I’m going to comment on this post.
Before remarking on his specific claims, let’s draw a few distinctions:
i) McKnight treats the audience of Hebrews as monolithic, as if the author has only one audience in mind. But the congregation probably reflected a range of individuals.
ii) Apropos (i), people generally attend church as families. Families tend to do things as families. That, in turn, can break down in the following ways:
a) You have one or more devout family members who attend church because their motives are pious.
b) You have nominal or unbelieving family members who attend church because a devout family member attends. In the case of kids, they may attend because they have to. Their parents make them. In the case of parents, one spouse may attend out of deference to the other spouse.
This isn’t based on a Calvinist classification scheme. Rather, it’s based on the fact that the natural family is the fundamental unit of society. Families do things together. Family members do things with or for other family members.
So, within the same family, people have different motivations for attending church.
Let’s classify churchgoers in another way:
i) Devout believers
Christian faith is a central, defining feature of their lives. That’s what gives them hope and purpose. That’s how they interpret their lives. Gives them inner direction. A unifying frame of reference.
ii) Nominal believers
They are social chameleons. They believe because people around them believe. They believe what people around them believe.
It’s a default belief. They can lose their faith (and often do) the moment their faith is put to the test–intellectually, ethically, or emotionally. They can lose their faith (and often do) the moment they are transplanted to a different social environment.
When they lose their faith, they don’t have much to lose. Their faith never made their life meaningful. Their life seems just as meaningful or meaningless to them with or without their nominal Christian faith.
They don’t pretend to believe in Christianity, but they don’t make a big deal about it one way or the other. They don’t protest. That’s not their priority. Their social life is more important. They attend church to humor their devout family members. To be involved in the lives of their spouse or kids.
They go through the motions: sing hymns, recite the creed, recite public prayers, take communion.
A heretic is a parody of a devout believer. A counterfeit. He’s just as passionate about his heretical beliefs as a devout believer. His heresy is something he lives for. All-important.
One again, these distinctions don’t presuppose a Calvinist classification-scheme. These are sociological observations. As a matter of common observation, that’s the usual breakdown.
v) These categories aren’t static. Unbelievers can become believers. Believers can become unbelievers. Devout believers can become nominal believers. Nominal believers can become devout believers.
vi) There is, of course, a difference between the way Arminians and Calvinists classify believers. For Arminians, there is no qualitative distinction between nominal believers and “true” believers. In Arminianism, every believer is a born-again believer, for you are regenerated after you believe, as a result of believing.
In Calvinism, by contrast, there’s a distinction between regenerate believers and unregenerate believers, or elect believers and elect unbelievers.
On the one hand, the unregenerate can be nominal believers. On the other hand, the elect can (for a time) be unbelievers.
Of course, McKnight rejects Calvinism, so he might regard that distinction as question-begging. Since, however, he’s critiquing Calvinism, he has to consider the Reformed classifications on their own terms. Are they self-consistent? Can Hebrews be consistently read through that classification scheme?
vii) McKnight fails to distinguish between the author’s audience and the author’s paradigm-cases of faith and infidelity. The author doesn’t simply explain the nature of faith and infidelity by how he talks about the audience, by describing the characteristics of the congregants, but also, and primarily, by his examples of the faithful in Old Testamental and Inter-Testamental times (Heb 11)–as well as the faithless Exodus-generation (Heb 3-4). And he analogizes from these past exemplars–for good or ill–to the situation of the congregants.
Moving to the specifics:
viii) McKnight frames the issue in terms of Calvinism v. Arminianism. However, many Arminian Baptists affirm some version of eternal security. Doesn’t McKnight know that?
ix) Likewise, McKnight rejects the “rhetorical” interpretation, yet Ben Witherington favors the “rhetorical” interpretation in his commentary on Hebrews. Doesn’t McKnight know that?
x) He creates a false dichotomy between “Two kinds of people and/or two kinds of faith” But faith is a property of people, a property of believers. So if there were two (or more) kinds of faith, that would be embodied in different people.
xi) Moreover, the same person can have an evolving or devolving faith. So it’s not as if we automatically pair off one kind of faith per person. There’s some fluidity.
Indeed, apostasy is a good example of that. Some believers retain their faith while others lose their faith. Some mature while others are spiritually retarded.
First, if the sin to worry about is apostasy, and O’Brien calls it “irreversible apostasy,” how can a person with non-genuine (spurious) faith be warned about apostasy? What are they apostasizing from? (The only answer can be their non-genuine faith because that is all they have.) I contend this makes no sense. Big question: What does apostasy mean for the one who doesn’t really have genuine faith? (The sin of Hebrews is too violent to be anything other than something profoundly serious; I can’t see it being apostasy from less than real faith.)
The answer depends in part, on whether McKnight is seeking a general answer, or else an answer specific to Hebrews. In relation to Hebrews, the conventional view is that congregants are in danger of reverting to Judaism. A defection from Christianity to Judaism. That’s the specific form apostasy takes in this letter.
McKnight himself rejects that interpretation, although he doesn’t present his alternative.
Second, if the exhortation is to continue or persevere, how can a person with non-genuine faith be exhorted to continue? In what, their non-genuine faith?
In relation to Hebrews, they are to continue in the Christian faith, and their continuance will, itself, be a mark of genuine faith. A test of commitment. How much it really means to them-or not.
