Witnesses to the Obedience of Faith

Question 26.

This article reflects on Q 26 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Who are the principal witnesses of the obedience of faith in the Sacred Scriptures?"

See also Catechism 144-149.


1. Abraham Responds to God's Call

Abraham is the exemplar of obedience to God in the Old Testament (OT). God told him to leave his own country and moved to a new land, which God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. God promised that Abraham's wife Sarah would bear a son, even though she was past child-bearing age. On many occasions we see Abraham doing what God calls him to do. The most striking is the command to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and we will use this as an example of the obedience of faith (Genesis, 22).

2. What Kind of God Is This?

It is a confusing call from God, since this is not the God we think we know. The account in Genesis has Abraham respond without objection, yet we can imagine the conflict implied here. On the one hand, God should be obeyed, simply because he is God. On the other hand killing is wrong, so how could God ask this of Abraham?

In theological reflection on this passage we can identify a key theme: uncertainty about the true nature of God. On the one hand, God must be a powerful and mysterious being to whom we are subject. On the other hand, we have a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Can God command us to do something wrong? Is something right because God commands it, or does God only command it because it is already right in itself?

3. More Than a Test

We can only understand it in the light of what comes later. On one level it seems to be simply a test. Abraham is commanded to do something unreasonable, and to trust God enough to assume that God must have higher reasons. Then it is because he trusts that he learns a crucial lesson – he is not meant to sacrifice Isaac after all. Because he has trusted, he has proved himself worthy of God's trust.

The more we learn about God the more we learn about our relationship with God. If that relationship is mere subjection on our part, we are put in the position of having to follow a series of edicts which might or might not make any sense to us. Recognising God’s infinity we might merely switch off our conscience and say, ‘Just tell me what to do’. Yet as God reveals himself to us he also reveals something about what it is to be human. And central to the OT is the theme of a covenantal relationship between God and humanity. God wants us as partners. We have dignity in our own right, not defined against God, but because God is a loving Father. A father teaches his children to gradually understand things that might have seemed like mere commands at first. Later we are led to see why our parents told us to do certain things and why they were not able to give reasons earlier. We can only learn gradually.

4. A New Kind of God

If this was the only level of the story it would remain disturbing, because it might seem to imply that God is entitled to order us to carry out arbitrary acts. Yet God cannot contradict the divine nature, and since God is love, he would never actually order someone to commit any arbitrary and immoral act. At this deeper level, the story reveals something about the nature of God. One way of interpreting this passage is to note that, in some ancient societies human sacrifice was part of religion. Abraham would have been familiar with this. So when God seemed to ask him to sacrifice his son, he might have thought, well, this is the kind of thing a god can do.

Yet when God stopped him from doing it, this reveals something that must henceforth set the real God's people apart. It was not just a one-off event, but an epochal turning point. Sacrifice is still required, but God will provide the sacrifice. This can also be read as a prefiguring of the law of Moses, and ultimately of Jesus as the final sacrifice. It was Abraham's authenticity, his righteousness, that was rewarded, not the specific act he believed he was asked to do. By being prepared to commit our whole selves to what we believe is right, we open up a space in which God can enlighten us as to a better path, since objectively speaking we will often have mistaken ideas as to what we should do. (c.f. also Revelation 3:16, ‘How I wish you were either hot or cold…')

If the world remains opaque to us, if we never gain an adequate understanding of how the world works and what God is like, we are trapped in fate. It appears that darkness covers things so that, for merely arbitrary and incomprehensible reasons we simply have to obey the traditions we have received.

5. Revelation as Foundation of Vocation

We cannot overcome such a fate with our own initiative. Someone who knows more must lead us into the light. Abraham discovers that God is not asking for blind obedience but has shared with him something about the divine nature. This can be seen as the founding ‘charism’ of Abraham's vocation. God has called him personally. God has not used Abraham to perform some task, but has asked that Abraham as a person would come into a special relationship with God. For this to be real God must have shared something of who he really is, and it is this sharing which is the process of revelation. It is how the darkness is pushed back by the light.

