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Manhood, Womanhood, and the History of Doctrine

June 8, 2021
By Calvin Goligher

Editor’s Note: the following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.


Over the past thirty years, complementarianism has enjoyed something of a consensus position among conservative churches in North America. 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.

Miller’s Historiography

Historiography is prominent throughout Beyond Authority and Submission. Aimee Byrd’s foreword draws attention to the book’s central question: whether our views of men and women are “biblical traditions” or ideas “picked up from the Greeks, Romans, and Victorians.”[5] This distinction appears frequently throughout the book.[6] Miller concludes with the hope that readers are equipped to “recognize the origins of what’s being taught” and thus discern what is truly biblical.[7]

Miller’s interpretation of Christian thought on manhood and womanhood may be summarized in four steps. First, the early Christians decisively departed from prevailing Greco-Roman views of manhood and womanhood.[8] Second, the Church yielded to unbiblical Greco-Roman attitudes.[9] Third, the Reformation returned from Greco-Roman ideas to biblical truth. This effort was hindered, though, by the Renaissance interest in antiquity, which led to Greco-Roman thought regaining the upper hand in the Victorian period.[10] Fourth, the modern period is marked by unstable reactions between feminism and complementarianism, so that there is an ongoing need for biblical reformation—hence the need for this book.

Byrd’s Historiography

Byrd adopts a similar approach, though her comments on historiography are less explicit. Like Miller, Byrd emphasizes history as a crucial tool for theological discernment. History enables us, she says, to appreciate the “confessing traditions of the faith,”[11] thus avoiding a shallow and arbitrary biblicism. Exegesis should be informed by the Spirit’s “working in the church universal through the centuries, preserving orthodox profession and testifying to the truth of God’s Word.”[12]

Byrd also agrees with the specific steps of Miller’s narrative. She sees a stark alternative between Greco-Roman thought and biblical truth (Miller’s first step). Jesus “didn’t abide by Ben Sira or the ancient philosophers’ teaching on male superiority and sex polarity.”[13] The early Christians also refused to “cave to the Greco-Roman culture’s expectations of gender.”[14] Byrd’s frequent positive comments about the Reformation confessions[15] suggest that she agrees with Miller’s third step, that the Reformers made significant progress in recovering biblical truth on these matters. In the modern period, up to the present, she sees a need for further reformation on these issues (Miller’s fourth step).

It is more difficult to tell what Byrd thinks of Miller’s second step, that the Church capitulated to Greco-Roman thought during the later patristic or medieval period. Byrd does not discuss this much in her book, but it is a major theme in her online articles following its publication. She reflects that her book was an effort to combat “Aristotelian views” on gender.[16] She maintains that “we desperately need to peel away the Aristotelian mindset of men and woman that still pervades much of the teaching on sexuality in the church today.”[17] She blames those “Aristotelian roots”[18] for the faulty “wide complementarianism” of her critics.[19] Byrd’s focus on Aristotle suggests that she sees the medieval period as the source of an illegitimate synthesis of Greek thought and biblical truth. Byrd is not entirely consistent on this point. She mentions Aristotle only once in her book, and this in an appreciative comment about Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology.[20] Still, the main thrust of her analysis pins the blame on the medieval period.


This historiography suffers from several serious flaws. First, the early Church did not disagree wholesale with Greco-Roman thought, either in general, or on the specific subject of manhood and womanhood. Miller is correct that Christians departed sharply from prevailing views on abortion, prostitution, and divorce.[21] She is wrong, though, to imply that Christians disagreed with Greco-Roman views that women should not participate in political office.[22] The early Church more or less agreed with prevailing cultural expectations about women’s roles in society.[23]

Second, the Reformation was not primarily a rejection of Greco-Roman thought. When Calvin railed against “the scholastics,” he was criticizing particular teachers, not rejecting the entire medieval synthesis of philosophy and theology. Later Protestant theologians brought Reformation theology to full flower in an enormous body of mature scholastic thought, including the Westminster Confession. In order to hang on to the idea that the Reformation rejected the medieval synthesis, many theologians since the nineteenth century have made a sharp distinction between the early reformers and the later Reformed—a distinction that presents Reformed believers with a vexatious choice between the Bible and their confessions. Thankfully, recent scholarship has relieved this difficulty by showing that Protestant scholasticism was an authentic fruit of the Reformation, and that the Reformation itself was compatible with the best patristic and medieval appropriations of Greek thought.[24]

