Going On to Perfection: A Redemptive-Historical Reading of Hebrews 6:1

The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes explicit in the prologue that there is an organic progression to God’s revelation[1] and that the content and mode of God’s revelatory speech demarcates history into two comprehensive epochs: “long ago” and “these last days.” He writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (1:1–2a).

I want to consider in this article three implications of this passage for the exhortation that will come later in 6:1, “Let us leave standing the basic teaching about Christ and go on to perfection .” We will then try to define what exactly the author has in mind by the basic teaching and perfection.

1. God’s Revelation is Objective and Historical

First, the revelatory speech of God is an objective reality in redemptive-history that is not dependent on its subjective reception. In other words, God has spoken whether or not it is recognized and received by faith. This means that the epochal shift brought about by the speech of God in his Son is the indicative upon which the imperative of 6:1—to progress in knowledge—is grounded. The author is exhorting his readers to be up-to-date in their knowledge with respect to redemptive-history; he does not want them to be lagging behind or living according to an outmoded, antequated or obsolete redemptive-historical model (cf. 8:13).

The author, then, desires his readeres to progress from the basic teaching about Christ (τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον) to perfection (τὴν τελειότητα) not because he is an intellectualist or committed to a Gnostic epistemology, but because it is appropriate and fitting, even demanded, with the recent advancements in redemptive-history that have taken place in Christ. To put it another way, the reason the recipients of the letter are to go on to perfection in their knowledge (imperative) is because God has definitively and objectively advanced the knowledge base of his people by a new speech in his Son (indicative). Since God has spoken in these last days in a Son, to remain knowledgeable only of what he has spoken in the past to our fathers is inadequate and antiquated in light of the objective historia salutis situation of the readers. The church is to progress along with God’s revelatory speech. When God speaks new and fresh things, the church, by a redemptive-historical necessity, must receive it and live accordingly.

2. God’s Revelation Progresses from Good to Better

Second, the nature of the progression of God’s revelatory speech is not from evil to good or from false to true, but from good to better since both find their source in God who cannot lie. The two are organically related with the former anticipating the latter, just as the old covenant anticipated the new and the Levitical priesthood anticipated the Melchizedekian. This implies that the good and better are redemptive-historically qualified. That which was good was good for a specific time in redemptive-history; it does not remain good in a timeless or generic sense. It is not as if that which is good and that which is better exist simultaneously in history as two viable options to be chosen from. Rather, that which is good grows obsolete and soon vanishes when that which is better arrives (8:13). There is no returning to what once was good when the better has come. Once the better comes, the good can no longer be faithfully appropriated.

3. God’s Revelation Constitutes Covenant Knowledge

Third, the revelatory speeches of God in history constitute the knowledge base of their respective covenants. “Revelation,” writes Vos, “is the speech of God to man. It forms one side of the covenant intercourse. … [It is] a process of fellowship between God and man.”[2] Neither the old covenant, nor the new exist apart from God speaking, and his speech is what is to be known and believed. The speech of God to our fathers by the prophets comprises the knowledge of the old covenant, while the speech of God to us by a Son comprises the knowledge of the new covenant. This is not to say there is no overlap, there is, for these two sets of knoweldge are not in antithesis to one another, but organically related. Furthermore, while the first is good, as it is temporary and anticipatory, so the second is better, as it is final and eschatological.

The speech of God in his Son brought about an epochal shift from what is temporary and subeschatological to what is permanent and eschatological.

Looking at Hebrews 6:1 Directly

Coming now directly to Hebrews 6, the author begins his argument by tapping into this two-fold covenant knowledge scheme. He will carry this scheme through the entire pericope. He writes, Therefore, let us leave standing the basic teaching concerning Christ and go on to perfection” (Διὸ ἀφέντες τὸν τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον ἐπὶ τὴν τελειότητα φερώμεθα). The participle ἀφέντες (“leave standing”) is not to be taken in the negative sense of abandoning or forsaking something, but rather in the positive sense of progressing beyond something in the same way a builder progresses beyond the structural foundation of a house by putting up walls and a roof. Lane properly translates it as “leave standing.”[3]

The author then has in mind some kind of advancement from one knowledge base to another. These two sets of knowledge are organically related in the same way the walls and roof of a house are related to the foundation. The first is spoken of as τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον (“the basic teaching concerning Christ”) and the second is spoken of as τὴν τελειότητα (“perfection”). The author is exhorting his readers, along with himself, to progress from the one to the other.

The question then is what does the basic teaching concerning Christ and perfection refer to? Can both be subsumed under the same knowledge base—so that he has in mind a mere quantitative progression or maturity within the same set?[4] Or does the author have in mind the historical speeches of God that constitute two different knowledge bases—so that he has in mind both a qualitative and quantitative progression from one to the other? A case will be made for the latter: the author has in mind the transition from subeschatological, anticipatory old covenant knowledge to eschatological, final new covenant knowledge, which resulted from the epoch-shifting speech of God in his Son.[5] It will become evident that the elements that constitute the “basic word about Christ” can all be found in the old covenant, which were spoken in the prophets, while “perfection” consists of all new covenant-specific items, which were spoken in a Son.

What is the basic teaching concerning Christ?

Regarding the first—τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον—three arguments can be advanced to take it as old covenant knowledge. First, the phrase harkens back to “the basic principles of the oracles of God” (τῆς ἀρχῆς τῶν λογίων τοῦ θεοῦ) in 5:12. Schreiner, acknowledging this connection, says that this “confirms the notion that the basic principles have to do with a Christian understanding of the OT.”[6] Lane also writes, “[It] may have reference to a preliminary and insufficient teaching based upon the OT, without specific reference to Christ.”[7] This connection with 5:12 implies that the foundation, made up of repentance and faith, was something that the readers had already laid some time ago.[8]

Second, the author denotes it as a foundation: “Therefore, leaving the basic word about Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation (θεμέλιος) of repentance away from dead works and faith toward God” (6:1). Earlier in 1:10 the author brought together ἀρχή and θεμελιος in quoting Psalm 102:25, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning .” The two words appear also to complement one another here in 6:1.

