There are four basic ways of construing the apostasy passages in Hebrews. The two traditional interpretations are the (i) Reformed and the (ii) Arminian. A third, more recent, but influential interpretation is (iii) the antinomian, while a fourth interpretation is (iv) un-iversalism.
Because Arminians and antinomians agree on the Christian identity of the apostates/ backsliders in Heb 6 & 10, their interpretation converges on the Christian experience of the subjects, but diverges over the judgment which they face, whether temporary and remedial or eternal and retributive.
According to the Arminian interpretation, the apostates were true, regenerate believers who lose their salvation. Libertarian freewill always allows for the possibility of apostasy.
In traditional Arminian theology, this would result in eternal damnation, although annihilationism and postmortem evangelism have become a live option in contemporary Arminianism (e.g. Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Jerry Walls, Gabriel Fackre).1
Representatives of this position vis-à-vis Hebrews include R. T. France, Philip Hughes, Scot McKnight, William Lane, I. H. Marshall, Grant Osborne, and Robert Picirilli.
By “Arminian,” I don’t necessarily mean someone who is a doctrinaire Arminian, but merely some who offers an Arminian interpretation of Heb 6 & 10, regardless of his overall theology. Some of them embrace a rather eclectic and compartmentalized theology.
Hughes interpretation is somewhat ambiguous. But if you compare his commentary on Hebrews with his final book on The True Image, which documents a vehement repudiation of Calvinism, it’s clear where he’s headed.
Scot McKnight lays out a standard argument for the Arminian interpretation:
Everything about the Warning Passages in Hebrews hinges upon the audience: Who are they? Are they believers or not?
I begin with this observation: in the history of the Church many have made a distinction between a genuine believer and a nominal believer. I find such categories useful in some contexts. The issue in reading Hebrews is whether or not the author uses such a category to explain his audience.
First, the author often includes himself with the audience by using the term “we.” 2:1-4; 3:14; 4:1, 11, 14-16; 6:1; 10:19; 12:1-3, 25-29.
Second, the author calls his audience “brothers.” 3:1, 12; 10:19; 13:22. Perhaps 3:1 needs to be quoted: “holy brothers who share in the heavenly calling.” At 2:11-17 we have the following thread about what “brother” means: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers [and sisters], 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers [and sisters], in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”… 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers [and sisters] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Third, at 4:3 he calls his audience “believers.” This text is not distinguishing genuine from false, but believers from non-believers. Believers, it says, enter into the rest. [Yes, it needs to be noted: a believer who enters the rest perseveres. But, this does not mean that those who do not persevere were not believers, but that those who do not persevere will not enter the rest.]
Fourth, sometimes the author sees his audience as “you.” This suggests he thinks some of them will not make it. See 3:12; 5:11; 12:18-24.
Fifth, 10:29 needs to be read carefully: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” Here the “you” have spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood, and were (already) sanctified by the blood, and are outraging the Spirit.
Sixth, at 2:3-4 the author recounts their conversion experience; at 6:10 they are those who have showed love in the name of Christ; at 10:22 they have had their hearts sprinkled and been cleansed of a guilty conscience; at 10:32-34 we see evidence of their enduring persecutions.
Put together, this all indicates a full Christian experience: conversion, gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the work of the death of Christ, and a Christian community commitment.
Seventh, now briefly on 6:4-6: the author claims that those who have reached a certain level and turn back cannot be restored unto repentance. (This is a singular comment; it is grave.)
Enlightened: see 10:32. An early Christian conversion term._Tasted…: see 2:9; 6:4, 5. This does not mean “taste” as in dabble, but is a metaphor for “experience.” See at 2:9 — one does not merely “dabble” in death; it means to die. Partaken in the Spirit: refers to early Christian experience of the Holy Spirit. Tasted Word… again, experienced the powers of God’s Word. Again, these verses put it all together: a full Christian experience.
Here’s my summary: indeed, the author sees his audience as mixed. Mixed, in the sense of those who will persevere and those who will not. Not mixed in the sense of frauds and genuine. There is no suggestion in the book of the latter category, but plenty of the former. There is all kinds of evidence that he thought some would persevere and some would not; he never suggests those who do not persevere are frauds. There is a big difference.
My conclusion is this: the author of Hebrews saw his audience as believers but knew that some would fall away, or had fallen away, or might fall away. For those who did, there would be no final rest. The implication is that a believer can fall away.2
It’s true that the distinction between nominal and genuine believers comes to us by way of systematic theology rather than Hebrews, per se. It’s a theological construct based on the overall teaching of Scripture.
