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Commentary Comparison on Hebrews 6:1-8

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Liberty University

A Commentary Comparison on the Difficult Interpretation of Hebrews 6:1-8

A paper submitted to Dr. Adeyemi

In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for

the course NBST 654

Liberty Theological seminary

By

Christopher W. Myers

                                                                                  

Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, 09 November, 2008

Table of Contents

The Passage: Hebrews 6:1-8- 3

Introduction- 4

The First Piece: Verses 1-3- 5

The Second Piece: Verses 4-6- 8

The Third Piece: Verses 7-8- 11

Conclusion: The Application- 13

Bibliography- 15

The Passage: Hebrews 6:1-8

       6 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For 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, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and 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. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. [1]

6 Διὸ ἀφέντες τὸν τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον ἐπὶ τὴν τελειότητα φερώμεθα, μὴ πάλιν θεμέλιον καταβαλλόμενοι μετανοίας ἀπὸ νεκρῶν ἔργων καὶ πίστεως ἐπὶ θεόν, 2 βαπτισμῶν διδαχῆς ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν, ἀναστάσεώς τε νεκρῶν καὶ κρίματος αἰωνίου. 3 καὶ τοῦτο ποιήσομεν, ἐάνπερ ἐπιτρέπῃ θεός. 4 Ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας, γευσαμένους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου καὶ μετόχους γενηθέντας πνεύματος ἁγίου 5 καὶ καλὸν γευσαμένους θεοῦ ῥῆμα δυνάμεις τε μέλλοντος αἰῶνος 6 καὶ παραπεσόντας, πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν, ἀνασταυροῦντας ἑαυτοῖς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ παραδειγματίζοντας. 7 γῆ γὰρ πιοῦσα τὸν ἐπʼ αὐτῆς ἐρχόμενον πολλάκις ὑετὸν καὶ τίκτουσα βοτάνην εὔθετον ἐκείνοις διʼ οὓς καὶ γεωργεῖται, μεταλαμβάνει εὐλογίας ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ· 8 ἐκφέρουσα δὲ ἀκάνθας καὶ τριβόλους, ἀδόκιμος καὶ κατάρας ἐγγύς, ἧς τὸ τέλος εἰς καῦσιν. [2]

 

Introduction

       Hebrews 6:1-8 is a difficult passage, however, the passage should not be left to mystery.  There are clear and suitable answers to many of the difficult questions that arise from the passage as long as the reader is willing to set aside his presuppositions and let the text create them anew. 

       Paul Ellingworth spends 18 pages of commentary on these eight verses of Scripture, while F.F. Bruce devotes 14 pages.  John Owen masters these eight verses of Hebrews by devoting 143 pages to its exposition.  To these three men we turn to compare the intricacies of their interpretations and to judge the best interpretation of each difficult point of the passage at hand.

       The passage can be divided and evaluated in three pieces, the first, verses 1-3; the second, verses 4-6; and the third, verses 7-8.  The difficulties of Hebrews 6:1-8 can be summarized under 6 heads and an application difficulty: first, concerning verses 1-3, what is the correct textual reading of verse 2 in particular concerning βαπτισμῶν διδαχῆς?  Second, concerning verses 1-3, what are the principles of the doctrine of Christ which is the foundation to be first laid for novice Christians?  Third, concerning verses 4-6, how should each of the descriptions of the apostate to be understood?  Fourthly, concerning verses 4-6, what does the writer of Hebrews mean when he says it is impossible for apostates to be renewed again to repentance?  Fifthly, concerning verses 7-8, what do the different elements represent in reality, especially in relation to the content before?  Sixthly, concerning verses 7-8, what Old Testament passage or oral tradition must the author of Hebrews be drawing from in order to construct the small parable of these two verses?  In way of application this difficulty arises; does this passage as a whole teach that it is possible for a believer to lose his salvation?  Or better said, is this passage hostile against the doctrine of the preservation of the saints?  Since there are two main difficulties in each piece by which the passage has been divided, this discussion will be divided likewise with a conclusion that discusses the difficulty of application.        

