Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Not by Reason Alone

Have you ever read the following verse in the Bible? “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It might be shocking to many non-Catholic Christians, but an informed Catholic should be able to take it in stride and place it in its proper context. It is interesting to note however, that the ONLY time the words “faith” and “alone” appear together in the Bible is in that one verse from James. That being that said, reason alone is also not enough.

Faith is something personal, this is why Jesus first asked his disciples, “Who do others say I am?” All kinds of reasons were given with all kinds of reasoning, but then the real point of the dialog comes in when he asked, “Who do YOU say I am?” This makes it personal and God wants it personal.

This makes sense to me as a father myself. I want my kids to have personal faith in me, not because they have evidence combined with the calculating logic of reason, but just because I’m their father. Obviously this would not be about faith in my existence, but let’s use faith in my judgment as an example.

Dad: You need to trust my judgment.
Kid: There is no evidence that your judgment is better than mine.

Dad: I’ve lived a lot longer than you.
Kid: That is only evidence that you are older.

Dad: I gave you life and everything you have.
Kid: That is only evidence that you have money and you know The Stork.

Dad: What about all the other times I’ve been right?
Kid: Your astonishing random good luck is self-evident.

Dad: Mom and everyone else in the family trust my judgment.
Kid: That is evidence that they do not demand evidence.

Dad: You need to trust me.
Kid:  Sorry, you need to provide evidence that you are worthy of my trust, and not just any evidence. It must be evidence that satisfies me.

So, at this point would a good father obey the child and provide whatever specific evidence the child demands? I think not. The father may just let the child suffer the natural consequences of not trusting in order to learn how to trust in the first place. In fact, I could even see a good father intentionally hiding evidence so that the child would have no choice but to trust. This is the only way a healthy parent-child relationship can work. Often times I feel quite certain that God made children as stubborn as they are in order to show us grown-ups how we act towards Him!

Trust is key for any good relationship and same is true for our relationship with God. It won’t work without trust. This is demonstrated throughout all of salvation history. If you know the people and the Bible stories, you know when there was trust and when there was not. Think about Adam & Eve, then Noah, then Abraham, then Moses, then the Israelites, then the Kings of Israel, then Mary & Joseph, all the way up to Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Think about who trusted and who didn't and how did it turn out?

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we read about the two disciples of John the Baptist following Jesus and then asking him “where are you staying?” He replied "Come, and you will see." So they went and they saw (see John 1:36-39). The same is true for us today. First you must ask, then you must “go”, and only then will you “see”. He who tries to be a mere observer experiences nothing. Only by entering the faith experiment in trust does one have an experience; only by cooperating does one ask at all, and only he who asks shall receive.

"I believe in God as I believe the sun had risen, not because I can see it, but because by way of it, I can see everything else."
- C.S. Lewis


  1. Ben, what a great post. I could never have learned this truth without being a parent myself. And the older the kids get the more neon bright this truth becomes. All teaching given to a boy about how to properly use a sharp knife is not very effective until he finally cuts himself. As a side note, I've often compared how kids will often trust (or have faith) in mom more than dad sometimes because I think the kids get many more day to day lessons (cause and affect) with mom. More of the human, hands-on lessons. I think it models Mary in a way. A human guide that can be trusted and who points us to faith.
    Anyway, well done.
    And how did you get a picture of my five year old daughter? oh, the child is so smart but such a mule.

    1. Hey Chris,
      I like the Mary connection! Although Jesus and Mary are both fully human and sinless, Mary is the “mom” and more like us.

      BTW, what’s your daughter doing on Google Images anyway? ;-)

  2. "I want my kids to have personal faith in me, not because they have evidence combined with the calculating logic of reason, but just because I’m their father."


    Trust has to be earned - even the trust of a child for a parent. The trust a child has for a parent is earned through the bonding process - the child sees that the parent is protective and understands that the parent has the child's best interests at heart. Parents provide evidence constantly that they are trust-worthy. That's what the word "trustworthy" means.

    And there are plenty of parents who have proven themselves untrustworthy. Abusive parents. Parents who are alcoholics or drug addicts. Absent parents. Not to mention parents who allow children to retain serious but treatable diseases - even to the point of death - because they trust the God will heal the child.

    And if you are referring to the story of Abraham and Isaac, that is not a story about trust - it is a story about obedience. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham was totally willing to go through with it. And Isaac was unaware of what was going to happen. Should he have trusted his father in this situation? Nope.

