Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier. Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation. Library of New Testament Studies 423. London: T & T Clark International, 2012. Pp. xvi + 264.
First, I want to thank T & T Clark for a review copy of this book.
Jon Laansma begins with his introductory essay, “Hebrews: Yesterday, Today, and Future; An Illustrated Survey, Diagnosis, Prescription.” He indicates that this book is a collection of essays which represent a “selective history of interpretation” or history of effects (Wirkungsgeschichte), which he hopes will be valuable to biblical critics, theologians, philosophers of religion, church historians, and pastors (pp. 3–5). He begins with a generalized survey of the interpretation of Hebrews in the modern period (pp. 6–14). The survey deals more in methodological approaches and particular issues in Hebrews rather than with specific scholarly interpretations. He notes the “overwhelmingly scientific (wissenschaftlich) character” of most of the work done on Hebrews and he lauds the “creativity, erudition, and ingenuity” of this research but concludes that there are few “assured results.” Laansma notes that Hebrews has largely been on the periphery of the broader stream of historical critical work on the New Testament (pp. 14–25). He believes that the marginalization of Hebrew in NT theology is a symptom of the modern trend to dichotomize between historical and theological disciplines. The uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding its composition and its literary isolation makes it difficult to locate the book within the development of early Christianity. Laansma suggests that the way forward is to take Hebrews seriously as Christian Scripture in which God speaks in and through the human authors. As an alternative, but not replacement, of historical approaches, Laansma advocates the theological interpretation of Scripture (pp. 25–32).
Frances Young writes on the “Christological Ideas in the Greek Commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews”—the only reprinted essay in the whole collection. Young examines four early Greek commentaries on Hebrews in order to illustrate the differences between the Alexandrian (represented by Cyril of Alexandria) and Antiochene (represented by Chrysostom, Theodoret, and Theodore of Mopsuestia) schools of interpretation regarding Christology. Both schools presuppose Nicea and use Heb 1:3 as a proof text against Arianism (p. 34). Both schools draw a distinction between the divine and human natures of Christ, but they do so in different ways. Cyril (pp. 34–35). Cyril tended to emphasize the unity of the natures of Christ, but downplays his human experiences (pp. 36–38, 43). The Logos, being impassible and unchangeable, was not changed by the incarnation but united humanity to divinity; Jesus was incapable of sinning. The Antiochenes, on the other hand, fully emphasized Jesus’ human experiences including his weaknesses, temptations, and sufferings, but they tended to create a greater division between the two natures of Christ (pp. 38–43). Christ was tempted and suffered only in his human nature; his divine nature remained untouched. Young concludes with two observations. First, “the problem of Christology is most acute where it is approached with a priori ideas about the nature of God” (p. 44). Second, “Christology should never be divorced from soteriology” (p. 46).
In “Irenaeus and Hebrews,” Jeffrey Bingham explores the possible usage of Hebrews by the Bishop of Lyons. Bingham notes that Eusebius wrote that Irenaeus had quoted Hebrews in a work now lost (p. 48). The apparent usage of Hebrews by Clement of Rome gives credibility to Eusebius’ statement (pp. 49–51). The Shepherd of Hermas, also having a Roman provenance, may also have used Hebrews. Both Clement and Hermas engaged in the interpretation of Hebrews, as Irenaeus also did (p. 51). Bingham notes how modern scholars have tended to minimize the connection between Hebrews and Irenaeus, seeing at best incidental citations and allusions (pp. 52–54). Bingham attempts to challenges these contentions. He argues that Irenaeus’ “thought appears to be dependent in important degrees upon its language and teaching” (p. 54). Bingham discerns allusions to Heb 1:2–3; 1:8–9; 3:5; 5:8–9; 5:14; 8:5; 11:4, 5–7, 8–9, 10, 13, 19; 3:14; and 13:12 in Adversus Haereses (pp. 55–71). He concludes that allusions to Hebrews are present in Irenaeus’ writing in significant ways (p. 71). He conjectures that Irenaeus may have used Hebrews more obliquely against the Gnostics and Marcionites because of its uncertain apostolicity (pp. 72–73).
