The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought

Hardcover (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $10.95
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 86%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (15) from $10.95   
  • New (6) from $39.00   
  • Used (9) from $10.95   


Embracing the viewpoints of Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox thinkers, of conservatives, liberals, radicals, and agnostics, Christianity today is anything but monolithic or univocal. In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, general editor Adrian Hastings has tried to capture a sense of the great diversity of opinion that swirls about under the heading of Christian thought. Indeed, the 260 contributors, who hail from twenty countries, represent as wide a range of perspectives as possible.
Here is a comprehensive and authoritative (though not dogmatic) overview of the full spectrum of Christian thinking. Within its 600 alphabetically arranged entries, readers will find lengthy survey articles on the history of Christian thought, on national and regional traditions, and on various denominations, from Anglican to Unitarian. There is ample coverage of Eastern thought as well, examining the Christian tradition in China, Japan, India, and Africa. The contributors examine major theological topics such as resurrection, the Eucharist, and grace as well as controversial issues such as homosexuality and abortion. In addition, short entries illuminate symbols such as water and wine, and there are many profiles of leading theologians, of non-Christians who have deeply influenced Christian thinking, including Aristotle and Plato, and of literary figures such as Dante, Milton, and Tolstoy. Most articles end with a list of suggested readings and the book features a large number of cross-references.
The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought is an indispensable guide to one of the central strands of Western culture. An essential volume for all Christians, it is a thoughtful gift for the holidays.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
This reference work from Oxford's will prove an indispensable guide to the contemporary pluralism of Christian thought. Under editor Adrian Hastings's direction, hundreds of scholars from around the globe have collaborated to produce a comprehensive, single-volume introduction. Six hundred entries range over the Christian tradition's varieties of practice: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. In-depth survey essays detail historical and doctrinal controversies from the 16th century to the present. Articles are concise, accessible, and attractively written. Editorial planning has emphasized topics of pressing current interest. This handsome volume will make an ideal addition to the libraries of scholars and laymen alike.
From the Publisher
"Oxford, the king of reference publishing, sets the standard once again with this thoughtful guide to 2,000 years of Christian intellectual history.... This volume is a keeper, a reference that will be faithfully consulted for many years to come."
—Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
This authoritative and accessible overview of the full spectrum of Christian thinking consolidates the efforts of 260 scholarly contributors from 20 countries around the world. Six hundred alphabetically arranged entries bring together a diversity of opinion from a wide range of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox thinkers. The work also includes topics on Christian thought from China, Japan, and India as well as Latin America and Africa. While the present is given preference over the past, the editors were conscious of past intellectual history. Lengthy survey articles (such as "Twentieth Century: An Overview") provide a mini-history of the topic, with articles from the 16th century onward. Survey articles are supplemented by shorter historical entries. There are also articles on individuals, nations, and regional traditions and denominations. Major theological topics and controversial issues such as medical ethics, reproductive technology, homosexuality, and abortion are also examined. Most articles end with a listing of suggested readings, and the book has many cross references. Middle-length articles are devoted to philosophers who have deeply influenced Christian thought, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Nietzsche, as well as literary figures like Dante and Milton. While biblical entries occupy a considerable part of the text, this work is not meant as a companion to the Bible. It can, however, be used profitably with The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (LJ 5/15/97). Ideal for lay readers and theologians alike, this indispensable volume is highly recommended.--Michael W. Ellis, Ellenville P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Provides an authoritative and accessible introduction to a living tradition of thought central to the western world and, in modern times, to global civilization. Hastings (emeritus professor, Leeds U. and U. of Zimbabwe) presents 260 writers who represent various countries, all the main traditions, both sexes, lay and clerical, veteran emeritis and young postgraduates, nuns, archbishops, journalists, Jesuits and Quakers, all of whom have endeavored to recognize that neither in theory nor in practice is there a single orthodoxy or standard position within modern Christian thought. The 600 articles cover topics such as abortion, anti-Semitism, capital punishment, divorce, God, homosexuality, marriage, the Old Testament, reproductive technology, saints, and sex and sexuality. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780198600244
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/21/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 808
  • Product dimensions: 10.70 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Adrian Hastings is Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds. He studied history at Oxford and theology in Rome, and spent much of his professional life working as a missionary in Africa. He was formerly the editor of Journal of Religion in Africa and has written numerous books on Christianity, Catholicism, and Africa. Alistair Mason is Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Leeds. Hugh Pyper is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt



