Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Letter to the Hebrews

If the Lord gives me life, it will be my privilege to start a series of sermons on the letter to the Hebrews this Sunday at Glory of Christ Fellowship. It's been a long time coming! Ten years ago I had planned to preach through this precious letter in the church I then served, but after a season of prayer, meditation, and deliberation with my mentors I decided that the time wasn't right. So  I preached through the first part of the book of Luke instead, which was a great blessing, but my heart still longed for Hebrews. 

Without going into too many details, I have given vent to this longing over the last ten years by studying Hebrews on my own, taking a course on the letter (or sermon) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and compiling my thoughts in a document that's already mushroomed into 142 pages--I mean it when I say that I've been longing to preach through this book for quite some time! 

As the time to embark on this journey has drawn near, I've given myself to reading, and re-reading, a load of commentaries (in case you're interested, I've listed them at the end of this blog entry). One of them was written by Harold Attridge, a brilliant and eminently learned, yet liberal scholar. Why, you might ask, am I reading a liberal commentary? Good question! 

On the one hand, despite his views on the veracity of the Bible and Christianity, he provides a wealth of accurate information about the world in which Hebrews was written, and he actually interprets the letter with amazing accuracy and erudition. He's bold enough to admit that he doesn't believe its claims, but again, he actually reads it as well as, or even better than, some  scholars who do! 

On the other hand, I grow from interfacing with scholars who do not share my view of the Bible, Jesus, the church, and so forth. I do not surround myself with such as these, but I like to have one or two of them at the table, if you will. It sharpens me. 

As a liberal scholar, Attridge approaches questions of the development of Hebrews from a literary-historical point of view. That is, he often makes statements like this--and just for the record I'm making this up because the commentary is in the other room and I don't feel like getting up--"here the author of Hebrews reflects or interfaces with the wisdom tradition, for his language is clearly reminiscent of Philo or whomever." 

It seems that several years ago, when I first read this commentary, I had had enough of this mode of argumentation by about page 40, for in the margins of that page I penned a fairly involved reaction to his analysis. (Yes, I write in my books, and I like it, though I will admit that this particular note got out of hand!) Here's what I wrote: 

"Statements like these ignore the reality of texts like 2 Cor 12 (which describes Paul's experience of being caught up into the presence of God where he was shown great and awesome things). The genesis and influences of NT texts are less about human traditions and more about the revelatory work of God through his Spirit. I do not deny that the learned author of Hebrews was aware of, and to some extent, influenced by a variety of Jewish and Greek traditions and texts, but I do deny that what he and other NT authors wrote can ultimately be explained by such influences. 

"The issue [of the development of Hebrews] is not fundamentally one of a  history of ideas, or the influence of certain texts upon another, but one of divine inspiration. Scholars like Attridge will from time to time acknowledge the divine aspects of the text, but they then proceed as if this is only a theoretical possibility or the juvenile claim of a mistaken author. The vital, living reality of the Spirit's influence upon the texts of the Scripture seems, for all practical purposes, lost on them. And yet, this is the key to understanding these texts: they have two authors, one divine and one human, the former being by far the most important." 


Yes, I wrote all of that, in pen, in the margins of my commentary! As I continued to read, and re-read, my other commentaries this week, I came across three passages by three scholars who, in one way or another, touched upon the issues I raised in my little rant. 

First, William Lane writes, “The writer [of Hebrews] may have become familiar with terms like ἀπαύγασμα [apaugasma] and χαρακτὴρ [charakter] from an Alexandrian education, but he has brought this distinctive vocabulary into the service of Christian confession” (13). My point exactly! That is, the way to understand the composition of Hebrews is not by tracing the education and influences of the author, then ascribing particular words and phrases to this or that apparent source, but rather to acknowledge that he was an imminently learned man who, having been influenced in a variety of ways, was used of the Holy Spirit to give unique and lasting expression to the great truths of the gospel. In this way, we can say that his background plays a part in the composition of Hebrews, but that it cannot fully explain the final form of the letter. Instead, we must look to its ultimate cause, namely, the Holy Spirit. 

Second, Peter O’Brien actually pushes the pause button on his commentary in order to address this issue. In a section entitled “Note 1: Christ as Divine Wisdom” (53-54), he argues that the author of Hebrews is not concerned with the wisdom tradition but with traditional Christology, and this with a view to providing a more solid and rooted foundation for it. Amen, my point exactly! The author is not so much interfacing with Greek or Jewish philosophical traditions, rather, he is exposing that biblical world in which Yahweh has been preparing the way for the coming of Christ, and in which Christ became the ultimate fulfillment, and end, of divine revelation. 

Finally, even John Calvin touched on these matters more than four hundred years ago! “But it is for the same reason that the Son is said to be ‘the brightness of his glory’, and ‘the impress of his substance:’ they are words borrowed from nature. For nothing can be said of things so great and so profound, but by similitudes taken from created things. There is therefore no need refinedly to discuss the question how the Son, who has the same essence with the Father, is a brightness emanating from his light. We must allow that there is a degree of impropriety in the language when what is borrowed from created things is transferred to the hidden majesty of God. But still the things which are indent to our senses are fitly applied to God, and for this end, that we may know what is to be found in Christ, and what benefits he brings to us. 

“It ought also to be observed that frivolous speculations are not here taught, but an important doctrine of faith. We ought therefore to apply these high titles given to Christ for our own benefit, for they bear a relation to us. When, therefore, thou hear that the Son is the brightness of the Father’s glory, think thus with thyself, that the glory of the Father is invisible until it shines forth in Christ, and that he is called the impress of his substance, because the majesty of the Father is hidden until it shows itself impressed as it were on his image. 

"They who overlook this connection and carry their philosophy higher, weary themselves to no purpose, for they do not understand the design of the Apostle; for it was not his object to show what likeness the Father bears to the Son; but, as I have said, his purpose was really to build up our faith, so that we may learn that God is made known to us in no other way than in Christ: for as to the essence of God, so immense is the brightness that it dazzles our eyes, except it shines on us in Christ. It hence follows, that we are blind as to the light of God, until in Christ it beams on us. 

"It is indeed a profitable philosophy to learn Christ by the real understanding of faith and experience. The same view, as I have said is to be taken of 'the impress;' for as God is in himself to us incomprehensible, his form appears to us only in his Son” (25-26). 

Calvin's language and manner of reasoning can be hard to follow, but his point is simple and profound: the author of Hebrews writes, not to enter into the historic flow of some philosophical or literary tradition, but to lead his readers into a transformative encounter with the living Christ. What we have in the author of Hebrews is a man who was thoroughly educated, who possessed rare gifts of understanding and articulation, but whose writing is ultimately explained, not by his background, but by the Holy Spirit who chose and used him for this purpose. 

Wow, do I feel better! Hope this was helpful and upbuilding for you, too. 


Here's the list of commentaries I've been reading: 

Attridge, Harold W. 1989. Hebrews. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 


Bruce, F. F. 1990. The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 


Calvin, John. 1549. Commentary on Hebrews, trans. and ed. by John Owen, 1853. Grand Rapids: Christians Classics Ethereal Library. 

Ellingworth, Paul. 1993. The Epistle to the Hebrews. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 

Hewitt, Thomas. 1960. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 

Lane, William L. 1991. Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47a. Dallas: Word Books. 


Lane, William L. 1991. Hebrews 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47b. Dallas: Word Books. 

Leon, Morris. 1981. Hebrews. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Hebrews - Revelation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 

O’Brien, Peter T. 2010. The Letter to the Hebrews. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 

Owen, John. 1811-14. An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vols. 1-6. Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong. 

Wiersbe, Warren W. 2009. Be Confident: Live by Faith, not by Sight. Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing. 

Wright, Paul O. 1986. The Epistle to the Hebrews. The Complete Biblical Library, Hebrews - Jude. Springfield, MO: The Complete Biblical Library. 

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