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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2

Analysis

Having said, in the preceding chapter, that the Hebrews, considering the length of time they had professed the faith, should be teachers of Christianity, the Apostle expresses his resolve in this, to pass over, in consequence, these points of Christian doctrine, which formed the subject of instruction for adults, before their admission to baptism. The baptism, to which these matters subserve as a preparation, cannot be again repeated; and hence, the inutility of treating of them (1–6).

He endeavours to terrify the Hebrews, against apostatizing from the faith, by the example of the accursed land (7, 8). He disclaims, however, the idea of applying to them the example, in its full extent (9), and he assigns a reason of congruity for hoping, in their behalf, for the gift of perseverance (10).

He introduces the example referred to, solely with the view of animating them to fervent faith and to patient endurance, by which means alone, they could arrive at the inheritance, promised to the faithful and patient Abraham. He shows, that faith and patient endurance are necessary, in order to gain the promises of eternal life; for, it was by means of these, Abraham, the model of true believers, obtained them (15). And, from the absolute, unconditional nature of the promises made to Abraham, confirmed by the solemn sanction of an oath, on the part of God, he shows that these promises cannot be rescinded, and are to extend to his faithful followers (13, 14).

He next assigns a reason why God swore by himself, and why he swore at all, in the case of Abraham; he swore by himself, because he had no greater to swear by; and the reason of his swearing at all was, to mark more strongly the absolute, unchangeable nature of his decree, regarding the transmission of Abraham’s inheritance to his children and thus to confirm our hope—to which we fly in our afflictions—of entering the true Holy of Holies in heaven, whither our great Hight Priest, according to the order of Melchisedech, has preceded us.

Paraphrase

1. Wherefore (since you ought to be now teachers of Christianity, looking to the length of time you have professed the faith, and the repeated instructions you have received—chap. 5:12), passing over the elementary principles of Christian doctrine, let us proceed to points of higher perfection and of a more abstruse nature, not again laying the foundation of the (baptismal) penance which purifies you from your disorderly habits, and disposes you for the remission of your sins in baptism and of faith in God—the first disposition for baptism;

2. And of the doctrine regarding the threefold baptism (viz., of water, blood, and the spirit), and of the imposition of hands (in confirmation, conferred immediately after baptism), and of the general judgment, in which the dead arise and the eternal sentence is passed—

3. Omitting, I say, all instruction on these preliminary subjects, we shall, God willing, proceed to the more abstruse points of doctrine.

4. I shall pass over these preliminary points of instruction, because the baptism for which they serve, as a preparation, cannot be repeated; for, it is impossible for those who are once enlightened by the sacramental grace of baptism, who have also tasted the heavenly gift (either in the Holy Eucharist, or, in the joy and peace of conscience, usually accompanying the grace of justification), and have been made partakers of the gifts of the Holy Ghost (either in confirmation, or in the infusion of sanctifying grace, which his gifts always accompany);

5. And have also enjoyed the consolations which the promises conveyed by God’s holy word carry with them, and have received a foretaste of these joys, which the power of God is employed in bestowing in the life to come;

6. And have fallen away from justice—it is, I say, impossible for them to receive, a second time, perfect renovation through that preparatory course of penance, by which they were before disposed for baptism; since, for this they should, a second time, crucify the Son of God (in order that his crucifixion would correspond with its reiterated type), and thus expose him to mockery.

7. (Far from hoping for baptismal renovation, such persons should rather dread the divine malediction), for, while the land which, after frequently drinking in the rain of heaven and bringing forth herbs useful for its cultivators, receives the benediction of full maturity from God;

8. That, on the other hand, which, after repeated culture and irrigation, only produces thorns and briars, is reprobate, very near to a curse, whose end is the fire. This is true of the Christian soul, according as it profits by, or neglects the grace of God.

9. But far from intending to apply to you this example of the accursed land, dearly beloved brethren, we, from the firmest persuasion, hope better things regarding you, and things which promise salvation, although we refer to these terrible examples to deter you from ever becoming such.

10. This hope and confidence is grounded on the justice of God. For, God is not unjust that he should forget your good works, and especially the charity which you have shown in his name to the saints, to whose wants you have heretofore ministered, and do minister even to the present day.

11. But, in order that you may securely avoid the fate of the accursed land, we anxiously desire that you exhibit the same fervour of charity unto the end of your lives, until hope is filled up and is succeeded by its term, fruition.

12. And that you become not remiss nor indolent, but imitators of those who, by faith and patient long-suffering, and endurance, inherit the promises of eternal life.

13–15. And as a proof that it is by faith and patience the promises are to be obtained, I will instance the case of Abraham, the father of all believers who had faith, as all know, and who by patience obtained the promise.

