Writing under the pseudonym of “Johannes de Silentio,” Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling with the story from the Bible, Genesis 22:1-18, of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. For this deed, Abraham is normally acknowledged as the father of faith, but in this day and age, Johannes remarks, no one is content with faith. Everyone thinks that they can begin with faith and go further.
In the “Exordium” and “Eulogy on Abraham,” Kierkegaard suggests how incomprehensible Abraham’s faith is. Abraham didn’t question God, didn’t complain or weep, he didn’t explain himself to anyone, he simply obeyed God’s orders. The Exordium presents us with four alternative paths that Abraham could have taken, all of which might have rendered Abraham more understandable, but would make him something less than the father of faith. The eulogy asserts that there is no way we can understand Abraham, or what he did.
Kierkegaard distinguishes between the tragic hero, who expresses the ethical, and the knight of faith, who expresses the religious. The tragic hero gives up everything in the movement of infinite resignation, and in so doing expresses the universal. The knight of faith also makes the movement of infinite resignation, but he makes another movement as well, the leap of faith, where he gets everything back by virtue of the absurd. While the tragic hero is universally admired and wept for, no one can understand the knight of faith. Kierkegaard sets up three “problemata” to draw out this distinction.
The first problema begins with the Hegelian assertion that the ethical is the universal, and that it is the telos for everything outside itself. According to the ethical, what Abraham attempted was murder: his sacrifice cannot be understood in terms of the universal. Thus, he suggests, there must be a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham suspended his obligation to the universal to fulfill his higher duty to God.
The second problema suggests that, contrary to Kantian ethics, there is an absolute duty to God. Abraham by-passed all his ethical obligations to perform what God asked of him directly. As a result, he was constantly tempted by the ethical, but held fast.
The third problema provides hints as to why Abraham did not disclose his undertaking to anyone. Disclosure is associated with the universal and hiddenness with the single individual. Abraham acted as a single individual, isolated from the universal, and as such his actions could not be explained or disclosed.
Kierkegaard concludes by pointing out that faith requires passion, and passion is not something we can learn. We have to experience it ourselves, or else we do not understand it at all.