“No Second Baptism”: A Patristic Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6

25096-hebrews-landsc.1200w.tnThe following is a guest post by Luke Hinton:

No Second Baptism”: A Patristic Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6

There are few New Testament texts more sobering than the warning passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews. These thundering sentences have elicited fear, galvanized believers unto obedient faith, and been the subject of intense theological debate. Of these five warnings1 Hebrews 6:4-6 is probably the most famous:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and shave shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (English Standard Version)

When the reader encounters phrases like “it is impossible,” “have fallen away,” and “holding him up to contempt,” there should be no doubt about the theological gravitas patent in this passage. Of course the crux of the matter deals with interpretation, and the essential questions are about the identity and destiny of “those who have once been enlightened.” Are these Christians? If they are, then can they really fall away without a hope of repentance? The ESV Study Bible proffers four possible interpretations in the notes on this pericope, but there are others views.2 There is an interpretation that, until this year, I had never heard in all my years of theological education. It was the view of Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and John of Damascus.3 This paper will explore the patristic view4 of Hebrews 6:4-6, drawing from Ambrose and Chrysostom.

Before we delve into the patristic interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6, it will behoove us to consider what weight theologians should give to fourth-century bishops, namely, Ambrose and John Chrysostom. While it is outside the scope of this brief to discuss in detail the biographical data of these two men, we should remember that they were two accomplished leaders. Ambrose was a political leader before becoming a bishop, and he was instrumental in the conversion of Augustine, the most influential Western theologian. John of Antioch is known as Chrysostom (golden mouth) because of his preaching. He delivered expositional sermons—many are extant—in which he applied the text to his hearers. What is significant is that although these two men were separated geographically, they held a similar understanding of our passage. Theirs was the time of the undivided Church, operating with bishops in succession from the Apostles, a church headed for Chalcedon in 451. Ambrose and Chrysostom knew Greek, were in an organic relationship to apostolic churches, and had theological unity. There comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 show no hint of wrestling to know the meaning of the text by weighing several interpretations;5 they give their exposition and argue for it biblically in light of their respective theological milieus.

When Ambrose penned On Repentance, he was writing against the strict Novatians who would not allow those who denied the faith to repent and re-enter the Church; the Novatians cited Hebrews 6:6 because of its apparent preclusion of repentance.6 The bishop of Milan begins his interaction on Hebrews 6 by asking some questions7: “Could Paul teach in opposition to his own act? He had at Corinth forgiven sin through penance, how could he himself speak against his own decision?”8 God, argued Ambrose, wanted to heal and forgive, but Novatius was hindering that.9 Although Novatius had ministered in Rome, he was not in line with Peter’s authority and was not following Paul’s exercise of apostolic forgiveness seen in 2 Corinthians 2:10.10 Ambrose concludes that the “repentance” in Hebrews 6:6 refers to an initial repentance in baptism:

Inasmuch, then, as the Apostle spoke of remitting penance, he could not be silent as to those who thought that baptism was to be repeated. And it was right first of all to remove our anxiety, and to let us know that even after baptism, if any sinned their sins could be forgiven them, lest a false belief in a reiterated baptism should lead astray those who were destitute of all hope of forgiveness. And secondly, it was right to set forth in a well-reasoned argument that baptism is not to be repeated.11

This interpretation assists us in three ways: it reminds us to consider other texts about repentance (2 Cor. 2)12, it upholds the “impossible” situation (as opposed to a hypothetical view of this text), and teaches us the theological language of the early church.

