Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Christian Apostasy and Hebrews 6

Certainly one of the most controversial issues in theological study of the NT is whether or not there are texts in the NT which speak of the fact that genuine Christians are capable of committing apostasy. There are numerous texts one could examine on this issue (e.g. 1 John 5; the Pastoral Epistles discussion about those who have defected and made shipwreck of their Christian faith; the discussion in Rev. 2-3 about Christians bailing out under pressure or persecution) but the locus classicus of such debates is Hebrews 6. The following is an excerpt from one of the chapters in my forthcoming NT theology and ethics volumes entitled The Indelible Image.


Apostasy’s Possibility

One of the issues that many commentators misunderstand, because of failure to read the rhetorical signals, is that our author to some degree is being ironic at the end of Heb.5 and the beginning of Heb. 6, and engaging in a pre-emptive strike. By this I mean that we should not read this text as if it is a literal description of the present spiritual condition of the audience. Were it really true that most of the audience were all dullards or sluggards or laggards, then our author had no business going on to give them the >meat= in Heb. 7-10. That would have been exceedingly inept.

And if it were really true that various members of the audience had already committed apostasy, then on his own showing, this exhortation about apostasy would be a day late and a dollar short. No, our author is simply trying to shame an audience that is shook up into getting beyond the elementary and embracing the mature faith and its substance rather than considering defecting under pressure. He is trying to head off any of them committing apostasy. The most one can say is that the audience is believed to be teetering on the brink of disaster, is weary and considering other options rather than going and growing forward in their Christian faith. Our author=s tactic will be to unveil a more appealing spiritual path to follow which will be both intellectually stimulating and help them to maturity, while painting the course of action he sees as defection in as black a terms as possibleCit would be apostasy, not merely a return to an earlier and simpler form of religion.

If we ask the question why the subject of apostasy is addressed, when the audience is assumed to be (at least in large measure) saved Christians, the answer is that our author has an already and not yet view of salvation, and indeed, as we have seen his emphasis is on final salvation, not conversion, though that is mentioned as well in what follows in Heb. 6. Here perhaps it is well to mention just how important sanctification, both the inward work of God and the human response thereto, is to final salvation in our author’s view. Heb. 12.14 puts it succinctly—without internal sanctification, no one shall see the Lord. F.F. Bruce was right in saying a long time ago that sanctification which involves both divine and human action is no optional extra in the Christian life but something which involves its very essence, and without which, final salvation will not be obtained.[1] Sanctification and perseverance to the end, as it turns out, is not purely engineered either by divine fiat, or by the internal workings of the Holy Spirit, as if the believer were placed on a holy escalator to heaven from which he could never jump off. Thus, the subject of apostasy is addressed here not as a merely hypothetical possibility, but as a real danger for Christians in the audience.

We have arrived here at perhaps the most controverted part of the whole discourse, especially when it came to the medieval debate about post-baptismal sin and whether one could be restored after abandoning the Christian faith. Of course this text is actually about apostasy, a very specific grave sin, not about sins in general that might be committed after baptism. One of the key factors in analyzing this section is realizing that indeed our author is trying to put the ‘fear of God= into his audience by some of the rhetoric here, to prevent defections and so one is not sure how far one ought to press the specifics here, since it is possible to argue that some of this involves dramatic hyperbole. More clearly, our author sees his audience as those who have been Christians for a while who need to be moving on to more mature level of Christian teaching and reflection and living.

Instead, they had become stagnant or sluggish in their progress towards full maturity[2], and so to some extent the rhetoric here serves as an intended stimulus so they will persevere and press on to the goal, and our author gives a passing reference to the fact that he himself believes and hopes for better things from them than apostasy. We must see a good deal of this section as a kind of honor challenge, meant to force the audience to wake up and be prepared to grapple with harder concepts about Jesus= priesthood, but it is also a moral wake up call as well, reminding the audience that those who are not busily moving forward are instead treading water at best, and falling back or defecting altogether at worst. The Christian life is not a static thing, not least because it is based in faith which is either increasing or in a process of diminution. Our author=s rhetorical strategy here can be called stick and carrot, or heavy and light, or shock and reassurance, for we find confrontation followed by encouragement in 5.11-14 and 6.1-3, and in 6.4-8 and 6.9-12 (cf. 10.26-31 and 10.32-39).

At 5.11 at the outset of this exhortation our author accuses the audience of being sluggish or dull in their hearing, or as we might put it, being hard of hearing. Notice the oral and aural character of the teaching in this setting. It is much the same as when Jesus repeatedly exhorted his audience Alet those with two good ears, hear@. Our author nevertheless is going to plow ahead and give them more advancing teaching about Christ the heavenly high priest, beginning in the latter part of Heb. 6. But here he starts with a reminder that the ‘word= has much to say to his audience, but that doesn=t mean it is either easy to explain or easy to understand, especially if one is spiritually deaf, or there are obstacles to one hearing clearly and grasping the implications of what has been heard. We have heard all along that our audience had such hearing deficiencies (see 2.1; 3.7-8,15; 4.2,7). Of course the clarity of the Word is one thing, the acuteness of the hearer quite another. The word nothros is found only here and at Heb. 6.12 in the whole NT, and it is the notion which sets off this unit from what follows. Our author in fact may be thinking of the striking passage in Is.50.4-5 which says literally “the Lord God dug out my ear@ or as we might say cleaned the wax out of my ear. When this term is not used of a physical attribute it refers to being dull-witted, timid, negligent (see Polybius, Hist. 3.63.7; 4.8.5; 4.60.2). Epictetus for example rebukes the sluggish who refuse to discipline themselves by using their reason (Disc. 1.7.30). To be sluggish in this case is to be slow to hear, it does not quite connote the idea of hardness of heart, though the author fears they may be headed in that direction, perhaps due to outside pressure.

Vs. 12 makes the interesting remark that by now the audience ought themselves to be teachers rather than needing to be taught. Seneca complains in a similar way AHow long will you be a learner? From now on be a teacher as well.@(Epist. 33.8-9). This suggests a situation where we are dealing with a congregation of persons who have been Christians for a considerable period of time, hence the exasperation of the author with the audience. It=s time for them to grow up and get on with it. In this verse we see the use of the term stoicheia in fact we have the phrase Astoicheia tes arches@ which has caused a good deal of debate. The word stoicheia by itself means rudiments, or parts and can refer to a part of a word (a letter, a syllable--- hence the alphabet) or a part of the universe (i.e. an element i.e. an original component). This second possibility is its meaning in Wisd. 7.17,19.18. There is much debate as to what the stoicheia tou kosmou mean in Gal. 4.3,9 and Col. 2.8,20 but probably it means elementary teaching.1 This last meaning especially seems to suit Col. 2.8. In any case stocheia linked with arches surely means first principles or elementary rudiments of teaching that they had already heard from the beginning of their Christian pilgrimage.

There are parallels where clearly enough it refers to the elementary teaching or principles, not to some elemental spirits or beings (cf. Xenephon, Mem. 2.1.1; Quintilian Inst. Or. 1.1.1). In this context the >elementary principles= are the beginnings of instruction in the art of persuasion, presumably some of the elements of the ‘progymnasmata= program. That our author is trying to shame his audience into learning more is clear enough from the fact that ‘milk= is for infants, and his audience is adults, or put another way elementary education was for those between seven and fourteen. It was never flattering to suggest adults were acting like that age of child.

One may wish to ask about vs. 13-- What is the word of righteousness, or the teaching about righteousness? One may presume that it has to do with the teaching about apostasy which he will dole out a significant dose of in a moment. However, in Greco-Roman settings instruction in righteousness meant being trained in discerning the difference between good and evil (Xenephon, Cyropaedia 1.630-31). Vs. 14 identifies Christian maturity with the capacity to distinguish moral good from moral evil, which in turn means being able to continue to pursue the course of righteous action and avoid apostasy.

At 6.1 we have the interesting verb pherometha which can be translated ‘move along= but it can also mean ‘be carried along=. Both things are actually part of the process of maturing in Christ, and moving toward the goal of moral and intellectual excellence. Our author does not want his audience to forget what they learned at the earlier stages, for example, forgetting to repent when necessary, these things are foundational. Rather he wants them to move along to more advanced subjects building on top of the original elementary learning. We have here the term teleiotes which can be translated maturity, but unlike that English word has the connotation of arriving a goal or the completion of something one was striving towards, which is why it is sometimes translated perfection/completion. In this case, the author has in mind an intended eschatological goal and state. The “mature Christian is expected not only to ‘ingest= the solid food but also to follow Christ on the path to final perfection, whatever the cost@.2 We should compare Heb. 3.14 and 6.11.

