Western Civilization is Not Christian: A History

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 1:30 AM

As a historian, I know what we call today “Western Civilization” was largely based on Christianity. I also know that it was a particular brand of Christianity. I leave for another day the debate whether that particular brand is now, or was then, the true Church. However, it is no criticism to note the Church of Rome which midwifed Western Civilization had not precisely the same outlook on the world as the New Testament Apostles. That is, the Apostles were Jewish men with a distinctly Semitic outlook, and Rome was decidedly Latin-Greek. Specifically, it was Aristotelian.

The question is not whether faith can remain effective without a Semitic mind, for we see many obviously empowered by the Father who are neither Semitic nor Western. The question is one of discipleship. Just as Scripture assumes you come as you are, it also assumes you will not stay that way. If we are not changed from what we were as recently as yesterday, woe be unto us. The task of spiritual growth is never complete this side of Eternity, so we dare not stop growing. Argue if you wish whether Paul meant “study” or “be diligent” in 2 Timothy 2:15, but to accurately handle the Word of Truth surely requires spending time understanding the Scripture in its own context. That context was a Semitic people in a Middle Eastern country.

New Testament Jews were most certainly aware of Western culture. Indeed, it's pretty clear the rabbinical tradition of Jesus' day was badly corrupted by it. On the one hand, the ruling party of the Sadducees was loaded with brilliant but liberal minds. They were eclectic, tending to the secularist mindset which denied miracles. They were all about power, politics and other practical matters. They clung to tradition for its own sake. Their kind existed since the beginning, and there was nothing remarkable about them, except to note they were mainly priests. The loyal opposition party of the Pharisees was more conservative, and given to believing very much in miracles, the reality of the spirit realm, and so forth. However, their teaching was deeply poisoned by the Alexandrian experience. It included a heavy dose of Western style logic.

The Alexandrian experience was an even older power struggle in Jewish politics. Departing the old Hebrew cultural traditions was a one-two punch. First, when the Medo-Persian Empire replaced Babylon, the Jews encountered a religion which assumed material wealth was the mark of favor from deities. Imperial politics was rife with calculations of profit and loss. We recall only a small minority of Hebrews returned from the Babylonian Exile. The majority stayed in Mesopotamia, where they were well established. With the loss of their beloved Temple, the center of religious life in Exile was the synagogue. It became also the center of political power for quite some time. As synagogues required no priest, the lay leaders who ran them needed training. Taking a cue from the Prophets' Academies founded by Samuel and revived later by Elijah, and extending on the concept of Jewish common schools where boys learned to read the Law of Moses, academies were founded for the rabbis who lead the synagogues. In the penitent atmosphere of the Exile, these academies were sticklers for the details of the Law.

There arose a mystical view that with such a high density of commitment and faithfulness to God, the land there became holier than the land of Palestine. The religious center of gravity never shifted back to Jerusalem, nor did the wealth and power. The popular view was to see them as stuck in ivory towers, out of touch with the real world. These were the Hebrew blue-bloods, and they never let anyone forget it. They became infected with the notion their wealth and power were a direct result of their better understanding of the Law of Moses. As lesser Jews later spread around the Mediterranean in pursuit of commerce, there arose a new middle class. Their wealth arguably surpassed that of the old Babylonian aristocracy, but the power remained firmly in those Eastern hands, at first. Meanwhile, these up-and-coming newly rich Western Jews wondered why their wealth should not be taken as a sign God favored them over the Babylonian branch of Judaism.

Then came the second punch. When Alexander the Great made his conquests, a very significant part of that conquest was to spread his native Greek heritage. While his successors were brutal and demanding about it, Alexander preferred to evangelize his culture as a great gift to the world. His legacy was taken up by Pharaoh Ptolemy, who funded the library at Alexandria, Egypt. It became a magnet to the intellectuals of that part of the world, along with those who merely pretended to be in that number. Such a center of learning naturally drew commerce, and created great wealth. The wealthy included the new middle class merchant Jews. The library and the college built around it naturally infused Greek understanding to all things. The temptation to reject the old Babylonian aristocracy and join in the fashionable trend of blending Grecian thought into all things gave rise to a uniquely Alexandrian school of rabbinical training.

In due course, as the center of civil imperial political power shifted West to Greece, then Rome, the dusty old halls of Babylon were forgotten. Alexandria wrested the power from there, but clearly forgot to bring the same commitment to the old Hebrew culture, already wounded by the cash nexus of Persian religion. While the Eastern schools were more cautious about adopting a Greek rational review of the Law, more careful in application of the Law to new circumstances, the Alexandrian school was profligate in adopting just about anything that sounded sweet to their itching Greek-trained ears. The blended logic of secular and pagan deeply compromised the original Old Testament religion. It was this Alexandrian corruption Jesus faced, and fought, in his condemnation of the Pharisees.

Many of Jesus' sayings constitute a call to go back to the genuine Hebrew root of faith and spiritual understanding. This opened old wounds for the Pharisees, if they understood it at all. For the Sadducees, it was just another brand of silly superstition in their secular agnostic minds. However, having corralled the Pharisees effectively, this odd-ball rabbi from Galilee threatened to undo all the Sadducees' hard work with Rome. Their ability to manipulate Rome for their own benefit was at risk. Jesus clearly thought politics was just another fact of life, and not something worthy of significant attention.

