A New Reformation?
"New Reformation Aborning?" This was the anxious and hopeful question raised by the editor of Christianity Today, October 26, 1973. Wrote he:
It is a dark, depressing day. But the first Reformation sprang from just such a climate. There may be a new Reformation aborning somewhere, perhaps in some obscure place, that will erupt suddenly and dramatically. . . . Let's pray for a 'revival of true religion from its primitive sources.'
The primitive source for this new Reformation is the Word of God. The Word of God was communicated to us through Hebrew people. The Hebrews had a unique way of thinking and speaking. Our culture today is quite different, and even our way of thinking is sometimes quite different. Consequently we do not always appreciate the true force of words and concepts that are presented by those who wrote the Bible. We may read the words which these inspired men wrote, but we all tend to filter the words through the framework of our own culture, traditions and theological presuppositions. Sometimes we may have to scrape away the accretions of centuries so that the plain words of the Bible, in the framework in which these words were written, can speak to us in their primitive power.
In recent years a
number of scholars throughout the world have done some valuable
work in the area of Greek and Hebrew thought. They have drawn
attention to the striking contrast between the two modes of
thought. This is of great interest to every student of the
Bible. Even though the New Testament was written in Greek,
we must not suppose that it always expresses the typical forms
of Greek thought. We must remember that the writers (with the
possible exception of Luke) were Hebrews. The apostles' native
language was Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to
Hebrew. But above all, the New Testament has its roots in the
Hebrew Old Testament and bears the unmistakable impress of
the Hebraic mind.
of the Contrast Between Greek and Hebrew Thought Patterns
Let us cite several
examples of the contrast that exists between the two modes
Concrete and Abstract. There seems to be
a general agreement among scholars that the Hebrew manner
of thinking and writing tends to be very concrete, while
the Greek tends to be more abstract. For instance, when
the apostle John says, "Sin is the transgression of
the law" (1 John 3:4), he writes in Greek, but the
thought form is Hebrew. To the Hebrew, righteousness and
sin were very concrete things. God had made known His will
and given His law. Righteousness meant conformity to the
law, and sin was nonconformity to the law. That is the
concrete framework out of which the Bible writers give
The Greeks, on the
other hand, were more inclined to speak of sin in an abstract
way, and even though what they said might sometimes be true,
sin could mean a great variety of things to a variety of people.
Dynamic and Static. In his book, Hebrew
Thought Compared with Greek,1 Thorliff Bowan says:
thinking is to be characterized it is obvious first to call it
dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive
in kind; corresponding Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate,
and harmonious in kind. . . . To the person to whom the Greek
kind of thinking occurs plainly as ideal, Hebrew thinking and
its manner of expression appear exaggerated, immoderate, discordant
and in bad taste. — p.25.
To the Hebrew, life
is activity and motion. Jehovah is the God who is constantly
acting in history.
For the Israelite
the true reality was action and movement, and the inactive and
motionless was no reality at all. . . . Time is not an empty
vanity, but a scene of meaningful action. — James Barr, The
Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford University Press,
To the best Greek
philosophy, reality was that which was beyond activity and
motion, and was therefore something static and unchanging.
Now let us see how
these two modes of thinking can affect our understanding of
the Bible. Take for example the word "hear." Someone
has pointed out that when you think of the rabbi reading the
Scriptures, you must visualize him walking up and down in the
synagogue as he reads. On the other hand, you must picture
the Greek in a static, contemplative mood. When the Bible commands
us to "hear" the Word of the Lord, we must not get
the impression that we are simply being urged to make it the
subject of contemplative meditation. It means that we are to
responsively listen and act upon it. That is the Hebrew way
of thinking. When Peter preached the gospel in the home of
Cornelius, the record states, ". . . the Holy Ghost fell
on all them which heard the Word." Acts 10:44. Obviously
the "hearing" involved more than submitting Peter's
message to contemplative consideration.
The same thing may
be said about "faith." When the New Testament is
read in the context of the Old Testament and the Hebraic mind,
faith means much more than a nod of assent. Read Hebrews 11
for instance, and see how the apostle associates dynamic action
with faith. Believing (in the true sense) without action, faith
without works, is inconceivable; indeed, as James declares,
it is no faith at all. Faith cannot be reduced to a mere intellectual
process. As Luther declared, ". . . it is a living, energetic,
active, mighty thing, this faith."