There is debate as to what we should make of the phrase ‘the word about the beginning of Christ=. This could of course refer to what our author was talking about in Heb.1.1-4 but that does not seem to suit this context. It could also refer to the basic moral teaching of Christ, which according to the summary in Mk.1.15 was Arepent and believe the good news@. That comports rather nicely with the content of the rest of vs. 1. Our author has assumed before now in the discourse a knowledge of the historical Jesus= life on the part of the audience (5.7-8), and presumably this would include some knowledge about his teachings. But is this ‘beginning= material to be seen as synonymous with ‘the elementary principles/teachings of the oracles of God= referred to in 5.12?

All the terms that follow didaches are likely seen as the content of this teaching. Our author must stress that becoming a Christian back then involved not only activities, but also involved believing certain things. There were early catechisms that talked about such matters, and we know that early on there was a sort of probationary period for the catechists. As has been pointed out, there appears to be nothing particularly Christian about these matters. Any good Pharisee could have made up this list, but it is worth noting that Christianity, though it taught about many of the same subjects as the Pharisees, did not take the same view about them. Faith in God for instance meant faith in God through Christ, for the Christian. Resurrection, meant not just at the end of history, but already in Christ. Imposition of hands in early Judaism which usually would have been for blessing, or later for ordination of rabbis, in Christianity was connected with receiving the Spirit and/or taking on a work of ministry.

Most commentators have assumed that the list in 6.1-2 refers to the subject matter of elementary Christian teaching, and there can be little doubt that this is correct since our author is stressing that his audience has heard such teaching before and needs to move on to the more advanced teaching. However, something should be said for the generic character of this list of paired opposites here which could well have been said to be the substance of Jesus= own teaching.

Repentance from past dead works--- faith towards God

Instructions about baptisms--- laying on of hands

Resurrection of the deadCeternal judgment.

There is nothing here that Jesus could not have commented on, especially if we take the reference to baptisms plural to refer either to ritual ablutions or more likely to John=s baptism as opposed to that practiced by Jesus= own disciples (see Jn. 3.22; 4.2). The observation that all these topics could have arisen in synagogue teaching is accurate, and some of the audience may have heard of these things in that context first, and even have been tending in a retrograde motion to focus on such things as they sought to move back under the umbrella of early Judaism. There is a certain progression in this list from repentance at the beginning of the Christian life to final judgment at the end and after the resurrection of the dead.3

But this is all the more reason to suggest that Jesus commented on and taught about these topics as well. Jesus of course engaged in laying on of hands as well a practice that could have to do with blessing, healing or even setting apart for some service or task, and he certainly spoke about coming judgment as well as the coming resurrection of the dead. What we could then have here is a short-hand of the elementary teaching of Jesus that was taken over into the elementary teaching of the church and called --- ‘the beginning of the word/teaching of Jesus=. While scholars have often puzzled over the reference to instructions about baptisms (plural) in vs. 2 this conundrum is solved if the suggestion just made is accepted, especially if the author of this document is one Apollos, who had to be instructed about the difference between Christian baptism and John=s baptism (see Acts 18.24-26), a lesson then he applied in his own teaching thereafter, passing on his own ‘elementary education=. It could be objected to this view that another form of the word baptismon would have been used if Christian baptism was in view (i.e.baptisma), but this is overlooking not only the plural here but also that the Jewish Christian audience being addressed would know of various different sorts of ritual ablutions (cf. the use in Heb. 9.10 and Mk. 7.4). We may wish to contrast what we find in 10.22 where clearly enough it is not the water ritual that cleanses the conscience, but rather the internal application of grace by the Spirit resulting from the shed blood of Christ. Whether we see this elementary teaching as essentially Jewish or essentially Christian or both, it is something our author wants the audience to move on beyond as they grow towards maturity. To make sense of vss. 4-8 we must realize from the start that if our author believed that any of the immediate audience had already committed irrevocable apostasy and were irretrievable, there would be no point in this warning, at least for those particular listeners, and vs. 9 makes clear he is not responding to already extant and known cases of apostasy in the audience, he is just warning against it. However, one must take absolutely seriously the word that stands at the outset of vs. 4 like a sentinel at the door--- adunaton which means impossible, or completely unable, without power to accomplish the end in view. Hermas Sim. 9.26.6, perhaps dependent on this usage, seems to take the word to mean impossible, not just incapable. Compare for example the other places where the author uses this Greek word, and it quickly becomes apparent that by ‘impossible= our author doesn=t merely mean ‘improbable=.

6.18C”it is impossible that God would prove false@

9.9--- “impossible for gifts and sacrifices to perfect the conscience@ (cf. 10.1)

10.4C”it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins@

10.11C”it is impossible for the same sacrifices offered againY to take away sin@

11.16C”it is impossible to please God without faith@.

There has of course been debate amongst commentators as to wherein lies the impossibility. Does the author mean it becomes psychologically impossible for an apostate to repent? Is it the case that a person who has rejected the saving death of Jesus has repudiated the only basis upon which repentance can be extended? The problem with this view is that it does not say it is impossible to repent, but rather it is impossible to restore a person who commits apostasy. That leaves one to consider whether what is meant is human efforts to restore them, or divine efforts. Koester suggests it is the latter, not meaning that God doesn=t have the power, but that God would refuse to do so if someone ‘crucified Christ afresh=.4 This may be correct, but we must bear in mind that our author is deliberately engaging in dramatic rhetorical statements for the purpose of waking up the audience. The function is not to comment on something that is impossible for God, and some commentators have reminded us of Jesus= remark that what is humanly impossible is not impossible for God, for all things are possible with God (Mk. 10.27).

The description of the person who is impossible to restore is said to be one who has: 1) once (hapax)5 been enlightened; 2) has tasted of the heavenly gift; 3) has become a sharer of the Holy Spirit; and 4) has tasted the goodness of God=s word and the powers of the age to come. A more fulsome description of a Christian would be hard to find in the NT. In the first place the term enlightened is regularly used in the NT for those who have come out of darkness into the light, and so have gone through the necessary conversion of the imagination and intellect (cf. Jn. 1.9; 2 Cor. 4.4-6; Ephes. 1.18; 2 Tim. 1.10; 1 Pet. 2.9). In the second place, the verb ‘tasted= means genuinely experienced as we have already seen in Heb. 2.9 which speaks of Christ experiencing death. In the third place the term metoxous has already been used in this discourse in relationship to the heavenly calling of Christians (3.1) and to Christians being sharers or partners with Christ. Having >shared in= the Holy Spirit is the hallmark of being a Christian as Heb. 2.4 stresses along with numerous other NT witnesses, particularly Paul (see 1 Cor 12), and Luke (see e.g. Acts 2 and 10). The phrase means to have taken the Spirit into one=s own being.6 If it were not perfectly clear that our author is describing someone with the divine presence and power of God in their life our author goes on to add that this person has experienced the goodness of God=s Word and also the eschatological power of the age to come. Paul it will be remembered called such experiences the foretaste of glory divine that only Christians experienced (2 Cor. 1.22; Ephes. 1.14). AIn this and the three preceding participles, the writer withholds nothing in reminding the addressees of the abundance of God=s investment in them. Upon them God has poured out more than they could ever have asked or imagined.@7

There is some debate as to whether we ought to match up what our author says in vss. 4ff about some of the initial things one has experienced in Christ, with the elementary elements mentioned a few verses before. That is, enlightenment could refer to baptism, partaking of the Holy Spirit would correlate with the laying on of hands, tasting of the goodness of God=s word and the power of the age to come would correlate with the teaching about resurrection of the dead which in this case would have to mean something like spiritual resurrection at the new birth, which is unlikely, and renew unto repentance would correlate with the initial repentance of faith. There may be some force in this argument, but it should not be over-pressed.