13, 14. And that this promise made to Abraham was absolute and unconditional, is clear, from the fact of God swearing by himself—he had no greater by whom to swear—

14. That he would surely bestow on him the abundance of his benediction, and would multiply his seed exceedingly.

16. God swore by himself, because he had no greater to swear by, as men have, when they invoke God as a witness, and the reason why he swore at all, was to accommodate himself to the ways of men, among whom an oath is used to confirm the truth and terminate every controversy.

17. Therefore, wishing to mark more strongly the absolute and unchangeable nature of the decree in question, regarding the transmission of the promise to the sons of Abraham, who were to be its inheritors, God interposed, and added to the promise the solemn sanction of an oath.

18. This he did in order that by two immovable things, viz., his absolute promise and oath, neither of which is it possible for God to belie, neither one nor the other of which he can fail to fulfil, we would feel the greatest consolation and encouragement when (knowing that the promise is not rescinded) we fly from the difficulties and crosses of life, to grasp and lay hold on the hope of future blessings, in store for us.

19. Which hope is the sure anchor of the soul to keep it fixed and firm amidst the adversities of life; nor will it part with us until it leads us to fruition, in the kingdom of heaven,

20. Whither Christ has gone before us as precursor; and this, in quality of eternal High Priest, according to the order of Melchisedech.

Commentary

1. “Wherefore.” Commentators are at a loss to trace the connexion of this word with the foregoing; because the circumstance of the Hebrews being ignorant of the elementary truths of the Christian religion would seem to be no reason for omitting to treat of these, but the very reverse. Hence, it is usually connected with verse 12 of the preceding chapter (as in Paraphrase). Others connect it with the following verse 4, thus: “therefore … as it is impossible for those who were once enlightened.” &c., verse 4, “leaving the word of the beginning of Christ,” &c. (verse 1). “Let us go on to things more perfect;” in these words is contained an allusion to the race course, to which it is quite usual with the Apostle, to compare our advancement in the way of Christian perfection, v.g., (Philippians, 3:14, &c.) “Not laying again the foundation,” &c., i.e., omitting a course of instruction, regarding baptismal penance and faith—both necessary preparatory conditions for adult baptism.

2. “The doctrine of baptisms,” i.e., regarding the threefold baptism, “fluminis, flaminis, et sanguinis,” in which the catechumens were most likely instructed, in order to avail themselves of this knowledge, in case of necessity—or, the words may refer to the distinction between the Jewish purification and Christian baptism. “Imposition of hands,” i.e., the sacrament of confirmation, which, in ancient times, was conferred immediately after baptism. “And of the resurrection,” &c., i.e., the General Judgment, the two great leading features of which were the resurrection of the dead, and the solemn passing of the eternal sentence, “the eternal judgment.”

3. He expresses his resolve to pass over these preliminary points, and proceed to the more abstruse and difficult. Any person who will take the trouble of comparing the conditions and preparation, required by the Council of Trent (SS. vi. cap. 6), for adult baptism, with the two first verses of this chapter, can have very little difficulty in concluding that the Apostle treats, in these two verses, of the dispositions required, at all times, in the Church for the baptism of adults.

4. He omits treating of these points, on account of their inutility, since the baptism to which they subserve cannot be repeated; for, it is impossible for those who were once enlightened by the sacramental grace of baptism, which baptism is frequently called, illuminatio, by the Holy Fathers, “and tasted the heavenly gift,” probably the Eucharist, to which, the Apostle, for well understood reasons, does not wish to refer in clearer terms.

6. “To be again renewed to penance,” i.e., by penance; the preposition “to” has often the meaning of “by.” He speaks of that penance preparatory for baptism, referred to verse 1. The preposition “to” must have this meaning here, even in the opinion of those who say the Apostle refers to renovation by the sacrament of penance, because it is by penance, even according to them, this renovation is effected. “Crucifying again,” &c., for, baptism is a type of Christ’s crucifixion (Rom 6). The Apostle may be referring to the sin of apostasy, in which case, “crucifying,” &c., would literally refer to the crucifixion of Christ; for, by apostatizing, they would concur with the Jews who crucified him, again ratifying their act and approving of the mockery, to which the Son of God was exposed—or the words “crucifying,” &c., may have been meant for no other purpose by the Apostle than merely to express the enormity of the sin of those, who abused the blessings bestowed on them. In the present Greek reading, instead of “to be renewed to penance,” it is, παλιν ανακαινιζειν, to renew again. The Vulgate reading, however, is that of St. Chrysostom and of the best copies.

