This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Friday, May 26, 2006

Does the View of Warnings in TRSBU Finally Collapse into the "Hypothetical View"?

Joe posted the following comment, which I promised to address, here, in a regular blog entry rather than bury it in comments.

At the moment I'm taking a seminar on the book of Hebrews. During our discussion of the warning passage in Hebrews 6, your view was brought up. Many of the students (and the instructor) in the class who are familiar with your book believe that despite the attempts to distinguish your view from the hypothetical view, it eventually collapses into it. The main argument for this collapse is that, though they might agree with you that the first question that needs to be asked has to do with the function of the warnings and they might agree that the main orientation is prospective rather than retrospective, nevertheless when we finally get around to asking the question about the referents in 6:4-5, on your view they are believers, in contrast to the traditional Reformed view where the referents are those who have come close to salvation but are still unregenerate. By seeing the referents as believers and maintaining that all truly regenerate believers will persevere, then the situation in 6:4-5 will never be realized because no one who has been enlightened, etc will ever actually fall away. Thus the situation in Hebrews 6, whatever the function of the warning, is hypothetical. While there might be nuances of difference, they are at root the same.

I'm wondering if you could comment on the relationship between your view and the hypothetical view and perhaps more clearly distinguish between the two.

To demonstrate that what Tom Schreiner and I present in The Race Set Before Us is not the so-called "hypothetical view" and that what we present does not eventually collapse into it, it is necessary to make several statements to distinguish the two very different views.

First, it is necessary to review what the so-called "hypothetical view" is. The "hypothetical view" of warnings comes into play particularly in discussions of the five warning passages in Hebrews. As far as I can recall, no one advocates the so-called "hypothetical view" as an explanation of other passages of the New Testament. Some may do so, but I simply do not recall reading any commentator who does so.

Second, the so-called "hypothetical view" is actually a very poor and misleading name for the view. If Tom and I had the opportunity to recast our presentation of the view, I believe that we would agree to point out this fact. Theoretical would be a more accurate and more properly descriptive designation for the view. The reason that hypothetical is an improper designation is that it profoundly confuses matters. All five warnings in Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:6, 14; 6:4ff; 10:26ff; 12:25ff) are hypothetical in form, which is to say that they express suppositions, regularly phrased, "if . . . then. . . ." In this sense, then, because Tom and I take the grammar of the text seriously, as we carefully detail the function of the suppositions of biblical warnings and admonitions it is easy for many to confuse our exegetical presentation in The Race Set Before Us with the so-called hypothetical view and to dismiss our presentation as ultimately indistinguishable from the latter. Indeed, the five warnings of Hebrews are grammaticalized in hypothetical form. To acknowledge this, however, is to acknowledge reality, the truth. It is unfortunate that we Christian scholars of biblical studies, especially of the New Testament, are too regularly less than careful when it comes to understanding the careful exegetical work that others have done on biblical texts. I fear that this is true of those who confuse the presentation Tom and I have made with the so-called "hypothetical view." To call the view advocated by Thomas Hewitt and Homer A. Kent, Jr. the "hypothetical view" is to allow confusion to set in and to blur necessary distinctions between their view and the right view, which of course, Tom and I hold. ;) I believe, therefore, that we should call Hewitt's and Kent's view the theoretical view because it is speculative in nature and it therefore has no practical function to induce Christians to persevere in faithfulness to Christ. The view reduces the warnings virtually to mere theoretical exercises of the mind, as I explain in my following points.

Third, as Tom and I state in The Race Set Before Us, those who advocate the so-called "hytpothetical view" contend that the warnings of Hebrews "focus on correcting 'wrong ideas' by making it clear that if a Christian could apostatize, it would be impossible for that person to become a Christian again. The warnings address genuine believers, particularly anyone who flirts with the idea of returning to Judaism, "to correct the wrong idea that apostasy is not serious, as though one could continue to oscillate between Christianity and Judaism without eternal loss" (TRSBU, 35-36). Advocates of the theoretical view believe that the wrong idea that the writer to the Hebrews corrects is the idea that falling away from Christ is rather inconsequential, so that it should not alarm anyone. For this idea, see Homer A. Kent, Jr. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 113. Crucial, then, to the so-called "hyptothetical view" is this claim: if a Christian could apostatize, it would be impossible for that person to become a Christian again. It is from this assertion that the view is called the "hypothetical view" but would be better called the theoretical view. The designation "hypothetical view" does not derive from the form of the biblical hypothetical or supposition ("if . . . then"). Rather, the designation "hypothetical view" derives from the theoretical theologizing that the view's advocates engage, as Thomas Hewitt explains in his comments on Hebrews 6:4ff. "If such a falling away could happen, he is saying, it would be impossible to renew them again unto repentance unless Christ died a second time, which is unthinkable" (Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], 111). Because of this, I will say it one more time for emphasis that the view is better called the theoretical view.