De Silva tries to cut the Gordian knot of this problematic text here by stressing that for the author of Hebrews salvation is a (purely) future and eschatological matter.8 This however is not quite correct. While the clear emphasis in Hebrews is on ‘final= or ‘eschatological salvation= (see 1.14; 9.28) and de Silva is quite right in his criticism of those who try to read Ephes. 2.6 into the discussion which speaks of initial salvation through faith, as though that text refers to eternal security, when it does not (rather the subject there is conversion)9 it is false to say that the author of Hebrews only thinks of salvation as something future. At the very least one must give the last clause of Heb. 6.5 its due--- he speaks of those who have already tasted the powers of the age to come. They are working retroactively. In other words, future salvation and its benefits have broken into the present and one can presently begin to experience its benefits--- in the form of enlightenment, life in the Spirit, empowerment with the power of the eschatological age, and so forth. This is surely a description of a person who is saved and converted in the initial sense of the term saved. It is then a distinction without a difference to argue that our author agrees he is speaking about a Christian who has every advantage presently available through God=s grace and characteristic of a Christian, but then to insist our author doesn=t prefer to say they are saved. They have partaken of the heavenly giftCthis is surely the same thing as saying they are saved at least in the sense that they have been genuinely converted and are Christians at present.10

And then our author says what seems almost unthinkableChe uses the verb parapiptô (a verb found nowhere else in the NT) to speak of falling away, not in the sense of accidentally or carelessly falling down, but in the sense of deliberately stepping into a black hole. In the LXX this verb is used to describe acting faithlessly or treacherously especially in regard to the covenant (Ezek. 14.13; 20.27; 2 Chron. 26.18; Wis. Sol. 6.9; 12.2). “The act of falling away is not so much against a dogma as against a person, at 3.12 against God, at 6.6 against the Son of God. The remainder of v. 6, crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to ridicule, makes this abundantly clear. Apostasy, yesYthe sin of abandoning God, Christ, and the fellowship of believers (10.25).”11 It is possible that our author means by ‘crucifying the Son to themselves= that they have cut themselves off from the Son, or have killed off his presence in their lives. They have thereby ended their relationship with Christ. He is dead to them.

But the two clauses are related because ‘to make a public spectacle/paradigm= of someone was one of the functions of public crucifixion on public roads (see Quintilian, Declamations 274). Our author is then suggesting that to commit apostasy is to publicly shame Jesus as well as snuff out one=s personal relationship with him. Heb. 10.26-29 suggests that we should not try to alleviate the severity of the judgment spoken of here in regard to the apostate for it says that for such a person there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins, but rather a terrifying prospect of judgment. Koester says that we should read the stern remarks here in the light of equally stern ones in the OT, which served as a warning against apostasy and tried to prevent it rather than being definitive statements about perdition (so Philo, Rewards 163). In other words these words were intended to have a specific emotional effect, not comment in the abstract about what is impossible.12 We may also note that it would appear that the wilderness wandering generation and their fate lie in the background here (see Heb. 3.7-19), and the argument here is very similar to the one found in 1 Cor. 10.1-4 where the fate of the wilderness wandering generation is used to warn Corinthian Christians against assuming apostasy was impossible for them since they have been converted and had various divine benefits and rituals. 13 As Johnson stresses however, it is not just from rituals that our author says they are in danger of falling away, it is from actual Christian experience itself—“the enormity of apostasy is measured by the greatness of the experience of God it abandons. That is why it is impossible ‘to renew to repentance= people who have proven capable of turning away from their own most powerful and transforming experience.@14 It is right to note how Heb. 12.17 will use Esau as the model of the apostate who sold his birthright for a single meal and “even though he sought it with tears, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity to repent@.

Our author chooses then to describe apostasy in horrific termsCto abandon one=s loyalty to Christ is the same as crucifying him all over again or standing and ridiculing and deriding him as he dies on the cross. In an honor and shame culture this is intended to be shocking language about the most shameful behavior imaginable for one who has been so richly blessed by God in Christ. We must of course compare the similar language about defection that crops up throughout the discourse (cf. 2.2C>turn away=; 10.38-39---‘shrinking back=; 12.15—‘falling short of God=s gift=; 12.17--->selling one=s birthright=). It will be well if we take very seriously the word ‘impossible= in this text, without suggesting that anything is totally impossible for a sovereign God. Our author does seem to believe that one can go too far, past the point of no return and of restoration. This text then cuts both ways, against either a facile notion that forgiveness is always possible no matter how severe the sin in question is, but it equally must count against the ‘eternal security= sort of argument as well. Our author clearly emphasizes the future and eschatological dimension of the pilgrimage to being fully and completely saved, and short of that climax one is not viewed as eternally secure, for one is not yet securely in eternity. But at the same time he is perfectly capable of talking about initial salvation in the terms we find here in Heb. 6.[3]. As Howard Marshall succinctly puts it in regard to Christians committing apostasy: “The writer is dealing with a real, if remote, possibility.”[4]

What then is the alternative to apostasy? Clearly it is perseverance all the way to death or the eschatological finish line whichever comes first. This leads us to discuss the climax of our author=s arguments in Heb. 11-12. First however by way of emphasis it will be wise to sum up the distinctive teaching of our author about Christ as high priest and say something of how it is related to this whole discourse.

The one truly unique concept in this document which makes it stand out from all other NT documents is our author=s vision of Christ as the heavenly high priest. If one has an understanding of this major issue most of the rest of the homily falls into place rather readily. It is difficult to say what sparked our author to write about Christ in this way. It may have been his penetrating study of the OT and its institutions. He may have been looking for a way to say that Christ fulfilled their intention and indeed eclipsed and replaced them. But it is also possible that he was familiar with the varieties of Messianic speculation in early Judaism, which at Qumran and perhaps elsewhere included the idea of a priestly Messiah.1

Whatever his state of knowledge of the speculation about a priestly messiah our author certainly goes beyond what we know of these concepts from these other sources, for he is going to insist not only that Messiah died, but that he was both perfect high priest and unblemished sacrifice offered by the priest. There was also of course a Melchizedek speculation before the time of Jesus as the Qumran documents show clearly enough. There was then certainly a Jewish speculation about Messiah being a priest before our author wrote.

When our wishes to describe Jesus as high priest he uses as his basis the messianic interpretation of Gen 14 and Ps 110. Now it must be understood that the whole idea of priesthood in the OT is dependent on the idea of covenant. The shape that a priesthood takes depends on the shape and stipulations of the covenant or treaty that God's people are called upon to live by. The way our author is going to show that the Levitical priesthood is obsolescent is by showing: 1) there was a higher and prior priesthood in the case of Melchizedek and Jesus is connected to that sort of priesthood which is an eternal one; 2) the very fact that the Levitical priesthood is linked to heredity (and thus is dependent on death and descendents to determine who will next be priest) is in our author's mind a clear sign of the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood; 3) the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood is also shown by the fact that Abraham the forebear of Levi was blessed by and tithed to Melchizedek. In all of this our author, like Jesus before him operates with the idea that the earlier idea or institution has precedence and thus higher claim to authority. But a text like Heb.7.27, or 9.28 makes quite clear that our author is no slave to previous concepts, for he goes on to talk of Jesus voluntarily offering himself up as sacrifice. Heb. 9.28 seems to refer to Is 53.12, and perhaps more than any other NT writer, except perhaps the author of 1 Peter, our author has been affected by reflection on Is 53.

Now it is quite true also that from texts like 4 Macc. 6.29 there was the idea that a martyr such as a Maccabee could offer an atoning sacrifice, and in the case of Eleazar he was a priest. Yet there is a difference here for a death as atonement, is not quite the same as a deliberate sacrifice of atonement, and more to the point the Maccabean concept is tied up with the idea of the suffering of the righteous, which doesn't seem to be in the foreground here. Our author operates out of the concept of cultic sacrifice, not martyrdom for a cause, per se.

One of the essential elements in understanding the high priestly concept in Hebrews is that the Son of God had to be a human being to be a priest. In other words, all of this reflection on Christ as high priest tells us a lot about his perfect humanity and his human roles, but very little if anything about his divinity. The latter ideas are bound up with our author's presentation of Jesus as also God's unique and pre-existent Son and Word. Jesus is the perfect human being, and thus is the perfect candidate to be a perfect sacrifice. But he is also a perfect high priest and thus is the perfect one to freely offer such a sacrifice, and when he does so he is perfected in his intended vocation. It is not that his going to heaven perfects him in any moral sense, but what is meant is that he completes his vocation to perfection. The language of perfection in application to Christ is sometimes thought to be cultic (i.e. in terms of consecration rather than moral sanctification) but I am not at all convinced on this score. Yet is also true that in this homily we learn of Jesus= moral perfection as well, for he was tempted like all humans in every regard save without sin. This resistance to sin is conceived of as part of the way he fulfilled his vocation and so could be both perfect high priest and sacrifice.