The First Piece: Verses 1-3

       F.F. Bruce adopts the following reading of verse 2, “βαπτισμῶν διδαχῆν ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν, ἀναστάσεώς τε νεκρῶν καὶ κρίματος αἰωνίου,”[3] however Owen follows the more commonly accepted reading of βαπτισμῶν διδαχῆς.[4]  Ellingworth takes no sides and declares that “a final decision is impossible.”[5]  The majority of ancient texts support διδαχῆς,[6] however, διδαχῆν is supported by the earliest MSS of this passage.[7] 

       F.F. Bruce adopts the less popular rendering because he believes it is more likely that an original accusative was assimilated to the adjacent genitives than an original genitive to be assimilated to an accusative.[8]  However, Bruce does not consider that διδαχῆν could be non-original if explained by parablepsis from any of the surrounding nu-ending words.[9]  Owen admits that such scholars of his day such as Lachmann preferred the accusative reading on the authority of B.[10]  However, F.F. Bruce’s reading forces him to read ‘baptisms’ in apposition to ‘foundation,’ however the punctuation of the Greek text as early as Chrysostom shows that the earliest reading was of ‘baptisms’ in apposition to διδαχῆς.[11] 

       The three scholars are in great opposition on this first difficulty.  Indeed, Ellingworth is correct that a final decision is impossible textually, however, if the expositional conclusion drawn from each rendering is evaluated, a best rendering is concluded.  In exposition, if F.F. Bruce’s rendering is followed, then he must understand repentance from good works, faith toward God, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment all to be the foundations of the elementary doctrines of Christ.  This seems different from the apostles’ preaching where baptisms and the laying on of hands are not considered “fundamental” in the same sense as repentance and faith.[12]  

        However, Owen’s rendering of the text makes doctrine (διδαχῆς) appositional to baptisms and the laying on of hands.  Therefore, this makes repentance from dead works, faith toward God, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment the elementary doctrines of Christ, which is to be learned before the baptism and invoking of the Spirit by the laying of hands, which plainly is the doctrines to be learned before the formal initiation of a new disciple.[13]  Therefore the doctrine of baptisms and the laying on of hands is equivalent with the elementary doctrines of Christ.  Owen’s theory requires the author of Hebrews to intend a parenthesis when saying, “βαπτισμῶν διδαχῆς ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν.”  This parenthesis theory is further strengthened by the structure of the Greek where repentance and faith is bound together with καὶ, also resurrection and judgment is bound together with καὶ.  However, baptisms and the laying on of hands is not bound together with καὶ; leaving us with a parenthetical structure.[14] 

Now Owen’s theory is dependent upon ‘baptisms’ being understood as referring to Christian baptism.  Bruce’s rendering prefers ‘baptisms’ to be understood as referring to Jewish purification washings and the other such Old Testament shadows.  Bruce has good evidence before him because of the plural “baptisms,” which can be used to establish many arguments against the understanding of exclusively Christian baptism.[15]  And Bruce’s argument against understanding baptisms to be referring to Christian baptism would be convincing if he did not understand the laying on of hands to be denoting the impartation of the Holy Spirit.  However by Bruce admitting that he impartation of the Holy Spirit is “most probably its significance here”[16] weakens his argument against understanding Christian baptism for ‘baptisms’ because the laying on of hands to impart the Spirit is always accompanied with Christian baptism.[17]  Even Ellingworth agrees that ‘baptisms’ refers to Christian baptism in some sense and offers the following solutions: first, baptisms could be referring to the collective of baptisms of the audience; second, baptisms could be referring to John’s baptism or any Jewish baptism rite in comparison to Christian baptism as distinct; and thirdly, baptisms could be referring to outward and inward baptisms.  Ellingworth suggests that the second is to be preferred, however, the fact that baptism and teaching are associated in Mt. 28:19 and there is in Hebrews 6:4 a clear reference to Christian initiation, then in presupposition of Owen’s understanding the first is preferred.  So Owen’s rendering of the text would look thus, “Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, (namely, the doctrine of baptisms, and of the imposition of hands,) of the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment.”[18]  Therefore, this author agrees with Owen that his theory is most probable.  However, this author will also agree with Owen that the interpretation that βαπτισμῶν, διδαχῆς, are together by apposition and not dependent on one another is still grammatically possible and therefore, I dare not positively reject it, as not seeing any reason cogent to that purpose.  But another sense is more probable.”[19]   