Abelard, Peter (1079-1142). Abelard was the most daring, and probably the cleverest, theologian and *philosopher in Western Europe in the first half of the 12th century; he was also one of the greatest logicians of all time. Born in 1079 at Le Pallet, near Nantes, he had made a name for himself as a teacher of logic by his early twenties. By 1115 he had established himself as master at the cathedral school in Paris. At this time, he had an affair with Heloise, niece of Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral, and a woman renowned for her learning. The affair ended in a secret marriage and Abelard's castration, arranged by Fulbert, who thought he was going to abandon Heloise. Abelard then became a monk and forced Heloise to become a nun. He did not, however, give up teaching, and after a period as abbot of a monastery in Brittany he was again teaching in the Paris schools c.1133-9. His teaching career was brought to an end in 1140 when Bernard of Clairvaux succeeded in having a list of statements, supposedly drawn from Abelard's works, condemned at the Council of Sens. Abelard was given protection by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, and he died at a dependency of Cluny, reconciled with the church and, possibly, also with Bernard.

    Abelard's work is wide ranging: logic (commentaries on the standard logical textbooks by *Aristotle, Porphyry, and Boethius, and an independent treatise), systematic *theology, biblical exegesis, sermons, an ethical treatise and dialogue, letters, and poetry. Four aspects of it are of special, continuing relevancetoChristian theology: first, his method in theology and its part in the development of scholastic theological method; second, his views about non-Christians; third, his relationship with Heloise and its effect on his ideas about female *monasticism; and fourth, his positions on particular points of Christian doctrine.

    In the late 11th and early 12th centuries, theologians became increasingly concerned with the problematic issues which arose in the course of scriptural exegesis when one passage from the *bible apparently contradicts another. Discussion of these issues led gradually to the development of the question-technique—the method of setting out problems in terms of two contrary views, the arguments for each, and the counter-arguments—which is characteristic of later medieval theology. Abelard played an important part in this movement, although he was not its originator. His Sic et non (`Yes and No') is a dossier of passages from the bible and (mainly) the church fathers which are apparently contradictory, arranged problem by problem, so as to show clearly how some answer `yes' and some `no' to the same question. In his Theology (Abelard produced three main versions of it: the Theologia Summi Boni, 1121; the Theologia Christiana, c.1125-6; the Theologia Scholarium, C.1133-6) and his commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans, he explores a number of problems where authorities seem to be opposed and argues for what he considers the correct reply.

    Abelard's solutions often make use of sophisticated logical analyses, a feature they share with the work of later medieval theologians such as *Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Ockham. It is wrong, however, to present Abelard, as some historians have done, as a logician who insisted on imposing his logical method on theology and who was concerned merely with the verbal form of theological discourse rather than its content. The links between logic and theology were already well established by the early 12th century, and Abelard was a constructive theologian, for whom the logical analysis of doctrinal statements was never more than a means to an end.

    Although Abelard lived in an entirely Christian society, he was very much aware of two different categories of non-Christians: the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome, and the Jews of his own day. He read the classical Latin poets, *Plato's Timaeus in Latin translation, and some of Aristotle's logic. He was sure that the great ancient philosophers and poets, and the heroes and heroines they speak of, had been genuinely virtuous and were among the blessed in heaven, although they had apparently lived as pagans. Abelard justified this view, which was clearly in conflict with *Augustine, by explaining that not only did these virtuous people of antiquity worship the one true God, they had also grasped, through their reason, God's triunity; indeed, in his Theology, he refers to pagan prophecies of the *Trinity alongside those found in the bible. Abelard went so far as to use the austere lives of the ancient philosophers as a shaming comparison for the dissolute monks of his own day. In his Collations (or Dialogue between a Christian, a Philosopher and a Jew, c.1125-30), the `Philosopher', who does not believe in a revealed religion, debates on equal terms with a Christian about the nature of the highest good and greatest evil. Abelard underlines the wide area of agreement between the two men. Perhaps it is not surprising that his own close pupils called him `the Philosopher'.