In general, the distinction between genuine and nominal belief is grounded in the distinction between regeneracy and unregeneracy. But this is basically a Johannine category, so we wouldn’t expect the author of Hebrews to employ the very same classification-system since he has his own theological categories.
However, the author does draw other distinctions, between one group and another. McKnight draws attention to one such division: Those who persevere and those who don’t.
McKnight also defines a believer, in this context, as someone who has undergone a “full Christian experience,” “those who have experienced the fullness of the Trinity and God's saving work. So, I would say they have moved through all six dimensions of conversion.”
This, however, generates a rather obvious dilemma: if it is possible for such an individual to lose his salvation, then how would the author of Hebrews be in a position to predict the outcome?
These two things don’t go together. In principle, the author could believe that there is a distinction between true and nominal believers. And that would, in turn, ground his knowledge that some will persevere while others will fall away.
Or he could believe that there is no such distinction—-that those who persevere and those who fall away had the very same Christian experience.
On that hypothesis, there would be no differential factor to predict who, if any, would persevere, and who, if any, would fall away.
So one problem with McKnight’s interpretation is that he credits the author with a knowledge of the outcome after having removed a necessary condition for a knowledge of the outcome.
Regarding the oscillation in the way the referents are distinguished, this is just what you’d expect in a letter addressed to a group of people. The letter is addressed to every congregant, but the letter is not about every congregant. So within the body of the letter, further distinctions are drawn since what is said about some may not be applicable to others. That’s a necessary accommodation to the exigencies of mass communication.
This goes to a fatal equivocation in the way in which McKnight identifies the “audience” of Hebrews. In particular, he commits a level confusion. For there is more than one referent in Hebrews:
i) Epistolary referent: These are the addressees; the church-members to whom he is writing.
ii) Narrative referent: Those about whom he is writing.
ii) intersects with (i), but does not coincide with (i). (ii) includes the cautionary example of OT apostates, whom the author uses, in turn, to illustrate their NT counterparts.
The author alternates between (i) and (ii) to compare and contrast the three groups: (a) OT apostates; (b) NT apostates; (c) addressees.
What we end up with is a relation of analogy rather than identity between three overlap-ping groups.
I also take issue with McKnight’s linguistic analysis. The problem is twofold: (i) He fails to construe the author’s usage on his own terms, within the confines of the letter itself, and (ii) he fails to construe the author’s usage in light of his OT allusions.
Since McKnight has drawn attention to other authors, such as Marshall, who share his viewpoint, I’ll go beyond his immediate discussion to interact with a variety of supporting evidence for his position:
i) In order to understand Heb 6 & 10, we must go back to where the author introduces the apostasy motif. Because the author is addressing Messianic Jews who are tempted to revert to Judaism, he draws a parallel between NT apostasy and OT apostasy. This comparison is introduced in the first of five apostasy passages (2:1-4). Then in 3:6-4:13 he elaborates on the character of the OT apostates. By the way in which our author structures his own argument, therefore, this precedent is paradigmatic for the case of NT apostasy. And his remarks in 6:4-6 will allude to this passage. If there were a radical discontinuity of religious experience between Old and NT apostates, our author’s analogy would break down at the critical point of comparison.
ii) What does the author mean by having a share in the Holy Spirit (6:4)? Before we can attempt a specific answer we must first ask about the general contours of our author’s pneumatology. He doesn’t have much to say on this subject, but what he does tell us is confined to the external rather than internal work of the Spirit (2:4; 3:7; 9:8; 10:15). There is a possible reference to his agency in the Resurrection (9:14). So this does not equate with regeneration—-which is a Johannine category, although the Pauline category of calling covers some of the same ground as the Johannine. The point, rather, is that both the OT and NT apostates had a share in the ministry of the Spirit by virtue of his agency in the inspiration of Scripture as well as the sign-gifts.
More precisely, both groups had been evangelized (4:2,6), as well as witnessing signs and wonders attesting the messenger.
iii) The author takes the rebellion at Kadesh as his test case (Num 14 via Ps 95). Having tasted the "goodness of God’s word" (6:5) echoes the experience of the OT apostates (4,2,6,12; cf. Num 14:43). Tasting the "powers of the coming age" has immediate reference to the sign-gifts (2:4), but this experience also has its OT analogue (Num 14:22).
I agree with McKnight that “to taste” doesn’t mean merely to dabble. Likewise, I.H. Marshall claims that "when Christ is said to have tasted death (Heb 2:9), there is no suggestion that he got off lightly with a mere taste and nothing more; rather, he experience this bitter taste to the full."3
But this definition, while narrowly correct, is broadly false when it is taken to mean that the import of a verb varies with the noun it takes. It is a semantic fallacy to argue that the import of a verb is defined by its object. Does geuomai have a humble human import in Jn 2:9, but take on a divine import in Mt 27:33? This confuses intension with extension.
