Reflections on the soteriology of the Epistle to the Hebrews

We consider the soteriology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, traditionally attributed to St. Paul. (This is probably the last-but-one of this semester’s assignments to be published here.) We shall look briefly at the arguments that Hebrews gives for the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice, the effect in an individual’s life of this doctrine, and why there can be none other like it. In an important way, then, this assignment touches the core question at the heart of Christianity: “Why,” as the title of St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous work puts it, “the God-man?”

At Calvary, a cross became an unwitting altar when the Son of God sacrificed Himself upon it for the sins of the world. 1 Hebrews gives many reasons for the primacy of this sacrifice. Some are given by allusion. Jesus is more worthy of honor than Moses (and impliedly all others), because the founder of a house is more honorable than the house itself 2; the more valuable the offering, the greater the sacrifice. Jesus is the true and most excellent high-priest 3; the right sacrifice should be offered by the right priest. Indeed, Jesus is the high-priest who presides over a new and more excellent law of sacrifice which has overtaken the old. 4

But the author 5 grasps the nettle firmly in chapter nine:

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle …, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant: since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance. 6

What is the point of all this? One answer is given by Joseph Ratzinger, with characteristic insight:

In Jesus’ Passion, all of the filth of the world touches the infinitely-pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ and, hence, the Son of God Himself. While it is usually the case that anything unclean touching something clean renders [the latter] unclean, here it is the other way around: when the world … comes into contact with the infinitely-pure one—then he, the pure one is stronger … [and] the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped-out. And transformed in the pain of infinite love. 7

That is an elegant, theologian’s answer, but it is perhaps quite abstract. Hebrews, by contrast, gives a blunt and unsettlingly-concrete answer: Blood. “According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” 8 Last term, we reflected on the “why” question, noting that although “God had created mankind after his own image and likeness, … man was destroyed by the fall, which left us desperate and undone,” 9 such that because of Adam’s sin, “we, his descendants, come into the world deprived of sanctifying grace and inherit his punishment, as we would have inherited his gifts had he been obedient to God.” 10 We were left “entirely unable to redeem ourselves,” and for the reasons given by St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, “what [was] needed [was] something impossible: A person both God and man.” 11 By sending His Son as both sacrificing priest and sacrificial victim, God solved this problem.

With these observations, it becomes straightforward to answer the question of why there cannot be another sacrifice like that of Christ: “Because sin is an infinite offense against God, and only God could offer infinite satisfaction … Son of man, [He] could suffer for the sins of man. Son of God, He could offer to His Father full and entire satisfaction according to the strict rigor of justice.” 12 Only God could accomplish this. And God has no need of an encore: “The ‘Lamb of God’ took upon himself the sins of the world and wiped them away … Reconciliation had been accomplished.” 13

It is equally straightforward to assess the effects of that sacrifice in a person’s life today: In my Who is Jesus piece, quoted above, I proposed that the titular “Good News” of the Gospel boiled down to this: “[W]e had separated ourselves from God, [yet] He nevertheless so loved us that he sent to atone for our sin His only son, Jesus the Christ … who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice in order that by his wounds, those who confess and follow him may be restored to the company of heaven.” Because of what He did on that day, salvation is offered to us. 14

It is thus appropriate that we reflect on this hot on the heels of the Easter Triduum, when we recollect that sacrifice, a sacrifice indeed, “though it had neither fire, nor logs, nor was offered many times, but had been offered in blood once for all; he shows that the ancient sacrifice also was of this kind, was offered once for all in blood.” 15 It is in the Triduum above all that we recall the cross,

for in that solemn and lonely and unapproachable hour of the cross is the final fulfilment of the word of the herald on the banks of the Jordan, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world !” That phrase … could have but one significance in the ears of the men who heard it. This was the voice of a Hebrew  prophet speaking to Hebrews, and when he spoke of the Lamb taking away sins, they had no alternative other than to think of the long line of symbolical sacrifices which had been offered, and which they had been taught shadowed forth some great mystery of Divine purpose whereby sin might be dealt with. 16

This is a great mystery, and is properly so-called, for “we cannot comprehend how a God-man became a victim for us, and offered for our ins an atonement absolutely equal to the offense.” 17 We have been purchased at a great price, tendered in “the precious blood of Jesus Christ.” 18 In consequence, we have this hope: “Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.” 19

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Compare Jn 10:18 with, e.g., Abbé Luche, The Catechism of Rodez Explained in the Form of Sermons 428 (1899).
  2. Heb 3:1-3
  3. 4:14, 5:1-6; 6:19-20; 7:26-28; 8:1-6
  4. Heb 7:11-12; 8:7-9; compare Heb 7:18 with Heb 10:1-4. This analytic approach is not original to me; St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Hebrews similarly reflects that its author, “[h]aving proved the excellence of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Levitical on the part of the person,” then “proves the same on the part of the priesthood itself,” and ultimately, “[h]aving proved that Christ is a high priest and, consequently, a minister of holy things, but not according to the Old Law, … that He is a minister of greater and better things than they had been.” Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, nos. , 377, 390, available at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/SSHebrews.htm#81.
  5. While I reject the so-called “higher criticism” as rotten from root to branch, doubts about the attribution of Hebrews to St. Paul did not begin with the Critics. Even some Church Fathers expressed doubt. Nevertheless, I would pose these questions: Whence came it to be called the Epistle to the Hebrews and attributed to St. Paul? It lacks the letter-style introduction of other writings (Pauline and otherwise). One possibility is that Hebrews originally had such an introductory paragraph, now lost, that claimed Pauline authorship, whence both the characterization and the attribution.
  6. Heb 9:11-15 (emphasis added).
  7. 2 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth 231 (2011).
  8. Heb 9:22. These are themes that I developed at greater length in this presentation.
  9. Simon Dodd, Who is Jesus, and what did he do?,” 4 MPA __ (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted), available at https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1623.
  10. Baltimore Catechism q.57.
  11. Dodd, supra.
  12. Manual of Christian Doctrine 97-98 (1919).
  13. Ratzinger, supra, at 230.
  14. Heb 10:19, 23.
  15. St. John Chrysostom, Homily 15 on Hebrews, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/240215.htm.
  16. G. Campbell Morgan, The Purposes of the Incarnation in 3 The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth 294 (Eds. Torrey & Dixon), available at http://ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books%20II/Torrey%20-%20The%20Fundamentals%203.pdf
  17. Manual, supra, at 97.
  18. Ibid.; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23.
  19. Heb 9:28.