Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews: Book Review

Four Views of Warning Passages in Hebrews

INTRODUCTION

Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews is the culmination of a collection of papers presented to the Hebrews Study Group during the fifty-sixth annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society during November 17-19, 2004. While the denominational orientations of the members are diverse, the group holds to two doctrinal beliefs: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs, and God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”[1] Each of the four New Testament scholars present and defend their exegetical presentations and then critique the view of their fellow contributors. Herbert Bateman asserts, “The purpose of Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews seeks to expose existing tensions and provide various ways in which four scholars with differing theological grids interpret them in the literary and historical context of Hebrews…[And] forces us to address the issue of assurance and the doctrine of eternal security.”[2] The purpose of this book critique will first be to evaluate the main arguments presented, by highlighting the strengths and weaknesses found in each view/approach. Second, one view will recognized as the best explanation, with details as to why it is the best choice. Lastly, an assessment of the book’s overall contribution to the field of study will be presented.

SUMMARY OF CONTENT AND MAIN ARGUMENTS

The book of Hebrews reads much more like an exhortation or sermon/homily, rather than as a typical New Testament letter. It seems the recipients were facing a crisis of faith and were considering going back to Judaism and abandoning their Christian beliefs. This would mean the original recipients were most likely Jewish Roman Christians, who had an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament. The book is also written as a word of encouragement for the recipients to maintain their faith in Christ. God inspired the author to not only encourage, but also to confront the people and warn them of the danger they faced if they remained immature in faith and the judgment that would result if they did not turn back to Christ. By reminding the recipients of the character and nature of Jesus, the writer/speaker encourages them to stand firm in their faith. Bateman believes, “Hebrews 5:11-6:12 is the heart of the author’s concern. Yet together the five warning messages[3] are all emotive exhortations to believers to persevere and believe, rather than distrust and disobey… The wilderness community serves as a reminder that God, in a previous era, punished those who distrusted and disobeyed Him and His messengers.”[4]

Grant Osborne maintains a Classical Arminian view, and immediately explains the six hundred year debate that has been going on, despite the agreement on the meaning of depravity: “For the Calvinist there is no hope until God sovereignly acts and on the basis of His mysterious will elects some to salvation and then overwhelms them with His irresistible grace so that they choose Christ. [However,] for the Arminian, God still acts sovereignly but He sends His Spirit Who convicts every person and overcomes their total depravity so that they make a choice.”[5] The warning passages are a key component of this debate and the audience’s apostasy is one of the few things agreed upon. Osborne asserts, “Faith is a passive surrender to God who saves us, and an opening up of ourselves to God, who works salvation in us. But it is still a free choice. This freedom then passes over into the life of sanctification.” Osborne identifies Hebrews 6 as a hinge point in his argument. The apostasy being addressed to the Roman converts was a real danger, as Osborne maintains when true believers commit an unpardonable sin, there is no possibility of repentance, but only of eternal judgment.[6] Osborne comes to this realization from an understanding of the parallel participles in Hebrew 6:4-6 to mean that true believers have fallen away and he asserts any translation that renders this passage as “if they fall away” is in error.[7]

Buist Fanning’s view on Hebrews is best classified as Classical Reformed and he believes, “It is, strictly speaking, not man but God who perseveres, [which] may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion. It is because God never forsakes His work that believers continue to stand to the very end.”[8] Fanning identifies the book’s enigmatic character as the one thing almost everyone can agree on. He prefers to use a synthetic approach when approaching the warning passages in Hebrews, while also considering the interpretation of four or five elements or themes that they all have in common.[9] Rooted in this approach, Fanning addresses: the description of those who fall away, the nature of this fall, the consequences of the fall, the desired positive response, and encouragement to the audience about God’s faithfulness.[10] Fanning concludes, “The warnings in Hebrews about falling away and the exhortations to endure are intended to urge the readers to maintain faith in Christ’s high priestly work, not to provoke fear that they may lose their standing with, nor primarily to test the genuineness of their faith.”[11] This essentially communicates those in jeopardy of not possessing salvation never had it in the first place, meaning they were never actually true believers.