A twenty-first-century Christian might wonder how Ambrose arrived at this understanding. How does baptism fit into the context of the Hebrews 5:11-6:12? There are two textual features that buttress the bishop’s view. First, the writer of Hebrews uses the word φωτίζω (I enlighten/illuminate), which Christians used very early to describe baptism. Justin Martyr wrote the following about the church’s baptismal practice:

Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water… And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings.13

Christians called baptism “illumination.” It is interesting that the Peshitta (an early version of the Scripture) translates (interprets?) Hebrews 6:4a this way: “But they who once unto baptism have descended.”14 The second textual support for Ambrose’s interpretation is the idea of Christians experiencing a definitive illumination, namely, having “once” (ἅπαξ) been enlightened. Lawrence Farley, commenting on the phrase “once for all enlightened” says, “The word rendered once for all is the Greek apax (see 10: 2; Jude 3). The thought here contains an idea of being definitively enlightened in the past—their illumination was not a passing phase; it was an abiding state” (author’s italics).15 This once-for-all enlightening appears in another text in Hebrews: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (10:32). This textual evidence displays the genesis of Ambrose’s interpretation that being once enlightened is being once baptized.

In On Repentance, Ambrose argues that the Novatians’ use of the Hebrews 6:4-6 is incorrect. The Church cannot prohibit repentance in an absolute sense because Christ empowered the Apostles and their successors to forgive sins (cf. John 20:23). This “repentance” to which those fall away cannot be restored is a specific, baptismal repentance. As one delves further into Ambrose’s exposition, the sacramental life of the church becomes apparent. Ambrose understood “once enlightened” and “renewed unto repentance” to refer to an effectual and salvific baptismal moment. This might be scandalous to modern Evangelicals, but this was the view of baptism in the early church.16 Ambrose makes a verbal connection between “renewed” (Heb. 6:6) and other Scriptures from Paul like Romans 6:4. The bishop writes: “And that the writer was speaking of baptism is evident from the very words in which it is stated that it is impossible to renew unto repentance those who were fallen, inasmuch as we are renewed by means of the laver of baptism…he teaches one baptism.” 17

John Chrysostom, in his ninth homily on Hebrews, argues similarly. Because the golden-mouthed bishop preached expositionally through books of the Bible, we have commentary on more of this section of Hebrews. He begins talking about baptism in his comments on Hebrews 6:1-3 because “teachings of baptisms” is part of the foundation of Christian doctrine. Chrysostom exhorts, “For one who is firmly grounded ought to be fixed and to stand steady, and not be moved about. But if one who has been catechised and baptized is going ten years afterwards to hear again about the Faith…he is again seeking after the beginning of the Christian religion.”18 Even before commenting on Hebrews 6:4-6, the bishop of Constantinople divulges his view of single, effectual baptism:

But what is the “doctrine of baptisms”? Not as if there were many baptisms, but one only. Why then did he express it in the plural? Because he had said, “not laying again a foundation of repentance.” For if he again baptized them and catechised them afresh, and having been baptized at the beginning they were again taught what things ought to be done and what ought not, they would remain perpetually incorrigible.19

To summarize, people cannot live slothfully, thinking that they can have a do-over baptism.20 Chrysostom’s point here comes from a pastoral heart; his flock should be growing and building on the foundation seen in Hebrews 6:1-3. The impossible “repentance” in Hebrews 6:6 refers to baptism: “What then, is repentance excluded? Not repentance, far from it! But the renewing again by the laver.”21 Both Ambrose and Chrysostom understood being “once enlightened” as a reference to baptism, and, therefore, it was impossible to restore apostates to that repentance. Ambrose explicated the text as one arguing against the Novatians who prohibit any repentance to the lapsed; Chrysostom exhorted his communicants to mature and never have a slothful attitude.

Both bishops highlight that restoring the lapsed to baptism is impossible because of the relationship between baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion. Hebrews 6:6 states that is impossible “to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (ESV). Baptism is connected to crucifixion. This is Ambrose’s comment on the connection:

So, then, that which he says in this Epistle to the Hebrews, that it is impossible for those who have fallen to be “renewed unto repentance, crucifying again the Son of God, and putting Him to open shame,” must be considered as having reference to baptism, wherein we crucify the Son of God in ourselves, that the world may be by Him crucified for us, who triumph, as it were, when we take to ourselves the likeness of His death, who put to open shame upon His cross principalities and powers, and triumphed over them, that in the likeness of His death we, too, might triumph over the principalities whose yoke we throw off. But Christ was crucified once, and died to sin once, and so there is but one, not several baptisms.22

