Tag Archives: Hebrews

Daniel Whitby on the Warning Passages in Hebrews

by J. Matthew Pinson

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.

The First Word on Last Things

by Randy Corn

“Mr. Corn, I just don’t understand why we have to study this stuff.”

That was the objection of a student at Welch College where I served as an adjunct Bible instructor. The “stuff” was an introductory overview to eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) before our class surveyed First and Second Thessalonians.

My first thought was this was the typical college student objection to studying anything. I recalled the remark of one the longest-tenured teachers at my alma mater: A college student was “someone who paid for something and then hoped he didn’t get it!”

But this young man was not the class sloth; he would end up with a solid B at the end of the semester. Why did he object to spending a day discussing such things as the Second Coming of Christ, the differences between Amillennialism and Premillennialism, and the differences within Premillennialism about the Rapture?

Why Study Eschatology?

When the question was asked, my immediate response was because this was a biblical subject and we were in a Bible class. I was convinced that if the students could put First and Second Thessalonians in an eschatological framework it would give them a deeper understanding of what the apostle Paul was driving at in these epistles. I’m afraid it came across to my questioner as, “I’m the teacher, you are the student, and I get to decide what we will study.”

The question and the inadequacy of my answer stuck with me until I was back in my church office that afternoon. I wondered if this was one of those subjects I found fascinating but the next generation could dismiss with a yawn. Was the problem in my presentation? Had I unnecessarily complicated it with a number of hyphenated theological terms?

Maybe the problem was application. Perhaps that questioning student was voicing the complaint many feel when preachers and Bible teachers fail to show how a biblical subject touches their lives. There was probably some truth in all my ponderings. I decided what I needed to do was convince my class that eschatology really was in important Bible doctrine, one that impacts daily Christian living. I would present them with an apologetic for eschatology.

     (1) Frequent Bible References

The next class period I met the students at the door with a single sheet of paper which gave my reasons for studying eschatology. The first was that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to the subject. Christians should be interested in anything God chooses to reveal in His Word.

Scholars have counted as many as 1,845 references to the Second Coming of Christ in the Old Testament and 318 in the New. In fact, 23 of the 27 New Testament books speak of the Second Coming in one way or another.

     (2) Basic Elements of Faith

My second reason for studying eschatology is that the Bible speaks of it as one of the elementary things of the Christian faith. This is explained by such passages as Hebrews 6:1-2 :“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us goo n unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

Note that the last two items mentioned in verse 2, “resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment,” are listed in what the writer of Hebrews calls “the principles of the doctrine of Christ. The word “principles” is literally “of the beginning.” Some translators even render this “the elementary principles.” Obviously then, eschatology is one of the foundational things Christians should learn.

The apostle Paul certainly believed this. He speaks often of the Second Coming in First and Second Thessalonians and seems to do so building upon the knowledge that the Thessalonian church already had of those doctrines. When we go back to Acts 17, we find that he only spent three Sabbaths there before being run out of town.

The only conclusion we can draw is that Paul had some basic teaching about eschatology in what we might refer to as his new convert course. If Paul the great church planter thought it was so foundational, eschatology certainly ought to be studied by Christians today.

     (3) Guidepost for Tomorrow

A third reason I gave the class for studying eschatology is that it gives us insight into what to expect. Now some obviously make too much of this, going to the extreme of setting dates for the return of Christ. Still, it can be a reassurance to us that the very things which will shock the world are prophesied in the Bible.

On the Test

I shared a few more reasons with the class, and then a hand went up. “Mr. Corn, is this going to be on the test?” I had taught only two semesters, but I knew if I said “no” the students with rare exception would toss my notes in the waste can almost as quickly as they would dismiss my lecture from their memories.

“Probably” was my reply. I know that kind of answer frustrates students, but my hope was that in putting my reasons for studying eschatology into their short-term memory, a few might seep into their long-term memory as well.

Eschatology is important. The same reasons I gave my class for studying it should compel preachers to make it part of their pulpit plan. As long as we avoid being either too technical or too abstract, the insights of eschatology can be of real benefit to every believer. After all, if we take seriously the admonition to preach the whole counsel of God, then what excuse can we give for failing to instruct those under our care?

As we have pointed out, eschatology is one of the “elementary principles” with which all Christians should be familiar. Our church members may not be facing an exam over the sermons we preach or the lessons we teach, but a healthy dose of eschatology can help them pass the test of day-to-day life.