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A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 2

Since the author of Hebrews chose to express his vision of the Christian life in cultic categories, we should do him the favor of accepting that these categories were important for him and indeed a key to understanding his message. There are several ways of approaching Hebrews through the lens of ritual, but for now I’m interested in the concept of liminality—the status-reversing transitional experience at the heart of many rituals found in all human cultures. Among other things, attention to the liminal aspects of the message of Hebrews may help us understand the author’s attitude toward outward forms of religion.

Attitude toward Religious Forms

For the author of Hebrews, the major concern is not with the cultic presuppositions of his audience (he surely shared many of them) but with their valuation of particular cultic forms. It is inevitable that religion—any religion—will express itself with external manifestations. This is because of the social and psychological constitution of humankind itself. Christians are not exempt from this reality, and in fact I think a solid case can be made that the earliest forms of Christian worship, drawing from prior Jewish traditions, was in fact quite liturgical in form, though not without its spontaneous or “charismatic” elements (as I’ve discussed previously).

So, we’re stuck with outward forms—liturgies, customs, religious routines. The problem arises when we get fixated on them, so that we see them as an end in themselves and not a tool or guide to bring us into an authentic divine encounter. This, I think, was the pastoral concern the lies behind the book of Hebrews. The addressees were longing for the liturgical “good ole days” and didn’t see how their new experience in Christ measured up.

Hebrews examines the religious forms associated with the old covenant and finds them insufficient for living and preaching the authentic gospel. They may effect some positive results on a superficial level, but nothing more (9:9-10; 10:1-2; 13:9). The author never calls these things bad, but he is insistent that they do not compare with what his addressees now have in Jesus. Forms, therefore, are to be questioned and critically evaluated. Those that fail to measure up to the gospel are to be forsaken.

Hebrews thus posits a spirituality of letting go. Whatever externals we make the focus of our loyalties become our idols and keep us from experiencing God through the mediation of Christ alone. Numerous points of relevance come readily to mind. One would be the danger of religious legalism. Evelyn Underhill has noted the dangers ritualism and formalism present to a healthy view of outward religious forms (Worship [Harper, 1937] 34-37). Ritualism is the view that, for any good to come of them, the external expressions must be performed “just so.” It is marked by a great attention to the minute details of religious performance to the extent that one loses the overall picture. Formalism is an approach to ritual that concerns itslef with simply “going through the motions” with little thoguht for the significance of the practices. Both forms of legalism deny the proper place of ritual in spirituality because they deny the realities that always lie behind the ritual itself.

Another point of relevance is the area of liturgical reform, which continues to be a hot topic in churches. Rather than simply reclaiming the old worship forms from previous centuries or creating new forms in the image of Madison Avenue, the author of Hebrews would have us demonstrate critical judgment about the outward forms we would embrace. For him, worship in the gathered community was an enacted anticipation of heavenly realities:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assemmbly of the firstborn who are now enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24; see Hans-Detlof Galley, “Der Hebräerbrief und der christliche Gottesdienst,” Jahrbuch für Liturgik und Hymnologie 31 [1987-88] 72-83).

Since we humans cannot get away from the external contingencies of worship, we had better choose our rituals well!

In general terms, the attitude toward religious externals we see in Hebrews involves discerning what are our sources of religious, spiritual, and theological security. For example, the author does not deny the possible benefits of having formally recognized spiritual leaders in the community (13:7), but the “main point” of his treatise is that “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (8:1). He does not disparage “regulations for worship an an earthly sanctuary” (9:1) including, no doubt, such things as baptisms and the laying on of hands (6:2). But these are merely the “basic teaching about Christ” (6:1). What matters far more is spiritual sacrifice the believing community offers: “the fruit of lips that confess [God’s] name” and doing good and sharing from one’s material resources (13:15-16). We do these things confessing that, rather than trusting in any “lasting city” on earth, “we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:14).

Once our sources of security are located, they must be put to the test. Those that are found wanting must be discarded—no matter how precious they may be. Letting go may in fact lead to doing without, and there may be in Hebrews an apophatic undercurrent that would confess the inadequacy of any sort of external religious practice or assertion. After all, Abraham left his home and inheritance “not knowing where he was going” (11:8) and Moses “left Egypt” in pursuit of the invisible God (11:27).

This point is driven home in chapter 13, where the author’s concluding exhortations repeatedly use the word “outside”: “outside the camp” (13:11), “outside the gate” (13:12), “Let us then go out to him outside the camp” (13:13). In this passage we find the final resolution of Hebrews’ continuing theme of entering the divine presence. The author has worked with the motif of “entering” or “drawing near” since the beginning as a central metaphor for encounter with God (compound words with εἰς [“into”] at 1:6; 2:10; 3:11, 18, 19; 4:1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11; 6:19, 20; 9:6; 12:24; compound words with πρός [“toward”] at 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; 12:18, 22; the verb ἐγγίζω [“come near”] at 7:19). Here the imagery shifts to movement in the opposite direction. The substance of such an encounter now becomes clear: to approach God is to abandon the “camp” and accept Christ’s shame. With a stroke of the pen the old, comfortable boundaries fall. The author calls on his readers to abandon the camp—to abandon respectability, security, and conventional holiness, however they may be understood. There is thus grace to be found at the Christian altar (13:9), but there is also a personal cost.

