The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-7

Posted by Dim Bulb on December 31, 2016

This post includes Fr. MacEvilly’s brief introductory analysis of Hebrews 11 followed by his comments on today’s reading. Text in purple indicates his paraphrasing of the text he is commenting on.


The Hebrews, it would appear, were not sufficiently impressed with the importance and necessity of faith, and were, therefore, in danger of losing it by apostasy. They were taught to look upon it as a mode of justifying wholly unknown to the saints of the Old Testament; and to these false notions, with which they were imbued, might be traced their fatal facility, in deserting it under the pressure of persecution. The Apostle (10:38) takes occasion from the words of the Prophet Habacuc, to confute this pernicious error. Before making the application of it, in this chapter, to the sainted heroes of old, he first gives a description of faith, describing it by two of its qualities, best accommodated to the circumstances of those, whom he addresses (verse 1).

In the next place, applying this faith to the saints of old, he shows that it was owing to it, the most distinguished among them obtained justification (2–39).

He, finally shows the great advantage which we, in the New Law, possess over the ancients. We can, at once, enter on the possession of the promised blessings, while they were obliged to wait for our time to enjoy them in common with us; and, surely, we should display no less heroism in the cause of faith, of which the blessings and promise are present, than they did, for whom the fulfilment of the promise was distant.

Heb 11:1 Now, faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.

(As, then, the just man lives by faith, [10:38] it is of importance for us to know the nature of this virtue, which is the spiritual life of our souls). Faith is the foundation of the blessings we hope for; or, the subsistence in our intellect of the things we hope for; it is the fullest convincing argument of the existence of these things, which are neither the immediate object of our sight nor perceived by reason, but which we still more firmly believe than if we saw them.

“Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for.” In order to render more clear the application of faith to the examples he is about adducing, the Apostle commences with a description of faith, and he describes it, by two of its leading qualities, First—“It is the substance of things to be hoped for,” to which words, some, with St. Augustine give this construction, “it is the substance of those who hope.” These attach an active signification to the middle verb in the Greek, ελπιζομενων ὑπόστασις, corresponding to the words in our version, “to be hoped for.” Ours is the more probable construction. “The substance,” i.e., the basis and foundation, on which rest the blessings of salvation we hope for. For, it is, “the root and foundation of all justification.” (Council of Trent, SS. 6, c. viii.) Without faith we could no more obtain justification than we could build a house without a foundation, or have an accident, ordinarily speaking, without a substance. Or, the word “substance” (in Greek, ὑπόστασις) more probably means, subsistence, of the things to be hoped for; inasmuch as, faith makes the future goods of the life to come, so to exist in our apprehension, as if we actually possessed them. It gives these things, we hope for, a new and anticipated existence in our minds.

Secondly—It is “the evidence of things that appear not” (οὐβλεπομένων), i.e., of things that are neither visible to the senses, nor perceived by reason. This by no means appears to be an adequate or reciprocal definition of faith; for, things to be dreaded form subjects of faith no less than “things to be hoped for” (v.g.) hell’s torments; so did Noe’s deluge (verse 7). Neither does it appear that obscurity essentially belongs to subjects of faith; for, if so, how could the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Apostles have faith in many of the miraculous works of our Divine Redeemer, which they witnessed? Do we not believe in death, although sensibly taking place, and its universality confirmed by experience? Do we not believe in God, as Creator of heaven and earth, an evident natural truth? This definition, cannot exclude the application of faith to things clear; because, although such things be naturally evident, we can abstract from their natural evidence, and believe them like every point of faith, on the authority of God, whose revelation is necessary in order that they should become subjects of faith. Moreover, in the present obscured state of the human intellect, there are but few things so evident as not to be susceptible of confirmation, and of greater subjective certainty, from the authority of God, upon which all faith must be based. The opinion, therefore, of the Thomists requiring obscurity in an object to be necessary, in order to become a point of faith, appears improbable; because, the principal ground of this opinion, viz., that the Apostle here gives a reciprocal definition of faith, is unfounded. The Apostle only describes faith by two of its qualities, the most praiseworthy, viz., its giving the things to be hoped for, an anticipated existence in our minds; and its making certain for us, things that are obscure and inevident—two qualities best accommodated to the circumstances of those whom he addresses, who possessed not, and could, therefore, only “hope for” the invisible blessings of the life to come; neither did they clearly see them, because they “appear not.” These men were to be animated to patient suffering, with the prospect of the same blessings in hope.

