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Review: Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews

July 1, 2015

Christology, Hermeneutics, and HebrewsChristology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation. Edited by Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier. T&T Clark, 2012. HB, $130.00, PB $34.95, 288 pp.

A newer entry into the increasingly popular spate of essay collections on the theological interpretation of Scripture, Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews draws upon more than a dozen theologians and biblical scholars to trace the history of the interpretation of Hebrews and the letter’s significance to the task of Christian theological reflection. As a theologian I find projects like this especially exciting in that they tend to side-step formal questions that often preoccupy scholars in the guild of biblical studies (such as authorship), and instead jump straight into the epistle’s theological content. On the other hand, the collection is attentive to questions of method (i.e. the nature and tasks of theological hermeneutics) in a way that such reflection often neglects.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is fundamentally christological in nature, from the Son’s identification as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3), to statements about his being made “lower than the angels for a little while” (2:9), his being “tempted in all ways like us, except without sin” (4:15), his having “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), his high priestly work of atonement on our behalf, his being “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), and more.

The volume collects 13 essays which attend primarily to a series of snapshots from the history of the letter’s interpretation – from Irenaeus and the church fathers to Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, and other figures leading up to the place of Hebrews in modern systematic theology. The middle word in the title, hermeneutics, is key here: the focus is on how Hebrews has been used in theological reflection over the centuries, and also on the nature of ‘theological interpretation’ and the place it should have in the field of Christian biblical studies (which, methodologically speaking, remains oriented toward the sometimes anti-theological orientation of historical criticism).

Co-editor John C. Laansma opens things with a survey of the field of scholarship on Hebrews, and three essays conclude the volume – Harold W. Attridge and Donald A. Hagner providing responses to the project from the perspective of biblical scholarship, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight offering a theologian’s response. Other contributors include: Frances M. Young, D. Jeffrey Bingham (on Irenaeus), Charles Kannengiesser (John Chrysostom), Daniel Keating (Thomas Aquinas), Mickey L. Mattox (Martin Luther), R. Michael Allen (John Calvin), Kelly M. Kapic (John Owen), Bruce L. McCormack (Karl Barth), and Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood. (Laansma and Treier, of Wheaton College, did editing duties as well.)

I will comment briefly on several of the individual essays, and conclude with some overall thoughts on the volume.

~ ~

Frances Young’s essay is a reprint from a classic 1969 publication, contrasting Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical impulses with regard to the use of Hebrews in the commentaries and homilies of Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus (as well as a little bit from Theodore of Mopsuestia). The brief chapter is teeming with insight, displaying why Professor Young is among the best in her field. Cyril’s Christology, for example, struggles with the limits of an instrumentalist construal of the relationship between the divine Logos and the flesh he assumed: though he affirms that the assumed humanity has a soul and a mind, “he has not fully grasped the implications of the condemnation of Apollinarius and still moves in the same general pattern of thought” (p. 36).

On the other hand, Antiochenes such as Chrysostom emphasize Jesus’ authentic experience of the human condition “to such an extent that he is obliged to separate the Logos from it; this is the only way he knows of safeguarding both the reality of Christ’s human involvement, and the divine nature of the Logos” (p. 41) – which hardly allows for the Logos to be incarnate at all. In both cases, these christological positions shape the ways in which Alexandrian and Antiochene thinkers exegete the themes of Hebrews.

Daniel Keating focuses on what he identifies as Thomas Aquinas’ “two-nature exegesis,” i.e. framing the many and provocative christological claims of the epistle by the ancient doctrine of one person in two natures. In other words, Thomas unapologetically takes the Definition of Chalcedon as a hermeneutical guide for Scripture (p. 85). (Take note here – this is a contested idea that will resurface among other contributors.) Under the master interpretive theme of grace in Christ, Thomas interprets the Bible’s statements about Christ according to either Christ’s human nature, divine nature, or both – all while studiously avoiding the heretical extremes of both Nestorianism (an excessive stress on the natures’ distinction) and Monophysitism (an excessive stress on their unification).

For example: Hebrews states (to God the Father, regarding his Son), “You have set him over the works of your hands,” and Thomas concludes that this must refer to Christ insofar as he is human – since as God he is already over all things, and does not need to be exalted by his Father (p. 86). Christ’s office of priesthood, on the other hand, applies in different ways both to his humanity and his divinity: as human he makes proper satisfaction for the sins of human beings, and yet his priesthood is truly (and universally, and permanently) effective precisely because he is also God.

Keating shows that Thomas’ Commentary on Hebrews is a masterful deployment of the strategy of reduplication (reading the biblical text’s statements about Christ ‘according to’ one nature or the other) in the scholastic era. In short, ecclesial tradition is regarded as the proper means for interpreting Scripture (and, presumably, not vice versa): “Aquinas has allowed the clarity of Chalcedonian Christology to illuminate the text of Hebrews by drawing out the implications of the ‘Son’ being both divine and human and by showing how the two natures in Christ contribute (in distinct ways) to his high priestly role” (p. 95).

