He Learned Obedience

He Learned Obedience May 14, 2013

There is material in Hebrews 4-5 that is particularly striking when considered in relation to some of the classic creedal formulations of Christian orthodoxy, as well as other popular ways of Christian thinking about Jesus. We reached this section Sunday in my Sunday school class, and I wanted to share some thoughts on the passage.

To say that Jesus was tempted in every way that other human beings are seems incompatible with the view that Jesus was an omniscient divine entity. Can one know all the possible negative impacts of one’s actions and still be tempted in the same way we are, when we can deceive ourselves and persuade ourselves that no harm will come of it if we give in to temptation?

To say that Jesus learned obedience likewise seems incompatible with the view that he was one who always inevitably does what is right, which many theists define as part and parcel of the nature of God. Indeed, we might ask whether obedience can be learned in the absence of struggling.

The New Testament Gospels provide evidence (particularly in the story about the Garden of Gethsemane) that Jesus did indeed struggle in this way. And so if a Christian wants to maintain the claim of Hebrews that Jesus was without sin, then struggling with what to do is not sin.

Ironically, because of some of the material attributed to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, emphasizing that the root of evil action is in evil attitudes, some Christians have cultivated an approach to our inner life that is not about deliberately choosing the good over the evil, but trying to repress any thought about any alternative, as though even thinking about it were a sin.

From the story of the wilderness to the story of the garden, Jesus is depicted not as suppressing and ignoring other paths, but facing them consciously and deliberately not choosing them.

And so instead of mature righteousness and character, much conservative Christianity is characterized instead by neuroses.

Returning to Hebrews, whatever the Christology one comes up with in relation to this epistle, it seems to definitively invalidate the sort of fundamentalist approach to the world which suggests that everything is black and white, the view that obedience is not something that involves learning and struggling, but simply doing what one is told.

As for the Christological question, it may be that the author of Hebrews, like the creators of the Chalcedonian Creed, was happy to say two apparently contradictory things. But that does not mean that we should be content to do so. Leaving room for mystery can be appropriate, but appealing too quickly to mystery can simply be an excuse for shoddy thinking. In this case, there are other ways to give expression to the conviction that the divine has been encountered in the human life of Jesus, without viewing him as a supernatural entity in a manner that makes it hard if not impossible to say that he is like us in every way and faced the same temptations we do.

Those interested in exploring this further will find there is much discussion in commentaries and other works of scholarship about whether the pre-existence language used in Hebrews denotes a real, personal pre-existence, or something more Platonic and ideal. Understanding that language as about the significance of Jesus, rather than some ontological status that he (or a being that became him) once had, seems to resolve a number of problems that otherwise seem intractable.  But not everyone agrees on that point, of course – feel free to discuss the Christology of the Letter to the Hebrews in the comments section if you are so inclined!

Finally, on a lighter note, I came across this cartoon about learning obedience…

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  • Dustin Smith

    Perhaps it is easier to understand Jesus in the Book of Hebrews as a human being, a lineal descendant of David (1:5), and of the tribe of Judah (7:14). He was tempted in all points (God cannot be tempted – James 1:13) and he learned obedience as a faithful son (good plug here for McGrath’s John book in the SNTSMS). Yet he is the Messiah and the one through (notionally) whom God made the ages (1:2).

    I suggest we should stop reading the Bible through the lenses of Nicaea or Chalcedon and instead read the Bible through the lenses of 2nd Temple Judaism and first century Messianic expectations.

    Good post James.

  • Kermit Zarley

    Indeed, Dustin. Good post James. For many Trinitarians, as I once was, their main argument is that Jesus had to be God to save us. But doesn’t the author of Hebrews say the opposite, that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” to become our Savior (Hebrews 2.17)? Jesus would not have been like other humans if he literally had preexisted.

  • robrecht

    Hebrews is indeed a fascinating chistological text. I’ve always assumed the sinlesslessness part (4,15) was required by some Jewish-Christian prerequisite for a perfect sacrifice, but I’d love to be proven wrong about that, as it is a weak point in the metaphor in my opinion. Maybe we can think of Jesus’ death as a perfect witness to the truth without going down the road of an otherwise sinless life that fundamentalists and Ebionites insist upon.

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing this brilliant article. I learned a lot from this post and it made me realize a lot of things. This article is helpful to me in many ways and I am very grateful to have read this post. Again, thank you! 🙂

  • newenglandsun

    I’ve studied with Socinians. I think the only evidence that one might find of a divine Christology is within Hebrews 1. For instance, in Hebrews 1:2 it says that Jesus is the one through whom the worlds were made and Hebrews 1:10-12 echo Psalm 102:25-27 about how he (YHWH) laid the foundation of the Earth. Hebrews 1:8-9 call him “God”.

    BUT…it is disputed as to the translation of Hebrews 1:8 and thus it might not actually call him “God”.
    (See the footnote – http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews%201&version=NRSV)

    That, and Hebrews 1:8-9 was originally applied to King Solomon in Psalm 45:6-7. So what we are seeing is that the author of the Hebrews has now used two passages (multiple because there are others as well) from the Psalms to make a particular argument. It is presumably fitting of these that it is part of his argument for the superior status of Jesus over the angels that he uses these passages to argue for that. Thus, Hebrews 1:8-9 echos his royal status as being superior and Hebrews 1:10-12 echos his laying the foundation of the new creation. This is the mainline Socinian understanding of the text.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I still wrestle with what Hebrews is saying. Its author seems happy to talk about the Son as a pre-existent celestial reality and also as a human being who was exalted to a particular status. I wonder whether perhaps the author’s Platonic background can help make sense of this. Perhaps treating the earthly and human as parallel to and a shadow of a fuller celestial reality, and assuming that when he was exalted to heaven these two realities were merged, might help make sense of this? Maybe I will post this as a post on the blog and see if some who have more background in Plato can help.

      • newenglandsun

        Yes. I have heard in a textbook of mine how it is connected with Platonic dualism. However, I do not have much of a background in Plato. I have a little bit of a background in religion (some college).

  • andrewbourne

    In consideration to obedience could there be an understanding between listening to the Word of God and living with it to the point that this is the worldview in which you live ,move and have your being. The consideration of this Deuteronomic understanding of listening and obeying has an important aspect of the work of Hebrews. This also feeds into the suffering servant who listens to YHWH and follows his path no matter the consequences. This may appear to be alternative version of Hebrews interpretation but I would argue that it is not inconsistent

  • Dennis Lee

    this is just so good. just so good. my thoughts have been of the young Jesus at 12 going about his father’s business. he was the son of God. I just can’t help but imagine the tender relationship this must have been that led to the climax at the Jordan, ‘this is my beloved son’. Like John he ‘grew and waxed strong in spirit.’ He is indeed a tender root. He’s caught up with the Father and His business to the point of having a teaching moment with his folks; ‘Don’t you know . . . ” In all this I can’t help but see him learning for he ‘waxed strong’. He had the same heavenly father as a 12 year old as he did 18 years later. I realize folks talk about how Jesus’ ‘ministry’ started after being baptized but I just love seeing the nature of his identity combined with being about ‘business’ at such an early age. Be a son first. I mean if your about your fathers business at 12 and as a result you’re hanging with the religious leaders you’re in ministry right? If there is such a distinction, I would rather be about my Father’s business than ‘be in ‘ministry’. Jesus was able to learn as an adult because learning was familiar turf.