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Why Christians Need to Understand Hebraic Thought

In this post, Dru Johnson, author of the course Introducing Hebraic Thought: a Biblical Philosophy of Truth, explains what Hebraic thought is—and why we must relearn how to read Scripture and allow the biblical authors to shape our understanding of everything.

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Many problems I faced as a pastor resulted from people failing to understand and apply the full teaching of Scripture. They didn’t seek consistency between their thought and action (too many times, I don’t either). They would cling to false caricatures of theology (e.g., the goal is for our souls to get into heaven) and twist them to justify their preselected life choices. The most obvious symptom was withdrawal from the Christian community (other than worship services) or appropriating church activities for their own ends.

I wish I’d had the words as a young pastor to tell them, as I would now, that the biblical authors thought and taught about the principles undergirding their life choices: their crypto-currency investments, their social activism, their “passion for helping nonprofits tell their stories.”

But do we care about what the biblical authors taught? Did the biblical authors have thoughts relevant to our social activism, crypto-currency, and passionate branding?

What is Hebraic thought?

Even in their ancient context, [the biblical authors] certainly gave us a sufficiently robust teaching on topics that should guide our thoughts and actions today. I call this teaching “Hebraic thought,” which begins in the Pentateuch and extends into the thinking of Jesus and the apostles. We must relearn to read Scripture, becoming literate in its thinking so that we can become fluent and embody its teaching today (test your Bible literacy with this short 22-question quiz). If we don’t, we’ll end up just regurgitating the answers and tactics from whatever philosophical water we swim in.

Instead, we should dive into Scripture’s unique world of Hebraic thought, allowing the biblical authors to shape our understanding of everything from deep personal happiness (see Jonathan Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher) to the Hebraic nature of scientific inquiry (see my book Biblical Knowing).

Why should Christians study Hebraic thought?

In short, Scripture is an intellectual tradition. It’s more than that, but not less. One helpful example of the need to study Hebraic thought beyond traditional Bible study is the problem of incarceration in the United States. The United States incarcerates more people now than ever (triple the amount from the 1970s) and, according to the US State Department, more citizens than any other country in the world. The numbers are staggering, especially if they relate to the commercial interests of the privately run prison industry as some have argued.

Here’s the challenge for Christians who want to engage this problem of incarceration biblically: there are zero provisions for incarceration in the theocracy of Israel or in the teaching of Jesus. Though Israel was surrounded by empires with extensive prison systems, the laws of Sinai gave no such options to Israel. The closest cousin to incarceration in Israel would be the cities of refuge where due process and self-detention created paths to life for those accused of murder, specifically.

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So is Scripture mute on the issue of imprisonment? By no means! But this is where fluency in Hebraic thought becomes essential. If Christians want to evaluate our incarceration practices from Scripture, they must enter its intellectual world and ask well-formed questions to see how the biblical authors might guide our thinking and action on a topic they didn’t deal with directly. I’ll only raise problems here, so don’t worry about having answers to these massive questions.

Does the Bible represent to us an intellectual world we can enter? Think about how you might answer the following questions:

  • Do the biblical authors have a consistent ethical view of exploitation that explains why certain practices are inhumane? Yes, of course!
  • Do they discuss matters of justice—what makes for unfair court proceedings, issues relating to judicial bias, and how these are dependent upon a premise of basic human equality? Yeah, that sounds right.
  • Do they prescribe epistemologically sound ways of knowing ordinary things, the role of justification, and the nature of truth? Umm . . .
  • Do they propose metaphysical views about the arrangement and relations of material things in the cosmos? Err . . . maybe?

No doubt, the biblical authors circulated amongst the renowned intellectual worlds of the Ancient Near East. But they also created one of the most robust and prescient intellectual worlds in human history, and they didn’t just carve it out of existing intellectualisms. They went their own way.

The biblical authors prescribed a particular philosophical style. They enjoined us to enter their intellectual world and extend it into ours today. Through narrative, legal reasoning, poetry, and more, they formed communities meant to participate in their unique intellectual world. Their sophisticated views of political power, logic, justice, knowledge, ethics, sexuality, and the rest pervade their texts. They assumed that we could hear the voice of God through them and be guided by them to become the wise and discerning communities (not individuals) God always intended (Deut 4:6).

Understanding the Bible’s intellectual world often means reading Scripture differently than we might have in the past. It requires attention to the different literary forms of Scripture, how they work and speak. It demands that we turn down—not off—the volume of our traditions and opinions that blare as we attempt to understand. We must turn the volume of the biblical authors up to 11. It’s an old way of reading the biblical texts: both gulping books in a sitting and carefully sipping passages to see what is being shown.

There’s nothing new here, though it may feel brand new to some. Tracing Hebraic thought across Scripture is part of Scripture’s own way of reasoning (e.g., seen in Jesus’ thinking) and can be practiced by all in the church—no new skills needed. It requires nothing that my depression-era parishioners didn’t know how to do. They read large swaths of Scripture to develop their in-depth knowledge of Scripture. They memorized bits of texts that would impel their memories of the whole. When they paraphrased “God knows the plans he has for you . . . ,” they knew the exilic context to which that now-cliché phrase belonged.

In their undistracted world of the mid-twentieth century, most depression-era folks (and even most Boomers) in my church had developed a rich textual map of the Bible and knew how to think across it. I know because they would politely challenge me on parts of the texts they thought I missed. Why were they so good at this? Because the biblical texts were often the loudest voice in their thinking—they voice they knew best. But I also have friends today from the majority world, without even a high school education, who understand the Scriptures equally well.

Certainly, we’re not aiming for a naïve and thin biblicism, where the Bible says X and so I just believe Y. In studying Hebraic thought, we’re imbibing the richest and most sophisticated intellectual tradition I have ever encountered—including the Greeks. Most remarkably, this isn’t a philosophy for elites and the wealthy. It’s open to all—women, men, children, outsiders, and so on—and its authors intended for us to appropriate its virtues, habits, and thinking.

Pastors, scholars, sisters, and brothers: Won’t you come join us?

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Learn more about Hebraic thought—including the philosophical tradition embedded in Scripture and how the biblical writers communicated and described the marks of Hebraic thought—in Dru Johnson’s course Introducing Hebraic Thought: a Biblical Philosophy of Truth.

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