The Hebrew concept
of "remember" is also to be understood dynamically.
When God saw the affliction of the Hebrews in Egypt, the Bible
says, "God heard their groaning, and God remembered His
covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." Ex.
2:24. This certainly does not mean that the crisis of the Israelites
jogged God's memory. To "remember" actually means
that God was "ready to take action." Of great Babylon,
it says in the Revelation, "God hath remembered her iniquities." Rev.
18:5. Although this is written in Greek, it certainly conveys
the Hebrew sense of action. God acts against the sins of Babylon
and punishes her. When the Bible tells the penitent that God
will not remember his sins, it means that God will not take
action against him on account of them.
3. Wholistic and Dualistic
In Greek thought man is seen as a duality, with an immortal soul imprisoned or confined in a mortal body; the two are only temporarily or accidentally related. In Hebrew thought the "soul" and "flesh" are not separable, but one is the outward and visible manifestation of the other. — Bowan, op. cit, p.12.
It makes a lot of difference whether we think the body is a prison or a "temple of the Holy Ghost." 1 Cor. 6:19. Socrates faced death calmly because of his faith in his own immortal soul. The apostles exhorted believers to put their faith in their life which was hidden in Christ (Col. 3:2-4), and they comforted the bereaved with the hope of the resurrection. Our anthropology and eschatology will not be Biblical if we read the Bible with Greek glasses.
4. Relational and Ontological. It is very characteristic of the Bible to think about the value of things relationally, whereas the Greek mind tends to value a thing on the basis of its own inherent quality. Since the very gospel itself is at stake here, we will spend some time explaining the vital difference and looking at some concrete examples.
a. Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of a certain tree in the midst of the Garden, but when Eve examined the tree on the basis of its own inherent quality, she was convinced it was "good for food." Gen. 3:6. This shows us that a thing does not have to be inherently "poisonous" to bring us the curse of death. In the case of the forbidden fruit, the only thing that made it sin was the Word of God. So it is not sufficient that we judge a thing or a deed by the sight of our eyes or by the hearing of our ears. We must first ask, "How does it stand in relation to the Word of God?"
b. The same principle often holds true for
things which are declared to be holy. The first time that the
Bible declares anything to be holy is found in Genesis 2:1-3:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished,
and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended His
work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from
all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day,
and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all
His work which God created and made.
No quality in the day set it apart as holy any more than any
special quality in the tree of knowledge set it apart as evil.
The Hebrews were not commanded to regard the Sabbath as holy
as if God had done some great work on that day. (In fact, Genesis
2 says He did not work on the seventh day.) Then why was it holy,
and why the command to "keep it holy"? Ex. 20:8. Simply
because God's Word declared it holy.
The same thing may be said about the holy vessels of the tabernacle. They were made of clay, brass and various other material. The material itself was not holy. The vessels were holy because they were related to the tabernacle and to the service of the Lord. The Israelites were a holy people, not because they were ontologically better than Hittites or Egyptians, but because the covenant set them apart as belonging to God.
c. This brings us to the Biblical concept of man's value. The Greeks looked at man ontologically and declared that he was valuable because, as they said, he had within him a spark of divinity—an innate, death-proof entity called the immortal soul. The Bible sees man as valuable because he stands related to God by creation and to Jesus Christ by redemption. In fact, man is considered precious, not because of some great value within, but by a great value without. He has been bought by the blood of Calvary's cross.
Mephibosheth was a derelict cripple, yet he was precious to David because he was related to Jonathan. One woman thought so little of a child that she was willing to have Solomon divide him with the sword. To the other woman he was exceedingly precious because she was his mother. The preciousness was not in the child but in the eye of the mother. This illustrates how value is often determined relationally.
d. This relational principle is crucial when we come to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of faith which is offered to us in the gospel is not a quality in us but is a righteousness which is credited to us by faith-union with Christ. The believer stands before God with perfect righteousness, but that perfection which the believer enjoys is not ontological but relational. God deals with the believer on a relational basis, and there is no other way he can stand approved at God's judgment seat.
