The Eschatology of Hebrews 2:1-4:

A Critical Appraisal of the

Theonomic Thesis1

Lane G. Tipton


The book of Hebrews functions as a parenesis to a group of Jewish Christians tempted to revert to the ceremonial externalism of the Old Covenant. Building upon prior argumentation designed to vindicate the superiority of Christ over angels (1:5-14),2 the pericope under investigation (2:1-4) warns of the consequences which follow if any ignore such a great salvation announced and attested by the ascended Christ (and his apostles).

The first warning appears in the Old Covenant period, which was mediated through angels, and was accompanied by temporal (i.e., typological)3 sanctions (v. 2). The second warning appears in the New Covenant period, which is mediated through Christ, and was accompanied by signs and wonders, various miracles, and the distribution of the eschatological Spirit (vv. 2-3). Both warnings have an eschatological focus, that is, both warn of eternal judgment against acts of covenantal apostasy. The warning of the Old Covenant occurs as "every disobedience and transgression" receives an immediate recompense; but the warning of the New Covenant threatens a future consequence which obtains if a person rejects such a "great salvation."

In other words, eschatological or final judgment—the climax of covenant history—provides the ultimate focus in both the Old and New Covenant warnings. The real puzzle in the pericope appears in vv. 2-3 and requires careful explanation. Precisely what is involved in the marked shift from the Old Covenant sanctions, which punished every disobedience and made punishment a present reality to the apostate members of the Old Covenant community (v. 2), to the announcement of such a "great salvation," which places punishment in the future for the hearers who reject the message (v. 3)? This essay will attempt to answer that central question.

For pedagogical purposes, we will examine the warnings from three distinct, yet interconnected, points of reference: (1) the Old Covenant; (2) the New Covenant; and (3) the Consummation. To be precise, consummate judgment is the focus in each covenantal order; nevertheless, a three-fold division will help us see the different way in which the Old and New Covenant penalties relate to the consummate judgment against covenant apostasy.

After developing the argument from the text of Hebrews 2:1-4, we will then examine the problems the text poses for the theonomic thesis. In particular, we will examine the problems in Greg Bahnsen's exegesis of Hebrews 2:1-4, and explore the bearing of the semi-realized eschatology of the passage on the theonomic thesis as a whole.

The Warning From the Old Covenant (v. 2)

We can summarize the first warning along three interrelated lines of thought. The warning derives from the Old Covenant period, which was mediated through angels, and accompanied by temporal (i.e., typological) sanctions. For purposes of clarity, let us take each of the three points in turn, beginning with the Old Covenant period as the redemptive historical context for the first warning.

We can see the need to begin this section of argumentation (Heb. 2:1-4) by an appeal to the Old Covenant for at least two reasons. First of all, the heart of the problem which the hearers face consists in a temptation to revert to Old Covenant externalism, instead of continuing in the New Covenant substance which has arrived in the Son. Given this context, an appeal to the Old Covenant period would find special receptivity in the recipients of the epistle. Second, the argument up to Hebrews 2 consists in a forceful presentation which takes for granted the authority of the Old Covenant revelation, but attempts to prove that Christ both fulfills and transcends that revelation. Christ is the eschatological Son who speaks a definitive word which the prophets of old could not speak (Heb. 1:1-2); and he is the ascended Lord who will return to renew the heavens and earth, something no angel or group of angels could conceive of accomplishing (1:5-14).4 Therefore, given the nature of the temptation facing the hearers and the structure of the argument up to the point of chapter 2, it seems quite natural to expect a reference to the Old Covenant.

We see further confirmation that the redemptive historical epoch in view is the Old Covenant, as well as proof for our second point regarding the mediation of angels, by virtue of the reference to o di' angelon laletheis logos (2:2a). References to Deuteronomy 33:2, Psalm 68:17, Acts 7:38, and Galatians 3:19 confirm the notion that angels played some role in the mediation of the Old Covenant.5 Note also that the divine passive laletheis ensures that God is still the speaker, but di' angelon shows the mediated character of God's speech through the agency of angels.6

In particular, we learn that the message mediated through angels proved bebaios. This term can mean sure, reliable, steadfast, legally binding, or certain. In juridical contexts, the term acquires a decidedly legal sense. William Lane notes the "most striking feature of v. 2 is the accumulation of juridical expressions ('proved legally valid,' 'every infringement and disobedience,' 'received appropriate punishment')."7 Therefore, added to this Old Covenant arrangement mediated by angels is the idea that it is legally valid and binding on those under its authority.

Notice also that the sense in which the word spoken through angels is legally binding finds elucidation in the following clause: "and every violation (parabasis) and disobedience (parakoe) received a just punishment (endikon misthapodosian)" (2b). The first conjunction in the second clause (kai) is used to demonstrate a general-specific relationship between the clause in 2a and the clause in 2b. In other words, the legally binding character of the word spoken through angels finds specific substantiation in the imposition of temporal sanctions.