In “‘Clothed with Spiritual Fire’: John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Letter to Hebrews,” Charles Kannengiesser gives a characterization of the golden-mouthed orator’s preaching. Since the translation of the homilies into English over a hundred years ago, Kannengiesser notes that they await “an in-depth theological analysis” in terms of their “reception in the main traditions of the Church” (p. 74). The 34 homilies were delivered in rather quick succession in 406 AD after he was exiled to Armenia by the Empress Eudoxia. It is evident that these homilies were delivered to a real audience who would come for hundreds of miles to hear him. Chrysostom preached Hebrews as if it was addressed to the audience of his own day (pp. 74–77). Kannengiesser traces the development of thought in the homilies. The first three homilies focus on the first chapter of Hebrews. In these homilies, “Chrysostom’s auditors were supposed to have absorbed . . . the fundamentals of Christian instruction, namely the mystery of Divine Trinity, an anti-Arian notion of divine creation, together with a luminous instruction concerning the radical transcendence of the Son of God as creator and saviour” (p. 78). Homilies 4–11 are manifestly christological, focusing on Jesus as “the Captain of our salvation” and “the High priest of our profession” (pp. 78–79). Homilies 12–18 spiritualizes for the audience the “burnt offerings and sacrifices” as voluntary poverty and generosity (pp. 80–81). Homilies 19–32 focus on “the spiritual fire of loving and being loved more” (pp. 81). The last two homilies sum up “the whole development of thought since Homily 19” (p. 82). He concludes that “John Chrysostom became the creator of a new quality of theology, a theology completely non-academic, entirely invested in the social emergencies of his time, but intensely ‘mystical’—because it was a concentration of theological understanding, nourished by his ascetical devotion to the letter and spirit of scripture” (p. 82).
In “Thomas Aquinas and the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘The Excellence of Christ,’” Daniel Keating deals primarily with Aquinas’ commentary on Hebrews. Aquinas ascribes Pauline authorship to Hebrews (p. 84). For Aquinas, Christ is the principal theme of Hebrews (p. 84). Aquinas embraces the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as being one person with two natures, divine and human. This Chalcedonian understanding of Christ becomes the lens by which Aquinas interprets the book of Hebrews. He consistently applies a “two-nature exegesis” in his interpretation of Hebrews, showing how the text applies both to Christ’s divine and human natures (pp. 85–86). In his prologue, Aquinas declares that the purpose of Hebrews is to reveal the excellence of Christ: first, it reveals the excellence of Christ himself, and second it reveals the excellence of his work (p. 88). Aquinas analyzes the text of Hebrews as follows: Chapters 1–10 deal with the excellence of Christ in his person and work; chapters 11–13 show how the members of the body, the Church, are joined to the Christ, the Head, through faith (p. 88). Keating proceeds to analyze Aquinas’ treatment of the first ten chapters of Hebrews. Chapter 1 is principally concerned with the revelation of the divinity of Christ (pp. 88–91). Chapter 2 focuses primarily on Christ’s incarnation and the fullness of his humanity (pp. 91–94). Chapters 4–10 demonstrate the appropriateness of Christ’s office of priest as one who mediates between God and human beings (pp. 94–98). Keating concludes that “Aquinas’ application of a two-nature, one-person Chalcedonian framework is not an unwarranted imposition, but a penetrating light that helps to account for the various claims made about Christ in Hebrews itself” (p. 99).
