Hebrews and the “Laying on of Hands”: A Disturbance to Contemporary Protestant Belief

File:Confirmation, from "The Seven Sacraments" Met DP889630.jpg

One section of the Bible that always struck me as somewhat of a serious disturbance to (late) non-sacramental forms of Protestant ecclesiology is Hebrews 6:1-2:

Therefore let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

These verses do not explicitly scream the kind of sacerdotal sacramentalism of the historic Church, but I do think that it serves as a disturbance to non-sacramental soteriologists and ecclesiologists. Here’s why.

The author is saying that the repentance, faith, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment are the *foundation* of Christian faith, or the elementary doctrine of Jesus Christ. This means that they were fundamental and basic to all Christians. Secondly, baptisms and the laying on of hands are both on the same shelf as repentance, faith, the resurrection, and the future eschatological judgment. These latter items are essential teachings on soteriology and eschatology, rejection of which would have been manifest heresy to everyone. And yet, “instruction on baptisms” and the “laying on of hands” are put on the same shelf, and I would argue that this entails further that these two things are of the same value to the author of the Hebrews as “foundational”.

Obviously, baptism and the laying on of hands refers to the entrance of persons into the Christian church, and possibly to ordination (but the context suggests against this). And yet, what Protestant soteriology today would welcome the “laying on of hands” as such a unique item that can be categorically shelved together with repentance and faith? I am sure there are some, not least the Anglicans. Nevertheless, to the majority of Evangelicalism, the “laying on of hands” is not given the kind of specific doctrinal import as, say, repentance or baptism. To do so would mean that the laying on of hands has something essentially intrinsic about it to the attainment of salvation, just like baptism. An example would be for someone just to pick up standard Protestant systematic theologies and see what unmistakable dogmatic character exists for repentance, faith, resurrection, and the final judgment, and then see how the “laying on of hands” all of the sudden enters into the questionable, the unknown, the uncertain, and the non-dogmatic.

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