18 Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.
1901 ASV Translation:
18 Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be.
I. The Issues of "Hope".
A. Paul deliberately plays two prepositions off each other to explain the foundations of Abraham's faith.
1. He says "para elpida", which the translators take as "against hope".
2. Then he says "epi elpidi", which the translators take as "in hope".
B. The primary question has to do with how he intended to play these two prepositions off each other.
1. The larger context brings in the reality that Abraham had to "deal with" the fact that the "Promise" was totally contrary to two facts: his physical state and his wife's on-going physical barrenness.
a. These two realities dovetail on one thesis: death is not the final arbiter of reality.
b. As they dovetail on this, there are two aspects of Abraham's "T"heology that confront the "death" thesis: God's power is above that of death; and God's words declare that death has nothing to "say" about what shall be.
2. That context also indicates that Abraham was not weakened by those facts so as to disbelieve the promise.
3. These issues explain the translators' choice to "pit" the prepositions against each other.
a. The problem here is this: Paul clearly intends us to understand that it was "upon" hope that Abraham "believed" (his second preposition) -- in the sense that he was clear on what was being promised -- but the "against" hope (his first preposition) issue seems to make "hope" the result of his physical capacities -- in the sense that he was clear on what he could not do. This seems, on the face of it, to confuse the issue of "hope" in that we are never encouraged to "hope" upon what we can do.
b. Thus, the question is this: Is Paul trying to "pit" the two ideas against each other? Does "para elpida" mean "against hope"?
1) In the first place, A.T. Robertson says of Romans 4:18 that "para" with the accusative in this context means "beyond hope". This would signal Abraham's physical condition in respect to the promise: he was "physically beyond hope". This is the point of 4:19.
2) 2 Corinthians 1:9 says this very plainly and uses the same "T"heology as is in 4:17: God raises the dead.
3) However, Paul deliberately put two "T"heological considerations into Abraham's "faith" in 4:17.
a) On the one hand, there was the "God Who gives life to the dead" concept.
b) On the other hand, there was the "God Who calls things as if they were already facts" ("A father of many nations have I 'already' made you").
4) So, there is this question: did Paul deliberately put "para elpida" into the text to address one of those "T"heological considerations and put "epi elpidi" into the text to address the other? If he did, the biblical concept of "hope" remains uncompromised. But, if he did this, what are the connections?
a) For Abraham to believe in the God Who gives life to the dead, he had to have "hope" in the power of God.
b) For Abraham to believe in the God Who calls things that are not as though they already are, he had to have "hope" in the integrity of God.
c) Did Abraham "hope" in the face of (para) integrity or power? Did he "hope" on the foundation of (epi) power or integrity?
d) The answer seems self-evident: "hope" rests, not upon integrity, but upon power -- promises without power are vacuous -- whereas "hope" lies alongside of integrity -- for power without integrity makes promises vacuous also. For Abraham to "believe", he had to have a God of power and integrity in that order. So, Paul's "para elpida" and "epi elpidi" are simply reversed statements of Abraham's most fundamental theology.
5) Conclusion: Both the translators and Robertson are incorrect. It is not "against hope" that Abraham believed, but it is that Abraham, being convinced of the integrity of God "believed in the presence of promise(s)" and, being convinced of the power of God "believed upon that power".