Friday, January 14, 2005

Hebrew-Greek Dualism

Lately I have been troubled by discussions that seem to make a distinction among theological ideas and cultural practices as being either “Hebrew” or “Greek”.

It is not the distinction itself that troubles me (see my post on dualistic thinking, below) but the implied preference for the Hebrew over the Greek, which in its full development identifies “Hebrew” with “Biblical”. The categories in this way of thinking are:


The way this usually goes, some idea, practice or concept is being discussed, and the Hebrew-Greek dualist points out that this idea is a Greek or Hellenistic or Western idea, and that if we look at the Hebrew culture, or the Old Testament, or the Judaic culture in which Jesus lived and which we presume He practiced, we find a different or contrasting idea. This latter idea, because it is Hebrew/OT/Judaic, is therefore “Biblical” and to be preferred and emulated in our time.

I see so many problems with this that I hardly know where to begin. As a start, consider:

1. Such a distinction assumes that we can identify which elements of Hebrew culture and thought are prescriptive and which are descriptive or incidental.
2. It assumes likewise that we can tease out of the New Testament the many elements of Greek thought that appear there, and decide which are prescriptive and which descriptive or incidental.
3. Like the Anabaptists, it favors one Testament over the other, with the added problem that the favored Testament is the older (at least the Anabaptists favored the nearer, latest revelations)
4. It undermines the concept of progressive revelation.
5. It undervalues the sovereignty of God in understanding history and revelation.
6. It suggests an anti-Western cultural bias that is no more valid than the pro-Western bias it is reacting against.

It is probably most useful to start with the sovereignty of God. In my understanding, which I believe to be Biblical, all of history unfolds according to His will and toward the fulfillment of His purposes, even in all its detail. Furthermore, He is not a regional God, even during periods in history when His scriptures focus on a particular region. Though not a word about China appears in the scriptures, we have no doubt that His sovereign hand was directing its history as well as Israel’s. Finally, He is not a God only of the Testamental periods, but of all history, down to this moment. His sovereignty, in other words, extends utterly throughout time and space, and no event occurs by chance. (The concept of chance arises only from a combination of our timebound nature and our ignorance of causality and the future, which may amount to the same thing.)

I expect most of my readers to be comfortable with this. Certainly, even those who might be “soft” on God’s sovereignty over every tiny event will grant his sovereignty over the large events in history.

If this is so, then we must consider all of history to be revelatory of our own and God’s nature. This is not to say that it rises to the reliability or specificity of Holy Scripture, but it is to say that it may not be dismissed. It is the same reason we may not place Science over against revelation, as though there were two Truths discovered in different ways. There is one Truth that has many discernible aspects that may be illuminated in different ways.

Those who oppose Hebrew and Greek ideas make this very assumption, but do not carry it all the way through. Think of all the sermons based upon the “inside story” of a particular Hebrew word, or a particular practice in agrarian Hebrew society that is taken to “illuminate” some doctrine or some idea. The assumption is that God knew what He was doing, and chose to set his explicit self-revelation in this particular culture not by accident but by design. We assume that He not only chose Hebrew as the language in which to begin his self-revelation, but also controlled the historical development of Hebrew so it would be suitable for this revelation.

We also understand that the millennia of development of the Egyptian culture prior to the Hebrew immigration and captivity were not accidental, but led up to that particular Pharaoh in that particular Egypt with those particular gods. In our expositions, we love to assign meaning and God’s purpose to what others might see as historical accidents.

But this Hebrew-Greek dualism seems to me to arrest this sovereignty sometime before Alexander the Great. In the latter portions of history, this dualism picks and chooses among historical events as if it knew which were meaningful and which were not.

For example, this view has no problem seeing the Pax Romana as God’s sovereign plan to pave the way for the Gospel’s dissemination. Ironically, it even sees the amazing universality of the Greek language as preparatory for the Gospel. Yet it downplays the culture that gave rise to that language, as if this were a secondary, necessary but regrettable aspect of history that somehow God couldn’t avoid.

Was it simply coincidence that Alexander the Great was a student of Aristotle, who was a student of Plato? Doesn’t that strike anyone as amazingly odd? If there was any pagan figure of Biblical proportion, it was Alexander, conquering the known world—the Biblical lands—in a few short years at an amazingly young age, and then flaming out, disappearing, and leaving the world fundamentally changed. Why couldn’t he have been just a simple conquering barbarian like Nebuchadnezzar or Shalmanezer? Why did he make such a conscious effort to spread Greek thought?

Fact is, God sovereignly changed languages in the intertestamental period, and the language He chose for the NT was one specifically suited for and associated with philosophical discourse and civil government. If we want to find meaning in the Hebrew words and culture of the OT, we must use the same assumptions to find meaning in the Greek words and culture of the New. God’s story moves on, and the New Testament is clearly informed by Greek thought, Greek categories, and Greek/Roman culture. I for one am not at all surprised at the change. The world had changed, and the modern world was arriving. The huge, agrarian mega-Empires of the orient were about to go small and urban. Who knows small and urban better than the Greeks? Is it coincidence that all the western democracies are based on essentially Greek ideas, and a Christian heritage, and the remaining Kingdoms are based upon Old-Testament-style, theocratic near-eastern empires and satrapies?

1 comment:

  1. Joe,
    I assume to a great extent you might be talking about an on-going discussion I am having with Gideon Strauss and Derek Melleby. So I will try to clarify. First, I am sorry for the confusion.
    1. I am not talking about the Greek language of Hebrew language.
    2. I am not talking about Greek culture or some historical word studies regarding Hebrew culture.
    3. In making a distinction between "Greek" THINKING and "Hebrew" THINKING, I am only speaking about epistemology. Also, I am using the terms to gain an audience amongst the liberal side of the emergent movement. My aim is to drive them back to a more modern epistemology. I have yet to let the cat out of the bag. But for you I will. This is how I see it. The Greek academy takes as its subject “ideas” and then after finding what seems to be a foundational idea.

    The “Greeks”, especially Plato, move forward logically using deduction. I do not think in any culture this is a good way to think, and I think that the teachings of Jesus are very clearly against teaching that is idea only. Here is what I mean. The Hebrews emphasized the observable life or what emergent folk call story. Wisdom then is teaching that bears fruit. I will eventually go into more detail but that is the meat of what I mean.

    So, again, sorry for the confusion. I will post this week on the effects of “Greek” educational models and contrast this academic way with other more mentoring education models.

    Be patient. Some of these ideas are in process. I blog to learn. Thanks for the critique. It is valuable for me to know when I have not communicated well.

    God Bless,