Fourth, those who advocate the "theoretical view," as do Hewitt and Kent, do so to avoid what they perceive to be a contradiction. They feel the tension between the strong warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews and God's assuring promises that he secures the final salvation of his people. Kent explains,

Are true Christians ever guilty of complete apostasy? The Arminian says yes, and interprets this passage [Hebrews 10:26-31] as denoting true believers who lose their salvation. Calvinists, however, recognize that salvation is eternally secure for true believers, and interpret this passage in other ways. Some regard the apostates as mere professors who finally depart. It might be tempting to weaken the punishment so as to make it less than loss of salvation, but this experident has not satisfied many in the light of the nature of the offense. A more reasonable explanation would seem to be that the passage warns true believers what the outcome would be if apostasy would occur (emphasis added).

As Tom and I argue in The Race Set Before Us that to allow the preemptive question, which guides both Hewitt and Kent, to determine our exegesis of biblical passages that contain warnings and admonitions is to bias our reading of the text. We also demonstrate, particularly in chapter 4, "Running to Win the Prize--Heeding God's Admonitions & Warnings" (pp. 142-213), that there is no undue tension between God's warnings & admonitions and God's assuring promises. We show that the latter is served by the former.

Fifth, Kent's final statement distinguishes his view as "theoretical" and distinctly different from the view presented in The Race Set Before Us. Tom Schreiner and I do not advocate or hold to Hewitt's or Kent's theoretical view nor do our beliefs concerning biblical warnings and admonitions eventually collapse into the "theoretical view" that Hewitt and Kent advocate. As Tom and I present in The Race Set Before Us, the advocates of the "theoretical view" allow the preemptive question, the question whether it is possible for real Christians to apostatize finally, to dictate how they understand and explain the warnings in Hebrews. Thus, held captive by this preemptive question, because advocates of the "theoretical view" believe that real Christians cannot apostatize, when they attempt to explain the strong warnings in Hebrews, they resort to some creative exegesis concerning the biblical text. They transpose the biblical hypothetical or supposition ("if you fall away" [Hebrews 6:4ff] or "if you go on sinning" [Hebrews 10:26ff]) into a contrary-to-fact-supposition. Hewitt says, "Suppose someone could fall away." Kent says, "the passage warns true believers what the outcome would be if apostasy would occur."

While it is true that Tom and I agree with Hewitt and Kent that the five warning passages of Hebrews address real believers, this is where our agreement with their explanation ends. Tom and I insist that if we who believe fall away from Christ (Hebrews 6:4ff) and that if we keep on sinning willfully after having received the knowledge of the truth, then we who believe will most definitely perish. In other words, Tom and I do not believe that the warnings pose the following theoretical exercise of the mind: What would happen to genuine believers if it were possible that they could apostatize? Rather, Tom and I insist that the warnings pose a very different hypothesis: What will happen to us genuine believers if we genuine believers apostatize? The answer is, If we fall away from Christ or if we keep on sinning willfully after coming to a knowledge of Christ, then we will perish. We could rephrase it this way: If we genuine believers fall away from Christ or if we genuine believers keep on sinning willfully after coming to a knowledge of Christ, then we genuine believers will perish

Someone might say, "Ah hah! You are ultimately saying the same thing as Hewitt and Kent because, like Hewitt and Kent, you and Tom believe that genuine believers will not and cannot eventually apostatize from Christ and perish." Of course, all Calvinists agree that genuine believers will not and cannot eventually apostatize from Christ and perish. To admit to believing that genuine believers will not and cannot finally apostatize from Christ and perish, however, hardly means that anyone who believes this, on the basis of Scripture, eventually and finally agrees with Hewitt's and Kent's "theoretical view" of warnings. The view that Tom and I present in The Race Set Before Us does not eventually collapse into the theoretical view presented by Hewitt and Kent. Anyone who claims that it does, with all due respect, simply has failed to understand what they have read in our book.

