- To: Synoptic (Cc: GPG)
In Response To: Leonard
On: Hebrews 5:11-6:3
I had said, "it seems at many points as though Paul is arguing against an
earlier established belief (Philippi is one of the clearest cases), and not
chastising a recent lapse in right thinking. Consider also Hebrews 5:11-6:3,
where some Christians (and I venture to suggest that they are Alpha
Christians) are chided for persisting in a childish view of things, and
asked to grow up, to leave behind their elementary ideas, to eat solid food,
to go on to maturity, not any more laying a too simple "foundation of
repentance from dead works and of faith toward God." / Repentance, and
works, and faith toward God, were precisely the Alpha theology, whereas
faith in the atoning death of Jesus, that sophisticated sacrificial view of
Jesus's death (which reaches perhaps its most sophisticated form precisely
in Hebrews) were the Beta position."
LEONARD: Leonard: I think the above is a problematic overall interpretation
of Heb 5:11-6:3, for the following reasons: / 1. The background here is not
that of two distinct theological groups, one addressing, and attempting to
convert the other. The homilist is instead addressing his own community,
preparing them for the mentally tough, theologically advanced and climactic
section of his doctrinal homily (Heb 7:1--10:18). This is the same group
addressed in 3:1 (and cf. 10:19) as ADELFOI HAGIOI, KLHSEWS EPOURANIOU
METOXOI (holy brothers, sharers of a heavenly calling). The difference
between homilist and bench-sitters in this rhetorical aside is that between
catechetical basics and advanced theological (if also rhetorical) reasoning.
It is to the rigors of the latter that the community is being invited, with
the use of standard Hellenistic topoi.
BRUCE: What is the purpose of Hebrews? If we take it from the top, as
presumably we should, it seems to be expounding a view of Jesus which is new
to its hearers (and unique in the rest of the NT, and thus presumably new,
period), one which it begins by carefully and laboriously deducing from a
mass of OT quotes. It does not remind, it expounds, as though from first
principles. That view envisions Jesus as both "apostle and priest" (Heb
3:1), which is not anyone else's basic view of Jesus, it is a tour de force
elaboration of the sacrificial view of Jesus. Since the text spends so much
time on deriving this view, and so often insists that it is basing itself on
what everyone already knows and accepts (a tactic of Paul also, though in
content Hebrews is otherwise not very distinctively Pauline), I think it is
fair to take Hebrews as an exposition and not a reminder. As something new
and being introduced, and not as something old and being transitioned to.
I do not think that Leonard's suggestion, that Hebrews is meant to encourage
elementary students (catechumens or whatever) to take the next known step in
their theological progress, fits the text very well.
LEONARD: 2. There is no indication that Christianity of an Alpha type, in
Bruce's terminology, is being alluded to in these verses. In 6:1 the LOGOS
TOU XRISTOU does not refer to sayings of Jesus, but rather to basic (ARXH)
teaching about Christ, which would presumably include, rather than exclude
teaching about his atoning death.
BRUCE: It is Leonard's thought that the atoning death of Jesus is basic to
Christianity. He has a lot of company in that thought (notwithstanding some
denials from others, earlier on this list). But the implication of such
texts as James and the Didache and the Philippians Hymn is that there did
exist a non-Resurrection strand of Christianity, not as a stage in a unified
and internally consistent doctrinal progression, but as a separate and
self-standing entity. The word "presumably" will not close this gap.
LEONARD: . . . The latter is not what will be argued in the coming section
of Hebrews, but is rather presupposed there. The homilist does indeed intend
to introduce a theological novelty in his homily, but this is not the idea
that Jesus "died for our sins", but rather that he is "our" High Priest, and
that his unique sacrifice, while fulfilling the intent of the sacrificial
offerings of the Old Covenant, also renders the continuation of temple
sacrifices (still ongoing?) otiose.
BRUCE: True but not the point. The question is not whether the High Priest
theory of Jesus is new (we agree that it is, and perhaps also that it went
more or less nowhere in the 1c theological scheme of things), but whether
any of the recipients of the homily were Alpha adherents. On that, see
LEONARD: 3. The homilist is not attempting to oppose the views of the
bench-sitters, but rather acknowledges them as absolutely fundamental
(QEMELION = foundation). He simply warns that an attitude of "holding to the
basics" will not constitute sufficient preparation for his audience to fully
appreciate the theological novelty, and its rational (and rhetorical)
justification, to which they are about to be exposed.
BRUCE: I think that the concession of "fundamental" is a gesture of peace, a
device of persuasion, addressed to holders of a view which was, in fact,
earlier and thus in a way more "fundamental" than the Resurrection view. But
the homilist does not mean to concede basic importance to these views. On
the contrary, he identifies the areas in which the theological difference
between that view and his own occur: they include repentance as the
mechanism of salvation, works (stigmatized in Heb 6:1 as "dead," a Pauline
touch), and faith in God (rather than, as in the Beta view of things, faith
in the atoning death of Jesus; see again Paul). I do not think that these
can be seen as stages in catechetical advancement; I think they are
contrasting and indeed incompatible views of the same subjects.
LEONARD: The participle AFENTES in 6:1 suggests the idea of moving on,
moving beyond to "perfection", not that of abandoning. In a word, what is
reflected in this passage is not Alpha versus Beta Christianity, but rather
the fundamental distinction between catechesis and more advanced theological
reasoning. . . .
BRUCE: Nice try. But the disparagement of works as "dead" (6:1) and the
accusation that these particular hearers have become "dull of hearing"
(5:11) do not look like a suggestion to take a known next step, but rather
like a suggestion to turn from error to truth (namely, the truth being
pushed by the Heb author, who bills himself as one who can "distinguish good
from evil," Heb 5:14).
And is not the whole idea of early and late stages of instruction a little
against the grain? Early believers were either baptized or not; those who
were baptized could take part in the Eucharist and other group activities.
Once one is baptized and thus in, there is no further instruction; baptism
confers or symbolizes full membership. And what does the Didache give as
preparation for baptism? Not a two-stage doctrinal training, of which the
first stage is not so much incomplete as erroneous (see again above), but a
not extensive and one-time instruction, amounting to a short course in right
and wrong (the Two Ways), which rests entirely on the grounds that to the
Heb homilist are inadequate or downright wrong: works of the law. That such
a system could provide the theoretical and liturgical underpinning for a
complete and functional kind of Christianity (as the Didache shows it
doing), is important evidence that such a Christianity did in fact exist. It
existed, it functioned, and it left texts which attest in detail the *way in
which* it functioned. Hebrews, needless to add, stands on a different basis;
so did Paul in Romans. And it is precisely against Paul in Romans that the
author of James, or of the latest and most controversial layer of James,
takes up the cudgel on behalf of works against mere faith as the condition
These, then, as the texts at large tend to show, were not stages in the same
thing, but different things, and sometimes the differences led to friction,
open disagreement, and angry words (see the parts of James called
"diatribes" by the commentators). James really curses Paul out, as a
misguided fool. Here, I will again suggest, is the other side of the Hebrews
coin, in which the Beta speaker urges the Alpha believers in the community's
midst to wake up, grow up, get a move on, and drop their childish ways.
If the difference between Alpha and Beta were merely that between
kindergarten and school proper, as Leonard suggests, whence all this anger,
this bad language, these curses (for Paul's sentence of damnation for his
opponents, see again 1 Cor 16:22)? These are perhaps not the sweetest, or
the most edifying, or the prettiest moments in early Christianity, but if we
are to read the texts in a grownup and thus inclusive way, I think they will
have to take their place, alongside everything else, as part of the picture.
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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