Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hebrews 6:1-8: Commentary Search Project

I took a class on the Letter to the Hebrews during the first part of this summer. I had to do a commentary search project on a highly debatable passage in Hebrews. I chose (unoriginally) Hebrews 6:1-8. I will paste my paper to this post. You will want to have a Bible next to you as you read--it will help you follow along. If you want to study the meaning and implications of the warning passages in Hebrews (and the 6:1-8 is one of them) further I suggest reading "Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal" by Thomas R. Schreiner. Schreiner's article is excellent. You will not waste your time by reading it. You can access it by clicking here. This is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Enjoy!

Hebrews 6:1-8: A Commentary Survey


Hebrews 6:1-8 is one of the most controversial passages in the entire Bible. This section of scripture is not controversial only because of its difficulty, but also because it has to do with paradigm-shifting concepts. George Guthrie suggests that the only way one can objectively deal with this passage is if their primary concern is a passion for truth as opposed to hearing an echo of already held convictions.[1] In this (short) essay the author will survey how three different commentators (F. F. Bruce, George H. Guthrie, and Philip E. Hughes) have dealt with this controversial passage. Although all three of the commentators adequately handle the text in view, Guthrie’s approach, while not being perfect, is much more hermeneutically sound than that of Bruce and Hughes.

Hebrews 6:1-3

The author, in Hebrews 6:1-2, exhorts his hearers to do something about the spiritual immaturity unveiled in 5:11-14. Bruce finds irony in the author’s progression from 5:11-14 to 6:1-3. Considering the fact that he has just told his hearers that they cannot handle the food that he thinks would be helpful for them, one would think that he would condescend to what they are accustomed to. But he doesn’t. Bruce explains: “their particular condition of immaturity is such that only an appreciation of what is involved in Christ’s high priesthood will cure it.”[2] Hughes and Guthrie point out the fact that the verb for “let us press on” is passive. The passive suggests “that it is not a matter of learners being carried forward by their instructor, but of both being carried forward together by God.”[3]

Both Hughes and Guthrie point out that the author has no intention of leaving the elementary teachings behind as if they were dispensable. Rather, he wants to build upon the foundation set by the “elementary teachings.”[4] In 6:2a, the author identifies what he means by “elementary teachings” by laying forth a non-comprehensive list of things considered “elementary.” Bruce asserts that the each of the teachings listed in 6:1b-2 “acquires a new significance in a Christian context; but the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.”[5] Because of this, Bruce focuses much attention on the Old Testament (and other pre-Christian writings) as he explains what the author of Hebrews meant by each of the things mentioned in the list.[6] Guthrie, holding to much the same position, quotes Donald Hagner:

this may suggest that the readers were attempting somehow to remain within Judaism by emphasizing items held in common between Judaism and Christianity. They may have been trying to survive a minimal Christianity in order to avoid alienating their Jewish friends or relatives.[7]

On the other hand, Hughes pointedly says,

It would no doubt be attractive, and ease some of the exegetical problems of the passage, if the readers are being encouraged to abandon beliefs that are distinctly Jewish rather than Christian, but it is impossible to believe that ‘the elementary doctrines of Christ’… can be anything but specifically Christian doctrines, as the tenor of the immediate context seems to require.[8]

Hughes ultimately considers the “elementary teachings” to be “the first simple presentation of the gospel message” in Acts 2.[9] Although he is correct in identifying these teachings as Christian teachings, only a cursory reading of the Old Testament would be enough to establish the fact that these teachings are scattered throughout the Old Testament as well. Thus, Bruce and Guthrie’s position holds much more weight. After all, their point is not to say that that the New Testament has no influence on how these teachings ought to be interpreted. Rather, their emphasis is on the fact that these teachings are foundational, in their own respective ways, for both Judaism and Christianity.

