Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review of David Allen's Commentary on Hebrews

David L. Allen. Hebrews. New American Commentary 35. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010.

I would like to thank Jim Baird and Broadman & Holman Publishers for a review copy of this commentary.

David Allen, dean of the School of Theology, professor of preaching, and director of the Center of Biblical Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, has produced the second major commentary on Hebrews to come out in 2010 (the other being Peter O’Brien’s commentary in the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series).

Allen’s commentary, weighing in at 671 pages, is a substantial contribution to the ongoing dialogue over the book of Hebrews.  The 72-page introduction deals with the following topics: the nature, historical circumstances (authorship, recipients, location, and date), purpose, theology, use of the OT, textual criticism, and outline and structure of Hebrews.  The introduction thus explores many of the traditional introductory topics.  Allen engages the various views regarding the book in the presentation of his own views.

Regarding the nature of the book, Allen notes that Hebrews is probably the most enigmatic book in the NT due to the uncertainty over its authorship and provenance.  The book as a whole is sermonic in nature and meant for oral delivery.  The book is also an epistle, although it never had an epistolary introduction.  The epistolary ending is not a Pauline forgery but is original with the book.  Its numerous stylistic devices and its use of the LXX, rather than the Hebrew OT, demonstrate that it was not translated from Hebrew or Aramaic (23-29).

The purpose of Hebrews is primarily pastoral and only secondarily doctrinal (79).  Allen summarizes the purpose as “the necessity of pressing on to maturity in the midst of difficulty (6:1-3) by means of drawing near, holding fast, and stirring one another up to love and good works (10:19-25).”  His section on theology is brief, noting that he will draw out the theological implications at the end of each section in the commentary (82-83).  Allen states that Hebrews does not exhibit a “replacement theology” nor is it supersessionistic since it does not claim that the Jewish people have been replaced by any other group.  He clarifies, however, that there is a form of supersessionism in Hebrews, namely that “the old covenant is superseded by the new” (83).  This is an important distinction that Allen makes in the face of the current politically correct trend of not seeing any supersessionism in Hebrews.

His section on the use of the OT in Hebrews deals with the standard issues.  Hebrews’ presentation is centered on key quotations, as first noted by G. B. Caird but modified by others.  Hebrews exclusively uses the LXX and uses a midrashic approach to the interpretation of scripture.  His method of citation is unique, attributing OT quotations directly to God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.  This method of citation signifies that the author of Hebrews viewed scripture as the very words of God spoken personally to the readers (84-87).  Regarding textual criticism, he remarks briefly that the “commentary only deals with text-critical issues that significantly affect interpretation,” but he does point the reader to useful resources for further study (87).  Allen’s outline and structure of the book are influenced by the discourse analysis treatments of Linda Neely, George Guthrie, and Cynthia Westfall (87-94).

Where Allen makes his greatest contribution is his reconstruction of the historical circumstances of the book.  Allen develops his historical reconstruction and argument for Lukan authorship more fully in his monograph, The Lukan Authorship of Jesus.  Readers are encouraged to check out my review and critique of his presentation here.  Allen contends that Luke, the amanuensis of Paul, wrote Hebrews from Rome to a group of former Jewish priests residing in Antioch during the time of the Jewish revolt just before the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  Allen first deals with other major candidates for authorship (Paul, Barnabas, Apollos) before presenting his argument for Lukan authorship.  While he claims that the case for Pauline authorship has been too easily dismissed by recent scholars, Allen ultimately rejects Pauline authorship for a variety of reasons: lack of Paul’s name, lack of epistolary salutation, stylistic and theological differences, treatment of the OT, and the fact that the author apparently considered himself among the second generation of Christians (34-43).  The arguments for Barnabas and Apollos are dismissed much more briefly (43-47).  The case for Priscillan authorship is dismissed in a footnote on page 47.

Allen begins his argument for Lukan authorship with the patristic testimony.  He then proceeds to reconstruct the historical background adducing evidence from Hebrews 13:23-24 and the Pastoral Epistles.  Luke was Paul’s amanuensis during his time of imprisonment in Rome and helped him write the Pastoral Epistles (see 2 Tim 4:11).  In 2 Tim 4:9 Paul urges Timothy to come to him quickly.  Sometime before or after Timothy arrived Paul was beheaded and Timothy was arrested and imprisoned.  Shortly after Timothy was released Luke wrote Hebrews (13:23).  Naturally, scholars who deny Pauline authorship of the Pastorals will not be persuaded by this reconstruction. 

Allen cites similarity in vocabulary and style as another reason for supporting Lukan authorship.  For example, he notes that Hebrews shares 53 words that only appear elsewhere in the NT in Luke-Acts.  Allen tries to counter a few objections to Lukan authorship.  Allen argues that the objection based on ethnicity (that the author of Luke-Acts was Gentile, while the author of Hebrews was Jewish) cannot be sufficiently maintained.  Allen downplays the supposed theological differences between Hebrews and Luke-Acts.  Luke does have a notion of a high priestly Christology and he does have a theology of the cross.  Allen develops his argument more fully in his monograph in which he also highlights other linguistic and theological affinities between Luke-Acts and Hebrews.

