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The first century church was established by Jesus and the original apostles. When they passed from the scene, a second generation of leaders arose whose worldview was Hebrew.
I say Hebrew, rather than Jewish, in order to distinguish between Christ’s understanding of the law from the traditions of men in popular Judaism. The traditions of men were the understanding of the rabbis, much of which synchronized with Christ’s own teaching, but in some key areas also differed with Him.
So I use the term Hebrew view to describe one’s view of the law and prophets that aligns with Jesus’ own view. I normally use the term Jewish to describe a popular view in Judaism that contradicts Jesus’ teaching. That is, of course, an inadequate definition for general use, because much in Judaism itself was also Hebrew, even by my own definitions. Much of rabbinic teaching was genuine truth. Nonetheless, I would be reluctant to put Jesus into the camp of Judaism, if for no other reason, Judaism rejected Jesus as the Messiah. By demanding His crucifixion and by persecuting His followers thereafter, they specifically distinguished themselves from the new way that later came to be known as Christianity.
It is clear from history that the religious leaders of Judaism violently opposed the Christians, and if it had not been for Roman intervention in those early days, the Christians might have been but a small footnote in Jewish history. Not only the book of Acts but their own writings reflect this hostility. The plain fact is that the violent conflict between Jews and Christians started with Jewish persecution—not the other way around. If Judaism had been open-minded enough to embrace alternative views, the church might have remained a sect of Judaism, and the conflict may have been limited to doctrinal disputes.
In later years, after the church was given power and influence in the government of Rome, Christians often took vengeance on Jews in characteristically unchristian ways that Jesus never condoned. The abused son became the abuser, as so often happens, perpetuating the problem instead of making the world a better place.
Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit’s power and demonstration largely died out by the second century, leaving the majority of Christians in a state of carnality. Christianity became a religion rather than a way of life. Christian teaching shifted its focus from identifying with the “new man” to improving or reforming the “old man,” hoping that the flesh would qualify to receive the inheritance of sons. Such is the character and goal of religion.
The Greek Worldview
Even as Judaism was based on law as the standard of perfection, Greek culture was obsessed with the root idea of “the perfect man” through its own philosophies. Classical Greek art and beautiful sculpture set forth their ideal body forms. Philosophies sought wisdom to perfect their spiritual souls, as they called them, so that they might attain their place among the fixed stars.
These ideas were rooted in the culture itself, and their Hellenism even affected Judaism itself, particularly the Sadducees. Greek wisdom originated in the souls of men, which they mistakenly believed to be spiritual. Hebrew wisdom originated with God via Moses (Deuteronomy 4:6), but few had the capacity to receive it with spiritual eyes and ears, so it was interpreted by the carnal, soulish mind of rabbis, who, though often brilliant and educated, fell short of the divine truth.
Neither group appears to have had a firm grasp of the difference between soul and spirit. Certainly, no Old Testament book presented a clear teaching on the subject. The Apostle Paul presented an alternative to both Jewish and Greek teaching by telling us that true wisdom came from “the spirit of the man” within (1 Corinthians 2:11). One’s spirit, enlightened by the Holy Spirit that indwells our temple, has begotten a new man through whom true revelation of the wisdom of God is imparted and passed on, to some degree, to the willing soul.
The Church’s Adoption of the Greek Worldview
Because the Church was persecuted in Judea and Jerusalem, the apostles and many other believers fled to other parts of the empire. The Greeks soon made up the majority of the Church. Without adequate teaching, it did not take long for them to overwhelm Paul’s tripartite view of man’s nature as well as his contrast between the old man and the new man. Though Paul laid down all the foundations of the truth of Sonship, this truth was one of the first to be lost in the torrent of Greek thought patterns.
In the second and third centuries, it was common for Church leaders to evangelize the Greeks by adapting Christianity to Greek culture and its philosophers. To be sure, they presented Jesus and the apostles as superior to the philosophers, but nonetheless, they emphasized their similarities rather than their differences. Some of this was positive, of course, for we can always learn from others, regardless of their viewpoints. But the downside was that they soon interpreted Paul through Greek lenses, which hid some key elements of Pauline teaching.