The historiography of Adolf von Harnack

This faulty interpretation of the Reformation stems from the historiography of Protestant liberalism, which dominated the academy about a century ago. The organizing principle of this historiography was stated most famously in Adolf von Harnack’s Hellenization thesis: that “dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel.”[25] The “gospel,” on Harnack’s view, is the raw material of the original religion of Jesus, and the history of Christian doctrine is the story of how that raw material was transformed under the influence of Hellenism.

This thesis organizes the history of doctrine into the same four steps that we have observed in Miller and Byrd. First, Christianity was purely biblical, untainted by Greek thought. Second, the influence of Hellenism gave rise to “dogmatic Christianity”[26] expressed in the creeds.[27] Jesus’ apocalyptic religion remained in captivity to Greek metaphysics until, in the third step, the Reformers rejected Roman dogma over a millennium later. This rejection was never fully executed, in Harnack’s assessment. His fourth step, therefore, was the work of modern Protestantism to finish what the Reformation started by fully cleansing Christianity from Greek influence.[28] For Harnack, this meant jettisoning Christian orthodoxy altogether, including the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.[29]

Historians of the early church have thoroughly debunked the details of Harnack’s historiography. [30] Moreover, biblical scholars have demonstrated the inadequacy of the larger “Hellenism vs. Hebraism” construct.[31] Even so, Harnack’s approach still leavens much theology and exegesis, such that many orthodox students of theology operate with historical assumptions that are at odds with their orthodoxy. Sometimes this incoherence introduces minor flaws into otherwise sound arguments. In this instance the problem is more substantial, since Miller and Byrd rely heavily on historiography to make their case. In the rest of this article, I will point out three serious problems that the historiography of Protestant liberalism has introduced into the arguments of Miller and Byrd.

The Canon

The first problem has to do with the canon. Harnack’s assumption that the Gospel is strictly incompatible with Hellenism led him to reject the notion of a unified New Testament canon. He recognized that certain parts of the New Testament overlapped with Hellenism, but this did not lead him to conclude that Hellenism and Christianity overlapped in some respects. Instead, he concluded that these parts of the New Testament did not represent authentic Christianity. For example, he thought Luke and Acts represented an “early catholicism” that was already on the way to “dogmatic Christianity.”[32] Similar reasoning has led most liberal New Testament scholars to conclude that Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles are not authentic Pauline letters, on the grounds that their “household codes” and discussions of polity overlap too much with Hellenistic politics and ethics.[33]

Miller and Byrd do not reject the canon, but they do share one of the assumptions that led Harnack to do so. This unresolved tension shows itself, perhaps, in their avoidance of texts that are germane to their subject but unfriendly to their position, including Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7. Reviewers have already pointed out that these omissions are a major gap in their arguments.[34] I would only add that these texts are in the very parts of Scripture that Harnack likely would have identified as early capitulations to Hellenism, and that most liberal New Testament scholars describe as pseudonymous.[35] Miller and Byrd may believe in the integrity of the New Testament canon, but they dole out exegetical attention as if Harnack were right.

An inadequate view of the canon also appears explicitly in Byrd’s writing. She correctly disputes the claim that the canon is a “hopelessly patriarchal construction,”[36] but the argument she uses in this case reveals a serious weakness in her own doctrine of Scripture. The basic flaw with that feminist claim is the assumption that the canon of Scripture depends on human authority—in this case, deeply flawed human authority. The correct response to this objection is given by Westminster Confession (1.4), which teaches that Scripture derives its authority not from “the testimony of any man, or church” but from “God (who is truth itself) the author thereof.” Byrd makes a different reply to the feminist objection to the canon. Instead of drawing attention to the divine authorship of Scripture as the source of the canon, she merely modifies the liberal view of the canon as a human creation by insisting that women were involved in the process too.[37]For instance, she suggests that the prophetess Huldah authorized the inclusion of “much of what we know” as Deuteronomy.[38] There are at least two problems with this suggestion: first, it implies that Deuteronomy did not already possess canonical authority simply because it was a divinely inspired book given by the hand of Moses; second, it seems to make room for the common liberal view of the Old Testament canon (and particularly Deuteronomy) as a creation of religious authorities during the later monarchy (in Huldah’s day) who needed to gain popular support for their religious reforms.[39] Putting all of this together, it seems that Byrd disagrees with Harnack about the authority of the books called canonical, but not about the meaning of canonicity itself.

