Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (July 1989) 291-300.

          Copyright © 1989 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                         The Doctrinal Center

                        of the Book of Hebrews

 

 

                                             David J. MacLeod

                                     Dean of the Graduate Program

                               Emmaus Bible College, Dubuque, Iowa

 

            The question of emphasis (or the doctrinal center) of Hebrews, is

a vital one.l  It is generally agreed by interpreters of the epistle that

the author did have one "master idea"2 to which all other sections

of his theology are subordinate. It is important to establish the cen-

ter (or unifying idea, or major theme) so that the theological mate-

rials of the epistle may be arranged in a way that reflects the au-

thor's own emphasis. Interpreters are not in agreement, however, as

to what the doctrinal center of Hebrews is. There is disagreement

over two questions: (1) What is the major theme of the doctrinal

sections of the epistle? (2) Is the major theme of the doctrinal sec-

tions the major theme of the entire epistle or is that to be found in

the paraenetic sections (i.e., in the exhortations)? The following

discussion presents and evaluates the various proposals.

 

                                 Proposals Stressing Theology

 

THE HIGH PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST

            The traditional view, and the one most widely held, is that the

epistle finds its center (its "keystone"3) in the doctrine of the high

 

1  William G. Johnsson, "Issues in the Interpretation of Hebrews," Andrews Univer-

sity Seminary Studies 15 (1977): 176.

2 P. P. Saydon, "The Master-Idea of the Epistle to the Hebrews," Melita Theologica

13 (1961): 19-26.

3 John H. A. Ebrard, "Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews," trans. A. C.

 

                                                      291

 



292     Bibliotheca Sacra / July–September 1989

priesthood of Christ.4 The whole burden of the epistle, according to

Moule, can be epitomized in two resounding uses of e@xomen: "we have

a high priest, we have an altar: sanctuary and sacrifice are ours

(8:1; 13:10)."5  The doctrine of Christ's priesthood is the author's

"central category . . . which draws together the theology of the

Epistle and gives it its distinctive character."6

 

Kendrick, in Biblical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Hermann Olshausen, 6

vols. (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman & Co., 1858), 6:472.

4 John Albert Bengel, New Testament Word Studies, 2 vols., trans. Charlton T. Lewis

and Marvin R. Vincent (Philadelphia: Perkinpine & Higgins, 1864; reprint, Grand

Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1971), 2:630; Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, 4 vols.,

rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 4:53; Ebrard, "Exposition of the Epistle to the

Hebrews," p. 472; Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 2 vols.,

trans. Thomas L. Kingsbury (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871; reprint, Minneapolis:

Klock & Klock, 1978), 1:322, 324; 2:16-18; A. B. Davidson, The Epistle to the Hebrews

(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1882), pp. 33-34; Brooke Foss Westcot:, The Epistle to the

Hebrews, 2d. ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1892; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), pp. 14, 70; Alexander Nairne, The Epistle of Priest-

hood (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), p. 136; idem, The Epistle to the Hebrews

(Cambridge: University Press, 1917), p. xi; E. F. Scott, The Epistle to the Hebrews

(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922), pp. 70, 122, 135-36; James Moffatt, A Critical and Ex-

egetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, International Critical Commen-

tary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924), pp. xliv-xlv, liii, 8, 104; A. T. Robertson, Word

Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932), 5:350;

Theodore H. Robinson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Moffatt New Testament Com-

mentary (New York: Harper, 1933), pp. xviii, 106-7; Hugh Montefiore, The Epistle to

the Hebrews, Black's New Testament Commentaries (London: Adam and Charles

Black, 1964), pp. 16, 116; Jean Hering, The Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. A. W.

