Brian Abasciano, “My Argument for Apostasy Not Being Irremediable in Hebrews 6”

, posted by SEA

I posted this argument in SEA’s private discussion group a couple years ago. Given that format, it is written less formally. I have edited it only a little for posting here. The main argument is followed by comments I made in reply to some comments made in response to my argument in the discussion group. I have grown more confident in the view so that it is now solidly my view, not just tentatively, though I recognize it is not a definitive argument and that the irremediable apostasy view is strong. That being said, here is my argument:

I long believed that Hebrew 6 teaches that apostasy is irremediable. But I have been thinking over an argument for taking the text in a different way and have finally though tentatively changed my mind to thinking that it does not teach that apostasy is irreversible. First, let me say that the view that it does teach that apostasy is irreversible is strong and there is very good reason to believe it. I also admit that I have been driven to consider if the view is not correct because it doesn’t sit right with me in relation to NT teaching as a whole, what I see of God’s character in the Bible, practical experience, etc. But I am not willing to just impose my view on the text. And I take the posture of subjecting myself to the word of God no matter where it leads, whether that is comfortable or uncomfortable to me personally. If my opinion differs from the word, then I need to change my opinion, not try to conform the word to my opinion. I am someone who does not say that if the Bible taught Calvinism, then I would not follow Christ or that sort of thing. If it did, then I would become a Calvinist. But it can be appropriate to explore alternative interpretations of a text if something doesn’t seem right with the normal interpretation or seeming surface meaning of the text as long one does so carefully and with a commitment not to force the text into one’s opinion.

Ok, having said all that, here is my current take. Many know that the text can be legitimately translated to the effect that either:

it is impossible to renew them again to repentance *because* they are crucifying for themselves again the Son of God and publicly disgracing him

or

it is impossible to renew them again to repentance *while* they are crucifying for themselves again the Son of God and publicly disgracing him

The second option would allow for repentance to be possible, just not while they are crucifying for themselves again the Son of God and publicly disgracing him. The problem with this is that it would boil down to saying that it is impossible for them to repent while they are not repenting, an obvious truism not worth mentioning. However, that is assuming that this language means simply rejecting Christ or the like, which is perhaps the most natural way to take it on the surface. But I think that what may be going on is that this language refers to something more specific. And that has to do with the historical background of the letter, which I take to be that the recipients of the letter were largely of Jewish background (whether Jews or for some, Gentiles who came to Christianity by way of involvement in Judaism) and that many were tempted to forsake Christ and go back to Judaism and rely on the OT sacrifices for forgiveness of sins and relationship with God. So my proposal is that crucifying the Son of God again specifically refers to practicing and trusting in the OT sacrifices for salvation. This could be called crucifying the Son of God again because the OT sacrifices were types of Christ’s crucifixion and symbolically portrayed it. Therefore, practicing them again and trusting in them would be like crucifying Christ again and publicly disgracing him by trusting in the inferior type over against its fulfillment in Christ. It would be choosing the shadow over the reality.

This would then match up with a major issue in early Christianity, the movement that held that people needed to follow the Law to be saved in addition to following Christ. There was actually a strong movement in the early church. It advocated not forsaking Christ, but adding keeping of the Law to him. With my proposal, Heb 6’s reference to the impossibility of repentance would be making the point that someone could not be restored to true repentance/right relationship with God/salvation as long as he was trying to add the sacrifices (or by extension, the Law) to Christ. In terms of the core theological principle of the text that would allow for applying this beyond the specific historical context, it would be saying that someone cannot be restored to repentance as long as they trust in anything but Jesus for salvation. They cannot be restored to repentance and relationship with Christ as long as they would add anything to Christ as the foundation of their salvation. To put it simply, they cannot trust something along with Christ for salvation, but it must be him alone.

Now, this finds some support in the maturity theme developed around this section. Many scholars have noted how Jewish the basic doctrines were that the readers seemed to be stuck on or focused on. And one of the best commentators around (Peter O’Brien) makes a comment that I think is right and elucidates this concern in such a way that supports my proposal. He writes: “If the listeners were converts from Judaism, then they seem to have been in danger of gradually yielding to various pressures to draw back from the distinctive features of their Christian faith, while they assumed that they had not forsaken the basics of repentance and faith, or the other realities mentioned, including the expectation of resurrection and the judgment to come” (p. 216).