Practically speaking, why does the view that Tom and I present in The Race Set Before Us not eventually collapse into the theorectical view Hewitt and Kent advocate? If I were to embrace the "theoretical view" as the proper explanation of the warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews, practically speaking, I would be inclined to do the very thing that Scripture forbids me to do. I would be inclined to think of myself as eternally secure regardless of how I behave. Scripture does not permit me to reason that my behavior is inconsequential, as though I can behave and believe as I wish and that I will be save in Jesus Christ. In fact, the very warnings of Hebrews, rightly heard, forbid me to adopt such of view. Certainly, this is the warning that Paul offers in 1 Corinthians 10:12--"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."

Sixth, it is truly regrettable that some Calvinistic biblical scholars, who understand and agree with our view at a different point within their theological formulations and expressions, fail to understand what Tom and I have painstakingly articulated in The Race Set Before Us. What do I mean? I refer to the initial call of the gospel that these same biblical scholars offer in their proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ. These Calvinistic biblical scholars and Calvinistic theologians believe that ultimately all those individuals whom God has chosen in Christ Jesus will believe and be saved through the hearing of the preached gospel. Yet, these same Calvinistic biblical scholars and Calvinistic theologians do not hesitate to announce indiscriminately and with urgency, "All who will not repent and believe in Jesus Christ will perish." Arminian biblical scholars and Wesleyan theologians object that their warning that "all who will not repent and believe in Jesus Christ will perish" is an utterly hollow warning and that it amounts to nothing more than a hypothetical (read theoretical) warning that has no bearing at all upon the elect as Calvinists view the elect. In other words, Arminians and Wesleyans raise the same objection to all Calvinists, concerning the initial call of the gospel that some Calvinistic biblical scholars and Calvinistic theologians raise against the presentation that Tom and I have offered in The Race Set Before Us. Arminians and Wesleyans insist that Calvinists cannot possibly be serious when they preach "All who will not repent and believe in Jesus Christ will perish." Arminians and Wesleyans persistently claim that the Calvinist's doctrine of election renders such a warning meaningless, irrelevant, and utterly hollow, because, the Arminian and Wesleyan says, "Your doctrine of election guarantees that the elect will be saved regardless."

Yet, Calvinistic biblical scholars and Calvinistic theologians rightly answer their Arminian and Wesleyan objectors that the warning is not at all hollow, meaningless, or irrelevant. They properly argue that the warning is an essential and necessary aspect of the preaching of the gospel by which all who will be saved will be saved. They rightly insist that the warning is most assuredly serious and true--"Anyone, whether elect or non-elect, who will not repent and believe in Jesus Christ will perish forever." (Who among us has any special insight to know who the elect are and who the non-elect are?) Why is the warning most assuredly serious and true? Calvinistic biblical scholars and theologians rightly answer that the proclamation of the gospel is the necessary means by which the elect will be saved. They rightly insist that there is no other way by which anyone will be saved than by belief in the one and only savior, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:12).

So, what does this have to do with the view Tom and I present in The Race Set Before Us? Much in every way! The warning that we Christians (whether Calvinists, Arminians, or Wesleyans) offer when we make the first call to repent and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, lest our hearers perish, is exactly the same warning that the gospel of Jesus Christ preaches to us all along the pathway of faith that leads to the Celestial City of our God. We always find ourselves at every point along the path in precisely the same need to hear the same call of the gospel. To obey the gospel is the only pathway that leads to eternal life in the Celestial City. Initially, the gospel admonishes, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!" (Acts 16:31). Initially, the gospel also warns, "Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:18). Ineed, the warnings along the way may seem to sound different from the initial warning, but ponder again the admonitions to persevere in faith and warnings against failing to persevere in faith. Consider the following:

Admonition: And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:21-23).

Warning: So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:12-13).

I urge all to hear these admonitions and warnings again for the first time. Why does the admonition of Colossians 1:21-23 or the warning of Romans 8:12-13 seem different from the warnings and admonitions we regularly proclaim when we offer the initial call of the gospel? Is it not because we have embraced flawed notions and false ideas that have allowed our minds to separate the persistent call of the gospel for perseverance of belief to us as Christians from the initial call of the gospel when we were in need of belief at the beginning when we first believed? The gospel that first saved us is the same good news that our God uses to save us day by day all along the way, from the beginning of faith until the end of faith until he brings us safely through the Last Day (cf. Romans 13:11).