Christ died once for all, and Christians are baptized once for all. Chrysostom agrees. Jesus Christ died once, was buried, and rose again: “Wherefore, as it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to ‘put Him to an open shame.’” Further he states, “If therefore it is necessary to be baptized [again ], it is necessary that this same [Christ] should die again.”23 A final phrase from John Chrysostom summarizes his application of Hebrews 6:6: “There is repentance, but there is no second baptism.”24

Hebrews 6:4-6 remains a powerful warning. Both Ambrose and Chrysostom believed that those who had once been baptized—that is, enlightened—could fall away. There was still hope for apostates and schismatic groups if they repented. However, it would be impossible to renew them again in baptism because that “repentance” was a definitive event (Heb. 6:4). This patristic interpretation might appear foreign to modern exegetes, and this is probably due to different assumptions and theological frameworks. In the quotations above, we see two leaders interpreting and applying Scripture. Ambrose wove a theological tapestry with the Pauline fabrics of Hebrews 6:4-6 and 2 Corinthians 2:10. Chrysostom applied the text to his communicants and exhorted them to mature past their once-for-all baptism. Both bishops approached the text with the undivided mind and theological language of the Church because there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5, ESV).

1 The delimitation of the passages is part of the debate, but I will follow Tom Schreiner: 2:1-4, 3:12-3:13, 6:4-8, 10:26-31, and 12:25-29. Schreiner is an excellent exegete and godly man; I took several classes from him and highly respect him. You can listen to his lecture on the warning passages at the following link: http://www.rts.edu/Site/RTSNearYou/Jackson/Audio/2015/C-2475%20Dr.%20Tom%20Schreiner%20-%20Warnings%20and%20Admonitions%20in%20Hebrews%20-%20Biblical%20Theology%20Conference%202015%20-%20Session%203%20-%204-1-2015.MP3

2 The follow link goes to lectures from James Dennison who proposes a Pilgrim/Sojourn motif for this passage: http://www.nwts.edu/audio/jtd/Hebrews.htm

3 For John of Damascus’ comments see An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, chp. 9. This work is available at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/33044.htm.

4 In one sense I cannot call this “the” patristic view. There might have been many interpretations of this passage, but the literary evidence supports one main view. Tertullian references this passage in On Modesty, but I am not considering his work due to his departure into Montanism.

5 It should be noted that Ambrose is arguing against the Novation heretics in On Repentance and their view of the warning in Hebrews 6:4-6.

6 On Repentance, Book II, Chp. 2, 6.

7 Ambrose assumed Pauline authorship.

8 Ibid., Book II, Chp. 2, 7.

9 Ibid., Book I, Chp. 7, 32.

10 Ibid., Book I, Chp. 7, 33; Chp. 17, 92-93.

11 Ibid., Book II, Chp. 2, 7.

12 An ancient (and Reformational) hermeneutical practice is to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

13 First Apology, Justin Martyr, 61. I copied the quote directly from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.

14 This discovery is not from my original research. I cannot remember the website that introduced me to this fact of the Peshitta’s translation of Hebrews 6:4, but the translation I used is from http://dukhrana.com/peshitta/index.php

15 Lawrence Farley, The Epistle to the Hebrews: High Priest in Heaven, (Chesterton: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013), location 1041 on Kindle edition.

16 Lutherans, Romans Catholics, and the Orthodox believe in a sacramental and effectual baptism. There are other Protestant sects who do as well, but most Evangelicals uphold a symbolic or covenantal seal understanding. The biblical evidence for an effective baptism is found in the following verses: Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Rom. 6:1-7; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21.

17 On Repentance, Book II, Chp. 2, 8.

18 Homily 9, 2.

19 Homily 9, 4.

20 Ibid., 4.

21 Ibid., 5.

22 On Repentance, Book II, Chp. 2, 10.

23 Both quotes from Homily 9, 6.

24 Homily 9, 8.

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