Volume 48 - Issue 2

The Function of Divine Christology in Hebrews: Critical Reflections on a Recent Proposal

By Jared Compton


The recent “theological turn” in biblical studies sparked fresh, creative interest in Hebrews’ Christology. The latest entry in the field, Nick Brennan’s carefully argued Divine Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews, advances the conversation and, at the same time, illustrates a danger attending the larger project of theological retrieval. This essay explores Brennan’s thesis, commending his theological instincts, while cautioning against his specific conclusions. Readers must account for Hebrews’ theology but never at the expense of the letter’s explicit argument.

While I was completing my dissertation on Hebrews in 2013, the field of NT studies was undergoing a revolution.1 NT scholars and others, frustrated with historical criticism, were beginning to read the NT theologically, often with fresh sympathy for “pre-modern” exegesis and the so-called “Great Tradition.”2 The effects have been far-reaching,3 especially for Hebrews’s Christology. In just the last three years alone, three new monographs have specifically focused on Hebrews’s divine Christology, each with an eye squarely on this larger conversation.4 The most recent—Nick Brennan’s Divine Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews—focuses not only on the presence of divine Christology in Hebrews but takes the further and, indeed, necessary step of exploring its place in the letter’s argument.5 After all, it’s one thing to insist that Hebrews says Jesus is divine and still another to probe further and explain why. But it’s precisely at this point that Brennan’s thesis runs into trouble and, at the same time, usefully illustrates one of the dangers attending the larger project of theological retrieval:6 theological inference overriding textual assertion. In what follows, I show this by surveying Brennan’s work and by reflecting on two of Hebrews’s claims that Brennan’s thesis overrides. I conclude with three suggestions about where this conversation about Hebrews’s Christology might go next.

1. Survey: What a Divine Christ Alone Can Do

Hebrews’s soteriology requires Hebrews’s divine Christology. Or, to summarize Brennan’s thesis in his own words, “The Son can only be the fully effective Saviour and Priest he is, because he is himself true God, and thus brings to his people resources beyond their own, those of God himself.”7 To make his case, he marshals five chapter-long arguments.

1.1. A Divine Christ Alone Can Save (Heb 1:6, 10–12)8

This is how Brennan explains two citations in the author’s opening argument of 1:5–14, namely Deuteronomy 32:43 in Hebrews 1:6 and Psalm 102:25–27 in Hebrews 1:10–12. Brennan explicitly argues against my own reading of these texts,9 specifically my claim that each citation is applied to Jesus because it is messianic. To his credit, Brennan acknowledges the catena’s enthronement frame (he calls it an “orbit”) and that a Davidic psalm (i.e., Ps 97)10 may have influenced one of the two citations (i.e., Deut 32),11 which, it turns out, would leave only one—Hebrews 1:10–12—clearly outside the Davidic orbit.

Brennan, nevertheless, insists that both texts play a different role than the other citations applied to Jesus in the catena. Instead of anticipating messianic enthronement, each anticipates God’s eschatological salvation: a salvation accomplished by God alone and, therefore, decidedly and explicitly agent-less,12 so that God may highlight his unique saving ability (cf., e.g., Deut 32:43, esp. in the light of vv. 12, 31, and 34–43; and Ps 102:12–13).13 One, of course, may wonder whether Deuteronomy means to exclude all human agency. It was not much earlier, after all, that God told Moses that one day he would raise up a prophet just “like” him. And the fulfillment of this promise, according to the early Christians, turned out to be the “murdered,” and, thus, very human Jesus (see Acts 7:37; 52–53).

Brennan, moreover, recognizes that the use he has proposed for Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 102 is distinct, and not just because he insists the two texts are not messianic. His proposal also requires a hermeneutic at odds with the author’s normal practice elsewhere. Hebrews everywhere else uses Scripture persuasively, over and over again pointing its audience to expectations already in the OT.14 It is, therefore, one thing to say God’s salvation was anticipated; it is quite another to say Jesus is the God bringing that salvation. Brennan insists that what brings these texts closer in line with Hebrews’s normal practice are the many specific correspondences between the texts and what Jesus has done in history.15 In short, his argument is circular; it assumes an equivalence between God and Jesus. But it is not “viscious[ly]” circular.16 It points to a warrant beyond the author’s own Christian conviction.

1.2. A Divine Christ Alone Can Build (Heb 3:1–6)

Brennan next argues that Jesus’s superiority to Moses is based on his divinity. We might represent this argument with a three-premise syllogism.

