"The Labyrinth of Temptation": Calvin on Genesis 22

"This chapter contains a most memorable narrative." Thus Calvin introduces his readers to Gen. 22, that text which records God's instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the long-awaited fulfillment of God's promise and source of Abraham's profound joy.

Calvin's subsequent comments on this "narrative" are remarkable when considered against the backdrop of pre-Reformation reflection on the text in question. Given the rather astonishing divine imperative issued to Abraham in the text -- an imperative which, at least on the surface, appears to contradict God's own prohibition of murder as embodied in both natural and revealed law -- Gen. 22 had figured prominently in medieval debates about the relationship of God to good (and vice versa), the relationship between God's will and God's character vis-à-vis God's law, and so on. Showing noteworthy restraint, Calvin denies such medieval disputes so much as a nod when he meets God's commandment to Abraham in Gen. 22.2 to "take your son, your only son, whom you love -- Isaac -- and ... sacrifice him." Calvin chooses, rather, to focus on the extraordinary nature of the test Abraham is thus set, and the extraordinary nature of the faith Abraham subsequently evidences as he endures that test. All this, for Calvin, towards the end of establishing an example of patient faith and confidence in God's providence for believers today. Indeed, no chapter in Calvin's entire commentary on Genesis contains more frequent reference to the need "for every one of us to apply... to himself" the "example" of virtuous activity encountered in the biblical narrative.

Calvin identifies multiple layers to the test that Abraham, at God's initiative, is set in this text. At the most basic level, Abraham faces the loss of his son, and that by "a violent death," an abhorrent prospect to any good parent. But aggravating the pain of this prospect is the reality that Abraham has only recently lost his other son, Ishmael. Indeed, when God refers to Isaac as Abraham's "only son" (vs. 2) in this text, Calvin reckons that God purposefully "irritates the wound recently inflicted by the banishment of his other son." Abraham's divinely dictated course of action is made even more dreadful, of course, by the fact that Abraham himself is the intended author of the violence awaiting his remaining son. "It was sad for him to be deprived of his only son, sadder still that this one should be torn away by a violent death, but by far most grievous that he himself should be appointed as the executioner to slay him with his own hand."

Calvin judges the ingredients of Abraham's agony mentioned thus far rather trivial -- or in his words "mere play, or shadows of conflict" -- in comparison to two further, more critical components of Abraham's distress. There is, first of all, the reality that Isaac embodies God's promise of redemption to the world. Thus God's command to "slay him" must have seemed to Abraham a requirement "not only to throw aside, but to cut in pieces, or cast into the fire, the charter of his [own] salvation, and to have nothing left for himself but death and hell." Abraham is essentially ordered to assume the role of humankind's salvation slayer.

But most painful of all the to Patriarch in Calvin's estimation was that God's commandment to slay Isaac seemed so obviously at odds with God's promise of redemption through Isaac, and thus raised questions for Abraham about the character and intention of God Himself. This, Calvin judges, is what ultimately constitutes the core of the "labyrinth of temptation" in which Abraham finds himself. "God, in a certain sense, assumes a double character, that, by the appearance of disagreement and repugnance in which He presents Himself in his word, He may distract and wound the breast of the holy man.... It was difficult and painful to Abraham to forget that he was a father... by becoming the executioner of his son. But [this] was a far more severe and horrible thing; namely, that he conceives God to contradict Himself and His own word." In sum, Abraham faced not only the loss of his own son and his salvation, but also the God whom he had come to trust and love over the course of the preceding decades. That God now threatened to prove an adversary, if not a capricious monster.

Calvin rounds out his consideration of Abraham's anguish by noting that God bids Abraham slay his son not in Abraham's back yard, but on a mountain three days' journey from his current location. "The bitterness of grief is not a little increased by this circumstance. For God does not require him to put his son immediately to death, but compels him to revolve this execution in his mind during three whole days, that in preparing himself to sacrifice his son, he may still more severely torture all his own senses." Calvin compares this "delay" between God's command and its intended fulfillment to being "stretched upon the rack," thus referencing one of early modernity's most notable forms of torture, made (in)famous by the Spanish Inquisition.

So how does Abraham find his way through and out of this "labyrinth of temptation"? In Calvin's judgment, Abraham's faith throughout this trial (and thus also his obedience) is sustained less by God's word of promise (regarding his progeny and mankind's salvation) and more by his convictions regarding God's wisdom, mercy, and providence. God's commandment to him, to all appearances, contradicts and annuls God's promise to him, and so renders God's promise unsure footing, as it were, for his faith. Abraham does of course speculate that God might (immediately) resurrect Isaac after his sacrifice, and so yet fulfill his promise to and through Isaac, but he has no certain word from God regarding this. In the final analysis, then, Abraham simply and doggedly maintains his confidence that God knows what he is up to, and that God's sovereign government of this world and its affairs is informed by infinite wisdom and mercy, no matter circumstances that point to the contrary. "His mind must of necessity have been severely crushed, and violently agitated, when the command and the promise of God were conflicting within him. But when he had come to the conclusion, that the God with whom he knew he had to do could not be his adversary, although he did not immediately discover how the contradiction might be removed, he nevertheless, by hope, reconciled the command with the promise, because being indubitably persuaded that God [is] faithful, he left the unknown issue to Divine Providence. Meanwhile, as with closed eyes, he goes whither he is directed."

The biblical narrative of Abraham's trial and obedience ultimately, then, provides Calvin opportunity to reinforce a point that he has made previously in his Genesis commentary; namely, that in the journey which is the Christian life, our faith must occasionally look to and lean upon God's character rather than a particular word of divine promise. Abraham illustrates this point in a unique fashion, since his particular dilemma is not that he lacks a divine word, but that he finds that word in (apparent) contradiction to itself. The lesson Calvin thus discerns in Abraham's trial is most pertinent in our day. Too often in times of uncertainty and testing in life we are more prone to manufacture a divine word of promise than to lean upon God's character and sovereignty and move forward in faith. Thus we become an oracle to ourselves, glossing our own prophetic promises to ourselves as divine, when what God actually requires from us is not absolute certainty about our steps forward, but confidence that his sovereign purpose and love surround us as we take those steps.

Or as Calvin more elegantly puts it: "Many things are perpetually occurring to enfeeble our purpose: means fail, we are destitute of counsel, all avenues seem closed. In such straits, the only remedy against despondency is to leave the event to God, in order that he may open a way for us where there is none. For as we act unjustly towards God when we hope for nothing from him but what our senses can perceive, so we pay Him the highest honor, when, in affairs of perplexity, we nevertheless entirely acquiesce in his providence."