Heathcote and P. J. Allsock (London: Epworth Press, 1970), p. xi; Neil R. Lightfoot, Je-

sus Christ Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), pp. 37, 39; Leon Morris,

"Hebrews," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish-

ing House, 1981), 12:14; Alan Hugh McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New

Testament, rev. C. S. C. Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 227; Harris

Lachlan MacNeill, The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Chicago: Univer-

sity of Chicago Press, 1914), p. 40; J. P. Alexander, A Priest For Ever (London: James

Clark, 1937), p. 181; Charles C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament

(Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), pp. 243, 253; F. Stagg, New Testament Theology

(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962), p. 68; Gerhardus Vos, "Hebrews, the Epistle of

the Diatheke," Princeton Theological Review 14 (1916): 34, 43; John McNicol, "The

Spiritual Value of the Epistle to the Hebrews," Biblical Review 15 (1930): 509; J. F.

Humphrey, "The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews," London Quarterly and

Holborn Review 14 (October 1945): 429; T. W. Manson, "The Problem of the Epistle to

the Hebrews," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 32 (September 1949): 6-7, 12; C. F.

D. Moule, "Sanctuary and Sacrifice in the Church of the New Testament," Journal of

Theological Studies New Series 1 (1950): 37; S. Lewis Johnson, "Some Important Mis-

translations in Hebrews," Bibliotheca Sacra 110 (1953): 28-29; Stephen S. Smalley,

The Atonement in the Epistle to the Hebrews," Evangelical Quarterly 33 (1961): 36; W.

Harrington, "The Priesthood of Christ," Doctrine and Life 14 (1964): 421; J. R. Schaefer,

"The Relationship between Priestly and Servant Messianism in the Epistle to the He-

brews," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968): 361; James Swetnam, "Form and Content

in Hebrews 7-13," Biblica 55 (1974): 334.

5 Moule, "Sanctuary and Sacrifice in the Church of the New Testament," p. 37.

6 Stephen S. Smalley, "The Atonement in the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 36.



            The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews      293

 

            Three arguments favor the view that Christ's high priesthood

is the theological center of the epistle: (1) The author himself ex-

plicitly says so in 8:1: "Now the main point [kefa<laion] in what is

being said [toi?j legome<noij] is this: we have such a high priest,

who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the

Majesty in the heavens." The epistle centers, then, in the thought of

a seated priest. "Understand all that this involves, and its message

is fathomed."7 (2) The argument of the epistle is best understood as a

development of this theme. (3) The theme of priesthood and cult

"exerts a modifying influence upon almost every detail" of the

author's theology.8 By way of illustration the following examples

might be cited: (1) The person of God is related to the sanctuary (8:1-

2). (2) God's Son is described at length in priestly terminology. (3)

God's angels are described as leitourgika> pneu<mata (1:14, lit.

"liturgic spirits"9). (4) Christ's work is described in the language of

priestly sacrifice (e.g., 9:12; 10:12). (5) The application of Christ's

work is spoken of as forgiveness through blood (9:22). (6) God's

people are described as those who in priestly fashion enter the holy

of holies (10:19) and offer sacrifices of praise (13:15). (7) The author's

eschatology is colored by the fact that he understands the messianic

ruler of "the world to come" (2:5) to be a priest-king (cf. 7:1-2).

 

THE SONSHIP OF CHRIST

            A second view, developed most fully by Lidgett, is that the son-

ship of Christ is the dominant theme of the epistle.10 The title ui[o<j

is used 12 times11 of Christ and embraces the concepts of high priest

(7:3) and incarnation (1:1-3) as well as the functions of revelation, cre-

ation (1:2), mediation (4:14-16), and sacrifice (1:3). The sonship of

Christ can also be related to the doctrine of the people of God in that

they are called "sons" (2:10). Though the theme of Christ's sonship is

 

7 Johnson, "Some Important Mistranslations in Hebrews," p. 29; cf. Nairne, The

Epistle of Priesthood, p. 136.

8 Davidson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 33-34.

9 Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, s.v. "Angels," by A. J. Maclean, 1:59.

