This most recent installment in the celebrated "Four Views" series takes on the oft debated warning passages in Hebrews. Of the four views represented, we have the Classical Arminian, the Wesleyan, the Classical Reformed, and the Moderate Reformed view. The format of this series allows each camp the space to make the argument for their position, and each of the remaining writers are allowed to make their comments in response to that argument.
I was pleased with their choice of a strong expositor for the Classical Arminian position. Grant R. Osborne brings his well established expertise in the field of hermeneutics to bear in his soundly laid out exegesis of the warning passages. He posits the real possibility of a believer failing the grace of God and apostatizing from the faith. He does make a clear distinction between two types of apostates; those that can be brought back to Christ and those that are irrecoverable.
Osborne sees the key passage to all of the warning passages as culminating in Hebrews 6: 4-8. He heads off the common assertion of many that those who are described as being enlightened, tasting the heavenly gift, partaking of the Holy Spirit, tasting the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, are not genuine believers. He argues that if the passage were located in Romans chapter eight, we would all hail it as the greatest description of Christian blessings to be found in the whole Bible.
The Wesleyan Arminian point of view is not much different from the ultimate conclusion of the classical Arminian argument. The main point of difference is in the expression of a lesser to greater argument within the book of Hebrews. Gareth L. Cockerill disagrees with the Classical Arminian view that the emphasis of the writer of Hebrews in contrasting the Old Covenant with the superiority of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, suggests the certainty of punishment for apostates, not so much the level of severity of that punishment.
Cockerell relies heavily upon the Old Testament illustrations in these passages to establish that to fall away from the faith asserts that there is no possibility of restoration. The wilderness generation and the example of Esau suggest to us that apostates do not seek restoration. I do appreciate his emphasis that an assertion of the possibility of falling away from the faith does not mean that Christians are in a constant struggle of "in" and "out" of salvation as many try to diffuse the somber reality of these warnings.
The Classical Reformed view attempts to approach the issue by establishing an exegetical assumption early on as the driving force for interpreting the warnings. This he calls a "synthetic approach," one in which we interpret according to the common elements that are to be found in all of the themes of the epistle. Unfortunately, the center of discussion revolves more around the "assurance" of believers, than the warnings themselves. With this approach he disarms all of the warnings of their true gravity; believers are secure, so the warnings cannot mean eternal loss of salvation.
Buist M. Fanning admits of the many difficulties in stating any consensus for the Reformed view, or any other view. Surprisingly, he deviates from what is perhaps the most repeated "Reformed" view by admitting that those described in Hebrew 6 are genuine Christians. One would have expected him to say that these warnings are not addressed to believers, but non-believers falling short of salvation, which is the closest to a consensus for the Reformed position. His view is that believers will persevere because they are saved, that the terrible idea of apostasy will not happen to them. This is rightfully identified in the following rebuttal as just another form of the hypothetical argument. Perhaps we should mark Fanning's statement as an indicator that a shift has occurred in Reformed thought away from the older, more common view.
The exegetical argument for this Greek scholar revolves around an early committal to an evidence-to-inference interpretation instead of a cause-to-effect understanding of his Arminian counterparts. What this means is, passages such as Hebrews 3:6, "But Christ as son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end," are not to be seen as a condition of salvation, but that holding firm in faith to the end is the evidence that they are partakers of Christ. This he claims to be the interpretive key to the warning passages. The strongest argument on his side is the appeal to coherency within the epistle. Fanning sees the totality of the themes of Hebrews as defining the whole, which is important to consider, but unfortunately his commitment to his doctrine of unconditional salvation trumps and directs his exegetical direction.
The moderate Reformed view also surprises us with an assertion that the people addressed in these warnings are truly genuine Christians. In an interesting approach, Randall C. Gleason shows his theological acuity by investigating the Old Testament examples used in Hebrews on a deeper level. He sees the Bible to be part of the greater context in which we should examine these warning passages.
Since we are dealing with genuine believers, these ominous warnings and their consequences are accepted as applicable and not just hypothetical. However, Gleason denies that the punishments that are inflicted are eternal damnation, but only earthly losses. He takes the same examples from the Old Testament used most effectively by Cockerell in his Wesleyan position, and examines the full events to arrive at this conclusion. One example is the Exodus generation at Kadesh. They were denied entry into the Promised Land. While many stop at the Hebrews passage and draw a parallel to entering heaven, Gleason does not stop there; he observes that according to the Old Testament, "the people mourned greatly," and that they admitted their sin and inability to enter into the Promised Land. Their inability to repent is not seen as indicating that God was unwilling to forgive them, but that even Moses stated "I have pardoned them according to your word." Gleason gives example after example from the same Old Testament events that people use to show eternal damnation can be shown to have only resulted in temporal punishments.
As I observe the whole of this work I noticed something that struck me as odd. This book follows in a series of works which address specific doctrines, i.e., Four Views on Eternal Security, Five Views of Sanctification, etc. The concept is good, as with most of these doctrines only four or five prevailing views exist. But oddly, they took on what became an entire book of the New Testament, which was an unwieldy task in itself. One would not have to look too hard to find at least four views within the Wesleyan camp alone. Because of this, many dominant views were excluded from the work, which leaves one wondering if they wished to see many of these different views debated in this format.
This leads me to some things that I found to be troubling. First, it saddened me to see that the only one to inquire into Wesley's view, was not a Wesleyan or an Arminian, but the Moderate Reformed writer. He accurately notes that many Wesleyans may differ with Cockerell's "Wesleyan View," that a fall into apostasy is irrecoverable. While some criticism of the more moderate Wesleyan view that it is "impossible" for one to repent as long as they continually crucify the Son of God afresh, I feel that the rebuttals given were sweeping and inadequate, and ignore the force of the present tense.
Secondly, I am a bit troubled in the course of debate that Osborne, the Classical Arminian, concedes not only the battle, but the war with an appeal to ignorance. After the finest exegesis in the entire book, he states that "both sides can make very strong cases for their positions," and that they had become arrogant and "too certain of their positions." He quotes another writer with approval who states, "When we get to heaven, I expect God to say, "I never intended to give you the final answer." The only thing that he leaves me with is that I should listen to someone else, for he has no confidence in his own exegesis. While some may be impressed with such humility, I would prefer that one stay out of the fight if they have no conviction about their own conclusions.