Along similar lines, William Lane claims that the verb "is appropriate to an experience that is real and personal."4 But his statement suffers from a couple of flaws:
a) What is an "appropriate" object of the verb is not a way of defining the verb. Judas Iscariot is an appropriate object of the verb "to betray," but the verb "to betray" doesn’t mean "Judas Iscariot."
b) In the nature of the case, any kind of experience will be real and personal. Dreams and delusions are real, personal experiences. So this proves everything and nothing.
iv) Drawing on the parallel passage in 10:32, Scot McKnight argues that photizo (6:4) denotes conversion.5 Lane is guilty of the same circular reasoning when he defines the verb in terms of "saving illumination" of heart and mind by appeal to 10:32.6
This is a valid inference, but doesn’t advance their case against Calvinism, for if 6:4 is ambiguous, taken by itself, that same ambiguity will attach to the parallel. The question is whether the verb denotes conversion in the dogmatic sense.7 William Lane goes so far as to claim that,
In the NT the term is used metaphorically to refer to a spiritual or intellectual illumination that removes ignorance through the action of God or the preaching of the gospel (cf. John 1:9; Col 4:6; Eph 1:18; 2 Tim 1:10; Rev 18:1). What is signified is not simply instruction for salvation but renewal of the mind and of life.8
There are two problems with this analysis:
a) evangelization and the action of God are two distinct concepts. While the action of God implies spiritual renewal, evangelization does not. So finding verses that connect illumination and kerygma do not support the stronger thesis.
b) When we run through his citations, they fail to bear out his contention. The interpretation of Jn 1:9 is contested. In context, though, it has reference, not to inner illumination, but the revelation of Christ via his advent. The two Pauline passages (Col 4:6 is a misprint for 1 Cor 4:5) may well have reference to spiritual renewal. However, we must register a couple of caveats: (a) even in Pauline usage, it doesn’t follow that the verb is a technical term for conversion. Lane is confusing intension with extension by illicitly deriving this concept from the larger context, and not from the word itself; (b) there is no reason to assume that Paul’s usage is normative for the author of Hebrews. Lane himself admits a discontinuity between their respective conceptual schemes, viz., the author of Hebrews "moves confidently within the conceptual world of cultic concerns centering in the priesthood and sacrifice. Many of the emphases of Hebrews are alien to those of Paul.9
The appeal to 2 Tim 1:12 suffers from two problems:
a) The fact that evangelization is in view doesn’t mean that the verb signifies evangelization. Once again, Lane is confusing sense and reference by importing the context back into the word. The time is past due for NT scholars to master this elementary distinction. It goes back to Frege and was popularized by Barr.
In Frege’s classic illustration, "the Morning Star" and "the Evening Star" share the same referent (the planet Venus), but they don’t share the same sense inasmuch as they denote different phases of the planet. Barr generalized this distinction in terms of his "illegitimate totality transfer" fallacy.10 While I’m sure that Arminian scholars have read the book, they have failed to absorb its bearing on traditional Arminian arguments.
b) The preaching of the gospel is not the same thing as inner illumination. Finally, Rev 1:18 refers to the radiance of an angel, and as such, does not denote either subjective renewal or objective revelation.
v) On Heb 6:2,6, it is a mistake to read into the word "repentance" the full payload of later dogmatic reflection. (e.g., The Westminster Confession 15:1-2). To begin with, the author of Hebrews doesn’t care to delve into the psychological dynamics of conversion. Moreover, it is evident from his usage elsewhere (12:17) that he doesn’t use the word as a technical term for Christian conversion. The Reformed doctrine of repentance as an evangelical grace is influenced by those occurrences where the word is used in an evangelical context, with God as the efficient agent (e.g. Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25).
vi) On Heb 10:29, it is anachronistic to construe "sanctify" as it has come to be used in systematic theology. The author tells us that the apostate was sanctified by blood of Christ rather than action of the Spirit. That automatically removes it from the dogmatic cate-gory. His usage is figurative and consciously cultic (9:13,20; cf. Exod 29:21; Lev 16:19, LXX). It is concerned with a status rather than a process. By taking it to mean what it would normally mean in Pauline theology, the Arminian is confounding different universes of discourse. It is also possible that the verb takes the "covenant."11 On this construction, the blood "sanctifies" the covenant, not the apostate.