From the interpretation in the Paraphrase, it is clear, the words, “renewed again to penance,” are made to refer to renovation by baptism and not by the sacrament of penance. The chief reason for preferring this opinion, before that which understands the passage of renovation by the sacrament of penance, is founded on the scope and reasoning of the Apostle, with which the interpretation now adopted perfectly accords. He omits instructing them in the points of doctrine, mentioned in verses 1, 2 (and these evidently refer to the dispositions required for baptism). Why? Because the baptism to which they subserve, as preparatory dispositions, cannot be iterated. Hence, their inutility, as means, their end being unattainable. The ordinary grounds commonly adduced for preferring the interpretation now adopted, such as the literal meaning of “impossible,” the meaning of “renewed,” although the word “again” gives it considerable force, are not conclusive on the subject; because, these could be easily explained away in the other interpretation. It is the scope of the Apostle, and the context, that seem quite conclusive in determining the probability of this opinion beyond that which understands the words of renovation by the sacrament of penance—an opinion also which has this advantage over the other, that it leaves not even the shadow of ground for the Novatian errors. The reasoning of the Apostle would not at all hold in the opinion of those who make “renewed to penance,” refer to the sacrament of penance. What vis conseqitentiæ would there be in saying: I omit treating of these points of doctrine (1, 2), because, it is very difficult for those who have abused the many gifts of God to be reconciled by the sacrament of penance? It cannot, however, be concealed, that the subjoined example of the accursed land (verse 8), is greatly in favour of the interpretation of those who maintain that the Apostle refers, in verse 6, to the sacrament of penance It runs very smoothly to say: it is extremely difficult for such persons to be reconciled by the sacrament of penance; for, instead of being fit subjects for reconciliation, they are like the barren and ungrateful earth, fitted only for the fire. Whereas, in the interpretation adopted in the Paraphrase, the impossibility of the reiteration for them of baptism is no reason why they should be accursed; since penance, the second plank on which to grasp, was still remaining for them. The scope of the Apostle is, however, a far stronger argument in favour of our interpretation, than this is in favour of the opposite. We have, therefore, only to accommodate the example of the accursed land (verse 8), to our interpretation, which can be done in this way: why speak of the impossibility of repeating baptism, since every, even available, means of reconciliation is become almost unavailing for men who, in punishment of their signal ingratitude, and their repeated resistance to grace, are become cast-aways of heaven—delivered over, as it were, to a reprobate sense—like the barren and unprofitable earth, only fitted for the fire. Or, it may be said, that the example is introduced for the mere purpose of inspiring the Hebrews with a salutary terror against the sin of apostasy, without intending it as a rigorous proof of anything that preceded; for, the Apostle, in verse 9, disclaims any intention of applying it to the Hebrews.

9. He disclaims the intention of applying to the great body of the Hebrews, the frightful example of the accursed earth. He hopes better things, &c.

10. This confidence he grounds on the divine justice, which requires that God would reward their works of merit. He particularizes that of charity, towards the faithful poor in distress.

OBJECTION.—According to the Catholic doctrine of merit (Council of Trent, SS. vi. Can. 32), there are only three things which fall under strict merit, or, which a man can merit, as they say, de condigno, viz., an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life, if he die in grace; and although eternal life may, hic et nunc, be merited, it may still be lost, for want of final perseverance—for, although Catholics hold that if a man were to die instantly after performing a work meritorious of eternal life, he would have a right to eternal life, in virtue of the gracious promise and goodness of God; still, they admit, that it is no way against the justice of God, that a man, hic et nunc, meriting eternal life, would afterwards fall away and not obtain it is the end; because without any injustice whatever on his part, God can withhold the great and singular gift of final perseverance, which, strictly speaking, cannot be merited. Since, therefore, a man, who merited eternal life at some particular moment, can afterwards fall away, and be damned for want of final perseverance, which no man can strictly merit, and which, without injustice, God can withhold; how can the Apostle say that, in the present instance, God would be unjust, if the Hebrews were not partakers of salvation?

ANSWER.—In reply to the foregoing objection, it may be said, that St. Paul does not assert that God would be unjust if the Hebrews were not saved. He only expresses a firm hope and confidence (verse 9) that the case of the Hebrews is unlike that of the accursed land; and this hope he grounds on the rewards which God, in his justice, is bound to bestow on their charity (verse 10). Now, among the things which God, in justice, is bound to give, is an increase of sanctifying grace, by which they can the more easily persevere, and thus obtain de congruo, i.e., by persevering prayer, the great gift of final perseverance; hence, the ground of the Apostle’s confidence (verse 9); which is founded ultimately (verse 1), on God’s justice, in bestowing an increase of sanctifying grace. If the Apostle were to argue directly (verse 10), from the strict justice of God, he would not only say, “we trust better,” &c., but we are altogether certain (verse 9). “And the love,” the Greek has, καὶ τοῦ κόπου τῆς ἀγάπης, and the labour of love; but the word, labour, is now generally rejected by critics; it was probably introduced from 1 Thess. 1:3.

11. The Apostle in this verse points out the condition, upon which they may have a claim on the strict justice of God, viz., perseverance to the end, in the performance of the same good works of charity.