10 J. Scott Lidgett, Sonship and Salvation: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews

(London: Epworth Press, 1921), pp. 110-13, 254-55 and passim. Cf. George Milligan, The

Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899; reprint, Min-

neapolis: James Family, 1978), pp. 66, 72.-73; Chester K. Lehman, Biblical Theology, 2

vols. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974), 2:431-32; Vernon H. Neufeld, The Earliest

Christian Confessions, New Testament Tools and Studies, vol. 5 (Leiden: E. J. Brill.,

1963), pp. 135-36; Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament

Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 46-59.

11 1:2, 5 (twice), 8; 3:6; 4:14; 5:5, 8; 6:6; 7:3, 28; 10:29.

 



294     Bibliotheca Sacra / July—September 1989

 

irnportant,12 it is not central. It seems preferable to understand it as

preparatory or basic to the central theme, the high priesthood of

Christ.13

 

THE SUPREMACY OF CHRIST

            Another group of scholars has concluded that the central or

"comprehensive theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that of the

absolute supremacy of Christ."14 It is true that there is an emphasis

in Hebrews on Christ's exaltation (cf. 1:3; 8:1-2), yet this exaltation

is linked by the author to Christ's installation and functions as

priest (5:5-6, 10; 7:26-27).

 

THE CONCEPT OF COVENANT

            Not all interpreters have found the author's theological center

in the person or work of Christ. One writer, for example, has argued

that the central concept of the epistle is that of covenant.15 He ar-

gued that besides this concept being central in chapters 8-10, it is

also central in the earlier chapters dealing with angels and Moses,

in that the angels and Moses were mediators of the covenant.

            Again it must be admitted that the idea of covenant is an

important one in the epistle. That it is not the doctrinal center,

however, is demonstrated by the author's own assertion that priest-

hood is foundational to covenant (cf. 7:11-12 where "Law" refers to

the Mosaic Covenant).16

 

THE FINALITY OF CHRIST

            Beginning with A. B. Bruce, a number of scholars have suggested

that the central doctrinal thought of the epistle is the finality of

Christianity.17 The Levitical system failed to establish intimate

 

12 Davidson called the idea of Christ's sonship "the fundamental idea of the Epis-

tle" (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 79).

13 Cf. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, p. 253.

14 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 2-4, 35-36; idem, "The Christol-

ogy of Hebrews," Southwestern Journal of Theology 28 (Fall 1985): 19-27. Also see

Charles W. Carter, "Hebrews," in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, ed. Charles W.

Carter, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964-69), 6:5-7; James

W. Thompson, "The Underlying Unity of Hebrews," Restoration Quarterly 18 (1975):

132.

15 H. A. A. Kennedy, The Theology of the Epistles (London: Duckworth Press, 1919),

pp. 195, 201.

16 Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p.

x1; Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 71.

17 Dictionary of the Bible (Hastings), s.v. "Hebrews, Epistle to," by A. B. Bruce,

 



            The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews                  295

 

relations between God and man. It is therefore inferior to Christian-

ity, which has done that very thing.18

            The problem with this view is that it fails to distinguish be-

tween the purpose of the epistle and its doctrinal center.19 It must be

conceded that one of the author's main purposes20 is to establish the

superiority and finality of Christianity. He does this by writing an

epistle, the theology of which centers in the person and work of

Christ as High Priest.

 

THE SPATIAL DUALISM OF TWO WORLDS

            Other interpreters of the epistle see the epistle's center ("the

fundamentally important fact") as being in the Philonic idea of two

worlds: the real heavenly world of spiritual reality and the physi-

cal universe which is its shadow or copy.21 In adopting this per-

spective, it is asserted, the author abandoned the eschatological

dualism of two successive ages for a spatial dualism of two coexis-

tent, superimposed worlds.22

            This thesis must be rejected for two reasons: (1) The language in

Hebrews is eschatological and not Philonic or Platonic,23 and (2) the

 

2:327-28; Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the He-

brews, p. xxiv; Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament

Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), p. 40; F. F.

Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New

Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), pp. lii, 1; idem,

The Defence of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans

Publishing Co., 1959), pp. 88-97; George Barker Stevens, The Theology of the New Tes-

tament, 2d ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1918), p. 490; Donald Medford Stine, "The

Finality of the Christian Faith: A Study of the Unfolding Argument of the Epistle to

the Hebrews, Chapters 1-7" (ThD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1964), pp. 2-

3; Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 174-75; James B. Green, "Christianity: The

Ultimate Religion," Christianity Today, July 20, 1959, pp. 3-5; George B. Caird, "The

Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews," Canadian Journal of Theology 5

(1959): 47-49.

18 A. B. Bruce, "Hebrews, Epistle to," p. 327. Caird's approach varied somewhat

from that of Bruce in that he viewed the author's main thesis as not so much an apolo-

getic against Judaism as an assertion that the Old Testament was an avowedly incom-

plete work (pp. 47, 49).

19 Saydon, "The Master-Idea of the Epistle to the Hebrews," p. 21.

20 Henry C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943), p. 304.

21 F. D. V. Narborough, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Clarendon Bible (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1930), p. 43; A. S. Peake, Hebrews, The Century Bible (Edinburgh:

Jock, n.d.), pp. 16-22. For further discussion see George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New

Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 572-77; E. F.

Scott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 102-21.

22 Jean Hering, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. xii.

23 A discussion of the supposed Philonism in Hebrews is beyond the scope of this



296     Bibliotheca Sacra / July—September 1989

 

author himself states that his theological center is Christ's priest-

hood (8:1).

 

THE ESCHATOLOGICAL DUALISM OF TWO AGES

            Approaching the epistle from yet another angle, some have con-

cluded that eschatology "is the determining element."24 The lan-

guage of shadow and substance in passages such as 8:5 and 9:23 is the

language not of Plato but of history and eschatology.25  The priestly

ministry of Old Testament times was typical of the ministry ful-

filled by Jesus Christ. Proponents of this view also point out that

there is a futuristic eschatology in Hebrews as well as a "realized" one.

            It must be acknowledged that a recognition of the author's eschat-

ological concerns has restored a balance to the study of the epistle. It

is an overstatement, however, to assert that eschatology is central.

 

                                    Proposals Stressing Paraenesis

 

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE AS PILGRIMAGE

            In 1938 Kasemann presented his thesis that "the principal motif"

in the letter to the Hebrews is "the wandering of the people of God."26

Though not the first to focus on the pilgrim motif in Hebrews,27 Kase-

mann was the first recognized scholar to do so, and his thesis has been

so influential that for many modern interpreters the center is now to be

found in the epistle's paraeneses and not its theological expositions.28

 

article. The view is ably refuted by Ronald Williamson in his Philo and the Epistle to

the Hebrews, Arbeiten zur Literatur and Geschichte des hellenistischen Judentums,

vol. 4 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970). Cf. also Alan M. Fairhurst, "Hellenistic Influence in

the Epistle to the Hebrews," Tyndale Bulletin 7/8 (July 1961): 17-27; Ronald

Williamson, "Platonism and Hebrews," Scottish Journal of Theology 16 (1963): 415-24;

L. D. Hurst, "How 'Platonic' Are Heb. 8:5 and 9:23-24?" Journal of Theological Studies

34 (1983): 156-68; idem, "Eschatology and 'Platonism' in the Epistle to the Hebrews,"

Society of Biblical Literature 1984 Seminar Papers, pp. 41-74; Ronald Nash, Chris-

tianity and the Hellenistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,

1984), pp. 89-112.

24 C. K. Barrett, "The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews," in The Background

of the New Testament and Its Eschatology, ed. W. D. Davies and D. Daube

(Cambridge: University Press, 1956), p. 366. Cf. also William Robinson, The

Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Birmingham: Overdale College, 1950), pp.

1-20; Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 572-77.

25 Cf. Robinson, The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 7.

26 Ernst Kasemann, The Wandering People of God: An Investigation of the Letter to

the Hebrews, trans. Ray A. Harrisville and Irving L. Sandberg (Minneapolis: Augsburg

Publishing House, 1984).