The Second Piece: Verses 4-6

       All of the three commentators agree that the writer to the Hebrews is describing a possible circumstance of apostasy and attributing to this possible apostate the following five descriptions: once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, partaker of the Holy Spirit, tasted the Word of God, and tasted the powers of the world to come.  All commentators agree that ‘once enlightened’ refers to the initial illumination of a believer and it is not a direct reference to baptism although the language developed later into a reference to baptism.  All commentators agree that the heavenly gift is indeed the Spirit, while the partaking of the Spirit is a partaking of his spiritual powers. 

       Bruce calls it “precarious” to say that the partaking of the Spirit is non-personal solely based on the absence of the article.[20]  Ellingworth does not see the absence of the article as profound either; however, he does suggest a less than fully personal activity of the Holy Spirit at this point due to the author’s use of μέτοχος elsewhere.[21]  Owen makes a helpful distinction, showing that there is a participation in the Spirit that is “personal inhabitation” and another which is to “spiritual operations.”  And Owen argues favorably for the latter.[22]  However, although Bruce denied the text to allow for a non-personal partaking of the Spirit, he nonetheless goes on to affirm the non-personal partaking of the Spirit by interpreting that this partaking of the Spirit is that described afterward, namely, experiencing the Word of God and the powers of the age to come.[23]  Therefore, all of our commentators agree that these descriptions of the apostate do not imply that this person was once secured in salvation.  Owen perhaps summarizes it the best when he says, “Here is no express mention of any covenant grace or mercy in them or towards them, nor of any duty of faith or obedience which they had performed.  Nothing of justification, sanctification, or adoption, is expressly assigned unto them.”[24]  This conclusion is made explicitly clear also when we realize that the author is persuaded that this state of apostasy is not of his audience because of their “things that accompany salvation.”[25]

       Ellingworth, perhaps mistakenly, opines that γεύομαι should be understood as “experience (to the full),”[26] yet he does not follow this rendering to its logical conclusion in his exposition.  Both Bruce[27] and Owen[28] and the scholarly Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vindicates that “taste” is a valid rendering and should be understood as “to experience” or “to eat” in the sense of to try a portion, so to experience it.  The word connotes no understanding of “to the full.”

       All of the three commentators agree that the impossibility of the renewal of apostates is not a proof text for the heretical Novationist.  However the commentators differ on exactly what the writer to the Hebrew means by “impossible.”  Ellingworth opines that “the ‘impossibility’ of a second repentance is thus not psychological, or more generally related to the human condition; it is in the strict sense theological, related to God’s saving action in Christ.”[29]  While Bruce describes this impossibility as the state of human beings where they “arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”[30] 

       Owen digs deepest into the matter and shows convincingly his conclusion by showing forth three facts of the passage, namely: first, this apostasy is “a voluntary, resolved relinquishment” of the gospel, faith, rule, and obedience, which cast the “highest reproach” upon the person of Christ.[31] 

       Secondly, that many of the Jews were once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, were partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the Word of God, and tasted the powers of the world to come and yet renouncing all of the truth brought before them they fell back into their past Judaism and many became some of the most vehement Jews to combat Christianity.  And it is this that the writer to the Hebrews has directly in mind.[32]  Indeed Bruce gives a prime example of a Jew just like this from apostolic times called Simon Magus, who partook of the sacraments of the church and said to believe on Christ and traveled and ministered with Phillip, yet Peter was to declare of him to still be “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity”.[33]

