Saturday, March 15, 2008

What does Heb 6 really mean?

Arminians typically accuse Calvinists of tampering with the obvious meaning of Heb 6 and its counterparts. Let’s begin by quoting the two major passages around which the controversy swirls:


Hebrews 6:4-6 (English Standard Version)

4For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Hebrews 10:26-31 (English Standard Version)

26For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.


1.Now, let’s take a few steps back. Ask yourself, if either passage were intended to answer a question, what question would that be? Would it be, Is it possible for a Christian to lose his salvation? Or would it be, Is it possible for an apostate to be restored?

One of the ironic features of the modern debate about the “true” meaning of Heb 6 is that this debate is centered on answering a question which the passage wasn’t designed to answer. The Arminian, in particular, is asking a different question than the text is answering.

For the question which the text is answering is not about the possibility of losing your salvation, but the possibility—or impossibility—of returning to the faith.

So the Arminian is involved in a classic case of agenda-driven exegesis. When you come to a text of Scripture, demanding an answer it wasn’t intended to give, and—in the meantime—sideline the answer it was intended to give, then you’re coming to the text with a theological agenda, and you won’t be satisfied until you make the text answer the question you want it to answer. Your theological priorities are at odds with the text. You insist on putting a question to the text which the text was never meant to answer.

Once again, just stop for a moment and ask yourself, in proportion to the amount of time that an Arminian spends on trying to make the text answer a different question, how much time does he spend trying to answer the question which the text was actually addressing? In particular, how much time does the Arminian typically devote to the possibility, or not, of spiritual restoration, rather than the possibility of losing your salvation?

The Arminian is not allowing the text to set the agenda. He takes almost no interest in what the text is interested in. Indeed, the focus of the text is a very awkward for him since it’s hard for an Arminian to explain why an apostate, if he’s truly a free agent, would be unable to think better of his action, or why a loving God would refuse to reinstate him.

If the Arminian were to actually realign his concerns to correspond with the text, this would be a very problematic text for Arminian theology. That may well be one reason, aside from his eagerness to disprove Calvinism, that he marginalizes the teaching of the text, and substitutes a different question in its place.

In this respect, Donatism, Montanism, and Novatianism were at least asking the right questions. They were asking the same questions of the text that the text was designed to answer. Even if we disagree with their answers, their approach to Heb 6 was at least in line with the type of question which the text was addressing.

So it takes a lot of temerity for an Arminian to accuse a Calvinist of Scripture twisting when the Arminian is the one who is guilty of imposing his own agenda on the text, to the detriment of what the text is really teaching.

2.Apropos (1), if we take the impossibility of restoration at face value, then in what sense is it impossible?

i) There are only two options available to the Arminian:

a) Every apostate is unwilling to repent.

b) God is unwilling to restore any apostate, even if he is penitent.

But both explanations are in tension with Arminian theology. (i) is contrary to the libertarian freedom of the apostate, while (ii) is contrary to the universal love of God.

ii) By contrast, this is not a point of tension in Reformed theology. We could simply say an apostate is a hardened sinner. This explanation combines (i) and (ii). The apostate is unwilling to repent, and he’s unwilling to repent because God is unwilling to restore him. God has hardened him as a judicial punishment for his apostasy.

3.Recently, Ben Witherington has attempted to harmonize the rigorist interpretation with Arminian theology by taking a rhetorical approach:

“Rhetorically speaking, an orator must be able to keep the attention of the audience, especially if the discourse is going to be long…this being the case…the wise rhetor will pull out the emotional stops, use more colorful language, engage in rhetorical hyperbole, up the volume on ‘amplification’,” Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians (IVP 2007), 203.

“One of the issues that many commentators misunderstand, because of failure to read the rhetorical signals, is that our author to some degree is being ironic here and engaging in a preemptive strike. That is, we should not read this text as a literal description of the present spiritual condition of the audience,” ibid. 204.

“One of the key factors in analyzing this section [Heb 5:11-6:12] is to realize that our author is trying to put the ‘fear of God’ into his audience by using rhetoric to prevent defections, and so one is not sure how far to press the specifics here, since it is possible to argue that some of this involves dramatic hyperbole,” ibid. 205.

“Our author is deliberately engaging in dramatic rhetorical statements for the purpose of waking up the audience. The function is not to comment on something that is impossible for God…In other words, these words were intended to have a specific emotional effect, not to comment in the abstract about what is impossible…In an honor-and-shame culture this is intended to be shocking language,” ibid. 212-15.

“In my judgment, these are the right kinds of questions to ask about an epideictic discourse clearly given to hyperbole at points. Two things result from taking such rhetorical factors into account: (1) our author really does think that at least some of the audience is in danger of apostasy and warns against it and (2) we may suspect that the ‘no restoration’ remark functions as a device to make clear how horrible committing apostasy really is. It is another way of pleading ‘please don’t go there.’ The consequences of apostasy are thereby shown to be grim by the use of hyperbolic language,” ibid. 218.

But there are two potential problems with this maneuver:

i) A Calvinist can help himself to the same rhetorical strategy (see below).

ii) Witherington isn’t consistent in applying the “rhetorical device.” For at one point he also says “our author seems to believe that one can go too far, past the point of no return and no restoration. This text then cuts both ways, against either a facile notion that forgiveness is always possible no matter how severe the sin in question is, but it equally must count against the ‘eternal security’ sort of argument as well,” ibid. 215.

