Hebrew Thinking Vs. Greek Thinking

Hebrew Thinking Vs.
Greek Thinking

THE WAY GOD THINKS

In this article, we look at the core differences between Hebraic values, which animate the Scriptures, and a Greek mentality that undergirds much of Western thought.

Vacuums & Values

Stepping into human history, Jesus fulfilled the first covenant (Matthew 5:17, 18), a covenant that pointed to Him, and in doing so, He established a new covenant described as “a better covenant … established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Before one can fully appreciate these better promises, it’s important to acknowledge that the new covenant was not delivered in isolation or in a vacuum. This is vital information.

Jesus not only fulfilled the first covenant, He embodied God’s values imparted through the Holy Scriptures. “The Word became flesh and He dwelt among us” (John 1:14). These values serve as the essence of Jesus’ message, the worldview He imparted.

Perhaps we could think of this as the melody to which Jesus’ words are written. Without grasping this worldview, we’ll miss the intent or spirit He imparted. We’ll sing His words to the wrong tune.

Vacuums & Values

We don’t hear (or read) words in a vacuum. We either hear words in the context the speaker intends them, or we immediately pull our own context into the void.

We superimpose our assumptions onto the speaker’s words, often distorting the speaker’s intent. Am I suggesting we’ve done this with Jesus’ words? Certainly.

When I read Jesus’ words, I immediately interpret those words. Instantly. Unconsciously. I make assumptions about what He says. I may, for instance, superimpose modern-day idioms on colloquialisms of His day. Worse, I may decipher what He says from an entire worldview that’s inconsistent with the context He spoke. To use our analogy, I may be singing out of tune.

The best way to take cognisance of our disharmony is to simply play the two against each other. Let’s compare the melody of Jesus’ message to the discordant din often sung throughout Christendom, and then explain why and how we’re so tone deaf.

Jesus’ melody was
concrete, practical, earthy, and “down here and right now.”

Christendom’s tune has largely been
abstract, theoretical, ethereal, and “up there and after life.”

For those who have fussed with worldview before, you’ll immediately recognise the dissonance. This is, of course, the classic clash between Hebrew worldview and Greek philosophy.

What is Hebrew Thinking?

Jesus implied that traditions can be more powerful than God’s Word (Matthew 15:6). How can that be? Simply because we interpret (mostly subconsciously) God’s Word by our inherited traditions.

We view God’s Word through “coloured” spectacles. If I wore red-tinted glasses my vision of the world about me would be “tainted” red. Likewise (yet far more ominously), our worldview—inherited traditions or life philosophy or default disposition—taints our view of God and His ways.

Western-world Christianity is unquestionably built on a Greek view of life. While we may have much to thank the Greeks for—God reveals Himself in and through most cultures—the ancient Greek worldview is at fundamental odds with Hebrew thinking on many substantial lines. And the phrase “Hebrew values” captures the worldview God downloaded into His people from the start.

Unless we grasp a Hebrew mindset, we view God and His ways with glasses tainted with Greek philosophy. In other words, we’ll remain entrenched in a Big Fat Greek Mentality. And thus, our essential pictures of “church” and “leadership”—among other things—will be distinctly out of focus.

So, what is Hebrew Thinking?

Hebrew thinking is, in essence, the way God thinks.

You may recall that God chose an upright pagan named Abram, calling him out of his heathen way of life. He made covenant with this man, downloading His heart into him. In this way, God birthed the Hebrew people.

This is an important thought.

God did not just randomly choose a group of people somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula and attempt to indoctrinate them with His Law. Rather He birthed the Hebrew people in His ways through His covenant with Abram. And while not everything Hebraic is “of God”—like all cultures, the Hebrew culture has devolved, of course—the essence of what God birthed into the Hebrew people reflects the way He feels, the way He thinks, the way He views and perceives things … God’s heart and mind.

Bob Mumford reminded us that though the New Testament was written in the Greek language, it was written in Hebrew thought. All of the New Testament authors were Hebrews, except Luke (who was deeply influenced by his Hebrew brothers), and their worldview and related values were Hebrew, not Greek.

Why is this important?

The Importance of Worldview

Our worldview determines the way we feel, the way we think … and ultimately the way we live.

While it is mind-boggling to consider the extent to which Greek philosophy has shaped our modern world, it is not difficult to understand why.

During the 400 years that God seemed silent (between the last prophetic word through the mouth of Malachi to the birth of Christ), a prevailing philosophy shaped the known world. It was during this 400-year period that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle came onto the scene with great force and sway.

By the time the Gospel breached the gap between the Jewish and Gentile world, the Greek centres of learning—formed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle—were well established and Greek philosophy was deeply entrenched in the known world. Yes, the Roman Empire was the dominant framing narrative but Greek philosophy and language remained the shaping mentality.