McKnight and other Arminians also misconstrue the function of Biblical admonitions. As Schreiner and Caneday point out:
Conditional warnings in themselves do not function to indicate anything about possible failure or fulfillment. Instead, the conditional warnings appeal to our minds to conceive or imagine the invariable consequences that come to all who pursue a course of apostasy from Christ.12
Robert Picirilli has also made the case for the Arminian interpretation of this passage.13 The page limit on this assignment precludes me from interacting with his arguments. I have, however, written a critical review of his book in which I do just that.14
According to the antinomian interpretation, the apostates are true believers and backsliders. It is possible, on this view, for a regenerate child of God to become an unbeliever and die in a state of impenitent sin, yet still be saved. He will suffer temporal, remedial punishment rather than everlasting, retributive judgment.
Representatives of this position include Charles Ryrie, Zane Hodges, Robert Wilkin, Robert Lightner, Michel Eaton, and R. T. Kendall, as well as various popularizers of their respective arguments.
Hal Harless has done a good job of summarizing the antinomian interpretation of Heb 6 & 10:
First, Hebrews 10:32 uses photizo for conversion, so the fallen are genuine believers.
Second, Hebrews 6:4 describes the fallen as those who have once for all tasted (geusamenous) of the heavenly gift. Each of the ten other New Testament uses of dorea (“gift”) refer to receiving Christ, the Holy Spirit, or something given by Christ.21 …The fallen are believers, because they have experienced the gift of God’s Son and/or the Holy Spirit.
John 4:10; Romans 5:15, 17; 2 Corinthians 9:15; Ephesians 4:7 refer to Jesus as the gift. Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17 refer to the Holy Spirit as the gift. The remaining passage, Ephesians 3:7, refers to God’s grace given to believers. However, Ephesians 4:7 connects that gift of grace to the gift of His Son.
Third, the fallen have been once for all made partakers (metochous genethentas) of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4)…They share in the Holy Spirit, so they are regenerate (cf. Romans 8:9; Titus 3:5–7).
Fourth, the fallen are those who have once for all tasted (geusamenous) the good word of God and the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5). Again, this aorist middle participle of geuomai means have experienced for themselves. Not only are the fallen eternally saved, but also they had experienced personally the goodness of God’s word and His power.
This warning addresses sinners, not apostates. They had fallen down, not away. They were saved but were not holding fast to their confession (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23)…This put them under divine chastisement (Hebrews 10:26–31).
By the transgression of returning to the sacrificial system, they placed themselves beyond repentance. However, their state need not be enduring.
The impossibility of renewing them to repentance remains while they continue to again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.
Hodges notes that many misunderstand this image:
Naturally, the reference to “burned” has caused many to think of hell… In fact, to think of hell here is to betray inattention to the imagery employed by the author. The burning of a field to destroy the rank growth it had produced was a practice known in ancient times. Its aim was not the destruction of the field itself (which, of course, the fire could not effect), but the destruction of the unwanted produce of the field. Thereafter the field might be serviceable for cultivation.15
There are two basic problems with this interpretation:
i) Regarding the identity of the apostates in Heb 6 & 10, it commits the same methodological mistakes as the Arminian interpretation. So my critique of the Arminian interpretation is equally applicable to this aspect of the antinomian interpretation.
ii) Where it differs is with respect to the nature of the judgment facing the apostate. Here, Bruce Compton does a fine job of pointing out some of the exegetical errors in the antinomian interpretation:
Yet this view faces serious problems. First and foremost, the threat in the warning passages appears to be much more extensive than simply the loss of blessing and/or reward. In 4:11, the defection warned against involves a falling into judgment and a missing out on God’s Sabbath rest (4:9). The Sabbath rest that those in view are in jeopardy of missing is nothing less than heaven itself. In 10:27, the threat is presented as “a terrifying expectation of judgment” involving a “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” This consuming of the enemies of God with a raging fire can hardly be a description of God’s treatment of the re-deemed. The same may be said in 10:39, where those who persevere in the faith to the saving of the soul are contrasted with those who “shrink back unto destruction.” The contrast between saving the soul and destroying the soul is found elsewhere in the NT of the contrast between salvation and eternal judgment. Finally, in 12:15, the danger warned about involves a “missing” or “being excluded” from the grace of God.
The unmistakable impression from these combined threats is that nothing short of eternal condemnation and punishment is in view for those guilty of not heeding these warnings. Added to this is the a fortiori argument employed in several of the warning passages in Hebrews comparing and contrasting the judgment of those in the OT who rejected the Law with the judgment of those in the present era who spurn the gospel (2:1–4; 10:26–31; 12:25–27). The argument is that the judgment of those who reject the gospel is not only more certain but also more severe. The force of the logic appears compelling. Those in the OT who rejected the Law forfeited their lives and were excluded from the rest associated with entering the land of promise (3:7–19; 10:28). The more certain and severe corollary must be that those who spurn the gospel face nothing less than eternal death and exclusion from heaven.
