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Die Hellenization Thesis! Die!

Derrick Peterson has been writing heroic essays for quite some time now, but I have only just recently stumbled upon him. Still, better late than never, and this post from May 25th really does tear down the old “Hellenization Thesis”–the idea that Greek culture or philosophy partially or mostly corrupted a prior “Hebraic” way of thinking which then contributed to the creation of flawed Christian theological dogmas– and salt the academic earth around it. In the process of all of that, it also gives us a carefully documented source-list of contrary evidence, historical and methodological. An early and lengthier post on the same topic from 2010 can be found here.

For more work against the evermore-discredited Hellenization thesis, see J.B. Skemp’s very valuable book The Greeks and the Gospel. In a past essay, we also made these remarks about the current state of scholarship on this subject:

James Barr is widely considered to have given the decisive refutation of the thought that the Bible is opposed to “the Greek mind” or natural theology, but there has been a great deal of more research done in the last forty years to put this old saw to rest. Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism stands out as noteworthy. There has also been the work of Cyrus Gordon, particularly his The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, and J. B. Skemp’s The Greeks and the Gospel, the first chapter of which is available here. More recent work continues this trend. John Pairman Brown’s Israel and Hellas is formidable and compelling, as is the work of Dale Martin and William V. Rowe. Lewis Ayres helpfully summarizes the recent academic move away from the “Hellenization” thesis:

At this point I think it is also important to note that the emergence of post-Bauerian understandings of orthodoxy has occurred alongside the two other significant developments in early Christian studies. The first is the gradual emergence of consciously post-Harnackian modes of scholarship. I do not refer here to the rejection of Harnack’s organic model of the development of doctrine in the abstract, but to the manner in which he described the development of Christian thought as stages in the progress of “hellenization.” Harnack’s account of hellenized Judaism and of the gradual hellenization of Christianity itself traced a trajectory that involved downplaying the significance of exegetical argument, a valuation of all Jewish tradition other than that which participated in this trajectory as outmoded, and an understanding of doctrinal formulation as always balanced on a knife-edge between the search for new modes of philosophical expression and universality and the desire to return to an institutionalized superstition. While Harnackian perspectives still occasionally appear, the best studies of the last fifty years have found the rejection of his views to be a stimulus for good scholarship. Most importantly, this rejection has resulted in the shaping of many new questions about how we might understand doctrinal debate as both exegetical and philosophical in character. The best studies are those which trace in detail modes of argument while being attentive to the inseparability of categories of argument that have become divorced in modern theological practice. One important corollary of these shifts is a move away from a Dogmengeschichte that focuses solely on the evolution of the formulae of orthodoxy toward modes of historical theology that focus on the wider matrices of belief within which such formulae function.

Among other things, this quote shows that the modern rejection of “Hellenization” is not simply a continuation of ancient Hebraicism, but is rather an offshoot of modern liberal criticism, and it is a trend which is fading, like all liberal criticism– and God be praised for that.

In our experience, however, these things just don’t stay dead. And so the next time the Hellenization thesis tries to claw its way out of the ground, we’ll know to call Mr. Peterson.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.