    Abelard also seems to have been unusually sympathetic to Jews, whom he would have encountered frequently in Paris and whose advice he sought about some points of biblical interpretation (*Jewish-Christian Relations). The Jew in the Collations speaks movingly of his people's sufferings. He is made to argue with, not the Christian, but the Philosopher, who claims that the Old Law adds nothing to the natural law all people grasp by reason. Although the Philosopher seems to win the argument, not all the Jew's points are answered.

    Traditionally, Abelard's relations with Heloise have been regarded as a subject quite distinct from his work as a theologian and philosopher. An exchange of letters between the two, written about fifteen years after they parted, has become famous as love literature: she apparently remains unrepentantly devoted to him, despite her status as not merely a nun, but now an abbess; Abelard urges her unsuccessfully to love Christ, not him. Yet this exchange has an unromantic and theologically important ending. At Heloise's request (and in line with her detailed instructions), Abelard sends her a history of female monasticism and a new Rule for her nuns. Both these pieces recognize the dignity of *women as human beings and recognize also the need for flexibility in adapting monastic regulations intended for men to female use. Little other writing about women from the time shows such sophistication, which may have been due as much to Heloise's suggestions and influence as to Abelard himself.

    Among Abelard's discussions of particular points of Christian doctrine, three are especially important: the Trinity, Christ's work, and the nature of sin. The central concern of his Theology, in all its versions, is the Trinity. He holds that, when we talk of *God's power, wisdom, and love, we are talking respectively of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He also insists that triunity is a feature of how God really is, not just a reflection of how we understand him, and he struggles to find a way of explaining how something can be at once one and three.

    Abelard develops his position on Christ's work—how Christ redeemed humanity—mainly in his commentary on Romans. He rejects *Anselm of Canterbury's view that God demanded the sacrifice of a God-Man. Rather, Abelard argues that by laying down his life for others, Christ gave an example of supreme *love which people could imitate and so be enabled to gain *salvation. It would be wrong however, to draw the conclusion that he thought the *Atonement merely exemplific: Christ's *Incarnation and crucifixion were necessary for human salvation (see Cross).

    In his Know Thyself (or Ethics), Abelard analyses the concept of *sin. He balances emphasis on the subjective element—sin is identified with contempt for God, as manifest in intended action—with an insistence that through *reason every adult at all times has known many of God's laws. He also recognizes that we often do not wish to perform a sinful act (for instance, murder in self-defence), but we are guilty none the less if we consent to performing it.

    Abelard was one of the Christian thinkers who went furthest to adapt Christian teachings to his philosophical views about how a just, benevolent, and omnipotent God orders the universe. It is not surprising that his influence in the *Middle Ages was more on method than in doctrine.

John Marenbon

Abelard, P., Christian Theology (1948), trans. J. R. McCallum (partial version of Theologia Christiana).
Opera Theologica, ed. E. Buytaert and C. J. Mews (1969-87) (Latin texts of Theology (all versions) and of Commentary on Romans), i-iii.
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. and trans. B. Radice (1974).
Ethical Writings, ed. and trans. P. Spade (1995) (translation of Know Thyself and Collations).
Clanchy, M., Peter Abelard (1997).
Jolivet, J., La Théologie d'Abélard (1996).
Marenbon, J., The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (1997).
Mews, C. J., Peter Abelard (1995).