Missionary Hermeneutics

The second problem has to do with hermeneutics. Harnack’s interpretation of the New Testament turned on the significance of Paul’s Gentile mission. According to Harnack’s construction, Paul was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) who would not have introduced Greek thought into the Gospel of Jesus.[40] He preached only Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), not philosophy.[41] Thus he was a true representative of Jesus’ Gospel. However, he also became “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) and adopted Gentile modes of speech for evangelism.[42] Paul appropriated Hellenism so effectively, in fact, that his hearers understood his message in that idiom.[43] Thus to interpret Paul correctly today one must see that the Hellenistic aspects of his letters do not truly represent his thought.

Byrd applies a similar hermeneutical approach to 1 Corinthians 14:34.[44] She argues that when Paul exhorted women to “keep silent in the churches,” he did not actually mean that women must keep silent in the churches. Rather, he meant that they must maintain proper decorum in light of the prevailing cultural norms at Corinth. She does not explain Paul’s citation of “the Law,” or his appeal to creation in related texts (1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14). Byrd’s interpretation of this text is unconvincing, but it is also important to notice that it is just the sort of interpretation we would expect from someone operating on Harnack’s assumption of a strict incompatibility between Hellenism and the Gospel, mediated by Paul’s Gentile mission. Like Harnack, Byrd understands Paul to be clothing his message in Greek custom and culture, expecting that his most spiritually perceptive readers will see through this superficial Hellenism and grasp the truly biblical point. Ironically, only a select few of Paul’s readers have been succeeded in seeing through Paul’s Hellenism. In this, Harnack and his heirs have achieved an insight that eluded virtually the entire interpretive tradition, including the Church Fathers and the Reformers.

The Greek Fall

The third problem has to do with the orthodox tradition of doctrine. Miller and Byrd share partly in Harnack’s assumption that the Church capitulated to Hellenism in the later patristic era. Judging from their commendations and criticisms of various figures, they seem to identify the later fourth and early fifth centuries as the turning point. Miller mentions Tertullian approvingly[45] and Byrd has appreciative words for the fourth-century Cappadocian fathers (as well as their sister Macrina).[46] Byrd appreciates Augustine[47], but he is the earliest figure that she mentions as part of the problem.[48] The late fourth to early fifth century is the same period that Harnack identified as the crucial moment in theology’s fall into Greek philosophy. Harnack’s critique was much broader than that of Miller and Byrd, however. He rejected all of creedal orthodoxy as Hellenistic, whereas they focus their criticism on issues of manhood and womanhood.[49]

This leaves Miller and Byrd in an awkward spot. They say they are concerned with modern departures from Nicaea, but at the same time they deploy Harnack’s historiography, which plays a major role in such departures. If they wish to maintain creedal orthodoxy, they must recognize that it was formed by a long period of reflection on scriptural teachings, elaborated through a critical reception of Hellenistic philosophy. Every major thinker who contributed to the theology of the creeds—Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Cyril of Alexandria, to name a few—was adept at using Greek thought for expressing Christian doctrine. If Byrd and Miller wish to join Harnack’s lament over the intrusion of Greek thought into the Church, they should know that this will entail rejecting Trinitarian orthodoxy as “Greek” and “unbiblical.”[50]


Miller and Byrd do not agree wholesale with Harnack’s liberal theology, but they do rely on some of his key assumptions to make their most important arguments. This gives rise to a series of internal contradictions in their work. They insist on being biblical rather than Greek, but they find certain biblical texts relatively easy to overlook. They decry the arbitrariness of biblicist exegesis, but arbitrarily distinguish missionary tactics from universal ethics. They defend the creeds, but adopt the assumptions that lead to rejecting them. The fact that these internal contradictions arise from Harnackian assumptions is good evidence that these books are mostly about disrupting rather than preserving the traditional Christian and Reformed view on manhood and womanhood.