Mickey Mattox examines “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews.” According to Mattox, Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews plays a greater role in the twentieth century than it did in the sixteenth century, since they have only been rediscovered in 1899 (p. 100). Luther’s lectures were delivered in 1517–1518. Luther later translated the NT into German and the first edition of his NT appeared in 1522. Luther affirmed Pauline authorship in the Lectures, but later rejected Pauline authorship in the preface to his translation of Hebrews (p. 103). Mattox first summarizes some of the important conclusions found in Kenneth Hagen’s important study, A Theology of Testament in the Young Luther (pp. 105–8). Hagen finds ‘testament’ to be central in Luther’s work. Hagen demonstrates that Luther’s knowledge of the antecedent exegetical literature on Hebrews is impressive, and he was interested in emphasizing how Luther differed from this antecedent tradition (p. 105). He noted that the antecedent tradition identified the superiority of Christ as the main point of the book, but that they saw development and continuity between the old covenant the new; the difference between the two is the advent of Christ (pp. 106–7). According to Hagen, Luther “radicalizes the superiority of Christ over his Old Testament predecessors in an exclusive way”; he makes a distinction between the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. The difference, however, is not with reference to God, but with the response of the human; when a person hears the Word of God as Law, it becomes old; when a person hears it as Gospel, it is new (p. 107). Hagen also believes that Luther’s emphasis on the humanity of Christ “mutes the speculative Trinitarian side of the exegetical conversation as it is found among the medievals” (p. 108). Mattox proceeds to examine specific passages in Luther’s lectures on the first two chapters of Hebrews: 1:2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9; 2:7, 9 (pp. 109–18). Mattox concludes that 1) “Luther simultaneously reads Hebrews Christologically, and reads his Christology out of Hebrews”; 2) Luther’s Christological interpretation does not stand in tension with or contradict antecedent Trinitarian readings; and 3) Luther stands in solidarity with the Chalcedonian Christology of the Catholic tradition (pp. 118–19).
In “The Perfect Priest: Calvin on the Christ of Hebrews,” Michael Allen makes three claims regarding Calvin’s interaction with Hebrews. First, “Calvin’s theology majors on the importance of history in its consideration of the economy of salvation, and this theme is drawn largely from Hebrews” (p. 122). Calvin emphasizes both discontinuity and continuity of the old and new covenants. In his polemics against the sacramental theology of the Catholic Church, he emphasizes the once-for-all-ness of Christ’s sacrifice (p. 123). He also claims that only the prophetic office continues in the Church, not the royal or priestly offices. In opposition to the Anabaptists, Calvin emphasizes the continuity of the people of God through all of biblical history (pp. 124–25). Second, “Calvin develops the theme of perfection in Hebrews by clarifying the meaning of Christ’s ‘full divinity’” (p. 122). Calvin clarifies the Chalecdonian formulation on the Trinity by describing Christ as autotheos: in his divine essence Christ is self-existent, but in his person as the Son, he derives his beginning from the Father (pp. 126–28, 130). Calvin finds affirmation of this contention in Hebrews (pp. 129–30). Third, “Calvin also expands the theme of perfection in Hebrews by elucidating what is meant by Christ’s ‘full humanity’” (p. 122). Calvin emphasizes the maturation of Christ’s humanity; it was a gradual, but sinless development (p. 131). His humanity, involving both his trust in God and obedience, were important for humanity’s redemption and as a pattern for Christians to follow (pp. 132–33). Allen concludes that there are “close conceptual ties between themes found in Hebrews and [Calvin’s] own dogmatic distinctives” (p. 133).
