The Greek, the Latin and the Hebrew
Dr. James Emery White
- 2014 Jun 19
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?
And when applied to 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; 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 would be concerned with what a thing is for, and whether or not it works. 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 does 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 into the history of ideas and deeper into the cultural current to find 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 cause 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
This blog was updated from its original release in September 2008. James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.