       Thirdly, Owen exposits the meaning of “to renew them again unto repentance” (πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν), he shows that ἀνακαινίζειν is understood in Scripture to be the renovation of the image of God in our natures, whereby we are dedicated unto him again.  In church life, this renovation within or being born again have two realities; one which is real and internal and a second which is outward in a profession and pledge.  Owen describes that it is impossible to fall into hellfire under the first and it is quite common to fall into hellfire after the second.  Thus, this impossibility of renewing again is the impossibility of one who has openly partook of the Holy Spirit and then blasphemes against him later to be restored to his previous condition.  But Owen attributes this human impossibility to God when he says,

“Wherefore the impossibility intended, of what sort soever it be, respects the severity of God, not in refusing or rejecting the greatest sinners which seek after and would be renewed unto repentance,--which is contrary unto innumerable of his promises,--but in the giving up such sinners as those are here mentioned unto that obdurateness and obstinacy in sinning, that blindness of mind and hardness of heart, as that they neither can nor shall ever sincerely seek after repentance; nor may any means, according to the mind of God, be used to bring them thereunto.”[34] 

      Therefore, Bruce is right in attributing this impossibility to God as is Ellingworth theologically, however, the biblical tension must be retained; it is also a human impossibility, in that God has decreed this impossibility because he has given up such sinners to their own apostasy making them unable to repent, in the same way that Esau after giving up his birthright for a bowl of cereal was unable to repent and have his birthright returned to him. 

The Third Piece: Verses 7-8

      

       Bruce in his short paragraph of these two verses only draws reference to Isaiah 5 for the author’s construction of this small parable.[35]  Ellingworth is much more in-depth and not only allows Isaiah 5, but also Genesis 1 and 2, Hosea 10, and Isaiah 28.[36]  Owen is the grandest expositor with his 52 pages on this two verse parable.  He vindicates the use of Isaiah 5, Genesis 1 and 2 and 3, Hosea 10, and Isaiah 28, along with various suggestion of oral tradition from the teachings of Jesus, especially as recorded in the Gospel of John.[37]

       Owen uniquely shows the intent of the author in inserting this parable, namely, to foretell and warn his audience of the present and approaching condition of that Jewish apostate church and to drive a healthy terror into the minds of his audience concerning the warning he just gave of the possibility of unfruitful professing Christians that often fall into apostasy.[38]

       Owen is also unique in taking each element of the parable and explaining thoroughly what the writer intended by each and shows a proximal and ultimate meaning attached to both by attaching the language to that of the prophets and the rest of the Scripture.  Ultimately, the earth is the hearts and minds of all those to whom the gospel is preached, proximately it is all the Jews to whom the gospel came first.[39]  Ultimately, the rain is the preaching of the gospel falling from God and his providence, proximately, the gospel to all those Jews to whom the gospel came first.[40]  The herbs are the goodly fruit of the Spirit and other such divine growth instituted in God’s people brought forth by the gospel of the Spirit of God, proximately the growth of the gospel in the remnant of Jews who believe the truth.[41]  The culturing or tilling and dressing of the earth and herbs are the needed maintenance of the gospel that must be tended to as a seed in order to bring growth.[42]  The thorns and briers are all sorts of sins due to unbelief, which separates humankind from their Holy Creator, and proximately the sins of unbelief in the apostate Jews.[43]  The rejection is the giving over of the reprobate to his own desires, and proximately the giving over of apostate Israel for those who are afar off.[44]  The curse is the divine and holy wrath of God in his justice.[45]  The end of the land is a burning which signifies ultimately, the eternal damnation upon the reprobate, but also proximately, the damnation to come upon the unbelieving Jews and Jerusalem in 70AD.[46] 