27 Cf. for example, the popular exposition by Philip Mauro, God's Pilgrims: Their

Dangers, Their Resources, Their Rewards, rev. ed. (New York: Gospel Publishing

House, 1918).

28 For comments on the influence of Kasemann, see E. Grasser, "Der Hebraerbrief 1938-

 



            The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews                  297

 

            Kasemann's work has been modified somewhat by later writ-

ers.29 Yet a number of observations30 would confirm the fact that he

has drawn attention to a key theme of the epistle: (1) The overall

thrust of 3:7-4:13 (the wanderings of Israel, the goal of God's rest)

implicitly supports the idea of a pilgrimage.31 (2) The portrayal of

Jesus as a]rxhgo<j ("Pioneer" or "Pathfinder," 2:10, 12:2) and pro<-

dromoj ("Forerunner," 6:20) fits the theme. (3) The thrust of chapter

11 with its explicit pilgrimage terminology32 is that God's people

are aliens in this world on a pilgrimage to the heavenly homeland.

(4) In chapter 12 the references to Mount Zion (12:18-24, 26) and the

exhortations to endurance (12:1, 3, 15-17, 25) relate to the imagery of

pilgrimage. (5) In chapter 13 the ideas of "the city which is to

come" (13:14) and the ill treatment of God's people "outside the

camp" (13:13) suggest the foreignness of Christians in this world.

            In short, the theme of the pilgrimage of God's people to their

eschatological homeland ties together the paraenetic sections of

 

1963," Theologische Rundschau 30 (1964): 197-99; idem, "Das wandernde Gottesvolk

zum Basismotiv des Hebraerbriefes," Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wis-

senschaft 77 (1986): 160-79; M. R. Hillmer, "Priesthood and Pilgrimage: Hebrews in

Recent Research," Theological Bulletin: MacMaster Divinity College 5 (May 1969):

68-69; Johnsson, "Issues in the Interpretation of Hebrews," p. 176, n. 45 and p. 180. Also

see C. K. Barrett, "The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews," pp. 363-93; R.

Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. K. Grobel, 2 vols. (New York: Scrib-

ner's, 1951, 1955), 1:100; Robert Jewett, Letter to Pilgrims (New York: Pilgrim Press,

1981), pp. 1-2; William G. Johnsson, "The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews,"

Journal of Biblical Literature 97 (1978): 239-51.

29 Two needed modifications stand out: (1) Kasemann's conviction that the wander-

ing motif finds its background in Gnosticism is in error (The Wandering People, pp. 67-

96, 101-17). On Gnosticism in the New Testament and in Hebrews in particular, see

Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub-

lishing Co., 1973), pp. 51, 185 and passim. (2) His stress on "wandering" needed to be

altered to "pilgrimage." Kasemann used Wanderschaft, not terms for pilgrimage

(Pilgerfahrt or Wallfahrt). Later proponents of Kasemann's views have stressed pil-

grimage, not wandering. Cf. Johnsson, "The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews,"

p. 243; Barrett, "The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews," pp. 376-83.

30 Johnsson, "The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews," pp. 239-41, 247-50.

31 Citing a study of the Muslim hajj by H. B. Partin ("The Muslim Pilgrimage: Journey

to the Center" [PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1967]), Johnsson ("The Pilgrimage

Motif in the Book of Hebrews," pp. 244-46) suggested that a pilgrimage has four

essential ingredients, each of which is found in Hebrews: (1) it entails a separation, a

leaving home, (2) it involves a journey to a sacred place, (3) it is made for a fixed

purpose, and (4) it involves hardship.

32 Paroike<w (11:9, "to inhabit, live as a stranger"), a]llo<trioj (11:9, "strange, alien,

hostile"), e]kde<xomai (11:10, "to expect, wait"), po<rrwqen (11:13, "from a distance"),

ce<noj (11:13, "stranger, alien"), parepi<dhmoj (11:13, "exile, stranger"), patri<j (11:14,

"homeland, fatherland"), po<lij (11:16, "city"), misqapodosi<a (11:26, "reward"),

perie<rxomai (11:37, "go around, go from place to place"), plana<w (11:38, "to wander"),

and e]paggeli<a (11:13, 39, "promise"). Cf. Johnsson, "The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book

of Hebrews," p. 241.



