Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of Schreiner's Commentary on Hebrews

Thomas R. Schreiner. Commentary on Hebrews. Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2015. Hardback. Pp. xviii + 539.

Thomas Schreiner’s Commentary on Hebrews is the inaugural volume of the new Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation commentary series. The series seeks to be distinct from other commentaries. It does not try to exhaustively examine the biblical texts, but instead it takes a biblical theological approach to the texts. It seeks to explore how each text contributes to an understanding of the theology of the Scriptures as a whole. Moreover, the series is geared toward the proclamation of the text. Hence, while not unscholarly, this series is targeted towards Christian ministers who will be preaching and teaching about the texts.

In the introduction, Schreiner briefly addresses some of the critical issues of Hebrews. He highlights some of the leading candidates for authorship (i.e., Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Apollos) but he does not decisively opt for any one of them. He prefers a pre-70s date for Hebrews because (1) it refers to the tabernacle in the present tense, implying that the Jewish cultus was still in operation; (2) it does not mention the destruction of the temple which would have contributed to the author’s argument that the old covenant was obsolete; and (3) it was used by 1 Clement and hence would need time to circulate. However, none of these reasons are decisive for a pre-70s date. As Schreiner himself notes, some texts that post-date the destruction of the temple still referred to the temple in the present tense. If the temple was still in existence, it is odd that Hebrews makes no mention of it. And Hebrews could have circulated much quicker than the 25+ year time gap between the destruction of the temple and the supposed writer of 1 Clement, especially if Hebrews was sent to the Roman church.

Schreiner believes that the addressees were Jewish Christians living in Rome (although he admires the strength of Carl Mosser’s argument that the audience was living in Jerusalem), who were tempted to revert to Judaism due to external pressure or persecution. He notes the oral character of Hebrews and concludes that it is a sermon or exhortation written in epistolary form. The purpose of the letter is to admonish the audience not to fall away from Jesus and the new covenant and to return to the Mosaic Law and old covenant. He discusses some of the proposals for the religious-cultural background of Hebrews but doesn’t seem to settle on any one of them. He presents a very straightforward outline of the book.

Some of the distinctive features of the commentary begin to emerge in the next two sections. First, Schreiner recounts the storyline of the Bible beginning from Genesis through to the New Testament. He wants to place Hebrews within its canonical context. He notes how Hebrews connects with the storyline of the Bible and echoes many of its major themes. Schreiner remarks that the Old Testament needs to be read in light of its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. In the next and final section of the introduction, Schreiner deals with four biblical and theological structures that lie behind the theology of Hebrews. First, Hebrews has a promise-fulfillment orientation. Old Testament promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Second, Hebrews has an already-but-not-yet eschatology. God’s promises have been inaugurated in Jesus Christ but they have not reached their ultimate consummation. Third, Hebrews utilizes typology. Schreiner defines typology as “a historical correspondence between events, institutions, and persons found in the OT and the NT” (pp. 36–37). He further qualifies his definition by stating that the typology is something intended by God. He notes also that there is an “escalation” in Hebrews’ typology; the fulfillment is always better than the type. Fourth, Hebrews has a spatial orientation. Hebrews contrasts the earthly and the heavenly realms. Schreiner adduces many examples from Hebrews for each of these theological structures.

The commentary proper analyzes Hebrews passage by passage and follows the following format: (1) An outline situates the passage within the larger flow of thought of Hebrews; (2) Scripture translation from the Holman Christian Standard Bible; (3) context; (4) verse-by-verse exegesis; and (5) a bridge which summarizes the exegesis and transitions to the next passage. The exegesis does not get into the intricacies of the Greek text. Greek, when used, is always translated. The exposition is primarily concerned with bringing out the theology of the text.

In what follows, I will highlight some of Schreiner’s exegetical decisions. At 1:6 he interprets “firstborn” to be a reference to Jesus’ exaltation and not his incarnation or parousia. Thus, Schreiner is in line with the current trend which prefers the exaltation view. In his discussion of 2:5–9 he seems to read Hebrews’ use of Ps 8 anthropologically, rather than christologically. Scholars are decidedly split over these two options.

