22 February 2010

"Greek Thought" vs. "Hebrew Thought"?

I’ve been greatly enjoying James Jordan’s book, Creation in Six Days. I find that he interacts well with the articles he is critiquing, and explains his position clearly and effectively. My favorite chapter so far has been “Gnosticism Versus History,” in which he takes on the tendency of people in the modern Church to want to make the Bible a collection of universal truths or categorical statements that can then be collated into a systematic theology: an excellent lesson that we all need to learn.

However, I also find in this chapter a category distinction that is both inaccurate and unhelpful in the discussion. He continually attacks “Greek philosophy” for its tendency to downplay the physical aspects of the world and desire all knowledge in the form of universal prepositional truths. This is opposed to the more “Jewish” way of thinking that involves the unfolding of covenant history in real time with real people. Jordan asserts that this leads to a devaluing of the physical aspects of the Christian faith, particularly the sacraments, and also has made it easier for Christian theologians to reject the literal historicity of the creation account in Genesis.

He is absolutely correct in his observation that this sort of thinking has permeated the Church and needs to be confronted with a more earthy, incarnational Christianity. Peter Leithart does a great job driving home this same point in his book Against Christianity. However, and I know this is not what Jordan intended, it appears that he is speaking against systematic theology per se, rather than stating that our systematics must be wholly subject to biblical theology.

While I agree with all this, I think his categories are a bit off. When someone condemns “Greek philosophy,” I always wonder which particular Greek philosophy he is talking about? Is he referring to the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, or some other philosopher? Is he referring to the philosophical school of the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Peripatetics, the New Academy, etc.? There is an amazing array of diversity within “Greek philosophy,” and large unqualified statements about it are unhelpful on the whole. Likewise, the more incarnational “Jewish thought” that is considered to be the ideal is a bit of a misnomer. Wasn’t the author of The Wisdom of Solomon a Jew? He alludes to reincarnation and the pre-existence of the soul, neither of which are very world-affirming beliefs. One will say, though, “See, the author of Wisdom is engaging in ‘Greek thought.’” But this is circular reasoning. One cannot simply define a certain way of thinking as “Greek” and then apply it to anyone, Jew or Greek, who practices it. Or, for that matter, one cannot simply define a certain way of thinking as “Hebrew” and then apply it to anyone, Jew or Greek, who practices it. To do so would be to engage in that very focus on ideas over incarnation that Jordan warns about. History is made up of people, not ideas.

In the New Covenant, when the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, we should expect that the Church would take on a flavor that is not purely Jewish. There is no problem with this. It should also not surprise us to find that God, through common grace, has revealed truth to the Greeks that may not have been fully developed in the Hebrew world. The Hebrews were given the oracles of God. They were not given exhaustively all knowledge of all things in the entire universe. There is nothing wrong with universal truths or systematic theology, as long as they retain their proper place, under the judgment of Holy Scripture. If a systematic “universal truth” causes one to be unable to use Biblical language (ex. “Baptism now saves you”) then the systematic needs to change to fit the incarnational reality that God has revealed to us in the Church and among His people. This however, does not call for a rejection of “Greek logic” or systematic thinking in general.

Overall, this is just a nitpick in an otherwise wonderful book, and a nitpick that I would have with a good number of evangelical books today. To summarize my point, it behooves us to reject false dichotomies and accept the truth willingly wherever we may find it be it from the writings of a Greek philosopher or from the weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper. As long as proper priorities are kept, there is no reason a Christian cannot journey from Jerusalem to Athens and receive what of value he can find there."

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