Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Keynote of Hebrews

Salmon, George. “The Keynote of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Expositor. Second Series, 3 (1882): 81-93.

George Salmon (1819-1904) was a mathematician who published several books on mathematics, before becoming a widely-published Anglican theologian. In 1866 he was appointed a professor of divinity at Trinity College Dublin, and became its provost in 1888 until his death. He is the author of An Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament.

According to Salmon, the keynote of Hebrews is the danger of Christian disciples of falling away and “the terrible penalties which apostasy would entail” (83-84). Salmon highlights the warning passages in Hebrews (2:1-3; 3:12-14; 4:1-2, 14; 6:4-6, 9-12; 10:23-31, 35-39; 12:3, 14-17) to emphasize his point.

Salmon believes that if one read Hebrews with its “historic” and not its “dogmatic” interest in mind, one can date the epistle a little later than Paul’s epistles. Hebrews evinces a “greater strain on Christians from external persecutions, greater consequent temptation to apostasy, than the Pauline epistles” and so can be placed at a later date (90). Yet it is not later than the time when “persecution assumed a systematic form, and that Christianity became an unlawful profession” (89; cf. 1 Peter; Pliny’s letters). Salmon believes that the epistle was sent from Italy sometime after the Neronian persecution, but before the destruction of Jerusalem. I think trying to date Hebrews according to the degree of persecution detected in the writing is a little suspect, since persecution of Christians waxed and waned over the years, and was often localized, so that persecution could be intense in one part of the Roman empire, but not another.

Salmon concludes with a discussion on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. He states paradoxically that the doctrine is theoretically false, but practically true! He reasons that “there are many cases where it is practically more important to enunciate a general proposition than to attend to the exceptions and limitations which must be taken into account if we want to bring it into accordance with strict theoretical truth” (90). He gives the analogous illustration of someone preaching a wedding sermon to a couple about to be married. Even though their feelings for one another are strong presently, there is no guarantee that they will not change after they are married. But one would not say such a thing in a sermon! And the possibility that a marriage relationship could dissolve does not deter people from getting married and expecting the marriage to endure in lifelong affection for one another. Likewise, when we enter into a relationship with Christ, we should trust in the love and faithfulness of Christ and expect that our relationship with him should endure.

Now I agree that we should trust in the faithfulness of Christ, but we should also be aware of our own tendency to be unfaithful to him. So, it is not out of place to warn fellow Christians about the danger of falling away (even as it is not inappropriate to warn a couple about the dangers of unfaithfulness in a marriage relationship—perhaps one would not say it in a sermon, but that is what premarital counseling is for!). After all, what does Salmon think the writer of Hebrews was doing? The whole tenor of Salmon’s closing comments seems to go against everything he acknowledged in the first part of essay about the keynote of the epistle to the Hebrews.

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