Heb 11:2 For by this the ancients obtained a testimony.

For, it was by this faith in God’s promises, holding out distant and, humanly speaking, unattainable goods, that the ancient fathers were distinguished, and obtained from God an illustrious testimony of their sanctity.

Some interpreters connect this verse immediately with verse 38 of last chapter, “the just man liveth by faith, … for by this the ancients obtained,” &c. Others, with preceding verse, as in the Paraphrase.

It is not undeserving of remark, that the faith commended by the Apostle in this chapter, is not the special faith of Protestants, in reference to each man’s justification and salvation; but, as is clear from the entire chapter, a firm belief in the things revealed by God, which all the examples quoted clearly demonstrate.

Heb 11:3 By faith we understand that the world was framed by the word of God: that from invisible things visible things might be made.

Such a faith is as necessary for us, as for them, for understanding the very first principles of revealed religion; for, by faith we learn that creation was moulded into its present harmonious and perfect form, by the command of God, so that from being an invisible shapeless mass or chaos, it assumed its present visible perfect appearance.

The Apostle, before applying the faith now described to the saints of old, shows that even in reference to the Hebrews whom he addresses, it is “the evidence of things that appear not;” because, creation, the first truth proposed to the Jews in Genesis, was not known from any other source than faith; for, the ancient philosophers, one of whose favourite axioms was, ex nihilo nihil fit, derided it. “That the world was framed by the word of God,” this some understand of the first creation or education out of nothing; others, more probably of the arrangement into its present form, of the matter of creation already educed from nothing into existence; “that from invisible things,” i.e., from the pre-existent dark, confused or shapeless mass of matter, this the word “invisible” means in Genesis; (for, instead of the words, “the earth was void and empty”—Genesis 1:2.—the Septuagint version, followed all through, by St. Paul in this Epistle, has, Ἡ δὲ γῆ ἦν αορατος και ακατασκευαστος, the earth was invisible and confused) it would become visible in its present perfect form. Of course, the creation of matter from nothing is supposed in this arrangement or last finish given to it, referred to here by the Apostle.

Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice exceeding that of Cain, by which he obtained a testimony that he was just, God giving testimony to his gifts. And by it he being dead yet speaketh.

It was owing to his being animated with a lively faith that Abel offered a more choice and more excellent sacrifice than did Cain (who made no selection in the gifts offered), by means of which sacrifice offered through faith he obtained the testimony of being just, God himself testifying the acceptance of his gifts by some external sign; and even after his death, he sends forth a cry for redress, which God listened to in consideration of his faith and justice.

It was his faith that made Abel select the choicest portions of his flock to offer them in sacrifice, while Cain heeded not to make any selection: he is not commended in Genesis for making any choice in the fruits of the earth which he offered—“by which” faith or sacrifice, or perhaps both; that is to say, his sacrifice offered through faith, “God giving testimony to his gifts” by some sensible sign, commonly said to be his sending fire from heaven to consume them, while no such sign was exhibited in the case of Cain. “And by it being dead he still speaketh,” which some understand of his blood crying to God (vide Paraphrase). Others say, he speaks by the force of his good example.

Heb 11:5 By faith Henoch was translated that he should not see death: and he was not found because God had translated him. For before his translation he had testimony that he pleased God.

It was by faith Henoch was translated into some place of rest, to escape death, and he was not found, because God had translated him (Genesis, 5:24). That his translation was owing to his faith is clear; for, before his translation, the Scripture bears testimony, that he pleased God.

“Was translated” into some seat of rest, or, as in Ecclesiasticus (chap. 40:4), “into paradise,” in order to escape death. The common opinion of the Holy Fathers is, that he still lives in some place of rest expressed by the general term of “paradise,” whence he and Elias will come at the end of the world to war with Antichrist, “and he was not found, because God had translated him.” These are the words of Genesis (chap. 5:24), according to the Septuagint, from which the Apostle proves Henoch’s translation. In the Vulgate version of Genesis, by St. Jerome, the words are, “he was seen no more, because God took him.” And that it was owing to faith he was translated, the Apostle proves thus—for, before his translation, the Scriptures testify that he pleased God, “he walked with God,” (Gen. 5:22), and, therefore, pleased Him.

