Abeneazer G. Urga’s Review of A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF HEBREWS, by Douglas W. Kennard

Published on March 30, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Wipf & Stock, 2018 | 186 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Abeneazer G. Urga


Douglas W. Kennard is a professor of Christian Scriptures at the Houston Graduate School of Theology. He authored several books: The Gospel, Biblical Covenantalism, A Critical Realist’s Theological Method, Messiah Jesus: Christology in the Day and Ours, The Relationship Between Epistemology, Hermeneutics, Biblical Theology and Contextualization, and coauthored Deliverance Now and Not Yet with Marv Pate.

Chapter 1 of this book discusses the introductory issues related to Hebrews. Kennard notes that an unknown author composed the epistle to diaspora Jewish Christians who are tempted to return to Judaism. Although the location and time of the composition of the epistle are unknown, Kennard suggests that it is written before 70 AD as the information on the destruction of the temple lacks in the epistle. Kennard proposes that although the superiority of Christ is considered to be the theme of Hebrews, “superiority is more diversified than Christ, so it is better to see its use as part of the method of argument through the book as a center” (p. 3). Jesus is superior to the angels, for he is the exact imprint of God who also rules over God’s house as an apostle of a new and better exodus. Jesus also surpasses the levitical order as he brings about internal transformation and purification as a priest-king in the order of Melchizedek.

Chapter 2 delineates the doctrine of God in Hebrews. Kennard notes that the term θεός appears sixty-eight times in the epistle. Hebrews presents God as the Father of Jesus, majestic, judge and the one who cleanses his people. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is faint, Christ’s divinity is asserted in Hebrews. God is portrayed in Hebrews as revealer through divine speech and his Son as creator, deliverer (Exodus from Egypt), judge and peace-maker. The Spirit is portrayed as the revealer of the OT, provider of gifts, and cleanser of consciences. The Spirit, Kennard argues, is “a supportive divine person” in Hebrews compared to the main actors: the Father and the Son.

Chapter 3 presents Jesus as a spokesman for God, who fulfills the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15–22. Hebrews paints Jesus not only as the Son whom God has spoken through but also as a divine being.

Chapter 4 explains the appropriation of the Old Testament by the author of Hebrews. Kennard states that the author of Hebrews employs midrashic rhetoric of the OT prophecies to convey the idea that Christ is superior in every respect.

Chapter 5 details Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus’ superiority to the angels because of his divinity and kingship. It is possible, according to Kennard, that Hebrews insists on Jesus’ superiority over angels in rejection of any notion of angel worship. The Sonship of Jesus in Hebrews also signals his status as a Davidic King, a status which no angel possesses, thus making him superior to the angels. Jesus, however, is not merely a Davidic King. He is also God who receives worship from angels; co-equal with the Father in creation, governance and sustenance. Kennard argues that although both the OT and early Jewish tradition do not provide a divine Messiah, it is possible that Isaiah 9:6 and Daniel 7:13–14 played a role in the development of a divine Messiah. The notion of a divine messiah based on these two passages appears in Second Temple Judaism. This divine messiah is portrayed as a judge, ruler, and defender of the righteous. The Son of Man and Melchizedek are also linked again, highlighting the notion of a divine messiah king. Jesus is the king and priest who “[provides] atonement for the brethren” (p. 28). Although Jesus became lower than angels for a little while in his inexplicable sufferings, the angels are to worship him and serve his brothers, and at the parousia everything will be under his feet.

Chapter 6 presents Jesus as the better apostle overseeing the new exodus toward the new city. Terms like pioneer, author, leader, and forerunner capture Jesus’ better leadership. Jesus was faithful like Moses, but his superiority is highlighted by the fact that Jesus was over the house as a Son, a King, and a builder of the house of Israel, whereas Moses was a servant in God’s house. The community Jesus is building is expected to persevere in the pilgrimage toward the throne of the Son.

