Saturday, March 3, 2012

If God knows all things, why did he put Abraham to the test?

2nd Sunday of Lent, Genesis 22:1-2,9a,10-13,15-18
God put Abraham to the test. […] [And the angel said to Abraham] “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
In the first reading of this Sunday’s Mass, the Church hears the account of the testing of Abraham. It is very clear from the sacred text: God puts Abraham to a true and real test. Yet, we firmly believe that God knows all things, past and present and future. If then the Creator knew Abraham’s faith and knew that he would not spare his own son but would be willing to offer him up in sacrifice, why did God need to test him?
Further, if God knows all things, why does he say (through his Angel), I know now, as though he had not known it before? Could it be that God learned something new on this day? Was the Almighty instructed by the action of his creature? Did the Most High require evidence to be convinced of the faith of his servant?
We shall see that something else is at work in this passage.

God knows all things, and he knew Abraham’s faith
Sacred Scripture clearly testifies that God knows all things: God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. (1 John 3:20)
God is Truth, and all that is exists only because he knows it. Thus, for God “not to know” is for the thing not only not to exist, but to be unable to exist. In this sense, only those things which cannot be known – i.e. concepts which are utterly meaningless and contrary to all reason, propositions which reject the principle of non-contradiction – are unknown to God. All else, all that has being or could possibly have being, is known to God.
Further, God does not need to look to creation in order to know a thing, rather his knowledge (and his love) is the cause of the existence of all things. Hence, because a thing does not exist without him knowing and loving it, there can be no sense whatsoever in which God looks to the world so as to grow in knowledge of that which he has created.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that God not only knew Abraham’s faith, but also knew that Abraham would be willing to offer his son Isaac upon the mountain. The Lord knows all that will ever be and, while still respecting human freedom (in a mysterious way), he infallibly knew all that Abraham would freely choose.
Hence, we can be certain that God did not test Abraham in order to discover whether he had true faith.
The Lord “tested” Abraham to make his faith known
Rather, it is certain that God tested Abraham so as to make the Patriarch’s faith known both to himself (Abraham) and to all the world. God put Abraham to the test as a way of manifesting to all people that he is truly the Father of believers.
It happens in Scripture that God is said to “know” something, in the sense that he “makes it to be known.” Likewise, God is said to “not know” something, insofar as he “does not make it to be known.” Thus it is that, in this passage, God tests Abraham – not as seeking knowledge, but as making truth to be known to others.
The Angel, speaking in the person of God, says, I know now how devoted you are to God. It is not as though it is only at this late moment, when Abraham has offered his son Isaac to God, that the Lord has come to know of Abraham’s faith – God was not learning something new here. Rather, it was at this moment that God (through his angelic messenger) has made Abraham’s faith to be known both to Abraham and to all.
Put simply, the testing of Abraham was not unto God’s benefit, but for the Patriarch’s sake and ours.
The sense in which Jesus did not know the day and hour of the Judgment
Jesus says, But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)
It is a heresy to claim that Jesus (even in his humanity) did not know that day and the hour of the final judgment. The human intellect of Jesus was ignorant of no created thing, past, present, or future. To claim that our Lord did not know the time of the Second Coming is the heresy of “agnoeticism” and was condemned by Pope Gregory the Great, and further condemned by many other magisterial pronouncements.
For further on this point please see our earlier article [here]. Also, if any questions, “If Jesus knew, why didn’t he tell us?”, he may consider this article [here].
What is most enlightening, however, in our present context is the connection which St. Augustine makes between the “ignorance” of Jesus (in his humanity) about the Second Coming and the “ignorance” of God about the faith of Abraham: “Recall that in a similar way it was said to Abraham: Now I know that you fear God, in the sense that now I am taking you through a continuing journey to know yourself, because Abraham came to know himself only after he had been tried in adversity. […] Jesus was ‘ignorant’ in this sense, so to speak, among his disciples, of that which they were not yet able to know from him. He only said that which was seasonally fitting for them to know. Among those with mature wisdom he knew in a different way than among babes.” (De Trinitate 1.12.23)
Why did God put Abraham to the test? The literal sense
The literal sense is that meaning which is conveyed by the very words of the Sacred Text. Further, it is possible that this meaning was known both by Moses, who wrote Genesis, and also by Abraham – though, there are times when the literal sense is only partially known (or even not known at all) by the human beings involved. In this particular case, St. Paul tells us exactly what Abraham was thinking during this episode.
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
The literal sense of the testing of Abraham is that the Patriarch had true faith in the resurrection. It is a matter of faith (by reason of the fact that it has been revealed in Scripture) that Abraham believed that, if he sacrificed his son Isaac, God would raise him from the dead back to (at least) natural life.
This was the faith which God was manifesting and making known to all people: Abraham’s explicit faith in the resurrection of the dead.
Why did God put Abraham to the test? The spiritual sense
While the spiritual sense is surely unknown to the human author who wrote Genesis (i.e. Moses), yet it was known and intended by the God who inspired the writing. Thus, if we ask why God put Abraham to the test, the spiritual sense offers just as valid an explanation as does the literal sense – for both the spiritual and literal sense were intended and known by the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul tells us that God gave Isaac back to Abraham for a parable (Hebrews 11:19) – and this refers to the spiritual sense, by which persons and events of the Old Testament foreshadow persons and event of the New Testament. Isaac is a sign, figure, and type of Christ. As Isaac was offered as a sacrifice but returned alive, so too would Christ be offered in the sacrifice of the Cross and yet return alive in the Resurrection. In this sense, the ram is also a type and figure of Christ, insofar as the ram was indeed slain as was too the Christ.
It is for this reason also that God put Abraham to the test: Not only to manifest Abraham’s faith, but also to prepare the way for the perfect sacrifice which would be effected when God the Father offered up his own beloved Son upon the mountain of Calvary on the altar of the Cross, and yet received him back alive through his glorious Resurrection from the dead.
And this is why Abraham said, “God will provide himself a victim for an holocaust, my son.” (Genesis 22:11) And our Savior said, “Abraham your father rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56)
For indeed, in prophetic foresight, Abraham knew something of the true and perfect sacrifice by which the Messiah would fulfill the promise of blessing for all peoples.


