Reflecting on the variegated influences that Protestant theology has exercised on America’s approach to the world beyond its shores, Robert Nicholson turns to the great mid-century theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr. In his writings, Niebuhr frequently distinguished between what he called the “Hebraic” and “Hellenic” strands of thinking that have contributed to Christianity, and Western civilization more broadly, while also believing that Christianity, “when it is true to itself, is Hebraic rather than Hellenic.” Nicholson explains:
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. . . . 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 among 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 Hebraic approach, by contrast, 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 God 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 discrete historical events rather than in universally valid concepts to which all historical phenomena 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.” . . .
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. . . . The Hellenic man finds hope inside history; the Hebraic man, beyond it. . . . Limits, particularism, and a divine end of history—it isn’t hard to see how these ideas lead to . . . 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.