Abhishiktananda (1910-73). Henri le Saux was a Breton Benedictine monk at Kergonan where he was ordained in 1935. For years he felt a call to help establish contemplative *monastic life in the *Indian church and in 1948 he joined a brilliant French scholar-priest in Tamilnadu, Jules Monchanin, who shared le Saux's desire to live a monastic life `in closest possible conformity with the traditions of Indian sannyasa'. `Total Indianization' was the rule from the start, imitating the 17th-century example of de Nobili and the 20th-century example of Vincent Lebbe in *China. Together they adopted the customs of a sannyasi, sitting and sleeping on a mat, walking barefoot and hatless, while studying Sanskrit, the Hindu scriptures, and Tamil. Visits to one of the great modern *Hindu sages, Sri Ramana Maharshi, in his ashram at Tiruvannamalai proved decisive in shattering any belief that the *Holy Spirit was at work only in the church.

    In 1950, le Saux and Monchanin established a new ashram at Shantivanam (grove of peace), at the same time adopting new names, in accordance with Indian tradition. Henceforth le Saux would be Abhishiktananda (`Bliss of the Anointed One, the Lord'). As the years passed, his ever deeper identification with Hindu *spirituality and pursuit of the absolute non-dualism of Advaita made him `too Hindu for Christians' yet still, he complained, `too Christian for Hindus'. He struggled to be loyal to the heights of both traditions but the `gulf' between them tore him apart. Feeling intellectually far more `oriental' than `Greek', he frequently agonized over whether he was still a Christian or should continue celebrating mass. Even Monchanin found it `mysterious' that a Christian should insist on taking a Hindu sage as his guru.

    Abhishiktananda's spiritual teaching made use, equally well or equally inadequately, of either Christian or Sanskritic terminology. At the end of his life he could write `all notions about Christ's personality, ontology, history, etc, have disappeared. And I find his real mystery shining in every awakened man, in every mythos', but he daily celebrated mass and a visitor remarked how `His whole person and all that he did literally radiated the Presence of *God, he was all transparency to the Lord.' Abhishiktananda could be awkward and difficult to live with; no disciples stayed with him for long; yet through the power of his personality, teaching, and multifarious writing in many languages he profoundly influenced a multitude of people to re-explore at the deepest level of personal experience the Christian-Hindu `gulf'. He represents at its most intense the struggle within *twentieth-century Christianity to identify with, rather than deny, the spiritual depths within non-Christian *religion.

    See also Griffiths, Bede.

Adrian Hastings

Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience (1974).
de Lubac, Henri, Images de l'abbé Monchanin (1966).
Mataji, V. (ed.), Abhishiktananda: The Man and his Message (1986).
Stuart, James, Swami Abhishiktananda (1995).

abortion. The Christian tradition has taken a generally negative view of abortion, but the moral basis and perceived implications of this negative view have varied greatly. In the early church abortion and *contraception were often seen as broadly equivalent, both involving interference with the natural reproductive process. But the tendency to conflate abortion with contraception, and even on similar grounds with male masturbation, declined in the face of the biological discovery of the mother's role as more than just an incubator for the male `seed'. With the recognition of conception as a distinct and crucial event, abortion was seen as morally far more serious than contraception, involving a threat to life and therefore, arguably, equivalent to homicide. When seen as homicide, abortion has naturally been subject to an almost total prohibition, the only generally agreed exception being where it is necessary to save the mother's life. Within the Roman Catholic communion even this exception has needed the sanction of the doctrine of double effect: where the abortion is not directly intended, but is only a foreseen but unintended consequence of a surgical intervention primarily intended to save the mother's life (e.g. the removal of a cancerous uterus or of a fallopian tube containing an ectopic pregnancy).