Bruce L. McCormack’s essay on the exordium (Heb. 1:1-4) seeks to extend Karl Barth’s theological interpretation of John’s Prologue to the Christology of Hebrews. What is the identity of the “Son” through whom God has definitively spoken, whom God has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe (1:2)? In his reading of John, Barth had concluded that the Logos is meant to be a “placeholder” pointing ahead to Jesus Christ (and having no identity apart from the God-human union in the Incarnation – a sort of reversal of the doctrine of anhypostasis). Though Barth wrote no extended exegesis of Hebrews, McCormack argues with good reason that Barth would give the same reading here: the referent indicated by the “Son” is Jesus (finally named in 2:9), and their identity is a red thread throughout Hebrews (p. 169).

This much will be familiar to those who follow McCormack’s work. His more notable claim in this essay is that dogmatics ought not say anything of God that is not clearly authorized by the text at hand. The question of the identity of the Son in the exordium illustrates this. The text creates a tension (e.g. between a Son who is the “exact representation of God’s being” and yet who must also be “appointed heir of all things” – as if they were not already his by virtue of his deity) which the theologian endeavors to resolve. In this case, McCormack insists that theologians refrain from speculating about the identity of a “Son” in ways abstracted from the relation of Jesus to God the Father in time, as narrated by Scripture. Simply because the author of Hebrews begins with the “Son” before identifying him as “Jesus” does not license speculation about a Logos asarkos. And later doctrinal considerations (such as the Son’s eternal relation to the Father in the immanent Trinity) are out of bounds for making sense of such passages, since the biblical authors offer the exegete no assurances that such a “Son” is anything more than a construct imposed upon the text.

McCormack would claim, then, that the content of the creeds derive from a careful reading of the whole witness of Scripture. But this relationship between Scripture and tradition cannot be reversed; while the creeds show how the Bible has been interpreted by the church, it should not be read back into the text in order to try and mitigate difficult passages.

Finally, Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood set about cataloguing the manner in which Hebrews is used (particularly, the relative paucity of its use) in systematic theologies of the modern period, with brief glances at Charles Hodge, Augustus Hopkins Strong, John Miley, Franz (Francis) Pieper, Louis Berkhof, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carl F. H. Henry, Thomas Finger, Thomas C. Oden, J. Rodman Williams, Stanley J. Grenz, Wayne A. Grudem, Millard J. Erickson, James William McClendon, Jr., Donald G. Bloesch, and Robert W. Jenson. The reader will immediately note how the names selected give this piece a parochial air: with the odd exception of Jenson they are all “evangelical” writers, and the explanation for this – Barth gets his own essay elsewhere in this volume, and other modern systematicians who are not American evangelicals tend to make less frequent references to Scripture (p. 174) – is unsatisfying.

Treier and Atwood proceed concisely to summarize the multitude of doctrinal themes on which Hebrews may be found to speak, and finally arrive at an account of theological exegesis that can only be called an apology for proof-texting. They suggest that this is simply the responsibility of theologians to “show their work’ (p. 195), but it would seem that McCormack’s charge that too often we read our theologies a-contextually into the biblical text is on display here. It is difficult to see how they propose to avoid historical-critical transgressions great and small by appealing to statements within Scripture in this sort of isolated fashion. Thus a remark from Attridge (said in regard to this essay’s survey of modern evangelical systematic theologies) seem no less apropos for Treier and Atwood’s own account of proof-texting: “The reverence for Scripture that supposedly undergirds such cherry-picking approaches in fact seems to cloak a disdain for really listening to what the words of the sacred text are saying” (p. 209).

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The final three essays of the book, and especially Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s critical entry, demonstrate what a peculiar collection this is. Each is oriented backward toward the preceding essays, with some summarizing (Attridge’s essay for a stretch reads somewhat like a standard book review) and a modicum of open-ended, critical engagement – much as one would see in response papers given at the end of a conference panel session. Greene-McCreight wraps up the conversation with a critique that almost undermines the whole project: rather than salient strategies for moving forward in the task of theological exegesis (particularly as it relates to responsible work in historical criticism) some of what is suggested here, she rightly observes, are symptoms of the very crisis the authors mean to address.

Without “fuller suggestions for a way forward” in theological exegesis, Greene-McCreight concludes, a ‘selective history of interpretation’ offers little of value (p. 225). If anything, that is where this volume comes up short: in the absence of any sort of unified program (or at least some shared definitions) the project as a whole may not be able to ascend beyond the level of a collection of interesting historical footnotes. (Did you know that John Owen wrote a 4-volume, 4,000-page work on Hebrews?)

There are pressing questions with which Greene-McCreight leaves us – both the reader and the volume’s editors. What is it that we mean by ‘theological interpretation,’ and what is it that we hope this will secure, which we do not possess without it? Can we read the biblical texts theologically – even as persons of faith who find that God speaks and makes claims upon us in the biblical text – without ceasing to be critical? Should we read traditional doctrine back into Scripture (per Thomas), or refuse this move as a transgression of sola Scriptura (per McCormack)? And what does it mean for our reading of the text to be critically responsible (e.g. reading Matthew for what Matthew means) and yet also governed by the regula fidei?

The challenge in reading Scripture at its intersection with systematic theology is to affirm the historical and the critical without privileging the text’s first-century witness over its contemporary witness. That God has spoken ought not blind us to the reality that God still is speaking. Of course these two, the historical-critical and the theological, are not in competition with one another, at least not where the Scriptures are confessed to be the working of the Holy Spirit – and so to be “living and active” words. If the Spirit continues to inspire the text in our hearing, then by faith the responsible Christian exegete can pray only that she may have ears to hear.

Thanks to Bloomsbury / T&T Clark for providing a review copy.

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