Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

Biblical Faith: Hebraic or Hellenic?

Now is the time for Christians to be more Jewish. The church's Hellenic orientation is reaching the end of its spotty course; now is the time to recover the mindset of the Scripture.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
Share this
"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,"says the Preacher (Ecc. 3:1).

Now is the time for Christians to be more Jewish. The church's Hellenic orientation is reaching the end of its spotty course; now is the time to recover the mindset of the Scripture.

This is not meant to imply that Greek thinking did us no good. It did. Nor is it meant to imply that Greek thinking was altogether avoidable. It was entirely unavoidable. The gospel, which was first for the Jew, then for the Greek, had to be "converted" to Greek thought forms if it was to conquer (which it did) a Hellenically-informed world. As Dix noted, Athanasius "[F]inally formulated the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity in the only Greek terms which could fully express Jewish-Christian Messianism and Monotheism while satisfying Greek intellectualism and rationality" (Jew and Greek, p.55). From the moment of the Ascension, the Ecumenical Creeds became inevitable, because the Gentiles, who had theretofore been excluded from citizenship in Israel and who had been foreigners to the covenant, were being brought near through the blood of Christ. As Gentiles were becoming "fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (Eph. 2), they had to hear the Truth in their language.

But the Truth included the following command from St. Paul: "I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking" (Eph. 4:1). The New Israel was to act and think the part. The widespread departure from the Biblical, covenantal, antithetical way of thinking was, in some ways, halted at the Reformation. But the return was far from complete. I submit to you, in condensed form, four arenas of thought which continue to be in need of Reformation (this list is not meant to be exhaustive):

Dynamic vs. Static
Boman sees the difference between Hebrew and Greek thinking "outlined in bold relief by two characteristic figures; the thinking Socrates and the praying Orthodox Jew. When Socrates was seized by a problem, he remained immobile…in deep thought; when Holy Scripture is read aloud in the synagogue, the Orthodox Jew moves his whole body ceaselessly in deep devotion and adoration" (Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p.205). The Greek experiences the world in reflection, the Hebrew in movement.

Boman's contrasting figures are here offered for illustrative purposes only; no one is advocating davening as if it was demanded by the Informed Principle of Worship! (Cf. It is not. The value of the illustration is this: it captures contrasting ways of finding/viewing/living the self in relation to the world. The Greek begins with a presupposition of intellectual independence and ends with the world being subjected to autonomous interpretation. The Jew is looking for his place in a world he did not make and which operates by rules not of his fashioning. You might say the Greek stands still and seeks to take in the world, while the Jew rocks as God's world and Word take possession of him. Better still, the Word takes possession of the Jew as part of a people, never merely as an individual. Which leads, naturally enough, to our second arena.

People vs. Person
While Socrates would like to talk about his conclusions with other human beings, he came to them in isolation. For the Jew this is impossible. It's as wrong to think of self apart from the group as it is to think of a raindrop apart from rain. One is defined, essentially and necessarily, in terms of the other. The ideal in the Greek mind is the lone hero; in the Hebrew mind it is the group: Am Yisroel Chai, the People of Israel Live. Hercules serves himself; David serves God's people. The Bible does not say, "I will be your God, and you will be my person," but "you will be my people." In Acts 2, "about three thousand were added to their number that day," then "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved," and later, "more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number." The word is prostithemi and it means "to add, that is, to join to, to gather with any company." Biblical salvation is inseparable from being joined to the body of Israel. The inability of modern Christians to think an inch beyond their “personal salvation” is a legacy of Greek individualism.

Whole vs. Part
The uncritical and universal embrace of the technology of chapters and verses superimposed upon Scripture has had a devastating effect on the church.Yes, it has facilitated study, learning, and worship, but at a price. We have virtually lost the ability to think of a letter from Paul (for example) as a letter at all. Rather, we regard it merely as a collection of verses, divinely authored, yes, but really and essentially a deposit that was made apart from history, personality or conflict; discrete snatches of words, detached from one another and disconnected from the world.

Yet that is obviously not the way the Bible was given to us. It was more rough and tumble than pretty. And no epistolary “verse” was ever given isolated from a history, a personality, a conflict, or a purpose. This means that “verses” cannot be properly understood apart from contexts, near and far. You can see how closely this problem lines up with the previous problem: Greek individuation has not only rent our conception of self and church; it has torn apart the very idea of the Word (that’s singular) of God and rendered it a series (at best) or a collection (at worst) of sayings, words, formulas, aphorisms, ideas. As one man noted, “The result is that the Word of God appears as a sort of nondescript hodgepodge from which the professional theologian extracts, like a mineral out of its matrix, small but precious bits of knowledge which it is his job to clarify and systematize.” But the Word of God, in the Jewish conception, is not that which man defines, but that which defines man. And it does so in its entirety. We can only read a part at a time, but we must read, hear, and be taken by the whole.

Organic vs. Abstract
For the Greek, the idea of strawberriness was more to be preferred than strawberries. Red, bumpy, juicy, luscious strawberries were merely instances of strawberriness, and it was in the idea, the -ness of a thing, that the immovable, fixed object of faith was to be found. In the end, such thinking makes the Incarnation more than an ideological or metaphysical problem — it becomes a real moral dilemma. It is, to Hellenic thought, a permanent and dangerous justification of "the flesh," i.e., the creation — this world — against the immutable "idea." And on this scheme, the resurrection of the flesh is a positive scandal! But guess what? God was manifest in the flesh.

Man cannot live on strawberriness alone — or at all. He wasn't made to. Nor did God make us to live on propositions which exist without feet. Yet this is precisely the mindset of too many "friends" of the Reformation. They believe the entirety of what God has entrusted to us is discovered in an assent to a set of solas which live, move, and have their being in abstract orbit somewhere above the earth. The notion that God will not, does not, cannot allow that a justifying faith can exist apart from obedient feet, is, to these "friends," altogether anathema — despite what God may say to the contrary. After all, they have their "verses." And, like good Procrusteans, those verses which don't fit their contrived system, are lopped off, to be picked up only in epistemological and ethical emergencies.

It's the Hellenic mindset which explains the comfort these friends have with the radical disconnect between faith and life. So long as your propositions resemble well-behaved ducks in a row, all is well. But the only ducks which stay lined up are dead or wooden. Living ducks move. This is not an argument against order, neatness, system, or truth-in-propositions, per se. It is a rejection of the idea that ideas can exist, in a world created by God, without consequences. No such animal.

Some think the Reformation can only continue among us as we excommunicate anyone failing to submit to our whip, our "cat-o'-five-solas," as it were. But I propose that it can only continue as we seek to complete the partial recovery of Hebrew-mindedness begun at the Reformation. How is it possible for anyone to believe that the number one problem facing the church today is that Christians are trying too hard to obey God? As our young people say, "Hello?!"

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

More by Steve M. Schlissel