EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and professor of biblical theology, discusses his new commentary with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: What do you hope will set the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series apart from other commentaries?
TS: Most commentaries are very good at giving you the verse-by-verse exegesis of a text and we hope to do that as well. What sets this series apart, and what most commentary series don’t do, is we have dedicated sections for biblical theology and the biblical theology of the writer. So I think while every good commentary is informed with theology, we’re specifically and intentionally treating the biblical theology of each book. We’re trying to set each book in the context of the whole canon of Scripture and we’re trying to unpack the particular congregation of each writer. I’m excited about the series since I don’t know of any other series that has attempted to do that. The actual commentary section itself is less technical than some commentaries because our target audience is pastors, students — both college and seminary — and interested lay people.
CS: Most of your commentaries have been on Pauline epistles, but what about Hebrews intrigued you the most?
TS: I did do a commentary on 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, so I have spent some time in the General Epistles. I have this biblical theological interest, so I’ve written three books on biblical theology over the years, and in my mind Hebrews is the ideal book to investigate biblical theology. Hebrews centers on the difference between the covenants, the contrast between the old covenant and the new, and not only the contrast but the continuities. Immediately, I had no hesitation. As an editor you get to choose what you want to do and there was no hesitation to do Hebrews; that’s exactly what I wanted to do given the theological import of the book, especially in terms of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New in Hebrews.
CS: Reading Hebrews requires a great deal of biblical literacy. What makes it so important for developing biblical theology and how does Hebrews offer a model for how to do biblical theology?
TS: I think Hebrews is paradigmatic because it is written after the cross and the resurrection. So, Hebrews is reflecting on the Christ event, the implication of his cross and resurrection for the people of God. I think Hebrews becomes a model because it examines issues that are fundamental for how you put the whole Bible together. Clearly, other books do that as well, but Hebrews does it in such a concentrated way since, I believe, the readers were tempted to revert to Judaism. So the author is required to examine the relationship between not only the old covenant and the new but also the theology of priesthood and sacrifice. Even Paul doesn’t deal with the priesthood in the same way that we find in the letter to the Hebrews. Although Paul does say Jesus is the final complete sacrifice, we don’t have the type of detailed working out of that theme that we see in Hebrews. I think he helps us see how to interpret the Old Testament typologically — that’s one of its main contributions. The author gives us the pattern for a typological reading, but also a promise-fulfillment reading and a redemptive-historical reading as well.
CS: If Hebrews reads like a sermon because it probably was a sermon, why is this epistle so neglected in our pulpits?
TS: It’s an interesting observation. Hebrews is a sermon, I believe, and yet it has this incredible literary quality. The Greek is beautiful and excellent; the opening of the letter is majestic from a literary standpoint. I think the reason it’s neglected is because the subjects are foreign to us. No one in our churches is tempted to offer Old Testament sacrifices, no one is tempted to go back to a Levitical cult. What teachers of Hebrews need to show is this: What is the message for readers today? You can’t just stay with the first century. That was the exegetical issue for the first century. What does the theology of priests and sacrifice say to people today? I actually think Hebrews helps us because the truths he draws out are there for the preacher — we must not preach or even teach it like a history lesson — you have to show people why it matters. One of his main themes is the cleansing of our conscience through the death of Jesus Christ. People still suffer from guilt today, that’s a fundamental human need. So when we talk about Christ’s sacrifice we want to concentrate on the cleansing of the conscience.
CS: How did your earlier study on the warning passages in Hebrews help you understand the book as a whole?
TS: I think the warning passages summarize the major message of the book: Don’t fall away. The warning passages, which punctuate the book, all say the same thing from a different angle, so they ought to be included synoptically or mutually interpret the Word. When we see that, we recognize that the fundamental message of the book is very practical, the fundamental message of the book isn’t that Jesus is our high priest. Chapters 7-10 tell us Jesus is a better priest, a better covenant, and a better sacrifice. But if we were to ask the question, “So what? Why does that matter?” I think the author of Hebrews would say, “Therefore do not depart from him because if you depart from the better priest, the better covenant, and the better sacrifice, you will be dead, you will not enter the heavenly rest.” The warning passages and the Hebrews 11 call of faith are two different ways of saying the same thing. What does it mean to obey the warning passages? It means to trust God. If so, I want to do everything I can to help people see how the book is integrated.
CS: When you talk about the importance of typology in Hebrews, there are still some evangelicals today who shy away from the term. But how does Hebrews help us understand how the Bible uses typology?
TS: Typology is fundamental to the message of the letter. Those who shy away from typology are neglecting a category which is intrinsic to the New Testament. I think it’s clear from Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament that typology is a correspondence between persons, events, institutions — such typology is ordained and planned by God. It’s not just retrospective, it’s not just looking back, God planned the sacrificial system to point to Christ’s sacrifice. I think Hebrews can help people see that. Surely no evangelical believes that the sacrificial system was “Plan A” and then God said, “This is not working, let’s go to ‘Plan B.’” The typological function of sacrifices was intended by God from the beginning. We shouldn’t shy away from typology because if you don’t do typology, you really can’t understand the message of Scripture.
CS: If the main theme and message of the book is “don’t fall away,” what are other themes that have been a source of comfort and encouragement to you?
TS: I think the main point which we find right away in Hebrews 1:3 is Jesus’ sacrifice cleansed me of my sins once for all. Why is that so? Because he’s fully God and he’s fully man. The person who offers the sacrifice was fully God and fully man, therefore the sacrifice is sufficient and complete and definitive. I think that’s very comforting to me and to all Christians because we don’t need to go anywhere else, we must not go anywhere else to receive the forgiveness of sins and a cleansed conscience. So, I think that’s the main pastoral comfort in the letter. I think the other message of the letter that I find encouraging and helpful — that some people are scared by — is the warning passages. There is a kind of fear that is good, there’s a kind of fear that keeps us alert, so we don’t text while we’re driving, we pay attention to the road — that’s not a paralyzing fear, it’s a wise kind of fear. But the call not to fall away is a call to trust God. Trust God who sent his Son to cleanse us of our sins. Faith looks back to the sacrifice of Christ but faith also looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises. I would say for myself, and all believers, do we experience some frustration here? Some sense of alienation, some sense of exile, a sense of incompleteness, a sense that everything that God has promised hasn’t been realized in our lives? The answer of Hebrews is, “Yes, of course!” That’s coming! We’re sojourners, we’re exiles, faith means trusting because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ in the past and it means we trust him to fulfill that in the future.