Bible Foregrounds 2: “Falling Away” in Hebrews 6:4–6

Many passages of Scripture have been tirelessly debated not only in light of the meaning of the words and grammar, but also in light of the historical context or “background.” However, scholars often neglect the historical “foreground”—that is, the exploration of which interpretations make the most sense in light of what followed the apostolic period. The apostles and prophets who wrote the books of the Bible also taught large numbers of Christians who carried on their oral teachings in their own ministries (see 2 Timothy 2:2). So we should expect that the correct reading of Scripture may “echo” forward into the writings of second and third generation teachers. In part 1 of this series of essays, I examined the identity of the “restrainer” in 2 Thessalonisn 2. In part 2, I will explore a more weighty problem passage.

Problem

Mention the reference “Hebrews 6” and many Bible-believers bristle—especially those who hold that true believers can never lose their salvation. The most difficult portion of the problem passage reads, “For in the case of those who have . . . fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (Hebrews 6:4, 6). The problem is not in the fact that some fall way, but in the description of the people replaced by the ellipses, for in a surface reading the passage seems to indicate bona fide believers. So, does Hebrews 6 teach that true believers can lose their salvation by falling away?

This passage has been variously interpreted. Some say it does, in fact, teach that a person can lose their salvation. The people described in Hebrews 6:4–6 were actually once born again, but they do something (or fail to do something) that causes them to fall back into a state of damnation. Those who believe in eternal security often argue against this interpretation of Hebrews 6 by simply jumping ship and latching on to “more clear” passages that suggest a person is eternally saved. But one person’s “clear” passage can easily become another person’s problem passage, and the debate over the meaning of Hebrews 6 never really gets resolved.

Another view is the “false believers view.” Like the “apostates” described in 1 John 2:19, these people appeared to be true believers by outward confession and actions, but were demonstrated to be false brethren by their ultimate apostasy. Had they been true believers, they would have persevered in the faith until the end.

Some view the passage as referring to true believers who, by falling away from sanctification and good works, render their testimonies tainted and their lives useless. Though they themselves are still saved and will see heaven, they lose their reward, as seems to be the case in 1 Corinthians 3:15. Thus, some argue that there comes a point in a carnal Christian’s life that they will become so numb to the Spirit’s conviction that they can no longer repent.

Another view is the “stagnated growth” view. The people described had begun down the Christian path through baptism and early instruction, but fell aside and became stagnant. Since it’s impossible to start the Christian life over again (repentance), they are being encouraged to get back on the path and advance toward maturity. The implied warning in this passage is that if they don’t get on the path, but drift farther from the path, they may, in fact, prove to be false believers or will lose their reward, in which case the second or third views above would apply.

With such a great variety of views (and these are just a sampling of the many variations), how can Bible foregrounds inform our understanding of the passage?

Bible Foregrounds

First, we must look at the broad purpose of the passage. The point is a contrast between immature novices and mature teachers, those who lack discernment and those who are trained and experienced. The point of the writer is not to warn about losing salvation, or how to tell when somebody is not really saved, or even to give assurance to those who have all the right signs of salvation. The point is to encourage spiritual infants to grow toward spiritual maturity.

Second, we must understand the actual meaning of the verb in Hebrews 6:6, “to fall away.” The word is not the normal term used for “apostasy” or “falling away” (aphistemi), but a unique word used only here in the New Testament—parapipto. It literally means “to fall beside a person or thing; to slip aside; hence, to deviate from the right path, turn aside, wander.” The concrete visual image associated with its use in ancient literature can best be illustrated by an example in Polybius’s Histories 3.54.5. That ancient author writes: “For the path down was narrow and precipitous, and the snow made it impossible for the men to see where they were treading, while to step aside (parapipto) from the path, or to stumble, meant being hurled down the precipices.” The image is that of a person wandering off a path, thus “falling aside”— not falling “away,” but falling beside “a way” or path.

Given this background of the term, is there anything in the historical context to suggest that the author of Hebrews had a “path” or “road” metaphor in mind when he used this term? I believe there is.

In Hebrews 5:11 the writer says that his readers had become “dull of hearing.” They should be teachers, but they need somebody to re-teach them the basics, the “elementary principles of the oracles of God.” They need “milk and not solid food” (5:12). This implies that the readers had already gone through the basics and should now be teachers.

In Hebrews 5:13, the writer explains that because they are babes in their understanding, they cannot chew on the meaty doctrines of the Christian faith. They are immature, they lack discernment, and they cannot handle advanced teaching (5:14). However, the writer desires to leave “the elementary teaching about the Christ” and to “press on to maturity” (6:1). (Note: The phrase “elementary teaching about the Christ” argues that these are Christian teachings, not the teachings of pre-Christian Judaism.) This elementary, or “basic” Christian instruction includes repentance from dead words and faith toward God, teachings concerning baptisms, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (6:1–2).