In his discussion of the verb γεγόναμεν in verse 3:14, Schreiner says, “Some interpreters read too much into the perfect tense, interpreting the condition as evidence to inference. It is preferable to read the condition here in accord with the other conditional statements in Hebrews. It is certainly possible that the author makes the point that those who have truly become Christians in the past are those who will persevere in the future. Theologically, I have no objection to that reading. It is questionable, however, whether such nuanced reading fits the context of Hebrews. Elsewhere in the letter the author doesn’t make the point that only true Christians persevere. Instead, he admonishes believers to persevere until the end so they will receive the final reward. In other words we should beware of imposing a theological reading on the text that goes beyond the boundaries of what the author wants to do here. He is simply saying that the readers are sharers of Christ if they persevere to the end. He is not arguing here that true believers will definitely persevere, for it is a conditional statement. Nor is he saying that those who are truly believers will persevere. It is better to read the text as a simple condition” (128). I appreciate Schreiner’s integrity here. He is trying to understand Hebrews on its own terms rather than impose his theological presuppositions upon the text.

In his discussion of 4:12, which talks about the word of God “penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit,” Schreiner makes the following comments: “It is difficult to know . . . what the author could possibly mean by ‘the separation of soul and spirit.’ It is not apparent elsewhere from the OT or the NT that clear distinctions should be erected between the soul and spirit. In some popular and devotional literature, this verse is used to justify distinguishing between the soul and the spirit, and sometimes a whole spirituality springs up that separates the spirit, the soul, and the body. These tripartite understandings of human beings are speculative, testifying to the creativity of their authors more than they reflect the teaching of the NT” (147). I am glad to read such a measured statement by a leading scholar.

When dealing with the controversial passage, 6:4–6, Schreiner argues that the persons in view are real Christians and the danger in view is apostasy. He rejects the “loss of rewards” view as espoused by David Allen and others. He notes that the warning passages are the means by which God preserves believers.

In his discussion of Melchizedek at 7:1–10, Schreiner rejects the view that Melchizedek was a preincarnate appearance of Jesus as the Son of God. First, Hebrews uses typology; hence, Melchizedek’s priesthood simply adumbrates Jesus’ priesthood. Second, Melchizedek is only likened to Jesus, not equated with him. Schreiner argues that the author of Hebrews simply uses the silences in the Genesis account to make his case about Melchizedek. What Schreiner does not mention is that a large number of scholars believe that Hebrews views Melchizedek as a supra-human or heavenly being. Schreiner certainly does not adopt this interpretation.

Schreiner’s Calvinistic leanings seep through in his discussion of the new covenant at 8:11. He avers that those who are truly new covenant people will never fall away. If a new covenant member does fall away, it only demonstrates that that person was not truly regenerate.

Schreiner deals with a number of controversial issues in 9:11–14. First, he indicates that the author is not talking about a literal tabernacle in heaven. It is figurative language used “for depicting the presence of God” (267). Second, Jesus does not literally bring his blood into heaven. Moreover, the blood refers to Jesus’ self-sacrificial death and not to Jesus’ presentation of his life to God (268n432; see also his discussion on 279). Forgiveness comes from the death of the victim, not from the release of the victim’s life. Third, “through eternal spirit” at 9:14 most likely refers to the Holy Spirit and not to Jesus’ human spirit.

Regarding the reference to the cleansing of heavenly things at 9:22, Schreiner again does not take the language literally: “the imagery should not be pressed, as if somehow heaven itself is defiled by human sin. The writer uses spatial and typological language to communicate the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice, but it is unwarranted to conclude that he actually believes there are heavenly places that literally need cleansing. . . . the reference to the cleansing of the heavenly places should not be understood literally or univocally but analogically” (283).