But there is more to this that one might imagine for in fact Christ is able to

forgive sins and be the perfector/completer of faithfulness for believers leading them on

to maturity/completion in their vocation only because he was in a position both to have

compassion knowing their temptations, but also successfully passing such tests so he is in a position to judge sin and offer forgiveness, which he himself did not need to receive.

Now the claim that Jesus was sinless is not very meaningful unless it means he voluntarily and willingly resisted temptation (i.e. it was possible for him to have done otherwise). By definition temptation is not tempting unless one is actually inclined and could attempt to do what one is tempted to do. Thus we must take seriously statements like we find in Heb 2.17 or 4.15 and assume that Jesus was subject to all the common temptations including sexual ones that we are, yet he had the victory over them.

We are also told at Heb. 5.8 that Jesus learned obedience. This of course means he

learned through experience, and it may be that he knew it prior to that conceptually, but the point is that Jesus as a human learned things through experience just as we do. His life manifested a normal development and progressive consciousness. What is the connection between learning obedience through death and being made perfect through suffering? Simply this, that Jesus fulfilled God's will for his life that he die on Golgotha and so he completed the task which would not have been made perfect and complete without that death.

Our author is able to talk of Jesus as a human being having faith (12.2), indeed being our pioneer or model for faith and faithfulness. One of the key things that sets apart Jesus' work as high priest and all previous such attempts is the unique character of his sacrifice. It is said to be once for all time, unlike the previous repeated sacrifices (which shows that they at most only had temporary and limited efficacy, and in fact it appears our author would dispute they even had that value). Now there is a great deal in Hebrews that could lead one to the conclusion that our author was anti-ritual,and/or that he has spiritualized the very material promises in the OT about rest, land and other things. Against this sort of conclusion it must be argued that our author in fact maintains that there is only one sacrifice that is and was truly cultic--the sacrifice of the human will of Jesus, and by extension the call for believers to make that same sort of sacrifice through the praise of their lips and lives (cf. Heb 13). It is not the abolition of ritual but its perfection in human form that our author is about, for God ultimately wants the obedience and self-giving of humans, the highest form of his creation, the only form of it that can be in personal relation with its maker, the only form of it which could have Ps 8 spoken about it.

Furthermore, our author does not simply spiritualize the OT like say Philo does in the service of his higher philosophy. Quite the contrary, our author believes that God's promises are now fulfilled in heaven, but that that reality will one day come to earth as well and transform earth. Nor is our author's perspective simply that the OT merely has to do with externals and imperfection. Our author says nothing of the OT being imperfect, he does say it is partial, piecemeal, shadow, and inadequate finally to deal with human sin. But one must also remember he sees the essential spiritual promises of God such as those found in Jerm.31 as found in the OT and furthermore there is the whole matter of the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek who is more than a mere shadow, he is a likeness of Christ.

Our author's complaint is not with the OT per se nor with ritual per se but with a

particular ritual system--- the Levitical one which was inadequate. He never says it was bad or incorrect in its intent, just inadequate to meet human needs. Our author=s terminology when he discusses Old and New is comparative, not merely positive--the old is a shadow in comparison to the new reality in Christ. Yet there is of course the matter of discontinuity as well, the once for all aspect (Heb 9.12). This means that Jesus not only fulfills all the OT priesthood, but he goes beyond it and overcomes its inadequacy.

Now what is striking about all this high priest language, is that our author in this one concept has a way to bridge both the earthly and heavenly work of Christ, for Christ offers the sacrifice on earth, then takes the blood into the heavenly sanctuary, and intercedes for us on an ongoing basis, as well as proclaiming sins forgiven. Herein we see the picture of the OT priest sacrificing the animal outside the Temple, then taking the blood and pouring it on the altar, and going into the holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and then coming back out and pronouncing forgiveness of sins and reconciliation twixt God and his people.

It is the genius of our author=s conceptualizing of things that he is able to bridge the past and the ongoing work of Jesus for believers, as a human being. Our author does seem to operate with the well known ancient concept of the earth as the vestibule of the heavenly sanctuary. One enters the heavenly sanctuary by passing through the earthly one, and he envisions the sacrifice of Christ as offered in that earthly portico of the heavenly sanctuary, after which he enters into the sanctuary with the blood to sprinkle.

Of course the analogy with OT practice should not be pressed too far. Does our author really think Jesus took a bowl of his blood with him to heaven? Is there really an altar or curtain in heaven where he sprinkled it? Probably not, but the point is that Jesus effected on earth and in heaven, what these ritual acts symbolized--atonement for sin, placation of God's wrath, cleansing of the sinner, reconciliation with God. He conveys these profound concepts by using the OT picture language. In contrast to earthly priests Jesus is a priest forever, thus forestalling anyone else ever being, or needing to be a priest (this of course has implications for one=s view of the pastoral ministry) in this sense. Christ is a priest forever because he lives forever, and as 7.25 says he always lives to make intercession for believers. O. Cullmann sums up his masterful investigation of Christ as High Priest in Hebrews by saying the following “... the High Priest concept offers a full Christology in every respect. It includes all three fundamental aspects of Jesus' work: his once for all earthly work, his present work as the exalted Lord, and his future work as the one coming again. Yesterday, today and forever."2 One might wish to ask how the second coming fits into this schema. The answer intimated by our author is that the high priest had to come again forth from the temple to proclaim to the people the results of his work and the benefits. So also Christ will come again from the heavenly sanctuary. Thus we see the single most comprehensive Christological concept in the NT, which exalts the perfect human work Christ the believer=s high priest.

As we draw this part of the discussion to a conclusion, it is well to ask about the argumentative logic of intertwining an argument about Christ as high priest with an argument urging the avoidance of apostasy. What is the logical connection? On one level our author, by emphasizing both the humanity of Jesus, and the ethical rectitude of Jesus shows how he met the pre-requisites for being our perfect high priest. The implied argument is that he avoided giving way to temptation, even the temptation to avoid the cross, and so void his ministry and its purpose altogether, and this not only functions as an argument that shows how Christ can be our heavenly high priest, but also as an argument that shows why apostasy is not an option for Christians if they wish to obtain final salvation. In other words, while the destiny of Christians is not to be saved and thus become heavenly high priests like Christ, nevertheless, our author is saying that Christ is the trailblazer in terms of moral behavior that shows us and paves the way to our glorious future, and it cannot involve going back on, drifting away from, or repudiating what we have committed ourselves to when it comes to our relationship with God. This very naturally leads into the discussion about faith, its character and goal, and faithfully following Christ’s pattern of behavior.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 364.

[2] And it is perfectly clear that teleiotēta here means maturity, not perfection or sinlessness, or an experience of ‘perfection’ in the Wesleyan sense. See Gordon J. Thomas, “The Perfection of Christ and the Perfecting of Believers in Hebrews” in Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament, eds K.E. Brower and Andy Johnson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 293-310, here p. 301. Furthermore, when we hear of Christ being perfected through suffering, the term also does not seem to have the moral sense of ‘being purified’. It means he was being made complete or completely like us in all respects, save sin. Similarly in regard to the comments about Jesus’ death, what is meant is that he was made fit, or complete to be our high priest in heaven, one who could fully identify with us, through such difficult experiences. At Heb. 10.14 it seems that the idea is that Christ’s death has dealt with the necessity of atonement for sins, and in that respect believers have been ‘perfected’ while they are still in need of and are being ‘sanctified’ internally.

1 See Witherington, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, pp. 154-62.

2 Attridge, Hebrews, p. 215.

3 Koester, Hebrews, p. 311.

4 Koester, Hebrews, p. 313.

5 A word which normally carried the connotation of something that occurs only once, and so is unique.

6 Koester, Hebrews, p. 314.

7 Craddock, AHebrews,@ p. 75.

8 See de Silva, Perseverance in Gratitude, pp. 221-22 and his articles AHeb. 6.4-8: A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation,@ Tyn. Bul. 50 (1999), pp. 33-57; 225-35 and AExchanging Favor for Wrath: Apostasy in Hebrews and Patron-Client Relations,@ JBL 115 (1996), pp. 105-09.