It has only been in recent decades that theologians have begun to explore the Hebrew roots of the Church, perhaps coinciding with the modern Zionist movement which drew attention to this problem. Unfortunately, much of the shift has been toward Jewish roots rather than toward Hebrew roots, since many have not recognized the difference. Hence, the alternative to the Hellenism has often been a form of Christian Judaism. Many churches have thus reverted, not only to a study of the divine law but to Old Covenant applications of the law.
When combined with the Dispensationalist view of prophecy in its classic form, the future Kingdom is usually presented to us in Old Covenant terms, complete with animal sacrifices performed by Levitical priests in an earthly temple. This reversion to Judaism (with Jesus added to it as an appendage) has again raised the problem of Judaization that Paul strenuously opposed. Such churches have not fully appreciated the third alternative given in Paul’s writings. The result is that while they may have been dehellenized, they have become Judaized. They have yet to discover the real distinction between soul and spirit, old and new man, and the basis of Sonship.
On September 12, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech to the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he had previously served as a professor of theology. He bemoaned the “dehellenization” of Christianity and praised pagan Greek philosophers, even so far as equating the ideas of Socrates to God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush. He said, in part,
“Biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.”
(Faith, Reason, and the University, Memories and Reflections, quoted in The God of Jesus, by Kegan A. Chandler, pp. 269, 270)
In this, he openly admits that the Greek philosophers played an important role in developing Church theology. This would not have been a problem if the church leaders had had a firm grasp of Pauline theology. But because they did not understand Paul, they allowed the pagan Greek philosophers to define Paul’s terms. They should have understood that Paul was using Greek terms to express Hebrew equivalents that had been set forth in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Religious Creeds vs. Spiritual Revelation
In the expulsion of the church from Judea into a Greek arena, much was lost in translation. At the forefront was the loss of some core Christian concepts such as how to become a son of God. This problem, in turn, led to a wider problem in their attempt to understand the nature of THE Son of God, Jesus Christ. From the fourth century onward, the church struggled to understand and to express how Jesus was both Son of God and Son of man. Frankly, they never could resolve this, although their creeds were enforced by the power of the state and dissenters were threatened with excommunication, death, and even torture.
But truth that needs such enforcement is hardly self-evident or even understandable to the average person. When the precise wording of creeds became unintelligible to the masses—and even to the bishops and scholars themselves—the people were told to accept the creeds by faith and not to use reason. Hence, Christianity soon became a mystery religion, having secrets that only the religious superiors could hope to know. But controversies still remained among the church leaders even unto this day.
Perhaps if they had understood Paul’s dissertation in the second chapter of First Corinthians about the source of true wisdom, they would have elevated men who were spiritually minded rather than soulish men who were merely religious. Their actions speak for themselves. Historians of all denominations have looked back on those tumultuous times with horror, as ambitious bishops, motivated by their jealousy to maintain power, perpetrated unspeakable atrocities upon their opponents. Men were killed for failing to confess the precise wording of creeds that were determined by majority vote, even when majority votes were obtained by threats or bribery.
Paul defines carnality and spiritual immaturity in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3,
1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?
Are we, then, to accept such creeds from these church councils as if “God moves in mysterious ways,” using carnal men, by virtue of their religious title, to reveal divine truth? Personally, I believe it is better to believe God than religious men. I am hopeful that at the second coming of Christ, we will have a new beginning. In fact, I believe that the church creeds will be swept away, and real truth will remain standing.
For that to happen, we need someone of sufficient stature to establish truth, to make it understandable, and to make the Unknown God knowable again. Such truth will be proven by its peaceable fruit of righteousness. Moses had problems in his day, but for the most part he had sufficient stature to command the respect of the Israelites—even when they rebelled against him. Jesus Christ, too, had problems in His day, but most Christians give Him honor (or at least lip service), even if they rebel against His teaching.
We need another appearance of Christ to settle matters of truth and to bring the Kingdom to a new level in the age to come. For my part, I will be asking Him for a full dissertation on the path to Sonship, so that all will know how to become a son of God.