J. Matthew Pinson, “Daniel Whitby on the Warning Passages in Hebrews”

, posted by SEA

Recently I was reading an old book from Daniel Whitby entitled A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (1710). Whitby was a well-known Anglican Arminian in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His works are (in)famous for eliciting lengthy responses from Jonathan Edwards.

As a Reformed Arminian, I greatly dislike many things about Whitby’s more moralistic, semi-Pelagian brand of Arminianism (I would agree with many of Edwards’s criticisms!). But one of the things I agree with Whitby on is his belief that it is possible for genuine believers to make shipwreck of their faith and thus fall from grace.

Two things especially stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews (specifically Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-39). First, he interprets these two passages as Reformed Arminians do—that they refer to an irremediable apostasy and represent the same sort of phenomenon that Scripture refers to as the sin against the Holy Spirit. Second, he discusses how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical.

Apostasy as Irremediable and as the Sin against the Holy Spirit

In discussing Hebrews 6:4-6, Whitby states: “That the persons here mentioned must fall totally and finally, is also evident, because the apostle doth pronounce it a thing ‘impossible to renew them to repentance.’ And (ii.) he declares their repentance impossible on this account, that they ‘crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God, and put him to an open shame’; that is, they again declared him worthy of that punishment they had inflicted on him; and so to them there ‘remained no more sacrifice for sin, but a fearful looking for of judgment,’ x. 26, 27.”

Whitby goes on to discuss that the phrase “if we sin willfully” in Hebrews 10:26 refers to believers “falling off from Christianity,” and for them there remains no more sacrifice for sin but only divine judgment (vv. 26-27). Whitby goes on to explain that the statements in Hebrews that those who have fallen away have “done despite” to the Spirit of grace (v. 29) indicate that they “were guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost” and “fell totally and finally.” This is “so exceeding evident,” Whitby exclaims, “that I know none who ever ventured to deny it.”

So that was the first thing that struck me about Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews: that it agrees with the Reformed Arminian reading, which sees Hebrews as teaching the irremediability of apostasy, indeed which identifies the falling away described in Hebrews as the same event as the sin against the Holy Spirit.

The “Hypothetical View” of the Warning Passages as Untenable

The second thing that stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the teaching of Hebrews 6 and 10 on apostasy was his comment about how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical. This reminds me of a discussion I had recently with some colleagues about how Calvinism does not match what God wants preached and proclaimed—or what He commands—with his intent.

The discussion went something like this: if God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and preordains a state of affairs in which some men are not divinely enabled to obey His command, then there is a disjunction between His command (“Repent!”) and His intent (“I have no intention of enabling you to repent; in fact I have predetermined the universe in such a way that you can never repent”).

In the same way, if the argument is true that the warning passages in Hebrews are hypothetical—that they are intended to warn people against something that cannot occur—then there is a disjunction here between what God wants to be preached and proclaimed, and what He intends. God is warning people to persevere and to avoid apostasy, when He knows apostasy can never really occur.

Whitby skillfully describes the difficulty with this in his discussion of Hebrews 10:38: “Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” Whitby remarks that “if we read the words hypothetically, the supposition cannot be of a thing impossible, for then God must be supposed to speak thus: ‘If the just man do that which I know it is impossible for him to do, and which I am obliged by promise to preserve him from doing, my soul shall have no pleasure in him,’ which is to make God seriously to threaten men for such a sin of which they are not capable, and of which they are obliged to believe they are not capable, if they be obliged to believe the [Calvinistic] doctrine of perseverance, and so to make his threatenings of none effect” [1].

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[1] See Daniel Whitby, A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (London: John Wyat, 1710), 406-09. There is no doubt that Whitby is no Reformed Arminian on the doctrine of perseverance and apostasy! Still, I found his remarks on the warning passages in Hebrews very illuminating.

J. Matthew Pinson is Welch College’s fifth president, having served in that office since 2002. He is the author or editor of numerous articles and books, including Perspectives on Christian Worship (B&H), Four Views on Eternal Security (Zondervan), and A Free Will Baptist Handbook (Randall House).