Gareth Lee Cockerill maintains a Wesleyan Arminian view and he emphasizes these, “Passages are difficult, not just because they teach that it is possible to fall away from Christ, but also because they appear to teach a falling away from which there is no return, [making these passages] not only a problem for Calvinists, but also for Wesleyans and other Christians.”[12] Cockerill and Osborne both assert it is possible, because of apostasy; to be eternally lost once being saved, but Cockerill emphasizes, “[The] writer of Hebrews is not speaking of salvation from God’s point of view, for only God knows which of the recipients of Hebrews are true believers.”[13] Cockerill also touches on the pastoral implications of the warning passages saying, “The author’s parallel encouragement continues to do for modern Christians what they did for the first hearers of this message, the warnings were not given to generate worry, but to raise concern lest one might fall, the severity of the warnings rests on the greatness of the salvation Christ brought, and they show people are either moving toward God or away from God.”[14] The last point was very insightful because the tendency is to view people as either being in or out of the kingdom of God. As Cockerill concludes, the main emphasis for pastors should not just be whether or not someone has made a decision for Christ; the focus should be on the direction of their lives. This last statement could be misconstrued; really, the focus should be on both.

Randall Gleason holds a Moderate Reformed View and points out the warnings in Hebrews has lacked consensus since the days of the early church.[15] The foundation of Gleason’s interpretation of the warning passages is rooted in Jewish history and context, and he views falling away as much more than simply acting unfaithfully. This unfaithfulness to God parallels the Israelite’s time in the wilderness where an eleven-day journey took forty years because of their attitude and lack of faith in God. By linking the spiritual condition of the intended audience to the sinful nature of the Exodus generation, Gleason presents compelling similarities in the circumstances and the judgment that would follow if the people did not turn back to Christ. Gleason concludes by asserting, “The purpose of Hebrews was to strengthen, encourage, and exhort the members of a persecuted Christian community to hold firmly to their confession of Jesus Christ rather than seek security in the old rituals of Judaism.”[16] This desire to go back to the old ways is associated with the acrostic for Ur, meaning going back to one’s usual routine.

George Guthrie offers a wonderful conclusion to this book and his beliefs closely resemble those of Buist Fanning, so he would be classified as Classical Reformed in his views on Hebrew’s warning passages. Guthrie illuminates, “The manner in which this scholarly dialogue has been conducted represents an irenic, evangelical Christianity that at once aspires to the clarification of truth and the fostering of Christian community – two goals often treated as being unrelated.”[17] Any endeavor in exegesis and hermeneutics should seek to reveal what is contained in Scripture; not what one wants to be there. By seeking to understand what Scripture truly reveals, the interpreter will have the greatest opportunity to communicate the truths of God.

ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE OF VIEWS

It is amazing how one’s preunderstanding and preconceived notions warp the mind and limit the ability to see God’s truth fully illuminated. Each of the authors are leaders in their respective schools of theology and have contributed much to the advancement of applying God’s Word in the lives of believers today. The way this book is formatted and setup allows it to be read much like a debate with opposing views, by the other three authors, at the conclusion of each chapter. Each author is given ample space ranging from seventy-five to one hundred pages to assert their beliefs and most responses are around twenty pages. The debate seems to revolve around whether the passages are referring to regenerate Christians and the main issue being addressed is if believers can lose their salvation, if they fall away from God’s grace. On multiple occasions, this writer was able to see different views presented in a new light that did not put down another’s viewpoint. When reading or listening to opposing views, the natural reaction is to dismiss what is being said, but that was not the case with this book. Each of these sections were truly enlightening and this is the third book in the last year this writer has read in seminary where differing views were presented and responses were added at the end of each belief, so this seems to be a very successful trend when addressing core doctrinal issues. This format also adds a new level of comprehension and clarification for a wide variety of readers, from new believers, to students, to even scholars in the field. Knowing what one believes is important, but so is being able to interact with the other popular stances on a topic. What really sets this book apart from others is the professionalism each author showed their fellow contributors, even if their beliefs were in conflict. This is an area the church as a whole has been the victim of and as a result, many Christians forget there is only one team: God’s team. Doctrinally, there are surely some hills worth dying on, but many of the trivial translations of a passage have caused such strife and division in the universal church. It was truly refreshing to see these scholars interact with one another and not just point out differences, but point out areas in which there was agreement. Each of the authors were respected scholars in their denominations and while they do not necessarily speak for everyone, in this writer’s opinion, they each presented sound exegetical procedures and conclusions. Because of the complexity of reading Hebrews, it can seem confusing with the contrast of falling away, possibly forever, being juxtaposed with the superiority of Christ as High Priest, so understanding more about the author, the original recipients, and the context are vital to arriving at the most accurate interpretation of the text and what modern day application it presents for believers today.

If one author’s view seemed superior, or at least was better presented, it would be Buist Fanning’s Classical Reformed view. His synthetic approach to the text illustrates how the author includes himself when he is addressing the church and also how Christ is elevated to His High Priestly role. Fanning also does a good job when analyzing the conditional statements and the cause-to-effect relationship between protasis and apodosis. Fanning demonstrates, that not all conditionals express C/E relationships; however, “They all involve a type of contingency with a consequence, but the consequence may be an inference that can be drawn or an equivalence that may be noted, not always an effect produced by the cause denoted in the protasis.”[18] This means enduring faith is the evidence of genuine salvation, which communicates those in jeopardy of not possessing salvation never, had it in the first place, meaning they were never true believers. The priesthood of Jesus is the assurance of salvation and Fanning does a brilliant job illustrating how Christ intercedes for believers and when sinners confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways, God chooses not to remember the sins any longer. Fanning’s approach further seems most valid because it also pictures true genuine believers being able to persevere to the very end because their hope and faith is in Christ.

CONCLUSION

While each of the views of the warning passages in Hebrews had valid points, Fanning’s emphasis of Christ’s power to save over any amount of apostasy is theologically most biblical. To argue otherwise would be to say Christ is unable to forgive certain sins. Fanning raises two interesting questions: “What could cause God to call to mind again what He has pledged never to remember? And what could bring an end to forgiveness or an inheritance that is eternal? To these questions, Fanning asserts, “Why would the author express himself so strongly about God’s absolute faithfulness if human infidelity can short-circuit it, especially since this is the very thing he fears some of his readers may do.”[19] Each of the authors presented considerable insight into how to interpret the warning passages in Hebrews and this book’s contribution will be long lasting in academia and for anyone wanting to properly understand the Epistle to the Hebrews.

 Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. By Gareth L. Cockerill, Buist M. Fanning, Randall C. Gleason, Grant R. Osborne, and George H. Guthrie. Edited by Herbert W. Bateman IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007, 480 pp. $29.99 (Paperback).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cockerill, Gareth L., Buist M. Fanning, Randall C. Gleason, Grant R. Osborne, and George Guthrie. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Edited by Herbert W. Bateman IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007.

[1] Herbert W. Bateman IV ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 7.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; and 12:14-29

[4] Bateman IV ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 84-85.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 86.

[6] Osborne, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 128.

[7] Ibid., 111-112.

[8] Buist M. Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 172-173.

[9] Ibid., 175.

[10] Ibid., 175-192.

[11] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 218.

[12] Gareth Lee Cockerill, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 257.

[13] Ibid., 289.

[14] Ibid., 291-292.

[15] Randall C. Gleason, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 336.

[16] Ibid., 367.

[17] George H. Guthrie, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 431.

[18] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 210.

[19] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 200.

Advertisements