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

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 #1--Not a Conditional Warning?

Of all the passages of Scripture one seems to be most alarming to Christians, for I receive more questions about Hebrews 6:4-6 than about any other portion, especially when teaching concerning biblical admonitions and warnings.

Hebrews 6:4-6 does not only pose theological difficulty for English Christian readers but it also poses knotty exegetical difficulties for scholars. Thus, I confidently suggest that this entry and the next two (if so limited) will be the most head-ache inducing blog comments that I will have made to this blog to date.

This entry will be the first of at least three on this complex and difficult passage from the New Testament. This first entry will simply provide documentation of what others are saying concerning the passage. My own comments on the passage will follow in at least two subsequent entries in which I will first offer my own interaction with the scholars whom this entry cites followed by my own comments on the passage.

Consider the Greek text of Hebrews 6:4-6. If you desire to analyze the passage more closely for yourself with parsing aids, etc. click here. Below I provide the text with five key participles underlined. It is the fifth of these participles, παραπεσόντας ("fall away"), over which both theological and exegetical disputes continue.

Hebrews 6:4-6

ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας γευσαμένους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου καὶ μετόχους γενηθέντας πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ καλὸν γευσαμένους θεοῦ ῥῆμα δυνάμεις τε μέλλοντος αἰῶνος καὶ παραπεσόντας πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν ἀνασταυροῦντας ἑαυτοῖς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ παραδειγματίζοντας

In 1981 John Sproule, one of my professors during my MDiv and ThM days and the second reader of my ThM thesis, published a brief essay (six pages) on Hebrews 6:6 in which he argues that the five participles in Hebrews 6:4-6 should all be regarded as parallel and adjectival, and therefore the participle translated "fall away" should not be taken as conditional, which would be adverbial, but should be taken as a further, if final, characterizing of the same individuals who are described by the other four participles, all treated as adjectival. Thus, the preacher characterizes a group of people whom he presents as "those who were enlightened, who tasted, who were made partakers, who tasted, and who fell away" (John A. Sproule, “παραπεσόντα" in Hebrews 6:6,” Grace Theological Journal 2 [1981]: 327–332).

Sproule reasons,

The five participles in the series are accusative, plural, masculine participles and they all function as direct objects of the infinitive ἀνακαινίζειν (v 6 ). All five participles are introduced by the single article τούς and they are connected to each other by a simple connective series, τε . . . καὶ . . . καὶ . . . καὶ . . . καὶ. The
series is broken after παραπεσόντας. Thus the two remaining participles in the pericope (ἀνασταυροῦντας and παραδειγματίζοντας) are not part of the series and they are rightly construed as adverbial participles expressing cause. . . .

Further, a single article governing several adjectival participles in a series is also a legitimate Greek construction (cf. Gal 2:20, Rev 1:5). Since παραπεσόντας is governed by τοὺς and is part of the series of connected substantival participles, it cannot be adverbial so as to function conditionally. Thus, in the opinion of this writer, τοὺς . . . καὶ παραπεσόντας is best translated as a relative clause, “. . . and who have fallen away.”

John Sproule provides the following sentence diagram that fits his analysis of the passage (Sproule, “παραπεσόντα" in Hebrews 6:6,” GTJ 2 [1981]: 329).

To view the above chart more clearly click on the diagrammatical analysis chart to isolate the view upon the chart alone.

Others have latched on to Sproule's argument and have accepted it without offering their own exegesis. Consider four scholars in particular who cite Sproule's work as difinitive.

First, is R. Bruce Compton, "Persevering and Falling Away: A Reexamination of Hebrews 6:4-6" Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (1996): 135-167.

The expression “fall away” is the fifth in a series of five parallel participles which begin in v. 4. These five participles are joined by simple conjunctions and are preceded by a single article. While an adverbial participle can introduce the protasis of a conditional clause, such does not appear to be the case here. The first four of these five participles are invariably taken with the article as adjectival and, specifically, as substantives in a series of relative clauses (“those who have once been enlightened and have tasted . . .”). Because all five appear to be parallel, there is every indication that the fifth should also be taken with the article as an adjectival substantive, continuing the series of relative clauses (“and have fallen away”). As such, it would not be adverbial and, hence, not conditional (pp. 141-142).

Second is Randall C. Gleason, "The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8," Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (1998): 71. Gleason reasons,

[T]he King James Version translation, “If they shall fall away” (v. 6), is unlikely because it is doubtful that the aorist participle παραπεσόντας, because of its linkage by a single article (τοὺς) to the preceding participles (vv. 4–5), was intended to express a condition. Neither does verse 6 have the conditional particle ἄν, which was usually used to introduce a conditional statement in Greek.

