One of my students brought this dilemma to my attention today: how can Paul say that Abraham “did not weaken in faith” (Romans 4:19) in considering his age and Sarah’s barrenness; that “no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God” (Romans 4:20); and that he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21), given Abraham’s record of faithlessness in the Genesis account? God makes a promise to Abraham concerning his offspring in Genesis 15. In chapter 16, he sleeps with Hagar—how is that not an instance of weakening in faith concerning “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”? Then in chapter 17, he laughs at God’s promise of a son, citing his and Sarah’s advanced age as grounds for his doubt. In what way is this an expression of being “fully convinced” that God would keep his promises?
I see only a few options in understanding this apparent inconsistency. One, we could throw inerrancy out the window. Paul was either deceived, or he was lying, or his desire to make an example from Abraham made him whitewash history. In any case, it’s some kind of historical revisionism, and Paul was just wrong. Two, we can try to reinterpret the actions of Abraham in the Old Testament so it looks like he has faith. I’m not sure how some of these narratives could be interpreted to make Abraham look good, but it’s an option. Three, we could play the wild card of biblical interpretation and say that Paul had access to a greater knowledge of Abraham, somehow revealed to him by God. Paul says it, so whatever we think or see in Genesis, Abraham was a man of faith.
I’d rather look through door #4. I think understanding Paul’s evaluation of Abraham’s life of faith and not faith is a tremendous comfort for us in doubt. We have a clear picture of Abraham as a man who trusted God enough to leave his home, who believed God’s promise of a son, and who allowed his faith in God’s word and ways to shape his life profoundly. And yet, Abraham was a doubter. His doubt led him to lie repeatedly about his relationship with his wife, to seek to fulfill God’s promise his own way, and to laugh with disbelief when God made a clear promise about his near future. I don’t think Paul was ignorant of this, or sought to cover it up. And I don’t think he was flat-out wrong about his evaluation of Abraham.
So what are we to make of this, that Paul and other New Testament authors use Abraham as the quintessential example of Christian faith? I think, as I said, that this grounds for incredible comfort. God knows that we are sinful, doubting little creatures. We are not strong in faith. He directs us to trust him, and is worthy of our faith, and is patient with us in our lack of faith. In fact, Sarah’s journey of faith is, I think, the same that we all make. First, we laugh (read: scoff) when God makes promises. It is hard to believe that God gives life and joy in the face of so much seeming evidence to the contrary. And when God makes good on his promises, we laugh again, but this time in relief and humility and joy.
Abraham and Sarah were not perfectly faithful, but even in their unbelief, they were directed toward God. They struggled with God in belief and in unbelief. How often, I wonder, do we turn from God in shame or indifference because of unbelief, rather than use that doubt to turn to God as the One with whom we have to do in faith and in doubt? I think it is when we adopt the posture of the possessed boy’s father in the Gospel that we will be “children of faithful Abraham.”