  • Premise 1: Jesus is superior to Moses because of something he has built (Heb 3:3b).
  • Premise 2: Jesus has built God’s redemptive household (cf. Heb 3:6; similarly, 10:21).17
  • Premise 3: Only a divine being can build God’s redemptive household.
  • Conclusion: Jesus, therefore, has “engaged in a divine eschatological prerogative.”18

To prove his first two premises, Brennan argues that Hebrews 3:1–6 alludes to the prophet Nathan’s oracle recorded in 2 Samuel 7 (cf. 1 Chron 17).19 In that oracle, God promises to build David a house, later understood to refer to a messianic people.20 And David asks to build God a house, a temple. The text, in other words, links both God and David with building projects. Granted these projects are actually reversed in Brennan’s reading of Hebrews 3. God builds the eschatological temple, and Jesus builds God’s redemptive household. The reversal, we are told, simply underscores certain ambiguities already present in the Samuel text itself. God only allows David’s son to build him a temple—a son, in fact, whom the text says, God will give him (cf. 2 Sam 7:12). And at one point God calls this temple “my house” (1 Chron 17:14).21 This, of course, may allow us to see why Hebrews might say God built David’s house (i.e., the eschatological temple), but it is not clear, at least to me, how Brennan’s explanation allows us to say that Jesus—David’s son—builds God’s house (i.e., a redemptive household), which is exactly what we need to be able to say in order to support Brennan’s first two premises.

Now to prove his third premise, Brennan notes that every eschatological reality in Hebrews is built by God himself:22 God builds the heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly city, and the heavenly rest. And, in light of the (ostensible) overlap between God and David’s building activity in 2 Samuel 7 and in light of the fact that Jesus equips believers to live in God’s eschatological reality, Brennan concludes that Jesus is engaged in a divine building project. As he says it, “only divine agency can fit things for the unshakeable kingdom.”23

As a passing note, I should say that I am not yet convinced that Jesus builds anything in Hebrews 3. Might it not be that all the talk of building is meant to emphasize God’s greatness and, therefore, to explain why Jesus’s status as a “Son over” God’s house makes him so much superior to Moses, who was simply a “servant in” God’s house (3:5–6). It is a prestigious thing indeed to have a father like that.24

1.3. A Divine Christ Alone Can Live (Heb 7:16)

Third, Brennan says that the “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16) that qualified Jesus for priesthood was his “divine life.”25 He notes, first, that only sons qualify for Melchizedekian priesthood. Unlike Levitical priests, specific tribal lineage was not the deciding factor. (It was, in fact, an anti-factor in Jesus’s case [see 7:14; cf. 8:4]). And sons, he goes on, are those who are disciplined through suffering so that they might learn obedience and be perfected (cf. Heb 12:4–12). Hebrews says this is precisely what Jesus experienced and what qualified him for priesthood. Therefore, the disciplining-perfection that qualified Jesus for priestly office was a perfection related—necessarily—to his existing status as a son.

Brennan then claims that the only kind of son who qualifies for Melchizedekian priesthood is a divine son. Only a divine son can be the pattern for a character with “unbounded” life.26 Right after saying that Melchizedek was “without beginning of days or end of life,” Hebrews says that in this way he was made like—he “resembl[ed]—the “Son of God” (ἀφωμοιωμένος, 7:3).27 This quality of life also explains the contrast Hebrews later makes between Levitical and Melchizedekian priests in Hebrews 7:8, 28. In both of these texts Brennan sees a contrast between Levitical priests who are human and Melchizedekian priests who are not.28

While it is true, Brennan notes, that the Son’s identity as son did entail his obedient death (5:7–10), his identity as divine Son also “meant that his life could not be destroyed by it.”29 And it is that indestructible life that qualified Jesus for priestly office and, at the same time, now allows him to “save completely those who come to God through him” (7:25).30

1.4. A Divine Christ Alone Can Guarantee (Heb 7:22)

Fourth, if Jesus is the guarantor of God’s covenant (Heb 7:22), then he “must” be divine.31 Here Brennan points out that God’s covenant with Abraham was secured or guaranteed by God’s own character: “Since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself” (6:14). Thus, if this oath is God’s guarantee to Abraham (ἐμεσίτευσεν ὅρκῳ, 6:17),32 then “only one who is God’s equal may act as [God’s] guarantor [ἔγγυος].”33 Hebrews then goes on to say that this is exactly what Jesus has done through his faithful obedience (cf. 10:5–10).34 He secured God’s covenant promises.35

It is worth noting in passing the similarity between this and his first argument (“A divine Christ alone can save”). In both, all other agencies, besides divine agency, are ruled out.