Heb 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God must believe that he is: and is a rewarder to them that seek him.

Now, without faith it is impossible to please God; for, in order to come to God, i.e., to worship and please him, one must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek and serve him (in which it is implied that he punishes those who offend, and disobey him).

But, without faith no one can please God; it was, therefore, through the merits of faith, Henoch pleased him. The Apostle proves that without faith no one can please God; for, in order to please God, a man must approach him, “must come to him,” but no one can approach or come to him, without first believing “that he exists, and that he is a rewarder to them that seek him.” In these latter words, it is implied, that he punishes those who disobey him; the words, “come to God,” mean, to pay him due worship. The Greek for “rewarder,” μισθαποδοτης, means, that God gives a reward due to merit; hence, an argument in favour of the Catholic doctrine of merit, it is a point of faith, that a reward is strictly due to merit. The two articles now referred to were of indispensable necessity for salvation at all times and under every dispensation, the explicit faith in them being a necessary means of salvation. This is clear, from the universal assertion made regarding them by the Apostle without limitation either as to time or place—“it is impossible;” and also from his asserting it in reference to Henoch, who lived long before the written law was given to Moses. In addition to these two articles, the explicit faith in the Trinity and Incarnation, also, is now commonly considered by Divines to be necessary, as they term it, necessitate medii, that is to say, necessary as a means of salvation, after the promulgation of the gospel, so that be the ignorance of them vincible, or invincible, there can be no justification for the sinner; and consequently, no salvation without them; they are necessary means for the justification of a sinner; without them, the end of salvation can, in no case, be secured by adults, requiring justification. From the very creation, God communicated his supernatural knowledge to man by revelation, without which, in the present order of things, the supernatural end cannot be attained. The Gentiles could have the necessary faith, through the primitive revelations made to Adam, which were transmitted among them from father to son. In the above, there is question of responsible beings, attaining the use of reason.

Heb 11:7 By faith Noe, having received an answer concerning those things which as yet were not seen, moved with fear, framed the ark for the saving of his house: by the which he condemned the world and was instituted heir of the justice which is by faith.

It was by faith, that is to say, by his firm reliance on the divine veracity, holding out threats and promises, that Noe, seized with religious awe, after having been admonished by the divine oracle respecting the things still hidden in the womb of futurity, built with great labour, for his own salvation and that of his family, the ark, by which ark built through faith, he sealed the condemnation of an incredulous world, who scoffingly disregarded his preparation against the coming deluge, and was made the abundant participator and inheritor of the justice of faith.

“Concerning those things which as yet were not seen.” This shows that faith is “the evidence of things that appear not,” (verse 1). “Moved with fear,” shows that besides “things to be hoped for,” things to be dreaded also form subjects of faith. “Framed the ark” &c.; the building of the ark, in consequence of its magnitude and the number of its compartments, must have been very laborious; and hence, a great proof of his faith. “By which,” some refer to “faith,” others to “the ark;” it may refer to both; by which ark, built through faith, he condemned by word and work an incredulous world (1 Peter, 3), “and was instituted heir,” i.e., the abundant participator in “the justice of faith,” or, the inheritor of the justice of his fathers, Henoch, Seth, &c., “which is by faith.” This latter interpretation is grounded on the strict signification of the word “heir,” which implies the possession of an inheritance transmitted from father to son. On the last day, those who, with simplicity and with unhesitating faith in God’s promises, work out their salvation in the practice of good works, will condemn the world which scoffs and derides their simplicity. “Nos insensati, vitam illorum estimabamus insaniam,” &c.—(Wisdom, 5:4).

“He that is called.” The Greek copy, followed by the Vulgate, had, ὁ καλουμενος. This is also the reading of the Alexandrian Manuscript. In this reading, allusion is made to the change of name in Abraham (Genesis, 17:3). The article () is omitted in the ordinary Greek copies, and the words are rendered, Abraham, when called, obeyed to go, &c., in which rendering the participle “called,” which in the Greek, is the present tense, receives a past signification. Our reading is, however, the better sustained.


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