Therefore, we have shown that the first warning derives from the Old Covenant, which was mediated through angels and accompanied by temporal sanctions. We have spent only a short amount of space developing this stage of the argument because it is preliminary to the main thesis and uncontroversial for most readers. Therefore, let us move on to the next stage of the argument, where we develop the typological character of the temporal sanctions, which foreshadow impending eternal sanctions.

The Warning from the Consummation (v. 3a)

Let us now examine the second warning which derives from the consummation, finds expression in both the Old and New Covenants, and will be accompanied by inescapable and eternal sanctions. We will begin by an analysis of the specific way in which Old Covenant sanctions typify the eternal sanctions of final judgment.

In 2:3 the writer shows us the redemptive historical function of the judicial penalties in the Old Covenant (Mosaic) period. As the apodosis8 of the conditional begun in v. 2, 2:3a shows us the proper inference to draw from the presence of temporal, judicial penalties in the Old Covenant, i.e., the inescapability of eternal sanctions against apostasy from the covenant. Inherent in the structure of redemptive history is the dynamic of an Old Covenant type designed to communicate something about its counterpart, the eschatological anti-type. We see such a pattern begun in 1:1-2 regarding the Son as the eschatological prophet, whose office both builds upon and transcends its Old Covenant analogue. This pattern informs the general hermeneutic of the entire book of Hebrews,9 and we see the same hermeneutic applied to the judicial sanctions in the Old Covenant.

Becoming more specific, we see that the idea of escape (ekpheuzometha) becomes future as opposed to a present or past reality.10 This is a significant point, because the future tense suggests that the truth communicated by the judicial sanctions has eschatological implications for the recipients. If the sanctions alluded to in v. 2 are operative in the present situation in the same way that they operated in the Old Covenant situation, then the context would require a present (customary, present-extending-from-past, gnomic) use of ekpheugo. The logic of the argument would then run as follows: if every disobedience received a just reward in the Old Covenant, and the sanctions are more rigidly and effectively applicable today, then you have no hope of escape at this present time. However, the author argues the Old Covenant sanctions mentioned in 2:2 serve a typological and pedagogical function regarding a wholly future consequence which obtains if a person rejects the gospel of Christ. That is the force of the future tense of ekpheugo.

Confirming this argument, we see at the end of 2:1 that we must not "drift away"11 into apostasy. In other words, the contrast in view turns on the fact that apostasy in the Old Covenant received immediate retribution in terms of temporal sanctions. But apostasy in the New Covenant receives delayed retribution in terms of eternal sanctions which emerge at the climax of covenant history.12 The very fact that we can drift away from our covenantal commitments assumes that a disanalagous situation obtains between the Old and New Covenants, since in the Old Covenant order every violation (including drifting away) received an immediate temporal sanction which proved inescapable. In fact, if the Old Covenant sanctions are intended to apply in the same way in the New Covenant as in the Old Covenant, drifting away into apostasy would not be possible without incurring a more swift, certain, and immediate punishment than we find in the Old Covenant period. Therefore, the a fortiori force of the argument cannot refer to the present application of temporal sanctions; the text simply will not allow such an interpretation.

We can find an additional line of confirmation of the same point in Hebrews 10:26-29. Continuation in deliberate sin has as its outcome "a certain terrifying expectation (ekdoche) of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume (esthiein mellontos) the adversaries" (10:27). What is the redemptive historical precedent which grounds the certainty of this terrifying display of God's justice against his adversaries? Verse 28 provides the answer: "Anyone who set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or more witnesses." In other words, the Old Covenant, Mosaic death sanctions typify and anticipate the eschatological manifestation of God's righteous judgment against his enemies. The eschatological (i.e., climactic and eternal) focus of the New Covenant death sanction appears in the next verse, where the writer asks rhetorically, "How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved (axiothesetai) by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?"(10:29). Notice the future tense of axiothesetai plays a key role in the a fortiori force of the argument.13 The significance is obvious: if apostasy occurs under the New Covenant, it will merit a future, eschatological sanction which will consume the adversary. Hence, the death sanctions under the Old Covenant anticipate and typify the New Covenant analogue—the eternal anti-type which remains future and coincides with Christ's parousia (cf. Heb. 9:28).

Even more directly, the same thought emerges in Hebrews 12:25-29. A protasis14 which begins in 25b grounds the warning in 25a. The connecting gar introduces the conditional as proof for the warning and reads: "For if those did not escape (ouk exephugon) when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less shall we escape him who warns from heaven?" The warning from heaven points forward to a time when "once again I will shake not only the earth, but the heavens" (12:26). That the "shaking" in view is final and therefore eschatological is obvious from v. 27: "And this expression, 'Yet once more,' denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things." Hence, the sort of judgment which will occur if a person refuses the one who warns from heaven coincides with the shaking of all things created, that is, the consummate judgment. Hence, it is obvious that the Old Covenant warnings prefigure the eschatological warning of the New Covenant; the former is provisional and preparatory, while the latter is final and eschatological.