298     Bibliotheca Sacra / July–September 1989

 

Hebrews. As convincing as this thesis is, however, the fact that it

fails to incorporate adequately the motifs of priesthood and cultus33

means that it must be rejected as the epistle's theological center.34

 

THE THEOLOGY OF WORLD MISSION

            Manson also stressed paraenesis in his study of Hebrews. He

agreed with earlier interpreters that the epistle emphasizes the fi-

nality of Christianity and the doctrine of Christ's priesthood. These

doctrines, Manson asserted, are not so much argued by the author as

they are assumed. There is a "givenness" to them that is shared by

author and reader alike. Instead of calling his readers to advance in

doctrine, he called them to resume once more the eschatological

journey of life. He sought to pull them away from the protection of

Judaism to a recognition of the theology of the world mission of

Christianity.35

            Manson has failed to convince the majority of scholars that this

is the author's purpose. His assumption that the theology of final-

ity and priesthood are "givens" shared by author and reader alike

does not do justice to the author's eloquent apologetic in favor of this

theology.

 

THE PERSEVERANCE IN THE FAITH

            Noting that the author of Hebrews called his epistle lo<goj

paraklh<sewj ("a word of exhortation," 13:22), Saydon has argued

that perseverance in the Christian faith is the "master idea" in the

epistle.36 It must be conceded that his readers' perseverance in the

faith is a major concern of the author. However, to say that perse-

verance is the doctrinal center is misleading. Saydon has confused

one of the author's purposes with his doctrinal center.

 

THE PERSEVERANCE IN "POSTAPOSTOLIC" FAITH

            Still another thesis was proposed by Grasser, who argued that

the pi<stij ("faith") word group served as the index to the theology

of Hebrews.37 The author of Hebrews was interpreting Christianity

 

33 As used in this article the term "cultus" refers to the worship apparatus of ancient

Israel including tabernacle, priesthood, and offerings.

34 William G. Johnsson, "The Cultus of Hebrews in Twentieth-Century Scholarship,"

Expository Times 89 (1978): 105.

35 William Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Hodder & Stoughton,

1951), pp. 6-7, 24.

36 Saydon, "The Master-Idea of the Epistle to the Hebrews," pp. 19-26; cf. George

Salmon, "The Keynote of the Epistle to the Hebrews," The Expositor, 2d Series 3

(1882): 81-93.

37 Erich M. R. Grasser, Der Glaube im Hebreierbrief (Marburg: N. G. Elwert Verlag,

 



            The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews                  299

 

for Christians living in the "early catholic" era. Faith to these

Christians was no longer personal faith directed toward Christ as in

the Pauline era when there was a tension between the "already" but

"not yet" of eschatology. To the author of the epistle faith was more

of a generalized, depersonalized perseverance in the Christian com-

munity; it was a moral quality or virtue. For Grasser the "already"

of eschatology is played down, and the "not yet" has lost all sense of

imminency.

            The following objections argue against Grasser's view. (1) Of the

41 occurrences of the pi<stij word group, not one falls outside the

epistle's paraenetic sections; of the 32 occurrences of pi<stij alone,

only 6 occur outside chapter 11. This distribution hardly suggests

that pi<stij is an index to the author's theology. (2) The

depersonalized, collective view of faith assumed by Grasser is over-

drawn. The Christian's relationship to the high priest and the idea

of heroic loyalty to the great pioneer of the faith suggest individu-

alistic elements to faith. (3) Grasser dismissed too lightly the evi-

dence for a date for the epistle that precedes A.D. 70. (4) The author

of Hebrews did not do away with the "already" but "not yet" tension

of early Christian eschatology. He emphasized both the "already"

(e.g., present forgiveness through the New Covenant and a present

access through a high priest who has fulfilled the Old Testament:

priestly typology) and the imminent "not yet" (e.g., 9:28; 10:37).