1.5. A Divine Christ Alone Can Perfect (Heb 2:9–10)

Fifth and finally, Brennan says that only a divine Son could fulfill Davidic sonship and perfect humans, or, as he puts it, could enable humans to fulfill their telos.36 Humans were created with a certain end, variously described in Hebrews as “glory” (2:10), “rest” (4:4–5), and obedience (10:5–10).37 Sin now prevents them from reaching it.38 Jesus, therefore, came to fulfill humanity’s telos representatively. He acts as humanity’s “pioneer,” “forerunner,” “firstborn,” and “priest.”39 And, when he does, he also fulfills his own, unique end or telos, one anticipated in Psalm 40 (Heb 10:5–7) and implied in the language of “perfection” in Hebrews 2:10, 5:9, and 7:28. It is this dual fulfillment—filling up his own and the sons’ teloi—that Brennan sees anticipated in the letter’s Davidic typology, especially in the author’s use of Psalm 45 in Hebrews 1:8–9, where God calls the Davidic son God. This way of reading the letter’s messianism would fit with other explicit references to Jesus’s divine sonship in Hebrews (see, e.g, 1:2, 3, 10–12; 5:8)40 and with the author’s other types (e.g., sacrifice, sanctuary, priesthood). Hebrews’s typology, in fact, demands just this sort of “heightening.”41

Once more we may note in passing the similarity between this argument and Brennan’s third (“A divine Christ alone lives”): just as the Melchizedek-typology requires a divine archetype, so too the messianic. I would add that considering the prevalence of this species of typology in Hebrews, one might wish Brennan had lingered longer over the messianic readings proposed for Psalm 102 (101 LXX). Perhaps Psalm 45 and Genesis 14 should cause us to take one more look at αὐτῷ in Ps 101:24 LXX.42

2. Critical Reflection: What a Divine Christ Does Not Do Alone

Before pushing back on Brennan’s thesis, I should begin by acknowledging the weight of his clear, theologically informed, and, here-and-there, convincing entry into the conversation on Hebrews’s divine Christology. Brennan has convinced me, for example, about the divine Christology latent in Psalm 45 and Genesis 14. He is exactly right: the author’s typology expects this kind of heightened fulfillment. Added to this, the argument made in each instance might still be persuasive to the kind of audience Hebrews’s addresses—one with a loosening grip on its Christian confession43—since it works even apart from the heightening. And this is to say nothing of how Hebrews’s doubting audience may have heard the letter a second time around. If the tent, cult, and priesthood admittedly foreshadowed greater realities, might not David and Melchizedek have as well?44

These salutary features notwithstanding, Brennan’s thesis runs into trouble specifically along two lines. In his attempt to account for the place of divine Christology in Hebrews’s argument, he incorrectly attributes to Jesus’s divine nature what Hebrews attributes to something else. Or, as I said above, Brennan lets theological inference override explicit textual claims.

First, Hebrews implies that God’s long-anticipated salvation is in one very specific way dependent on just the sort of agency Brennan denies in his first and fourth arguments and downplays explicitly in his third and implicitly in his fifth—namely, human agency.

Second, when Hebrews describes the divine agency that energized Jesus’s saving work, it points us not to divine Christology but to pneumatology. That is, the letter points us to the assistance given the Son by the Holy Spirit. Hebrews, in other words, gives us a way of affirming divine agency without ruling human agency out of bounds.

2.1. Jesus’s Human Agency

Brennan is right to see a divine Christ anticipated in Hebrews’s Melchizedekian typology, but he is also wrong to see this divine life as the reason—at least stated reason—for Jesus’s indestructibility and qualification for priesthood.45 Hebrews says it was Jesus’s human obedience that led to his indestructible, resurrected life and, thus, to his priestly appointment. Seven observations point in this direction.46

First, whether the prayers Jesus prays in Hebrews 5:7 were those offered in Gethsemane (I think they were) or elsewhere is not as important as noting the fact that he prayed—urgently (“fervent cries and tears”)—and that he did this “during the days of [his] life on earth.”

Second, Jesus offered these prayers to “one who could save him from death.” That tells us whom Jesus prayed to and, likely, what he prayed for.

Third, Jesus’s prayers were “heard.” The positive reason that follows—“because of his reverent submission”—and the fact that Jesus died, implies that God “heard” and positively answered Jesus’s prayers by raising him from the dead. After all, Hebrews says this is what followed Jesus’s death (13:20).47