6. Bound by Fate

If we do not accept this light, we remain bound by fate. But since we do not receive a constant stream of divine commands, and have to get on and live life anyway, the lack of true understanding becomes structured into our world of meaning, including our social relations. The idea of sacrifice in most ancient cultures arises as this kind of ‘mechanism’. In the absence of God's revelation, or the refusal of its lessons, people did not know how to relate to God. They had many insights, such as the reality of a god or gods, the power of such beings, and the dependence of human beings on such gods. They also understood that gratitude is an appropriate response to a gift received. In the absence of understanding we get stuck in patterns of behaviour that do not fully make sense. True and false insights are intermingled and solidified into social practices and mental perspectives.

7. Reason Alone Is Not Enough

This was the kind of situation Abraham lived in. He understood the true insights that, (1) God is a powerful being who has given many gifts, for which we should be willingly grateful, and (2) since God is beyond our comprehension it is not for us to determine what kinds of acts are proper to God. This is as far as natural reason could take him. But God knew that this was not sufficient either for salvation or for drawing people into a deeper communion with him.

Special revelation is needed to dispel the darkness. We cannot think our way out of it ourselves, or authorise any such new scheme. Sacrifice was an already established practice, one that people could understand and accept to some extent. Yet the logic of sacrifice could not adequately distinguish between symbolic gratitude, and a mechanism for getting God to give us what we want. Since people are often in desperate need, it seemed to some that greater ‘leverage’ was needed to get God to give what was needed. Human sacrifice seemed to be the ultimate such leverage.

It is in this context that we can see God teaching Abraham, and his descendants, that this is not permitted, not only because it is wrong to kill, but because there is no mechanical relationship between us and God. God does not need to be compelled, and cannot be anyway. The sacrifice is a symbol of gratitude in what should be a personal relationship. But it takes a long time for a culture to disentangle such confusion so that it becomes a real and living thing.

Because this learning is a journey, we need to have our priorities right; obedience comes first, understanding comes because of obedience. This is the general pattern for how we all learn as children. But it is definitive in relation to God because only God can reveal the divine nature. This is a lesson we can learn only from God; anything we can learn on our own can only be a preamble (see Compendium Q’s 3-4). God wanted Abraham to trust first and obey, and then because he was prepared to do that, God reveals something crucial to him. Because of this, and similar incidents, Abraham is recognised as a prime example of the obedience of faith. He became our 'father in faith' because God reveals himself in order to call us to a vocation. Through our vocations we become partners, co-workers with God's work of salvation.

8. Struggling in the Darkness

If we do not accept the revealed truth we are left struggling in the darkness. This darkness provides cover for the mechanism of sacrifice to do violence. Then the character of sacrifice as gratitude is lost, because no one is recognised as having a prior claim of obedience on us. We rely only on our own understanding, and without the light of revelation this eventually degenerates into systems of meaninglessness and violence.



1. Mary Says 'Yes' to God's Call

In the New Testament (NT) and in the Church Mary is the perfect witness to the obedience of faith. Her unique vocation can throw additional light on the nature of obedience, especially in the Annunciation, which we take here as the preeminent example.

2. Obedience and Understanding

We can clarify the nature of obedience by contrasting it with understanding. An unwillingness to obey is normally presented as a conflict over which is a better path to follow. At a certain stage a child will think it knows better than its parents and teachers. Sometimes the child can be correct, and the adults are mistaken. When it comes to God, there is no question who knows more. This can provoke resistance, though this will usually be against the supposed representatives of God, rather than God himself. In any case, we have the basic potential conflict or imbalance between obedience and understanding. This imbalance can be a source of confusion, and its resolution requires more understanding. If we focus only on more obedience, we fear we might be ‘taken for a ride’. There can be good grounds for such concern.

3. Contemplation as the Essence of Understanding

In Mary's case and the Annunciation we are speaking, not of whether to trust another human being, but whether to trust God. Mary is presented with a puzzle; she is to have a child, but not with a man. He is to be the Son of God. Will she say ‘Yes’? In this case understanding is not required, because it is not even possible in the normal sense. Mary may have wondered about the implications for her own life if she said yes, but as to trying to understand the Incarnation, there would be no ‘contents’ of thought available. It would be saying yes to a complete mystery.

