Christ’s Elementary Word

Yesterday in my Sunday school class we discussed Hebrews 5:11-6:3. After a bit of discussion of the penchant in some Christian circles (although by no means all) to be content with an immature understanding of and approach to their faith, and a declining focus on education in some churches and denominations, we turned our attention to the list of “first principles” offered at the start of chapter 6.

One subject we did not touch on is how to render the genitive in the text. Is it referring to “Christ’s elementary word/teaching” or to “elementary word/teaching about Christ”? Against the latter option, the focus of the things listed seems to be anything but Jesus. And so keep in mind the question of whether the former is possible – that the list could be a summary of what Jesus was thought to have emphasized.

I asked the class whether the list provided corresponds to what anyone present would consider the most basic and foundational teachings of the Christian faith. Here’s the list:

  1. Repentance from works of death
  2. Faith in God
  3. Teaching about baptisms
  4. Laying on of hands
  5. Resurrection of the dead
  6. Eternal judgment

For many these things are not all equally central, and for many they are not basic and elementary!

But the list’s contents become clearer when we realize that there seem to be three pairings:

  1. Repentance and faith in God
  2. Teaching about baptisms and the laying on of hands
  3. Resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment

Grouped in this way, we can see that in fact there may even be a chiasm present:

  • A Repentance
  •  B Faith in God
  •   C Baptisms
  •   C’ Laying on of hands
  •  B’ Resurrection
  • A’ Judgment

The parallel between repentance and judgment or being held accountable makes sense, and this author would not be the only one to consider trust in God and resurrection to be related. Imposition of hands was the one that seemed the least central, but given that this action is coupled with the receiving of the Holy Spirit in Acts (it was great to be discussing this on Pentecost!), that relates nicely to baptisms – the plural of which might then cover both baptism in water and the spiritual experience that was sometimes closely connected with it, and in other instances thought of or experienced as something separate and subsequent.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is the author’s apparent awareness that Christian theological reflection about Christ in later years involved not simply repeating the teaching of Jesus, but this was something that one had to progress beyond, because there were more things to be said and more questions to be answered.

But also of interest is the possibility that, even for this author who spends so much time exploring some very distinctive ideas about Jesus, it is the word of Jesus that is still the foundation – at least in theory. And that in itself could lead to some interesting discussion about possible directions for Christian thinking today. Is being a Christian, and engaging in Christian theological reflection, about focusing on Jesus, or about focusing on the things that Jesus focused on, and imitating him precisely in not focusing on ourselves?

  • Robert

    The reading of the subjective genitive (in Paul and elsewhere) is perhaps the most radical reform agenda there is in the church.


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