Fourth, the language of “perfection” in 5:9 implies Jesus’s resurrection.48 Perfection in Hebrews refers to being fit to enter God’s presence,49 a place described, for example, as “the world to come” (2:9), “Mt. Zion” (12:22), and “the city that is to come” (13:14; see also “rest,” 4:3, “eternal inheritance,” 9:15, and “better country,” 11:16). For sinners, access to this place requires complete forgiveness. This is why it was not available to old covenant believers (11:13, 39–40), and, related, why the Levitical priesthood had to be replaced. Because it could not perfect, it could not give people this kind of access to God (7:11; 10:2). Hebrews tells us at one point that the Holy Spirit tried to say this every time Israel celebrated the Day of Atonement (see 9:8). Access to God also requires a certain kind of body, the kind fit to live in God’s enduring, unshakeable reality (12:25–29).50 Only those bodies freed from sin and all its effects are fit to enter that future “glory” (2:10).51 Or, in light of Hebrews 11:35, only those who have experienced a “better resurrection” can enter God’s presence.52 Revivified, non-resurrected life simply will not do (Hebrews 11:35a). This means that while in his pre-resurrected life, Jesus was free from sin (4:15), he was not free from sin’s effects,53 including mortality. Rather, his life on earth, “lower than the angels,” was a life lived necessarily (see, e.g., 2:17–18; 4:14–5) in a non-enduring, shakable body—one not yet crowned with the glory and honor intended for Adam’s race (2:5–9). When Hebrews says that Jesus was “made perfect,” following his death, Hebrews implies Jesus’s reception of his enduring, no-longer mortal, resurrected life. It implies a life now fit to enter God’s very presence.

Fifth, 5:8 tells us that Jesus was perfected “because of his reverent submission” (ἀπὸ τῆς εὐλαβείας).54 Hebrews gives a similar rationale for Jesus’s subsequent exaltation. Hebrews 1:8–9, citing Psalm 45:6–7, says “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore [διὰ τοῦτο] God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” And Heb 2:9 says that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because [διά] he suffered death.” (For a similar sequence, see 1:3.) It should go without saying that this obedience was human obedience, especially since it climaxed in Jesus’s obedient death (5:8; cf. 2:9; 10:5–10). This, in fact, may be what Hebrews is trying to emphasize in the concessive clause at the beginning of 5:8, when it says, “Son though he was, he learned obedience.” Hebrews seems to saying that while simultaneously existing as the “living God” (cf. 1:1–3 with 3:12; 9:14; 10:31), the Son, as human son and as only a human son could, learned obedience through suffering to the point of death and was resurrected and “crowned” as a result.55

Sixth, 5:9–10 say that Jesus’s perfection was followed by his installation as Melchizedekian priest. “Once made perfect [τελειωθείς],” Jesus “became [ἐγένετο] the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, and was [at the same time] designated [προσαγορευθέις] to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” When Hebrews later says that Jesus “has become [γέγονεν] a priest… on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (7:16), we are meant to see an equivalence between this life and the language of perfection in 5:9–10. This is why, at the end of 7:11–28, the author returns to the language of 5:9–10, noting that the one who is “appointed” is one “who has been made perfect [τετελειωμένον].”

Seventh, the main contrast between Levitical priests and Melchizedekian priests is, therefore, not between humans and God, as Brennan argues, but rather between humans who die and humans who no longer die.56 Thus, in 7:8, Levi’s priests “die” in contrast to Melchizedek’s, who are “declared to be living.” And in 7:23–24, “death prevent[s Levitical priests] from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.”57 At the same time, Hebrews also denies that Levitical priests possess the qualities that would lead to enduring life. They are sinners (7:27) and demonstrably weak (7:28; cf. 5:3); whereas Jesus is “holy, blameless, pure, [and] set apart from sinners” (7:26). Again, according to Hebrews 5:7, this is why Jesus has been perfected and appointed Melchizedekian priest and they have not.58

In short, Brennan rightly says that Melchizedek prefigures Jesus’s deity. The Son is, to an even greater degree, “without beginning of days or end of life,” since the “literary” type in Genesis anticipates the “literal” antitype in Jesus. That said, as in 5:8, so also in 7:3, there is no explicit connection made between Jesus’s anticipated and necessary divinity and his qualification for priestly office.59 Hebrews, in fact, explicitly connects Jesus’s qualification to something else: his human obedience. With Hebrews, therefore, we must affirm the Son’s divinity, while at the same time point to his human obedience as the reason for his resurrection to the kind of life that qualified him for priesthood. The only one who qualifies for Melchizedekian priesthood is, therefore, one who fills up the Melchizedekian typology and who is raised from the dead after a life of hard-fought obedience.60

2.2. The Holy Spirit’s Agency

In the one place where Hebrews tells us how Jesus lived a life of “reverent submission” and qualified for priestly appointment, the author points not to Jesus’s divine power but to his reliance on the Holy Spirit. The author says,

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb 9:13–14)61

While Brennan does not equate “the eternal spirit” with Jesus’s divinity, others have, and have done so based on reading 7:16 just like Brennan does.62 It is better, however, to see a reference to the Holy Spirit in 9:14 for at least the following three reasons.