The final chapter of the commentary deals with the biblical and theological themes of Hebrews. This chapter provides a nice encapsulation of the biblical theology of Hebrews. He divides his analysis under nine major headings: (1) God; (2) Jesus Christ; (3) the new covenant; (4) the Spirit; (5) warnings and exhortations; (6) sojourners and exiles; (7) faith, obedience, and the situation of the readers; (8) assurance; and (9) the future reward.

At the beginning of the section on Jesus Christ, Schreiner summarizes at length my 2010 Perspectives in Religious Studies article on “The Use of Rhetorical Topoi in the Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews.” To my knowledge, Schreiner is the first person to cite one of my works in publication. Regrettably, he cites my article rather than my monograph which was a fuller and more mature articulation of what I was doing in the article. At any rate, it was a bit startling to see my article referenced to such length. I want to clarify two statements Schreiner makes about my article. First, he states, “Small argues that by using narrative criticism the excellency of Jesus is presented” (441–42). While I certainly could have used a narrative critical approach to Hebrews, I actually used a rhetorical approach. As I demonstrate in my monograph, characterization is a method that is used in both narrative and rhetorical genres, but in slightly different ways. Second, Schreiner notes that I take the word ἀπαύγασμα (1:3) to mean “reflection,” rather than “radiance.” Actually, I am not dogmatic about it; the context gives us little to go on to determine the meaning. “Radiance” is certainly a stronger term, but if I had to fall off the log in one direction or the other, I would lean towards “reflection” as the meaning of the term in the context of Hebrews.

In the remainder of the section on Jesus Christ, Schreiner considers the Christology of Hebrews under the following headings: (1) divine Son; (2) the humanity of the Son; (3) the priesthood of Jesus; (4) Jesus’ better sacrifice and human anthropology; (5) perfection and assurance; (6) Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation.

In the section on the warnings and exhortations of Hebrews, Schreiner highlights four approaches to the warning passages: (1) Arminian: the warnings are addressed to true Christians who may renounce their faith and lose their salvation. The warnings encourage them to hold on to their faith. Schreiner notes that the “Arminian view is the most common one among commentators today and has the virtue of being a straightforward readings” (480). I agree! (2) Free Grace: the warnings are addressed to true Christians who cannot lose their salvation. The warnings caution against the lack of fruitfulness in their lives. (3) Tests of Genuineness: the warnings are addressed to a mixed audience of Christians and almost-Christians; those who fail to heed the warnings were not true Christians to begin with; true Christians cannot lose their salvation. (4) Means of Salvation: warnings are addressed to true Christians who cannot lose their salvation. The warnings are one of the means God uses to preserve believers in the faith. Schreiner defends the last view, noting that this view is similar to the Arminian view. The only difference is in regard to the function of the warnings. I think Schreiner is right that the warning passages are addressed to true Christians, that the issue at stake is apostasy, and that the consequences of falling away is final judgment. I remain unpersuaded by his contention that the warning passages are merely the means of keeping the elect in the faith. I believe that the warning passages have real urgency because apostasy remains a real possibility for believers.

Over all this is a solid little commentary. The commentary is not overly technical, so someone looking for a detailed analysis of the Greek text will need to look elsewhere. Seasoned Hebrews scholars will probably not find much that is new in this commentary. What the commentary does accomplish is provide the theological payoff to the exegesis of the text. Moreover, the final chapter provides a nice summation of the biblical theology of Hebrews. Schreiner usually makes sound exegetical decisions, and while I don’t agree with the Calvinist tinge that he applies to Hebrews, I do appreciate his irenic approach to the discussion of the issues and his openness to draw insights even from Arminian authors (such as Gary Cockerill or I. Howard Marshall). His approach is a refreshing contrast to the Calvinist commentary I reviewed in the previous post. Of the five new commentaries that I reviewed recently, I would recommend this one first.

Thanks to Chris Cowan and B&H Publishing Group for a review copy of the book.

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