A second liability with this view concerns the problem that has elicited the warnings. If the problem is simply a lack of spiritual maturity or commitment, as some have suggested, then why is it “impossible,” to bring those who are guilty to repentance? On the other hand, if the problem is that of apostasy, as others have argued, how can apostasy be describing the action of a regenerate individual?
This is particularly problematic in that the author of Hebrews has specifically identified persevering in the faith as the mark of a “partaker of Christ,” that is, as the mark of a genuine believer, one who is truly saved (3:14).16
The universalist is indifferent to the distinction between believers and unbelievers since, for him, everyone will eventually be a believer, if not in this life, then in the next. He interprets the fiery judgment as purgatorial and remedial.
In a sense, he interprets the judgment passages (in Hebrews 6 & 10) the same way as the antinomian. But he extends remediation into the afterlife.
Universalism is very much a minority position in contemporary Evangelicalism, but as Evangelicalism moves to the left, it is picking up steam.
A representative of this position is Thomas Talbott. According to Talbott: “If we adopt a Pauline perspective, however, then we must regard all punishment, even the harsh punishment to which the author of Hebrews alludes [Heb 10:26-27], as an expression of mercy,” The Inescapable Love of God (Universal Publishers/uPUBLISH.com 2002), 104
There is no brief way of responding to Talbott, because his claim is bound up with his broader interpretation of the NT texts on eschatological judgment.
I have, however, written a critical review of his entire book in which I take issue with his interpretive approach:
According to the Reformed interpretation, the apostates in Heb 6 & 10 are nominal believers who defect from the faith. They are unregenerate.
John Owen is a paradigmatic representative of this position.
I’ve noted the methodological deficiencies in the Arminian interpretation. Beyond that negative defect, there are also a number of positive lines of evidence for the perseverance of the saints in this epistle:
i) In Heb 2:9-17, the author describes the men and women for whom Christ made atonement. And he uses language, allusive of OT usage, which is descriptive of those who are members of the covenant community: "sons" (10); "brothers" (11-12); "children" (13-14); the chosen people (13); "Abraham’s seed" (16), and "the people [of God]” (17; cf. 9:15).
This raises the possibility that the differential factor between those who persevere and those who fall away turns on the difference between those for whom Christ made atonement, and those for whom he did not.
ii) Likewise, the author says that Christ died for those who have been called and consecrated (Heb 9:15; 10:14). Was everyone called and consecrated?
iii) Likewise, the intercession of Christ is grounded in the sacrifice of Christ—-owing to the indivisible character of his priestly work. Hence, sacrifice and intercession are conterminous (Heb 1:3b; 7:27; 8:1,3; 9:24b).
This plays off OT imagery in which intercession was made for those for whom sacrifice was made. An Israelite brought a sacrificial offering to the priest. The beneficiary of this transaction was the one for whom sacrifice was made--the one who brought the offering to the priest in the first place.
iv) Likewise, the author distinguishes between those who lived under the old covenant and the new covenant, and he places sustained emphasis on the efficacy of the new covenant (4:14; 7:16,24-28; 8:6; 9:12,14-15,26-28; 10:12-18,22) in invidious contrast to the old (5:2-3; 7:18-29,27-28; 9:9-10,13; 10:1-4,11).
But if there’s no difference in religious experience between the NT saint and the NT apostate, then Dr. McKnight’s interpretation erases any comparative advantage between an OT Jew and a NT Christian.
v) Finally, I’d like to add that it is lopsided to center our analysis of Hebrews on the apostasy motif when, in fact, the letter pivots on the dual theme of threat and assurance. Moreover, the author rounds out his dire warnings on an optimistic note (cf. 6:9ff.; 10:30,39).
1 The identity of contemporary Arminianism has become increasingly fuzzy and fluid to the degree that it shades into open theism.
3 I. Marshall, Kept By the Power of God (Bethany, 1969), 142.
4 W. Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (Word 1991), 141.
5 S. McKnight, "The Warning Passages in Hebrews," TrinJ 13 (1992), 45-56.
6 Ibid., 141.
7 Cf. Grudem, W. “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” T. Schreiner & B. Ware, eds. Still Sovereign (Baker 2000), 141-44.
8 Ibid. 141.
9 Ibid. xlix.
10 Cf. J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford, 1961).
11 Cf. P. Ellingworth, Commentary on Hebrews (Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1993), 541.
12 Schreiner, T. & A. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance (IVP 2001).
13 R. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will (Randall House 2002), 211-29.