Saturday, January 17, 2009

A. B. Bruce on Hebrews

Bruce, A. B. “Hebrews, Epistle to.” Pages 327-38 in A Dictionary of the Bible Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology. Edited by James Hastings et al. Vol. 2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1899.

Alexander Balmain Bruce was a Scottish Free Church parish minister for 16 years before becoming Professor of Apologetics and New Testament Exegesis at the Free Church Divinity Hall, Glasgow (Trinity College) in 1875 until his death in 1899. In addition to this encyclopedia entry, Bruce also wrote The Epistle to the Hebrews: The First Apology (1899).

The strength of this piece is not Bruce’s contribution to the obligatory introductory matters of Hebrews, but his insights into the theological message of Hebrews. Bruce focuses on the theological message first before dealing with introductory matters, stating that the introductory matters have little bearing for understanding the book.

For Bruce, the central aim of Hebrews is to demonstrate that Christianity is the supreme and final religion because it is the religion of “free, unrestricted access to God.” Christianity is the “religion of the better hope through which we draw nigh unto God.”

The method of Hebrews is to show the radical contrast between Christianity and “Leviticalism.” The author accomplishes this through the use of four comparisons, pitting Christ against two agents of revelation (prophets and angels), and two agents of redemption (Moses and Aaron). While the revelations of the prophets were fragmentary (having many parts) and tropical (having many modes), the revelation of Christ is free from both deficiencies, being both complete and real. Jesus is contrasted with the angels in three ways: as a Son to servants; as King to subjects; and as Creator to creatures. Moses was faithful as a servant, but Christ was faithful as a son. While Aaron and his kin were engaged in empty rituals which were unable to take away sin, Christ offered Himself as the final, efficacious sacrifice.

Bruce insightfully points out that in all four comparisons, the superiority of Jesus rests on the foundation of his Sonship to God. As Son, he guarantees a perfect, final revelation, because Sonship involves likeness and intimacy with God. As Son, Jesus is begotten, while the angels are created. The Son as heir is destined to sit on the throne and become an object of homage, even by the angels. Thus his word of revelation claims more attention than that spoken by angels. Christ’s faithfulness is greater than Moses’s because Jesus is faithful as a Son. Our high priest is Jesus the Son of God (4:14) who learned obedience through suffering (5:8) and voluntarily offered up Himself (7:28).

In the prescript Jesus is the heir of all things, an attribute that naturally arises out of his relation of Sonship. Moreover, he is the agent of creation, implying preexistence, divinity, and eternality. The eternal being of the Son is further implied in 1:3 where he is called the απαυγασμα of God’s glory and the χαρακτηρ of God’s nature. (Bruce remarks that this statement does not absolutely exclude Sabellianism or Arianism. Sabellians stressed απαυγασμα, suggesting the idea of a modal manifestation rather than a distinct personality. Arians emphasized χαρακτηρ, implying a position of subordination and dependence of the Son on the Father. The orthodox claimed that the combination of the two excluded both errors: the former implying identity of nature, the latter implying independent personality.) Jesus’ exaltation takes place after his voluntary service for humanity. [This final line in 1:3 thus suggests both Jesus’ humanity and divinity; his priestly and royal roles–all rolled up into one compact sentence]

Bruce points to a number of passages that allude to Jesus’ incarnation (2:9, 14; 5:7) and earthly life (2:3, 18; 4:15; 5:2, 7; 12:2-3). The author of Hebrews, however, never states how the Son entered into humanity, although the implication that Jesus “likewise” took on flesh and blood suggests the normal course of birth, childhood, and adulthood. Bruce believes that Jesus’ humiliation was a stumbling block for the recipients of Hebrews. Nevertheless, the author states that it was in his humiliation, in the very act of tasting death, that the Son was crowned with glory and honor (2:9).

Jesus’ priesthood cannot be understood apart from its relation to the priesthood of Melchizedek. This type of priesthood, according to 7:1-3, is marked by five characteristics: 1) It is a royal priesthood; 2) It is a righteous priesthood; 3) It is a priesthood promotive of peace; 4) It is a personal, not an inherited priesthood; and 5) It is an eternal priesthood. These are the characteristics of an ideal priesthood. Although sacrifice is not mentioned in relation to Melchizedek, the ideal priest also makes a sacrifice of himself. The ideal priest is holy in relation to God, benevolent towards humanity, and free from faults that would disqualify him from the office of priest (7:26). Christ is superior to Aaron in a threefold way (8:1-9:28): he offers a superior sacrifice (himself), serves in a superior tabernacle (a heavenly one, not made with hands, invisible), and performs a superior ceremony (performed once for all, not to be repeated).