The Gospel, and the Hebrew-values that gave it context, was always going to come into face-to-face conflict with widespread Greek philosophy.

The reasons Greek philosophy began to usurp Hebrew values were at least two-fold. On the one hand, many early church fathers attempted to reconcile the Gospel with their own Greek bias. While this is an important exercise (and an extremely difficult task, as any missiologist will tell you), it seems to me that rather than renewing their Greek minds to Hebrew values, the opposite transpired. Certainly, this was also in keeping with the slide away from what was an apostolic, organic faith movement towards the Constantine empire-shaped religion that emerged by the fourth and fifth century.

Let’s carefully pick on one godly, early church father.

Augustine was an outstanding follower of Christ and his writings continue to inspire us today. However, he was a disciple of Plato before he was a follower of Christ and by his own admission, he attempted to reconcile the Gospel with his own ingrained Greek philosophy. This is in no way meant to discredit his ministry and influence, only to show how Greek philosophy undermined the Hebrew values that should have given the Gospel context.

On the other hand, the prevailing anti-Semitism that sadly plagued the church through the centuries was another reason we lost connection with our Hebrew roots. During the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of the theologians in the German-speaking world, from which many of our systematic theologies originated, were undoubtedly anti-Semitic and reinforced a Greek worldview in interpreting Scripture. This shaped both our soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).

A Big Fat Greek Mindset

For these reasons, and I’m sure there are many others, our modern world is entrenched in a Big Fat Greek Mindset. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have deeply influenced our modern world; from politics, to our education systems, to business models. In this article, I’ve narrowed my thoughts to the reasons Christianity has been so deeply entrenched in Greek philosophy, as this is where Hebraic values are most critical.

To be clear, there was much beauty and wisdom in ancient Greek culture, and much of that wisdom has helped shape Western world culture for good. I’m certainly not decrying Greek culture as intrinsically bad or advocating for superimposing Hebraic culture on modern-day society.

What is important for us is two-fold. Firstly, Hebrew values help us better contextualise and understand the ways of God as revealed through the Scriptures. In other words, our faith will be richer, deeper and more grounded as a result.

Secondly, Hebrew values help us better flesh out the ways of God as the ekklesia, specifically how we view community and leadership. In other words, our faith communities will better reflect the nature of God.

We certainly see things not as they are, but as we are. As the wisdom writer explained, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

Greek-shaped Thinking

So how does this play out?

In a Greek worldview, community is first and foremost viewed as a legal body: an institution. Hence, leadership consists of those who are the lawmakers and law-keepers of such a legal body: the directors and managers of the institution.

Wearing these glasses, we’ve turned “church” into a religious institution at the expense of our organic apostolic roots. On the one hand, this has led to denominationalism and sectarianism. On the other hand, it has led to business-style, franchise-driven ministries the world over.

Wearing these glasses, we’ve turned leadership into clerical offices that often subjugate the laity, impeding the priesthood of all believers. It’s also led to to CEO-celebrity personalities, succumbing to the consumerist spirit of the age.

Hebrew Values

In stark contrast, the Hebrew worldview understands community as essentially family and leadership as parenthood. Think about this for a moment. Consider just how radically different this simple but revolutionary change in worldview ought to shape our experience of community and ministry.

If we reason from the basis that community is essentially a family (and not an institution) and leadership is essentially parenthood (not directorship), how different would we answer these kinds of questions:

How should a faith community make decisions?

From a Greek perspective, decisions are made by those on top of the pile and their orders must be carried out by those at the bottom. The clergy-laity divide is a direct fruit off the vine of Greek dualism.

But from a Hebrew perspective, the question becomes: How does a healthy family make decisions? The words “inclusive,” “involved,” “listening” and “sharing” are integral as a family attempts to discern God’s heart and mind in finding an answer. Every voice is heard as His will is sought. Spiritual parents help immature members of the family work through their fears and possible juvenile tendencies to interpret the will of God so that the spiritual community can say, “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

How should a faith community resolve conflict?

From a Greek perspective, conflict is to be avoided and “rebels” (defined as those who are anti the organisation) must either be dealt with swiftly, and oftentimes mercilessly, or denied and shunned—so as to avoid corrupting the image or interrupting the progress of the organisation.

But from a Hebrew perspective, the question becomes: How does a loving family resolve conflict? In a family, conflict is not an interruption to life; it is very much part of life. It is through conflict that much growth occurs in the individuals concerned and in the family as a whole. In a family, deliberately resolving conflict is valued over tragically dissolving relationships.

How should a faith community multiply?