Now the problem with this proposal is that it relies on purported historical background. Granted, many scholars have postulated this type of historical background on the basis of what we see in the letter. But there typically remains some degree of uncertainty with proposed historical backgrounds that are not outright stated in a letter. In Galatians, Paul states the historical background that the readers were tempted to follow the Law. But the author of Hebrews does not explicitly state that his readers were in danger of going back to Judaism and specifically of practicing the OT sacrifices. However, most scholars probably think this to be the case for the historical background, at least going back to Judaism. But exegesis often involves such historical reconstructions, and it is reasonable to rely on such a construction when there is good evidence for it and especially when many scholars already affirm it.

The other main thing coming against this proposal would be the author’s handling of Esau and how, after he sold his birthright, there was no restoration possible. There are also some other statements in the book (at least one other but maybe more) touching on the idea of a finality to Christ’s sacrifice that does not allow for anything but judgment apart from it (but they can easily be taken other than as embodying a theme of apostasy being irreversible). But Esau could be taken to embody the principle of there coming a time when it is too late to repent. Most would not want to think that apostates in this life could wish to repent but God reject their repentance.

Now this is not to deny that there does seem to be indication in the NT that someone can get beyond God’s grace in the sense that someone can become so hardened that God will just give the person over to their sin in such a way that the person will never repent. And many try to link Heb 6 to that position. However, the problem I see with this is that the text does not really make such qualifications. If the correct translation is “because”, then it sounds as though if someone is a believer and falls away, then that’s it. And there seem to be many people who fall away, but who are not so hardened that they will never come back. And there are reports of people who do come back after renouncing the faith, and I think even of people who became vehemently against the faith. One could hold that the reference to crucifying the Son of God again and publicly disgracing him could be indications of limitation on the type of apostasy involved, an extreme form of apostasy, so that the text is not referring to falling away in general, but to those who have fallen away in such a way as to vehemently reject Christ and hold him up to public disgrace. That would be a subtle way for the author to indicate the limitation/qualification, but it is possible, particularly if the author is referring to specific people known to the audience as he seems to be. Still, this also relies on proposed historical background and I find what I am presently proposing to be preferable for matching better NT teaching about God’s grace and mercy. On the other hand, taking the text to refer to “extreme apostasy” that cannot be returned from might fit better the severity of warning that it seems to want to to convey. But then again, it could also be thought to minimize it because someone might think that they might forsake the faith, but they would not become hateful to it; it turns the warning into a warning against falling away in an extreme or especially vehement way. And my proposal would give the benefit of giving serious warning against something that would seem more of a feasible danger or temptation to present believers.

All in all, I favor my proposal, though tentatively. I can easily imagine myself switching back to the “extreme apostasy” view.

 

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Concerning My Argument for Apostasy Not Being Irremediable above:

That is the basic case I made. Here is an additional comment I made in response to a comment someone made in SEA’s private discussion group:

Yeah, as I said, I have adopted the position tentatively. IMO, my proposal keeps “not being able to be restored to repentance while” from being a mere truism because we know that there were people and false teaching in the early church that we have to keep the Law in addition to believing in Christ to be saved. And we know that the NT makes the point that one cannot rely on the Law in addition to Christ to be saved. So it seems to me that it would be an important and relevant point for the author of Hebrews to make sure that his audience, who were tempted to forsake Christ and return to the OT sacrifices, knew that for someone who forsook Christ for Judaism, they could never return to Christ and simply add him to the sacrifices or somehow mix him and reliance on the sacrifices. Again, this seems to be the type of thing that some in the early church were doing and teaching.

One thing I sort of mentioned, but probably not clearly enough, is that this is not to say that there is no such thing as an irreversible apostasy, just that Heb 6 does not seem to be teaching it. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit would be more fitting to go along with the idea of irreversible apostasy if committed by a believer, that someone can get to a point at which they are so hardened they will simply never repent. But we can never say when that point is for a specific person. But if the Heb 6 passage is addressing that, we can say when a person does that. It would mean that if someone falls away, then they are done. Or perhaps it could be nuanced to say if someone falls away and is particularly vehement in their rejection of Christ, then there is no hope for them (though this then limits the passage quite a bit and it then loses some of its thrust as being a strong warning against falling away; it would seem to turn it into a warning against falling away in an especially vehement way).