First, fully half of the twelve references to “spirit” in Hebrews refer to the Holy Spirit. One of these occurs in the paragraph just before 9:11–14 (see 9:8; see also 2:4; 3:7; 6:4; 10:15; 10:29).63 Of the other five instances—leaving to the side 9:14, two refer to angels (1:7, 14), two to human spirits (4:12; 12:23),64 and one either to angels or humans (12:9).65 In light of this, we may say that the audience was, more or less, primed to hear in “eternal Spirit” a reference to “Holy Spirit.”66

Second, this is the way many early Christians read 9:14, as we can see from the manuscript tradition, where “holy” (ἁγίου) often substitutes for the more difficult “eternal” (αἰώνιος; see, e.g., א2, D). I suspect “eternal” was likely original and was used in lieu of the more frequent “holy” to emphasize that the enabling Spirit had the exact quality necessary for the task he had been given, one instrumental in “obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12) and securing the “eternal inheritance” (9:15).

Third, the idea of a Spirit-enabled messiah was long-anticipated in the OT (see, e.g., Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1)67 and is thoroughly-attested elsewhere in the NT (see, e.g., Luke 4.18–19 [citing Isa 61.1–2]).

When, therefore, Hebrews tells us that it was “through (διά)” the Holy Spirit that Jesus “offered himself unblemished to God,” it emphasizes the means by which Jesus was enabled to offer what God required: an “unblemished [ἄμωμον]” sacrifice (cf. Heb 10:5–10).68 The moral virtue, learned, as we have seen, during Jesus’s lifetime and culminating in his obedient death, was virtue enabled, 9:14 tells us, by the Holy Spirit.69 This posture of dependence, in any case, corresponds to what we read of Jesus elsewhere in Hebrews. We have already seen that Jesus prays (5:7), and in another place he is said to “trust” (2:13, citing Isa 8:17).70

This is, of course, not to deny the inseparability of God the Son’s and God the Spirit’s operations,71 much less to suggest there was no concurrence between Jesus’s divine and human natures.72 It is only to say that when Hebrews explicitly talks about how Jesus could live the kind of life necessary to bring God’s salvation, it points us not to Jesus’s divine nature but to the empowering of the Holy Spirit.73

3. Conclusion

Here, then, let me conclude with three observations about where this conversation about Hebrews’s divine Christology stands and where it might go next.

First, in light of the above, any account of the divine Christology in Hebrews must make room for the significant place Hebrews gives to Jesus’s human agency. Again, it is one thing to insist that Jesus must be divine, it is another to explain this necessity without sufficient sympathy for Hebrews’s argument.

Second, any account of the divine Christology in Hebrews must also make room for the place Hebrews gives to the Holy Spirit’s role in Jesus’s human obedience. It is tempting, in the light of human sin, to suggest that such obedience owed to Jesus’s divine nature—to “resources” available only with reference to Jesus’s divinity. But Hebrews does not say this. To put it another way, it is true that only a theandric person could fulfill the Davidic or Melchizedekian typologies. But it is not necessarily the case that one was needed to fulfill the human typology of Psalm 8 (or, perhaps, of Isaiah 8).74 Hebrews’s emphasis on Jesus’s human obedience and the Spirit’s enabling may imply, moreover, that the heightened antitype of Adam post-Fall might just be a sinless, obedient human being, fully dependent on God’s Spirit. To suggest otherwise would seem to put a question mark over the “very good” God pronounces at the beginning (Gen 1:31), over God’s justice for requiring of humans what they are ontologically incapable of doing, and over the value of Jesus’s example, which Hebrews places a great deal of emphasis upon.

Third, to suggest Brennan’s “resources” might be sufficiently supplied by human agency and the Spirit’s empowerment is not, at the same time, to say that Jesus’s divinity is theologically irrelevant. But it is to say that its relevance should be found in places other than where Brennan points us, if we are to account for the specific topography of Hebrews’s argument. I can wonder, for example, if the author’s divine Christology was one more way of affirming the audience’s felt incongruity between the messiah’s expected exaltation and Christianity’s surprising claim that suffering—death!—necessarily came first. On my reading of Hebrews, showing the plausibility of that claim is, indeed, the author’s leading argument.75 Beyond this, I can wonder if Hebrews’s divine Christology underscores just how closely God has joined himself to his human project (i.e., with his sons)—a “typological” heightening of, say, Deuteronomy 4:7 (i.e., a God so very near).

In any case, these and other potential saliences must be explored if we are to follow Brennan’s salutary lead and account for Hebrews’ divine Christology. Hebrews, after all, clearly wants us to see that Jesus is divine; our next step must be to listen even more closely and let Hebrews tell us why.76

[1] See Jared Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, LNTS 537 (London: T&T Clark, 2015).