Kelly Kapic explores “Typology, the Messiah, and John Owen’s Theological Reading of Hebrews” in the next chapter. The publication of Owen’s massive commentary, originally four volumes, extended from 1668 until 1684. Kapic exclaims that “this massive feat blends biblical scholarship, theological reflection, and pastoral concern unlike anything else I know of in the history of commentaries on Hebrews” (p. 136). Owen evinces greater erudition than the great reformers but he still adheres to the integrity and authority of the biblical text (pp. 136–37). Owen’s orderly approach to the explication of the text anticipates modern commentary approaches (p. 137–38). Kapic explains that Owen’s scholarship forms a bridge between pre-critical scholarship and developing modern approaches (p. 138). In contrast to the prevailing view, Owen denied that Hebrews was originally written in Hebrew, but he did believe that Hebrews based its quotations upon the Hebrew OT and not the LXX. On page 139, Kapic outlines three of Owen’s hermeneutical principles. Owen believed that it was necessary to draw theological understanding from the text of Scripture (p. 140). Owen believed that Hebrews was principally about Jesus being the Messiah who fulfilled the promises about one who would come to bring redemption to humanity (p. 141). It was critical to understand the Messiah in light of the OT; the entirety of the OT bears witness to the promised Messiah (pp. 141–43). Kapic explains that “Hebrews, according to Owen, uses a distinctive kind of Christological typology to illuminate the person and work of Jesus” (p. 144). Kapic proceeds to explain Owen’s principles for interpreting typology, giving two illustrations from Heb 1:5 and 9:13 (pp. 144–53). He concludes with a helpful summation of Owen’s principles on page 153.
In “The Identity of the Son: Karl Barth’s Exegesis of Hebrews 1.1–4 (and Similar Passages),” Bruce McCormack concentrates on Barth’s interpretation of the exordium of Hebrews. According to McCormack, Barth interprets the exordium in light of his understanding of the prologue of John (p. 156). McCormack explains that, for Barth, John 1:1 “does not refer to an eternal Word abstracted from the humanity He would assume in time but to Jesus Christ and, therefore, to a Word whose identity is given through the relation in which He stands to Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 157). When John referred to the Logos, he not only referred to the Logos asarkos, but also to the humanity to be assumed (p. 157). After briefly examining the exordium (pp. 159–60), McCormack notes a tension: In Heb 1:2, Jesus is appointed as the son in proctology, but he enters into the fullness of his Sonship only at His eschatological enthronement mentioned in 1:3–4. McCormack surveys and critiques three options for resolving this tension. John Webster, representing the traditional approach, “identifies the Son with ‘the Logos’ of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the eternally generated second ‘person’ of the Trinity. The Son is thus a Logos asarkos whose identity is complete in itself, without reference to the humanity He would assume in time” (p. 160). The second option, proposed by Richard Bauckham, equates the Son of 1:2 directly with Jesus Christ (pp. 162–63). Kenneth Schenck represents the third option which states that Christ did not exist as a hypostatized person, but only existed in the eternal purposes of God (p. 164–65). McCormack finds each of these options lacking and turns to the fourth option, proposed by Barth: the exordium refers to “a Logos asarkos whose identity is already teleologically determined for incarnation” (p. 170). He later explains that “Jesus Christ is the motivating basis of creation precisely as the concretization in God, the hypostatic realization of His electing purposes” (pp. 170–71).
Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood contribute the next essay, “The Living Word Versus the Proof Text? Hebrews in Modern Systematic Theology.” Their goal is “to probe the reasons for and implications of [the] relative paucity of Hebrews’ modern dogmatic influence” (p. 173). They quickly survey the use of Hebrews in representative systematic theologies from a variety of theological traditions. In particular, they survey in roughly chronological order the works of Charles Hodge, Augustus Hopkins Strong, John Miley, Franz Pieper, Louis Berkhof, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carl F. H. Henry, Thomas Finger, Thomas Oden, J. Rodman Williams, Stanley Grenz, Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, James Williams McClendon Jr., Donald Bloesch, and Robert Jenson (pp. 174–86). They conclude that these theologians tend to appeal to Hebrews through citation or proof-texting. On occasion, they might provide a longer discussion to justify their theological assertions (p. 186). Next, Treier and Atwood outline the material contribution of Hebrews to systematic theology. They move sequentially through the book of Hebrews highlighting how Hebrews might contribute to the whole scope of theology: theology proper, Christology, angelology, anthropology, harmatiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, as well as theologies of revelation, scripture, prayer, sacred space, suffering, and so forth (pp. 187–92). Finally, they outline the formal contribution of Hebrews to systematic theology. They offer seven theses focused around the tension between proof-texting and the Living Word.
