Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Church in Hebrews 8: Conclusion

The Conclusion to my essay on the doctrine of the Church in Hebrews.


The epistle to the Hebrews contains a Christological and eschatological ecclesiology.

1. A Christological Ecclesiology

The Church is by virtue of Christ’s ministry. It is because he fulfils and perfects the shadows of old covenant life that the Church can be considered as the new Israel, in possession of Jeremiah’s new covenant and inheritors of all that was promised to Abraham. The patterns of Church life envisaged in Hebrews flow from this Christology as a response of faith, hope and love. Because Christ is the high priest who has entered the heavenly places, the Church draws near to God and holds fast to the hope of a heavenly city she already possesses in some sense. Life gathered to Christ the priest of the true tent is ‘tabernacle life’ – involving holistic worship and priestly offerings. Therefore, among other things, what Hebrews demonstrates is that Ecclesiology should be rooted in Christology.[1]

2. An Eschatological Ecclesiology.

Because the work of Christ is heavenly-focused, the Church is an eschatological entity.[2] It is the ‘now’ of a ‘not yet’ future, though a future secured in Christ. In this sense the traditional ‘tenses of salvation’ apply to the Church.[3] As with the kingdom, we may say that the Church is inaugurated, progressive and to be consummated.[4] It is this eschatological tension that drives the exhortation within the book for endurance. There is a future hope to be lost if it is not held fast to in the now. This shapes Church life as focused on endurance and mutual exhortation. The Church lives in the ‘today’ of Psalm 95. We may add that, since the Church itself is a part of the inaugurated eschatological vision of 12:22-24, if the Christian life is to be eschatological it must also be a corporate life. There can be no living in hope without ‘Church’. This eschatological perspective also ascribes considerable honour and importance to the Church. As the exposition of Psalm 8 in 2:5-10 suggests, because she is the climax of Israel’s history, the Church is likewise the climax of God’s dealings with and plans for humanity within his creation.[5]

[1] I am grateful to Rev. Tim Davies for first highlighting the necessary link between Christology and Ecclesiology. Tim Davies, personal communication.

[2] Giles speaks of “the common Jewish apocalyptic idea that what lies in the future already lies above.” Giles, Church, 156.

[3] That is, past, present and future.

[4] The notion of the kingdom as progressive and inaugurated can be found in Gary North, Millenialism and Social Theory (Tyler, Tex.: ICE, 1990), 222.

[5] Psalm 8 is about God’s intentions for humanity as a whole. This is then applied to Christ, who is the one crowned with honour and glory, and to whom the world to come is subjected. His work however is to bring many sons (the Church) to the same glory. This is perhaps the most ‘whole world’ focussed moment in the epistle, and yet it is surrounded by passages discussed in this essay as showing the link between the Church and Israel. Similarly, Psalm 8 itself is about Yahweh, Israel’s Lord (Psalm 8:1, 9) and is said to be a song of David.

Church in Hebrews 7

More on Church life in the epistle to the Hebrews:

Throughout the course of the letter the author explores what such corporate perseverance in faith involves, to which we turn in the next two headings.

2. Identification with the persecuted.

The author emphasises the need to live in Christian fellowship even if that requires identifying with persecuted Christians. In 10:32-34 the Hebrew’s “hard struggle” in the past had involved public reproach and identification with those likewise suffering, including those imprisoned. It is precisely this kind of response the author is wishing to exhort them to recommence. Perhaps it was the fear of continuing persecution that caused some of the Hebrews to neglect congregational life (10:25). A similar picture is painted in 13:3 where it is abundantly clear that those imprisoned are fellow members of the church. Moreover, 13:12-14 links these ideas with the sufferings of Christ. Part of following his faithful example is living life as suffering outsiders – the very essence of endurance in hope that the author has been exhorting (13:14).[1]

3. Access and Worship

One of the models the author employs for describing persevering faith in congregational life is the tabernacle. This brings a particular emphasis on the twin ideas of ‘access’ and ‘worship’.