From these observations it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the consummate judgment against covenant breakers is clearly in view from the vantage point of Old Covenant revelation. Old Covenant death sanctions warned against apostasy by applying provisional, temporal sanctions which anticipate on a typological level the corresponding eternal and climactic sanction coterminous with the consummation, from which the apostate can find no escape.

The Warning from the New Covenant (vv. 3b-4)

The contrast between the warning of the Old and New Covenant is striking indeed. The Old Covenant situation warns against apostasy by virtue of an appeal to typological sanctions, which prefigure eternal judgment. However, the New Covenant announces the same eternal judgment, but in a different way. The New Covenant warns against apostasy by referring to a great salvation telikautes . . . soterias (2:3a). This is clear from the context that the inability to escape stems from a disregarding (amelesantes) of such a great salvation. In other words, the impossibility of escape finds its a fortiori force from the emergence of eschatological salvation on the horizon of redemptive history.15

Notice, then, that we see a radical transition from the Old Covenant focus on typological sanctions to the New Covenant focus on a "great salvation." What is the basis for such a transition? 3b tells us that this salvation "was first announced by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard." We will now explore the nature of the warning from the standpoint of the New Covenant in regard to the certainty and inescapability of the wholly future, eternal sanction which awaits all apostates and covenant breakers. The analysis will lead us directly into the warning threatened in the New Covenant period, which is mediated by Christ, and was accompanied by signs and wonders, various miracles, apostolic revelation, and the distribution of the eschatological Spirit.

Returning to the question regarding the transition from the Old Covenant focus on the typological sanctions to the New Covenant focus on a great salvation, we need first to determine the rationale for such a transition. As we noted earlier, the transition begins when the salvation archen labousa laleisthai dia tou kyriou upo ton akousanton . . . . (2:3b). Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes notes that "in verse 2 o di' angelon laletheis logos is precisely matched by etis archen labousa leleisthai dia tou kyriou. In both cases laletheis and laleisthai are divine passives,"16 indicating that it is God who speaks on both occasions. Therefore, God has spoken once through angels, and at another time through the Lord.17

A question emerges at this point: What is the temporal reference point of 2:3a? As archen makes clear, this is a reference to Christ's proclamation of kingdom salvation at the time of his earthly ministry.18 Verse 4 then speaks of Christ's proclamation at the time of his heavenly ministry (i.e., as ascended Christ): "God also bearing witness (synepimartyrountos) by signs (semeiois) and wonders (terasin), various miracles (dynamesin), and the distribution of the Holy Spirit, according to his will." Synepimartyrountos is a present active participle,19 which suggests that the time of the action of the participle is contemporaneous to the time of the action of the main verb (ebebaiothe). In other words, the attestation of the truth of the message to the apostles (3b) is concurrent with the witness of the ascended Christ on the day of Pentecost (4a). And both stand in closest continuity with what Christ announced first (archen labousa) during his earthly ministry (3a).

The action described in Hebrews 2:4 clearly refers to the witness of Christ on the day of Pentecost. The reference to semeois te kai terasin is the same kind of language used with reference to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16, 19). Dynamesin is the promise which Christ guarantees to his disciples prior to his ascension (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:8), and the reality which he provides for his disciples after his ascension (Acts 3:12; 4:7). The distribution of the Spirit (pneumatos agiou merismois) is a clear reference to Christ coming to his church as eschatological Spirit.20 This objective use of the genitive, which renders the meaning as "the distribution of the Spirit," comports with the idea that we receive "the promised Holy Spirit" as the down payment of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14). Moreover, it is Christ who "receives the promised Holy Spirit", and as a consequence pours out his Pentecostal witness (Acts 2:33), which includes the presence of the Spirit (Acts 2:4). When this insight is conjoined with the statement in Paul that Christ has "become a life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45), we see that Christ comes to his church as the eschatological Spirit, bringing the fullness of salvation to her as the ascended Lord and Christ.21

Returning to the point at issue then, we see that Christ both speaks the New Covenant word of witness (v. 3b) and attests to that New Covenant witness with signs and wonders, various miracles, and with the coming of the eschatological Spirit (v. 4). The author of Hebrews understands this complex of events as a greater warning than the Old Covenant typology regarding the certainty and inescapability of eternal sanctions. The movement from typo-logy to semi-realized eschatology is the key movement in view.

Let us examine exactly how the salvation attested by the Lord relates to the temporal sanctions operating in the Old Covenant. We have already noted that the temporal sanctions in the Old Covenant typify the eternal sanctions of the final judgment. The question at hand is this: how does the proclamation of salvation by Christ affect our understanding of the Old Covenant sanctions which typify the reality of eternal sanctions? The answer to our question is two-fold.

We begin by noting that the prerequisite for securing the salvation mentioned in v. 3a is a satisfaction of the eternal sanctions which the Old Covenant typified. When Christ entered the world as the Second Adam, resuming the eschatological program (which is now a redemptive eschatological program) on behalf of his people, the central task for him as Mediator consisted in removing the eternal sanctions which stood against all whom he came to redeem. In other words, in order to secure salvation on behalf of his people Christ must in the nature of the case endure eternal sanctions through his death. Christ's priestly work of mediation is clearly referenced in Hebrews 2:9-10, which speaks of him tasting death for his own. Hebrews 2:17 reminds us that Christ as High Priest must propitiate the wrath and anger of God in order to satisfy the demands of justice.

