Hellenism vs. Hebraism in our Understanding of Faith and Baptism
July 1, 2013 13 Comments
In Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways Handbook he describes the differences between a Greek/Hellenistic worldview and a Hebraic one like this,
“The Hebrew worldview was a life-oriented one and was not primarily concerned with concepts and ideas in themselves. We simply do not believe that we can continue to try and think our way into a new way of acting; but rather, we need to act our way into a new way of thinking.
How did we move so far from the ethos of discipleship passed on to us by our Lord? The cause lies in Western Christianity being so deeply influence by Greek, or Hellenistic, ideas of knowledge. By the fourth century, in the church the Platonic worldview had almost triumphed over the Hebraic on. Later, it was Aristotle who became the predominant philosopher for the church. He too operated under a Hellenistic framework. Essentially a Hellensitic view of knowledge is concerned about concepts, ideas and the nature of being., The Hebraic on the other hand, is primarily concerned with issues of concrete existence, obedience, life-oriented wisdom, and interrelationship of all things under God. As Jews, Jesus and the early church quite clearly operated primarily out of a Hebraic understanding rather than a Hellenistic one.” – Hirsch, 21
I haven’t done a lot of reading on this distinction so I am trusting he got this right! If he is correct, and knowledge consists of information and experience, then how does that inform our reading of verses pertaining to salvation? I am wondering if this dynamic doesn’t heavily affect our reading of Paul when he writes about being saved by grace through faith,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:8-10
Because of our Western/Hellenistic roots we read that, see the word faith, and automatically reduce it down to believe the right things. In doing so we make faith almost completely about intellectual assent. When we read Paul through that filter we come away thinking anyone who believes Jesus is the Son of God is therefore saved because they believe the right thing. Are we missing something here because we aren’t reading these words through a more Hebraic understanding of knowledge? Also, how do you balance Paul’s Hebrew heritage with his own rhetorical savvy in addressing Gentile audiences? In other words, would Paul have employed a Hellenistic approach to knowledge toward Greeks or would he have tried to bring them over toward a more Hebraic way of thinking on these things? I am not sure we have an answer to that question (I wonder what Ben Witherington would say in response to that?)
Ok…back to the main point. If the Hebrews understood knowledge to include action and experience then things like belief and faith must then be reflected by the way we live. I believe James confirms that in his letter (James 2:18-19). So when it comes to baptism what you have is the natural, Hebraic expression of belief acted and lived out. Our faith takes on legs…not legs that force God to save us but legs that walk with our Savior in humble, imperfect, attempted obedience.
Last, when it comes to whether or not we say someone is a Christian, it is often all boiled down to whether or not they believe the correct things (more the Hellenistic route to knowledge) with little to no evaluation of whether or not the life they are actually living much resembles their head knowledge. I am not so sure the early Christians would have done that. Again, James offers us confirmation on that one too when he writes about what the demons believe in 2:19. It seems that the difference between the demons and us is not about belief…it is more about submission, experience and relationship because when it comes to head knowledge and intellectual assent, they agree with us…God is real and Jesus is the Son of God but choose not to walk in step with Him.
Any thoughts on this?