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Post-Calvinism: Trinity Lectures

One of the courses I taught at Trinity, NT 612, included a survey of the book of Hebrews. And, once or twice I taught Advanced Exegesis and we marched through the entirety of the Greek text of Hebrews. The courses energized me deeply, and I must say that by and large the students were alert to the significance of the topics we were discussing. (Not that they stayed alert when we talked about Melchizedek.)

One of the focal points of my lectures was the Warning Passages. There are five of these. I’d like to copy them all into this post but it would take up too much space. Here are the passages:

1. Hebrews 2:1-4
2. Hebrews 3:7–4:13
3. Hebrews 5:11–6:12
4. Hebrews 10:19-39
5. Hebrews 12:1-29

Of these, #3 gets all the attention, and especially 6:4-6, which follows:

4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and 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, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.

These verses deserve all the attention they get, but the others deserve more than they are getting. It is standard for most Bible readers to find in Hebrews 6:6 (“and then have fallen away”) a bewildering sense that this text seems to suggest they can lose their faith, fall away, and never be restored to repentance, and that means bad things. Most respond by dissecting this text carefully, isolating each expression, wondering if maybe it is not as bothersome as it really sounds, and end up (in many cases) walking away convinced this text doesn’t actually teach that a believer can “lose his or her salvation.”

I make in a journal article I wrote in 1992 two proposals, and I want to work these out with you to see what you think of my suggestions.

But, back to my class: what I thought I would do is present as clearly as possible an alternative understanding of the Warning Passages in Hebrews. To do this, I spent hours and hours working on these passages in their contexts and then finding my way through them.

So, in that class I suggested that we look together at two proposals: first, that we consider looking at the Warning Passages as a whole. That is, read each one in context but also compare them together as doing largely the same things. This would allow us to synthesize these passages into a meaningful whole. Second, I discovered when we do this that we find four features in each Warning Passage.

Here’s what I found and what I told that class (and each one after that). Each passage has:

1. The audience or the subjects: who is being addressed? What does the author call them?

2. The sin the author warns this audience about: what is it that he think they may be doing?

3. The exhortation the author gives each time: what are they to do instead of the sin?

4. The consequences the author spells out if they don’t respond to his exhortation: what will happen if they don’t respond properly?

Here’s what happened in those classes: by and large students agreed with the conclusions we drew for each part of the Warning Passages. Now, as you know, my conclusions were that the author warned the audience of apostasy and warned them that they would forfeit their salvation. What surprised me is the number of students who agreed with me. After all, these were true-blue conservative evangelical types who by and large believed in eternal security and assurance of salvation and these sorts of ideas.

I’ll do what I can to get to the specifics tomorrow, but we will be gone much of the day. I will begin with #4 and work my way up that list.

For now, may I challenge you to read those texts and think about those four categories for each Warning Passage.

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Virgil Vaduva

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:26 pm

Scot,I am always surprised to see how easily most people ignore the historical context of Hebrews, and am pleased to see you encouraging your students to do so.What do you think of the possibility that the author was specifically addressing the first-century believers (the elect) “in these last days” simply in order to prepare them for the salvation that was “at hand,” which I believe was quite evidently manifested at the fall of the temple when humanity did enter “his rest” and “the age to come” which the believers were so much looking forward to?

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Scot McKnight

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:33 pm

virgil,I’m aware of what you are saying here, as I had lunch today with Tim King. I’d rather not get into transmillenialism on this blog.

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Virgil Vaduva

posted July 29, 2005 at 9:42 pm

Scot,I was just wondering about your take on it…not that I agree with Tim on everything he is presenting. :)Regardless, one must admit that if “the elect” was a first century-only occurence, Calvinism is faced with a lot of questions and has not so many answers to offer.

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posted July 30, 2005 at 12:17 am

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Danny Gandy

posted July 30, 2005 at 3:02 am

Great postings on your thoughts about Calvinism. I struggled through the warnings passages and came to a similar (but in the end different) conclusion. But I do have a question or two – just to better understand your viewpoint:1. Do you understand “impossible to restore again to repentance” to mean the losing of salvation? Why?2. If you’re right that he talks to christians that can “lose their salvation” (you know what I mean), can they ever be restored again? Hebrews 6 says no!Enjoying your blog from Germany,Danny

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graham old

posted July 30, 2005 at 5:00 am

Slightly as an aside, have you read Schreiner & Ware’s ‘The race set before us’? I found it quite helpful. I think it seeks to force too much into the model (as Calvinists seem prone to do) – and it leaves a fair bit out. But I did value it as a take on perseverance.On another note, I read a Phd Thesis a while back (maybe MTh, actually) that sought to suggest that Hebrews was actually written just *after* the Temple had fallen. The reference to being unable to repent was then taken in a ceremonial sense. Are you aware of the thesis (can’t think of the title or author for the life of me but I seem to remember it was later published by Sheffield Academic Press)?