    Stating that you think it is a good thing for a child to assume trust in a parent is definitely not as clear cut as you think it is, and children learn to trust their parents - whether rightly or wrongly.

    1. Ray,
      The analogy obviously assumes a good parent. There are certain things a parent understands that a child cannot possibly understand, that is why there is a need for trust. Are you a parent? If yes, then you can surly can understand this.

      Careful with assumptions about Abraham & Isacc; Abraham was extremely old at the time (over 100). Isaac was a boy or young teen strong enough to carry all the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders. It is reasonable to say that Isaac could have easily overpowered his dad struggling for his life once he understood what was happening and there is no evidence of a struggle. Based on this, it reasonable to say that Isaac also “trusted”. Based on this, we can say Isaac was a prefiguring the trust of Christ carrying his wooden cross on his shoulders.

  3. There are no such things as "good" or "bad" parents. I'm sure the parents who let their child with Type 1 Diabetes die also served vegetables and make him wear a coat in winter. But when they said "We arent going to take you to a doctor because God will regulate your blood sugar", he would have been justified in not trusting them.

    Yes, I am a parent of two grown sons. They trust that their mother and I have their best interests at heart, but I know that we have made decisions that did not work out for the best, and my sons would be justified in questioning (at the very least) or ignoring some of our decisions.

    Careful with assumptions about Abraham and Isaac: The story states that Isaac questions where the sacrifice was, so he was unaware of what was to happen, and that Abraham was able to tie Isaac up and place him on the altar. It is NOT reasonable to say that Isaac could have fought against his father when he realized what was happening, because the text does not say that he did. It is not evidence of his trust, or anything about his thoughts or feelings. It is just a statement of how the events occurred.

    We can NOT say that Isaac trusted the outcome of the event. What sort of trust are you even talking about? The text intends us to understand that Abraham fully intended to kill his son, because God says that Abraham did not deny God anything, not even his son. There is no reason from a reading of the text to think that Isaac would think anything other than that he was the fully intended sacrifice.

    And makes the statement that Isaac is prefiguring the trust of Christ into reading WAY too much into the OT story. What trust do you think Isaac would have had - that he was going to be saved, or that his death would be for the best somehow? God indicated that there would be no expectation that Isaac would be saved, and a trust that his death would be for the best would be misplaced, because Isaac WAS saved.

    1. Raymond,

      I really don't know what to do with your statement "There are no such things as "good" or "bad" parents." Has this been your experience?

      As for Abraham and Isaac, yes Isaac was unaware until they arrived where the sacrifice would come from, but don't you think that when he was placed upon the altar (after carrying the wood) he would be able to get up and go, fending off his 100+ year old father (or at least outrunning him)? The text does not need to say he did. We have ample room for Isaac's age in the text. The Church reads both Abraham's obedience from Faith AND Isaac's Trust as virtues. From an allegorical reading, Isaac is a type of Christ, trusting his father.

      Your question about trust "What sort of trust are you even talking about?" is answered in the context of the promises and covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis chapters 12, then 15, 17 and culminating after this event in chapter 22. God promised (swore to) Abraham that THIS son would be the seed from which many nations would come, the royal dynasty and the blessing on all nations. Abraham trusted God would deliver, however it would be. It is VERY hard to hear this but that is why Abraham's Faith is so lauded.

      Lastly, we do not know what Isaac was thinking. Again, faith is difficult because we don't know the future even when we have lots of data. Isaac's trust is important because he trusted Abraham who trusted God. This is the type of faith we are asked to have. Looking back is easy, trusting when looking forward is hard.

  4. I don't know why you don't understand my comment. Will it help if I qualify it - there is no such thing as a completely good parent or a completely bad parent. I love my sons, but I have made decisions that have turned out poorly for them. The parents who let their child die trusted God when they shouldn't have. I would not compare their experiences to mine, but it really is only a matter of degree.

    Genesis 12 does not refer to Isaac specifically. Verse 7 - "To your offspring I will give this land." Once Isaac is born through God's intercession, and God tells Abraham to kill Isaac, there is no reason to think that he did not expect God could bless Sarah again.

    Genesis 15 doesn't either. Verse 5 "Look up at the sky and count the stars...so shall your offspring be." Abraham could easily expect more than one child from this statement - a replacement for Isaac later if he obeyed God.

    Now, Genesis 17 does mention Isaac and a covenant with him specifically. That one you can have. But even Genesis 22 does not specifically state that Isaac will (necessarily) be the source of Abraham's descendants - only that they will be countless in number.