9 See Witherington, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

10 See Attridge, Hebrews, p. 170: AThe >heavenly gift=Yis best understood as a general image for the gracious bestowal of salvation, with all it entailsCthe Spirit, forgiveness, and sanctification.@

11 Craddock, AHebrews,@ p. 76.

12 Koester, Hebrews, p. 320.

13 Johnson, Hebrews, pp. 161-62.

14 Johnson, Hebrews p. 163.

[3] The attempt by F. Thielmann and others to suggest that our author does not talk about initial salvation but only final salvation simply does not do justice at all to text like Heb. 6. Like Paul. Our author has an already and not yet view of salvation and he makes that clear through out his discourse. But see F. Thielmann, Theology of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 2005), pp. 606-07.

[4] I.H. Marshall, New Testament Theology, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 620.

1 Not surprisingly the literature on this subject is vast, most of it focusing on Heb. 7. See e.g. R.H. Culpepper, AThe High Priesthood and Sacrifice of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,@ Theological Educator 32 (1985), pp. 46-62. F.L. Horton, The Melchizedek Tradition: A Critical Examination of the Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Cambridge: C.U. Press, 1976); J.H. Neyrey, A=Without Beginning of Days or End of Life= (Hebrews 7.3): Topos for a True Deity,@ CBQ 53 (1991), pp. 439-55; D.W. Rooke, AJesus as Royal Priest: Reflections on the Interpretation of the Melchizedek Tradition in Heb. 7,@ Biblica 81 (2000), pp. 81-94.

2 O. Cullman The Christology of the New Testament, (Phila.: Westminster Press, 1964, rev. ed.), pp. 103-4.


Unknown said...

Ben, that was very extensive. Thanks! Unfortunately, it was very difficult to read since whatever you pasted from doesn't seem to have done a good job of carrying the formatting over (on Firefox at least). Quotes and apostrophes get transformed, the spacing is very uneven, and even the font jumps around. So if you're using a new word processing program, I'd say go back to your old one.

I got to take the Book of Hebrews with Dr. Tom Thatcher at CCU. Absolutely brilliant. Best class I've ever taken on anything, anywhere.

Micah said...

Hi Ben,
Very good article on Hebrews 6, etc.
I have a question for you. In today's mail, from one of my bookclubs, I found this startling book offer on the cover: The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (Why the Gnostic Gospels Matter). The description promises to deliver all kinds of answers, including the "previously unknown Book of the Stranger, from the recently discovered Codex Tchacos." Well, my first question is, how can anyone call the Nag Hammadi scrolls "Scripture," and likewise, how can anyone call Gnostic writings, which I believe you told Christ. Today were late second century, "Gospels?" It strikes me that the public is being told some mighty big lies when authors call desert discoveries "Scripture" and "Gospels." There's no way they're canonical, right? Are we to just accept that every atheist and Jesus Seminarian with an axe to grind can use those terms indiscriminately?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben, that was great. (There were some missing words here and there.) When is this book due to be published?

John Frye said...

Have you talked with Scot McKnight about this topic? He wrote an excellent article about the warning passages in Hebrews some years ago in the *Trinity Journal.*

omakase said...

sorry for the pet peave, but there seems to be some formatting issues in the post.

SJBedard said...

This has always been a passage that I have been interested in. I did a paper on it in seminary and I was disturbed that one commentary stated that it seems to be saying that Christians can lose their salvation, but since that is impossible it must mean something else. Although we all do it at same level, we must be careful in making the Bible fit our own theology.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve: Let's be clear that the author is not talking about accidentally losing something. He is talking about a deliberate rebellion of such hideous proportions and vehemence that it can be characterized as 'trampling the Son of God (and his death) underfoot. In other words this is willful, knowing, deliberate, and in no way could be called 'losing' anything. It could be called 'throwing away' or repudiating one's salvation, and it is the ugliest sin of all.


Aleksandra said...

Just to clarify, is the article saying that Christians who reject their faith can never return? I personally know of a case when a person rejected his faith, wanting to live a life style not compatable with the Gospel. This person actually said they reject Jesus. But only a short time later they came back, and now, years later, he is still hungry for the things of God. According to the Hebrews verses, does God take back such a one? Could it be possible for a person to desire Christ, but for God to not truely forgive them? I'm confused.

Ben Witherington said...


This is an excellent question, and it is quite impossible to answer on the basis of what little you have said about this person. But consider these two possibilities: 1) the first go around the person was not in fact a Christian, did not love the Lord with all their heart etc. They were in a state much like the demons described in the Gospels-- who knew very well who Jesus was and did not dispute it, but this truth had not transformed their lives and behavior, as evidence by this person going AWOL. Mental assent to the Gospel is not the same as being saved. The issue is had they trusted and adhered to, and been transformed by and lived on the basis of that truth? 2) the very fact that this person now has a heart for God, and the other things you mentioned, is evidence that they did not commit apostasy in the first place which is a soul destroying act.

Hope this helps.

Ben W.

Brigitte said...

There are two points I'd like to make.

From the Lutheran perspective, I am reminded that Luther found Heb. 6,4 and following a "harter Knochen" a "tough bone" to chew. He found it un-evangelical. Based on this "kerygmatic chriticism" and the fact that the author of Hebrews is not confirmed, made him occasionally question the level of authority of the letter Hebrew's all together.

Secondly, in context, we might think about the tough problem the church faced trying to decide if those who did not submit to the suffering of the persecutions still belonged to the church. This caused deep divisions later on. However, after much difficulty, the church, based on the gospel, did receive these people again.

I think when we look at life, we know both kinds of people, those who reject with all vehemence and remain there, and those who may drift away, but come back. In our own lives, too, we know we are not committed equally strong every day. By God's grace he brings us and keeps us in the church.

Kyle said...

Dr. Witherington -

Do you think the impossibility of apostasy is more with the fact that the person decisively rejects the only thing by which he can be saved - the sacrifice for sins, Jesus?

This seems to be consonant with the substantiation of the word "impossible," which says that it's impossible "since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame." And it goes on to say that the reason it's burnt is because of it's worthless condition (thornes and thistles).

The the impossibility is not an unwillingness on God's part to redeem (I don't think Jesus would ever turn a truly repentant soul away), but simply in the fact that the individual has irrevocably and decisively rejected the only means whereby he can be saved - as you say, it's a "soul destroying" act. This also fits in with Peter's description of apostasy resulting in a state "worse" than the first.

Kyle said...

Whoops - by "impossibility of apostasy" I meant the impossibility of being restored after apostasy was committed.

Also, one could perhaps allign it with the unpardonable sin against the Spirit (which is called the Spirit of grace in Hebrews), which this text shows us can even be done by a Christian.

Ben Witherington said...

Kyle I think there is something to what you are saying. You might want to have a look at John Wesley's famous sermon on this subject entitled 'The Wilderness State'


Bob said...

As the starting point for interpreting the Book of Hebrews, we must remember that it was written to ... the Hebrews. That is, to the Jews on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem. The "salvation" that was in jeopardy for the Church at Jerusalem was their salvation as a nation, not their eternal life.

Because these Jewish Christians (i.e., Jewish believers in Jesus as the promised Messiah) were "again crucifying to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame" (Heb 6:6) by blending with the culture and continuing to bring their lambs for sacrifice (rather than trusting solely in the sacrifice of God's Lamb), they were in danger of being set aside as God's ambassadors to the world -- as indeed they were just a few years after the epistle was penned. I would further argue (as Paul does in Romans 11:1) that Israel has merely been set aside TEMPORARILY.

But the point remains: When the Roman army besieged Jerusalem on the eve of Passover in A.D. 70, there was no divine deliverance (no salvation) for the estimated one-million Jews who had gathered to celebrate that last Passover. Never since has Israel put the sacrificial knife to the neck a Passover lamb.

As application to us today: We who have no need to fear the loss of our "salvation" (our eternal life), do indeed need to be afraid of losing our "salvation" (our calling as God's ambassadors). After all, if we aren't fit for God's service, then does really it matter if we have eternal life or not?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bob:

There are several major problems with your post.

The Book of Hebrews certainly was not written to non-Christian Jews, and further it was not written to Jews in Jerusalem, though you are right it was written prior to the fall of the temple.

In regard to the first point, throughout the book of Hebrews our author not only assumes the audience are Jewish Christians, he bases his whole argument on that, and on the dangers and problems of their going back to Judaism and abandoning Christ.

This is what Heb. 2 clearly tells us as does Heb. 6. As to the second point, Heb. 13 makes rather clear that the audience is in Rome, not in Jerusalem.