At the very least, the quest for liminality in religious forms should suggest the importance of moving beyond the rationalistic patterns of much of mainline religion. Richard Baer, for example, notes the functional similarities between Quaker silence, high church liturgy, and glossolalia in that all three forms of religious expression tend to transcend the analytical intellect (“Quaker Silence, Catholic Liturgy, and Pentecostal Glossolalia—Some Functional Similarities,” in Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism, ed. Russell P. Spittler [Baker, 1976]). In so doing, these practices free other aspects of the self for spiritual engagement. I’ll discuss one possibility for contemporary application in the next installment.



  1. Anne Mikkola says:

    After reading the Baer article, my first thoughts:
    His arguments on functional similarities are convincing to me and will be helpful I believe in trying to figure out my view on rituals. Thanks!!

    But then the question arises about the role of intellect. It is assumed – without questioning – that analytical intellect prevents the divine reality from being communicated. I dare question this assumed trade-off. Just like rituals may gain more of a place than they should, the same way intellect can become too central. But God created intellect in us, but did he create rituals in us? Or did rituals come after the Fall, so to speak. It is typical emphasis in pentecostal circles and more generally church settings- or manipulative power structures – to deemphasize intellect and thinking. It is interesting how Baer talks about the infallibility of the Pope or the inerrancy of the Word as other ways of ‘surpassing the intellect’ in order to experience the presence and power of the Spirit. Then he asks if the intellectual price might be too high in these cases. Charismatics often throw away intellect and with it the Word too in any real sense. They experience the ‘Presence’, but sometimes the fruit of that Presence are not very convincing to me – to put it mildly.

    I am tempted to merge all these Baer categories into one – as equally potentially harmful, or alternatively equally helpful. Speaking in toungues is however quite different from liturgical services. The latter are usually much more dominating in church services than the glossolalia in charismatic circles. But comparing the whole ‘charismatic arsenal’ to the liturgical arsenal might be somewhat more equally balanced comparison. So, I am thinking if there might be 2 equally heavy evils, namely:
    1) the full-blown charismatic ‘experience the Spirit of God’ arsenal with all its ‘spirit liturgy’ which denies intellect and doesnt care much for people in their earthly existence, justice issues etc. (compare 1 Cor)
    2) the liturgical experience which does the same (denies gifts of the spirit and intellect) and holds God captive in the temples.

    Both try to put experience of the Spirit in some narrow box that is separate from our lives. Your justification for rituals sees this separation as a positive – somehow fundamentally human thing. I am wondering if Jesus might have tried to turn the ‘rituals’ more into every day experiences, by e.g. the communion meal. Every time you eat and drink – type of thing.

    If rituals help the Spirit to gain more ‘full-time’ access into our daily lives then I suppose they would be good, but if they separate Spirit into the outer space- experience box, and keep Him/Her there, they are comparable to witchcraft whereby rituals or spiritual gifts become tools of manipulation.

    Did God create rituals, or people invented them in search for security other than God? The fact that all humans in all times have rituals, is not any better a justification than saying that in all times women have been subordinated so that must have been God’s purpose for genders.

    Liminality (?) thing is a good sounding argument, but isnt there some time issue. Rites of transition, like weddings, are one-time events while the Christian liminality is ever continuing thing (ideally!?). If rituals are good in weddings, does it follow that they are good every Sunday? Why not then make the whole life a ritual? Then when does the Christian live, use her intellect, and make a difference in this world? Isnt this the very problem of Christian church – separation of the holy sphere from the non-holy? The main tools of this separation: charismatic experiences and ‘superior spirituality’, liturgical ritual centeredness, clergy (=ritual experts) centeredness etc?


  2. Good thoughts, Anne. Thanks for sharing. I suppose a lot of how one sees these things is biographical. If you’ve never experienced liturgy done well (with warmth, spontaneity, etc.—see my linked post on keva and kavvanah), it’s very easy to see only the restrictive elements. If you’ve never seen charismatic experience grounded with intellectual rigor (I’m thinking about scholars like Gordon Fee and, to a certain extent, James D. G. Dunn), one might toss all charismatics/Pentecostals into the “rabid emotionalism” bin.

    You ask, “Did God create rituals, or people invented them in search for security other than God?” I would say, “God created humans as incarnated beings who only thrive when soul, mind, and body are vitally engaged.” That means humans will always find outward, tangible, visible ways to express what matters most to them. Some humans forget that the forms are only pointers to deeper values; others remember, and let the values judge the forms. Anthropologically, I’m at a loss to think of a single human culture that has not developed rituals of some kind through which to symbolize and enact their shared values. It’s no shame to say that Christians do the same, and that God can be in the process.

    Strictly from the standpoint of the book of Hebrews, I think the author envisioned the Christian experience as one of ongoing liminality that does not end until the eschaton. But once again, humans being what they are, I don’t know how we can perpetuate this continuous sense of liminality without regularly scheduled liminal periods—be they weekly liturgies, prayer retreats, Lenten fasts, or whatever. As I wrote above, we’ll always have rituals, so let’s just make sure we choose them well!


  3. Anne Mikkola says:

    Thanks Darrell for these 1,2,3,4 posts. It’s been nice daily sets of ideas to ponder. These statuslessness and liminality ideas are interesting, and new to me – make a lot of sense.
    You have given me another way of looking at things. You are very right about the biographical thing. This is the kind of thing that only future experiences can help resolve. But thanks to you, I now have another way of looking at rituals, and Hebrews.
    By the way, I quess we discussed this already 8 years ago, because you had sent me a text titled: ‘pre-constantinian worship patterns’ or something like that. Is that your writing by the way. It did not have the author.


  4. You’re quite welcome, Anne.

    I’ve written up some of my research on pre-Constantinian worship in a series of posts beginning at https://pursiful.com/?p=76. What you have may be an early draft of that material.


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