Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hebrews 6

For good reasons, debates surrounding the meaning of Hebrews 6 have centered on whether a saved Christian can lose his salvation (the Arminian position), or whether those who display perseverance demonstrate that they are truly and irrevocably saved in comparison with those who don't and aren't (the Reformed position). There are respectable and thoughtful evangelicals on both sides of this question, though as someone who holds a Reformed outlook, I side with the latter position and wrote a brief exegetical paper to that effect during my time at seminary.

More unfortunate has been the rather perverse abuse of Hebrews 6.1-3 by liberal scholars and clergy who have turned this passage upside down in using it as a biblically mandated club to embrace all manner of heterodoxy and belittle those who won't join them. Susan Andrews once used this passage to accuse conservative African clergy of being spiritually immature because they wouldn't forsake Christian orthodoxy. Andrews was widely condemned for abusing this passage of Scripture to advance a rather despicable form of spiritual colonialism, but her sentiment is not an isolated one in mainline liberal circles. John Shelby Spong, John Chane, and even some of Brian McLaren's sentiments have affinities or even outright acceptance of this line of thought in criticizing those who refuse to become unhinged from the fundamentals of the faith. To say the least, Andrews's take on Hebrews 6 is a gross misreading of the passage. To equate spiritual maturity with that most immature of attitudes, arrogantly rebelling and going one's own way, is the kind of non-sequitur that responsible biblical interpretation should be chiefly interested in stopping.

But in the midst of these various controversies, a valuable and sobering teaching from Hebrews 6 often goes unnoticed. When the writer of Hebrews tells his original audience (and us) to become more spiritually mature in vv1-3, and then discusses the dangerous repercussions that often ensue in vv4-8 when maturity doesn't happen, he is telling us something very important. The writer is making an astute observation that those who get a taste of Christ, who have exposure to his teachings, who see the Spirit at work in the midst of the assembly, but walk away in the end, often become the hardest to reclaim.

In recent times, when one thinks of Christianity's fiercest critics, one finds a fairly consistent thread. Many of them, to varying degrees, were exposed to Christ either by being brought up in the church or having some familial or even ministry connection to a group of Christians. This is true of Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Madelyn Murray O'Hair was baptized in the Presbyterian church. Richard Dawkins was raised in the Church of England. Charles Templeton was an influential evangelist partner of Billy Graham. Marilyn Manson, back when he was Brian Warner, was raised Baptist. These are just a few of the countless numbers that could be mentioned of folks who had the kind of exposure to Christ that Hebrews 6 discusses who not only turned away, but became vehement critics of that from which they have turned away. It is a most sobering thought that the next generation of the most hardened form of anti-Christian sentiment will likely consist mostly of members who are in our churches today.

So what are we to do? We are to earnestly do what Hebrews tells us to do; increase in spiritual maturity. Contra the liberal take on this instruction, to increase in spiritual maturity does not mean breaking free from the 'elementary teachings about Christ'. To the contrary, to increase in spiritual maturity means to ever more fully live out and apply the elementary teachings to every aspect of our lives, public and private. In mathematics, to move beyond addition and subtraction and into the realm of multiplication and division doesn't mean abandoning the fundamentals of addition and subtraction. It means understanding that all mathematics are based on certain fundamentals, which connects those 'easy' and 'elementary' fundamentals to ever more complex problems. This is true in music, art, genetics, chemistry, and accounting. And it's true in the Christian life. As recent events in many spheres of culture have made clear, to discard or forget the fundamentals is to become unhinged. This is not the road to maturity.

Hebrews 6 should encourage us. It tells us that we are not on our own with no teaching to help us in wrestling with complex and even excruciating issues. Whether we're talking about tough issues in the civic sphere such as immigration, energy policy, the use of military force, and abortion, or whether we're talking about tough personal issues like addiction, temptation, suffering, marriage and divorce, or the proper use of money, God has not left us in the desert to fend for ourselves. To the contrary, he has given us his Word and his Spirit to guide us into all truth (Jn 14.17, 15.26, 16.13). And as Hebrews 6 teaches, the elementary teachings about Christ are applicable far beyond elementary issues, and it commands us to faithfully and comprehensively live this out.