Thirdly, the salvation in question was certainly not the corporate salvation of Jews as a nation. This is absolutely ruled out by the character of the argument--- for example the argument about the obsolescence of the whole Levitical system and the need for all persons to embrace Christ and be saved.

Sorry, but there are no major scholars or commentaries that would agree with you on either the first or third of these points, and hardly any that would agree on the Jerusalem locale either.

The reference to coming outside the tent in Heb. 13 is a reference to leaving the Mosaic religion behind, which has been one of the main points of the entire discourse. It's not about leaving Jerusalem behind.



Bob said...

I had to reread my comment to figure out how you might get the impression that I believe the Epistle to the Hebrews was written to non-Christians. I'm stumped.

Bob said...

One last thing - if as you say the letter were written to Jews in the Italian penninsula, why would the writer of Hebrews tell them in Hebrews 13:24 "Those from Italy greet you."

Doesn't it seem more likely that the letter was written from Rome, not to Rome?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bob:
First, sorry if I misunderstood who you thought the audience was. Secondly, the most most natural way to take the Greek phrase 'those from Italy' as most commentators do , is not to read it to mean 'those in Italy' but rather Italians who are away from home (hence the word 'from') and are sending greetings back to Rome of course. I am from North Carolina and I don't refer to being 'from North Carolina' when I am there. I do so when I am somewhere else.


Ben W.

Anonymous said...

Many words don't mean truth, more likely much sin, as Prov 10:19 says, a big reason for the shallowness of web "christianity" (if the present atomized "web christianity" isn't an oxymoron versus God's Heb.10:25 picture of the Church.

Contra Witherington and Wesley, and their countless antiBiblical synergistic egoistic delusional errors, castles on air with not one verse of Scripture to support them, there is of course no possibility of a true Christian apostatizing, as 1 John 2:19 and all of Romans and many other passages make clear, explicated voluminously by so many of the Puritans (such as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, to name but two, and ably demonstrated at and for those who desire God more than men, unusual for synergists, as Ben's bizarre and irrational antiBiblical insistence (sadly almost universal today) on God idolatrously glorifying man and not Himself as supremely worthy), whom synergists can't handle honestly but need not worry about today's illiterates ever reading to expose their bluff, stupidity, vacuity, and vanity. As C.S. Lewis said about the assured results of modern criticism, the only reason the results are so "assured" is that the original authors are dead and so can't blow (=refute) the gaffe (=error).

As John Piper has pointed out on the passage in preaching through the book (, contrary to the usual eisegetical delusions of synergists, for whom the ego is God, and God is belittled, contrary to the pillar of Romans 9:15 that tells us God is sovereign and decides all (Prov 16:33), Hebrews 6 refers to two DIFFERENT soils, NOT one soil that changes itself; sadly I myself taught Ben's error many years ago before I matured, and was rightly ejected from the house I shared with Christian brothers for it as I wish would happen to wake up those following Ben's error to make them take the Christian faith versus mere ego seriously.

Ben would have saved himself a lot of wasted time and effort typical for synergists trying to use special knowledge like "rhetorical signals" and what not, going all over the map with extraBiblical legerdemain vainly trying to escape the simple meaning of the Sacred text, and thus failing to notice the small but essential point that overthrows these vast (and as vain as vast, in both senses of the word) synergist speculations with a bogus antiBiblical view of grace that has been so catastrophic in destroying God's Church, especially but not only in the west) by substituting for His true Gospel of grace, Wesley's and Finney's ultimately humanistic chicanery of a pseudo-gospel of works and ego (I (appropriately the middle letter of sin) have the final say, not God, in who is elect, contradicted by Rom 9:15) that today's tragically stupid and worldly Biblically illiterate couch potato devils'/idiots' box & screen imbibers are all too happy to embrace as James 4 adulteress-idolatresses. God save us, for only His grace in sending conviction and revival to His Church that has lost her way (at least in the west), gleefully headed like lemmings for certain destruction but for His amazing grace.

Ben Witherington said...


You are certainly entitled to your opinion, however it could have been expressed in a more loving and succinct matter.

I am afraid you will need to repent of the tone of this message, and the suggestion as well that Evangelical Arminians are serving up an anti-God message.

It is also arrogant to suggest that it is an issue of maturation as you have 'progressed' from an more Arminian to a more Calvinistic point of view. And what are we to think of those who on more detailed study of the Bible have gone in the exactly opposite direction-- did they become less mature? I think not.

Have you even read the works of Wesley or Richard Watson or Joseph Fletcher? I suspect you don't really know much about their actual views of things. They offer a thelogy of grace that is involved in salvation from start to finish.

I suggest as well that you read Roger Olson's fine book on Arminianism to get a better picture on the actual differences between two orthodox groups of Christians who are Evangelical Protestants.

It is interesting to me, who has read the works of Calvin, Owens, Edwards, Berkhof, Berkower, both Hodges, Warfield and so on and did attend a Reformed seminary and has respect for that tradition, that I am happy to admit I learned a lot from them, but when I actually turned to doing the detailed exegesis of all the NT, while their theological system was certainly logical and coherent, unfortunately it did not match up with what the actual text of the NT was teaching on ever so many points, not the least of which is what it teaches when it warns genuine Christians about apostasy.

I would recommend you take some time off from fulminating, and read I.H. Marshall's classic little volume entitled 'Kept by the Power of God' which deals with all the perseverance and apostasy texts in detail. What you will discover is that Owens and Calvin and Edwards, God bless 'em, missed a lot, and sometimes were guilty of eisegesis as well, a mistake I am sure we all have made at some time in the attempt to try and appear consistent in our theology.


Ben W.

Thomas Huskey said...

Thanks Mr. Witherington, you are a great help indeed on this subject. Could you please recommend some more books (or artcles) on this subject (apostasy, warning passages)? God Bless.

Dan Holmes said...

This series of verses has personally caused me great anguish over the last couple of years due to a period of personal doubt in which I called myself an agnostic at one point. Due to the fact that 1 Timothy 1:20 and James 5:19 seem to indicate that apostates are not irretrievable, I have concluded that the so-called "temporal" interpretation is best. And certainly best from my perspective.

Thomas Huskey said...

Mr. Witherington,
A lot of theologians (like here) argue that the Greek word for "fall away" does not translate directly into the same as the word for apostasy, but instead it means "while falling aside", or at the worst "a serious fall into transgression". Given the context in which the word falls in Hebrews 6, I would have to disagree with those people because of the severity of it described a few sentences later (re-crucifying Christ, etc.) Do you see any weight behind they're argument that it doesn't mean a total falling away? Thanks.


scriba said...

Dr Witherington,

I look forward to this book. I consider myself a redeemed apostate. I first trusted in the Lord Jesus at the age of 15 in 1962 under the preaching of a devout Arminian father. Though I was never an outstanding disiple, my faith in the Savior was sincere.

However, in 1982 after over a decade of increasing doubt, depression, guilt, and despair, I gave up my efforts to retain whatever was left of my faith in the Lord Jesus and privately but consciously and purposely renounced belief in him and God.

I look back on that Sunday morning now only with horror. I felt I was only confirming and accepting a total loss of faith that had already long occurred, but after my conscious renunciation I had the surprising sense that a door had closed, almost audibly, behind me, and that I had entered a small dark space in which I was utterly alone.

I lived the next fourteen years in a state of near total nihilism, never dreaming that my faith would be resurrected. However, in 1996, tired of the emptiness of unbelief, I began to question my doubts and to rethink the main themes of the Faith. During the next year I came to feel that I could assent in good conscience to the main tenets of the faith, I prayed for forgiveness, and felt the Savior's presence again. On Palm Sunday 1997 joined an evangelical church, again in good conscience.

Hebrew 6 has, of course, posed problems for me, and still does. In 1996 I found encouragement to believe that I could be restored in Robert Shank's "Life in the Son". A few years later, however, I read "Four Views on Eternal Security" and learned more about the range of evangelical opinion about apostasy. Most Calvinists, I think, hold that real apostasy is impossible for one who is truly elect. So I assume they would find my story very dubious.

The only encouragement I have found from Calvinism is a passage at the beginning of Hooker's "Laws..." in which he suggests that a Christian can be so overwhelmed with doubts that he may judge himself an apostate when he is not. Perhaps that was so with me. God only knows.