[2] This salutary theological turn is variously referred to as “theological interpretation of Scripture,” “theological retrieval,” and “reading in light of the Great Tradition.” For representative examples, see, e.g., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005); Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), and, with an eye on Hebrews, Richard Bauckham et al., eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). See also the (slightly critical) account in D. A. Carson, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But…,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 187–207.

[3] See, e.g., Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] Madison N. Pierce, Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Recontextualization of Spoken Quotations of Scripture, SNTSMS 178 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); R. B. Jamieson, The Paradox of Sonship: Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2021); Nick Brennan, Divine Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Son as God, LNTS 656 (New York: T&T Clark, 2022). For reflections on the first two, see Jared Compton, review of The Paradox of Sonship: Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews, by R. B. Jamieson, Themelios 46 (2021): 685–88; and Compton, review of Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Recontextualization of Spoken Quotations of Scripture, by Madison N. Pierce, Themelios 46 (2021): 689–91. For a recent survey of Hebrews’s Christology in general (i.e., beyond divine Christology), see, e.g., Brandon D. Crowe, “Son and Priest, Then and Now: Christology and Redemptive History in Hebrews in Light of the History of Interpretation,” WTJ 84 (2022): 19–38; and William R. G. Loader, “Revisiting High Priesthood Christology in Hebrews,” ZNW 109 (2018): 235–83.

[5] Jamieson and Pierce make passing comments about the function of divine Christology in the letter’s argument, but it is not their focus (see, e.g., Pierce, Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 34, 209–11; Jamieson, Paradox of Sonship, 168–69).

[6] It is precisely at this point as well—on the relevance of divine Christology to Hebrews’s decidedly salvific argument—that Brennan insists my own work falls short. Brennan charges me, along with David Moffitt, with treating the letter’s divine Christology as something “seeming[ly] irrelevant” (Divine Christology, 15–19).

[7] Brennan, Divine Christology, 201, emphasis added. See also what Brennan says about these “resources” on pp. 55, 67, 70, 141, 199; cf. also “access to power” on p. 144.

[8] The labels for each of Brennan’s argument are my own.

[9] See, e.g., Divine Christology, 195–96.

[10] See my argument, Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 33–36.

[11] Divine Christology, 194 n. 141.

[12] Divine Christology, 52.

[13] Divine Christology, 69. For a similar, if also more thorough argument, see Jonathan A. Rinker, “Creation, Consummation, and Perseverance: The Meaning of Psalm 102:25–27 and the Significance of Its Use in Hebrews 1:10–12” (PhD thesis, Baptist Bible Seminary, 2017).

[14] See Brennan, Divine Christology, 39–41; cf. Kapic’s comments on Owen’s similar understanding, “Typology, the Messiah, and John Owen’s Theological Reading of Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, ed. Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier, LNTS 423 (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 143–44.

[15] Thus, at the Son’s resurrection-exaltation, he (1) receives worship that Deuteronomy said would follow God’s salvation (Deut 32:43; cf. also vv. 8–9, 31; Divine Christology, 51–52), (2) opens up “land” (Canaan’s archetype) just as God does in Deuteronomy (cf. Heb 1:6; 2:5 with Deut 9:3; 20:4; 31:3, 6; Divine Christology, 52–53, incl. n. 148), and (3) shows, according to Brennan’s reading of Heb 7:16, that the Son possesses the kind of enduring, un-created life that God alone possesses in Ps 102 (see the contrast in Heb 1:7–8 [μὲνδέ]; also 7:16; 13:8; cf. with Ps 102:12, 24b–27; Divine Christology, 55–58, 66–67). Brennan also points to the fact that in the Son’s incarnation, which is at most associated with OT expectation elsewhere in Hebrews (see, e.g., Heb 10:5), the Son shows he exists outside creation and, thus, in the realm from which God’s anticipated salvation comes according to Ps 102 (vv. 12–22, 24b–29; Divine Christology, 56–58, 61–62, 66–67, 69).

[16] Divine Christology, 18

[17] Divine Christology, 110.

[18] Divine Christology, 73.

[19] For his evidence, see Divine Christology, 88–89.

[20] Cf. 4Q147; Divine Christology, 90 n. 98.

[21] See Divine Christology, 87–93.

[22] See, similarly, Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, and Kevin McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles: How the Earliest Christians Told the Story of Israel, NSBT 52 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 168–74.

[23] Brennan, Divine Christology, 111.

[24] NB: Hebrews goes on to explicitly describe this redemptive house as “God’s” (3:6; the antecedent of οὗ is αὐτοῦ, whose antecedent is distinguished in v. 5 from Χριστός; cf. God’s analogous activity in 2:10).

[25] Divine Christology, 122.

[26] On Melchizedek’s slightly different typological status, see Divine Christology, 146, which my later contrast between a “literary” and “literal” reality attempts to capture. See also Brennan’s use of “typological portrayal” in regard to Melchizedek (p. 144).