    The perception of abortion as homicide, however, depended also on the question of `ensoulment': at what point in its development the foetus becomes animated with a rational human *soul. For many centuries a distinction between `ensouled' and `unensouled' foetuses was widely accepted in the western church, based partly on *Aristotelian theory (that the male foetus was `unformed' until around 40 days after conception, and the female until around 90 days) and partly on a mistranslation in the Septuagint of the one passage in the OT which has a clear relevance to abortion, namely Exodus 21: 22-3 (see Dunstan 1988 for historical background, and Wilkinson 1988: 232, 252-8, for a sober assessment of other biblical passages that have been thought relevant to the abortion debate). No doubt this `developmental view', which takes the moral gravity of abortion as partly a function of the foetus's stage of development, was also partly motivated by the evident difference between early and late miscarriages: when abortion involves the death of a visibly baby-like being it is natural to see this as a matter of considerable gravity, far removed from the loss of a tiny, unrecognizable embryo.

    The Eastern Orthodox church followed Basil in rejecting any developmental view and hence in condemning abortion, from conception onwards, as involving the destruction of a being made in the image of God. Many Roman Catholics and Reformers took a similar view (*Calvin, for example, saw the predestined soul as existing from conception), but in the west the conception was not fully identified as the morally crucial point until the 19th century, influenced in part by the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX (with the implication that *Mary had a sinless soul from the moment of conception). Such an emphasis on conception implies a sharp moral distinction between abortion and contraception, and although the latter continues to be condemned by some (notably within the Roman Catholic tradition) as contrary to nature, this now tends to be tempered by a generally more positive attitude to *sex as an important element in the marital relationship independently of its reproductive role. Few now would claim that abortion and contraception are morally on a par, though controversy remains regarding methods of `contraception' (e.g. the intra-uterine device) whose effect is to impede implantation and development of the conceptus rather than to prevent conception.

    Not surprisingly, the modern debate on abortion has moved away from questions of biblical and patristic interpretation and theories of ensoulment. Changes in attitudes to sex and broader cultural changes, perhaps most notably the enhanced status of women, increased respect for personal autonomy in moral decisions, and, in particular, the perception of reproductive freedom as a `right', have emphasized issues other than the individual foetus's `moral status', which tended to dominate earlier discussions. Biological and medical discoveries have also played an increasingly important role: knowledge of the early development of the foetus has made some traditional positions harder to maintain (e.g. in respect of soul individuation where twinning occurs), while the possibility of prenatal diagnosis of serious genetic and other abnormalities has added a new dimension to the debate by linking it with the issue of *euthanasia in cases where abortion might be thought in the interests of the foetus itself. This link is strengthened by the discovery that a high proportion of fertilized ova are spontaneously aborted in early pregnancy, often owing to chromosomal abnormalities. Such wastage seems in tension with the view that the human soul is created at conception, but it also makes any absolutist prohibition on abortion crucially dependent on the controversial distinction between acts and omissions which has featured prominently in debates on euthanasia. Without this distinction, anyone placing an absolute value on human life from conception seems committed to the saving of millions of prenatally terminated lives.

    A less overt but probably more pervasive influence of modern biological knowledge has been that of the theory of *evolution, implying a continuity within the created order which, whilst raising significantly the perceived status of *animals (both in Christian and secular thought), has at the same time tended to lower that of the human foetus by raising questions regarding the traditionally assumed moral precedence of humanity as such. Much of the modern philosophical debate on abortion seems predicated on a desire to avoid pernicious `speciesism', and accordingly to attribute a special status to the foetus (making its death more morally significant than that of an animal) only if its intrinsic qualities can justify such an attribution. Hence a number of recent writers (Glover 1977; Tooley 1983; Harris 1985) have developed theories of *personhood, arguing that a being's `moral status' depends not on its species but rather on its possession of such qualifies as feelings and desires, rationality, self-consciousness, capacities for action and for relationships. Since a foetus has few if any of these qualifies, and none when first conceived, such writers typically see early abortion as morally unproblematic, and late abortion as at worst comparable with the killing of an animal. Some have even been prepared to countenance infanticide.

