A Calvinistic View (Part 1)

Background

Hebrews is a rather interesting book. While it does not have the rather complex (and the often deliberate, author-induced) convolutions of the book of Revelation, it can be a mind-bending work for exegetes. For starters, it is a forgone conclusion now that we may never know the author of Hebrews. Yet, we know that whatever the author’s identity may be, he was a highly educated individual, a fact evinced by the sophistication in his Greek and style.

Also, the work seems to have combined different literary forms. It used to be that translators would call the work the Epistle to the Hebrews because of the greetings in the concluding portions of the work. These days, scholars have dropped the “epistle” label because the work has no salutations, as would be expected of a letter. These are some issues with the work. 

Regarding its content, Hebrews was written to people who used to be adherents of Judaism but had embraced Christianity, which was a new sect of Judaism. At the time of writing, these apparent followers of Jesus seemed to be under intense pressure to revert to the old Judaism. The author wrote to the believers to “pay careful attention” so that they would not “drift away” (2:1). He took great pain explaining that Christianity was not merely a new sect but was also substantively different, superior, and a divinely intended culmination of old Judaism. As he argues, “the ministry Jesus has received is superior” to other sects of Judaism because “the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises” (8:6). In the course of his encouragement, the author penned Hebrews 6:4-6 which has generated controversies for centuries:  

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. 

The important question we will be interested in is the intended identity of the people described in these verses: are they Christians or not?

Historically, the debate has been between two schools or systems of interpretation: Calvinism and Arminianism. Now, even the mere mention of these theological terms should alert the informed reader to the existence of another substrative issue. This is because Calvinism vs Arminianism is most commonly thought to relate to the problem of human free will vis-à-vis divine foreknowledge. On this blog, we had looked into the free will debate, and a new reader will do well to review the content here

There are two layers of analyses needed to unpack these verses. The first concerns the question, purely within the narrative of the book of Hebrews, of whether the author could have intended the quoted description above to refer to Christians, regardless of what that may mean to other portions of the Bible. The second concerns systematizing the description with all other relevant portions of the bible. In this series, I shall survey the different positions that people have taken on this question. My goal is not so much to show which interpretation is right. Instead, I want to show primarily that each side has sound arguments in its favor. 

Calvinism: A Christian Will Persevere 

A key feature of Calvinism is the existence of logically interlocked ideas that entail that a Christian will persevere. For example, consider the following Calvinistic ideas: unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Unconditional or unmerited election is a critical Calvinistic idea that states that God sovereignly chooses whosoever he wishes to save unto eternal life without recourse to the individuals’ merits. In fact, there is nothing at all good in humans that could ever earn them God’s salvation. Hence, God must sovereignly elect the people he wants to save. This idea implies that God only saves some people. This is what limited atonement is about: Christ only bore the sins of the elect, the people who God would choose to save.

Intricately linked to this chain of ideas is another one that teaches that the elect cannot resist the salvific grace of God. That is, the individuals do not have an actual choice in the matter of salvation. For these reasons, it logically follows that once a person is saved, she cannot become unsaved; salvation is eternal and the saving grace is effective. Phrased differently, as a matter of Calvinistic definition, a true Christian will persevere.  

Given the rough sketch of Calvinism above, we are now prepared to understand how a Calvinist might interpret Hebrews 6:4-6. John Owen was a 17th Century English exegete who marshalled a yet influential argument in defense of the position that the Hebrews passage does not refer to Christians. Henry Knapp (39) writes that Owen seizes upon verses 9 and 10 of Hebrews 6 to control his overall interpretation. Below is Hebrews 6: 9-10:  

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case – the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 

In other words, regardless of what the descriptions of Hebrews 6: 4-6 may mean, the author of Hebrews explicitly says that he is “convinced of better things” regarding his audience. The recipients of the book of Hebrews are better than the individuals described in verses 4-6, evidenced by their “work” and “love” which they continued to display. This contrast implies that the Christian recipients of the book of Hebrews are not the same as the people referenced in 4-6. 

John Owen further defends his position by arguing that the terms in 4-6 are not definite identifiers of a genuine believer. Knapp (41) reproduces some reasons that Owen gave in his original work. First, Owen argues that Hebrews 6:4-6 neither implies nor explicitly mention faith or belief in Jesus, “the cardinal marks of a true Christian.” Also, there “is no mention of anything which belongs peculiarly to true believers, such as ‘regenerated, justified, born again, called according to the purpose of God, etc.’”

Besides, Owen further points out that “the author of Hebrews lists ‘salvation’ as one of the ‘better things’ his audience possesses, which the apostates of verses 4-6 lack.” In addition, Owen points out that the “persons addressed in verses 4-6 were in need of being taught the first principles of the faith all over again (Heb 5:12-14).” Owen concludes that the apostates of 4-6 “are not believers, the children of God, justified, sanctified, adopted saints” (Knapp, 41). 

Besides the negative argument above, Owen also presented a positive argument against taking the descriptions of 4-6 as referring to Christians. While Owen did not explicitly deal with each relevant term of Hebrews 6:4-6, his method remains influential among people sympathetic to the Calvinist conclusion. This method comprises explaining the individual terms of the passage including “enlightened,” “tasted,” “heavenly gift,” “tasted the goodness of the word of God,” and “tasted the powers of the coming age” in ways consistent with Calvinism.

Owen argues, for instance, that “enlightened” does not uniquely identify a believer. Instead, he argues that these enlightened people are individuals who merely take part “in the ordinance of baptism” without being true believers in Christ (Knapp, 42). Now, this reasoning has support because we all know people who regularly attend church but are likely not born again. Yet, these people are better enlightened, informed, or knowledgeable about the things of Christ than others that do not know about the life of the church. Furthermore, Owen extends a similar reasoning to the “tasted” portion of “tasted of the heavenly gift.” Without speculating about the referent of “heavenly gift,” Owen minimizes the force of the associated verb as he contends that a mere tasting of the heavenly gift “falls far short of the ‘feeding on it, digesting it, growing thereby’’’ (Knapp, 42).  

Regarding “those who have shared in the Holy Spirit,” Owen continues in the same vein, stressing that there is a difference between “the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit” (Knapp, 43). Consistent with the treatment of the other terms, Owen concludes that a mere sharing, participation, or being in the company of the Holy Spirit does not have to involve regeneration. Indeed, Calvinists are often quick to support this reasoning by pointing to a somewhat strange passage in Matthew 7: 21-23, 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 

Prima facie, this Matthew passage says that the Spirit may work in people to do mighty works in the name of Jesus without the persons being regenerated or born again. When Jesus says “I never knew you” to the people, this very likely means that he never knew the people in a familial sense. The people have never been saved by Jesus. 

Therefore, according to Calvinism, the apostates of Hebrews 6:4-6 cannot be Christians. A genuine believer will persevere, and her salvation is eternal.

I will comment critically more on this view later. For now, I want to point out that no-one can be sure that she is an elect and a genuine believer on a Calvinist construal of salvation. We will have some idea about the salvation of a person after the individual is dead, but not while she is living. This is partly because if a person such as Pastor Adeboye, the Pope, or whoever renounces the faith and never returns to it, he or she would, on Calvinistic interpretation, be said to have never been a Christian. On Calvinism, the true Christian must endure to the end.

Work Cited

Knapp, Henry M. “John Owen’s Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6: Eternal Perseverance of the Saints in Puritan Exegesis.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, 2003, pp. 29 – 52. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/20061312. Accessed 13 Feb. 2021. 

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