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California.

[1] Rachel Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission (P&R, 2019), and Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Zondervan, 2020).

[2] Steven Wedgeworth, “A New Way to Understand Men and Women in Christ? A Review of Rachel Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission”, Eikon 1.2 (Fall 2019): 103–15. Andrew Naselli, “Does Anyone Need to Recover from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood?” Eikon 2.1 (Spring 2020): 127–36. Mark Jones, “A Review of Aimee Byrd’s, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” The Calvinist International, May 11, 2020. Claire S. Smith, “Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose,” Themelios 45, vol. 3 (December 2020): 695–98.

[3] Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, 4 vols., trans. Neil Buchanan (New York: Dover, 1961), 1:17.

[4] See J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), esp. 110 on Van Til and 187–91 on Dooyeweerd.

[5] Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 9.

[6] Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 107, 125, 154, 257.

[7] Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 258.

[8] Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 56, 59.

[9] Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 62.

[10]  Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 63.

[11]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 159.

[12]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 168.

[13]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 187.

[14]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 202.

[15]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 176.

[16]  Aimee Byrd, “Peeling Yellow Wallpaper,” June 16, 2020,

[17]  Aimee Byrd, “The True Sexual Revolution,” June 30, 2020,

[18]  Aimee Byrd, “I Guess This Time The Woman Has to Open the Door,” July 8, 2020,

[19]  For “broad” and “narrow” complementarianism see the helpful comparison tables in Andrew Naselli, “Does Anyone Need to Recover from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood?” Eikon 2.1 (Spring 2020): 116–17.

[20]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 124.

[21]  Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 59.

[22]  Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 55.

[23] John A. McGuckin, The Path of Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2017), 893.

[24]  See especially Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003). A good introduction to the historiographical issues is Willem J. Van Asselt et al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

[25]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:17.

[26]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:16.

[27]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:17.

[28]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:6n1.

[29]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:3.

[30]  The best debunking of the “Greek fall” hypothesis is found in Paul Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). See my brief discussion of the issues, with notes to more literature, in “The Heart of Our Faith is a Person: Cyril and Protestants Today,” Logos Academic Blog, January 2, 2020,

[31] James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961); Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974).

[32]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:56.

[33]  For elaboration on the notion of “early catholicism” (Frühkatholizismus) in New Testament scholarship, see Carson, Moo, and Morris, Introduction to the New Testament, 297, 314–15, 660–62. On the issue of pseudonymity, see their section “Pseudonymity and Pseudepigraphy,” 337–50.

[34]  Andrew Naselli, “Does Anyone Need to Recover from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood?” Eikon 2.1 (Spring 2020): 127–36. Steven Wedgeworth, “A New Way to Understand Men and Women in Christ? A Review of Rachel Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission”, Eikon 1.2 (Fall 2019): 111. Mark Jones, “A Review of Aimee Byrd’s, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” The Calvinist International, May 11, 2020, “she shows an eagerness to look at the texts that will support her arguments, but I was surprised at the omissions of certain texts that might appear salient to the concerns of the book.”

[35]  Carson, Moo, and Morris, 337, speak of a “broad consensus” that identifies as pseudonymous Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, the Pastoral letters, and 1–2 Peter.

[36] Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 37.

[37]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 45.

[38]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 46.

[39] A brief and accessible summary of the issues can be found in Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2005), 316–17.

[40]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:95.

[41]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:57.

[42]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:48n1.

[43]  Harnack, History of Dogma, 1:96.

[44]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 193–200.

[45]  Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 59.

[46]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 220–23.

[47]  Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 138.

[48]  Aimee Byrd, “Peeling Yellow Wallpaper,” June 16, 2020,

[49]  I summarize some of the problems with Harnack’s historiography in “The Heart of Our Faith is a Person: Cyril and Protestants Today,” Logos Academic Blog, January 2, 2020, A more thorough discussion may be found in Donald M. Fairbairn, “Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 2 (June, 2007): 289–310.

[50]  For the importance of classical metaphysics for exegesis and theology, see Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), chapter 3, “The Theological Metaphysics of the Great Tradition.”

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