D. Stephen Long. Hebrews. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011. 265 + xxi pages.
I would first like to thank Gavin Stephens and Westminster John Knox Press for the review copy of this commentary.
D. Stephen Long is Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette University, and to my surprise, a fellow United Methodist clergyman. The selection of a systematic theologian to do a commentary on Hebrews is intentional as the purpose of the Belief series is to focus more on theological issues relevant to contemporary society rather than on historical or literary issues. One should not approach this commentary, then, expecting to find the usual treatment of introductory issues such as authorship or provenance, nor should one expect to find an in-depth exegesis of the Greek text or the weighing of various interpretive options. Rather, the intent of the series is the theological application of the text for the church today. According to the series introduction, “The authors’ chief dialogue will be with the church’s creeds, practices, and hymns; with the history of faithful interpretation and use of the Scriptures; with the categories and concepts of theology; and with contemporary culture in both ‘high’ and popular forms” (xiv).
After a short introduction, the commentary is divided into five sections as follows:
1:1–2:18 God Speaks
3:1–6:20 Christ: Faithful and Merciful High Priest
7:1–10:39 Priesthood and Sanctuaries
11:1–12:13 Finding Yourself among the Saved: Faith and Endurance
12:14–13:25 Concluding Paraklesis and Theophanic Vision: Pursue Peace and Holiness
The commentary ends with a brief conclusion, suggestions for further reading, and indices on ancient sources and subjects. The commentary is sprinkled with occasional text-boxes and is punctuated by various excurses entitled “Further Reflections.”
In the introduction Long identifies three reasons why Hebrews is important for our present times. First, it can help believers negotiate troubled times. Long points out that Hebrews has played a key role in theological controversies such as in the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries or in the Reformation’s polemic against the Catholic mass and priesthood (1–2). Generally speaking, Catholics view Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice as the heart of the letter, while Protestants emphasize the exhortation which climaxes at the end of the letter (3–5). In our contemporary age, which is undergoing tremendous change, Hebrews can offer the believer two pieces of advice: “hold fast the confession you received, and be willing to wander, moving toward that which you have not received” (5). Second, Hebrews presents “an untimely metaphysics” (6). Hebrews projects a metaphysical world consisting of angels, heaven, an ideal temple, and a cosmic liturgy, a world which challenges modern metaphysical notions that reduces everything to materiality and causation (6–12). Third, Hebrews’ teaches us to read Scripture after Christ’s “odd and not readily apparent triumph” (14). Hebrews’ resists revealing its meaning through the modern historical-critical method, which attempts to ascertain the original intent of the author by identifying the time, place, author, recipients, and occasion for the writing (14–17). However, the identification of these traditional introductory issues remains elusive. Yet, Hebrews remains meaningful today despite the historical-criticism’s inability to come up with definitive answers to these questions: “Its meaning resides in both its content and the ability of its hearers to receive and embody that content” (19).
It is, of course, impossible to give a detailed treatment of each section of the commentary in this review. Instead, I will try to identify the characteristic features of the commentary. The commentary does not provide a detailed, exegetical analysis of each verse. Rather, it attempts to present the overall flow of the author’s argument. In some places, however, he treats some verses rather cursorily. For example, verses 1:7–13, which could have provided much fodder for theological reflection, are treated almost in passing (51–53). The important verses of 2:11–18, which deal with Jesus’ incarnation and identification with humanity, are barely touched upon. Yet, in other places single verses elicit pages of theological discussion and reflection.
Long frequently relates Hebrews to theological issues in the history of the church. A few examples will suffice. In his treatment of the exordium (1:1–4), Long discusses at length how it was appropriated by the early church fathers in the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries (25–31). In 1:3 it says that Jesus is the radiance or reflection of God’s glory, and the exact imprint of God’s very being or nature. According to Long, “The former expression became a statement identifying Jesus’ sameness with God. The latter identified his distinct person” (25). The early church fathers first established Jesus’ dual nature as fully divine and fully human, while repudiating the views of Arianism and Apollinarianism (26). Next, they established that the two-fold nature of Christ was neither divided nor mixed, while rejecting Nestorianism and Eutychianism (29). Long demonstrates that, while the orthodox christological doctrines were an expansion upon the exordium of Hebrews, they were rooted in the language of the exordium: The ostensible duplication of language in 1:3 “suggests that the Son shares the essence of God, but does so in a unique way. He is the ‘repetition’ of God through a distinct agency. To express this requires language that expresses both sameness of essence (radiance) and distinction of person (exact imprint), without the latter opposing the former” (28).
