Grace under Fire: To What Extent Do Greco-Roman Codes of Reciprocity Inform the Theology of Hebrews?

This paper responds to two somewhat recent critiques of my application of the ethos of reciprocity and social context of patronage and benefaction to the exegesis and theology of the Letter “to the Hebrews.” These critiques were framed by Amy Peeler in her published dissertation, You Are My Son (T. & T. Clark, 2014), and Jason Whitlark in his, Enabling Fidelity to God (Paternoster, 2008). In regard to the first, I suggest that, while the relationship between God and Jesus as father and son indeed stands in the foreground of the letter and feeds the author’s strategy in important ways, the relationship between God and believers as father and “many sons and daughters” is far from a dominant image. More to the point, it obscures the dynamics of the warning passages to read the latter (rather provisional and conditional) relationship into those paragraphs. In regard to the second, I suggest that setting “reciprocity” and “divine enabling of human fidelity” as stark alternatives formulates an unhelpful dichotomy and forces unnecessary choices. These alternatives may help maintain theological categories deemed important (monergism versus synergism; an “optimistic” versus a “pessimistic anthropology”), but they divide asunder what the author of Hebrews holds together. Similarly, I challenge the usefulness of setting a forward-looking faith and a backwards-looking gratitude in competition with one another as factors in the author’s strategy for shaping his audience’s trajectory.