    The standard response to such arguments, not confined to Christian writers but according well with Christian principles, has been to focus not on the human foetus's actual properties but instead on its potential properties, by which it can clearly be distinguished from an animal and correspondingly accorded far greater moral weight. The main difficulty with this response has been in maintaining a clear line between abortion and contraception, given that the human ovum and sperm, prior to conception, have a similar potential. Attempts to draw such a line have been made (Johnstone 1982; Stone 1987) by appealing to different senses of potentiality, as that the conceptus has the potential to become a human, whereas the ovum and sperm have only the potential to produce one. Despite these complexities the modern debate has tended to centre around this very traditional issue: is abortion morally similar to contraception or the killing of an animal, or to the killing of a child?

    It may be that the only way beyond the extreme polarization which has characterized the abortion debate is to recognize that as a moral issue it is equivalent neither to contraception nor to homicide. It is unique, far less straightforward than commonly represented, and not best judged in the all-or-nothing terms implied by the usual language of `rights' and `moral status'. Nowhere else do we find the existence of a determinate living being lacking the familiar morally significant characteristics (sentience etc.) but with a clear potential to acquire them, and in no other circumstance is one living being so totally dependent on another and with so great an impact on her autonomy and life-plans. Viewed in this light, the considerations advanced by both sides can perhaps be seen not as flatly opposed but as complementary, leading back towards the more moderate developmental approach characteristic of the church's thought prior to the 19th century, but based now on moral considerations rather than on theories of soulhood. The anti-abortionists' principle of potentiality, for example, naturally lends itself to a developmental rather than an absolutist interpretation. The pro-abortionists' appeals to personhood do not exclude other developmental moral considerations, including a typically Christian respect for human life and for the affections and perceptions of family and community, which can serve quite properly to distinguish even quite early abortion from the killing of an animal, without objectionable `speciesism'. These considerations can make even early abortion seriously regrettable without implying that it has the moral gravity of homicide. Very late abortion, on the other hand, might well appear hard to distinguish from the killing of a new-born baby. Most Christians, innocent of philosophical theory and ecclesiastical authority, would probably take such a developmental position, and it is difficult to see how any reasonably broad consensus can be achieved except in this (admittedly complex and messy) middle ground.

    See also Medical Ethics; Reproductive Technology.

Peter Millican

Devine, P. E., The Ethics of Homicide (1978).
Dunstan, G. R., `The Human Embryo in the Western Moral Tradition', in G. R. Dunstan and M. J. Seller (eds.), The Status of the Human Embryo: Perspectives from Moral Tradition (1988), 39-57.
Dworkin, R. M., Life's Dominion: An Argument about Abortion and Euthanasia (1993).
Glover, J., Causing Death and Saving Lives (1977).
Harris, J., The Value of Life (1985).
Johnstone, B., `The Moral Status of the Embryo', in W. Walters and P. Singer (eds.), Test-Tube Babies (1982), 49-56.
Millican, P. J. R., `The Complex Problem of Abortion', in D. R. Bromham, M. E. Dalton, J. C. Jackson, and P. J. R. Millican (eds.), Ethics in Reproductive Medicine (1992), 161—88.
Stone, J. `Why Potentiality Matters', Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 17 (1987), 815-29.
Tooley, M., Abortion and Infanticide (1983).
Wilkinson, J., Christian Ethics in Health Care (1988).

Abraham is the first recipient of the promise to *Israel. He is given this name, taken to mean `father of a multitude', as part of the story in Genesis 17 where *God makes a *covenant with him, promising him countless descendants and the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. The sign of this covenant is that he should circumcise himself and all the males in his household. The promise is made to him and to his descendants (literally `his seed') for ever. Under his original name of Abram, he was a dweller in the Mesopotamian city of Ur until, as Gen. 12 relates, God summoned him to leave it for an unspecified destination. At that point, God made him an unconditional promise that his descendants would be a great nation.