Elsewhere we read that Christ, by his obedience and satisfaction, has obtained an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). This is why Christ's sacrifice is explained as occurring "at the consummation of the ages" (Heb. 9:26). That is also the reason why it is appointed for a man to die once, and then comes judgment (9:27). After death comes eschatological judgment. So it is in the case of Christ (9:28a). In other words, the eternal realities of consummation judgment provide the context for understanding the obedience and satisfaction of Christ. Eternal salvation is the result of bearing eternal sanctions and triumphing over those eternal sanctions in resurrection and ascension (cf. Heb. 6:13-20; Gal. 3:10-14; Matt. 27:45-46) . The conclusion we need to see from this line of reasoning is as follows: the eternal sanctions typified by the Old Covenant sanctions have found fulfillment in their application to Christ in his satisfaction of divine justice on the cross.

This application of the eternal sanctions to Christ represents the first phase of the application of the antitypical sanctions. In other words, the already of the eternal death sanction typified by the Old Covenant counterpart finds its telos in Christ in his first coming to bear sin (Heb. 9:28). This is the rationale for the transition from temporal sanctions in the Old Covenant to great (i.e., eternal) salvation in the New Covenant. This also explains how Christ's obedience and satisfaction displaces and replaces the temporal death penalty issued under the Old Covenant, since Christ bears the reality to which the temporal death penalty pointed. The reality typified by the death sanctions has already arrived in the death of Christ. Hence, we no longer operate on the level of typology, but enter into the domain of semi-realized eschatology, which proves a greater pointer to the eternal reality, because that eternal reality has actually arrived and is no longer anticipated in the modality of typology.

The second phase of the application of the eternal sanctions emerges in the "not yet" dimension of the consummation. When Christ returns a second time, there will be no escape from the eternal sanctions he brings against the apostate and unbelieving. Hebrews 9:28 helps us see the already/not yet dimension of Christ's work relative to the sanctions. Christ's first coming focused on bearing eternal sanctions on behalf of his people in accordance with the semi-realized eschatological framework (9:28a "Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many"). However, when Christ appears "a second time for salvation without reference to sin" (28b), he brings eternal salvation (9:12) to those who eagerly await him.

The corollary of this point is simple: for those who do not eagerly await him, he will bring eternal judgment. If the eternal sanctions are not met vicariously by faith in Christ in the time of realized eschatology, there is no hope for escape from eschatological judgment. At his parousia (i.e., in the time of future eschatology), Christ will enforce and apply eternal sanctions. He will consummately bless his people and definitively punish his enemies. To summarize, we must understand that the already/not yet dynamic of eschatological fulfillment in Christ determines the mode of application for the eternal sanctions which were portrayed typologically in the Old Covenant Mosaic order. That mode of application is bifurcated: the eternal sanctions befall Christ in his obedience and satisfaction at the beginning of the interadvental period, and they befall all apostates and unbelievers at the end of that period (i.e., the parousia).

Interestingly, the author argues that what we have just explained was confirmed by those who heard (ebebaiothe, cf. 2:3b). This is the same verb applied to the word of angels in 2:2 and applied to the Old Covenant (Mosaic) order. In short, the author argues that the legally binding Old Covenant, mediated by angels, gives way to a legally binding New Covenant mediated by Christ. As such, Christ's warning displaces and replaces the witness of angels regarding the certainty of eternal judgment against covenant apostates. As such, we see once again Christ's superiority to angels as the antitype is superior to the type.22 We also see in the strongest possible way that the legally binding character of the New Covenant, with the God-man as mediator, provides the basis for the fulfilling and surpassing of the Old Covenant order in general, and the Old Covenant sanctions in particular.

Critical Assessment of the Theonomic Thesis

Let me briefly outline Dr. Greg Bahnsen's exegesis of Hebrews 2:1-4 and assess the cogency of his claims. Dr. Bahnsen summarizes the basic thrust of the pericope as follows:

The argument of the author of Hebrews is that if even the civil penalties of the Mosaic law (in general) are immutable, how much more will be the threat of eternal damnation (for apostasy in particular).23

Notice a few features of Bahnsen's summary. First of all, notice that Dr. Bahnsen makes no reference to the Pentecost witness of the glorified Christ. This is the first hint that he does not allow the category of semi-realized eschatology to inform his understanding of the manner in which the author explains the fulfillment of typological sanctions in Christ. Assuming that the purpose of the summary consists in capturing the basic thrust of the passage, Dr. Bahnsen's summary is inadequate. Second, if Dr. Bahnsen attempts to reason from the immutability of the temporal sanctions in the Old Covenant period to the present application of the sanctions in the New Covenant, he has at least three problems. In the first place, the text does not tell us that the sanctions are immutable; it only says that they are legally binding in a covenant mediated by angels.24 Moreover, even if Dr. Bahnsen were to infer from the mistaken premise that the sanctions are immutable to the conclusion that the sanctions apply in the same way in the New Covenant as they did in the Old Covenant, he would still have a serious problem. His explanation would not account for the use of ebebaiothe in 2:3b as a description of the New Covenant—a covenant which fulfills and supersedes the Old. Finally, his summary does not allow the text to explain the way that semi-realized eschatology dictates the mode in which the typological sanctions are fulfilled. His summary could be construed as guilty of making an illegitimate inference from the text, an inference which operates in bare logical categories rather than in solid exegetical categories.