This reveals something about understanding itself; it is not an accumulation but a simplification. It is not about piling up knowledge but about grasping the essence. Contemplation has a priority over construction. So in that sense we can say that Mary did ‘understand’, but this understanding is simply one with the openness of obedience itself. It is a willingness to abide in the mystery. This is why she is the supreme model of faith, because her belief was in the person of her son. It was not mediated by ideas about how this could be, since it would have been fully apparent that her own understanding could not formulate anything about it.

Another way of saying it would be that, for Mary, obedience and understanding were one and the same. We are not able to live our lives fully like that, but we can come closer to it through developing a contemplative spirit that leads with trust and follows up with profound meditation on the mysteries of faith. The intertwining of these two enables us to 'abide in the mystery' as much as we are able.

4. Believe in the Person of Christ

The obedience of faith is undermined when we want to elevate our own understanding above what we have received. This does not mean we should not think about the truths of the faith, but that such understanding as we can gain is based on what has already been revealed. Primarily we are to believe in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This acceptance of his full reality underlies any ideas might have about him.

5. Mary's Unique Vocation

Mary’s 'yes' to the angel’s message grounded her unique vocation. As with Abraham, a crucial revelation about God is the origin of Mary's vocation. With us, meeting Jesus Christ and understanding something about a particular relationship with him grounds our personal vocation. The vocation begins with the ‘Yes’, and is a journey where this yes continually precedes the particular understanding we might need to live that vocation. God draws us on by a succession of steps, each one requiring a renewal of that 'yes', followed by the enlightenment we need so that that step will bear the fruit God intends for it. In Mary's case, in a way not fully comparable to our own, her single ‘Yes’ fully contained the entire understanding she needed. It unfolded through the continual contemplative adherence to her son, as though her life was a single step. In our case we have to keep renewing our 'yes' because we might, and do, fall away from full obedience.

6. Obedience Requires Discernment

We have the problem that obedience is something problematic. Since people are not necessarily trustworthy, we cannot be completely simple-minded about obedience. It is a challenge to juggle what we think are reasonable grounds for caution against the need for a fuller surrender to the will of God embodied in our actual circumstances. We can get it wrong either through too much wanting to follow our own understanding, or too great a yielding of our own good judgement to another.

In the not too distant past religious life had often become characterised by a reductive notion of obedience. To put it briefly, some things that were intended as means to foster the obedience of faith became ends in themselves. This approach leads to a reduced emphasis on learning discernment. If only the superiors need to develop discernment, and others must only follow orders, it all becomes lop-sided. And in the process, those who become superiors are drawn from the ranks of those who never learned discernment. On the other hand, without the counter-balance of obedience 'discernment' is just a re-branding of self-will.

7. Steps in Faith

The Church has the full authority of Christ, and so we can completely trust the faith proclaimed by the Church. At the same time, the Church is made up of sinners, and we need to retain some caution about particular individuals speaking in the name of the Church. This is not the place to go into all the complexities of that reality. The key lesson we need to learn is that we must risk wholehearted obedience in order to truly understand.

It seems like a paradox that we might have to abandon understanding in order to truly understand. In practice it is possible because, we are not in a position to do it once and for all, like Mary, but can only do it by steps. We can decide to take a particular leap of faith, and do it wholeheartedly, trusting that our lack of understanding will be compensated for in due time, to the extent necessary. Then, following that step, we can ponder on it, and prepare to take a new step in trusting obedience. This is like Abraham. He was asked to take a series of steps of dramatic trust in God, and in between had time to reflect on what they meant.

8. The Doorway to Understanding

We might make mistakes trying to live that way. It is inevitable really. But the only ultimate mistake would be to abandon the path of obedience, and trust only in understanding. If we do this, we close off the doorway to revelation. Obedience is the door. True understanding is what we find once we go through the door.