Conclusion: The Application

       All three commentators agree that this passage can in no way be teaching that someone who has been regenerated, engrafted into Christ, or inhabited by the Spirit can somehow become unregenerate, broken off of Christ, or have the Spirit torn from within.  This passage does no harm to the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, but rather it is a great help.  This passage forces the Christian to realize his absolute salvific dependence upon the Triune God to sustain him in faith and all spiritual blessings.  This passage forces the Christian to realize the enormity of his responsibility and duty to remain faithful to the God of all faithfulness.  This passage acts as a grave and real warning that not all of those who cry “Lord, Lord” are God’s people; many of them who display great powers in the name of Christ and profess His glorious name will be cast into outer darkness, for Jesus never knew them.  This passage also is a reminder to all of God’s sheep that there is a point of apostasy for which no repentance is able; it is the impossibility of renewing.  Christians striving together within God’s kingdom in the church must strive with heart earnestness to keep one another steadfast in the faith and sure on the foundation of Christ always loving, encouraging, rebuking, and caring for one another in order to stop any and all from falling into utter apostate oblivion.  Those who depart from the church prove themselves never to being a part of Christ, but a mere professing Christ-follower, who has been once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, partook of the Holy Spirit, tasted the Word of God, and tasted the powers of the world to come, yet had not any real inhabitation of Christ’s Spirit.

Bibliography

Bruce, F.F.  The Epistle to the Hebrews: Revised.  The New International Commentary on the

       New Testament (NICNT).  Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.   

Ellingworth, Paul.  The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New

       International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC), Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans;

       Paternoster Press, 1993.

Owen, John.  An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Works of John Owen, Volume

       XXI., Editor: William H. Goold; Carlisile: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991.


----

       [1] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton : Standard Bible Society, 2001, S. Heb 6:1-8

       [2]Aland, Kurt ; Black, Matthew ; Martini, Carlo M. ; Metzger, Bruce M. ; Robinson, Maurice. ; Wikgren, Allen: The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (With Morphology). Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993; 2006, S. Heb 6:1-8

       [3] Bruce, F.F.  The Epistle to the Hebrews: Revised.  The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT).  (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.) 137, see footnote 3.   

       [4] Owen, John.  An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Works of John Owen, Volume XXI., Editor: William H. Goold; (Carlisile: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991) 14-17.

 

       [5]  Ellingworth, Paul.  The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New

International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC), (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993) 314.

       [6] א A C Dgr I K P 33 81 614 1739 Byz Lect al

       [7] P46 B itd

       [8] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 137 footnote 3

       [9] Considered by Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 314. Or as the majority of the UBS committee who favored διδαχης as original stated that the accusative was a scribal, “stylistic improvement introduced in order to avoid so many genitives.”  But Ellingworth makes a good point that the same could have been said of the author of Hebrews.

       [10] Owen, An Exposition, 15 note 1

       [11] Ibid. See Exposition under note 1 for the editor’s remark

       [12]Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews,314

       [13] Owen, An Exposition, 56 

       [14] X καὶ X, (X, X), X καὶ X

       [15] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 141-142

       [16] Ibid. 142-143

       [17] Ibid. see Bruce’s extensive notes supporting this on pg 142 notes 26-28 

      

       [18] Owen, An Exposition, 18  

      

       [19] Ibid.

       [20] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 146-147

       [21]Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 321, he cites 3:1, 9:8, 10:15,12:8.

       [22] Owen, An Exposition, 80-81

       [23] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 147-148

       [24] Owen, An Exposition, 72

       [25] Hebrews 6:9

       [26]Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 320

       [27] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 137 note 5

       [28] Owen, An Exposition, 79

      [29]Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 323

       [30]Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 149

       [31] Owen, An Exposition, 87 

       [32]Ibid. 86

       [33]Acts 8:9-25, also Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 146-147. 

       [34]Owen, An Exposition, 90-91

       [35] Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 149-150

       [36] Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 328 

       [37]Owen, An Exposition, 91-94 

       [38]Ibid. 95 

       [39]Ibid.

       [40] Ibid. 100-101

       [41]Ibid. 109-110

       [42] Ibid. 110-112 

       [43] Ibid. 125-126

       [44]Ibid. 126-127 and so Owen’s connection to Romans 9 on this matter

       [45]Ibid. 127-128

       [46] Ibid. 129 And so Owen’s connection to Matthew 24 and the other predictions of the Messiah

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