On Reading the Hebrews Warning Passages in Context

The warning passages in Hebrews are often misused and abused because of interpreters’ prior theological commitments.  In his commentary on 6:4-8, James Thompson says this:

If the author meant for this passage to disturb his readers, he managed to disturb interpreters throughout the centuries even more, for this passage has been the center of controversy more than any in Hebrews.  The missing dimension in the history of interpretation is the recognition that the passage fits the logic of the author’s argument and his relationship to the readers.  This passage is one of a series of warnings to the community about the danger that they face (cf. 2:1-4; 3:7-19).  The author is neither addressing questions of church discipline nor answering questions about receiving into the community those who lapsed during times of persecution nor addressing post-Reformation questions about the security of the believer.  Indeed, the author speaks only to those who have not fallen away.  Since this apostasy has not occurred, the author’s words remain hypothetical.  His words are intended to shock the readers into recognizing the cost of abandoning God’s heavenly gift (p. 135).

I’m with Thompson enthusiastically until the final two sentences.  I think I’m still with him, but I’d want to know if he means that the warnings are merely hypothetical, or that they remain hypothetical until the audience does fall away (if they do), at which point they become actualized.

Scot McKnight posted on the warnings in Hebrews a few months ago, and the warnings were the subject of a longer series of posts on Calvinism in early January.

11 thoughts on “On Reading the Hebrews Warning Passages in Context

  1. LexCro

    Mr. Gombis,

    Great post on this. I join you in questioning the meaning of Thompson’s last two points. I think your phrasing is key here: The warnings are hypothetical until/if they are actualized. All warnings function this way. This is where all of the “merely hypothetical” interpretations I’ve seen of the Hebrews warning passages (as well as many other biblical warning passages) falter.

    But I join you and Thompson in pointing out that the author of Hebrews is OPTIMISTIC about his audience. While he does warn them about continuing on the trajectory that they are on, the author is confident that the church has not veered so far from Christ that they have actualized the things he warns them against.Taking this into account is key when speaking about apostasy. Many (like myself) how believe in conditional perseverance most underscore this when applying the warning passages pastorally.

    Also, Thompson is right to place questions of the security of the believer after the Reformation. However, prior to the Reformation, the Church almost unilaterally believed in the possibility of apostasy for wayward believers. Does Thompson speak to this in his commentary? Also, is the commentary on the whole good? I like what I’ve seen thus far from the Paideia series, and I’m curious to know about the overall quality of this work. Thanks again for this post, Mr. Gombis.

    1. timgombis

      Hey LexCro,

      I’m liking Thompson’s comm more and more. It’s much like others in that series–reliable, steady, helpful, insightful. It isn’t too wild in any direction but also not disappointing. The Paideia series were written as course textbooks and this one does a great job in that regard.

      I’m not sure to what extent he comments about much of the theological development pre-Reformation. He only makes some overtures to discussions, but handles the text and its thrust very well.

      Cheers!
      tg

  2. jonathan mcgill

    Just curious: what’s his take on the audience’s situation? Are they thinking about jumping back on the Judaism ship or do they struggle more with ditching Christianity/caving in on important issues because it would be easier due to localized persecution?

  3. jonathan mcgill

    Never mind. I should have just looked it up on Amazon before I asked that question. Let me ask this then: has that view (that the author is warning the audience not to return to Judaism) generally fallen out of favor in the majority of scholarship? I’m not particularly fond of it, is why I ask.

    1. timgombis

      Hey Jon,

      We’re using as course texts Thompson’s and DeSilva’s commentaries, and I’m dipping into the edited volume by Bauckham, et al, and that viewpoint does seem to have seriously fallen from favor. The last several decades’ re-evaluation of Judaism and Christianity’s relationship to it makes that notion nearly impossible. The Jesus-movement was one group within the larger context of Judaism–that seems to be commonly acknowledged.

      Thompson and DeSilva take the view that the community bonds have weakened and that the outside pressures are forcing the community to break apart, slackening commitment and threatening its future. So the writer is aiming to strengthen community bonds around the gospel and in commitment to Jesus and the community.

      They both keep it fairly general because of lack of evidence for any historical reconstruction. In that sense, they’re both very measured in their assessment.

  4. S Wu

    I am with you on this passage in Hebrews, Tim, although I have to admit that it is not a letter that I have done enough thinking about. Enjoyed your discussion with Scot McKnight in his blog post.

    1. timgombis

      I like Thompson and DeSilva, and if I were preaching it I think I’d work through those two as they’re very practical and clearly written. Both are good scholars who are also good teachers and communicators. I think I’d also get Wright’s Hebrews for Everyone and Guthrie’s volume in the NIVAC series.

  5. Jaime Hancock

    Tim,
    I remember working through the book of Hebrews in a Sunday School class. When we got to this passage, there was a huge argument, and I remember that even the pastor (Baptist church) wanted to talk to me about what I was teaching. He asked if I was teaching that you could lose your salvation. I asked him, “What is salvation?” “When is a person saved?”
    I explained that I didn’t think the passage was primarily concerned about whether you could lose your salvation as an individual, but about your relationship with the community of faith. The whole point of the comparison with the Exodus community is that the congregation being addressed in Hebrews (and in fact, every congregation) is, in a sense, experiencing their own Exodus journey together. The author of Hebrews, is trying to get the community to understand that truth, to understand that, because this salvation is greater, this covenant is greater, this priest is better, then the failure to be covenantally faithful has a more severe consequence than that experienced in the original Exodus community.
    I believe that one can separate oneself from the People of God whom God is saving, and that if we do not persevere in covenant faithfulness, then we will not be judged faithful. I do believe that there are some markers or visible fruit that the community itself can see, which would indicate our faithfulness to the covenant, but that ultimately, it is God who knows and tests the heart of man. What I see from Jesus’ ministry and teachings, is that sometimes the community can so distort its own understanding of the covenant and covenant faithfulness, that it is looking for the wrong fruit, and therefore, some of those who seem to be unfaithful are actually demonstrating greater covenant faithfulness.
    I do think it is possible for a person to remove himself from the covenant and the covenant community. I also think that this rarely happens when the community itself is being true to the covenant, but mostly happens when the community has become idolatrous. Many of those individuals who leave “the faith” have often been shown and idolatrous form of worship, and community, and therefore, are correct in leaving that faith, but unfortunately, without a real, living example of true covenant faithfulness, they have nothing else to turn to, so they reject of all religion as being false. For that reason, I think our communities need to spend more time in fasting, praying and genuine fear of a Holy God, because we are more often like the Pharisees than the prostitutes and tax collectors who recognized the Truth. We are more often like the older brother, than the younger brother who started to come to his senses.
    May God rescue us from our own idolatry.

    Grace and Peace,
    Jaime

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