The Greek, the Latin, and the Hebrew
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2008 Sep 02
At the risk of gross over-simplification, there are three primary ways of looking at reality, at least among those of us who reside in the West. Each is deeply important to grasp.
First, there is the Greek way, which is largely descriptive and explanatory. The Greek way of looking at the world has an emphasis on rationality. Aristotle, for example, felt that once you defined a thing, you had exhausted its essence. When you approach something with Greek questions, you tend to be searching for shape and substance and definition. So one might approach “water,” and ask “What is water?” “What does it look like?” “What does it feel like?”
A second way of looking at reality could be termed the Latin way, which is primarily concerned with method. A Latin question would ask, “how does this work?” So in terms of theology, a Latin question might be, “How is one saved?”
Greek and Latin questions form the currency of much of our thinking, including how we approach the Bible. The problem is that you can’t always ask Greek or Latin questions of the world – and certainly not of the Bible, namely because it’s not a Greek or Latin book. The New Testament might have been written in Greek, but except for aspects of the apostle John’s strategy in the fourth gospel, it was not written from a Greek philosophical orientation.
Which brings us to a third way of approaching reality – the Hebrew way. The Hebrew mind was concerned with what a thing is for, and does it work. Matters of use, utility and value were paramount. This is why you can read all four gospels of the life and teaching of Jesus, and never once find a physical description of Jesus. To the Hebrew mind, it simply wasn’t important. So when the Old Testament says that an angel visited, the question was not "What did he look like," but "What does he want us to do?"
One of the great challenges for many readers of the Bible is that we often come to its pages with Greek and Latin questions that the Bible simply doesn’t answer, because it’s not a Greek or Latin book. It is a Hebrew book and framed from a Hebrew mindset. So when we read Genesis, and want to know how God created the world, we are never told. The narrative simply tells us that God did it, and that it was good.
There is much being written about the modern and the postmodern; between enlightenment assumptions, and those that reject such moorings. Perhaps we might find firmer footing if we went back further in the history of ideas and deeper in the cultural current to what has most shaped the West: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew approaches to reality.
Doing so would highlight two very important challenges: first, helping those who ask Greek and Latin questions of the Christian faith to grapple with what will inevitably be deeply Hebrew answers; and second, to extricate ourselves from giving Greek and Latin answers to those who are wrestling with deeply Hebrew questions. In more ways than we might realize, this may be what truly lies at the heart of much of our current cultural impasse.
Both challenges, if not met, can allow us to miss engaging culture and those within it at their point of greatest need.
Which is, in itself, a deeply Hebrew concern.
James Emery White