However, let us take a more careful look at Dr. Bahnsen's exegetical argumentation defending his summary:

What we find is an a fortiori argument which builds from a lesser point to a greater one. Hebrews argues that we need to 'give greater' heed today, for if even the (lesser) law demanded just recompense for offenses, the (greater) gospel will all the more do so—there will be no escape from God's wrath (2:1-3).25

Notice in this quotation that Dr. Bahnsen sees the intermediate step necessary to make the a fortiori inference (i.e., "the greater gospel"). Hence, Dr. Bahnsen's summary could have at an implicit level a reference to semi-realized eschatology. Is this the case? Not quite. Notice that while Bahnsen sees the step necessary to make the a fortiori inference (i.e., the greater gospel), he misses the rationale for the a fortiori force inherent in the nature of the greater gospel. The a fortiori force of the argument derives from the reality of the initial phase of the application of the eternal sanctions to Christ. As a result of this oversight in Dr. Bahnsen's exegesis, he misses the semi-realized eschatological fulfillment of the typological sanctions in Christ. In other words, Dr. Bahnsen correctly sees an a fortiori argument in the pericope, but he misses the realized eschatology which informs the a fortiori inference.

Notice in the remainder of Dr. Bahnsen's argument we see no evidence of a correction of this fundamental oversight:

So, the Old Testament civil penalties are not being set aside but rather established by this line of thought—established as the premised foundation for the justice and inevitability of eternal punishment for apostates. It is precisely because those (lesser) civil sanctions are valid and just that one must see that the (greater) eternal sanction will be valid and just. The eternal is not put in place of the civil; it is argued on the basis of the civil. If the civil sanctions could be mitigated or set aside in any way, one might perhaps hope that eternal damnation might also be avoided. But the author of Hebrews takes away all such false hopes. God's penalties are never unjust or set aside, even in the civil sphere—in every case they specified a 'just recompense' (Heb. 2:2). If this is true of God's civil code, how much more is it true of his eternal judgment!26

Rhetoric aside, we see that Dr. Bahnsen's thesis is simply not dealing with all of the evidence and argumentation the passage provides. Let us examine the problems in a bit more detail.

First, by failing to allow semi-realized eschatology substantially to shape his understanding of the relationship between temporal sanctions27 in the Old Covenant and eternal sanctions in the New Covenant period, Dr. Bahnsen has stripped the passage of its eschatological framework. As a result, he advocates the present application of typological sanctions, which Hebrews tells us are fulfilled in the eternal antitype which has arrived in Christ. In short, the eternal sanctions will be applied by Christ himself at the end of the age (not typological sanctions by a magistrate in the present age!). Perhaps Bahnsen's fundamental flaw turns on a failure to distinguish clearly between typological and semi-eschatological categories in covenant history. The basic movement of the argument's a fortiori force, then, is from the domain of typology to semi-realized eschatology.

Second, notice that Dr. Bahnsen argues that the "eternal is not put in place of the civil; it is argued on the basis of the civil."28 We have seen from our exegesis that this statement is simply not true. The civil sanctions are subservient to typology,29 and the typological depends in the nature of the case on the eternal. If not, then the typological has no corresponding eternal reality to which it points. Moreover, the eternal does replace the temporal. The eternal sanctions which befall Christ in terms of semi-realized eschatology displace and replace the types (typological sanctions). Dr. Bahnsen therefore argues that the eternal does not replace the temporal on the mistaken premise that the eternal judgment is wholly future, a premise which clearly denies the semi-realized intrusion of the eternal sanctions in the obedience and satisfaction of Christ (cf. Heb. 9:26).

Third, we know from our preceding point that "eternal damnation" cannot be set aside on the basis that it has already befallen Christ who bears the eternal damnation in his first coming, and dispenses eternal damnation at his parousia. In other words, eternal damnation cannot be set aside because of considerations pertaining to eschatological and christological fulfillment, not on account of the abiding socio-political applicability of the Old Covenant, typological penalties. In other words, the eternal sanctions have intruded into time, displacing and replacing the typological sanctions, while simultaneously confirming more certainly the inescapability of God's eternal justice. Eternal damnation is inescapable because Christ has guaranteed by his resurrection the certainty of judgment against all covenant breakers (cf. Acts 17:30) and apostates (Heb. 2:2-3; 10:26-31; 12:25-29). Hence, Dr. Bahnsen once again misses the a fortiori force of the inescapability of eternal judgment, because he fails to consider the centrality of semi-realized eschatology in the author's argument.