 

THE ACQUISITION OF GOD'S PROMISE

            According to Buchanan the "basic message" of Hebrews is "how

to acquire the fulfillment of the promise God made with Abraham."38

Buchanan, as much as any modern commentator, has drawn attention

to the importance of the promise of the land to Abraham and all be-

lievers. Jesus has made the fulfillment of the promises possible, and

Christians are exhorted to be faithful "so that the precious reward

might not be missed." As significant as this theme is, however, it does

not seem to incorporate adequately the priestly motif of the author.

 

1965). For a summary and evaluation of Grasser's work the present writer is indebted

to the following: Graham Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics (Cambridge: Cam-

bridge University Press, 1979), pp. 137-42, 193-96; D. B. Bronson, review of Der Glaube

im Hebraerbrief, by Erich M. R. Grasser, in Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 458-

59; C. F. D. Moule, review of Der Glaube im Hebraerbrief, by Erich M. R. Grasser, in

Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1966): 147-50.

38 George W. Buchanan, Hebrews, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday &

Co., 1972), p. 246. Likewise, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., wrote, "Hebrews also makes the

promise the center of its message of grace and hope in some 18 references (Heb. 6:17-

18)" ("The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34," Journal of the

Evangelical Theological Society 15 [Winter 19721: 13). For Kaiser the promise included

the gospel, the spiritual seed, the blessings of the second coming of Christ, and the

eternal state.



300     Bibliotheca Sacra / July–September 1989

 

                                                Conclusion

 

            The expository sections of Hebrews center on the doctrine of the

high priesthood of Christ. The paraenetic sections, on the other

hand, are dominated by the pilgrimage motif.39 Two questions pre-

sent themselves: Which of the two themes is central to the epistle

as a whole? How are the two to be integrated? Attempting to

answer the first question is almost futile. The two themes are not ri-

vals; they belong together. "The doctrine leads to the exhortations,

the exhortations are based on the doctrine."40 Nevertheless the au-

thor's assertion in 8:1 leads to the conclusion that the high priest-

hood of Jesus Christ is the controlling theme of the epistle.

            As for the second question it has been suggested41 that the two

themes are easily integrated if it is remembered that God's pilgrim

people are a "cultic [or priestly] community on the move." These

pilgrims on their way to the promised rest are "sanctified,"

"perfected," and "purified." They have the priestly privilege of

access to God's tabernacle through Jesus their High Priest. With

such a High Priest they can and should persevere (cf. 2:18; 4:16).

            In summary, the doctrines of Christ's high priesthood and the

pilgrimage of God's people dominate respectively the expository

and paraenetic sections.42 The theme of Christ as High Priest, how-

ever, is central to the epistle as a whole.

 

39 Johnsson ("The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews," pp. 249-50) has ob-

served that man's "problem" is different in the expositions and paraeneses. In the for-

mer his problem is defilement which bars him from access to God. In the latter it is

unfaithfulness which results in a failure to enter the Promised Land.

40 N. A. Dahl, "A New and Living Way: The Approach to God according to Hebrews

10:19-25," Interpretation 5 (1951): 401. The subtle Scottish thinker "Rabbi" Duncan

once quipped of Jonathan Edwards, "His doctrine was all application, and his appli-

cation was all doctrine" (quoted by Alexander, A Priest For Ever, p. 178).

41 Johnsson, "The Pilgrimage Motif in the Book of Hebrews," p. 249.

42 "By way of summary, it must be stressed that the high priestly christology of He-

brews does not serve speculative but paraenetical interests" (The New International

Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Priest," by J. Baehr, 3:34). "And though

we have preferred to keep the doctrinal exposition in the foreground, it is readily ad-

mitted that the writer's chief interest in his great theme is the effect it will have

upon those to whom it is presented" (Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the He-

brews, p. 59).

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu