Hebrews and Perfection

In 1992 Cambridge University Press published Hebrews and Perfection: An Examination of the Concept of Perfection in the ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’, as volume 47 in the Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series,  and reissued this in a paperback version in 2005. This book was an edited version of my doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of Professor F. F. Bruce and accepted by the University of Manchester in 1978.

The following paragraphs from the beginning of the first chapter explain the aim of the work:

The justification for a full-scale study of the concept of perfection in the so-called ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’ could simply be given in the words of Otto Michel: ‘understanding Christian perfection is important, indeed central, for an interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews.’ The centrality of the concept to the writer’s theology has been clearly recognised by those commentators who have provided extended notes on the subject and by the various authors of journal articles who have attempted to investigate the idea more closely.

Three times in Hebrews the perfecting of Christ is mentioned (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). On four occasions we are told that the Old Covenant did not perfect the worshippers (7:11, 19; 9:9; 10:1). On three specific occasions we are told that Christ alone is the source of perfection for believers (10:14; 11:40; 12:23), though the use of related terminology elsewhere in the argument proclaims the same truth. Additionally, the writer urges his readers to ‘maturity’ (5:11 – 6:1) and points them to Christ as the ‘perfecter’ of faith (12:2). An interpretation of these themes and their inter-relationship is clearly important for a proper understanding of Hebrews.

However, the multiplicity of opinions as to the background and purpose of this document is reflected in the variety of interpretations that have been offered to explain the concept of perfection it sets forward. The ‘elastic adaptability’ of (Greek) teleios and its derivatives in biblical and extra-biblical usage encourages interpreters of Hebrews to suggest the relevance of some associations and to reject others, according to their presuppositions about the religious context in which the document was written. This diversity of opinion suggest the need for a detailed exegesis of the relevant passages in Hebrews, in order to assess the validity of the various interpretations.

The first chapter surveys and critiques a number of scholarly writings on the subject and raises some linguistic and methodological questions. It also concludes that the following more general questions need to be answered by means of careful exegesis:

1. Is the concept of perfection in Hebrews ethical, formal, cultic, metaphysical, eschatological, or a combination of these possibilities?

2. How rigorously is the parallelism between the perfecting of Christ and the perfecting of believers pursued (i.e., to what extent can the concept be interpreted uniformly with respect to Christ and believers)?

3. What sort of polemic are we to understand behind our writer’s use of the terminology of perfection?

4. How central is the exposition of the theme in Hebrews to the purpose of the writer?

The second chapter examines the application of the terminology of perfection in classical Greek sources, the Septuagint, the writings of Philo, the rest of the New Testament and early Christian literature. There is a formal use of the verb teleioun throughout the literature, meaning ‘make perfect, complete, accomplish, fulfil’. Only the context in general, and the object of the verb in particular, can reveal the sense in the amazing range of specific applications found in the literature of the ancient world.

Chapters 3-5 discuss the perfecting of Christ, by exegeting 2:10; 5:9 and 7:28 in context. It is argued that Hebrews uses teleioun in a ‘vocational’ sense. Christ is perfected through his being ‘qualified’ for the function he performs as saviour and heavenly high priest. The process includes not only his exaltation but also his human experience of suffering and temptation, and his death as the perfect sacrifice.  The Christological discussion here gives rise to two appendixes, one entitled ‘The Sinlessness of Christ and his Perfecting’, and the other ‘When did Jesus “become” High Priest?’

Chapter 6 examines all the references to the perfecting of believers in context. When the verb teleioun is used of Christians it also has a ‘vocational’ significance: they are perfected as worshippers who are enabled to approach God with confidence through Jesus as their perfected high priest.

Chapter 7 seeks to relate these texts and themes and consider how the writer’s teaching about the perfecting of Christ and the perfecting of believers relates to his purpose.

 

See now the summary of my argument and an engagement with those who have written more recently on this topic: ‘Perfection: achieved and experienced’ in J. Griffiths (ed.), The Perfect Saviour: Key Themes in Hebrews (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2012), pp. 125-145.

4 Responses to “Hebrews and Perfection”

  1. Dr. Peterson,

    I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, living in Mankato, Minnesota. Having grown up in Pentecostal perfectionism, I have spent many years sorting out the doctrine of sanctification. Your book “Possessed by God” has been a resource for some time, especially as the subject relates to my understanding of the covenant of grace.

    Thank you for your fine scholarship. Sanctification gets to the heart of the faith and life of the Church. May your research and writing continue to be a blessing to the Church at large.

    In Christ’s Peace,
    Randy Pemberton

  2. Peter Cohen says:

    Dear David,
    I have embarked upon an in depth study of Hebrews.
    I have a serious problem with some aspects of Calvinism which could be interpreted by some to be almost turning God’s grace into a license for sin in that many Calvinists teach that we remain in bondage to sin until we die physically. But we are counted as having died through baptism in Christ so that we live new lives free from sin through the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. I have many Calvinist friends who oppose the “holiness” and “Christian perfection” teaching which I find very strange. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

    In the comment above you mention how the question of: when did Jesus become High Priest? – is addressed in your book.
    (I have a few of your books including “Transformed by God” and “Possessed by God”.

    I would like to pose the following question to you: Who do you say Melchizedek was (or is)?

    I have been a Christian for forty years and am a “part-time” evangelist who has focused my ministry towards Jewish outreach.
    Yours in Christ
    Peter Cohen

    • As Genesis 14:18-20 indicates, Melchizedek was ‘king of Salem'(which appears to be an ancient name for the site later called Jerusalem) and ‘priest of God Most High’. El-Elyon is one of the titles of the God worshiped by the patriarchs of Israel, though El was also the name of the supreme god of the Canaanites. The blessing given to Abram suggests that Melchizedek had come to acknowledge the Creator God as the one true God, who had given Abram the victory over his enemies. Psalm 110:4 picks up this story about a priest-king of Salem/Zion and predicts that the promised Son of David, who will sit at God’s right hand and be victorious over all his enemies (vv. 1-3), will do so as ‘a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’ Hebrews 7:11-28 proclaims that Jesus fulfills this prediction because of his resurrection and ascension (v. 16, ‘on the basis of the power of an indestructible life’). Since Jesus ‘always lives to intercede’ for us (v. 25), his priesthood is permanent, and he is ‘able to save completely those who come to God through him.’ Hebrews 7 does not suggest that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God, but a Canaanite priest-king, who in certain respects anticipated the unique priesthood of Messiah Jesus.

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