These insights help us see perhaps the fundamental hermeneutical difference between the orthodox biblical theologian and the theonomist. The entire Old Covenant Mosaic order is a typological kingdom, which has definite implications for the nature of its sanctions. I have attempted to draw attention to the specific typological function of the penal sanctions within that economy. We need to point out, however, that the debate centers upon a more profound hermeneutical disagreement of which the penal sanctions are merely a case in point.30

But the question now arises, "Is the argument presented from Hebrews 2:1-4 sufficient to undermine Dr. Bahnsen's theonomic thesis as a whole?" Bahnsen himself provides some clear criteria which, if met, he claims would successfully undermine his thesis. They are as follows:

Critics who aim to disprove the validity of some portion of the law by appealing to some special feature (F) about Old Testament Israel must (1) define clearly what is meant by F, (2) delineate on principle the intended segment of the law, (3) show that F was actually and uniquely the case, and especially (4) demonstrate that the validity of this law rested solely on F.31

I believe that the thesis set forth in this essay satisfies Dr. Bahnsen's own criteria and therefore undermines the theonomic thesis as a whole. Let me explain why.

First, the special feature (F) which I identified in this paper is the typological character of the Old Covenant sanctions relative to their eternal counterpart. The typological sanctions served as an Old Covenant warning of eternal judgment against apostasy from the Covenant. In my view, this is a clear definition of F. Therefore, the thesis meets Bahnsen's first criterion.

Second, I have delineated on principle the intended segment of the law, since the text in view (Heb. 2:1-4) deals specifically and exclusively with the segment of Old Covenant law which pertains to typological sanctions. We learned that the Old Covenant warning regarding the eschatological reality has been displaced and replaced by Christ's New Covenant proclamation of a "great salvation" as eschatological Spirit. Therefore, we have a principial distinction both with respect to redemptive historical epoch and the specific segment of the law delineated. Hence, I have met Dr. Bahnsen's second criterion.

Third, according to Hebrews 2:1-4, typological sanctions provided an Old Covenant warning in regard to the certainty and inescapability of covenantal judgment against apostasy. Because apostasy from the covenant is in view, this is unique to the covenant community of Old Testament Israel. Consequently, I have met Dr. Bahnsen's third criterion.

Fourth, remember that Hebrews 2:1-4 construes the validity of the Old Covenant sanctions in their parenetic function (i. e., regarding the inescapability of eternal sanctions against apostasy). Once the reality to which the sanctions pointed arrives (the eternal reality), the type has served its purpose. We then operate in the modality of semi-realized eschatology, which displaces and replaces the modality of typology. Put differently, the fulfillment of the Old Covenant sanctions, in terms of a two-phase application of the eternal reality to Christ in his first coming and by Christ at his parousia precludes the soundness of Bahnsen's thesis. The Old Covenant sanctions have found semi-eschatological fulfillment in Christ in his first coming (i.e., rendering the believer's judgment as a past event), and will find consummate fulfillment at his parousia (i.e., rendering the unbeliever's judgment a certain, future event). Therefore, the fourth criterion has been met in the sense that if the argument developed in this essay is sound, it would principially undermine Dr. Bahnsen's thesis. Of course, I don't want to rule out the fact that his thesis can be challenged from other exegetical and theological lines of thought.32

Summary and Conclusion

I have not attempted to say everything that needs to be said either about the pericope or its application to the theonomic thesis set forth by Dr. Bahnsen.33 However, I have attempted to sketch the main lines of thought in the pericope in order to discern how eschatology determines the mode of application for the eternal (in relation to typological) sanctions mentioned throughout the book of Hebrews.

I have argued that the writer warns against apostasy by appealing to three distinct epochs in redemptive history. The first warning derives from the Old Covenant period, consists in a warning mediated through angels, and is accompanied by typological sanctions. The second warning derives from the consummation, finds expression both in the witness of the Old and New Covenant, and will be accompanied by inescapable and eternal sanctions. The third warning derives from the New Covenant period, consists in a great salvation announced through Christ, was accompanied by signs and wonders, various miracles, and the distribution of the eschatological Spirit. I argued that with the coming of Christ, the typological sanctions in general are replaced by the arrival of the reality to which they point. This means that the epoch-changing character of Christ's atoning work comprises the first phase of the application of the eternal/eschatological sanctions typified in the Old Testament economy. At his parousia, Christ will enact the second phase of the application of the eternal sanctions against all apostates and unbelievers.

One of the consequences of this position is as follows: anyone who affirms the need to apply and enforce the Old Covenant typological sanctions in the New Covenant period in the same way that they were applied in the Old Covenant situation, tacitly denies that Christ has fulfilled the eternal reality to which the Old Covenant sanctions pointed. That is, he has missed the covenant historical difference between typology and semi-realized eschatology.