Third, Daniel Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basis: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 633) appeals to Sproule's essay when he comments that in Hebrews 6:6 it is debatable or doubtful that παραπεσόντας is a conditional participle. He argues,

Heb 6:4–6 ἀδύνατον τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας (6) καὶ παραπεσόντας, πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν

it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened (6) if they have fallen away

παραπεσόντας is often construed as conditional (a tradition found in the KJV and repeated in most modern translations and by many commentators). But this is unwarranted. The construction of vv 4–6 approximates a Granville Sharp plural construction (the only difference being that with the second participle in the construction, γευσαμένους in v 4, the conjunction τε is used instead of καὶ: τοὺς φωτισθέντας γευσαμένους τε καὶ μετόχους γενηθέντας καὶ γευσαμένους καὶ παραπεσόντας). If this participle should be taken adverbially, then should we not take the preceding two or three participles the same way? The inconsistency has little basis. Instead, παραπεσόντας should be taken as adjectival, thus making a further and essential qualification of the entire group. A better translation, then, is “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . and have fallen away.”

Fourth is Buist M. Fanning, "A Classical Reformed View," Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. by Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 180, n. 16. Fanning appeals to John Sproule's brief essay and claims in a footnote,

The fifth participle is taken separately here for thematic reasons, but it is an integral, if final and surprsing, part of the grammatical construction in verses 4-6a (five participles governed by the single article τοὺς and joined by conjunctions τε or καὶ). It is not syntactically legitimate to take it as conditional ("if they fall away"), despite the major translations that render it this way (RSV, NIV).

It is evident that John Sproule's brief essay persuades the above four scholars to understand the sequence of five participles in Hebrews 6:4-6 as properly translated, in an expanded manner, as follows.

For it is impossible to renew unto repentance those who were once enlighted, who also once tasted the heavenly gift and who once were made partakers of the Holy Spirit and who once tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age and who once fell away because they are recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and subjecting him to open shame.

In other words, if the plural article (τοὺς) functions to render all five main participles adjectival ("those who" [substantival]), including the fifth (παραπεσόντας), then the adverb (ἅπαξ), meaning "once" (in the numeric sense, "once but not now") or "once for all" (in the conclusive sense), must also be distributed to the four subsequent participles. Thus, τοὺς ἅπαξ not only attaches conceptually to the first four participles but also to the fifth. So, "those who were once enlighted" are being described as "those who once tasted the heavenly gift" and "those who once were made partakers of the Holy Spirit" and "those who once tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age" but also "those who once fell away."

If these gentlemen are correct, this has no small ramifications for how we are to understand Hebrews 6:4-6.


Nicholas P. Mitchell said...


What do you think of chapter 10 in Hebrews when the author says, "If you go on sinning deliberately, there no longer remains a sacrifice"? What is the author talking about? Apostasy or a person who just sins even though they know its wrong. Does this passage say that those who commit sin while knowing they are doing wrong are damned? Does this make those who don't know they're doing wrong innocent?

A. B. Caneday said...


As Tom and I reason in The Race Set Before Us, we contend that Hebrews 10:26 is not "talking about" either "apostasy or a person" of any particular kind. Rather, we contend that the passage is a bona fide warning against apostasy, which is to say, repudiating Christ Jesus.

The passage is not describing any individual, actually existing or conceptually existing. Rather, the passage is entails an urgent cautioning, addressed to all of us, against taking a particular action. It is warning us not to "sin highhandedly."

Hebrews 10:26, like 6:6, employs a participle conditionally, which is to say that it is an adverbial participle (ἁμαρτανόντων). The adverb, purposefully (ἑκουσίως), modifies the participle, "continue sinning" (ἁμαρτανόντων). There is an OT backdrop to this passage that is underscored by verses 28-29, Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? The OT backdrop is Numbers 15:22-31. For convenience, here is the passage.

"'Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the LORD gave Moses--any of the LORD's commands to you through him, from the day the LORD gave them and continuing through the generations to come--and if this is done unintentionally without the community being aware of it, then the whole community is to offer a young bull for a burnt offering as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, along with its prescribed grain offering and drink offering, and a male goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven, for it was not intentional and they have brought to the LORD for their wrong an offering made by fire and a sin offering. The whole Israelite community and the aliens living among them will be forgiven, because all the people were involved in the unintentional wrong.

"'But if just one person sins unintentionally, he must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before the LORD for the one who erred by sinning unintentionally, and when atonement has been made for him, he will be forgiven. One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether he is a native-born Israelite or an alien.

"'But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD's word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.'"

Given the Christocentric focus of the entirety of Hebrews, I do not believe that Hebrews 10:26ff is warning about sin in general. Rather, I understand the passage to be warning against highhanded sinning that strikes at the very heart of the new covenant. The sin being warned against is the sin of repudiating or rejecting Christ Jesus, particularly, the sin that repudiates the sufficiency (the once-for-all-ness of Christ's atoning sacrifice.

In other words, as we argue in TRSBU, the passage escalates the urgency of the warning of Hebrews 6:4-6, which also warns against apostatizing from Christ. Observe the similarity between 10:26-27 with 6:4-6. The sacrificial death of Christ Jesus figures prominently in both warnings.