Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, professor of Biblical Theology, and associate dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as one of the general editors for the new Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation commentary series and author of the inaugural volume: Commentary on Hebrews , which will be available on February 1.
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B&H: You not only wrote the first volume for the commentary series but serve as one of the general editors. How is the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (BTCP) series unique? What sets it apart?
Thomas Schreiner: What sets it apart is conveyed in the title for the series. The series is distinct in its focus on the biblical theology of each book. We have many commentaries that do an excellent job of unpacking the structure of the book being studied. They are also excellent in explaining the contribution of each verse. The BTCP series also explains each verse, but it does something different as well. The role each book plays in the whole canon of scripture is explored. Hence, the function of the particular book in relation to the whole canon is unpacked. Also, the major themes of the book in question are set forth. In a commentary, one can’t pull the threads of a theme together since we have verse-by-verse exposition, but in our series the major themes are explicated for readers.
B&H: Hebrews is filled with references to and discussions of Old Testament figures and institutions: Sabbath rest, Melchizedek, old covenant regulations, the Levitical priesthood, etc. What would you say to the pastor who is preaching from Hebrews and struggling with how to help his congregation see the relevance of these issues?
TS: As the question indicates, Hebrews is difficult, for no one in our congregations is tempted to go back to Levitical sacrifices! On the one hand, we have to do careful exegesis to ensure we truly understand the message of the letter. On the other hand, we need to explain why it matters. Let’s consider an example. Why does it matter that Christ’s sacrifice is superior to Levitical sacrifices? The author emphasizes that Christ’s blood truly cleanses our guilt, and thus we can enter God’s presence boldly and confidently. As believers, we can be full of joy because our evil is cleansed forever. People today aren’t tempted to offer animal sacrifices, but they struggle mightily with guilt. They aren’t tempted to look to Levitical priests for salvation, but they find great comfort in knowing that Jesus is an exalted priest who intercedes for them at the right hand of God. They aren’t looking to the old covenant, but they glory in the new covenant truth that God has inscribed his law on their hearts.
B&H: One of the most controversial features of Hebrews is the author’s so-called “warning passages,” which interpreters have variously explained. What role do you understand these to play in the author’s overall purpose?
TS: The warning passages are difficult and controversial, and fine Christians disagree on their meaning. I maintain that the warnings are written to Christians. The author teaches, then, that if we fall away we will be damned. The warnings were written to arouse us from our lethargy so that we will keep following Christ to the end. The warnings are not a call to works-righteousness. No, as Hebrews 11 teaches us, they are a call to faith, a call to trust God until the last day. I also argue that the warnings are one of the means God uses to preserve his elect. In other words, no true believer will ever fall away. God keeps his own, for we have been sanctified once-for-all by the death of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:10, 14). The Lord has written his law on our hearts (Heb 8:8-12). Thus, God uses the warnings to keep his own children on the right road until the end.
B&H: Many Christians get their theology largely from Paul, especially when it comes to the atonement. What does Hebrews add to our understanding of the atonement that can’t be found in Paul?
TS: Hebrews and Paul share some of the themes about the atonement in common. For example, they both believe that Christ died as our substitute, taking the penalty we deserved. Hebrews emphasizes, however, that Jesus died as our Melchizedekian priest. We don’t read that in Paul or any other NT writer! The priestly work of Jesus Christ comes to the center stage in Hebrews. We are not surprised, then, that Hebrews speaks especially in cultic categories. Paul uses cultic images as well, and so we don’t want to overemphasize the point. But Paul often uses the legal language of justification. Hebrews uses the cultic language of being cleansed and washed of our sins. It picks up the sacrificial language of the OT, especially from the Day of Atonement, and applies it to the work of Jesus Christ. Hebrews argues, then, that in Jesus we have a better priest, a better covenant, and a better sacrifice.