The advocacy of the continued application of the Old Covenant sanctions in spite of their two-phase eschatological application to Christ and by Christ implies a denial of their semi-eschatological fulfillment, an error to which the consistent theonomist remains dogmatically committed. Even if the theonomist does affirm that Christ has borne the eternal sanctions which the Old Covenant sanctions typified (which we suppose he must affirm), he does not see the antitype replacing the type. As such, the theonomic position is parallel to a position which would advocate the continuing validity of typological animal sacrifices in spite of the fulfillment of those sacrifices in the antitypical sacrifice of Christ. Clearly, the latter is beset by serious problems, and so is the former.

Roslyn, Pennsylvania


1 The central tenet of theonomy is simple: civil magistrates in all ages and places prior to the consummation are morally obligated to enforce both the positive precepts and penal sanctions of Old Testament civil law found in the Pentateuch. For a good summary of the theonomic position, see Greg Bahnsen's By This Standard (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 341-350. For a more extended defense of the position, see Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1977); "M. G. Kline on Theonomic Politics: An Evaluation of His Reply," Journal of Christian Reconstruction 5 (1979): 195-221; and No Other Standard (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991). Other theonomic literature appears in Rousas John Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1973), and Gary North's Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler, Texas: Institute of Christian Economics: 1990). Helpful critiques of the theonomic position can be found in M. G. Kline's incisive and probing analysis, "Comments on an Old-New Error," WTJ 41 (1978): 172-80, along with the helpful articles in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1988).

2 More specifically, the argument shows that the Son's role as Mediator of the New Covenant both fulfills and surpasses the angels' role as mediators of the Old Covenant. Thus, the argument moves from a typological form of covenant administration in the Old Covenant, which was meditated by angels, to an eschatological form of covenant administration in the New Covenant, which is mediated by the Son. The movement from a typological to an eschatological kingdom (i.e., the movement from typology to semi-realized eschatology) is the fundamental theological perspective articulated in the book of Hebrews.

3 By typological, I mean simply a temporal feature which points beyond itself to an eternal reality.

4 See Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1956), 18.

5 William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 WBC (Dallas, Texas: Word, 1991).

6 Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1977), 74. Grammatically, di' angelon is a genitive of agency.

7 Op. cit., 37.

8 The apodosis is roughly the second part of an "if, then" statement. Hence, the apodosis corresponds to the "then" segment of the "if, then" statement.

9 This hermeneutical dynamic clearly operates in Hebrews 1:1-2, 8:5, 9:24, and 10:1.

10 ekpheuzometha (cf. v. 3) is a future active indicative, used in a predictive sense.

11 mepote pararyomen is a hortatory subjunctive which is accordingly used for exhortation. The aorist is a constative which views the action as a whole in summary fashion (cf. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 753.

12 We need to note that we are dealing in Hebrews 2:1-4 with eschatological sanctions in relation to typological sanctions. The hermeneutic which Hebrews 2:1-4 assumes will require in principle that the Old Covenant sanctions cannot apply in the New Covenant in the same way that they did in the Old Covenant. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 5 confirm this hermeneutic and provide further corroboration against the theonomic error of a presumed continuation of the Old Covenant sanctions as normative for common grace magistrates. In fact, 1 Corinthians 5 (see v. 5) understands discipline in the church in non-theocratic categories (i.e., no death penalty) on account of the fact that Jesus will administer ultimate death sanctions (if repentance is lacking) on the last day.

13 Future, passive, indicative from axioo, which means to count worthy or deserve.

14 The protasis (roughly) is the first part of the "if, then" statement. Hence, the protasis corresponds to the "if" side of the "if, then" statement.

15 Cf. Hebrews 9:12, which makes clear the eternal and therefore eschatological character of the salvation in view.

16 Op. cit., 77.

17 It is hard to miss the connection here between God's former speech and his current word through the Son (cf. Heb. 1:1-2).

18 Labousa is an adverbial aorist participle modifying etis and has a temporal use, especially in construction with archen. Laleisthai is an infinitive of purpose. The archen labousa laleisthai construction occurs in Biblical literature only in Hebrews 2:3. Elsewhere in secular literature the precise meaning of the construction is uncertain (Ellingworth, NIGNTC [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983], 140). The sense seems to be that the salvation which became a reality upon Christ's resurrection was first announced by him during his earthly ministry. In turn, those who experienced Christ's earthly ministry confirmed the truth of the message, based on the resurrection, to the second generation. Verse 4 then has the sense that the witness of those who heard is joined by the witness of Christ as eschatological Spirit.

19 This is a genitive absolute.

20 Ellingworth, in his commentary on Hebrews, notes two grammatical options for pneumatos agiou merismois: (1) genitive absolute; (2) objective genitive (taken as referring to the gifts of the Spirit) (NIGNTC, 142). It is possible to take the Spirit himself as the one who is distributed. On this interpretation, the objective genitive provides us with a reference to the Spirit himself.

21 For a fuller discussion of what I here treat in a cursory manner, see Richard Gaffin's excellent discussion of Christ's relationship to Pentecost in Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1979), 14-20. Gaffin makes a cogent case for the fact that Christ at Pentecost has become (functionally, not ontologically, of course) the eschatological Spirit as the Lord of the New Covenant. Also, I do not treat the apostolic testimony here on account of space. Gaffin does so adequately in the book just mentioned.