    But again, what sort of trust are you stating that Abraham has, or should have? That Isaac will be spared? The angel of God is sure that Abraham would have gone through with the sacrifice. "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son..." (22:12) The only trust that he could have had was the promise of a multitude of descendants. I don't think that you can read into the passage that Abraham didn't believe God's command to sacrifice his son because of the previous covenant. God Himself knew that Abraham was going to go through with it. So surely Isaac did too.

    And when you say "the text did not need to say he did (resist)" - yeah, it pretty much does. Since the text does not say whether Isaac resisted or whether he trusted, either interpretation is just an interpretation.

    1. Raymond,

      Yes it does help me to understand what you are saying. Did you believe Ben is saying that he requires a completely good parent in his scenario? I didn't.

      As for Gen 12, Paul interprets this in Galatians 3:16 as "seed" of Abraham allegorically referring to Christ. Interpreted literally, Abraham's "seed" is Isaac.

      Your interpretation is that another child could be born. Abraham is again over 100 and Sarah over 90 when Isaac is BORN. As Isaac is speaking and carrying the wood, this could be around 10 years or more later. Be that as it may, what kind of trust glibly expects Sarah to bear another child at this age? This also discounts the promise that God gave in Gen 17:16 to give the child through Sarah. So not just any child, but a child of both Abraham and Sarah, a woman barren until 90 and given a son. Do you think anyone would say, heck, God did it once, he could do it again? This is a rare faith indeed to obey God to kill the son of the promise.

      Joe's speculation: I think it is reasonable to say that it makes more sense for Abraham to believe Isaac will be spared than to believe his wife will again conceive.

      So, my point is Abraham trusted that SOMETHING would happen to enable God to SOMEHOW keep his promise despite Abraham's inability to know in advance exactly what. This is why he is richly rewarded after he is stopped and the third promise is covenanted in Gen 22:17-18.

      I agree regarding the interpretation if, and only if, it's between two open-minded scripture readers. Unfortunately, I present an interpretation of the Catholic Church and it holds more weight. This is the advantage of having Tradition. Tradition is the correct interpretation of Scripture. They go hand in hand.

      However if you do not accept the Church's interpretation, I understand that too. My job here is to explain how I understand the text through the lens of the Church's Tradition. I hope I have done so clearly.


    2. Also,
      When Isaac questioned what was going on, where is the sacrifice, Abraham did say "God will provide the sacrifice" (future tense). This is also evidence to argue that Abraham trusted that Isaac would somehow be spared.

  5. No, Ben isn't saying that the father has to be absolutely good, but he IS saying that the authority that a child cedes to a father in trust has to be absolute.

    " I want my kids to have personal faith in me, not because they have evidence combined with the calculating logic of reason, but just because I’m their father...In fact, I could even see a good father intentionally hiding evidence so that the child would have no choice but to trust. This is the only way a healthy parent-child relationship can work."

    And my response to that is "No." That is NOT a healthy parent-child relationship. Parents are just as subject to errors in judgment as any human. To give a child "no choice but to trust" is not only bad parenting - its a horrible way to treat a child.

    He is trying too hard to make a connection between the parent/child relationship and the God/believer relationship. And in doing so, he sounds like a parent who would allow a child to die because he trusts God to heal him spontaneously.

    Now back to poor Isaac. In all my 50 years as a Catholic, I never heard a homily that explained the story of Abraham and Isaac as one of trust. It was always described as a story of obedience. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham obeys. God's pleasure in Abraham is not from Abraham's trust, but his willingness to obey God, even if it costs him his son. As I said before - God's angel says "you have not withheld from me your son." I don't think it even matters what Abraham thought about the covenants he had from God.

    "Abraham, all these lands will be yours and your descendants will be as numerous as the drops of water in the ocean or the grains of sand in the desert."
    "Thank You Lord."
    "Abraham, go out and kill your son as a sacrifice to Me."
    "Yes Lord."
    We see in many other places the consequences of failing to obey God's commands. Adam and Eve. Jonah. There is absolutely no reason in the text to think that Abraham had any conception of disobeying the command, or any thought about the previous covenants.

    I'll go so far as to say when you argue that Isaac could have resisted and fought off Abraham's attempt to tie him up and put him on the altar, that he didn't do that because of trust - he did that because of obedience. It was his father's command, and he obeyed.

