Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch14:1:Extensive pagan and Hellenist influence in Christianity

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Extensive pagan and Hellenist influence in Christianity

Extensive pagan and Hellenist influence in Christianity

Perhaps the foremost living authority on the history of Christianity, the German Lutheran scholar Heinrich Bornkamm, has stated in a recent book that there are just two periods in church history; the first, he says, is that of "Hellenization, that is, the absorption of antique sacramental religion into the early Catholic and Medieval Church," and the second is the period of "the purging of the Church of these foreign elements following the Reformation, that is, the epoch of recapturing the prophetic religiosity of Primitive Christianity." Read in the light of conventional church histories of the past, this statement is really quite an astonishing admission: first of the extent to which alien and unchristian things came to displace the real gospel; and second of the fact that any return to the pure religion of Christ must necessarily be a return to prophetic religion. Can such a return be achieved by reformation? It cannot. For one thing, Bornkamm speaks as if the pagan elements in Christianity were a single concrete intrusion of a foreign body into the organism, a hard, unassimilated lump which needed simply to be rejected in one piece to restore perfect health to the ailing system. Yet no one knows or describes better than Bornkamm how long and thorough the process of assimilation has been. The teachings of the schools and the practices of the world have become an integral part of the organism; they have transformed it completely; we have already quoted scholars of various faiths who all marvel at the perfect organic union of the Christian and classical traditions into a new and perfectly integrated whole. Could the church suddenly and easily slough off what had been completely assimilated into its very being for over a thousand years, to return again to what she had been before the great compromise with the world? Can one reconvert a petrified organism that has been transmuted from one substance to another through the centuries, molecule by molecule? Or, to use the figure employed by the Lord himself, when salt has lost its savor there is only one thing to do with it—throw it out (Matthew 5:13). To corrupt the gospel is to lose it; the plan of salvation and the Church of Jesus Christ may not be changed without being lost and when lost may not be regained by any process of reformation. This is not narrowness or pedantry; we see it in all our basic institutions.[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 13, references silently removed—consult original for citations.