[27] Brennan sees this description of Melchizedek as simply another way to say what Hebrews has already said about the Son (see, esp., Heb 1:10–12; cf. also 10:5–10; 2:14; 13:8; Divine Christology, 132–34) and of God elsewhere (see “the living God” in 3:12; 9:14; 10:31; Divine Christology, 136).

[28] See Divine Christology, 140–42.

[29] See Divine Christology, 143.

[30] See Divine Christology, 144.

[31] See Divine Christology, 168.

[32] See Divine Christology, 153.

[33] See Divine Christology, 170.

[34] See Divine Christology, 163, 170.

[35] Brennan further insists, were Jesus only God’s human agent or servant, then the certainty of God’s covenant could be called into question, which is precisely what God’s promise and self-referential oath were meant to rule out according to Hebrews 6:17. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath” (see 6:17; Divine Christology, 165). Only if the Son is divine is “the link in the chain of God’s faithfulness, relative to Christ’s faithfulness … secure” (165). It is, moreover, the Son’s link in the chain of God’s faithfulness that makes “faith in the promises of God and trust in the faithful response of the Son to the Father … effectively indistinguishable” (148; see also 164).

[36] See, e.g., Divine Christology, 196. This chapter corresponds quite closely to Jamieson, Paradox of Sonship. See, e.g., the similar taxonomies of Jamieson, Paradox of Sonship, 7–20 and Brennan, Divine Christology, 174–76.

[37] See Divine Christology, 184–89; also 192.

[38] See Divine Christology, 190.

[39] Brennan here also points to Hebrews’s use of ὑπέρ in 2:9; 6:20; 7:25; 9:24.

[40] See Divine Christology, 179–83.

[41] Divine Christology, 196. See, similarly, Jamieson, Paradox of Sonship, 122–42.

[42] See Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 31–33.

[43] See, e.g., Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 17–18, 24–27.

[44] Added to this, if we accept Ruben Bühner’s recent argument in his Messianic High Christology: New Testament Variants of Second Temple Judaism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021), then the line between Christian and Jewish messianism, especially before the 2nd century, becomes far less clear cut than we have often imagined. Thus, if Bühner is right, then the divine messianism Brennan identifies may have been persuasive even on a first reading of the letter.

[45] Again, see Brennan, Divine Christology, 143–44.

[46] The following arguments adapt material from Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 70–75, 76–85, 86–95.

[47] What this means about the specific content of Jesus’s prayers, however, is an open question. It is not at all clear whether he prayed to be saved from or out of the grave. His “fervent cries and tears” point toward the first option, while his commitment to do God’s will (Heb 10:5–10) points toward the second. For an argument for the latter, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 3:387; also David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, NovTSup 141 (Boston: Brill, 2011), 190–92.

[48] See, e.g., Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection, 194–200.

[49] Bruno, Compton, and McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles, 174–75; cf. Brennan’s similar note, Divine Christology, 110–12, including n. 224.

[50] See Bruno, Compton, and McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles, 174; see also Moffitt, who says, reflecting on early Jewish texts, “The earth is transformed into a dwelling place fit for God, just as the mortal body is transformed into something fit to enter heaven” (Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection, 179).

[51] See Moffitt, e.g., who comments on the use of “glory” in 1 and 2 Enoch: “For the human body to be comfortable in the presence of God and the angels, it must be imbued with the glory of God” (Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection, 177).

[52] So, e.g., Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection, 186–87.

[53] See Steven J. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology in Light of the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 282: “While the Son did not have in himself any cause of incurring such defects [e.g., “our infirmities], since he came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom 8:3) he still took up weaknesses consequent to the human race’s fall into sin. In short, while he did not assume defectus culpae (defects rooted in one’s own guilt), he still assumed defectus poenae (defects resulting from punishment common to the human race).”

[54] For a justification of the NIV’s reading, see Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 73 n. 29.

[55] Cf. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 251. I can wonder, moreover, if 5:8 might not refer to Jesus’s divine nature. Might the concessive clause indicate instead that the audience had forgotten the congruity between suffering and sonship? In 5:8, the author prepares for what he will say in 12:5a. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Then, in 12:5, the author returns to this idea and reminds his audience that sonship and suffering are not, in fact, incongruous, now with the example of Jesus firmly-fixed in their minds. “Have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son” (12:5a). And the author follows this with a citation of Prov 3:11–12 (12:5b–6) and the claim that “hardship” or suffering should be reinterpreted as fatherly “discipline” (12:7).

[56] The focus on Jesus’s humanity is seen also in the attention given to his tribal lineage in 7:14.