An emphasis on access accords with the dominant Christological theme of the letter - Christ’s priesthood,[2] and the correspondingly significant role the tabernacle plays in the letter’s Christology. We see therefore that the emphasis on Christ’s ministry leads to a particular understanding of the nature of the Church, which in turn leads to specific forms of Church life. It is no surprise in this context that ‘approach’ occurs at several major junctions in the letter - most notably in 4:14-16 and 10:19-25.[3] In the latter the 1st person plural present subjunctive of προσερχομαι heads up an extended exhortation. As with the Christological priestly material, this notion of approach is drawn from and yet also contrasted with the tabernacle life of Israel (10:2) and the Sinai experience (12:18-24). Here we again see how central ‘Church’ is to the basic response to Christ the author is seeking. Corporately drawing near to God as his people is a holding fast onto the hope inaugurated in Christ’s priestly work: the ‘hope’ of 6:19-20 is somehow (at least in part) realised and ‘lived out’ in 10:19-25. We should also note that while it could be argued the drawing near of 10:22 certainly involves more than congregational meetings it cannot be ascertained that it is less. Rather, the proximity of προσερχομαι and e˙kklhsi÷a in 12:22-23 suggests otherwise, since here ‘church’ is explicitly bound together with ‘approach’. The eschatological/ heavenly reality to which the Hebrews have arrived ought to find expression in communal approach to God in the here and now.[4]

This, of course, does not mean that the epistle limits Church life to formal meetings as often experienced in the modern west.[5] Rather, 10:19-25 weaves drawing near to God with the basic responses of faith, hope and love. What is more, we have seen that Church life for the author involves daily exhortation. In relation to this, the second aspect of ‘tabernacle life’ reflected in the life of the Church as the eschatological Israel is ‘worship’. In the author’s mind this is the obvious response to the eschatological reality of 12:18-24. This reality, which he describes in 12:28 as ‘receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken’, should provoke gratitude and, like Israel before her, the offering by the Church of “acceptable worship” to the God who is a “consuming fire” (12:28-29). This worship is described in 13 as encompassing many different areas of life. Not only are these instructions expressed in the plural, but many of the activities envisaged are inherently corporate, for example - “brotherly love”, “hospitality”, identification with imprisoned members of the body, “all” honouring marriage, respect and obedience towards leaders, and the sharing of goods.[6] That the tabernacle worship of Israel is still in the background is clear not just from the wider context, but also in 13:15-16’s offerings and sacrifices. Corporate praise of God and communal life are the priestly work of God’s people.[7]

[1] These verses could be further support for a preterist/AD70 reading, since ‘outside the camp’ refers to the camp of Israel. The Hebrews must not align themselves with soon-to-be judged apostate Israel/Jerusalem, but rather Christ, who suffered and died as an outsider to the nation. Guthrie argues that a return to Judaism was a danger for the Hebrews, which would be strengthened by a preterist reading. Guthrie, Hebrews, 20.

[2] The theme appears first in 1:3, is implied in 1:5, then returned to again in 2:17, 3:1-6. It comes into particular focus in the exhortation of 4:14-16 from where it dominates until chapter 11 (a brief excursion from 5:11to roughly 6:18 being the exception). The theme resurfaces in 12:24 and then again in 13:8-16.

[3] Guthrie highlights these passages in the structure of the book. Guthrie, Hebrews, 39-40, 173, 340.

[4] “[T]his passage speaks of end-time existence as present possibility for the believer.” Giles, Church, 156.

[5] It is not less than such formal meetings however. Giles, Church, 158.

[6] Attridge understands chapter 13 to be about ‘worship’ and notes the connection between worship and congregational life. Attridge, Hebrews, 384-385.

[7] Likewise, 13:10 is unmistakably drawing on the image of the old covenant priesthood, and may be a reference to communion. See Leviticus 6:26.

Church in Hebrews 6

The second half of my essay focussed on what Hebrews has to teach regarding Church life and practice.