12. He anxiously desires and wishes that they would not become remiss, but rather, by faith in the promises of God, and the patient endurance of adversity (the Greek for “patience,” μακροθυμιας, means, long suffering), become faithful imitators of the saints of old—as well as of those to whose wants they were ministering—who, by these very same means, i.e., faith and patience, were heirs of the promises of eternal life.

13. He adduces the example of Abraham, to prove that it is by faith and patience, the promises of God regarding eternal life, to which he refers, were to be obtained. That Abraham had faith, was a matter so well known to the Hebrews, that the Apostle supposes it here, and merely asserts (verse 15), that he obtained the promises by patient endurance and long suffering. Hence, as Abraham is our model, we must obtain the promises on the same conditions on which he obtained them, viz., by faith and patience. The Apostle, in this reasoning, supposes that the promises to which he refers were of such an absolute nature, as that they were to be transmitted to us, and not merely conditional, liable to be rescinded. Hence it is that he refers to the mode in which God made this promise, viz., by interposing the solemn sanction of an oath, swearing by himself for want of a greater by whom to swear.

14. Saying (Genesis, 22:16): “By myself have I sworn … I will bless and multiply thy seed—and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” “Unless blessing I will bless thee,” i.e., certainly, “blessing I will bless thee,” he repeats the words “blessing” and “multiplying” to express the abundance of his benedictions—or, “unless I bless thee,” &c., may I not be God, or the like, and then the imprecation is suppressed from reverence for the name of God. However, the former meaning of “unless” is more conformable to the Greek, ἡ μην, and to the Septuagint version of Genesis; and it is from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament that St. Paul takes his quotations in this Epistle.

15. The sense of the passage may, perhaps, be more clearly conveyed by transposing this verse and placing it a little in advance, in immediate connexion with the first words of verse 13 (as in Paraphrase). The Apostle adduces the example of Abraham to prove that it is by faith and patience we are to inherit the promises; and before he asserted that it was by faith and patience (6:15), Abraham obtained them, he anticipates a difficulty which might at once be started, viz.:—What has the promise made to Abraham, or his mode of obtaining it, to do with us? The Apostle refers to the oath of God to prove that it has reference to us. For, the promise itself regards the multiplication of his posterity (Gen. 22), and the benediction of all the tribes of the earth in his seed, which the Apostle interprets (Gal. 3), to refer to Christ. It, therefore, regards us, and the oath on the part of God proves it to be absolute and not liable to be rescinded.

“And so patiently enduring he obtained the promise;” he obtained it in himself and in his carnal descendants, but especially the spiritual part of it is fulfilled now in the blessings bestowed on his spiritual children; and, in order to obtain this blessing, Abraham had to endure patiently many hardships.

16. The Apostle, in this verse, assigns a reason why God swore by himself, and secondly, why he swore at all. Properly speaking, it could not be called an oath on the part of God. For, an oath supposes the calling to witness of a greater, and God having no greater to call to witness, could not, therefore, strictly speaking, be said to swear.

17. Some decrees of God have a conditional object; and may, therefore, be rescinded and may never come to pass. But the promise in the present case is absolute, which the Apostle is showing all along from verse 13, by pointing to the solemn sanction of an oath on the part of God confirming it, and therefore, it will be fulfilled and obtained by those in whose favour it was made i.e., by “the heirs of the promise.”

18. To his promise God added the sanction of an oath, which proves it to be of a nature absolute and unconditional, “that by two immovable things,” &c. (vide Paraphrase). If the promise were only conditional and not absolute, it might be rescinded for want of compliance with the required conditions on the part of men; and we would, therefore, have no such consolation in our hope.

19. “Hope is the sure and firm anchor of the soul,” because it keeps the soul firm and unmoved, and preserves her from being tossed about or sunk into despair, by the storms and tempests of adversity.

“And which entereth in even within the veil;” hope, though retaining the soul unmoved against the influence of adversity, still retards not her progress towards her destined haven of rest, the true Holy of Holies of heaven, of which the Jewish Holy of Holies, divided from the sanctum, or Holy, by a veil, was a mere figure. And the Apostle alludes to this veil of the Holy of Holies, to show us in what capacity Christ entered heaven, viz., as high priest, for the high priest alone could enter the sanctum sanctorum.

OBJECTION.—If hope be a certain anchor, may not all be certain of salvation? Hope is certain, in regard to God, uncertain, in regard to us, because no one, short of a revelation, can be absolutely certain, that he will comply with the required conditions; and this is conformable to the providence of God in the present order of things, according to which, “no one can know whether he is deserving of love or hatred,” and all are commanded to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.”

Besides, supposing, that hope carried with it the certainty of perseverance, who can be certain that he has that hope?—and, without this certainty, a man is always uncertain of salvation.








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