Chapter 7 explains Jesus’ priesthood in the order of Melchizedek. The idea of King-Priest in the Jewish milieu was prevalent. Moses, David, the Hasmonean high priests, and Aaron were considered both King and Priest at once. Later, however, the Qumran community advocated for two messiahs: the messiah of Aaron and the messiah of Israel. Kennard traces the inception of the Melchizedek tradition to Genesis 14:18–24; and Psalm 110 [LXX 109]:4 advances Melchizedek the Davidic King, is to be a priest forever. Both Jewish and Christian literalists associate Melchizedek with an angel and Jesus’ theophanic appearance respectively. Kennard remarks that whereas Qumran envisages Melchizedek as a heavenly being, in mainstream Judaism, he is a mere human being. The logic of Hebrews in introducing Melchizedek is to argue that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than that of Aaron, and by implication, Jesus in the order of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priests. Jesus’ appointment as a priest in the order of Melchizedek is due to his indestructible life and his impeccable character.

Chapter 8 delineates the relationship between the law and the New Covenant. Kennard notes that the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah’s passage of the New Covenant and applies it to the audience. In so doing, the author highlights the superiority of the New Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic covenant was ineffective in bringing the people to rest. It was powerless to bring about transformation and perfection. Kennard argues that the relationship between Israel and the church can better be understood in terms of a new covenantalism rather than by supersessionism. He observes this new covenantalism in Justin Martyr’s interaction with Trypho. However, Jesus provides transformation and perfection through his substitutionary death on behalf of the people.

Chapter 9, the longest of all the chapters in the book, presents Christ’s atonement in Hebrews. Kennard points out the similarity between Christ’s, and Yom Kippur and Moses’ cleansing of the tabernacle in providing corporate atonement. Sin, according to the Old Covenant, is categorized as unintentional and intentional sins. Whereas the latter brings about expulsion and death, the former could be addressed via atonement. A sin committed by an individual affects the entire community. Kennard states that it brings about an “ontological uncleanness” (67). Israel’s persistence in not listening and committing abhorrent sin before God led them to captivity and exile. Kennard discusses kpr in the context of sin. He states that kpr has numerous meanings, but it mainly conveys the idea of “ransom and atonement” (68). Kennard resists the forensic understanding of ransom, for he believes that ransom is mainly concerned with covenant and atonement sacrifice rather than with the law. He argues that “Justification and atonement are not legal fiction, but restoration of covenantal relationships” (70). The Mosaic Covenant is also concerned with purification; hence, God proffered a sacrificial system so that the chosen people would maintain their purity and cleanliness. The impurity of one person requires the purification of the nation, the tabernacle and the land during Yom Kippur. Although atonement cleansing mainly deals with purifying the tabernacle or the altar, at times, it is concerned with the sprinkling of people and thus providing the forgiveness of sins committed in the past. The kpr “appeases divine wrath of covenant curse, returning them again to covenantal blessings” (75). Kennard proposes, gleaning from Wheeler Robinson, that the purification offering and the scapegoat do not relay the notion of penal substitution, for they are offered to address sins committed unintentionally. In other words, only those who are in the confinement of the covenantal context would be able to experience atonement and forgiveness.

The Servant is portrayed in Isaiah as an instrument of salvation and as a paradigmatic figure for God’s people to emulate his faithful lifestyle. The Servant was willing to be a substitute and a sacrifice for sinners. He welcomes God’s covenant curse and dies as a result on behalf of the guilty. The purpose of his penal substitutionary death is “to deal with our corporate iniquities” (87). Kennard argues that the only place in the NT where the Isaianic Servant’s atonement is probably entertained as vicarious and substitutionary is 1 Peter 2:24-25. However, even 1 Peter 2:24–25 is about mimetic atonement. 1 Enoch and some Qumranic texts reveal a mimetic atonement through suffering. In addition, this atonement, according to the Qumran sect, was available “through a sacrifice of humility, prayer, and mystical community worship for its members” (90). Prayers, studying the Torah, martyrdom, confession, acts of mercy and loving-kindness have been considered to provide atonement.

