Identifying history’s meta-forces is pretty hard. While we all feel them at work in our lives, capturing and describing them can be exceptionally difficult. Historians who try are almost always charged with essentializing a more complex reality, which, by my lights, makes any attempt to do so even more courageous and admirable.
Two such attempts immediately come to mind. In our Fall 2017 issue, Walter Russell Mead makes the case that different eschatological paradigms have shaped the way Americans look at international affairs. More recently in the pages of First Things, Mike Doran traces out in great detail how those paradigms have actually affected policy. Both pieces are excellent and merit serious debate.
Here, I merely want to suggest that these two paradigms may go even deeper than Mead and Doran imply. Reinhold Niebuhr, this journal’s intellectual forbearer, made similar observations about religious thinking’s effect on the West, albeit in different terms. Where Mead sees the influence of “premillennial” and “postmillennial” thinking, and Doran sees “Jacksonian” and “Progressive” tendencies, Niebuhr focused on the “Hebraic” and “Hellenic” approaches to history that are embedded, though with some tension, in Western thought. In works like The Irony of American History, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Faith and History and The Self and the Dramas of History, Niebuhr expanded upon a theme that remained central to all of his writings.
The terms Hebraic and Hellenic refer, of course, to those intellectual currents that originated in Jerusalem and Athens, respectively, and that ultimately shaped the Christian religion and Western civilization more broadly. As Samuel Goldman notes in his response to Doran’s essay, there are “advantages and…disadvantages that accompany any attempt to impose conceptual order on vast and complicated historical phenomena.” Yet the basic conflict between these two Mediterranean capitals has been noted ever since the earliest years of the Christian era.
“Christianity,” writes Niebuhr, “is commonly believed to be a joint product of Hebraic and Hellenic cultures.” And while some theologians like Augustine sought to deepen the synthesis between Hellenic and Hebraic thought, others like the Latin father Tertullian saw any synthesis as absurd. “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian famously asked:
What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?… Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.
The substantive differences between the two traditions are well-known. The Hellenic strand of Western thought is known for its pursuit of truth through rational contemplation aimed at universal principles. The Hebraic strand also pursues truth, but mainly through the study of, and submission to, divine revelation. The Greeks ask, “What is the good life?” The Hebrews ask, “What kind of life would God have us to live?” The Hellenic mind seeks unity, completeness, and mastery over nature; the Hebraic mind admits exceptionality, indeterminacy, and limits of the human condition. The Greeks seek to overcome difference; the Hebrews affirm it. The Greeks submit to reason; the Hebrews understand that, despite the order evident in creation, there is something fundamentally irrational that stands above it all.
Niebuhr was not shy about ranking the two traditions, claiming that Christianity “when it is true to itself, is Hebraic rather than Hellenic.” Indeed, Niebuhr spilled a massive amount of ink warning against the Hellenic impulse in Western thought that tended toward idealistic, ahistorical, and universalist extremes. He believed that the same component of our culture that gave birth to the marvels of modern science also produced some of our most serious misunderstandings about man and history.
The interplay between the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions is a topic too big to be discussed here. Suffice it to say, the two traditions begin from different epistemological starting points—revealed truth vs. natural reason—and this divide, though complicated by thinkers like Yoram Hazony and Dru Johnson, tells the main story.
Ultimately, why Americans see the world through one theological lens or another has a lot to do with whether they identify more closely with a Hebraic or Hellenic kind of Christianity. Put another way, American Christians view the world differently depending on how much they read the Bible, believe the Bible is divinely inspired, and accept the Bible as authoritative in their lives. Although there are many factors at work in all “vast and complicated historical phenomena,” in this case one’s view of Scripture may be the most important.
The Bible contains several ideas that inform the Hebraic worldview, but here I’ll mention only three: limits, particularism, and a divine end of history.
First, this excerpt from Doran:
[The Jacksonians and Progressives] differ in their understandings of: human nature (as broken or perfectible, static or malleable); morality (as absolute or relative); the relationship between the individual and society (as requiring personal responsibility, or as requiring collective and systemic solutions); the proper role of government (to safeguard personal liberty, or to safeguard equality); the mission of the United States in the world (to be a beacon of freedom, or to lead the way toward a new era of peace and brotherhood); and the meaning of history (as maintaining a holding pattern until the end of days, or as leading inevitably to human betterment).
These distinctions reveal at least one major fault line between the two camps. The Hellenic approach to the world is an optimistic one, believing that natural limits can be overcome and application of right reason can tame historical forces. Differences between languages, nations, and moralities dissolve in the face of universal truths waiting to be discovered in nature. Science and mathematics can, in fact, conquer nature. The Philosopher King can domesticate, even manipulate, the vagaries of political power. The world waits to be understood, explained, unified, and systematized by the artful Hellenic hand. No corner of the cosmos needs to remain dark.