I do not ask the question whether I fell from grace. How could I know that? And how could one live believing that? All I can do is trust and hope in God's grace, trust that the Savior's parable of the Prodigal Son offers hope even for apostates, and trust in the promise that no one can take a believer out of His hands.

I am troubled, however, about my relationship to my church, or any church. I have requested that my membership be removed from the Baptist church I joined. One reason, though not the conclusive one, is that I feel I should do so out of respect for the beliefs of the numerous Calvinists in the congregation.

So I look forward to your book.


PC_evangel said...

The impossibility mentioned here is to restore repentance. This verse has been the target for those who believe in once saved, always saved, and those who believe the opposite.
This blog pops up a lot when apostates seek comfort after reading terrible pages from Arminian based websites on the passage.
My pastor told me that a girl committed suicide and they revived her in the ambulance, over this passage. She became a Wiccan and left the church and thought she couldn't return to Jesus from reading some of those websites. So be careful you don't become a stumbling block for anyone.
Remember the golden rule of interpretation,
"When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths,
indicate clearly otherwise."
The context here, is a return to animal sacrifices and the law for the remission of sins. There is no need to go outside of the context of Hebrews because the word impossible explains itself in the same book. Everyone should see this book was explaining the difference between the old Jewish system and the one time sacrifice offered by Christ. When Christians sin, their restoration for the remission of that sin was covered by the blood of Christ, the one time sacrifice explained in the same book. So when you sin, the confession to Jesus restores you to repentance.
There is a new system in place. True repentance will result in true restoration, the obsolete system of bulls and goats was not true repentance, so restoration in that manner would not be valid.
Mr. Marvin Rosenthal, a Jewish Christian, stated something to the effect that if a person had never heard of Jesus, but was living rightfully under the law the day before Christ resurrection, would such a person be doomed to hell if one died a day or two after the resurrection never hearing about the gospel of Jesus? Rosenthal stated something to the effect that God handled both economies for 40 years so the gospel could be preached to those that never heard of him. The name Jesus, was not a household name at that time. Temple sacrifices continued for around 40 years until God had felt it was time for the destruction of the temple.
This is why verse 6 was addressed to those who were already (past tense) bought by the blood of the new covenant, those WHO KNEW BETTER, they had already given their life to Christ, and under persecution of losing their jobs and property, converted back to the animal sacrifices for the remission of sins under the pressure of the Judizers.
By Christians going back into the temple and killing a goat or bull, they were publicly displaying that the blood of Christ was as common as that of an animal, (Heb 10:29) and some who totally returned to that system were agreeing of what the Jews did in crucifying Christ. This is why the term "crucify" is used in verse 6. There was need to violate the golden rule of interpretation in this verse and go outside of the book of Hebrews. The impossibility was that the blood of bulls and goats had no power to restore sins, (repentance from dead works Heb 6:1). See the impossibility explained in the same book within it's context, "for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" Heb 10:4 "Day after day every priest stands and repeatedly offers the same sacrifices that can never take away sins" Heb 10:11 (repentance from dead works Heb 6:1).
In it's context, the falling away in Hebrews meant to fall back into the rituals of the law and animal sacrifice, and a Christian's sin would not be restored by God if they sought repentance by falling back into the old system. You can seek repentance from your computer screen, but you will not be restored because it does not have the power to do so, neither did the blood of animals (Heb 10:4). The old system of animal sacrifice was rendered obsolete once Christians were bought by the blood of our Lord Jesus!
Also the author of Hebrews switches to present tense participles in verse 6:6 to explain what they were doing, which made restoration impossible, anastaurountas (crucifying) and paradeigmatizontas (publicly ridiculing). If a person stops it, and those actions become past tense, then the impossibility for restoration no longer applies, because it would no longer be a present tense activity relating to the word impossible.
This is why 6:8 says it is in danger or near to being cursed.
As Dr. Blackwelder (one of the translators for the New King James Version) stated in regard to Heb. 6:6, the temporal participles imply that “if persons guilty of such sin will cease it, and repent, they can be reclaimed”.

PC_evangel said...

Small correction, I meant to say there was NO need to violate the golden rule of interpretation in this verse and go outside of the book of Hebrews. Forgot to type the word no.

Thomas Huskey said...

Do you think Heb 6:4 and Heb 10:26 are talking about similar situations, or does their context separate them (i.e. different types of sinning)? Thanks.

PC_evangel said...

I'm not going to comment anymore on the issue after today, I just felt led to come here and mention that a girl committed suicide over this issue, they revived her and I don't know how she is doing now. I'll leave the translation of the ambiguities from Greek to English to those who do that for a living, like Dr. Blackwelder (New KJV) and the latest committee who looked at the "authentic" Greek manuscripts, the ISV. They did not revise a previous bible or get influenced by other Biblical translations, but translated it from it's original source as if they were translating the bible to English for the very first time.

"translated directly from the original languages of Scripture and derived from no other English translation. The ISV® was produced by Bible scholars who believe that "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16 ISV) The ISV® takes advantage not only of the most ancient manuscripts available, but also of the most recent archaeological discoveries. The translators of the ISV® have selected the English equivalent that most closely reflects the meaning of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts."

The ISV Bible has Dr. David Black, Ph.D.
Educational Background

University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Theol. in New Testament, 1983)
Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. in New Testament, 1980)
Biola University (B.A. in Biblical Studies, 1975)
Jerusalem University College, Jerusalem, Israel (Additional Studies, 1985)

Professional Background

Professor of New Testament, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998 - present

Scholar in Residence, ISV Foundation's International Research Center, 1996 - 1998

Professor of New Testament and Greek, Grace Theological Seminary (West Campus), 1988 - 1990

Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek, Grace Theological Seminary (West Campus), 1987 - 1988)

Academic Dean, Grace Graduate School, 1985 - 1987

Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Biola University, 1984 - 1985

Lecturer in Greek and Biblical Studies, Biola University, 1976 - 1984

Adjunct Professorships (1992 - Present)
Talbot School of Theology
Simon Greenleaf University
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary

Chong Shin Theological Seminary

Fuller Theological Seminary

Grace Bible Institute

Visiting Professorships

Grace Theological Seminary, Indiana

Freie Hochschule für Mission, Germany
Universidad Complutense, Spain

Chong Shin Theological Seminary, South Korea

Pusan Theological Seminary, South Korea

Kosin Theological Seminary, South Korea

Faith Theological Seminary, South Korea

American Theological Seminary, New York City

Fuller Theological Seminary, Seattle

Society of Biblical Literature
Evangelical Theological Society

(Past President, Far West Region)
Editorial Board, Filologia

Neotestamentaria (Journal of New Testament Philology), Cordoba, Spain

Publications (abridged listing)

The Myth of Adolescence (Yorba Linda: Davidson Press, 1999)

Using New Testament Greek in Ministry: A Practical Guide for Students and Pastors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993)

Learn to Read New Testament Greek (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994)

Learn to Read New Testament Greek: Expanded Edition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994)

Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: Revised Edition (Grad Rapids: Baker, 1995)

Their (ISV) new testament verse on Heb 6:6 agrees with Dr. Blackwelder from the New KJV
"the temporal participles imply that “if persons guilty of such sin will cease it, and repent, they can be reclaimed” Dr. Blackwelder

"and who have fallen away, as long as they continue to crucify to themselves the Son of God and to expose him to public ridicule"
Heb 6:6 Source ISV

Now my pastor is smart and all, but it is not his expertise to render ambiguities from the original Greek manuscripts.
What I'm saying in a loving way, few are called to be chiefs, the rest of us have got to be Indians. We all love the Lord and although our intentions are good, some don't realize they made a girl commit suicide. Jesus said I need laborers! Witness the word of Jesus, bring people into the kingdom.
The issue here was animal sacrifice for repentance, if someone falls away from God, they can be brought back to God, James 5:19-20.
And I am not to argue the point if these people using goats & bulls for repentance were going to go to hell if they did not return to the one time sacrifice Jesus provided. I'll let God judge their souls, that's his job. I didn't come here to pick a side on the OSAS issue, and I still won't.
To answer your question on Heb 10, I will quote a small passage from the book "The Conclusion of the New Testament
By Witness Lee, Living Stream Ministry"
"We should not misinterpret Hebrews 10:26, thinking that if we sin willfully after being saved our sins cannot be forgiven because there is no more sacrifice for sin. The willful sin mentioned in this verse is forsaking the church and shrinking back to the old covenant after knowing that God had annulled it and established a new one."

