There is a movement afoot and a good one I might submit that is seeking to understand the roots of the faith. This implies there is a system of thought and a way of approaching Scripture that perhaps has not been properly understood or utilized over the years. Marvin Wilson, in his excellent and timely book Exploring our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Thelogy of Roots and Renewal, outlines for the reader exactly what it means to get back to a proper understanding and application of God’s Word.
This process of getting back to our roots has been labeled in many ways over the years with a number of movements coming and going that had as their stated goal a return to our Jewish or Hebraic roots. Some of those movements have been quite successful in their efforts to properly define what getting to our roots means while others have I will submit been far less successful. Outside of these movements and their various permutations, what are our root and why is getting back to them of such importance? Does it mean we are to become Jewish to get back to our roots?
Wilson approaches these and many other related questions by first establishing what theology is and for that matter, what theology is not. He rightly notes the difference in the Hebraic approach to Scripture as opposed to the Greek mindset that permeates the modern approach to many principles and concepts found in Scripture. Furthermore, Wilson aptly notes that while systematic theology, biblical theology, and even denominational creeds and confessions are helpful, “it is critical to seek to mold that system by Scripture, not Scripture by that system.”
Building on these important principles on how to “do” theology, Wilson then begins to unpack what it means to have our theological mindset underpinned by a Hebraic approach to Scripture. He first outlines the hallmarks of what he terms “Hebraic Theology”, notably the fact that its theology is rooted in actual history, it builds on God’s revelation of Himself throughout history to His people, it has a focus on a personal God and not some entity detached from His creation, God’s word is living and active, Hebraic theology has as a main focus the overarching message of redemption, and it is focused on the how of what it means to live holy and ethically.
It seems as if the front of the book or the Old Testament has to take a back seat in theological discussion, since in the minds of many in the church, the New Testament has superseded the first 39 books of the Bible. In taking that approach, Wilson notes “Over the centuries, while most of Christian interpreters understood the Old Testament as witnessing to Christ, considerable disagreement existed on what else from the Old Testament can be legitimately salvaged. This troubling feeling concerning the largest portion of the Word of God has often been resolved with a sort of cherry-picking approach.” Arguably, one sees that cherry-picking approach in discussions about the continued validity or lack thereof concerning what is termed the “Law”.
To help the reader better understand what Hebraic theology is all about, Wilson next invests some time looking at the foundational sources of Hebraic thought. Of great importance is the aforementioned and often debated term and portion of Scripture called the “Law”. The modern Christian affirmation in many circles that the Law has been completely abrogated would have been a foreign concept for the people of Israel in the time period Scripture was written. Wilson aptly notes the entirety of Psalm 119 extols the Law of God. Furthermore, the term Torah itself means far more than just “Law”. Conversely, it actually carries the meaning of “guidance, direction, instruction, or teaching” meaning that anytime in Scripture where God is doing any of those things, whether directly from His mouth or in the lives of those Scripture discusses, it is Torah. Since that takes place all throughout Scripture, all of Scripture is really Torah. Wilson saliently reminds the reader that “Living a life of love requires all the help that a serious believer can get; led by the Spirit, one will be informed by the fullness of God’s teachings, including the law.” Those who teach Christ is the end of the law and thus the law is no longer valid, are also reminded by Wilson that end is the word “telos”, meaning “the purpose or goal of something.” Furthermore, as noted by Wilson, “Didactically, however, or by principle, when these laws are understood in context, many carry significant meaning about God or the timeless priorities he wishes to establish for his people.”
Wilson also builds on the subject matter presented in his previous book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, another book I highly recommend reading before reading Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage. Wilson explores what it means to be part of the root, a concept often very misunderstood or ignored in the church today. Understanding what being grafted in to the root is all about is vital to understanding the need to grasp why one needs to get back to the root to understand what they have been grafted into in the first place. This really is a matter of proper identity and Wilson states “Our biblical, Hebraic heritage is not the dead faith of the living but the living faith of the dead. It is not a relic to put in a museum but a life-giving source to embrace. There is no way the church may define itself without being connected to the people of Israel.” This is indeed something of a paradigm shift for many and a needed one at that.
There is much to be gleaned theologically from the life of Abraham and Wilson roots his discussion (pun fully intended) in this important figure of the faith. We find in the life of Abraham the concept of covenant, something no new to Abraham specifically, but certainly elaborated more fully in God’s dealing with him as the father of the faith. Wilson avers “the expression ‘Our Father Abraham’ expresses more than some historic remembrance of a virtuous biblical character or present spiritual ties to a family of faith. The expression is ultimately an eschatological statement. Abraham is a symbol of hope; he binds Christians and Jews together with a common vision of the outworking of the kingdom of God.”
I also appreciated Wilson’s sections on who God is, how we should worship Him, and repentance and prayer with the focus in his discussion on the Hebraic (i.e. biblical) approach to such matters. With that said, perhaps the most important aspect of this book is Wilson’s question on whether the church has superseded Israel. This particular point truly gets to the heart of what it means to be connected to our roots. If the roots have been replaced, then there would be no need to be concerned with getting back to anything. Wilson correctly states “A spirit of triumphalism and arrogance on the part of the church has largely characterized most of the history of Christian-Jewish relations.” A rather bold yet again correct statement. Wilson urges the reader to understand “The teaching of Gentile believers ‘grafted into Israel’ and being part of the spiritual ‘seed of Abraham’ is an important piece of Paul’s theology.”
Getting back to our roots is not a call to become Jewish in our practices as followers of Christ. Conversely, it is better termed as the necessity to understand Scripture from the viewpoint (i.e. historical, linguistic, cultural, etc.) of those who wrote the words that we find in the pages of God’s Word. To get back to our roots is to both understand our Hebraic heritage and to grow in God’s Word via that heritage which will in turn promote a more cogent and holistic understanding of what God has revealed to us in His Word.
I highly recommend this book to all believers. Wilson does an excellent job of explaining his thesis and the importance of our Hebraic heritage and a Hebraic theological understanding. Full of theological insight, excellent references to both Jewish and Christian scholars, and most importantly, biblically based, this book is a valuable resource for those desiring to better understand, study, and apply Scripture.
This book is available for purchase from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing by clicking here.
I received this book for free from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”