A Few More Thoughts on Hebrews 6
Note: I was recently corresponding by e-mail with someone who is working on a Bible translation, regarding the translation of Hebrews 6:4; and so, given the topic of the latest post, I thought I would post my original e-mail here as well.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is the classic Arminian text to argue against the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance. It has certainly been understood in quite a variety of ways â€“ and oneâ€™s precise interpretation of the phrase â€œhaving been made partakers of the Holy Spiritâ€ is, in particular, especially weighty, because it may influence or even determine his understanding of some very important doctrines. So in any translation we certainly must have the goal of bringing out the sense of the verse as accurately and understandably as possible, without giving any additional reasons, over and above the explicit testimony of the text, to embrace a particular theology â€“ which is actually quite a difficult task, I think, in this passage.
Our first question, on this topic, involves the meaning and usage of the term â€œmetochosâ€ (partaker of/partner in). I think the basic, perhaps the exclusive, sense of its verbal cognate, â€œmetecho,â€ is â€œto have a share inâ€ (or you could also say, â€œto partake ofâ€). However, the problem arises if you assume that the noun-form, â€œmetochos,â€ has the same nuance of meaning. If it did, the natural translation would be, â€œone who has a share in [the Holy Spirit]â€, or â€œone who has partaken of [the Holy Spirit]â€. This is what certain translations have done, but I think the inference is unwarranted. Simply because, when we see this noun form used elsewhere in the NT, it doesnâ€™t seem to mean â€œa partaker ofâ€ something, but rather, a partner, or one who has fellowship with a group of people because of a common experience with them. For instance, in Luke 5:7, the word is used of Peterâ€™s fishing â€œpartnersâ€ in another boat â€“ those who were joined together with him because of a shared experience in an activity, or a shared pursuit in the same business.
Unfortunately, we donâ€™t really have very many uses of the word in the New Testament (that passage in Luke is its only occurrence outside of Hebrews); but as far as I can tell, thatâ€™s the basic meaning of the word.
So, it may be good to avoid the translation, â€œpartakers of,â€ or â€œhaving become partakers ofâ€ â€“ simply because it strongly implies that the persons being spoken of are in fact Christians, when it seems that the point of the passage is only to show that they have much in common with Christians. They have shared in the same experiences, they have seen the same powerful workings of the Holy Spirit, they have tasted many of the blessings which are poured out upon the Christian Church â€“ they are, in outward appearance, Christians; but they are not in fact regenerate. I think the point is that there may be â€œJudasesâ€ in the congregation, who are, in a real sense, partners with the true believers, sharing everything in common with them â€“ and when these â€œfall awayâ€ (not fall into sin, but utterly apostasize/finally denounce Christ), then their outcome will be as Judasâ€™ outcome was. They are as the seeds which fell on stony ground, and grew up admirably, but never had any true root. Thatâ€™s at least how I see it. But itâ€™s a very difficult passage, and I admit there are other possible interpretations. For instance, that it is a warning given to true Christians, to prevent them from apostasizing, and which is always effective. In this case, it would involve a hypothetical situation, that never actually occurs â€“ as if one were to say, â€œIf you fall off that cliff, you will not surviveâ€ â€“ to ensure that no one does get close enough to fall off. The statement is true, but the situation is hypothetical. Iâ€™ll also admit that the predominant reason I donâ€™t accept the Arminian interpretation, that someone who is truly elect/regenerate may finally fall from grace, is because of systematic theology (ruling out that interpretation from the beginning, because I am convinced of contradictory interpretations of other clearer passages).
But besides these systematically-derived ideas, I have a few contextual reasons for denying that the subjects of this passage are, in fact, genuine Christians. These are as follows.
First, I think the broad context is important: the author had just been speaking of the generation of Israelites that perished in the wilderness. They had been given the promise of a rest, but, because of their unbelief, God swore to them that they would never see his rest. The author is intentionally making this example pertinent to the community of professing believers to whom he is writing. He admonishes them to beware, â€œlest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in apostasizing from the living Godâ€ (3:12). His point in this history is to show that, even if one is a part of a covenant people, which has been given many gracious promises, he will never truly experience them if he displays his unbelief through final apostasy. Just as there were imposters and apostates in the old covenant community, so there may be in the new. This is not to say that they were truly regenerate, but that they were truly in a covenant relationship with God, as the outward members of the church are today. But even having experienced the covenant blessings of God, yet as unbelievers, they did not obtain the final reward. This point is evidently clear in chapter three, and the same train of thought is carried through the next two chapters, and is the reason for the admonition at the beginning of chapter six. So for that contextual reason, I would say that it is likely that those being spoken of are imposters who are recognized members of the covenant community, but not truly regenerate.
Second, in the immediate context, we have a striking change in pronoun reference in verses 4-8. In 6:1-3 the author is using first person pronouns (we, us); and in 6:9 and following he is again using the first person. But in 6:4-8, he is speaking of â€œthose,â€ and â€œtheyâ€. Which to me indicates that the persons being referred to are not true Christians. â€œWeâ€ will go on to perfection, but â€œtheyâ€ who fall away will not be renewed to repentance. Yes they are a part of â€œweâ€ in an outward sense â€“ but in fact, they are not we. As I John 2:19 says, â€œThey went out from us, but they were not of usâ€ â€“ or else â€œthey would have remained with usâ€.
And finally, even if we take â€œmetochosâ€ to mean, â€œthey have received the Holy Spirit,â€ that still leaves open the manner and extent of this reception. It is certainly true that the cross purchased blessings for all men, and that among those blessings may be included things such as the Spiritâ€™s reproving the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) â€“ in this sense, they may have been said to have â€œreceivedâ€ the Spirit. In other words, they were beneficiaries of his ministry. Compare, along those lines, II Timothy 4:10 â€“ God is the â€œSavior of all men everywhere, especially those who believeâ€. So, perhaps, the whole world, in this new redemptive era, has â€œreceived the Spirit,â€ in his more extensive ministry following Christâ€™s death (and much more so those who are a part of the Church even in an outward sense only). But that does not mean that they have received him in the Ephesians 1 sense of his indwelling them as a guarantee of glorification, or in the Romans 8 sense, which strongly argues that, if one has the Spirit, he is Christâ€™s, and will finally be glorified.