Bruce sees two passages as the key to understanding the author of Hebrews’ theory of redemption. The principle of redemption is found in 2:11: both the sanctifier and the sanctified are one, suggesting solidarity between the two. The “infinite efficacy” of redemption is indicated in 9:14: Christ offered himself “through the eternal Spirit.” Spirit expresses, for Bruce, the ethical characteristics of the sacrifice: Jesus’s sacrifice was free, loving and holy. “Eternal” indicates that Jesus’ death was not merely a historical event; the sacrifice of Christ is elevated above the limits of time and space.

Bruce raises a conundrum: On the one hand, the priesthood of Christ takes place in heaven. On the other hand, the sacrifice of Christ took place on the earth. The key is understanding that heaven is the locus of realities, while earth is the locus of shadows. For the writer of Hebrews, that which is “true” and that which is “heavenly” are synonymous. Thus, if Christ’s sacrifice was the “true” sacrifice, then it belongs to the heavenly realm, no matter where or when it takes place. Through the eternal spirit Christ’s sacrifice is lifted above time and space.

Bruce sees a threefold dimension to salvation in Hebrews: 1) Humanity will achieve lordship in the world to come, 2:5-8; 2) Humanity will be delivered from the power of death exercised by the devil, 2:14-15; and 3) Humanity will experience the full, final realization of the promise of rest. Bruce says “Taken together, the three conceptions suggest the thought of Paradise restored, the divine ideal of man and the world and their mutual relations realized in perpetuity, man made veritably the lord of creation, delivered form the fear of death, no longer subject to servile tasks, but occupied only in work compatible with perfect repose.” All this belongs to the future, in the world to come. But salvation is also a present good. Christians are sanctified and even perfected. Sanctification for the author of Hebrews is putting one in right relationship with God; it is the equivalent of Paul’s “justified.”

When the author of Hebrews speaks of the “Fatherhood” of God it is often in relation to the Sonship of Christ. But God’s Fatherhood also is in the background with regard to humanity. Bruce notes that “a religion of unrestricted access is a religion of sonship.” Christians are called “comrades” of Christ in 3:14. Because the sanctifier and the sanctified are one, believers are unified with Christ, sharing complete equality in privilege. In 2:10 Christ is not ashamed to call them “brethren” in their unsanctified state (2:11). How much more will Christ identify with believers after they are sanctified?!

Turning briefly to introductory matters, Bruce notes affinities of thought and style between Hebrews and Philo, but declines to make any connection between the two. Hebrews was clearly not written by Paul. The vocabulary, style and religious temperament of the author is radically different from Paul. While Paul used Hebraisms and simplicity of language, Hebrews uses polished Greek and stately phrases. While Paul evinces “moral intensity,” Hebrews has the “air of philosophic repose.” Nor is the author of Hebrews a disciple of Paul. An acquaintance with Paul cannot be clearly shown. Hebrews does share an affinity with some of the leading positions of Paulinism such as the universality of the gospel, Christianity as spiritual religion (i.e., the utter worthlessness of rites and ceremonies), and Christianity as a religion of free grace.

The ethnicity of the author cannot be determined, whether he is a Jew or Gentile. His writing style supports the latter, but his familiarity with Jewish institutions supports the former. The audience is most likely Jewish. As the audience speaks Greek and appears to have heard the gospel second-hand, a destination such as Antioch is more likely than Jerusalem. The book seems to be dealing with the crisis that erupted during the outbreak of the Jewish War. Moreover, 3:9 suggests that the people of God have seen God’s work for 40 years, so a date near 70 A.D. appears likely. Bruce declines to identify an author, but declares that the author had to be someone like Apollos who was a Hellenistic Jew of Alexandrian culture, acquainted with the Jewish scriptures and with contemporary philosophy. It is also plausible, due to the similarity of style, that Luke had something to do with the production of Hebrews.

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