Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 6

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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In this post we examine the meaning of the participle parapesontas in v. 6 translated “falling away.” The word occurs only here in the New Testament and thus merits careful study of its cognates within Hebrews, the New Testament, as well as occurrences and usage outside the New Testament. Liddell and Scott assign the following meanings to parapipt? in Classical Greek: “to fall beside . . . to fall in one’s way.” BDAG define the meaning as “to fall beside, go astray, miss, fall away, commit apostasy.” W. Bauder defines the word as meaning “to fall beside, befall, go astray, err.” Louw and Nida define parapipt? as “to abandon a former relationship or association, or to dissociate . . . to fall away, to forsake, to turn away.”

There are eight occurrences of parapipto in the LXX: once in Esther, five times in Ezekiel and twice in the Apocrypha. From the 5th century to the 3rd century BC, there are 106 occurrences of parapipt? in extra-biblical Greek. Not one means “apostasy.”

From the Koine Greek period, roughly 2nd century BC through the 1st century AD, there are 57 instances of parapipto, one third with the meaning “to fall beside or alongside; to fall or fall in; to fall upon.” In the New Testament, the nominal form paraptoma always denotes “sin” but never “apostasy.” Of these 57 occurrences, not one means “apostasy.”

Parapipto is used in the general sense of “to sin” five times in Ezekiel (14:13; 15:8; 18:24; 20:27; 22:4). With the exception of Ezek 22:4, parapipo? is the equivalent for the Hebrew ma’al which means “to act unfaithfully.” In fact, parapipto is used in Ezek 14:13 and 18:24 in conjunction with the most common Hebrew word for sin. In none of these examples does the word indicate apostasy understood as a final and complete turning away from God.

From this evidence it seems clear that linguistically there is little if any support for the meaning of apostasy. The word was not used in this sense in Classical Greek, the LXX, or Koine Greek. Given these facts concerning the usage of parapipto, one must ask why a few lexicographers and some commentators feel compelled to translate or interpret the participle in Heb 6:6 as meaning “apostasy”?

There are two possible answers to this question, both of which likely coalesce in the thinking of many. Scholars are giving a theological interpretation to the word based more on an interpretation of the surrounding context of Hebrews 6 and less on lexicography. The reasoning is simple. It is impossible to renew those described in Heb 6:4–6 to repentance because they are recrucifying Christ and putting him to an open shame. Therefore, one could logically infer the author means to express a falling away from Christ or the gospel that is so serious as to preclude any possibility of repentance and reclamation. In traditional theological language, this would be apostasy.

The second answer is they are operating from a pre-conceived theological notion of the meaning of the word in Heb 6:6. This preconception is evidenced on the Arminian side as the belief that one can be truly saved and yet through apostasy lose that salvation. On the Calvinist side, the preconception is that one who is truly saved cannot lose their salvation; therefore, this must be referring to an apostasy that only apparent believers can commit.

Take, for example, the defense of the Arminian position on Heb 6:6 by Scot McKnight and the defense of the Reformed position by Grudem. McKnight correctly identifies the group described in 6:4–5 as believers. He concluded, on the basis of the severity of the language in the five warning passages, apostasy must be in view. But McKnight never actually examined the word itself and its usage outside the New Testament with the exception of calling attention to its uses in the LXX.

In a similar fashion, Grudem concluded that the context of the entire book as well as the immediate context of Heb 6:6 indicates parapipto means “apostasy” of those who were only apparent believers. Grudem refers to their sin as “apostasy,” then surprisingly noted that to translate the verb by “to commit apostasy” is “a bit too specific” for the Greek word. Yet he concluded the context indicates the falling away is so serious it could be rightly called “apostasy.” Such a conclusion is unwarranted given the linguistic evidence. Grudem likewise failed to do a word study of parapipto to support his contention.

On the basis of the aforementioned evidence, if parapipto means to apostatize in the conventional theological understanding of that word, it is the singular exception of the known uses of the word. In the LXX, parapipto is used to translate several different Hebrew words, the most frequent of which is ma’al. The most common usage is that of “transgressing” against the LORD, though never in the sense of irremediable apostasy. A good example is Ezek 20:27, where the LXX uses parepeson in the sense of “transgress” against the Lord by profaning the Sabbath and by idolatry.

The meaning of parapipto must be considered against the background of the use earlier in the book of the cognate form pipto meaning “to fall.” In Heb 4:11, the author warned of the necessity to be diligent to enter the rest, lest anyone “fall” (pipto). Semantically there is a connection between 6:6 and 4:11 with 3:12, where the author speaks of “falling away from the living God.” In 3:12 the verb is apostonai, but the usage indicates the two verbs are conceptually related. It is interesting to note that the same Hebrew word, ma’al, often translated in the LXX by parapipto, is translated with aphistomi (apostonai) in 2 Chr 26:18, where the sin in view is not apostasy. The verb parapipto appears interchangeable with apostonai in 2 Chr 26:18; 28:19; 29:6; and 30:7. The upshot of all this is the conclusion that parapipto is not the most appropriate word to express a complete renunciation of Christ. Its use in Heb 6:6 does not describe a fall that is a denial of Christ.

Some have argued that Hebrews is addressed to a mixed audience of believers and non-believers based on the alternating warnings and encouragements where the warnings are addressed to the unsaved who are part of the church, without the author knowing exactly who they are, and the encouragements addressed to the believers. As I have noted in my commentary on Hebrews, this is difficult to sustain in the light of the epistle itself. If the meaning of Heb 6:4–6 were intended by the author to address unsaved people, then two things seem absent from the picture: a clear tone of uncertainty with respect to their spiritual condition and clear statements of their need of genuine conversion. Instead, what we find are clear statements from the author encouraging the readers in what God has already done for them in securing their salvation (3:6, 14; 5:9; 4:16; 6:18; 7:25; 9:12, 15; 10:14, 19, 23, 35).

Conclusion: There is nothing in the word itself (“falling away”) in the immediate or remote context to suggest a meaning of “apostasy.”