    And one more thing - there is something of a cheap shot in the comment "Unfortunately, I present an interpretation of the Catholic Church and it holds more weight. This is the advantage of having Tradition. Tradition is the correct interpretation of Scripture." Like I said, I was 50 years a Catholic and had 16 years of Catholic education. The comment you offered was basically a "Because I said so" comment.

    If you don't think your interpretations can be challenged in good faith, why does your site allow comments?

    1. Ray,
      No analogy is perfect, but I was thinking of a parent with a small child (let’s say 10 years old). Do you remember when your kids were small and they thought you were wrong about something? There are cases when the child has no choice but to trust IF there is going to be a healthy relationship, IF the child wants what’s best in the end, IF the child wants to be happy. Of course the child can choose not to trust, but natural consequences will follow. They can choose to obey without trust, but again, is that a healthy relationship? Does a father want obedience with no trust, or obedience with trust?

    2. Raymond,

      Let me try to change the footing of this and address the "cheap shot" first. I am not trying to assert "because I said so" in any way. Nor do I want to say "I know more than you, so shut up and sit down." I want to present what I have learned from Catholic theologians and biblical scholars that shed light on this story for ME. However you are under no obligation to agree with me or those whom I quote or to whom I refer. You may certainly challenge me, but please understand this: you asked a question, I tried to answer. You disagreed. Your reply seemed to imply that I incorrectly interpreted the text. As I was presenting someone else's interpretation, I wasn't really the one challenged, but the theologians who taught me this interpretation. Unfortunately my reply has offended you and I am sorry for that. So let me give what I have.

      I hear you that you have never heard this preached in a homily regarding Isaac. Neither have I. I learned it through the Catholic Bible Study The Great Adventure. It is also a theme in theologian Dr Scott Hahn's books. I can quickly cite one example, "A Father Who Keeps his Promises" page 107. For an online reference, see the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology's article on Abraham here. (I hope these references help to show that some Catholic thought does encompass the concepts I have written about.)

      In fact, I assert that the promises and subsequent covenants are central to understanding fully what was going on in the story. Abraham is more laudable for his trust than for some blind obedience to an incomprehensible God who on one hand promises a dynasty and on the other commands the destruction of it. Without the promise, Abraham's actions make little sense. With them, he has a basis for obedience. (Although beyond my own ability to trust!) Abraham's trust in the promise and in the God who bound himself to it in the ancient covenant formulas. God swears by Himself to fulfil these promises under pain of death (see Gen 15:17-18). There is so much to explore here that I feel I do it injustice to reference it so briefly.

      You seem to assert (stop me if I assume incorrectly) that the story can only be about Abraham's (and Isaac's) obedience and consequently not their trust. These are not mutually exclusive motivations, so it is possible. Neither do I believe that you think that any given story can have only one theme.

      Thank you for your comments.

  6. Well, I certainly apologize for my overly harsh statements. It is my intent to provide discussion and not to engage in competition or to decide "who wins". I went too far in that regard in my comments and I mischaracterized your comments in return. I just wanted to express the fact that I...well...was a lifelong Catholic until relatively recently, and I was responding to your comments in the context of my own experience.

    The point I was trying to make (poorly) is that the insight of Abraham considering the command to sacrifice his son in the context of the overall covenant experience is likely a modern insight - one that is not clear at all from the text of the specific story. There are many many passages in Scripture in which God's message is "Who are you to question Me?" Job. Jonah. Samuel. I think the interpretation I was expressing is also justified in the context of those passages. Not to mention the point I made more than once that the story itself indicates that Abraham intended to go through with the sacrifice.

    And I guess I am still going to disagree (respectfully, I hope) with Ben's contention about a healthy parent/child relationship. Children, especially young children, often have strong senses of curiosity. The stories of children who always ask "Why?" are representative of that. I think it is wise, and certainly healthier both physically and in the relationship, that when a parent gives a child an edict (Don't play in traffic - Don't talk to strangers - Don't put a key in the electrical socket) that the parent also provide an explanation for the edict. "Because I'm your father and I said so" will frequently not meet the child's natural and reasonable desire for understanding, and a case can be made that is is also intellectually lazy.

    1. Raymond,

      I am glad we worked that out. I am interested in hearing more about your journey of faith. Comboxes are not always the best venue!

      If you wish, please leave your contact information in the "Contact" tab and we can exchange emails privately.

      May God bless you!