From a Greek perspective, church multiplication is often a misnomer. The point for most organisations is to get bigger and bigger as if more bums in the seats and bucks in the plate equal success. For those who do grasp the concept of multiplication, an inbuilt Greek mentality leads one to conclude that division is the answer. Much of the contemporary cell-based church emphasis revolves around dividing a group in two, intending both groups to grow and repeat the exercise. In fact, it has become a precise work of science. (And you’re not allowed to call it division, by the way).

In a family however, division is called “divorce” and if you’ve been part of a cell group that has divided a couple of times, you know that it starts to feel like a divorce after a while. From a Hebrew perspective, the question becomes: How does a family multiply? In a family, parents raise their children into mature adults who can become parents in their own right. In a spiritual family, multiplication happens as “children” become mature “sons,” encouraged to be “parents” in their own right.

RECOMMENDED READING

Where are the Fathers?

Where are the Sons?

Keep Asking the Question

In like manner, we should ask these questions: How does a family meet? How does a family care for each other? How does a family serve together?

As we keep asking, “How does a family…?” we keep community in the context of Hebrew values.

It is my deep conviction, highlighted by the above three questions, that wearing glasses stained by Greek philosophy is one of the juggernaut sinkholes in the church today and results in otherwise wonderful people, bearers of the greatest message in the universe, coming across as arrogant, judgemental and archaic Bible-bashers in an age craving both the message we proclaim and the love-community we offer.

Allow me to clarify the differences again in this table:

  Greek Hebrew
Community Institution/Business Family
Leadership Clerical/Directorship Parenthood

 

It is perhaps obvious that many negative aspects that plague the church today stem from this wrong reference point. Let me just point out two.

First, relationships.

In Greek thinking, structures (and their related systems) are the primary element to make the institution or business function; relationships are at best secondary, and at worst, completely subservient to the enterprise. The result? People are secondary to productivity and are often mere collateral damage if they do not fit in to suit the institution’s aims or the business’ objectives.

In Hebrew thinking, relationships are primary; structures are secondary—and only valid to the degree that they serve our relationships. Our structures ought to be descriptive of our relational life rather than prescriptive of it. People are primary and we are to discern the will of God together in a Spirit-led unity, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2, 3).

It’s worth pointing out at this point that structures are not merely a “necessary evil”. Structures are very important yet distinctly secondary. For example, without my skeletal structure I’d be a useless blob on the floor. However, if you actually saw my skeletal structure jutting through my skin, you’d be horrified and I’d be … well, dead. A skeletal structure exists to serve the growing body; thus, it’s secondary and must be flexible, not rigid. Structures that arise out of the primacy of relationship should likewise remain secondary and flexible, able to change to suit the growth of our relationships.

Second, motivations.

The development of an institutional construct and its power-based leadership structure has, in my opinion, brought about many of the worst atrocities in the history of the church. Even in its simplistic form, it appeals to our ego-driven need for power, seducing many to clutch and strive after a positional place in the system. The statement “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is disheartening yet true—and our institutional church system plays to our base motivations. Enough said.

While the desire to be a spiritual parent can also be abused, with no institutional ladder to climb, a Hebrew mindset of family and parenthood conveys more the idea of responsibility and godly duty than power and indulged privilege. A fear of the Lord and a spirit of selflessness underscore the notion of spiritual parenthood; the temptation towards self-promotion and self-advancement dissipates in the context of spiritual family.

Renewing our minds to the Hebrew value of spiritual family and parenthood, effectively putting the pin into our Big Fat Greek Mentality, gives birth to a context for life-giving authority and missional community. Without this overhaul of heart and mind, we’ll continue to fly the flag of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Empire-building, top-down leadership and self-serving, ingrown community will be all we’re capable of.

Greek Vs. Hebrew Comparison

For further reflection, here are a few more comparisons between a Greek and Hebrew worldview…

  Greek Hebrew
Worldview Dualistic Holistic
Emphasis Nouns Verbs
Language Prose & Outlines Poetry & Imagery
Thinking Abstract, Ideas & Logic Concrete, Pictures & Stories
Success Knowledge Wisdom
Ethics Individual Rights Community Responsibilities
Community Legal Body (Organisation) Family
Leadership Directors/Managers Parenthood
Ministry Centralised Cooperative

 

To again be clear, this is not to decry ancient Greek culture or bash the contribution made by Greek philosophy to our modern day. There’s everything right with nouns and prose and outlines. Nothing at all wrong with ideas and logic and knowledge. Individual rights are very, very important, and without legal bodies, well run organisations and competent directors and managers, society wouldn’t work.

However, when these values essentially define our faith, our faith communities and our leadership and ministry styles, we lose something precious and vital about who we are and what we do.

When we properly define these things by a Hebrew (Biblical) worldview, we can better advance the Kingdom into mind-moulding spheres of societal influence. For example, we can value knowledge but contend for wisdom, which is knowledge correctly applied. We can champion individual rights in the context of community responsibility.