As already seen above, Hebrews is an interplay between expository and hortatory material. In this section we will focus more particularly on the exhortatory, though this is dependent upon the expository material. In a similar way, this second half of the essay is built upon the first half. The nature of the church as eschatological Israel is the paradigm within which the letter’s picture of Church life is found and from which it flows.

1. Perseverance as a corporate responsibility

The main exhortation of the letter is a call to persevere in fidelity to the word received from the Son, though this is expressed in a variety of ways.[1] This perseverance is envisaged as a corporate responsibility. Not only are most of the commands and exhortations given in the plural (for example, 10:19-25),[2] but in several passages the members of the Christian family are entrusted with responsibility for one another’s endurance (13:7, 17; 3:13-14; 10:24-25; 12:15-16). Firstly, in maintaining a proper response to the word members of the Church should imitate and submit to leaders (13:7, 17). Whatever we may postulate about the form this leadership took, we can assert that Hebrews envisages some kind of recognised leadership within the Church as an aid to the perseverance of the whole community in the faith.[3] Secondly however, the responsibilities of leaders to keep watch (13:17) are not to be set over against the more dominant theme of the responsibility of all in this regard. Rather, living as God’s people involves daily mutual exhortation.[4] The author would know nothing of the Christian life as a solo project. It seems therefore that ‘doing/being the Church’ is the response the author is seeking.[5] We may state this more generally that ‘Church’ is in some sense the appropriate gospel response.

[1] See e.g. 2:1-3; 3:6, 12-15; 4:11, 14-16; 6:11-12; 10:19-25, 35-39; 12:1-3, 12-16, 25, 28.

[2] See for e.g. 2:1-3; 4:11, 14-16; 10:19-25; 12:1.

[3] Some argue from the simplistic language used to describe leaders that the Church was institutionally simple at the time the epistle was written. E.g. Ellingworth, Hebrews, 68. Giles, Church, 158-159. This is almost an argument from silence (i.e. the lack of the words for presbyters and deacons found in e.g. the pastoral epistles) and lacks any real conclusive power.

[4] 3:13

[5] Terminology derived from James Halstead, personal communication.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Church in Hebrews 5

In conclusion to the (1st) half of my essay devoted to the nature of the Church in Hebrews I wrote:

We may summarise what we have discovered about the ecclesiology of the letter to the Hebrews as follows. In Christ a word is spoken and a salvation achieved, which word and salvation stand as a teleological climax to the word and salvation offered in the Old covenant to Israel. Through right response to his word, the Church stands in a similar teleological and climactic relation to old covenant Israel. What Israel was promised, what faithful Israelites looked for, is the possession of the Church by virtue of Christ’s completion in his death-resurrection-ascension of what Israelite religion foreshadowed. That the Church is the eschatological Israel is arguably the key concept in the writer’s theology of the nature of the Church.

Church in Hebrews 4

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More of my efforts to show that according to Hebrews the Church is in a relation of eschatological fulfilment to Israel of the Old Testament.

3. Two e˙kklhsi÷a passages

Both uses of the word e˙kklhsi÷a in Hebrews are references to the ‘end times’ hope of Israel and should be read in accord with the promise-inheritance dynamic of the passages cited above.[1]

With 2:12, the surrounding text contains a number of descriptions of the people of God, together emphasising the familial connection between Christ and Church, but doing so in ‘Israel language.’ The “brothers” in the e˙kklhsi÷a of Psalm 22 (quoted in 2:12) are the Israelites gathered around the vindicated suffering King, whilst the “children” in 2:12 are from Isaiah 8 where Isaiah and his family function as a ‘true Israel’ within Israel - displaying the kind of patient faith that should have characterised the entire nation. Like Isaiah, Christ is “ a rallying point” for faith, and those who gather around him are ‘Israel’ in the truest sense.[2] In this context the reference to those who receive help from the Son’s priesthood as “the offspring of Abraham” in 2:16 seems entirely natural. Moreover, in 2:11 both Christ (the sanctifier) and Church (those he sanctifies) are of one origin, that is, have a sonship[3] based on God’s exaltation of them.[4] Hence, in 2:10 the Church is the “many sons” (like Israel was the son of God, Exodus 4:22) who are brought to glory by the perfected Son. The ‘church’ of 2:12 is thus qualified by a number of further descriptions which emphasise the arrival of eternal salvation (sanctification-glory-perfection-inheritance) through Christ for the ‘Israel’ gathered around him.