    No motive is given for the singling out by God of this one man to be the bearer of the promise. The consequences are not simply of benefit to Abraham; he is to become a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12: 3). Herein lies a tension inherent in the Abrahamic traditions between exclusivity and universality which is subsequently taken up in different ways. The *Old Testament is clear that the promise to Abraham and the mission it entails devolve on his descendants, the people of Israel. This motif is one which those writings dealing with the aftermath of the exile, most notably *Isaiah, seize upon as reason to hope for restoration (41: 8) and indeed an exilic origin for the tradition has been suggested. Whatever its origin, it allows the prophet to offer the exiles the consolation that God will not allow Abraham's descendants to lose their unique favour in his sight despite their manifest disobedience. Yet this restoration is not just directed at Israel. It will draw all the nations to worship at Zion.

    The problem for Christian thinkers is to show the continuity between this founding promise and the gospel story. This requires them to explain how the promise has been transferred from Abraham's biological descendants to a *church which is increasingly made up of Gentiles. In *Romans 4, *Paul makes much of the Septuagint reading of Gen. 15: 6 that Abraham's faith in God's promises `was reckoned to him as righteousness'. This allows Paul to argue that belief in itself, not good deeds, is the key to being judged righteous by God. Abraham is not chosen for any special virtue or for his adherence to the Law. Paul also reads this story as implying that circumcision is the seal, not the condition, of Abraham's acceptance. Indeed, Abraham's importance for Christians is that he gives a model of someone who finds favour with God before the institution of circumcision and the giving of the Law, thus demonstrating God's acceptance of those who are not enrolled in the Mosaic covenant (see Law, Biblical).

    But how can Gentile Christians claim to be the heirs to the promise to Abraham? Paul's answer in Galatians depends on interpreting the phrase Abraham `and his seed' as pointing to one specific descendant as the inheritor, because the word `seed' is singular (Gal. 3: 16). *Jesus is that descendant. *Matthew's decision to begin his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham (1: 1) may reflect the same desire to demonstrate that Jesus is Abraham's heir.

    This gives strength to Paul's central argument that it is those who are baptized in Christ, rather than Abraham's biological offspring, who represent the true sons of Abraham. The baptized Gentile is a participant in the promise of blessing (Gal. 3: 7, 14) by virtue of making the same sort of faithful response that Abraham did and thereby becoming incorporated in Christ.

    This concept is taken further when Abraham himself, and therefore all that depends upon him, is assimilated into the gospel story in *John. Jesus' startling claims in that gospel that `Before Abraham was, I am' and that Abraham `rejoiced that he would see my day' (8: 58, 56) represent the clearest statements attributed to Jesus himself that imply his pre-existence. They serve to underline the priority of Jesus over any claims of *authority based on antiquity but also bring the whole of the subsequent OT tradition into the embrace of the new dispensation.

    While Paul in Romans is careful to insist that Israel retains the privileges of the children of the promise, a further inference is drawn by others. If Christ alone is the seed referred to in the promise, then Israel's claim is void. Passages in the *New Testament deal disparagingly with those Jews who assert that the mere fact of their lineal descent from Abraham makes them the heirs of the covenant. *John the Baptist's retort that God can make children for Abraham out of stones (Luke 3: 8) is a particularly stark example. Subsequent Christian thought was for the most part quite content to follow the logic of this disinheritance.

    Here the Christian reworking of the tension between universality and exclusivity becomes manifest. It is the claim to be the true spiritual children of Abraham that allows the church to take to itself the promised destiny of Israel. Abraham, as a `blessing to the nations', acceptable without circumcision or being bound to the Law, is the guarantor of the claims of non-Jewish Christians to inherit the kingdom. The church has first relied on the universality of that promise to argue for the inclusion of Gentiles as Abraham's heirs. Having staked its claim to represent the true children of Abraham, it has often turned the tables and invoked the exclusive aspect of the promise to argue that those outside the Christian fold, particularly the Jews themselves, now have no claim to Abraham's inheritance (see Jewish-Christian Relations).

    To be Abraham's child is, the OT makes clear, not an unalloyed blessing. Ishmael, his son by the Egyptian slave Hagar, is banished to the desert and becomes a *type of those rejected by God, most notably in Paul's most explicit piece of*allegory in Gal. 4: 22-31. Yet the story does also contain the assurance that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation and implies that he is under God's protection (Gen. 21: 18-20).

    Isaac, the son of the promise, born to Abraham's elderly wife Sarah, becomes the unwitting focus of Abraham's great test of faith, now often known by its Jewish name, the Aqedah (the `binding' of Isaac). The story as recorded in Gen. 22 hinges on God's command that Abraham should *sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham obeys to the point of raising his knife above the bound body of his son, but at the crucial moment God steps in to reprieve Isaac and restore him to Abraham. For the author of *Hebrews, this restoration is a supreme example of the rewards of faith alone (11: 17). James, by contrast, takes this as the vindication of his insistence that works are necessary to complete *faith (2: 21). Abraham's *obedience is visibly demonstrated. This story becomes a crux in the long-running argument among Christian thinkers over whether faith itself is sufficient for *salvation or whether salvation depends on the accomplishment of loving deeds.

    Such a tale of a *father offering up his son at God's command only to be reprieved has deep and disturbing resonances. Beginning with the *art of the Christian catacombs, it has continued to fascinate artists and writers but it has features which make it theologically problematic. Even among early Christian thinkers the reference in one version of Hebrews to it as a type of the *Resurrection is not widely explored, though Clement and Tertullian do follow this line. *Augustine sees Isaac carrying the wood for sacrifice as a type of Christ carrying his *cross, but it is the ram, not Isaac, who becomes the type of the crucified Jesus. The implication that Abraham is the crucifier is not developed but this illustrates the awkwardness of the story for later thinkers.

    The apparent immorality of this intended murder, whether blamed on God or Abraham, was a stumbling block for many in the acceptance of the OT, as indeed were Abraham's evasions over his marriage to Sarah when danger threatened. In later centuries, *Kant offered a stern reproach to Abraham for supposing that such an immoral order could originate in God and *Kierkegaard's profound if difficult meditation on the story in his Fear and Trembling gave rise to his notion of the `teleological suspension of the ethical'.

    Other incidents in Abraham's story have been the subject of Christian interpretation. The three *angels who meet Abraham at Mamre and whom he seems to address at times in the singular as `Lord' are commonly interpreted as an OT type of the *Trinity, most notably in the *icon by Rublev. His encounter with *Melchisedek is similarly interpreted as a meeting with Christ and a prefiguration of the *Eucharist.

    The Lucan parable of the poor beggar Lazarus taken to Abraham's bosom (16: 19-31) together with Jesus' declaration that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the living, not the dead, explicitly imply that Abraham is one of the community of the resurrected (20: 37-8) which gives the patriarch a particular place in the Christian topography of the afterlife. *Protestant piety with its suspicion of saints seems particularly to have taken to this human and fatherly image of the heavenly state. Abraham's story of the individual faithful to God in the face of ancestral tradition has a particular appeal to reformers of every age.

    In the late 20th century, Jewish thought in the aftermath of the *Holocaust has turned to the anguish of the Aqedah as a potent symbol and has in turn shaped Christian reflection. Abraham has taken on a new significance as the common denominator of the Jewish, Christian, and *Islamic traditions, often bracketed together as the Abrahamic faiths (see for instance, *Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, 3-4). This reminder of solidarity is offered by some theologians as the key to developing rapprochement between the three communities. The promise that Genesis holds out to the estranged son Ishmael may be a point of contact with Muslims, but the Qur'anic reading of this incident is rather different. The patriarchal narratives of the OT are graphic reminders that being members of one family is no guarantee of mutual tolerance, but also of the forces that lie deeper than rationality and theological debate in the life of religious communities.

Hugh S. Pyper

Kuschel, K.-J., Abraham: A Symbol of Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, ET (1995).
Van Seters, J., Abraham in History and Tradition (1975).
Wilson, M. R., Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (1989).

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

List of contents
List of contributors
List of abbreviations
A-Z entries
Index of people

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)