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A New Reformation?
Moses and Arisstotle
"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.

Examples of the Contrast Between Greek and Hebrew Thought Patterns

Let us cite several examples of the contrast that exists between the two modes of thought:

1. 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 their message.

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.

2. Dynamic and Static. In his book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek,1 Thorliff Bowan says:

    If Israelite 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, 1961).

The whole manTo 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?" The Tree of Knowledge

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.

PlatoThe Grecian Influence on the Christian Church

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 [1940], 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 earthly good.

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.

Zechariah 9:13The 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. — pp.413,414.

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., p.1234.

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. cit, p.19.

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.