All three commentators agree that, although the six teachings listed can be organized into 3 separate pairs,[10] it is “best to interpret the word ‘instruction’ as in apposition to ‘foundation.’ When read in this manner, teachings ‘about baptisms, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment’ fill out the content of the foundation of repentance and faith.”[11] While Bruce deals with “repentance from dead works and faith in God” in a general sense,[12] Hughes and Guthrie suggest that these two refer to the negative (repentance) and positive (faith) steps of conversion.[13] Either way, both are to be a consistent mark of the Christian life.

After wading through a mass of historical interpretations regarding what the author of Hebrews means by “ablutions,” Hughes states, “our author is referring here to instruction regarding washings and baptisms, but quite naturally, with particular respect to Christian baptism, by which all others are surpassed and replaced.”[14] Both Guthrie and Bruce object to this emphasis because the author speaks of “baptisms” (plural) and not “baptism” (singular).[15] On another note, Bruce highly suggests that the plural usage, “baptisms,” might be a reference to the Hippolytean Apostolic Tradition.[16] Hughes disagrees with this, naming it a “supposition built upon a supposition.”[17] Guthrie takes a much more preferable approach. Rather than postulating guesses without a point of reference, he remains uncommitted to any one particular view (he merely offers suggestions). After all, the text does not provide any clues which aid the reader in nailing to exact precision what he is referring to.

Although Bruce and Guthrie suggest that the “laying on of hands” refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for ministry,[18] Hughes helpfully adds to this list the ministry of healing by pointing to Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, and Acts 28:8. While Bruce emphasizes the Old Testament in his discussion of the last two “instructions” in 6:2, both Guthrie and Hughes generalize the last “two ‘instructions’ into a similar category: “‘resurrection of the dead’ and ‘eternal judgment’ provide theological cornerstones related to the end of the age.”[19] Guthrie suggests that the author, in 6:3, expresses his confidence in the original hearers—he optimistically states that they are going to, in essence, press on to maturity.[20] Hughes helpfully sees a connection between 6:3 here and the passive verb “let us press on” (6:1): “It is God who enables us to make progress toward the maturity of those who are well instructed in the deep truths of the faith, but always, as our author repeatedly emphasizes, in conjunction with our own earnest effort and application.”[21]

Hebrews 6:4-6

Guthrie’s commentary on these three verses is, by far, much more helpful than Bruce or Hughes’. One of the most crucial aspects of biblical interpretation is identifying the genre of the passage under inspection. Interestingly, only Guthrie consciously factors the literary genre of the passage into his interpretation of it. He correctly identifies the genre to be exhortation: “Of course, theology underlies the author’s hortatory material in Hebrews, but the primary purpose of 6:4-12 is to motivate to action rather than to offer theological instruction.”[22]

Guthrie also points to the fact that the author uses “ambiguous phrases (such as ‘once been enlightened,’ ‘tasted the heavenly gift,’ etc.)” without defining them.[23] This does not mean that it is a waste of time to attempt an accurate understanding of these ambiguous phrases, but it does mean that the questions asked of this text must not primarily be theological. Guthrie suggests that the reader ask the following two questions: “‘In what way did the author intend this particular passage to challenge his hearers to change their attitudes and actions?’ and ‘What are the dynamics here that could be misinterpreted if we do not keep the ‘hortatory factor’ in view?’”[24]

All three of the commentators in view agree that the author is laying forth a real warning, and thus the recipients are in real danger.[25] They all hold to what Guthrie identifies as the “phenomenological unbeliever view.”[26] Hughes states, “The danger of apostasy, it must be emphasized, is real, not imaginary; otherwise this epistle with its high-sounding admonitions must be dismissed as trifling, worthless, and ridiculous.”[27] At the same time, however, all three of the commentators assert that this warning in no way calls into question the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. They all call attention to the fact that those who “fall away” were never truly converted in the first place.[28] Bruce explains the warning by saying:

he is stating a practical truth that has verified itself repeatedly in the experience of the church. Those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounced them, are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith.[29]