22 We need to remember that bare superiority of Christ to angels is not the main argument here. Rather, the superiority of Christ to angels obtains in terms of the relationship of type to antitype.

23 No Other Standard (Tyler Texas: ICE, 1991), 178.

24 Dr. Steven Baugh pointed out to me that Dr. Bahnsen has slipped in the adjective immutable here. As we pointed out earlier, bebaios refers to a legally binding relationship, but this does not entail that the relationship is immutable. We need to note also that the covenant which is legally binding is a covenant mediated by angels. The New Covenant, contrary to the Mosaic covenant, is mediated not by angels but by Christ (I Tim. 2:5).

25 Ibid., 179.

26 Ibid., 179. In another work, Dr. Bahnsen makes an almost identical argument: "After all, if God has not insisted upon the universal, unchanging justice of the lesser (civil penalties), how much more could we expect that he would relent upon the justice of the greater (eternal penalties)! This would be a perverse reversal of the very point made by the author of Hebrews" (Theonomy: An Informed Response, 131 italics his). In response, we need to note that the penalties of the Old Covenant were not universal. The text states that they served a typological purpose for the covenant community, not a universal purpose of prescribing penalties for crimes. Second, Dr. Bahnsen has construed the Old Covenant sanctions as merely judicial, but the sanctions must be understood first and foremost in terms of typology, and then only secondarily as judicial. Therefore, the justice of the typological sanctions depend on the eternal sanctions to which they are designed to point, and not the other way around. Hence, Dr. Bahnsen has reversed the very point that the author of Hebrews makes. With that being said, we will deal in more detail with the arguments from No Other Standard, since they represent Bahnsen's most mature thought on the subject of Old Covenant sanctions in light of an exegesis of Hebrews 2:1-4.

27 Whether we speak of an eternal sanction (singular) or eternal sanctions (plural) with respect to Christ's obedience and satisfaction, the basic point remains the same: Christ bore the eternal, final, eschatological reality to which the Old Covenant typological sanctions pointed.

28 Dr. Bahnsen also makes a philosophical mistake in his comment that the eternal is argued "on the basis" of the temporal. It is a violation of the Christian theory of reality ever to predicate that the eternal is conditioned by, determined by, or based upon the temporal. Although unintended, this concedes the basic point of Post-Enlightenment historicism, which is Kantian to the core. Moreover, Bahnsen's slip undermines the Van Tillianism which he so passionately and effectively defended elsewhere. Even if the theonomist persists in maintaining the universality and morally obligatory character of the Old Covenant typological sanctions in a New Covenant context, we must warn him of the dangers of this sort of reasoning. It is disastrous to a truly Christian metaphysic.

29 Note that Bahnsen does not understand the civil function as a subset of the more basic category of typology. This, in my opinion, is a fundamental mistake.

30 See Meredith Kline's Kingdom Prologue (privately published) for a compelling development of the biblical theological hermeneutic of Israel as an old Covenant kingdom distinguished by three traits: (1) national election; (2) typological kingdom; and (3) typological works covenant (i. e., maintenance of dominion over the land in the Typological kingdom depends on the corporate obedience of Israel). Kline demonstrates the hermeneutical significance of redemptive typology in a penetrating and engaging way.

31 Preface to the Second Edition of Theonomy in Christian Ethics (p. xxiii).

32 In this sense, then, I would object to Bahnsen's formulation of the fourth criterion.

33 Bahnsen also provides a second line of argumentation which makes the same fundamental errors as his first line of reasoning. Therefore, I will not scrutinize the argument (on account of space); rather I simply state it and advance a couple of obvious points. "It should also be pointed out that Hebrews 2:2 begins by asserting that 'the word spoken through angels'that is, the Mosaic law (cf. Deut. 33:1ff.; Ps. 68:17; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19)—was steadfast. The Greek word for this attribute (bebaios) and its cognates is used both in Biblical and secular literature for something which does not lapse, which is permanent, which has secure validity; one ought not to challenge the binding character of something which is bebaios. It is firm and legally guaranteed (see Moulton & Milligan, and Arndt & Gingrich). The word connotes the surety of God's word in the very next verse of Hebrews (2:3), as well as in Romans 4:16; 15:8; 2 Peter 1:19; Philippians 1:7; and Hebrews 6:16 (cf. 9:17). The Mosaic law, according to Hebrews 2:2 then, has a firm and legally guaranteed character; it is steadfast and permanent" (No Other Standard, 179-80). I will note in passing that the New Covenant reality eschatologizes the application of the sanctions to the apostates and unbelievers; it does not negate them. Also, bebaios does not mean immutable, but legally binding in a covenant arrangement. In the present case, the reference is to a covenant mediated by angels (cf, footnote 22). When we keep in mind that the New Covenant is mediated by Christ and is also ebebaiothe, we see that the eschatological New Covenant order in the nature of the case displaces and replaces the typological Old Covenant order.