[57] Related, Hebrews also says that Levitical priests qualify for priesthood by means of lineal succession over against Melchizedekian priests who qualify by possessing an enduring life, 7:5, 16. In other words, Hebrews implies that succession assumes death.

[58] Cf. my slightly more restrained conclusions in Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 95 n. 130.

[59] Whether Jesus’s divine life “meant that his life could not be destroyed by [death]” is simply not a connection Hebrews draws between 7:3 and 7:16 (contra Brennan, Divine Christology, 143; cf. Luther’s similar reading of Heb 2:9 in Mickey L. Mattox, “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, ed. Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier, LNTS 423 [London: T&T Clark, 2012], 117). Cf. Duby’s similar comment about Jesus’s sinlessness, following Lombard: “Since the human nature is indissolubly united to the Word, it is incapable of sin” (Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 308). The difference between the two is that the hypostatic union while, perhaps, preventing Jesus from sinning, did not prevent him from dying.

[60] This dual basis for qualification answers Brennan’s question: “Could anyone raised from the dead fill this role by virtue of an a parte post indestructible life?” (Divine Christology, 143).

[61] The following two paragraphs adapt material from Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 124–26.

[62] See, e.g., Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 251; Ceslas Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1952), 2:258–59; B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 3rd ed (London: Macmillan, 1909), 261–62.

[63] The author’s reference to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of grace” in 10:29 likely echoes the language of OT expectation of an end-time pouring out of God’s spirit (Zech. 12:10 [πνεῦμα χάριτος]; 1QSb 2:24; Joel 3:2 LXX), something early Christians associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:17–21). On this, see Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 295; also Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, New Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 57 n. 45.

[64] The connection between human spirits and “righteous spirits” in 12:23 is based on the author’s other uses of the adjective righteous, which are used exclusively in reference to human beings (10:38; 11:4).

[65] See, e.g., Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 362–63.

[66] See, similarly, Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 398.

[67] It is, as F. F. Bruce notes, “in the power of the Divine Spirit, accordingly, that the Servant accomplishes every phase of his ministry, including the crowning phase in which he accepts death for the transgression of his people, filling the twofold role of priest and victim, as Christ does in this epistle” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed., NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], 217; cf. David Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection: An Examination of the Concept of Perfection in the “Epistle to the Hebrews” [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982], 138; Anthony Thiselton, “Hebrews,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 1468).

[68] On διά, see Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., BLG, 2 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 148–49; cf. C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge, 1975), 119–20.

[69] See Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 208.

[70] See Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 272, 279. Cf. Daniel Keating’s note about Aquinas in “Thomas Aquinas and the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘The Excellence of Christ,’” in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, ed. Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier, LNTS 423 (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 93.

[71] See, e.g., Duby: “Affirming the simplicity of God’s essence and the attendant unity of God’s operations does not obstruct the recognition that a certain divine work can pertain to a certain divine person in a special way” (Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 217; see also, e.g., “peculiar relation,” p. 220, and “eminently,” p. 227).

[72] See Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 312–13.

[73] Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 242: “On the other hand, given that the mode of union in the incarnation is hypostatic rather than essential, it is not the case that the Son’s divine power and activity are communicated to the Son’s human nature. The Son qua homo is still left in a position of finitude and dependence upon the Spirit of God.” Duby elsewhere says, “That Christ exercises habitual knowledge of divine things and a rectitude of will in resisting temptation underscores that he truly exerts himself as man in the midst of temptations, instead of having the human use of his faculties overridden by the Spirit” (240). Still, in his later discussion of Christ’s sinlessness, Duby says, “The determination of Christ’s life in the way of holiness is not established at the resurrection but is present from the beginning by virtue of the hypostatic union and the Spirit’s indwelling” (312, emphasis added). Nevertheless, he goes on to say, “within the unity of God’s outward works, the Spirit empowers Christ’s human action. The Spirit’s empowerment does not exclude the divine activity of the other two persons, but the empowerment does pertain in a special way to the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity” (313, emphasis added).

[74] On this typology in Psalm 8, see Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 40–51.

[75] See Compton, Psalm 110 and the Logic of Hebrews, 165–71; also Bruno, Compton, and McFadden, Biblical Theology According to the Apostles, 151–52.

[76] On the relationship between Jesus’s divinity and the efficacy of his death, see, e.g., Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, 319–26; also Frances M. Young, “Christological Ideas in the Greek Commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, ed. Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier, LNTS 423 (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 36–37. (Interestingly, Young ends his essay noting, “This problem of the relationship between Christology and soteriology needs further exploration.”) Whether Hebrews makes this connection is an open question; cf., e.g., Heb 2:9, which points, instead, to God’s grace. Jonathan King’s comments on Rom 5:12–21 are relevant here; see his The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018), 176–77.

Jared Compton

Jared Compton is associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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