Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews

Herbert W. Bateman IV, editor Kregel Academic & Professional, Grand Rapids February 21, 2007
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Bateman has edited a helpful volume on a notoriously difficult portion of Scripture. The warning passages in Hebrews have troubled Bible students for centuries. This volume presents four approaches to the passages, and after each presentation, the other three writers respond. The approaches are labeled with theological titles: (1) Classical Arminian (Grant Osborne), (2) Classical Reformed (Buist Fanning), (3) Wesleyan Arminian (Gareth Cockerill), and (4) Moderate Reformed (Randall Gleason).

Bateman’s introductory article is valuable (pp. 23–85). He defines the parameters of the warning passages (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–29) and classifies them as warnings that the readers should listen to God (2:1–4; 12:14–29), warnings that the readers should trust and obey God (3:7–4:13), and the warning that is at the “heart” of the passages (5:11–6:12) (p. 28). These form a chiastic structure (pp. 28, 83–84). Much of the remainder of the article is devoted to discussing the warning passages. This introductory article is intended to orient the reader to issues that will be addressed in subsequent chapters. It succeeds in this goal, but it also discusses issues such as structure that are not addressed elsewhere in the book. This approach at times makes it an uncomfortable fit within a debate format volume. However, its value outweighs this minor drawback.

Each of the essays has a moderate tone. Each author acknowledges that these passages are difficult and that a specific conclusion is maintained as the best option. There is no attempt to dismiss other views as heretical or impossible. This aspect itself makes the volume a delight to read.

In the first essay Osborne presents what is labeled a “Classical Arminian” position. He makes his case by carefully considering each warning passage in detail. Osborne views the Book of Hebrews as having a Roman destination, that real believers are addressed, that Hebrews 6 refers to an unpardonable sin, and that apostasy is a real danger for believers. If committed, there is no opportunity for repentance. Osborne argues that the five participles in 6:4–6 must describe believers: “having been once-for-all enlightened,” “having tasted the heavenly gift,” “having become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” “having tasted the goodness of the Word of God,” and “having fallen away” (pp. 111–12). He rejects the translation that makes the final participle a conditional clause (“if they fall away,” p. 112). These are true believers who have fallen away. Since the passage states that they cannot be brought back to repentance, Osborne maintains that this is the unpardonable sin (p. 114).

Fanning provides a “Classical Reformed” view of the warning passages. He sees the passages as directed toward unbelievers mixed in among Christians. Support for this includes the use of the first and second person for exhortations and the third person for the warning passages (p. 192). The majority of Fanning’s presentation is a synthetic description that traces five themes through the passages. Fanning discusses those who fall away, the nature of the fall described, the consequences of this fall, the desired response to the warnings, and encouragement about God’s faithfulness. Fanning then discusses two conditional sentences in 3:6 and 3:14. He argues that these should be seen as evidence-to-inference statements, not cause-to-effect statements as is often interpreted. Thus these statements “do not cite what will be true if they hold on, but what is already true of them, if in fact they endure” (p. 207, italics his). Fanning maintains that the author of Hebrews desires for all his readers to demonstrate their Christianity; however, if they do not and they disclaim Christ, they prove that they were never true believers.

Cockerill presents a “Wesleyan Arminian” view. Similar to Osborne, Cockerill says that real believers are addressed and that if they fail to heed the warnings and they apostasize, they will be eternally lost without opportunity to return to the faith. As a Wesleyan, Cockerill might be expected to allow for an opportunity for the apostate to again become a believer. But this is not the case. Cockerill emphasizes the pastoral implications of the warnings. He notes that these passages do not mean people should be viewed as “in” or “out” of God’s kingdom. Rather, people should be seen as moving toward or away from God. Also Cockerill interacts (although he does not ultimately agree) with other scholars (such as Emmrich and deSilva), thereby giving the reader other options not discussed elsewhere in this book.

In his “Moderate Reformed” position Gleason presents the most unique presentation of all the views. The warnings, he says, were addressed to genuine Jewish believers facing persecution by other Jews before the destruction of Jerusalem. He sees “falling away” not as apostasy but as a “serious act of unfaithfulness toward God” (p. 354). Punishment is seen not as eternal but as physical, based on Old Testament parallels. Crucial to this case is Gleason’s belief in a Jewish context and his use of Old Testament parallels. His emphasis on the historical context is commendable, and this may be an important key to understanding the passages. However, if he is incorrect about the specific context of the letter or if his use of Old Testament parallels is not methodologically sound, his argument is significantly weakened. For example concerning parallel use, in light of the Old Testament’s emphasis on physical and temporal judgment, is it accurate to assume that the New Testament with its developed personal eschatology will limit its use of these Old Testament judgment texts to earthly judgment?

George Guthrie, who has done extensive work in Hebrews, provides a helpful conclusion to the book. Guthrie summarizes the debate and suggests further areas of research.

This volume is very beneficial and will help raise and clarify many of the issues related to the warning passages. The essay-and-reply format gives opportunity for the positions to be presented and clarified, and for uniquenesses to be noted. There tends to be some overlap between an article and its author’s replies to the other authors. However, this is inevitable and serves to reinforce the position of each contributor. Adding to the redundancy, the two Arminian positions share much in common. Interestingly the methods of the Arminian and Reformed positions differed. The Arminian contributors focused primarily on the warning passages themselves, whereas the Reformed authors often took a more synthetic or thematic approach to the passages.

This volume succeeds in giving readers clarification on the issues and options surrounding the warning passages in Hebrews. It is unfortunate that neither of the Arminian positions argued that an apostate believer can come back to faith in Christ. This is a real option in the debate. The labels (such as “Classical Arminian” and “Moderate Reformed”) present negative issues. First, readers with commitments to these schools of thought may be less inclined to read this volume evenly. Second, it is difficult to find representatives of these schools who speak for everyone (or at least the majority). No doubt some Reformed and Arminian scholars will not feel their positions and emphases have been adequately represented. However, this format of essays followed by responses was the easiest way to present distinct views on these significant passages.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2009 vol. 166 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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