Guthrie states, “the author places the term translated ‘impossible’ (adynaton) first in the passage for emphasis.”[30] The author then lists six things that characterize those who are in danger of the “irremediable” effects of apostasy.[31] First, the author describes those in danger of apostasy as having “once been enlightened.” Although Hughes and Bruce strongly suggest that the author is, at least in part, referring to baptism,[32] the author simply does not detail what enlightenment entails. Thus, it may be best to, with Guthrie, consider it as reference “to their initial exposure to the gospel or early instruction to Christian doctrine.”[33]

Guthrie and Hughes prefer a metaphorical meaning behind the word “taste.” For example, Guthrie asserts that “tasted” means “to experience something.”[34] Thus the original recipients have “experienced the heavenly gift.” With this rendering of “taste,” “the heavenly gift” most likely does not refer, even in part, to the Eucharist as Bruce suggests.[35] Rather, it refers to, as both Hughes and Guthrie point out, “the blessing of God surrounding salvation.”[36] All three of the commentators approach this differently: (1) Bruce, using Simon Magus in Acts 8:9, suggests that this refers to those who had hands laid on them but were not truly converted;[37] (2) Guthrie takes a much safer approach by merely defining the word “companions”: ‘to have a close association with’ or ‘participate in’”;[38] (3) Hughes suggests that it refers to the bestowal of the gifts of the Spirit evidenced in 1 Cor 12:4.[39] Although Guthrie’s approach may seem too easy for its own good, simply defining the terms while remaining open to the possible interpretations is best.

The author once again uses the word “tasted” but this time in regard to the “goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come.” Guthrie points to the fact that, in the book of Hebrews, “the Word of God and his power are closely linked.”[40] They, just like those in the Exodus generation, had received the word of God, witnessed supernatural miracles, and yet failed to enter the “Promised Land” because of unbelief. Ultimately, this passage points back to 2:3-4: they have received the word of Christ which was “testified” to them by supernatural miracle-signs.

“At the climax of this string of participles comes the clause ‘if they fall away.’”[41] Hughes identifies this act of falling away not as a passive action, but “a deliberate and calculated renunciation of the good he has known.”[42] Bruce explains: “to say that they cannot be brought back to repentance so long as they persist in their renunciation of Christ would be a truism hardly worth putting into words.”[43] Ultimately, those who have turned from the grace of Christ unto a life of renouncing and shaming his name disqualify themselves from being recipients of his grace (having turned from embracing Christ to crucifying him “to themselves” and putting “Him to open shame”). After all, “there is nowhere else to go for repentance once one has rejected Christ.”[44] They are in danger of rejecting their only hope of salvation (Acts 4:12). Hughes unhelpfully places much emphasis on baptism: “verses 4 through 6 describe the irremediable state of those who, having publicly confessed allegiance to Christ in baptism, subsequently turn their backs on the gospel and thereby renounce their baptism and all that is implied in it.”[45] Surely, baptism should be a part of the equation, but there is not sufficient evidence to postulate that it is central to the passage.

Hebrews 6:7-8

The author concludes his exhortation by using an agricultural metaphor. Guthrie points out the fact that this passage is characteristic of “widely used wisdom form in both biblical and extrabiblical literature, which depicts the blessing associated with fruitfulness over against the curse associated with barrenness.”[46] Thus, although the agricultural metaphor points to spiritual realities, it does not directly refer to the spiritual realities.[47] Although Guthrie and Hughes point to Genesis 3:17-18 as they deal with this text, the author of Hebrews is most notably must be referring to Isaiah’s vineyard song (Isa 5:1-7). In Isaiah 5, the Lord speaks of himself as a vintner who has, in essence, pampered his vineyard, Israel. However, in spite of his gracious and meticulous care of his vineyard it has produced nothing but thorns and rotten fruit. Because of its failure to produce good fruit, God promised to come upon the vineyard in judgment. Hughes explains the parallel:

“the man who has been brought within the sphere of the blessings of the gospel so graciously showered on mankind by Almighty God and has publicly professed faith in Christ crucified and associated himself with the company of the redeemed, and whose life then produces the baneful crop of ‘thorns and thistles… invites not the blessing but the curse of God upon himself.[48]


While Hughes’ commentary dealt much more in the realm of historical theology, his exegesis was not as hermeneutically informed as Guthrie’s; While Bruce’s commentary had it’s high points (and especially in regard to his emphasis on the Old Testament in 6:1-2), Guthrie’s commentary evidenced not only a faithful explanation of the text, but also an entire philosophy of hermeneutics which protects one from over-theologizing the text. Each commentator essentially ended up with the same conclusions in regard to the larger aspects of the text (for example, they all held to the phenomenological unbeliever view, suggested that the warning issued is not hypothetical, etc.). Without a doubt, each commentator made their own unique contributions to the passages in view. However, Guthrie’s general approach proved to be much more sensitive to principles of biblical interpretation. Surely, sifting through the possibilities of what each phrase refers to is not purposeless activity (in fact, it is necessary activity), however one must remember that the author may not have had an eye on specific realities, but on general, over-arching concepts.

End Notes:

[1] George Guthrie, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 223-24.

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 138.

[3] Guthrie, Hebrews, 204.

[4] Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 194-96; Guthrie, Hebrews, 204-05.

[5] Bruce, Hebrews, 139.

[6] Ibid.,139-143. For example, he refers to the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas in his discussion on “repentance from dead works,” Gen 15 and Hab 2:4 in his discussion on “faith in God,” Num. 19 and Ezek. 36 in his discussion on “ablutions,” Num 27 in his discussion on “laying on of hands,” Isa 26 and Dan 12 in his discussion on “resurrection of the dead,” and Dan 7:9-14 in his discussion on “eternal judgment.”

[7] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[8] Hughes, Hebrews, 195.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce, Hebrews, 138-39; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205; Hughes, Hebrews, 196.

[11] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[12] Bruce, Hebrews, 139-41. Bruce suggests that “repentance from dead works” are “works which issue in death because they are evil.”

[13] Guthrie, Hebrews, 205; Hughes, Hebrews, 196-97.

[14] Ibid., 202.

[15] Bruce, Hebrews, 141; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[16] Bruce, Hebrews, 142.

[17] Hughes, Hebrews, 200.

[18] Bruce, Hebrews, 142-43; Guthrie, Hebrews, 205.

[19] Guthrie, Hebrews, 206.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hughes, Hebrews, 206.

[22] Guthrie, Hebrews, 224.

[23] Ibid., 223.

[24] Ibid., 224.

[25] Bruce, Hebrews, 144-45; Guthrie, Hebrews, 230; Hughes, Hebrews, 206, 212.

[26] Guthrie, Hebrews, 230-31.

[27] Hughes, Hebrews, 206.

[28] Bruce, Hebrews, 144; Guthrie, Hebrews, 231; Hughes, Hebrews, 222.

[29] Bruce, Hebrews, 144.

[30] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218.

[31] Bruce, Hebrews, 144.

[32] Ibid., 145-46; Hughes, Hebrews, 208-09.

[33] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Bruce, Hebrews, 146.

[36] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218; Hughes, Hebrews, 209.

[37] Bruce, Hebrews, 146-47.

[38] Guthrie, Hebrews, 218-19.

[39] Hughes, Hebrews, 210.

[40] Guthrie, Hebrews, 219.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Hughes, Hebrews, 216.

[43] Ibid., 149.

[44] Guthrie, Hebrews, 220.

[45] Hughes, Hebrews, 221.

[46] Guthrie, Hebrews, 224.

[47] Ibid

Hughes, Hebrews, 222-23.

1 comment:

Luke Snowden said...


Given the highly debated nature of this passage, I was refreshed to read this. I am glad to hear you arguing for and defending the seriousness of this passage without denying the viability of the perseverance of the saints. We can both be held by grace and warned regarding our own sinfulness without contradiction. I love it.