In Hebrews, Kennard states that atonement is both limited and unlimited. The salvation provided through New Covenant atonement is communal in the manner of the Day of Atonement rather than individualistic as purported in the Western contexts. He also remarks that although there is a correlation between Christ’s New Covenant atonement and the Day of Atonement concerning the purification ritual, it is Christ’s atonement that is able to provide a “perfected conscience” (95). The corollary between the Mosaic covenant’s initiation by blood and Christ’s initiation of the new covenant by his sacrificial death is highlighted. Yet, Christ’s New Covenant surpasses the Mosaic Covenant, the Day of Atonement and the plethora of sacrifices.

Chapter 10 details the necessity of faithfulness to obtain salvation by employing the exodus motif. By evoking the exodus imagery, the author, according to Kennard, reminds the audience to not rebel and harden their hearts but to persevere in the faith toward the eschatological rest. Kennard asserts that salvation is a future phenomenon in Hebrews, and those who persevere will attain rest, which is “both temporally present and eschatologically future” (112). Perseverance in the faith towards salvation and rest is demonstrated by the cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews.

Chapter 11 presents the warning passages of the epistle. Kennard points out that there is a tendency to explain them with the strictures of one’s tradition. However, Kennard proffers that the passages should be interpreted within the confinement of Hebrews rather than imposing one’s tradition on them. The warning passages exhort the reader to pay close attention to the message of Christ, to avoid the rebellion of their ancestors, to be mature and not fall away, to persevere and be faithful, and to embrace God’s fatherly discipline that inculcates maturity so that the readers can attain salvation in the future.

Chapter 12 concludes that Hebrews was a letter read by the churches. The final exhortation conveys to people who are part of the new covenant community the importance of love, hospitality, sexual purity, the love of God over money, and obeying and submitting to church leaders.

A Biblical Theology of Hebrews is the latest treatment of the theology of the epistle (for earlier works, see Mathias Rissi, Die Theologie des Hebräerbriefs [Cambridge: Tübigngen, 1987]; Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, NTT [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991]; and recently Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews, BTCP [Nashville: B&H, 2015]) for which Kennard is to be commended on several notes. Kennard’s mastery of biblical, extra-biblical, theological and philosophical disciplines is evident throughout the book. As such, some of his insights were cogent and persuasive. Although his rejection of the forensic framework of atonement is problematic, his confirmation and critique of the New Perspective is even-handed. The main strength of the book lies in his insistence that salvation or forgiveness, first and foremost, should be understood as a communal phenomenon. Here Kennard correctly addresses the proclivity of Western contexts to individualize forgiveness rather than comprehending it as a corporate phenomenon.

In spite of its strengths, there are some minor weaknesses in A Biblical Theology of Hebrews. First, the attempt to understand Hebrews with the spectacles of John Locke, Charles Sanders Peirce, Thomas Reid, or Jonathan Edwards appears anachronistic. The major lacuna in Kennard’s work is the motif of the resurrection in Hebrews. Second, the term “resurrection” appears only once, on page 7. A Biblical Theology of Hebrews could have been strengthened had Kennard additionally interacted with David Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (NovTsup 141 [Leiden/Boston: 2011]). Kennard is not alone in overlooking the resurrection. The works mentioned above on the theology of Hebrews—except Schreiner who engages Moffitt and devotes a section on the resurrection—do not include the motif in their treatment of the epistle (including the new piece by Joachim Ringleben, Wort und Geschichte: Kleine Theologie des Hebräerbriefs [Göttingen: V&R, 2019]).

Notwithstanding, students and professors will benefit from Kennard’s treatment of the theological themes of Hebrews. Future discussions of the theology of Hebrews will do well to engage A Biblical Theology of Hebrews.


Abeneazer G. Urga is a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Studies/New Testament at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina.

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Wipf & Stock, 2018 | 186 pages

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