Naturally, it will be impossible in this review to deal with the commentary in detail.  Allen’s commentary basically takes the following format.  For each passage he begins with a general overview dealing with pertinent issues.  Then he proceeds with a verse-by-verse and passage-by-passage commentary on the Greek text.  Greek words are transliterated, making it somewhat more accessible for the non-specialist.  Nevertheless, the commentary for each section is still quite thorough and learned.  Allen interacts extensively with secondary literature, even dealing with numerous nineteenth-century works which are often neglected in more recent scholarly treatments.  The selected bibliography at the end of the book does not reflect all the numerous works cited in the voluminous footnotes of the commentary (I, for one, would have preferred a more complete bibliography of all works cited).  Allen also deals with the theological implications at the end of most sections.  Here Allen interacts with a great deal of theological literature not normally treated in commentaries of this sort.  Allen demonstrates a greater theological sensitivity than many other commentaries and it is here that I believe Allen makes a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion on Hebrews.  Allen has particularly long treatments on the prologue, 1:1-4 (65 pages!), and the difficult passage of Hebrews 6:1-8 (54 pages!).  In what follows I give a sampling of some of Allen’s more interesting comments and ideas, and how he treats some of the more contested passages in the book.

Allen has a lengthy discussion on the significance of 1:1-4 for the theology of revelation.  On page 152 he says “God’s revelation in Christ is something that God says (God has spoken through the prophets and in a Son), something that Jesus as God is (the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being), and something that Jesus as God does (he created the universe and he made purification for sins).  Thus God’s revelation in Christ is being, word, and event.  It incorporates all the categories that theologians have fought over relative to the nature of revelation: is it personal, propositional, or eventful?  It is in reality all three.”  Allen also believes that Hebrews in essence reflects a Logos Christology, similar to John 1:1-18.

I was surprised to read that Allen believes that 2:3-4 seems to support a cessationist view of spiritual gifts, that is, that the miraculous sign gifts ceased after the age of the apostles (197-200).  Personally, I do not think the passage supports the theological weight he wants to put on the passage.

Allen appears to contradict himself regarding the word oikoumene (1:6; 2:5).  Commenting on 1:6 on page 174 he remarks, “Although oikoumene usually refers to the inhabited human world, our author used this word in Heb 2:5, its only other occurrence in Hebrews, to designate the heavenly realm with a future connotation.”  However, commenting on 2:5 on page 203 he says “Lane gave the word an interpretive translation, ‘heavenly world,’ but such a translation cannot be fully justified by the meaning and usage of the word oikoumene or by the context of the passage itself.  The noun is commonly used to denote ‘the inhabited earth’ and not ‘heaven’ or some generic meaning like ‘future world,’ ‘future life,’ or ‘heavenly world.’”  He is not the only commentator that makes this frustrating contradiction in their commentaries; I have found it in others.  (In a private email Allen did admit the inconsistency to me—he has been working on this commentary for over ten years and when he did some revisions on chapter 2 he did not go back to see what he wrote on 1:6.  Allen informed me that his current view is expressed in his comments on 2:5).

Allen attempts to address the difficult problem of when Jesus became the Son.  According to Allen, Heb 1:1-2:18 indicates three stages of Sonship: 1) Jesus was Son in his preexistent state; 2) Jesus became Son in connection with his incarnation; 3) Jesus entered into a new stage of Sonship at his exaltation (231).

Allen argues that the “word of God” in 4:12-13 refers, not to the written word, but to Jesus as the Word.  This was the prevailing understanding of the term in the patristic and medieval eras.  It was not until the Reformation era that it was construed as the written word.  The Greek word machaira is better rendered as “knife” rather than “sword” (in his monograph, Allen argues that the word could refer to a scalpel and that the medical language in this verse points towards Lukan authorship).  The adjective zon, “living,” implies personality, not an inanimate object.  These two verses form an inclusio with the prologue in which God spoke his word in his Son (285-286).

In Hebrews 3-4 Allen contends that the “rest” not only has an eschatological dimension but has present-day relevance as well.  The author wants to inspire faithfulness in his audience today.  Allen states that to equate “rest” with heaven alone “is problematic for both Calvinists and Arminians” for three reasons: “First, that the exodus generation was barred from entry because of their disobedience is contradictory to the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer.  Second, the exodus generation had to work to obtain the inheritance in Canaan, which does not square with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Third, out of the entire exodus generation, only two men who were over 40 years of age entered the promised rest, Joshua and Caleb.  Are we to assume that all of those who died in the wilderness were not part of God’s covenant people, Israel, and thus were eternally lost?”  (292-293).  This paragraph makes me wonder if his theology is controlling his exegesis.  In 3:12 the author addresses his audience as “brothers,” a term usually reserved for fellow believers.  He warns them against unbelief and falling away (aphistemi) from God.  I take this as a real warning and not a hypothetical possibility.  Allen denies that aphistemi means “apostasy.”  On page 262 he states that “Our author used the verb aphistemi only once in this passage and did not use it again in any of the other warning passages, which argues against understanding his meaning as ‘apostasy’ in the traditional sense of the term.”  But it is unclear to me how this follows.  Later he queries, “If apistia and apeithes are synonyms for apostenai, then is apostasy in the usual theological sense what the author had in mind?  It is highly unlikely that the theological sense of the term is what the author intended” (263).  But I ask, what is apostasy if not unbelief and disobedience to God?   Later the author says that the Israelites did not enter into God’s rest because of their unbelief (3:19), and he warns his audience of the danger of coming short of entering God’s rest (4:1).  Allen is probably right that “rest” is a present possibility for the believer, but it also includes a future reality.  Allen’s argument is certainly far more complex than I have presented here and it is impossible to do it justice in this brief review.  I will leave it up to the reader to decide if Allen’s argument is persuasive.

