Wednesday, November 04, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 6: Salvation and Perfection

David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I've been working through a series of lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

The final lesson: "Salvation and Perfection in Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

My observations:
  • There is strong language in Hebrews that appears to say that believers are in danger of losing their salvation.  This caused theological problems even in the early church, let alone for those of us in Reformed traditions today.  These early discussions also led to concerns about whether or not Hebrews should be considered part of the Biblical canon.  Probably erroneous assumptions that the book was written by Paul may well have given Hebrews enough "status" to make the cut (see points on authorship in Week 2).
  • The idea that a person once saved, would remain saved, was articulated by John Calvin as arising out of God's omnipotence and omniscience.  If God saves a person, it must be permanent. Reformed believers often refer to this concept of salvation as "the perseverance of the saints" or "eternal security."  Arminians, by contrast, emphasize personal security, and thus allow for the possibility of losing salvation through disobedience or turning one's back on God.  The debate between these camps has raged for a long time, and Hebrews has often been a battleground for these arguments.
  • Scholer recounts the various "warnings" in Hebrews that imply the ability to lose salvation.  These must be taken seriously, and not too quickly dismissed as mere rhetorical devices.  They're not just "mild cautions."  Scholer cites Hebrews 6:4-12 and 10:26-39 as perhaps the two most central to this discussion.  The language in these verses cannot be dismissed as merely "trying" salvation, but refer to real participation (note, for example the language in chapter 6 of  having "tasted the heavenly gift," and consider alongside Hebrews 2:9, which uses "taste death," to indicate that Jesus actually died).  Likewise it seems clear that the author of Hebrews is actually talking about salvation, and not something else.  However, these passages also end with words of reassurance, where the author indicates his confidence that the readers will indeed persevere.  So, to what degree are these warnings rhetorical, given the intensity of the concern that the audience not fall away, yet followed by such conviction of perseverance?
  • In Hebrews, salvation is actually described as a future reality.  Hebrews 9:28, for example, references salvation in the context of the Second Coming, and specifically speaks of "saving" as distinct from dealing with sin.  This contrasts with the tradition of a lot of our theological training, where we are taught to think of salvation as something that has happened in the past.  "Remember the day you were saved."  (I think that this is less true for mainline Presbyterians, but it's certainly a reality for many evangelicals.)  In the New Testament in general, salvation is described in past, present, and future terms, so there's plenty of precedent for the evangelical concept, but it's important to note that Hebrews focuses almost entirely on salvation as future.  This perhaps explains some of Hebrews' apparent emphasis on the possibility of losing salvation.  If Jesus only had to die once, and the salvation secured through that death was for forever, then anyone who "drops out" could not be part of that.  If you are to "complete" the journey, you have to go the whole way.  If you don't "complete" the journey, you weren't really on it in the first place.
  • Scholer also shares some thoughts on the doctrine of "divine election" and how this might be reconciled with human choice.  I'm not sure that some of my Presbyterian professors would agree with Scholer's formulation ("Only God knows who will make it" sounds a bit too much like God is basing the election on human choice, which most Calvinist scholars I know would be quick to refute, but I hasten to add that Scholer doesn't quite claim that God chooses on the basis of human choice.  He seems content to leave this as a "paradox."), but it's worth reflecting on.  Whatever else is true, God remains sovereign, and human responsibility remains important, too.

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