Here we take a short tour through the history of Western Christian theology. Our attention is focused on the business of fallen nature and human reason.
First, we have to understand that Hebrew Scriptures assume a wholly different anthropology from what is common in the West. On the one hand, both use figures of speech, but use them differently. In ancient Hebrew culture, human nature is divided up differently and associated with different parts of the body as mere symbolism. When it comes to understanding human behavior, it really didn’t matter whether the mind was literally rooted in the brain — there were too many other factors in human nature that affected how the brain worked. In other words, Hebrew culture downplayed the importance of intellect compared to the Western image of it.
Second, there was a radical difference in cosmology, too. While the particulars varied among the multiple Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) civilizations, of which Hebrew is one, there was a common thread of belief in a distinct and separate spirit realm that was invisible to the senses. We cannot overemphasize how radically different this is from the Western assumption that this universe is all there is. The Greeks had no trouble with the idea that deities and demons were invisible, but such beings were still confined to this universe. Greeks honestly believed that it was possible to find a physical entrance to both the homes of the gods and the abode of the dead.
So deeply does this stain Western thought that you can discern the influence in Western Christianity. Early in Church history we find the official church teaching that human reason is not fallen.
Let’s see how the ANE viewpoint is expressed in Jeremiah 17. Starting in verse 5 God is castigating Judah for departing from the Covenant (the Northern Kingdom was already long gone at this point). In particular, He refers to the “heart” as the center of one’s will, the seat of commitment or faith. There is a specific reference to the kidneys as the seat of human motives, and it’s often translated in English as “reins” or “mind.” His point comes right up front: cursed is the man who trusts in human capabilities alone. Blessed is the man who humbly trusts in God for moral truth. Without redemption, the heart of commitment is wicked. In that state, no one can subject their lesser faculties to the higher faculty that should be in the heart. There is no sense of conviction, so the heart is effectively just as fallen and broken as the rest of such a man.
This is echoed in Romans 3, particularly in verses 9-18. Paul indicates that a covenant identity never kept Jews from being just as wicked and sinful as the worst of heathens. Paul goes on to assert that without redemption, there is nothing good possible arising from human capabilities. It was always a matter of divine grace. Western Christians are completely mistaken in thinking Jesus introduced a new concept in John 3 when He spoke of spiritual birth. We can find references to that symbolism throughout ANE religious writings. Without “a spirit of the gods” within us, we are doomed. Nicodemas as so Hellenized that he had completely forgotten the mystical roots of Hebrew culture. For him, there was no separate realm of the Spirit; everything was confined to his universe. Redemption was merely to earthly Jewish identity.
Even when we find Western church teachings about spiritual birth, we find that the net effect it is merely a changed mind. Somehow being more spiritual means nothing more than a different cerebral track. It’s a conversion of mind only, in the sense that religious leaders are looking for symptoms of orthodoxy. We find them saying in effect that “Jesus in your heart” equals “right belief and practice.” And that right religion always seems to look like the one that the present leadership espouses. “If you don’t believe and act like me, you ain’t born-again.” For non-evangelical traditions, it’s more like, “We are the arbiters or what God says, so if you don’t agree with us, you haven’t heard from God.”
This is precisely the fatal flaw in Judaism, and it goes all the way back to Jeremiah’s prophecy. Judah was at that time facing Babylon’s rampaging conquest. The Judean leadership insisted that, since the Temple inside the walls was God’s House, they were safe. Would God allow heathens to dirty His carpet? Was not this Hebrew nation God’s Chosen? Jeremiah was telling them that it didn’t matter where the Temple stood. It also didn’t matter their proximity to it; the nation had moved too far away from God’s protection in their hearts. Their faith, their feudal loyalty, was in something other than Jehovah.
In Hebrew thinking, spiritual birth does not change what you are, but who you are. It opens the door for a personal communion with our Creator so that His power can mitigate the Fall. Thus, spiritual birth is not some magic that changes the ideas in your head; it changes your heart — it registers as a sense of identity and commitment. You aren’t buying into a different package of human identity, but leaving all of that behind for an identity rooted in the Spirit Realm. Christ said His kingdom is not of this world. There can be no earthly kingdom of Christ; there can be no Christian nation. In this world there can be only provisional associations of fellow believers, acting like family in an eastern feudal setting. We as Christians are brothers and sisters with no earthly father. We are away from Home working together in a foreign realm. We don’t colonize; we offer adoptions out of this world.
Meanwhile, the only people who actually understand this world are those who belong outside of it. The only people who hold a valid assessment of human nature are those who denounce and renounce it. Only when we are linked to the Spirit Realm do we find communion with the rest of Creation. We still face the same natural world, but now are friends with it, not alienated from it in some god-forsaken mythology of something must be defeated, tamed and enslaved to our will.
Reason cannot be reformed. It can be properly subjected to faith, but you won’t see that often in organized Christian religion. Instead, we see the whole matter of “faith” as better belief and action, and “spirituality” as mere education and training. Theology is data; faith is much more.