A key term in this list of basic Christian teaching is the word “instruction,” which is the Greek word didache. It means “doctrine” or “teaching.” Those familiar with early Christian literature outside the New Testament know that this is the title of a book—written in stages throughout the first and second centuries—that calls itself simply the “teaching of the twelve disciples,” or, for short, the Didache. That ancient book really functions as a manual of church instruction, probably compiled and edited for the church of Antioch. Some scholars say certain parts of the book were written perhaps earlier than some of our written gospels, though some sections were added perhaps as late as A.D. 150. Either way, the book contains an instruction about the “two paths” that lie before each person—the path of life and the path of death. Each person is called to choose which path to follow, and once a person chooses the path of life, they begin the journey of life by the initiation of water baptism. Thus, the Didache serves in part as an early teaching manual for new believers, preparing them for baptism and instructing them on the elementary principles of the Christian faith.

Because similar themes are found in other early Christian literature, we have good reason to believe that many churches—not just Antioch—followed a similar pattern of early Christian instruction as that found in the Didache. In fact, it is my belief that this type of early instruction, or didache, stands behind the thought of Hebrews 6, and plays off of the “two paths” image presented to potential converts to Christianity.

For example, Hebrews 6:1 mentions “teaching of baptisms.” And in Didache 7.1–4 we read the following instruction regarding different legitimate types of baptism:

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things [the way of life and the way of death], baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” And before the baptism, let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able. Also, you must instruct the one who is to be baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. (Didache 7.1–4)

Regarding the “laying on of hands,” which is a sign of the ordination to ministry and leadership, Didache 11.3 says, “Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel,” and then describes how one can distinguish a true from a false prophet, gives instructions on dealing with leadership, and tells how to discern good and bad leaders (Didache 11.4–13.7). In light of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” the “laying on of hands” in Hebrews 6:1 likely refers to instructions concerning legitimate leadership in the local church.

Hebrews 6:2 also refers to “the resurrection of the dead and eternal punishment.” Interestingly, the last section of Didache contains instructions about the end times.

The Solution

Read in light of the early Christian teaching (didache) that prepared people for baptism, as well as the basic instruction that followed baptism, the author of Hebrews appears to have been referring to the Christians’ early instruction in the faith—“Christianity 101.”

In Hebrews 6:3 he said that if God permits, they will leave behind the “elementary teachings. Then, in describing converts to Christianity who have stagnated in their progress, the author of Hebrews refers to elements of ancient Christian instruction and initiation. He says that these people “have once been enlightened and had tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (6:4). Interestingly, “enlightenment” was actually an early reference to a person’s response to the gospel through water baptism. Around A.D. 155, Justin Martyr wrote in his defense of Christianity: “And this washing [baptism] is called illumination, as those who learn these things are illuminated in the mind. And he who is illuminated is washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all the things about Jesus” (Justin, 1 Apology 61).

The reference to the “heavenly gift” in Hebrews 6:4 probably refers to the Lord’s supper, or communion. In fact, the Didache says, “Let no one eat or drink of your thanksgiving meal except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs’” (Didache 9.5). It then suggests the following prayer to be recited after the communion meal: “We give you thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory forever.” (Didache 10.2). This language is conceptually similar to the experiential references in Hebrews 6:4, that is, tasting the “good word of God” and becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit.

Then, when the writer of Hebrews finishes describing the details of early Christian instruction and the experiences of the Christian after submitting to baptism, he gives the following warning. If they are baptized, taught, and partake of the rights and privileges of membership in the church, “and [then] have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:6).

In the context of the Bible foregrounds, the reference to “repentance” here indicates the original conversion that placed them on the “path of life.” That’s the repentance of the convert, which takes places at their baptism. This is not repentance of the believer as he or she turns away from sin. The word “again” refers back to the previous mention of repentance in Hebrews 6:1—that is, their initial conversion to Christ by faith, represented and sealed by water baptism. That “repentance” set them on the “path of life,” from which there was no going back.

In light of this, the writer to the Hebrews appears to be drawing on the “path of life” image found in ancient Christian baptismal instructions. In essence, he’s saying this: You’ve been enlightened, baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as a sign of repentance, and therefore initiated into the church, partaking of its full benefits and learning all the fundamentals. You started walking down the path of life. But you’ve become dull. You’re acting like a “trainee” again, like somebody who needs to be instructed prior to baptism! You should be teaching and baptizing, but you’re acting like you need somebody to teach and baptize you. But that’s impossible! Once a person has been enlightened and gone through the baptism of repentance . . . if they fall aside from the path, they can’t go back again to the baptism of repentance and start all over.

The exhortation, then, is clear: get back on the path of life and move toward maturity! You can’t be converted again, so start acting like a convert!

Conclusion

The evidence from Bible foregrounds, primarily from the first and second century document, the Didache, suggests that the writer of Hebrews had in the front of his mind an image and pattern of early Christian instruction with which his readers would have been familiar: the “path of life” that began with repentance, faith, and baptism as the initiation into the church. They had “fallen aside” from the path and were dwelling in an infant state, as if they were still being prepared for baptism. But because they can not be “re-baptized,” they need to get back on the path and head toward maturity. Thus, in light of the Bible foregrounds, the “stagnated growth” view of Hebrews 6 seems to be the most reasonable.

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