My advice is when it comes to serious issues, contact those who are well trained to be hired by Biblical committees to render ambiguities from the "authentic" Greek manuscripts to English before causing someone to commit suicide.
God bless, bring people into the kingdom and talk about the love and redeeming power of the blood of Jesus.

Thomas Huskey said...

Thanks for your answer. I'm also convinced these passages should be handled with the highest of care. I guess what I was asking is do you generally agree with Dr. Witherington's explaination?


PC_evangel said...

You people also have to realize that many people walk around with an un-diagnosed mental illness. Like OCD, they may see one thing posted from an atheist and they run with it. Lets even forget the temporal principles applied in Hebrews as confirmed by the Amplified Bible, Blackwelder (New KJV) ISV. ASV, & NIV footnote.

John Wesley had the brains to part ways with Arminian on this issue he stated...

" This is a point which may exactly be determined, and that with the utmost certainty. If it be asked, “Do any real apostates find mercy from God? Do any that have `made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,’ recover what they have lost? Do you know, have you seen, any instance of persons who found redemption in the blood of Jesus, and afterwards fell away, and yet were restored, — `renewed again to repentance?’” Yea, verily; and not one, or an hundred only, but, I am persuaded, several thousands. In every place where the arm of the Lord has been revealed, and many sinners converted to God, there are several found who “turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” For a great part of these “it had been better never to have known the way of righteousness.” It only increases their damnation, seeing they die in their sins. But others there are who “look unto him they have pierced, and mourn,” refusing to be comforted. And, sooner or later, he surely lifts up the light of his countenance upon them; he strengthens the hands that hang down, and confirms the feeble knees; he teaches them again to say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour.” Innumerable are the instances of this kind, of those who had fallen, but now stand upright. Indeed, it is so far from being an uncommon thing for a believer to fall and be restored, that it is rather uncommon to find any believers who are not conscious of having been backsliders from God, in a higher or lower degree, and perhaps more than once, before they were established in faith.
Yet, Thirdly, several of these, after being thoroughly sensible of their fall, and deeply ashamed before God, have been again filled with his love, and not only perfected therein, but stablished, strengthened, and settled. They have received the blessing they had before with abundant increase. Nay, it is remarkable, that many who had fallen either from justifying or from sanctifying grace, and so deeply fallen that they could hardly be ranked among the servants of God, have been restored, (but seldom till they had been shaken, as it were, over the mouth of hell) and that very frequently in an instant, to all that they had lost. They have, at once, recovered both a consciousness of his favour, and the experience of the pure love of God. In one moment they received anew both remission of sins, and a lot among them that were sanctified." John Wesley

Even if anastaurountas (crucifying) and paradeigmatizontas (publicly ridiculing) were written in past tense participles, you have no idea who un-knowingly walks around with mental disorder. Most mental illnesses go undiagnosed.
Will God hold those with a mental illness countable for their sins even if the temporal principles didn't apply?
Don't judge people, you know not all the details sometime. LET GOD JUDGE!

But, as DR. Blackwelder (Greek New Testament. / New King James Version Translators of the New Testament) observes,
"the temporal participles imply that “if persons guilty of such sin will cease it, and repent, they can be reclaimed”

OCD symptom

"They tend to get caught up in the details and miss the bigger picture".

It would take one site like this one

for someone with diagnosed or un-diagnosed OCD to "get caught up in the details and miss the bigger picture".

If any Arminian caused someone with a mental illness (diagnosed or un-diagnosed) to commit suicide or prevent their return to the Lord, and not apply the last 2 verses of James, or came between Jesus seeking his lost sheep, it is you that should worry more than they!

"And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck." Mark 9:42

Dr. Hal Harless Ph.D. in Theology from Louisiana Baptist Theological Seminary,
" Were then these individuals lost eternally? The book of Hebrews does not say that. Since they had returned to the sacrificial cult in order to avoid persecution, incurring divine chastisement should have given them pause (Heb 10:32-39). "Since they again crucify"--The Gk. verb is a present participle of continuous action. The Gk. verb translated "put Him to open shame" is also a present participle meaning "publicly disgrace, make an example of, hold up to contempt." The impossibility of renewing them to repentance locked them into immaturity. The source of that impossibility is their continuing to "again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame" by offering sacrifices. While they continue in this transgression, it is impossible both to bring them to repentance and for them to mature. However, if they stop this, there is hope that restoration is possible. "
Warren Wendel Wiersbe Northern Baptist Theological Seminary "You should note that the words “crucify” and “put” in Hebrews 6:6 are, in the Greek, present participles: “while they are crucifying ... and while they are putting Him to an open shame.” The writer did not say that these people could never be brought to repentance. He said that they could not be brought to repentance while they were treating Jesus Christ in such a shameful way. Once they stop disgracing Jesus Christ in this way, they can be brought to repentance and renew their fellowship with God."

AMPLIFIED BIBLE "[it is impossible] to bring them back to repentance, for (because, while, as long as) they nail upon the cross the Son of God afresh [as far as they are concerned] and are holding [Him] up to contempt and shame and public disgrace."

James Akin "Nevertheless, the passage does not pertain to the unforgivable sin. Many have misread the passage.... But this is simply not what the passage says. It does not say that if one tried to come back one would have to re-crucify Christ. It presents the re-crucifixion as a present reality. Just read the text: "because to their loss they are re-crucifying [present tense, active voice in both Greek and English] the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace." The text says that the apostates are re-crucifying Christ now, not that they would need to if they came back. Apostasy, contrary to some interpretations, is not the unforgivable sin."

ISV Bible "Our "short" answer is that the passage teaches that such return to repentance is impossible, provided the individual referred to remains in a state of crucifying to themselves the Son of God and exposing him to public ridicule. But once the person stops doing those two things, restoration to repentance then occurs."...
To sum up, the impossibility continues during the present state of crucifying and the present state of ridiculing. The grammar of the passage connotes that the main verb of the sentence (i.e., the verb "to be") and its descriptive aorist participles that modify it in verses 4-5 are all limited and defined by the present tense of the participles in verse six. That is, the actions described by the aorist participles occur during the time of the crucifying to themselves and the public ridiculing.... "After the person stops these two actions, at which time these behaviors become past tense activities as soon as they are ceased, the impossibility of renewal or restoration no longer applies, since they no longer are present tense activities relating to the word "impossible". Source ISV

It is the KJV that was wrong, the "IF" they fall away was never in the original Greek manuscripts, that is a proven fact.
Bible translators (like doctors) know more know than they did 400 hundred years ago.

"When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise."

The related passages studied in it's immediate context confirms a continual present tense action.

But if [that same soil] persistently bears thorns and thistles, it is considered worthless and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
Heb 6:8

The temporal continual present tense action applied in the immediate context confirms a continual present tense action. It agrees with these scriptures as well..

God is not the author of confusion, so scriptures must be in harmony with the rest of the bible.

Jeremiah 3:22 Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the LORD our God.

Hosea 14:4 I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him.

2 Chronicles 30:6 So the posts went with the letters from the king and his princes throughout all Israel and Judah, and according to the commandment of the king, saying, Ye children of Israel, turn again unto the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and he will return to the remnant of you, that are escaped out of the hand of the kings of Assyria.

Isaiah 31:6 Turn ye unto him from whom the children of Israel have deeply revolted.

Jeremiah 3:14 Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion:

2 Chronicles 7:14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

Jeremiah 3:12 Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.

Jeremiah 31:20 Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD.

Jeremiah 36:3 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

Galatians 6:1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

[My] brethren, if anyone among you strays from the Truth and falls into error and another [person] brings him back [to God],
Let the [latter] one be sure that whoever turns a sinner from his evil course will save [that one's] soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins [[a]procure the pardon of the many sins committed by the convert].
James 5:19-20

"Remember then from what heights you have fallen. Repent (change the inner man to meet God's will) and do the works you did previously " Rev 2:5

In addition to the Lost Sheep & the Prodical Son.

The Arminian based view would contrdict this. The temporal view does not.

Also, insulting the spirit and a return to animal sacrifice is bad, but it is not the same as the unforgivable sin, a different Greek work is used,

Strongs 987. blasphemeo (blas-fay-meh'-o) blaspheme, defame, revile, speak evil

As said in Hebrews...

Strongs 1796. enubrizo (en-oo-brid'-zo) Insult
synonym dictionary "To Insult".

God bless, be good to one another.