Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of Easter, Faith and the Faithfulness of Jesus in Hebrews

[This review first appeared in Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.4 (2015): 582–84. It is reprinted here by permission.]

Matthew C. Easter. Faith and the Faithfulness of Jesus in Hebrews. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 160. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xv + 263. ISBN 978-1-107-06321-1. $99.00 cloth.

This monograph, a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand under the direction of Paul Trebilco, seeks to understand the motif of faith and faithfulness in Hebrews through a narrative lens.

In the introductory first chapter Easter surveys previous studies on the faith motif in Hebrews concluding that these studies have not adequately brought together the christological, ethical, eschatological, and ecclesiological dimensions of faith. Easter seeks to remedy this situation by placing these four dimensions into conversation with one another by applying a narrative approach to Hebrews. In particular, he is concerned to uncover the narrative identities that emerge from the story world of Hebrews, which he summarizes as “(1) the default human story, characterized by unfaithfulness, concluding assuredly in eschatological death . . . and (2) the story of faith in the face of death, concluding assuredly in postmortem life” (p. 32). The remaining chapters of the book are organized in accordance with this schema: Part II focuses on “the default human story” (chapters 2–3), Part III deals with “the rewritten narrative” (chapters 4–6), while Part IV is concerned with “participating in the new story” (chapters 7–8).

In chapter 2 Easter maintains that Hebrews has a pessimistic anthropology. God intended that human beings would receive glory, honor, and dominion, but his plans have been thwarted due to humanity’s struggle with unfaithfulness and sin. Humanity is incapable of overcoming sin apart from divine enablement. The inevitable consequence for those trapped in the default human story is postmortem retribution. In chapter 3 Easter argues that, in Hebrews, the eschatological hope is a homeland in the heavenly realm built by God, which is reserved for human beings with enduring lives. However, prior to Jesus, no human being, including Israel’s heroes of faith, has attained this eschatological hope.

In chapter 4 Easter explains that humanity has a shared destiny with Jesus. Through his sinless life, Jesus has broken out of the default human story and has realized the eschatological hope. Hence, humanity is able to participate in the same eschatological hope. In chapter 5 Easter focuses on the faithfulness of Jesus, giving particular attention to Heb 12:1–3. As the pioneer of faith, Jesus is the preeminent faithful one who successfully completes the race of faith in the face of death. As the perfecter of faith, Jesus obtains eschatological life for those participating in the same story of faith. In chapter 6 Easter contends that Hebrews appropriates Hab 2:3–4 to bring the two narratives into contrast: timidity leads to death (the default human story), while faith leads to life (the rewritten story).

In chapter 7 Easter investigates how humans can participate in the story of faith rewritten by Jesus. He organizes the chapter according to the four dimensions of faith. Faith is christological in that Jesus is the preeminent faithful one who enables the faith of believers and serves as a model for them, but he is not the object of faith. Faith is eschatological because it is directed toward the eschatological hope and guarantees its realization. Ethical faith is manifested in obedience and endurance in the face of suffering and death. Ecclesiological faith involves participating in the corporate aspect of faith by persevering with the traveling people of God. In chapter 8 Easter summarizes his argument and draws out some implications of his study.

In my opinion, this monograph makes a few contributions to the study of Hebrews. First, Easter’s narrative approach highlights the narrative identities contained in the story world of Hebrews. Second, he makes a convincing case that Heb 12:1–3 evokes both athletic and martyrological imagery. Third, he integrates the christological, ethical, eschatological, and ecclesiological dimensions of faith in Hebrews. In my opinion, Easter usually makes sound exegetical decisions in his discussions, but I would like to address his treatment of a few passages in Hebrews.

First, Easter avers that Heb 2:1–4 does not contain a lesser-to-greater argument because it lacks a key linguistic marker: a comparative adjective. However, Hebrews 2:3 uses the interrogative πῶς, which is used in other lesser-to-greater arguments in both the LXX (Exod 6:12; Deut 31:27; 1 Sam 23:3; Jer 12:5) and the NT (Rom 8:32). Moreover, lesser-to-greater arguments are found elsewhere in the NT without any clear linguistic markers (Luke 13:15–16; John 7:23). Hebrews 2:1–4 argues that if disobedience to the message of God mediated by angels resulted in certain punishment, the consequences for disregarding the message of God mediated by the Son will be even more unavoidable.

Second, in his discussion of perfection on pages 94–99, Easter seems to equate perfection with enduring life after death in certain passages in Hebrews. This seems to be an overly simplistic equation. How in fact is Jesus perfected through sufferings if he does not attain perfection until after his death? How does Jesus’ offering actually perfect the believer? It is best to understand perfection in terms of vocational perfection. Jesus is perfected for his role as high priest, while believers are perfected in their roles as worshippers. Chapter 3 also raises the question regarding the fate of Israel’s heroes of faith. If they did not receive their eschatological reward, then what happened to them? Easter leaves this burning question unanswered.

Third, I did not find his handling of Heb 10:37–38 to be persuasive. Easter claims that the “coming” in 10:37 is not a reference to the parousia but to Jesus’ “coming to individuals after [their] death” (p. 170). However, the expression “the coming one” is usually found in contexts where there is the expectation of the coming messiah, and the future tense verb ἥξει and the verb χρονίζω are used elsewhere in the NT in contexts referring to the parousia. The idea seems to be that the parousia becomes the incentive for believers to persevere in their faith. Moreover, it seems to me that in the next sentence “the righteous one” refers to believers in general and not to Jesus. Despite these shortcomings, readers will find much of interest in this contribution to Hebrews study.

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