discern the voice of the true God, and so fails to have faith; thus his act is “murder” and not “sacrifice,” on Kierkegaard’s distinction.

Nevertheless, this leaves open the difficult question of discernment by individuals in the midst of the community. What happens when a single individual believes they hear the voice of God on a matter, and the “elders” of the community–the wise, and not simply the elderly (see Conferences 2.13)–disagree in their collective discernment? Kierkegaard has no space for yielding to the latter; Cassian, no space to yield to the former. What is the solution when an individual needs to adhere to the guidance of the community? Obedience. What is the solution when the community needs an individual to correct its discernment? Prophecy.


6 thoughts on “Repeating Abraham

  1. Steve,

    Enjoyed the post and found it interesting. I have a few scattered thoughts.

    I think it is important to note that throughout the ordeal Abraham had faith in the promises of the covenant (Gen. 22:5, 9; Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham knows God enough to trust His prior promise and believe that God is immutable, so placing Abraham’s obedience in the context of God’s prior revelations to him is certainly the right move to make, but I think his obedience is marked not merely by a recognition of the divine voice based on prior encounters but also a presupposition of divine faithfulness based on prior encounters.

    It strikes me that the end question you raise about discernment might actually be better serviced by 1 Samuel 3, in which Samuel mistakes God’s voice for Eli. The text explains that Samuel did not yet yada’ (know) the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The text also makes the claim that there are times when words from the Lord are rare. What are your thoughts on that text?

    Of course, my being Reformed, my thoughts probably diverge from yours as to whether prophecy and direct individual revelation continue today, etc. Without getting into all that, I just thought I would throw these impressions out there.

  2. Thanks Shep. Yes, certainly that’s an important thing to note: God’s voice promised Abraham descendants through Isaac, and so even in sacrificing him, Abraham holds onto this promise. Kierkegaard makes much of this, calling it Abraham’s faith “in virtue of the absurd,” that God can raise the dead (cf. Rom. 4:17).

    I’m not quite sure how 1 Sam. 3 relates to my final question about a conflict in discernment between community and the individual. Perhaps you could explain more. I would think more of a place like Jer. 26, where you have a conflictual relation between Jeremiah’s prophecy and the reaction of Judah’s officials.

    And yes, being Pentecostal, I obviously believe prophecy continues today. 🙂

  3. Sorry, I should have clarified. My assumption is that the conflict in discernment is centered around whether the voice of God that a person has claimed to hear is actually the voice of God. 1 Sam. 3 doesn’t provide an example of a conflict but does begin to give some idea of what it takes to actually legitimately discern God’s voice, which it would seem would be necessary to resolve a conflict. That is to know the Lord and to have the word revealed to you, which Samuel did not yet have and Eli supposedly did have.

    As far as examples of the actual conflicts, Scripture is rife with them. As far as officials not recognizing the word (or Word) we can see the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees to Jesus and His teaching. It seems to me that 1 Sam. 3 is saying that if a true word has been spoken, then it will not be recognized by those who do not yet yada’ the Lord, and will be recognized by those that do. Of course the question is what does it mean to yada’ the Lord etc. but perhaps 1 Sam. 3 is a starting place for that.

    Just some thoughts…

  4. OK, that helps clarify quite a bit. Thank you. Yes, that is certainly one of, I think, two questions that are central here. How do we tell the voice of God from the voice of ourselves, others, the devil? And there are certainly some criteria: faith, past experience (e.g., Abraham, Samuel), checking the voice against Scripture. This is perhaps why the Pharisees accuse Jesus of performing his works by the power of the devil (Matt. 9:34 || Mk. 3:22 || Lk. 11:15), because his words do not line up with their ‘hearing’ of the word/voice of God.

    But what happens when an individual disagrees in their discernment with the community, or another individual? Besides biblical examples, isn’t this the key question with the Reformation? How is it that Luther, over against the whole church, heard the voice of God such that his discernment trumps theirs? For Luther, the church was dulled in its hearing by scholasticism, tradition, luxury, etc. But for the church, how could one German monk claim to hear the word of God over against the collective discernment of the hierarchy? It may be clear in retrospect who was truly hearing–as with Jeremiah, Jesus, etc.–but in the moment, how do we decide?

  5. I think there were a number of RC’s at the time who also shared Luther’s opinions but kept quiet about it and didn’t take the hard stand that he did. I think also Luther’s interpretation of Scripture was discerned by many to be faithful and true – perhaps not by those in hierarchy, but the Reformation did catch on like a wildfire. So there was a large reception of what Luther was saying in the church, whereas many of the OT prophets couldn’t find a friend at all. They were convinced by Luther’s argumentation.

    Isn’t there a difference though between saying you’ve heard the voice of God a la Samuel or Abraham and being convicted in your interpretation of Scripture that another interpretation is erroneous? One big difference it seems to me is that with the latter everyone has access to the revelation. That’s a big tenet of the Reformation. Sola Scriptura + the priesthood of believers. Not that tradition is unimportant, but everyone’s conscience is captive to the word of God. So there isn’t a disagreement that God has spoken…

  6. Yes, that’s true. There is an important distinction between revelation and interpretation. I guess it also depends on what matter you’re discerning, whether a matter of private revelation (e.g., Cassian’s monk) or public revelation (e.g., Scripture). In the case of private revelation, you have to discern whether or not the revelation is legitimate (i.e., true or false). In the case of public revelation, the revelation is legitimate; instead you have to discern the–or ‘a’–correct interpretation of the revelation.

    Thanks for your comments, by the way. This is helping me to clarify some of the complexities.

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