Long notes that the adverb “today” in the Ps 2:7 of Heb 1:5 was interpreted by Athanasius as a reference to the eternal generation of the Son, while Gregory of Nyssa and Theodore of Mopsuestia related it to the mission of the Son in the incarnation. Long interestingly adopts Aquinas’ view that “today” refers to both (47).
In chapter 3, Long notes that the author of Hebrews urges his audience to hold on to the confession (3:1) of their faith in Jesus with boldness (parresia; 3:6) and confidence (hypostaseos; 3:14). Long remarks, “Whereas the first admonition emphasizes the public act of holding fast the confidence . . . the second one emphasizes its substance (76). Long relates Hebrews’ admonitions to the controversy in Reformation times over the issue of “implicit” versus “explicit” faith. Calvin rejected implicit faith which he associated with Catholicism (70). Long explains that “Calvin and the Reformed tradition’s concern is with a ‘blind’ obedience that divides faith from reason and says I believe it because the church demands it of me even though I do not, and cannot, understand it. The Reformed are worried about a Catholic fideism that reduces the act of faith to a bare act of will” (71). Despite these polemics, Long believes that Aquinas is in basic agreement with Calvin. He states that “The ‘boldness’ Hebrews calls for demands explicit faith” (71). But faith not only demands an act of the will, but an intellectual assent to the substance of the confession as well (76).
In 3:2 Hebrews says that God “appointed” Jesus as high priest. The verb (poieo) literally means “made,” which suggest an Arian interpretation (81). Long adopts Aquinas’ interpretation which states that God made Jesus high priest according to his human nature and not according to his divine nature (81–82). I have found that this interpretation is common among many German commentators (and Luke Timothy Johnson), but most English commentators take poieo in the sense of “appoint.” This meaning can be found, for instance, in Mark 3:14, 16 and Luke 10:1.
In 6:1 the author of Hebrews urges his audience to press on to perfection. Long relates the statements of Hebrews on perfection to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of deification or theosis. Long believes that Hebrews’ teaching on perfection gives strong support to this doctrine of the Eastern Church (102, 104, 110). In an extended excursus Long explores deification also in the teachings of Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley. As with Eastern Orthodoxy, Long believes that Hebrews gives strong support to the Wesleyan teaching on perfection as well (110).
Long also frequently engages contemporary theological issues in the many excurses that pervade the commentary. For example, Long interacts with the views of three theologians (Weaver, Ruether, McCormack) who want to revise or reject the theological consensus achieved at the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries (32–39). In another excursus Long explores the reason for the resurgence of the interest in Gnosticism in modern biblical scholarship (91–94). In another, very lengthy, excursus Long engages with contemporary critiques of atonement theory (134–150). In yet another excursus Long deals with modern discussions on natural theology (188–192). These discussions are just examples of the kind of interactions that Long engages in throughout the commentary. Long interacts with an astonishing array of theologians and philosophers from Plato and the early church to our contemporary times. Long also brings in on occasion references to contemporary culture such as novels and movies, as well as current events. He also draws upon his own personal experiences to illustrate some of the points he wants to make.
The strength of the book may ironically also be its weakness. One can find commentaries that interact extensively with the patristic tradition (e.g. P. E. Hughes) or that engages in a good deal of theological reflection (e.g. David Allen), but Long interacts with a whole host of thinkers not found in other works on Hebrews. In this respect, this commentary is innovative or distinctive; I have not read anything else on Hebrews quite like it. However, in many of his excurses he engages in long theological discussions, interacting with the ideas of various thinkers while rarely mentioning the book of Hebrews, although he may eventually try to connect his discussion in some way to Hebrews. This gave the work somewhat of an idiosyncratic feel to me. Long does seem to interact much more extensively with theologians and philosophers than he does with scholarly works on Hebrews (although he does not completely neglect them). The reader can decide whether this is a positive or negative feature of the book.
I would not recommend this commentary as a primary commentary on Hebrews. The book of Hebrews has been served well by a host of solid exegetical commentaries (e.g. H. Attridge, W. Lane, P. Ellingworth, L. T. Johnson, P. O’Brien, G. Cockerill), which get at the textual, grammatical and historical issues much better than this commentary does. The value of this commentary is that it moves beyond the exegetical issues to engage in theological reflection. If one is interested in how Hebrews intersects with larger historical and contemporary theological issues, then this commentary would be appealing to such a person.