By His time, most of the Jews had accepted the notion that those who possessed of great wealth had it because they were favored by God. It was essentially a salvation of wealth. Having the gold was the proof of God's approval. Thus, the disciples wondered just who was saved if not the rich, when Jesus remarked how hard it was for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While wealth was indeed a gift from God, it could also be a curse from Hell. The difference was in the heart of the man. While Jews gave lip-service to that idea, their gut reaction was the wealthy of Israel were holy, regardless how apparently evil.

This other-worldly focus, wherein conditions in this world are a mere background against which one played out the Lord's redemption, was indeed a threat to everyone then in wealth and power. Their cultural whip hand would be chained by such ideas. No more could they claim any moral superiority for maintaining their place. Was not the sin of Jeroboam in part a view that religion was merely politics? Ahab's sin was not that he hated Jehovah, but that it was politically wise to promote worship of Melkart as a means to make friends with Tyre and Sidon. To retain Jehovah as the God of Israel implied returning to the rule of House David in Judah, risking their hard-won independence. Thus, the declarations of Elijah were viewed merely as agitation from the political opposition. It really didn't matter if fire fell from Heaven at Mount Carmel on the sacrifice to Jehovah. It was the wisdom of man to build and shift alliances, and religion was just the dressing on them.

Yet Jesus did indeed bring a more substantive revelation, which was a revolution. The Law of Moses was all about maintaining the identity of the Jewish people. What the Jews tried hard to forget was that identity had a redemptive purpose. It was to be the cradle for the insertion into history of the very real presence of God as Man. Once that was done, so was the centrality of the Hebrew Nation among nations, unless they accepted Him as the Messiah. While David was quite right to assert pure military and political control over his people's neighbors, he at least kept in mind his success hinged entirely on faithfulness to God, and reliance on God for the final result. We have scant record of his tactics because it was always a matter of listening to God, not being a brilliant commander. His brilliance was his reliance on God. Some of his descendants remembered that, but the nation as a whole forgot it after the Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. It became a mere matter of national pride. Their identity as God's special People was hard won, demanding all sorts of ritual observance. Jesus claimed to offer that identity with little of those requirements.

Paul was uniquely prepared to bridge the gap between the religion of a small Jewish sect and the faith of mankind's one hope of salvation. It seems he didn't spend much time speaking of Jewish cultural background. Rather, he chose to correct Gentile fallacies by pointing directly at the differences. Western logic, crystallized early in Alexandria, assumed ultimate truth could be found by human logic alone. For Alexandrian rabbis, this meant God's truth could be clarified by such logic, but in practice it was superseded by that logic. Thus, their claim the oral tradition took precedence over the Law itself. Paul taught directly to the root of the falsehood. Put on Christ as a spiritual robe, and let your manner of life be focused outside this world. Seek to know the truth of things by revelation and communion, not by your limited mental faculties. The notion that man was inherently corrupt and fallen, including his intellect, was a heresy to Greeks and Romans. While such teaching got Paul into plenty of hot water, it was used by God to change the world.

The necessity that we each receive spiritual birth was forgotten over the next few centuries. The Church which faced the task of taming the Germanic hordes was successful, by and large, and for this was granted a voice in politics. The religious leadership could not resist. The idea of a Christian nation, or even a Christian empire, was just too attractive. What began first as mere influence became at times full control, de facto rule. At a minimum, this was a distraction from the task of winning souls through the preaching of the Word. Great and civilizing changes were mixed with petty political maneuvering. The hand that first restrained oppression later exerted its own crushing grip. It became doctrine the intellect was not fallen. Thus, conversion was a matter of teaching the mind, and demanding obedience. Even the Protestants accepted such notions reflexively for quite some time.

In my next piece, we will look into the big difference between cultures, the source of knowledge and precisely what truly Christian teaching looks like.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

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Re: Western Civilization is Not Christian: A History

I’m seriously on pins and needles for this one. I’m waiting to see how you resolve the subjectivity of an appeal to Scripture, and how you explain how the allegedly corrupt Church got the Christology so very right.

Posted by Jason Kettinger - Jul 25, 2010 | 7:19 AM

Re: Western Civilization is Not Christian: A History

Do you believe I’m going to agree Rome got Christology right? I have carefully avoided directly attacking Rome, and simply noted her part in the story. And you already know, or should know, I reject the notion an appeal to Scripture is subjective, because I reject the implied false dichotomy between objective and subjective. That dichotomy is entirely a creation of Aristotelian logic, not applicable to spiritual truth, which is beyond human logic (of which Aristotle is merely the best known and most formally complete organization in our times).

Jason, you should feel free to pick at my ideas. Frankly I expect you to disagree, and make your best effort to present them as foolish. What amuses me most here is you simply ignore my philosophical foundation entirely, without addressing it directly, but always building up from those Aristotelian assumptions I pointedly reject.

I honestly suspect more readers, among those who care, are likely to side with you before me. I’m trying to question the very foundation of Western Civilization. But you should understand I write this response with a friendly grin on my face.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jul 25, 2010 | 6:24 PM