Third, and building upon the previous point, the items that constitute the foundation—repentance and faith—are both explicitly found in the Old Testament (cf. Heb. 11). Furthermore, the teaching (διδαχή) in 6:2, which is either conjoined with or in appositional relationship to the foundation, is also found in the Old Testament: “washings , the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

Before looking at the second heading, a possible objection should be answered. Does not the fact that the author speaks of the basic word as being about Christ exclude an old covenant formulation? While much can be said in answer to this, Acts 18:24–28 may be most helpful. There we read that Apollos’ knowledge had not progressed beyond John the Baptist (his knowledge was not redemptive-historically up-to-date). Not that he rejected the further redemptive-historical developments, but word of them had not yet reached him. Nevertheless, we read that he still “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25). Thus, consistent with Jesus’ own words in Luke 24:18, the knowledge pertaining to the old covenant was about him. While this knowledge will be supplemented and heightened by the revelation belonging to the new covenant, it is still true and accurate—it is still good. The old is not in antithesis to the new so that to move from the one to the other is the equivalence of moving from what is evil to what is good. Rather, the new organically develops out of the old in the same way a shadow gives way to its substance or as a promise turns into fulfillment or as a type is superseded by its antitype—in all of these cases the former is good, while the latter is better. This objection, therefore, actually adds to the redemptive-historical argument being made: the contrast is not between what is evil and good, false and true, unbelief and belief, but between old covenant belief that is good and new covenant belief that is better. In the same way milk is good, even necessary, for a specific time in the life of a person, solid food is better as it supersedes an all-milk diet and provides more wholesome nutrition for greater growth and superior strength.

What is perfection?

The second—τὴν τελειότητα—is often translated as “maturity” (ESV, NIV, NASB, etc.), but “perfection” should be preferred.[9] Lane is correct when he writes, “The problem with translating the word with ‘maturity’ is the implication that a state is being described that is achieved gradually by successive steps of development. What is described, however, is the accomplishment of God through Jesus Christ.”[10]

Silva rightly observes that the author links τελος with the new covenant in a technical sense throughout the letter. This suggests an eschatological interpretation of “perfection” in terms of new covenant fulfillment. This, however, does not exclude the traditional cultic interpretation (i.e., being fit for service before God),[11] but provides “a more consistent use of the word-group in Hebrews.”[12] If this can be applied to τὴν τελειότητα in 6:1, then what the author had in mind was eschatological knowledge that belonged to the new covenant.

This eschatological reading of τὴν τελειότητα may be objected to on the basis of the readers elsewhere in the letter being said to already belong to the new covenant and the age of fulfillment. How can the author exhort them to go on to perfection if they’ve already been made perfect? Silva draws a parallel with Paul’s theology to provide an answer. While Paul can make an eschatological statement regarding all Christians by referring to them as spiritual (πνευματικός; e.g., 1 Cor. 2:15), he can nevertheless “also restrict the use of the word so that it has reference to those who give proper manifestation of their spiritual status.”[13] He goes on,

For example, [Paul] hesitates to call the immature Corinthians spiritual (1 Cor. 3:1); similarly, in Galatisn 6:1 he speaks of those who are spiritual in contrast to those who are caught in a fault. Could we not argue therefore that the author of Hebrews in some contexts may restrict the meaning of perfect to those who are giving proper manifestation that they belong to the age of fulfillment? Indeed, the danger faced by the recipients of the letter was that of going back to the old, obsolete, pre-eschatological (!) covenant.[14]

In further support of an eschatological, new covenant reading of τὴν τελειότητα, we should also recognize that the items of the second list are all new covenant specific: “who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (6:4–5).

Conclusion

We have made the case for a redemptive-historically sensitive reading of 6:1, which the author will carry through the entire passage of 6:1–6. In light of what has been said so far, we can paraphrase the verse as such:

“Therefore, leave standing the foundational subeschatological knowledge of the old covenant, which is the product of God’s previous speech to our fathers in the prophets long ago, and let us go on to the eschatological knowledge of the new covenant, which is the product of God’s speech to us in a Son in these last days.”

The progress he desires for his readers is redemptive-historical in nature. The author is urging his readers to have knowledge that is up-to-date or current with the recent developments in redemptive-history. To put it negatively, he does not want their knowledge to lag behind their present redemptive-historical situation.


[1] Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 68; Idem., Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 5–8.

[2] Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 68–69.

[3] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8 (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 131.

[4] Cf. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 1:48, 49, 52.

[5] This is contrary to the entry for θεμέλιος in NIDNTE, which reads, “[It] evidently refers to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. The distinction made here is between the groundwork, which every Christian has to know, and further insights that come to those who are prepared to study the Scripture in greater depth (cf. 5:11–14)” (2:432). This implies progression within the same knowledge base, instead of progression from one knowledge base into a greater, though organically related, knowledge base.

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2015), 175.

[7] Lane, Hebrews, 140.

[8] See Lane, Hebrews, 131.

[9] See Moises Silva, “Perfection and Eschatology in Hebrews,” WTJ 39, no. 1 (September 1976), 69n18.

[10] Lane, Hebrews, 131–32.

[11] See for example Geerhardus Vos, “The Priesthood of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980).

[12] Silva, “Perfection and Eschatology in Hebrews,” 68.

[13] Ibid., 69.

[14] Ibid.

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