Abraham and Augustine’s Lack of Faith

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Genesis 12:13).

By Chapter 15 of Genesis, after God’s promises to him, Abraham is starting to question God over how this process will work out. It just didn’t make sense to Abraham. God, however, reassures him of His promises.

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:1-4).

By Chapter 16 of Genesis Abram and Sarai are beginning to once again doubt the word of the God. They have now convinced themselves that they need to take things into their own hands and help God out. God had made important promises to Abraham regarding his descendants. Abraham could clearly see the problem. He didn’t yet have any descendants, Sarah was barren, and she and Abraham were well past the age they could expect to have children. In Genesis 15:1-3, Abraham had already explained all of this to God and still nothing.

Instead of waiting in faith, Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands and decided among themselves to help out God. In Genesis 16:2 Sarai starts the process. “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.”

This impatience and their lack of faith in God’s faithfulness produced much unhappiness for Abraham, Sarah and her maid, Hagar. Hagar’s experiences are recorded in some detail in the Bible. They provide us with a touching example of God’s compassion and mercy for the oppressed (verses 5-16; 21:9-21). But we learn from this that God does not always spare us from the consequences of our lack of faith. Abraham and his descendants would pay dearly for this lack of faith through the line of Hagar’s child, Ishmael.

Sometimes God does not give us all the information we think we need to follow Him. Sometimes, He only tells us what He is going to do and not how He is going to do it. Abram and Sarai found themselves in such a situation, and Sarai, realizing that she is barren, comes up with an alternate way to carry out God’s plan.

Let’s face it, they, like us, are only human and not God. That is where faith comes in. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). Abram and Sarai could not see God’s promises fulfilled when they made their decision therefore did not have faith. Abraham would later trust God and put his faith in God when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham would learn from experience.

We now come to Augustine of Hippo who was to change the course of Biblical interpretation for many centuries because of his lack of understanding and faith that God’s Word was what God said it was. Because Augustine couldn’t understand the possibilities of God’s Word ever coming to fruition he decided to help God out.

In the Book of James, James starts his epistle with a greeting. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” So what exactly is the “Dispersion?” There is no commonly accepted date for James’ writing of this epistle and dates range sometime between 55 and 100 C.E. I tend to believe it was written after 70 C.E. since he refers to the dispersion of the twelve tribes.

Let’s define the dispersion that James refers to. The Assyrians had driven the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom from the Holy Land in 722 B.C.E. and they were never heard from again as a nation. The Babylonians would then invade the Southern Kingdom in 586 B.C.E. and took most of the population into captivity. This was the two tribes of Judah. After 70 years of captivity, a remnant of Jewish people returned to Israel under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The return of the exiles from Babylon was a gradual process rather than a single event, and many of the deportees or their descendants did not return. The Greeks would then rule over Israel to be followed by Rome. The rebellious Jewish people would be forcefully removed from the Holy Land after Rome crushed the Jewish revolts in both 70 and 132-135 C.E. The destruction of Jerusalem was absolute and the Jewish people would be banned from living in their homeland by the Emperor. This was the final dispersion of the Jewish people that would eventually scatter them to the four corners of the earth. This is all twelve tribes being dispersed.

As Abraham had struggled with the fulfillment of the promises God made to him about his descendants, Augustine also struggled with the fulfillment of the very same promises God had made to these very same descendants. Augustine simply could not understand the clear prophecy that God would restore His Chosen, but very scattered people, to Israel and make them a great nation. Scripture, however, is clear on the return of the Jews to Israel after the dispersion, but Augustine had no faith in God’s ability to accomplish such a promise.

Hosea 3:4-5

“For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”

Ezekiel 20:34

“I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out.”

Isaiah 11:11-12

“In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations
and will assemble the banished of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.”

Isaiah 43:5-6

“Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth….”

Augustine, like Abraham needed to help God out. Sure God had promised the return of the Jews to the Promised Land, but how likely was that? Augustine believed that God allowed the Jewish people to survive this “scattering” only as a warning to Christians regarding the consequences of disobedience to God. He needed to justify the continued existence of the Jewish people. It certainly couldn’t be to fulfill His promise of return. That would be impossible, apparently even for God. Subsequently, Augustine began to question those portions of the Bible relating to Israel and erroneously surmised that those passages were allegorical rather than literal. Augustine would deny the literal meaning of God’s Word.

