That is an excerpt from one of the comments on the first post in this series on the doctrines of the preservation and perseverance of the saints. To be quite honest, I’m not sure I am quite that pessimistic about the possibility of a cogent theological paradigm that handles all of the relevant texts well. I desperately want not only to believe all of the biblical texts, but I also to be optimistic that all of the texts can be accounted for on this issue in a way that respects the meaning and context of all of the relevant texts.
I think it might be better to say that the best theological paradigm is the one that best accounts for all the texts and respects each one of them by refusing to twist them to fit a given paradigm. Of course, a paradigm should not be consider “settled” if it does not account well for all the texts. The Calvinistic paradigm as a whole, for example (in my opinion), should not be viewed as entirely settled because, as it stands, it probably does not account for all of the texts particularly well. I do think it is the paradigm that comes closest, by far, to achieving this end, but it is by no means perfect. It certainly still needs work, careful thought, and nuancing. Nevertheless, I tend to think that the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, as a stand-alone doctrine, is admirable in its ability to account for all the relevant texts.
Invariably, the “warning passages” (or “apostasy passages,” depending on who you’re talking to) of Hebrews are brought in to argue against the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. Often times, Hebrews 6:4-6 is raised as the exemplary, and most difficult conundrum, of the six or seven disputed passages in Hebrews. This is the passage I want to deal with here:
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Now, first of all, what is baffling about the Arminian interpretation of this passage is the lack of explanation of how it is, if genuinely apostasized believers are in view, that they cannot possibly return to God through repentance. This passage seems to rule out the return of the offenders (whomever they may be), which does not square with the classic Arminian understanding that one is able genuinely to fall from grace, but to return again if repentance is sought and faith is exerted. So, whatever else we say about this passage, it seems that it cannot possibly be referring to an average backsliding or apostasizing Christian, who is fully capable of returning to Christ should he so choose.
So the question, then, is: In what circumstance is saving repentance impossible?
Those in view in this passage are those who have “tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” It is important to see that these are not necessarily (perhaps not even probably) descriptions of genuine believers. It’s difficult to know exactly how the author of Hebrews intends these words, because we cannot compare his vocabulary with other letters he has written, this being his sole contribution to the New Testament. Nevertheless, words like these are interesting choices, since they tend to denote sampling rather than full partaking and participation.
For example, the word rendered “tasted” in vv. 4 and 5 is the Greek word geuomai, which means “to have perception of something either by mouth or by experience, especially in reference to a relatively small quantity” (BDAG). Again, we cannot know exactly what Hebrews means by this word because we can’t compare it with much, but this hardly seems like a description of a genuinely Christian experience.
I tend to think that the best reading of the passage then, is that those in view are people who have been a part of the Christian community, who have witnessed the benefits and change brought by the gift of salvation, who have experienced some of the benefits of Spirit-filled Christian community, who have sampled some of the effects of the goodness of the Word of God, and yet in not genuinely accepting Christ, they have, perhaps, slided into a slow process of indifference and hardening of heart and eventually they fall away and reject Christ, putting him to open shame and eventually find it impossible truly to repent due to their hardness and callousness of heart.
Of course, everyone needs to decide for themselves whether this is a fair reading of the text, but it seems to me that it is the reading that makes best sense of the entire passage. If so, then the passage does not speak of genuine believers and is therefore irrelevant to the discussion of the doctrine of eternal security.