The Hebraic approach, on the other hand, sees things like human nature, morality, and government as inherently limited inside history. The Hebraic God is, in fact, a God of limits. The first book of the Bible begins with Yahweh making distinctions between celestial and terrestrial, sea and land, man and woman, himself and mankind. He draws lines between sacred and profane, Israel and the nations, weekdays and the Sabbath. He imposes boundaries on knowledge, land, leaders, and governments; creates borders between nations and languages; demands accountability to a higher order against which all things, including political power, must be measured. Ultimately, the Hebraic God even sets limits on himself as he enters into history to initiate a personal encounter with man.
The biblical concept of limits naturally gives rise to a second concept. Niebuhr writes that “the ‘scandal of particularism’…is a necessary part of revelation in Biblical faith.” The idea that “universal history should be the particular revelation of the divine, to a particular people, and finally in a particular drama and person” is scandalous to all rationalistic interpretations of history because it places meaning in discreet historical events rather than in universally valid concepts to which all historical phenomenon must conform. The Hellenic man sees the Hebraic man as parochial in his attachment to “signs and wonders” that took place among a “chosen people.” The Hebraic man, meanwhile, believes in
divine Majesty…less bound to the pride of civilizations and the hopes and ambitions of nations, than the supposedly more universal concepts of life and history by which cultures seek to extricate themselves from the historical contingencies and to establish universally valid “values.”
Looking upon this “divine Majesty,” the Hebraic man arrives at a third concept of biblical faith: God’s final intervention as the only solution to history’s flaws. As Mead puts it, Hebraic (or what he calls “premillennial”) Christianity “says things are going to be in a terrible mess, the world is really going to go downhill, and that following this, the judgment of God will be unveiled, and then Jesus will come back.” Hellenic (“postmillennial”) Christianity holds that “human effort, with the blessing of God, will gradually make the world a better place.” The Hellenic man finds hope inside history; the Hebraic man, beyond it.
Niebuhr was something of an odd duck in that he carried within him both premillennial and postmillennial tendencies, but he leaned more heavily toward the former than the latter:
Old Testament messianism…lays the foundation for the Christian, rather than the modern, attitude toward history by the fact that the expected messianic reign is always conceived as in some sense the end, as well as the fulfillment of historical meanings… [T]he messianic age is never merely the culmination of the known historical processes. It is the consequence of a radical divine intervention.
Tertullian, that old advocate for Hebraic interpretation, also looked forward to a divine irruption at the end of history: “We do confess,” he writes in Against Marcion, “that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem.” This kind of premillennial view squares well with the views of those twenty-first-century Christians who share Tertullian’s hermeneutic approach.
Limits, particularism, and a divine end of history—it isn’t hard to see how these ideas lead to what Doran identifies as Jacksonian suspicion of the “concentration of unelected and unaccountable power”; support for the moral right of the Jewish people to regather in their ancient homeland; and a realistic view about the ultimate hope of humanity lying outside the reach of human hands.
It is no coincidence that the fundamentalist-premillennialist-Jacksonian camp often holds strongly to the belief in Scripture’s inspiration and authority, and that the modernist-postmillennial-Progressive camp often dismisses or minimizes Scripture, reading it, if ever, through the lens of Enlightenment values. These broad categories don’t always line up, to be sure, but Doran is onto something when he begins his analysis with divergent views of the Bible. The way Americans, and Christians more broadly, see the world has a lot to do with how they see that book.
This fact becomes particularly noteworthy in light of growing trends toward biblical illiteracy in America, a country that is exceptional in its approach to foreign affairs mostly because it was founded on an exceptional attachment to Holy Writ. Doran is not oblivious to these shifting theological sands. In speaking about the rivalry between his two theological paradigms, he writes:
These began as religious disagreements. Yet even as God recedes from our public life, the disagreements persist. Perhaps it is because God has receded that they persist. In a secular world, there is no universal moral authority capable of adjudicating between the two sides. All we have now are experts.
This reminds me of why we created this journal to begin with. When Mark Tooley and I first began to brainstorm what we now call Providence, we braced ourselves for the obvious criticism: “Christianity and foreign policy? What’s the one got to do with the other? They’re completely unrelated, and let’s keep it that way!”
We still hear that criticism often. The underlying premise, of course, is that a clear-headed approach to foreign policy will steer the conversation away from Christianity, not toward it.
The fundamental assertion of Providence—that the Christian tradition has something to say about how Americans ought to engage the world—is, for us, axiomatic. While hardly a manual for statesmanship, the Bible offers narrative motifs and principles that help guide any responsible engagement with history. Moreover, biblical faith imparts a meaning to history and confidence in its end that cannot be found outside the revealed text. Many generations of Christian thinkers agree with us on this.
Niebuhr agreed, too. “It will be a long while,” he writes, “before modern idealists will recognize that the profundities of the Christian faith, which they have disavowed, are indispensable resources for the historic tasks which lie before us.”
Scripture, it seems, still has something to say.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of the Philos Project and co-publisher of Providence.
Image Credit: Paul Preaching in Athens, circa nineteenth century, by an anonymous painter. Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus, via Wikimedia Commons.