The only answer here is that the non-genuine faith person should be urged to repent and to believe or to enter deeper from a spurious and inadequate non-saving faith into a real, genuine saving faith. When this topic arises at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6 there’s no evidence the author thinks of these people of having spurious faith, but instead of having faith that needs perseverance. In other words, it’s just how the author says it: immaturity (or the “elementary”; 6:1) needs to move onto maturity. The elementary is not “spurious” but an immature version of the real thing.
But as I noted before, the author doesn’t explain the nature of faith merely by reference to his audience, but also by comparing his audience to past saints and past apostates. So Heb 6:1 has to be supplemented by that other material.
The exhortation to continue then can only apply for O’Brien to the genuine saving-faith person (in which case the whole conditionality issue becomes hypothetical or only rhetorical and not real — an issue that needs a different discussion).
This makes two mistakes I noted at the outset:
i) McKnight acts as if there’s only one audience for the exhortation. As if all the congregants are in the same condition. But mass communication (i.e. a public letter) isn’t that discriminating. The author will make a number of general observations that apply to some members of the congregation, but not others.
ii) McKnight also acts as if the condition of each congregant is static. But the very crisis this congregation is undergoing can be a refining (as well as winnowing) experience. In a crisis, a nominal believer can either lose his faith or become a devout believer.
In O’Brien’s sketch the warning passages are working with their eyes on two different faiths: genuine-faith people and non-genuine-faith people. I contend this is impossible to prove apart from one’s already-at-work Calvinistic assumptions. I see no evidence for two groups until the final day; at the moment of writing they are believers. The writer of Hebrews never suggests anyone has spurious faith; he worries those with faith will not persevere.
Third, it is not accurate to say genuine faith and spurious faith are clear in the book. That, again, is an imposed category: what is clear is that some believe and are saved and others shrink back and are damned. To say there are two kinds of faith requires a text where the author makes that kind of category clear. (And the word “faith” ought to be present with some kind of adjective that shows the author thinks some have a spurious faith.) What is present in Hebrews is an author who thinks his readers/listeners will persevere or not persevere.
This commits another mistake I noted at the outset. McKnight is myopically focused on the condition of the audience while ignoring the examples that the author gives to illustrate his argument. On the one hand you have the faithful in Heb 11.
On the other hand you have the wilderness generation. They never exercised faith. Despite witnessing God’s miraculous deliverance and miraculous provision, it never took.
The theme of apostasy doesn’t begin with chap. 6. Rather, that begins with chap. 3. Heb 3-4 are programmatic for 6.
Notice that the author says the audience has an “initial experience of the gospel” and then later says they “were never true believers.” I agree with the first but the last category is imposed from without on the basis of other conclusions, namely that if one does not have perseverance one never really had genuine faith. This is the QED, and it doesn’t work to assume this stance in order to explain one’s view. There are two kinds of people, not two kinds of faith. There is one kind of faith: faith. Some will persevere and some won’t. One faith, one kept and one discarded.
There’s a difference between hearing and trusting. Many heard, but only some took it to heart.
Again, the authentic vs. spurious is a way of framing the problem. I prefer it to frame it as “faith” that perseveres and to salvation vs. faith that doesn’t persevere and that leads to judgment. The use of “spurious” suggests it wasn’t the real thing from the beginning, which I think is his point but which is precisely the point that needs to be proven. And this is clear in that O’Brien says in this paragraph “and never was one.” Now that’s the point that has to be shown, and the only way to show this is to assume that genuine faith perseveres vs. ungenuine faith that does not persevere, when the author seems to be using this set of categories: faith that perseveres saves and faith that doesn’t persevere doesn’t save.
No, that’s not the only category. The wilderness generation never responded in faith.
The issue is whether the “faith” is real in each case; I think so. He needs to show that some people do not really have genuine faith.
Try the wilderness generation.
What does it mean to have “initial” faith or an “initial experience of the gospel” in such terms if it doesn’t mean to trust in Christ?
Hearing the gospel isn’t the same thing as trusting Christ. Even believing isn’t the same thing as trusting.
And a crisis is often a way of testing the difference between hearing and believing or believing and trusting. That has a winnowing effect. It’s easy to believe something when it doesn’t cost you anything. It’s easy to superficially believe something when you don’t have to live what you superficially believe.
Again, in Hebrews 5 to 6 the author brings this up. The initial experience is not spurious, but real.
McKnight is equivocating. There’s no such thing as a spurious experience. Either you have an experience or you don’t.
The question is what you experience. The congregants were evangelized. Some of they witnessed miracles.
Likewise, the Exodus-generation had a genuine experience of God’s deliverance and providence. But they never put their faith in God. They constantly distrusted God.
Not an outsider and not one who is on the edge of church life?
Both nominal believers and unbelievers can be in the thick of church life. Some pastors are nominal believers or closet unbelievers. Many congregants participate in church life because they have devout family members.
I still see a moral problem of a warning with the consequences of hell/eternal damnation that, in fact, can’t happen because it would impugn God’s faithfulness. How can a warning be given with consequences for disobedience be given if those consequences can’t happen — and still be morally justified?
Warnings have deterrent value. Like Arminians generally, McKnight is confusing predestination with que sera sera fatalism. As one philosopher explains:
Determinism is the thesis that everything that occurs including our deliberations and decisions, are causally necessitated by antecedent conditions. Fatalism, by contrast, is the thesis that our deliberations and decisions are causally ineffective and make no difference to the course of events. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 232.