When we look to the cross on which the Son of God
died, we may see how God treats a man according to
his relational position rather than his personal
qualifications. Jesus Christ was righteousness personified,
but when He identified Himself with sinners, God
treated Him as a sinner. It is now our privilege
to identify ourselves with Christ and be treated
as righteous. It is not who we are, but who we are
related to, that determines our eternal destiny.
..... he that receiveth a righteous man in the name
of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's
reward." Matt. 10:41. "For as by one man's
disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience
of One shall many be made righteous." Rom. 5:19.
The Grecian Influence on the Christian
Grecian philosophy is man at his philosophical best. Plato represents the acme of Greek intellectual life. W.F. Albright thinks that no real advance in human thinking has taken place since the golden age of Greece in the fifth century B.C. (W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity , p.83). A.N. Whitehead calls the last 2500 years "footnotes to Plato."
Greece figures largely in Bible prophecy. According to Zechariah 9:13 Greece is the great enemy of the people of God. This is corroborated by some of the prophecies of Daniel. It seems that these Bible prophecies are not just talking about ancient Greece as a nation, but Greece which represents the acme of human wisdom.
The early church suffered a "falling away" from the faith and purity of the apostolic period. Church historians are generally agreed it was largely due to a seductive leavening of Grecian concepts, a sort of marriage" between Christianity and Grecian philosophy. For several centuries Plato was the philosophical authority of the church's leading thinkers. "The mental decline which clearly sets in at the beginning of the Middle Ages coincides with the rising authority of Aristotle." — Bowan, op. cit., p.53.
As the church came more and more under the influence of Greek philosophical thought, theology was greatly affected — namely:
1. As Greek thought tends toward
the abstract, medieval theology developed into a labyrinth
of abstractions and hair-splitting distinctions. The
common people could not longer understand the faith,
so they left it to the hierarchy of the church to define
doctrine and mediate to God for them.
2. Faith lost its dynamic Biblical
meaning and came to be regarded as an intellectual
assent to the doctrines of the church. "Works
no longer coming after it, behoved to be placed beside
it, and the doctrine that man is justified by faith
and by works gained a footing in the church." —
J.H. Merle D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation
of the Sixteenth Century, Vol.1, p.28.
3. Under the influence of Greek dualism,
the church lost its eschatological hope, for instead
of looking to the coming of Christ and the resurrection,
it placed its hope in the continuation of life after
death by virtue of the immortal soul. Men began to
hope in their going rather than in Christ's coming.
So too, the Biblical teaching on "flesh" and
spirit was read with the glasses of Greek dualism.
Men thought that "flesh" referred to the
activities of man's "lower" nature — things
such as eating, drinking and sexuality. And "spirit" was
taken to mean the activities of man's "higher" nature—things
such as meditation, prayer and other religious activities.
In this framework celibacy was considered better than
marriage, fasting better than eating, and pious meditation
in a monastery better than secular work. Men became
so "heavenly" minded that they were of little
4. Above all, the church lost the
heart of the gospel when it lost the relational way
of Biblical thinking. Theologians put on their Greek
glasses and saw the whole process of salvation only
in an ontological way. When they read the word "grace," they
understood it to mean a quality which God puts within
men's hearts instead of simply taking it to mean a
quality in the heart of God. When they read "the
righteousness of faith," they understood it to
mean the renewal of the heart by the Holy Spirit instead
of the vicarious obedience of Jesus Christ. "Justify" no
longer meant "to declare righteous" and was
read as if it meant "to make righteous." "Impute" became "infuse." The
great relational truths of the gospel were converted
into ontological concepts, and men groveled in their
own religious internalism.