David Ettinger in his essay “Replacement Theology: Disdaining God’s Character” writes of Augustine: “He concluded, for instance, that the thousand-year kingdom of which Revelation 20 speaks cannot be literal, but rather spiritual. The kingdom of God, he declared, is “in the hearts” of faithful believers, but was never intended to find its fruition in actuality – a physical kingdom on the earth over which Christ will rule.”

“Augustine’s beliefs led to his allegorizing much of the Bible, the prophetic sections in particular. In Augustine’s approach, the last days were no longer the last days; Israel was no longer Israel; Jerusalem was no longer Jerusalem; the house of David was no longer the house of David; and a thousand years did not mean a thousand years. Under this allegorical system of interpretation, the Bible became largely subjective – it could mean whatever the reader wanted it to mean.”

This way of interpreting Scripture would lead to Replacement Theology which transferred the promises made to Israel to the Church. God had rejected His people. His people would forever remain scattered as a lesson to the Church not to reject God. God would never gather His people back to the Promised Land.

What Augustine thought impossible to do was accomplished with the creation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 when David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Jewish people have been the most persecuted ethnic group in the history of mankind. From their time in Egypt, to their dispersions by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans they have been a persecuted people. In medieval history the persecution continued in the form of the Christian Church. Even with the atrocities of Hitler, the Jewish race has never been eliminated as a people. They have not been destroyed by countless attempts of genocide nor has their identity as God’s Chosen People been lost. This can only be through the very hand of God. God had promised preservation so that He could fulfill His promise of restoration. God has preserved His people. Augustine under estimated God’s miraculous power to accomplish His will.

This mindset that a restoration of the Jewish people was impossible continued until 1948 when it would become impossible to deny. Augustine isn’t the only “theologian” that did not trust in the ability of the Lord to accomplish what He willed. Louis Berkhof was one of the leading theologians of the 20th century.  When Berkhof completed his Systematic Theology in 1939, the restoration of Israel looked like an impossibility and his theology reflected that. Herman Bavinck was a Dutch Reformed theologian who also predicated his doctrine on the impossibility of the restoration of the Jewish people to their Promised Land. A noted amillennialist, Kim Riddlebarger, writes: “We cannot repeat the mistakes of the prior generations of amillennarians (such as Bavinck and Berkhof) who both said one of the sure signs that dispensationalism was false was that the dispensationalists kept predicting that Israel will become a nation. As we all know, Israel became a sovereign nation in 1948 despite Berkhof’s and Bavinck’s views to the contrary.”

In referencing dispensationalists, he is referring to their pre-millennialist view of a literal interpretation of God’s Word and therefore a literal thousand year Kingdom after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ as written in Revelation chapters 19 & 20. Pre-millennialists take God at His Word and never doubted that God would restore Israel. Pre-millennialists do not allegorize or spiritualize God’s Word but take it as God intended. The amillennialist view is that there is no Kingdom despite the many references to it in Scripture. In their view God’s promises are for the Church not Israel. Scripture, however, just does not say that.

It is hard to believe that there are still those that hold onto a theology that was predicated on a lack of trust in God’s Sovereignty and His Word. Many amillennialists do not see any relevance to the miraculous return of the Jews to the Promised land as God had promised. Abraham learned from his lack trust and when God told him to “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love [and] …offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” Abraham did just that. God reveals that Abraham learned from his lack of faith. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:17-19). Amillennialists seem too proud to confront the reality of the Jewish return and the affirmation of the literal promise that God made. They lack faith in the Word of God as presented to His people. They only believe in their own reinterpretation of it. They still hold onto a flawed understanding of God’s Word too tightly.

The cornerstone of the Christian faith is predicated on the Word of God. God has made many promises and the God we worship is a faithful God. He has and will keep all of those promises. Those that try to understand God’s Word by spiritualizing it rather than reading it as it is written are doing a grave injustice to God’s intent. God meant His word to be understood by His people. He meant you and I to read it in a literal sense and rely on the Holy Spirit within us to reveal to us it’s meaning. It is the Holy spirit that enlightens us with certainty. As we have seen from Augustine, Berkhof and Bavinck we cannot always trust in theologians. The father of the amillenarian view, Augustine of Hippo, started from a flawed premise and his flawed Biblical hermeneutics or method of interpretation has persisted to this day.

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