On pages 306-313 Allen discusses the peccability/impeccability debate, that is, the debate over whether Jesus could or could not have sinned.  While the issue cannot be resolved by appealing to Hebrews 4:15 by itself, Allen concludes that the “preponderance of evidence seems to tilt the scales in favor of the impeccability position” (312).

Allen deals at length with the most controverted passage in Hebrews, 6:4-8.  Allen begins with an examination of the syntax.  He claims that anakainizein is the subject of the sentence with the direct object being the five participial clauses that precede it (346).  This is certainly a plausible way of understanding the syntax.  Unfortunately, he creates confusion by not translating it that way.  If anakainizein is the subject of the sentence, then the sentence should read, “To renew unto repentance those who once have been enlightened . . . is impossible.”  The sentence is nearly impossible to translate adequately into English.  Another way of analyzing the Greek is to view adunaton as a predicate adjective which takes anakainizein as an infinitive complement: “It is impossible to renew unto repentance those who once have been enlightened . . .” (see Lane, Hebrews 1-8, page 132, note r).  This is in fact how Allen translates it.  Allen does correctly identify parapesontas as a substantival participle in parallel to the previous four participles (347-348), which speaks against those who want to view the participle as conditional.  Allen does a detailed word study of the key word parapipto in 6:6.  He concludes that the word does not mean “to apostasize.”  Instead, it has the connotation of “transgressing” against God.

Allen surveys and assesses the five major views on 6:4-6, which he calls 1) the Loss of Salvation view; 2) the Hypothetical view; 3) the Tests of Genuineness view; 4) the Means of Salvation view; and 5) the Loss of Rewards view.  View 1 is generally the Arminian position, which identifies the people described in the passage as genuine believers who lose their salvation due to apostasy.  Views 2-4 are variations on the Calvinist views identifies the people as non-believers, and that true believers cannot apostasize.  The fifth view takes a middle position between the two: it identifies the people as genuine believers, but they cannot lose their salvation.  Instead, they incur other losses of blesses and rewards due to disobedience.  This final position is the one that Allen advocates.  Space prohibits me from evaluating Allen’s argument at length.  As one who comes from an Arminian point of view, I believe he has too easily dismissed the “Loss of Salvation” view.  He remarks that the “key weakness from the standpoint of the New Testament is the difficulty of explaining the plethora of passages that affirm the eternal security of the believer” (371).  He cites some of these passages in a footnote.  Of course, Arminians can also point to a plethora of passages that seem to support the contention that believers can lose their salvation (the most comprehensive list I know of is found on pages 334-337 in Robert Shank’s Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance), not to mention the plethora of passages that speak about the necessity of perseverance.  I find it curious that one can argue that Christians who live in persistent, willful disobedience can incur all kinds of punishments except for the ultimate punishment of the loss of salvation.  Nevertheless, Allen has offered a formidable argument for the “Loss of Rewards” view and anyone who does work on this passage in the future will have to deal with his arguments.

One of the interpretive cruxes of the book of Hebrews is the meaning of diatheke in 9:16-17.    Diatheke can mean either “covenant” or “testament.”  Allen concludes that both linguistically and contextually that diatheke means “covenant” in this passage and throughout Hebrews (481).  My own view is that diatheke can mean “testament” in this context.  The author of Hebrews is a master of exploiting the ambiguities of language, as can be seen, for example, in his usage of the term “house” in 3:1-6 or “rest” in chapters 3-4.

Another interpretive crux is the interpretation of “altar” in 13:10.  Three major lines of interpretations have been taken.  The altar can refer to 1) the Eucharist; 2) the heavenly sanctuary; or 3) the cross or the sacrificial death of Christ.  Allen, I believe, correctly chooses the third option.  The context does not really support a Eucharistic interpretation, and there is no mention of any sacrificial altar in the heavenly sanctuary (616).

The commentary concludes with a selected bibliography and indexes for subjects, persons, and scripture references.  The book itself is solidly constructed; the binding and stitching remain well intact, even after I have worked my way through the whole book.

This is a meaty commentary both exegetically and theologically.  I would rank it among the top ten most important commentaries on the book of Hebrews.  This commentary will have to be consulted in the future by any serious students on the book of Hebrews.


  1. Thanks for an informative review. The work your are doing is splendid. Keep it up.
    Tim Wood, Beira, Mozambique

  2. Thanks for the excellent review! I want to check it out!