Thursday, April 08, 2010

Peter T. O'Brien on Hebrews

Peter T. O’Brien. The Letter to the Hebrews. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.

This hefty gem just arrived on my desk and I'm reading through it with great satisfaction. Of course, what we all want to know first is what O'Brien thinks of the warning passage in 6.4-8. O'Brien closes his discussion of this section with the words: "Apostasy is a real danger that threatens the community, even though the author of Hebrews does not save that members have already abandoned their faith. But there is no way back from such an abandonment to a renewal of the initial act of repentance. They must avoid the danger at all costs; the point of the warning, and of the encouraging words of vv. 9-12, is to urge the listeners to persevere in faith and obedience" (p. 227). With respect to the "joy" of Jesus in Heb 12.2, O'Brien comments: "Jesus' assumption of the position at the right hand of God represents the joy set before him for the sake of which he endured shame and death. It is the prize that came to him at the end of his race. 'His session at the right hand is the guarantee of the absoluteness of Christ's exaltation and thus the utter security of those who have placed their hope in him' [F.F. Bruce]. When believers, who are still running their race, fix their eyes on Jesus and rely on him for support and help, they know that he is the perfecter of faith who is seated at God's right hand, having endured the cross and shame for them. His exemplary fidelity is understood so as to encourage them to persevere in faithfulness" (p. 458). On the "eternal covenant" of 13.20, O'Brien states: "The new covenant is that eternal covenant: our author uses the adjective eternal in relation to salvation (5:9), judgment (6:2), redemption (9:12), the Spirit (9:14), and inheritance (9:15), all of which are intimately related to the new covenant" (p. 535).


Marty Foord said...

Hey Mike,

Yes, I've had a few conversations with PTOB re the Heb 6 stuff. I wonder if this isn't a part of a larger biblical theological theme. For example, Jeremiah is urged by God several times not to pray any more for Israel because they have fallen so far into idolatry. That is, there is a kind of persistent rebellion by those who were once a part of the (visible) people of God that leads to a state of no return.

This is perhaps what stands behind John's reasoning that his readers not pray for those who have committed a sin that leads to death (what may well stand behind those who commit sin as anomia in 1 John 3:4). And his last words a few verses later is for the readers to keep themselves from idols.

This ties in well with Heb. 6:4-6, not to mention Jesus' statements about the unforgiveable sin.

Just my 5c worth.

Emerson Fast said...

However, the biblical texts also demonstrate extreme cases of apostasy that end in redemption (the most intriguing one being Manasseh). The prayer of Israel's worts king moved the heart of God to quite an exemplary demonstration of grace.

John Calvin warns of the Novatian heresy which uses Heb. 6 as a sort of impeachable wall against returning apostates.

I've always seen this passage as a declaration of something that, by nature, cannot be done. The author in the same chapter speaks of the "things that accompany salvation" as a juxtaposition to apostasy. With these words in mind, it would be difficult for me to imagine that he would say," In some cases salvation is not accompanied by perseverance." That would be quite a skewed form of salvation.

pennoyer said...

I just got the book yesterday! Oh, what Christmas looks like for eggheads! Anyway, two observations on the "apostasy" passages before reading O'Brien:

First, while our interests are naturally about the possibility or impossibility of INDIVIDUALS apostasizing, in context I believe the question is more on the community level. These are Jewish-Christian churches under persecution. They are wondering: Wouldn't it be easier if we just remove our Christian distintives, and returned to our Jewish roots? That, the author shows, would be disastrous.

Second, whether community or individual level, I usually say pastorally that the author of Hebrews leaves open the possibility of "no-return" apostasy, but that it must be real, deliberate, sustained, and fully informed (i.e. in full knowledge of the consequences). Whether any individual person has ever actually met these qualifications, only God knows.

Ray Pennoyer

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

Isn't the point of Hebrews 6 that Salvation is both possessed and pursued and that it is not possessed if it is not pursued and it is not pursued if it is not possessed? And that the very warning of the danger of apostasy functions as the means to propel us forward in faith and obedience? (Thanks Caneday and Schreiner, "The Race Set Before Us")

Marty Foord said...

@ Emerson: you'll notice that I speak of apostasy from the "visible" church. I'm not suggesting that truly saved people can lose their salvation. Calvin's reading of Heb. 6 is excellent here.

@ Bruce: well, I never found Caneday and Schreiner's argument that appealing (or exegetically convincing for that matter). The warning of a danger that can never occur is no warning at all. The reason why the warnings keep the elect on track is because subjective assurance will never be perfect in this life and the visible church has people that fall away.

@ Pennoyer: I like your style. Although I would say, it seems to me that Jesus was pretty sure people had committed an unforgiveable sin (i.e. the Pharisees for attributing Christ's works to Beelzebub) and 1 John 5 certainly speaks of a sin that leads to death (comitted by those in the visible church) that believers are not to pray for.

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

Marty: Don't Caneday and Schreiner explain the verses like, "Unless you endure to the end, you cannot be saved?" The warning is convincing precisely because it can and will happen if we ignore it. It's the warning of our father. He warns us because he loves us. It's comforting to know he cares enough to warn us.

I'm curious, what exegetical problems do you have with their interpretation?

Emerson Fast said...

Unless this text is not a warning?

"Even though we speak like this brothers, we are confident of better things in your case..."

I'm just doing some exegetical probing. Is the biblical text unable to speak of things that cannot occur without being presumptuous? I'm really not sure.

The scriptures have been able to "fool me" before. Every little word, every little tense could potentially throw our theology off.

I'm just not so ready to give this text up to Arminianism. The material conclusion I draw from the Arminian exegesis of this verse is," I need to do the righteous thing and persevere or else I will not be saved" and it is not long before I've completely forgotten about grace. And something smells very fishy about that.

Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...


The Calvinism is a powerful philosophical system, but I think it creates truncated taxonomy for the history of redemption. The Arminian debates come out of the medieval merit theological context. I think Caneday and Schreiner are correct that the imageries of redemption give us a covenantal concept of assurance, which is quite different than that of popular Calvinism.

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