Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 3

by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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The key section of Hebrews 6:1-8 which causes so much angst for preachers is the middle sub-paragraph 6:4-6. Before we can begin to think about how to outline and preach this passage, we must untangle the Greek syntactical structure. Heb 6:4-6 comprises one sentence in Greek. The subject of the sentence actually does not appear until v. 6 — the infinitive phrase translated “to renew again unto repentance.” The predicate is an understood linking verb translated “is” followed by the predicate nominative “impossible,” which is the first word in v. 4 of the Greek text. The main clause of the entire three verse sentence thus reads: “To renew again unto repentance is impossible,” or to put it in a clearer way: “It is impossible to renew [them] again unto repentance.”

The question then is who is being referred to; who is it impossible to renew to repentance? Asked in another way, what is the direct object of the infinitive “to renew”? The direct object is actually five participles in vv. 4–6a grouped together by the Greek accusative plural article translated “those who.” The sense is “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who . . .” and then follow five participles describing and defining the people to whom the author refers.

They are said to be those (1) “who have once been enlightened,” (2) “who have tasted the heavenly gift,” (3) “who have shared in the Holy Spirit,” (4) “who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age,” (5) and “who have fallen away.” Thus, to this point, the sentence reads: “It is impossible to renew again to repentance those who have been once enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift . . . and who have fallen away.” In v. 6, the infinitive phrase translated “to be brought back to repentance” is followed by two adverbial participial phrases translated “because they are recrucifying the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace.” These two participles define the cause or reason for the impossibility of repentance.

The first major exegetical question has to do with the nature of the five participles in vv. 4–6: are they to be construed as adjectival (substantival) or adverbial? The first four participles are easily identified as substantival participles since they are governed by the article tous in v. 4. Grammatically, an articular participle rules out the adverbial (circumstantial) usage. The key question has to do with the fifth participle in the list, parapesontas translated “falling away:” is it substantival or adverbial? Many construe this participle to be adverbial because of its distance from the article and its negative connotation whereas the other four participles express positive notions. It is sometimes given a conditional translation as in the NIV: “if they fall away,” a temporal translation as in the NRSV and the NASB: “then have fallen away,” or a simple adverbial rendering “falling away.”

Although the adverbial usage is certainly possible in this context, it seems much better, on grammatical and semantic grounds, to interpret parapesontas as parallel to the previous four participles. There are three key clues that point in this direction. First, the use of the article in v. 4 at the very least clearly governs the first four participles, and there is no reason to think it does not modify the fifth as well. All five participles in Greek are in the accusative case, masculine in gender and plural in number. All five function as the direct objects of the infinitive translated “to renew again.”

The second clue is the use of the Greek conjunctions te…kai…kai…kai linking the five participles. These are often overlooked by those who assign an adverbial meaning to the fifth participle “falling away.” This use of parallel conjunctions serves to bind these participles together as a unit.

The third semantic clue that these participles are to be viewed as substantival in nature is their bracketing within a single clause which serves to “package” them into a single unit.

The significance of this for interpretation is two-fold. First, the five participles identify and describe one group of people. Second, since the participle is not adverbial, it cannot be given a conditional or temporal translation. Whether the group described in 6:4–6a should be identified with genuine believers or not is a question that awaits examination of the meaning of each participial phrase in vv. 4–5 and the interpretation of parapesontas in v. 6.

Next post: Do these statements in vv. 4-6 refer to someone who is a genuine believer or not?