Tito Edwards said...

All well and good, but the act of killing your own son is irrational and barbaric.

I cannot reconcile both God's love for humanity and an act that no human being, unless motivated by evil, can follow through with.

How can this be explained?

Quid est Veritas? said...

To claim that our Lord did not know the time of the Second Coming is the heresy of “agnoeticism” and was condemned by Pope Gregory the Great, and further condemned by many other magisterial pronouncements.
Father, did you mean to type agnosticism?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Agnoeticism is etymologically related to agnosticism, but is a quite different thing.
Agnosticism is when we say "I don't know" whether God exists.
But, agnoeticism is when we say there are some things that Jesus "didn't know".
And this is the meaning of the "agno" in the two words.

So, to be clear, the heresy condemned by St. Gregory is agnoeticism.

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for the elegant exposition of the meaning of God putting Abraham to the test. I don't think it ever dawned on me that Abraham was professing belief in the resurrection, even in a prototypical way.

Also, reviewing your exposition of how Jesus knew the day and the hour of the Second Coming, specifically in His Humanity through His Beatific knowledge, but not from His Humanity, and that was the distinction He was making. You may have drawn this corollary somewhere, but with this statement, Our Lord is telling us that we cannot know the day nor the hour from our humanity either. We can pray that the tribulation be shortened, as He has directed us to do, (I'm looking forward to your exposition of that mysterious directive!), and to hearken to the approved messages of Our Lady to repent, pray and fast, but it is just plain useless to try and predict the time or the hour, because this bit of info CANNOT be figured out, and it is not going to be given by infused knowledge either, so just be ready NOW. (I can type it out so easily, how come I can't do it? To be always ready, that is...) It's amazing that the snake oil salesmen continue to do such a good business on this one. I guess PT Barnum was right. God bless you, Father.