In 12:18-24 the Hebrews are contrasted with Israel at Sinai. Rather than being gathered at the foot of Sinai, they have come to Zion, the eschatological Jerusalem.[5] This, together with the reference to perfection (12:23), indicates that the hope of Abraham and other old covenant saints for a heavenly city/country is in view.[6] The ruling body[7] of this heavenly Jerusalem is the church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven (12:22), who have access to God himself through Jesus the better mediator (12:23-24). This is summarised in 12:28 as them receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.[8] The Church is thus contrasted with Israel, but the contrast is by way of fulfilment – what makes the Church ‘different’ is that what Israel hoped for the Church in some sense possesses. Whilst this obviously awaits consummation, because the foundational, unique and guaranteeing priestly work has been done, the Church may truly be said to have ‘arrived’ at where Israel wanted to ‘be’ as embodied in her Zion theology. The new world, the promised rest, the heavenly city, the glorified ‘perfection’ that faithful Israelites hoped for, is all, through Christ’s mediatorial work, the possession of the Church. As Giles concludes, the Church is “Israel of the last days.”[9]

[1] In both passages ideas of inheritance are found in close proximity. See 2:16 and 12:17, 28.

[2] Quotation from Lane, Hebrews, 60. Attridge, Hebrews, 90-91.

[3] Asymmetrical but related nonetheless.

[4] Attridge argues that πντες includes “both parties in v 11”, though νς is ambiguous. Atttridge thinks νς is intentionally ambiguous, much like the identity of the son of man in 2:8-9, to be revealed later. Given the verbal link with 10 (where God is the source of τ πντα) and the familial language frequent in the rest of the writer’s exposition of this solidarity, it seems likely that the referent is God. Lane, Hebrews, 58. 51. Attridge, Hebrews, p88-89.

[5] See Psalm 2 or Psalm 46 for an example of Jerusalem idealised. Attridge states that in eschatological tradition Zion “became paired with Sinai as the ultimate point of God’s manifestation”, which traditions Paul and other early Christian authors adapted. Attridge, Hebrews, 374.

[6] Cf. 11:8-10, 13-16.

[7] This ‘political’ meaning for e˙kklhsi÷a can be found, for example, in Jonathan Stephen, “Introduction,” in Tales of Two Cities – Christianity and Politics (ed. Stephen Clark; Leicester: IVP, 2005), 9.

[8] This is probably itself a contrast with the old covenant system, which is about to be removed (8:13, 12:27, also 8:2-5, 9:11). This ‘preterist’ reading of the epistle assumes a pre-AD70 dating. John Owen is one of the more famous figures from Church history to propose such a reading. Rather than engaging in the lengthy process of trying to justify a preterist reading for Hebrews, we simply note here that reading the epistle as written in the context of the imminent covenant-transitional events of AD70 would strengthen the overall argument being made in this essay about the relation of the Church to Israel. The overall ‘new Israel theology’ on display here does not depend on preterism however. See David Field, “Interpretive approaches to the apocalypse” (Unpublished Lecture Handout. Oak Hill College, 2007). Also John Owen, Hebrews – The Epistle to the Hebrews, the Messiah, the Jewish Church (vol. XVII of The Works of John Owen; 1854-55; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 96-101.

[9] Giles, Church, 159.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Church in Hebrews 3

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More of my efforts to show that according to Hebrews the Church is in a relation of eschatological fulfilment to Israel of the Old Testament.