Indeed, our God employs warnings and admonitions that regularly come to us in hypothetical form, grammatically speaking. Though warnings and admonitions are grammaticalized as hypoteticals, none of the warnings and admonitions of the gospel, however, are theoretical in an academic sense, as rendered in Hewitt's and Kent's expositions of warnings in Hebrews. None of the warnings and admonitions of the gospel permit us to engage in theoretical mind exercises to wonder idly, "What would happen to a real believer if it were possible for a real believer to fall away from Christ finally?" There is nothing idle or merely theoretical or hollow about any of the gospel warnings and admonitions. The warnings and admonitions do not set us on idle mind exercises. They beckon us to contemplate the gravity of the eternal consequences of setting foot upon and persisting in a pathway of disobedience, of gratifying the flesh, of wandering away from Christ. The end of this pathway is eternal destruction. This does not call for some mere theoretical exercise of the mind; it calls for serious engagement of the heart to believe and to obey the gospel.

I am sorry about the length. Nevertheless, I believe your question is deserving of a full and substantial response. I trust that my lengthy response expounds the clear and sharp difference between the so-called hypothetical view of warnings and the means of salvation view that Tom and I present in The Race Set Before Us. I pray that my readers will recognize the sharp distinctions, for the distinctions are distinct and clear as I see the two views.


Nick Nowalk said...

Very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to sort this out. And I believe your effort is not in vain, for it seems to me that this--how the means of grace view relates to the hypothetical (theoretical!) view--is definitely the point of confusion most people have questions on, especially when they read passages like Hebrews 6. Grace and peace.

abcaneday said...


It is heartening to know that I have readers like you. It is also heartening to learn that my labor in writing is not in vain and that there is at least some measure of clarity to it.


ofthalmos said...

As I read your entry, I couldn’t help but think that something needs to be said about systematic theology. Through class, blog and book you have taught me that there are some dangers in only embracing a systematic theology. This seems to be a fine illustration. You said,

“ If I were to embrace the "theoretical view" as the proper explanation of the warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews, practically speaking, I would be inclined to do the very thing that Scripture forbids me to do. I would be inclined to think of myself as eternally secure regardless of how I behave.”

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems that this exposes a serious weakness of systematic theology. I am wondering if those who see your view as collapsing into other popularized views and those who fall under the spell of the “preemptive question” do so because they are assuming systematic theology as the only or superior theology. As a result of your view, it seems to me that systematic theology can lead to dangerous living. For systematic theology does not let Scripture function for itself in instances of warning and admonitions. Instead, we elevate ourselves over Scripture and excuse ourselves from Biblical warnings. According to your view, however, excusing warning passages in our lives can be detrimental to our faith.

I have noticed that systematic theology seems to be treated as the only or superior theology. At DTS we are only required to take systematic theology classes. Yet, it seems that the “preemptive question” you speak of and the failure to understand the strength of your view is the result of an assumption that systematic theology must govern the way we read Scripture.


abcaneday said...


I believe you are right. We are inclined to let our individual version of systematic theology resolve tensions, even biblical tensions, because we are disinclined to permit tensions to remain. Tensions tend to make us uncomfortable, especially when those tensions stretch our neatly arranged package of ideas and beliefs.

The problem is not systematic theology per se. For, in the very act of adopting an anti-systematic theology posture, as many have, one adopts a particular kind of systematic theology. Such is the nature of the case. The problem is not that we hold to systematic theology. The problem is really the tyranny of our own beliefs. The problem is the pride of place we give to our own belief systems as we seek to manage Scripture. The problem is that we fail to submit our beliefs to Scripture to let our systematic theology take the shape of Scripture. Instead, we are sinfully inclined to shape Scripture within the confines of our beliefs.

I well remember the day when two of my best friends at seminary (one died just two months ago) and I sat in our apartment eating lunch together when one of my friends challenged the other two of us to think biblically concerning warnings and admonitions. It was a conversion experience for me. Light burst into my soul. Understanding flooded my mind. Suddenly, passage after passage no longer loomed before me as problematic. No longer did the warnings of Scripture pose a tension that I felt constrained to manage. Rather, I yielded to Scripture's juxtaposition of warning and assurance, of promise and threat, as I came to see the harmony of the two and felt no compulsion to subvert the one with the other.

I opened my Bible and turned to passage after passage after passage and saw each warning for the first time in proper order. What a day of enlightenment that was! My systematic theological beliefs concerning the perseverance of the saints and warnings and admonitions changed forever that day. My beliefs yielded to Scripture. Oh, what a day!