The final three essays offer responses by two biblical scholars and one theologian. The first of these essays, “Hebrews and the History of Its Interpretation: A Biblical Scholar’s Response,” is given by Harold W. Attridge. He briefly highlights the significance of each article while occasionally offering a critique or suggestions for further avenues of investigation. He gives particular attention to the articles by Laansma, McCormack, and Treier and Atwood. In response to Laansma, Attridge notes that the enterprise of the history of interpretation and theological approaches to Scripture has been in process for the last several decades (pp. 202–3). He critiques the article by Treier and Atwood for only focusing on systematic theologies produced by Protestants. Attridge wonders whether similar results would be obtained by examining Catholic systematic theologies (p. 209). Attridge also suggests that we consider the author of Hebrews as a creative theologian in his own right (pp. 209–10). Attention should be given to the author’s own exegetical and midrashic techniques used in the interpretation of Scripture (pp. 210–12).
Donald Hagner offers the second response in his essay, “Hebrews: A Book for Today—A Biblical Scholar’s Response.” Hagner begins by offering some general observations why Hebrews, generally speaking, has been neglected by scholars in the modern era: its mode of argumentation seems strange and its subject matter appears arcane. Moreover, Hebrews differs significantly from other NT books (pp. 213–15). Hagner then gives specific comments about the essays collected in this volume. He arranges his comments under four headings of themes that have emerged in the course of the book: a) Analogy of Faith and the Meaning of Texts; b) Intertextuality and Canonical Readings; c) The Unity of Salvation History and the Centrality of Christology; and d) Scripture as God’s Message to the Present (Theological Interpretation). Hagner is of the conviction that theological interpretation should be used alongside historical-critical interpretation in order to temper the latter.
Kathryn Greene-McCreight offers the final response in her essay, “Hebrews: Yesterday, Today, and Future—A Theologian’s Response.” Her essay is the most critical of the three. She fails to see how this selective history of interpretation contributes to the editors’ stated objective of making contributions to an understanding of the theological interpretation of Scripture (p. 225). She is particularly critical of Hagner’s essay. She is convinced that theological interpretation and historical-critical methods are incompatible with one another (p. 227). She also finds it problematic that theological interpretation approaches the texts with its own presuppositions (p. 231). She also reminds us that historical approaches to Scripture are unavoidable since the stories contained in them are located within space and time (p. 233–34). Positively, she notes the importance of the Rule of Faith in theological exegesis. The Rule of Faith does rule out certain interpretations but it does not mandate any specific ones. (p. 234–35). She states that the “Rule of Faith allows for a specifically Christian epistemology, which historical criticisms do not” (p. 236), and hence is an appropriate guide for our interpretation of Scripture (p. 237).
This book offers a fascinating set of essays on the history of the theological interpretation of Hebrews. I noted in several places how observations of the text of Hebrews by modern scholars were in fact anticipated much earlier by these earlier interpreters. Naturally, the articles varied in terms of quality and usefulness. Young’s analysis of the Greek commentaries was excellent, as was Keating’s analysis of Aquinas’ commentary. Laansma’s survey of the history of interpretation in the modern period was too generalized to be of much use, but his diagnosis of the place of Hebrews in modern scholarly research was very helpful. Bingham’s article was not entirely persuasive to me, but at least he shows the significant possibility that Irenaeus may have used Hebrews in his theological reflection. Kannengiesser provided a useful introduction to Chrysostom’s homilies but he could have provided more clarity on Chrysostom’s sometimes strange interpretation of the text. Mattox provides a useful introduction to Luther’s lectures, as does Kapic for Owen’s commentary. In places Allen could have provide a better connection between Calvin’s interpretation of Hebrews and his theological reflections. McCormack’s essay was particularly challenging for me, but he provides a helpful overview of four approaches to the exordium of Hebrews. Treier and Atwood provide a programmatic essay on how Hebrews can contribute to systematic theology. The final essays by Attridge, Hagner, and Greene-McCreight all raise in different ways questions about the relationship of the history of interpretation and the theological interpretation of Scripture.