Anonymous said...

You say that we "firmly believe God knows all things past, present, & future." Is this de fide or just the predominant view of God and time? Is open theism heretical?


Anonymous said...

Father, after reading this fantastic exposition I have a doubt: is it possible that God allows us to be tempted to know our strenght and our weakness?


PD: Sorry for my English (I'm from Spain).

Xristoforos Theotokou

Omnia Probate said...

Fr. Ryan, according to the story, Abraham allegedly "reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son", but he didn't actually go through with slaughtering his son. He stopped short. Therefore, apart from the Biblical gloss put upon the alleged events (there are no other reported human witnesses in the story), how was it "made known" that Abraham actually had "faith" rather than he just decided not to do it or even that it didn't actually happen at all? According to you, "It is a matter of faith (by reason of the fact that it has been revealed in Scripture)...". And so it seems the "test of faith" is actually whether readers of the Bible believe it simply "by reason of the fact that it has been revealed in Scripture". But the Bible also says to "test everything". How can we test whether the story of Abraham and Isaac is true?

Ikedi said...


God was prefiguring the crucifixion of His only begotten son Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of many sins.

JP said...

Dear Father,
Could you please clarify whether or not the Church teaches that Moses wrote Genesis as you have stated in your article.


Matt said...

The mystery of God's knowledge through himself is so beautiful and elegant, I think I would believe it on the aesthetic criterion alone if it was not well supported and logically deduced by the rest of Thomistic metaphysics, which only adds to and completes the beauty more thoroughly. Thank you!

kkollwitz said...

"How can this be explained?"

I tell my Catechism class this was God's way of showing he was not like pagan gods such as Moloch.

Charles said...

Tito Edwards,

I believe it was not God Himself that ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son,but the angel of Satan for the simple reason that, Satan knew that Isacc was the fruit of the Holy Spirit,since Sarah was barren and old.

This to prevent the messaiah to be born.

Genesis 22:1 says: After these things, God tempted Abraham.

God according to scripture never tempts anyone.

The title of God in the old testament is not meant God Almighty.In fact there were good angels acting for God,and evil angels acting for god of the world, as Paul said.

Satan through his angels was personifying God,and humans were never in the position to know which is which.

Hebrews 1:14 says: Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?

So "ALL" both good and evil angels are ministering spirits.


Paul made it clear that there are many gods and many lords:

1CORINTHIANS 8: 5 For although there be that are called gods, either in heaven or on earth (for there be gods many, and lords many);

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

TO ALL: I apologize for the delay om getting the comments posted ... Lent is a busy time for parish priests!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Most certainly we must believe that God knows all things ... indeed, it would be heresy to say otherwise.
Dei Filius of Vatican I is a good place to look (as far as modern Majesterial texts are concerned).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

God may tempt us (or allow us to be tempted) in order to show us our strengths and weakness ... to make these known to us.
But certainly he does not need to tempt us in order for him to know ... because he already knows us through and through, even before we were conceived he knew us and knew everything about us.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Omnia Probate,
The text of Genesis presents the matter as history.
Hebrews (and numerous others of St. Paul's letters) also present Abraham and Isaac as history.
The Church Fathers are unanimous in accepting it as history.

Therefore, I do believe we simply must accept this as historical.

And, when the Bible says "test everything" ... it means test the theories and practices of men, not to text the Word of God itself.
For the Scriptures are the norma normans non normata.

If Paul says "Abraham thought such and such", then we can be certain, as a matter of faith, that Abraham thought such and such.