The Reformation as a Recovery of Biblical Thinking
The Reformation of the sixteenth century was, in many respects, a revolt against the Aristotelian and Platonic thought patterns which had such a strangle hold on the church. The Reformers partially, if not fully, recovered the Hebraic, or Biblical, way of thinking. This was especially true of Luther, who unleashed a terrific assault against medieval scholasticism. The thinking of the Reformers was more Hebraic than Greek in the following ways:
1. Anselm had done some great work on the doctrine of the atonement in the eleventh century. He argued for the necessity of the atonement on the grounds of the holiness of God's nature, and in this made a great contribution. But he still left the doctrine largely in the realm of the abstract. The Reformers were the first men since the apostles to concretely relate the atonement to the law of God. Says Dr. George Smeaton:
A further explanation of truth was reserved for the Reformation, by penetrating more deeply into the nature of the divine Law than was ever discovered by the great scholastic. What his theory wanted, indeed, was a full recognition of the claims of the divine law, and of the atonement as a satisfaction of these claims in all their breadth and extent....Previous theories wanted a full recognition of the claims of the divine law, and of the atonement as a satisfaction of these claims in all their extent; and this became the element in which the theology of the Reformation moved, and by which all other truth was coloured. . . . Their main position, to which they were conducted by deeper views of the extent of the law and of its unbending claims, was that Christ's satisfaction was perfectly identical with that which men should themselves have rendered; and in the atonement they read off the unalterable claims of the divine law. — George Smeaton, The Atonement According to Christ and His Apostles. Republished by Sovereign Grace Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
2. Luther's concept of "flesh" and "spirit" was a brilliant recovery of the wholistic Hebraic way of thinking. He understood "flesh" to mean the whole man without the Spirit, and "spirit" to mean the whole man who is guided by the Spirit. Thus the most devout religious activity could be called "flesh," and the most corporeal or secular activity could be called "spirit." This exploded the whole system of medieval piety.
The Reformer did not have any time for the medieval
concept of immortality. Says Paul Althaus in The
Theology of Martin Luther:
The hope of the early church centered
on the resurrection on the Last Day. It is this which
first calls the dead into eternal life (1 Cor. 15;
Phil. 3:20f.). This resurrection happens to the total
man and not only to the body. Paul speaks of the
resurrection not of "the body" but of "the
dead." This understanding of the resurrection
implicitly understands death as also affecting the
total man. . — Thus the original biblical concepts
have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic Gnostic
dualism. The New Testament idea of the resurrection
which affects the total man has had to give way to
the immortality of the soul. The Last Day also loses
its significance, for souls have received all that
is decisively important long before this. Eschatological
tension is no longer strongly directed to the day
of Jesus' coming. The difference between this and
the hope of the New Testament is very great.
. . . the decisive New Testament
insights reappear in Luther and once again
become the dominating elements in his thinking.
4. Above all, the Reformation was a recovery of
the heart of the gospel, which proclaims salvation
through a relational righteousness that is accepted
by faith. Said Luther:
Christian righteousness is not a righteousness
that is within us and clings to us, as a quality
or virtue does, that is, something that is found
to be part of us or something that is felt by us.
But it is a foreign righteousness entirely outside
us, namely, Christ Himself.. . — What Luther
Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass, Vol.3, p.1230.
The entire world is scrambling after
personal righteousness and does not want to be saved
by a righteousness that is foreign. This is the devil!
For God has made a different arrangement. Our Adam
is tickled only by personal righteousness. — Ibid.,
The Situation Today
The same humanistic influences that worked in the
early church have made their mark on the Protestant
movement. Instead of going on from the Reformers
to a more complete recovery of Biblical thought,
there has been a going back. We must not underestimate
the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology.
For instance, Bowan maintains that "for centuries
in English universities there has been a living Platonic
philosophical tradition which has also had a great
influence upon English theology." — Bowan, op.
The evangelical wing of the church is often just
as guilty of reading the Bible with Grecian glasses
as the liberals. In fact, sometimes the liberal scholars
are more aware of the problem and are candid enough
to admit it. Sometimes we evangelicals are so obscurantist
that we imagine it would be blasphemy even to question
any of our Grecian theology.
If we are ever going to participate in a new Reformation,
we will have to take off our Greek glasses and read
the Bible in its Hebraic framework—concrete, dynamic,
wholistic and relational. In that day will God fulfill
His Word to His people:
I will raise
up thy sons O Zion, Against thy sons, O Greece,
And make thee as the sword of a mighty man.
See Zech. 9:13.
1 SCM Press,
London. Published in 1954 in German and 1960 in English.