Manhood, Womanhood, and the History of Doctrine

Adolf von Harnack (born Harnack; 7 May 1851 – 10 June 1930) 
 Image Source: Wikipedia

 By Calvin Goligher - Posted at CBMW.Org: 


Over the past thirty years, complementarianism has enjoyed something of a consensus position among conservative churches in North Am erica. Over against feminist arguments that men and women should be treated equally in every respect, complementarians have insisted that God intends for men to exercise leadership in the home and in the church. This consensus has faced an ever-growing challenge from society’s rapidly progressing views on gender and sexuality. Recently, the subject has become controversial also within the Church. At the heart of this controversy are two books by conservative Reformed authors that reexamine complementarianism in order to discern which aspects of it should be kept and which should be discarded.[1] Both books have met with vigorous critique in Reformed and evangelical circles.[2]

Evaluating this controversy is difficult, partly because Byrd and Miller do not advocate a straightforward feminism. Like feminists, they reject some of the ways that men and women are treated in conservative churches. Unlike feminists, though, they aim to preserve the headship of husbands in the home and male-only ordination in the church (albeit in modified forms). In evaluating these books, the key question is whether their central point has to do with what they reject or with what they keep. Are they mostly aiming to preserve the traditional Christian and Reformed view on manhood and womanhood, with a few proposed reforms argued from uncontroversial first principles? Or are they (even with their arguments for male headship in home and church) mostly aiming to disrupt that traditional view?

The history of doctrine can help us answer this question. Miller and Byrd make extensive use of history to support their positions. They especially rely on a sharp distinction between Greco-Roman philosophy and biblical thought. In this respect, their approach is similar to that of Adolf von Harnack, who analyzed the history of doctrine chiefly as a struggle between biblical and Greek thought. This is captured most famously in Harnack’s Hellenization thesis, which asserted that “dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel.”[3] This analysis formed a major part of Harnack’s argument for repudiating traditional orthodoxy as unbiblical “dogma.”

By comparing Miller and Byrd to Harnack, I do not mean to suggest that they have relied directly on him. Harnack’s influence may have reached Miller and Byrd in a number of ways, including a conservative Reformed antipathy to Hellenistic “synthesis” modeled by neo-Calvinists like Cornelius Van Til and Herman Dooyeweerd.[4]However Harnack’s influence was mediated, it is useful to compare him to Byrd and Miller because all three emphasize the opposition between Scripture and Hellenism, and all three make this a central part of their theological proposals. The fact that Byrd and Miller analyze history in way that is similar to Harnack is an important evidence that the basic impulse in their work is to erode rather than maintain the orthodoxy of the Reformed confessions.