2. Christ, the Church, and Israel

So far we have seen at the very least that the Church is deeply analogous to Old Testament Israel, and that this is so by virtue of the Church’s connection to Christ. However, more can be said here, since the importance of Christ in the Church’s identity has further implications for the Church’s relation to Israel. Christ’s work is described throughout Hebrews as fulfilling promises, types, shadows, offices and rituals that were given to Israel in the Old Testament.[1] This basic relation of Christ to Israelite history is also true for the Church. The community that benefits from Christ’s fulfilling of Israel’s shadows is therefore a part of this fulfilment of Israel and her history. In the Church Israel’s salvation history, her covenant, her promises, reach their teleological climax.[2] The Church is in this sense the ‘true’ or ‘new’ Israel, and that by virtue of Christ.[3]

This can be established at several places in the text, but we will start with Hebrews 8 since in this section (8:1-10:18) we find some of Hebrews’ more sustained reflection on Christ’s relation to the old covenant order.[4] In 8:1 the discussion of Christ as High priest in the order of Melchizedek comes to a head with the commencement of a comparison between “the true tent’ in which Christ serves and that which is described as a shadow of it, namely the earthly tabernacle built by Moses (8:5).[5] As high priest in this true tent Christ mediates a better covenant (8:2-6). This covenant (and the deficiencies of the old one) were spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (quoted in 8:8-12). Christ’s unique priesthood, fulfilling the shadows of the old covenant, guarantees for the Church the new covenant of Jeremiah’s prophecy.[6] In 9:15 this is described in terms of inheritance, which indicates these ideas are an expansion of what has been already asserted in more compact form in 2:16 where Christ as high priest helps Abraham’s offspring. The same themes can also be found in 6:13-20 where the promise to Abraham is expounded. Taken together, these passages show that what the Church receives from Christ’s high priestly ministry is what was promised to Abraham, and what was promised for a renewed Israel in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews 11:39-40 makes this even more explicit, where it is claimed that the saints of the Old Testament “did not receive what was promised” but only attained perfection[7] along with the Church. The same pattern is displayed in negative form in the discussion of God’s rest (3:7-4:14).[8] What faithful Israelites looked forward to, what faithless Israelites forfeited, is the possession of the Church.

[1] See discussion below for a fuller explanation. But see also discussion of typology and the Old Testament in Giles, Church, 154-155.

[2] That is, their intended ‘goal.’ This concept is clear in 11: 39-40 with regard to the promises and covenants given to faithful Israelites. See also Giles, Church, 153-159.

[3] “New’ alone would imply the Church was a new version, a second, a renewed Israel. That does not account for the fulfilment/climax motif found throughout Hebrews.

[4] Guthrie sees 8:3-10:18 as forming the second major half (5:1-10 with 7:1-28 forming the first half) of material in Hebrews on Christ’s “[r]elation to the Earthly Sacrificial System” – material which runs from 4:14 to 10:25 in total. 8:3-10:18 he designates as dealing with the superiority of Christ’s offering. Guthrie, Hebrews, 39-40.

[5] Guthrie sees 8:1-2 as a moment of transition and summary. Guthrie, Hebrews, 278-279.

[6] See also 7: 22. The significance of the priesthood as the guarantee of the whole covenant whether old or new) comes from Charles Anderson, Lectures on Hebrews, October-December 2007.

[7] That is, “cleansing of conscience, sanctification, and ultimate glorification” only “made possible by Christ’s sacrifice”[7] Attridge, Hebrews, 352.

[8] Note especially the description of this as a promise in 4:1.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Browser issues...