4.Having said all that, I don’t necessarily object to posing questions to Scripture which the author didn’t intend to answer. For a text may contain logical implications that are valid irrespective of what was foremost in the mind of the writer. These are consistent with what he meant, even if that happens to be incidental to his immediate point.

What the Arminian would say is that the impossibility of restoration presupposes the possibility of apostasy. Unless it’s possible to defect from the faith, the impossibility of restoration is a moot issue. So why would the author even introduce this irrelevancy?

5.But even at that level, the inference fails to follow.

i) For it might depend on what is mooting the possibility of apostasy. The deterrent value of these very warnings may serve that purpose.

ii) This is further reinforced by the fact that if an Arminian is going to say the threat is hyperbolic, then the Calvinist can make the same move. Suppose a Calvinist says the possibility of a true believing falling away is a “genuine” possibility, but only in the counterfactual sense that if he went down this road, that consequence would follow—even though that is not a live possibility?

An Arminian will typically argue that this mitigating condition renders the threat “meaningless.” If, however, the Arminian softens the threat by claiming that the terms of the threat are hyperbolic, to harmonize the threat with his Arminian belief in the possibility of restoration, then the Arminian is in no position to attack the Reformed position. If the impossibility of restoration is hyperbolic, then why not treat the possibility of apostasy (however defined) as equally hyperbolic? Why take one literally, but not the other?

In light of Witherington’s rhetorical strategy, which he deploys to defend his Arminian commitments, it’s unintentionally comical to read an Arminian epologist wax indignant, in volleys of quaint, ornate diction, if the Calvinist is merely making the same hermeneutical move as Witherington :

“Translation: The warnings are divine shock value, their consequences mere coercion. I'd already factored in this defense into the challenge, concerning which I point out an obvious problem: All inherent problems aside, even if this were the case and God were simply 'putting us on,' so to speak, for the sake of our living righteously, then is it not better to take the Lord at His word? If God's purpose in giving such warnings was to make us live holy unto Him by indicating that if we walk away from Him, He will cast us away, yet you teach a doctrine that states He would never under any circumstance actually do such a thing, then have you not undone the holy fear which God's word was meant to instill in the hearts of His people and again made it of no effect?… I agree that God does indeed spur we who are His on to glory with warnings, but not with hollow threats of Him committing things He would never actually do based on things He won't let happen… Are we to seriously believe that God's holy word is touting false and misleading doctrine for the sake of our good practice? God isn't mumbling crazy impossibilities, heresy, or idle threats into the air to keep us secure."

I’d suggest that Thibodaux redirect his baroque indignation at Arminian commentators like Witherington.

iii) Likewise, the Calvinist can also invoke the hyperbolic interpretation to distinguish between backsliders and apostates. The former will be restored, while the latter will not.

6.However, the Arminian objection is fallacious in another respect as well. A Calvinist doesn’t have to treat the possibility of apostasy as a merely hypothetical outcome. He can admit that this is a live possibility. That there are real life examples.

Remember, a Calvinist doesn’t think the terminology of Heb 6 & 10 denotes regeneration. In Reformed theology, an individual can experience what is described in these passages, and yet fall away at a later date—never to return. So this passage has a real world application in Calvinism. We apply it to nominal believers. As one scholar explains:

“More importantly, the above analysis sheds some valuable light on the vexing question of the status of those envisioned in Heb 6:4-6. After analyzing the statements in vv. 4-6, McKnight confidently concludes that ‘[i]f the author is accurate in his description of the readers' experience, then we can only say that they are believers—true believers.’49 However, the preceding analysis leads us in a different direction. It appears that in analogy to the old covenant community the people depicted in 6:4-6 are not genuine believers or true members of the new covenant community. Like their OT counterparts, they have experienced all these blessings (vv. 4-5), but like the wilderness generation they are hardhearted, rebellious (3:8) and possess an "evil heart of unbelief” (3:12, 19).50 More clearly, 4:2 poignantly states that both groups (the wilderness generation and the new covenant community) have had the gospel preached to them, but the wilderness generation to which the readers of Hebrews are compared failed to believe, and therefore the message was of no value to them. Thus, the conclusion of Lane that ‘[t]ogether, the clauses describe vividly the reality of the experience of personal salvation enjoyed by the Christians addressed’ is premature.51 Wayne A. Grudem has recently proposed a similar understanding to the one presented in this section.52 According to him, the descriptive phrases themselves in vv. 4-6 are inconclusive as to whether the subjects are genuine believers or not. Here in Hebrews 6 they describe ‘people who were not yet Christians but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit's work in the Christian community.’53 The falling away (v. 6) is not a falling from salvation, but a failure to exercise saving faith in light of the blessings to which the readers have been exposed through association with the Christian community.54 The preceding analysis of the OT background to 6:4-6 confirms Grudem's conclusions. Thus in analogy to the old covenant community, those envisioned in vv. 4-6 have experienced the blessings of the new covenant (‘being enlightened,’ ‘tasting the heavenly gift,’ etc.), experiences common to all by virtue of belonging to the new covenant community, but have recapitulated the error of their old covenant predecessors by failing to believe and rejecting what they have experienced. In doing so they come under the covenantal curse."

7.The reason a Calvinist has to spend a lot of time discussing those to whom the text does not apply (the elect) is because the Arminian wants to apply this text to Christians. That’s why the Calvinist has to shift attention away from its area of applicability (nominal believers) to its area of inapplicability (true believers). That’s the point at which a Calvinist will talk about counterfactual truth-values.

But this doesn’t mean we think the possibility only obtains in some possible world. It also obtains in the actual world. But it doesn’t obtain in the case of the elect.

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