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posted July 30, 2005 at 6:02 am

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Michael Daling

posted July 30, 2005 at 9:54 am

Scot,I have a deep appreciation for your exegetical approach to this issue, but haven’t you also placed a road-block already for people who do not agree? What I mean is, you have presented a (as far as I can tell) perfectly valid exegetical method, but you seem to demand that your method come to one conclusion. Also, it would be hard for me to disagree with you here because you have already stated that “Most (Calvinists) respond by dissecting this text carefully, isolating each expression, wondering if maybe it is not as bothersome as it really sounds, and end up (in many cases) walking away convinced this text doesn’t actually teach that a believer can “lose his or her salvation.”I have no intention here of saying that you are trying to shut Calvinists out of the discussion. It just seems like the way you set up your discussion already precludes me from making exegetical arguments to the contrary. I hope that I am not being oversensitive and reactionary. I don’t want to do that.

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posted July 30, 2005 at 10:27 am

Scot,This is an interesting discussion because it seems that many people line up on one side of the fence (often according to denominational distinctives) without having seriously studied the doctrines and passages.TEDS has Peter O’Brien teaching a modular course on Hebrews. I took it two years ago, and he talked some about your ’92 article. He has an interesting take on the warning passages, which should appear in a book (?commentary) he’s writing. In our class discussions he presented his suggestion that each warning passage became more serious. He also offered the possibility that the presence of the warning (pictured as a road sign) did not suggest that people were recanting their faith. We also had some interesting discussion regarding the composition of the group receiving the sermon. So, I’m curious to see how the rest of the thread on Hebrews and Calvinism in general will unfold.Also notable . . . there’s a seminar at Trinity being taught by an Arminian (not Osborne but an ST guy) on Sovereignty and Salvation in Wesleyan and Arminian theology.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 30, 2005 at 4:38 pm

S.My policy is not to response to anonymous comments. Sorry. We are not nameless persons.Michael,Thanks for your comment, and I don’t think I have done what you are suggesting. I sure hope not.This series is not an academic discussion of all sides and all the evidence and all the ways to interpret them. Instead, it is my story of becoming Post-Calvinist. So, this is not a “fair and balanced,” but how I see things.The need for this is obvious: when was the last time you heard a pro-Arminian type interpretation of Hebrews (or chp 6) in an Evangelical church? My suggestion is that Evangelicals are not given the opportunity to make up their own mind because the pulpit leans toward a Calvinistic interptretation even when many are not all that Calvinistic.Let me emphasize something though: I consider our Wesleyan friends Evangelicals; many would exclude them from the group. Among them, you will hear this view often enough.So, this is a story format of how I came to believe what I believe. For more academic discussions, where people are given the chance to see all sides in order to make up their own mind, see the commentaries. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there is much of that in commentaries either. Maybe Ellingworth.I trust only that you will see that there is a place for this side to be heard in a simpler manner than one can find in academic tomes.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 30, 2005 at 4:44 pm

Michelle,Thanks for your comments. I haven’t seen O’Brien’s comments. I’d have to see how he sees development (I think the second one is about as thorough as they get) before I respond.Glad another Arminian gets a voice at TEDS. Over the years they’ve always had some; Clark Pinnock and Grant and I and others.EFCA, to be fair, has never been given to that side of the view. Grant used to call them all Calminians — assurance, eternal security and some sense of free will and not limited atonement.

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posted July 30, 2005 at 4:51 pm

I’m working through the passages in relation to your categories. As I was working through the passages it hit me that this would be really enjoyable to do w/ a group of High School students. So, guess what we’ll be doing in our High School Sunday school discussion tomorrow? Thanks!

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Michael Daling

posted July 30, 2005 at 5:54 pm

Scot,Thanks for the response. Since a fair amount of my background has been in Wesleyan and Methodist churches I don’t always pick up on what you are saying about Calvinist leanings – but you are probably right. Looking forward to reading the rest of these posts.

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posted August 5, 2005 at 12:38 pm

I was glad to see that someone had raised the question of Ware and Schreiner’s book and would likewise be curious to hear your thoughts.I agree that many Calvinist interpretations of the Hebrews passages are forced, but “The Race Set Before Us” provided a much more tenable position.

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Scot McKnight

posted August 5, 2005 at 12:43 pm

Paeleo…I confess that I have not read it carefully, but when I got it and looked through it (Ardel was a student of mine), I saw too much of the hypothetical-rhetorical and not enough of the realism I think the author of Hebrews has in him.Well, have it got Ardel right there?

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