It seems that internet explorer doesn't like some of the formatting on my last couple of posts. For anyone who either already has it or is interested, Mozilla Firefox works a lot better. Apologies for the mess for those who don't.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Church in Hebrews 2

This section aims to show that according to Hebrews the Church is in a relation of eschatological fulfilment to Israel of the Old Testament.[1]

1. The Hebrews are like and unlike Israel

That there is a close connection between the recipients of the letter and “historic Israel”[2] is apparent from the very start of the letter. 1:1 describes the recipients of previous revelation as “our fathers” and the remainder of the introductory paragraph continues to draw a parallel between this revelation and the revelation given to the recipients of the letter through the Son (1:1-4). In one sense this sets the tone for the rest of the letter; the recipients are like Israel in the sense that they have received a gospel proclamation (4:2), and response to this word can either bring salvation or terrible judgment (2:1-4, 10:28-29, 12:25). Hence the Hebrews[3] are compared to the recipients of the Exodus deliverance in 2:14-15, to Israel in the wilderness in chapters 3-4, and the promises and warnings given to Israel in Psalm 95 and Jeremiah 31 are applied directly to them.[4] In fact, a similarity to Israel is implicit throughout, as evidenced by the frequent quotation from the Old Testament.[5]

However, the warning and judgment passages noted above are more than simply a ‘since them, then also us’ argument.[6] The Hebrews are like Israel but also unlike them.[7] This ‘unlikeness’ is based on the finality and climactic nature of the word spoken to them through the Son.[8] Accordingly, the salvation and judgment offered in the Son is both comparable to, and yet at the same time greater than, that experienced by Israel (1:2-4, 2:1-3, 10:28-29, 11:39-40).[9] Secondly, it can be clearly demonstrated that this connection to Israel is conceived as being in and through the recipients’ connection to Christ, whose relation to the old covenant itself receives a great deal of attention throughout the letter.[10]

[1] See e.g. Giles, Church, 159.

[2] Giles uses this expression. Giles, Church, 159.

[3] At various points we will use the term ‘the Hebrews’ to designate the recipients of the letter.

[4] Giles, Church, 153-154.

[5] Giles, Church, 152-153 highlights this.

[6] This does not mean they are less than such an argument, nor that they aren’t framed so as to read as such. Rather, we are asserting that there is more to be said than might appear at face value.

[7] This is a facet of the broader theme of the continuity and discontinuity between the covenants. See e.g. Ellingworth, Hebrews, 68-69.

[8] E.g. 1:1-2. Guthrie describes this as revelatory climax. Guthrie, Hebrews, 45.

[9] This understanding of Hebrews has been influenced by Charles Anderson, Lectures on Hebrews, October-December 2007.

[10] This is almost so all-pervasive as to not require confirmation by naming specific texts (we could cite the whole epistle in this regard). However, passages that specifically speak of Christ and the old covenant include 7:22-8:7; 9:15-26; 10:1-18.

Church in Hebrews 1

A while ago I did an essay on the doctrine of the Church in Hebrews. Over the next few posts I’ll be putting up edited selections from that essay, for anyone who’s interested.

My essay was essentially divided along the lines of two (ultimately inseparable) themes:

  1. Hebrews and the Nature of the Church
  2. Hebrews and Church Life

My main point on 1. Can be summarised like this:

Hebrews teaches that the Church stands in a teleological and climactic relation to old covenant Israel. What Israel was promised, what faithful Israelites looked for, is the possession of the Church by virtue of Christ’s completion in his death-resurrection-ascension of what Israelite religion foreshadowed. That the Church is the eschatological Israel[1] is arguably the key concept in the writer’s theology of the nature of the Church.

[1] I use this phrase to denote a similar idea to Giles’ “Israel of the last days”. Giles, Church, 159.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Computer Rage

When Jonathan Edwards was about nineteen years old he wrote a bunch of resolutions, thus setting an explicit agenda for his thought and conduct. They're pretty hardcore.

Here's number 15.

15. Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.

As someone who commits 'computer rage' (well, with PCs anyway, who could get angry at something so beautiful as a Mac?) and gets angry with other inanimate objects, I find that extremely challenging. He is, of course, completely right - such displays of anger are childish (toys out of pram anyone?) and ungodly.

So I'm resolved to try at number 15 now too.

And I'm also resolved to find time in the first five years of ministry to read much more Edwards (I think I'll need to limit myself to making a list of four or five 'friends' to commit to reading over the first few years, otherwise the list could just go on and on and on).