Hope that is clearer now. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It was stated by the Holy Office (early 1900s) that Moses is the true author of the Pentateuch.
So, yes, I believe we must hold that Moses "wrote Genesis" ... however, I am not convinced that we have to hold that he literally wrote it with his own hand.
Thus, it is possible that he is the author insofar as he is the source of the tradition which is recorded in Genesis.

Hope that is clearer! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The Scripture says that "God put Abraham to the test" ... thus it could not have been Satan.
Indeed, your interpretation is radically contrary to the Church Fathers and would make the story a horrific and diabolic nightmare, rather than an angelic parable of the Love which the Father has for us.

You write: "BECAUSE THE OLD TESTAMENT IS A COMPLETE CONFUSION REGARDING GOD" ... that is heresy plain and simple. You are a Marcioinite. You are betraying the Gospel of Christ.

The God who revealed the Law is the same God who gave us his own Son.
As St. Paul tells us: "God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son." (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Cara said...

How are we to reconcile this story with the Fifth Commandment "You shall not kill"? And isn't murder an intrinsic evil, meaning it's always wrong everywhere at all times in every circumstance? Or is murder not wrong if God commands you to murder?

Bender said...

re: "You shall not kill"

It is interesting that so many people insist on such a strictly literal interpretation of these passages, so quick to miss the subleties of what God is trying to reveal to Abraham (and to us). And yet, in that strictly literal take on it, they completely ignore the literal words God used --

"2 He said to him: Take your only begotten son Isaac, whom you love, and go into the land of vision; and there you shall OFFER him for an holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will show you."

(2 Ait illi : Tolle filium tuum unigenitum, quem diligis, Isaac, et vade in terram visionis, atque ibi offeres eum in holocaustum super unum montium quem monstravero tibi.)

Reading this strictly, God did NOT tell Abraham to kill Isaac. He told him to "offer" Isaac in sacrifice. That is a key distinction that too many overlook. "Sacrifice (kill) him" and "offer to sacrifice him" are two different things.

And, yes, it is wrong to kill your child by human sacrifice. That is why God stopped Abraham -- to teach him NOT to engage in human sacrifice (which was a common practice in that area at that time).

In teaching us, God uses a variety of teaching methods. And one method in this Divine Pedagogy is the arguendo (assuming for the sake of the argument) -- accepting the premise of the opposite of what it is that you want to teach so that you can then disprove it and show how wrong it really is.

Again, human sacrifice was a common practice of the time. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book, The God of Jesus Christ, p. 54, that "sacrifice of the firstborn . . . was demanded by the ancestral religion of Abraham." So, perhaps God plays to Abraham's expectations that at some point He is going to ask for such a sacrifice. In addition to "testing" his faith, God does what Abraham expected precisely in order to smash that expectation and make it completely clear that that human sacrifice, killing your own children, are abominations.

JP said...

Dear Father,

Thanks for the clarification. So Moses is the authority behind the Pentateuch in the same sense that certain of St Paul's letters are attributed to him without him necessarily being the "author" in our general modern sense of that term?


Cara said...

Bender, do you think that St. Thomas was "quick to miss the subtleties" when he said of "in [Abraham's] being willing to slay his innocent son" that "considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason in general"? You say yourself that "it is wrong to kill your child by human sacrifice", and "That is why God stopped Abraham". Therefore, you as well have raised the issue of "You shall not kill". As we may recall, God had already stated in Genesis 9 that "Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one's blood be shed; For in the image of God have human beings been made." You raise the distinction between "kill him" and "offer to kill him", but even an offer to do wrong is wrong. If a man "offers" to murder someone, is it not already a crime even if he's "stopped" before he fully carries it out? He might even have had a noble intention such as to "eliminate suffering", but even then, the Church teaches that "an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must ALWAYS be FORBIDDEN and excluded." This Church teaching states no exception such as "except if God tells you to do it" or "except when it's God's will". Rather, it says "always". However, the explanation of St. Thomas was that there must be a "greater authority" exception to the general rule, citing Augustine: "For as among the powers of human society, the greater authority is obeyed in preference to the lesser, so must God in preference to all." And more simply, "When God commands a thing to be done... it is to be done." Thus, even that which "considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason in general" is not contrary to right reason when God commands it.

Cara said...

St. Thomas also had this to say on the subject: "[W]hen Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He it is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be." (ST, II-II, q. 100, Article 8) And thus again, we have the "if God commands it" exception (which really isn't an "exception" so much as the ultimate rule), whereby it's not "murder" but instead a "slaying" by the command of God, as "due punishment", even though St. Thomas refers to Isaac as Abraham's "innocent son". (ST, II-II, q. 154, Article 2)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for providing such a clear and concise explanation of the Thomistic reasoning ... indeed, I believe that this is the only way in which we can understand this passage ... quite clearly, Abraham had no problem with sacrificing Isaac, if God so willed.
Likewise, Moses, when writing, presents it as an eminently reasonable notion.

A challenge to us today ... but that says much more about modern man than about God.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think that the key point you have made is well put!

God is TEACHING through this incident ... and so it is not really about questions of Divine Command Theory, etc.
Rather, it is a divine pedagogy.

Now, personally, I don't think that the Almighty is so much teaching us that we ought not to offer human sacrifice (he does that elsewhere, of course), but rather is teaching us that he will give his own Son for our salvation.

Still, your essential point regarding divine pedagogy is right on. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think that the Church's teaching on Pauline authorship of the Letters is a bit more specific than Mosaic authoriship of the Pentateuch.

To illustrate this point: We say "A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the ...", but we have never said (in the Liturgy), "A reading from the first/second/third/forth/fifth Book of Moses".

Further, the Letters themselves make a stronger claim ... "I write this with my own hand, PAUL" (of course, referring only to the signature, because the rest of the Letter was dictated) ... and "Paul, an apostle of God, to the Church of Jesus Christ in ..."

Nick said...

I am surprised nobody mentioned the connection to James 2.

James 2: 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Beyond being an act of obedience, James says Genesis 15:6 ("Abraham believed God and it was reckoned as righteousness") is actually a prophecy that became fulfilled in Genesis 22:9ff! Revelation/Faith literally unfolded itself and blossomed. In this sense, it's akin to God making a prophecy of Christ and fulfilling that prophecy.

What even fewer people know is that Saint James was simply drawing from the well known Jewish understanding of the situation, found in 1 Maccabees 2:52,

"Was not Abraham found faithful in trial,
and it was credited to him as righteousness?"

This is speaking of Genesis 22 and yet applies the identical phrase "credited as righteousness" as Genesis 15:6!

Charles said...

Father accept my sincere apology for due to my poor English language, which is not my native one, I should have written SEEMS A COMPLETE CONFUSION.


The Scripture says that "God put Abraham to the test" ... thus it could not have been Satan.

As St. Paul tells us: "God, who, at sundry times and in DIVERS MANNERS, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son." (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Yes Father.

But scriptures gives detail that he tempted, not tested, and according to:

James 1:13 Let no man, when he is tempted, say that he is tempted by God. For God is not a tempter of evils, and he tempteth no man.

God does not tempt humans, so He tested Abraham through the MANNERS of temptation. And temptation is not of God but of Satan.

St Paul (Hebrews 1:1-2)confirmed that the first and only time God spoke directly to humanity was through Jesus Christ. Obvious since only His Son could reveal Him, and since God was revealed by His Son ,it means that He was hidden within all the administering spirits.(Hebrews 1:14)

With regards to : and would make the story a horrific and diabolic nightmare

I wonder father that with the exception of the Jews which God selected as His people, how the rest of the world, especially all those people butchered through the Jewish God????? Lived.

To conclude:

Now father I reflected on Matthew 7:17: Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

Isn’t it clear that with the same principle all good comes from God, and all evil comes from Satan.

peace and love in Jesus

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