    2. One quick comment on the "modern insight" suggestion. Here is St John Chrysostom:

      “Once more I am amazed at the good man’s fortitude in being able to build an altar of sacrifice, in having the strength, in not collapsing under the anguish. Instead, he both built the altar and piled the wood on it…Let us not idly pass by these words, dearly beloved, but wonder how his soul did not part his body, how he managed to bind him with his own hands and place on the [bundle of sticks] his beloved, his graceful, his only begotten son…What a godly spirit! What a valorous attitude! What extreme love! What purpose overcoming human nature! ‘He took the sword,’ the text says, ‘to sacrifice his son.’ What amazes and astounds me more – the valorous attitude of the patriarch or the obedience of the son? or the fact that, far from shrinking back or protesting against the deed, he submitted and yielded to what was being done by his father; and, like a lamb, lay on the altar without resistance, awaiting his father’s arm?”
      from Homilies on Genesis 46–67 (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 87)

      Isaac is clearly understood to have been old enough to resist, nor was he forced but was obedient because he trusted his father.

  7. I guess I'm missing something, but that quote seems to support my contention that the point of the story is obedience. Abraham obeys God and Isaac obeys Abraham. I don't see anything there that refers to trust. In fact, "purpose overcoming human nature" seems to expressly state that Abraham is acting against the kind of trust of safety and protection that Isaac should expect. And I REALLY don't get St. John's characterization of the sacrifice and "valorous".

    1. Raymond,

      A few things. First of all, the story IS about obedience, but not JUST about obedience.

      Secondly, I would suggest that we have a terminology problem. Let's distinguish between blind obedience and trusting obedience. Blind obedience is obeying without a particular reason. Trusting obedience is having a reason for it. However, even in Genesis 12, verse 1, God gives the command and in verses 2-3 gives promises to Abraham. It's like a bargain. Abraham believes/trusts in God to do what he says. This is trust. However we have no information on previous encounters Abraham has with God, so we assume this is the first. God is not showing any proof of being trustworthy, but Abraham takes the promise as binding on God (correctly as it turns out when God later re-swears the same 3 promises on pain of death) and so he obeys.

      Thirdly, I can only invoke the testimony of the Fathers of the Church and other theologians who make this connection to the trust of Isaac. I am not a theologian but I can read their conclusions, see that their position is at least non-contradictory. In fact, this reading of the text has more explanatory power than a reading of non-Trusting obedience. My training in logical thinking and the empirical sciences can be applied to accept the MOST logical conclusion that supports ALL of the facts that I have, In the absence of particular facts upon which others have come to their conclusions (I have not read all the Church Fathers or theologians on this topic) I am content to trust THEM until I find a contradictory fact. At which point I'll do what I usually do and investigate further.

  8. 1. As far as this goes, I think we will have to agree to disagree (even with the testimony of the Fathers of the Church) in that I think the story is like 97% about obiedience, from a reading of the text. Granted, a reading of the text of that story alone, but I think that is a valid approach, as I will get to.

    2. I agree that there is a terminology problem. I don't agree with the distinction between "blind" obediance and "trusting" obedience. (wow, I really have to learn how to spell "obedience".) If an authority tells a subordinate to do something, and the subordinate does it, that's obedience. The authority expects the order to be obeyed, period. There is no distinction between "blind" and ":trusting" obedience from the perspective of the authority.

    From the perspective of the subordinate, maybe he questions the rationale of the order and maybe he doesnt. Even if the subordinate has questions or concerns, and the subordinate follows the order, then that is obedience plain and simple. And I go back to the (uncontented) assertion that I have made many times in this thread - God himself states that He knows that Abraham was going to obey the command and sacrifice his son. There is no wiggle room in the text to say that Abraham trusted that God would intervene and prevent the sacrifice. God knows that Abraham will obey.

    3. When you say that you are basing your conclusions on "ALL the facts" - I am using some facts as well. In many cases in the Bible, God either gives a command or makes a statement, and the subordinate questions it. Mary does it, Job does it, Jesus does it, even Abraham does it in a prior passage (I dont have my Bible with me, so forgive my lack of citations). And anyone who disobeys God gets a pretty good spanking. Adam, Saul, Jonah. So there is plenty of reason to think that, even if Abraham did have conscious concerns, that he didnt question the command, and none of those concerns were going to stop him from going through with it. Obedience pure and simple.

    I'm certainly glad to concede that others, including others with a lot more authority than I have, have differeing interpretations. But I hope you see that I have good evidence for my own as well.