On Gnosticism, An Introduction

If you have studied the early church, and if you are a student of history this term is used quite often. At the same time, while it is used, and while it rings a heretical tone, yet, I am not so sure the Church realizes how much Gnosticism is infecting her.

The reality is we all battle and struggle with Gnosticism in our lives, whether we know it or not. Gnosticism is very pervasive in our thinking.

But let me begin by defining Gnosticism. The word comes from the Greek gnosis, which means “learned or knowledge.” We all like knowledge and we all desire to be learned. But the real question is “what kind of knowledge were the Gnostics after?” The Gnostics were after a knowledge that was esoteric; that is, knowledge understood only by a few. It was a special type of knowledge. And this knowledge would bring them salvation. What kind of salvation? Salvation of the soul from a material world.[1] For the Gnostics, the world was created a demiurge.[2] The Demiurge was a producer; a creator-type figure. The Gnostics did not believe that the Triune God created the world. Rather they believed that the world was created by this monstrous demiurge. And because they believed this demiurge was evil, therefore creation was evil. Now we can spend quite some time talking about the myths[3] regarding the origin of demiurge, but I want to focus on the philosophy of it. There are actually many gnostic groups, and they all have different views of who Jesus was. Some claim he was merely a human who attained this gnosis; this secret knowledge. We are to follow Jesus because he learned the way to abandon the body. He was the one who freed his soul from the material world.

For Gnosticism the only way to escape this world of matter is to abandon matter; to abandon the material and seek for this abstract, inner knowledge of the soul.

The more we forsake the things of this world, the more spiritual we become. Gnosticism is turning away from the world. It says that the world was not given to us for our pleasure, but for pain. The world is a form of mini-purgatory, and only when we find escape from it will we get out of this purgatory.

Historically, Gnosticism denied the Christ of the Bible. Christians have rejected Gnosticism, and have stated unequivocally that it is a heresy. The Church has rejected this in many statements and creeds. One of the greatest Gnostics that ever lived—who was condemned by the Church– was a man by the name of Marcion. His movement survived until the fifth century, but it lingers today in some ways even in the Church. Marcion denied the God of the Old Testament because He cared too much about the flesh, food, and fun. But the New Testament God, Marcion argued, was all about the spiritual. The Church rejected Marcionism, but there is no doubt this idea is very much prevalent in our culture.

Gnosticism is not dead. The fact is that Gnosticism is more alive than ever in our world, and in the Christian Church. You may say: “but no true Christian denies the deity of Jesus and no true Christian denies that God created the world, and no true Christian denies that the God of the Old Testament was the True God.” This is true. But how many Christians have bought into an intellectualized faith that treats the gospel as some secret knowledge? How many Christians have tried to separate the soul and the body in the way they think and live? How many Christians have tried to separate Christ from this world, by saying that Christ is really not concerned about this world? How many Christians affirm God created the world, while openly talking about escaping it? Christians today may deny Gnosticism as a system, but imbibe of the gnostic fountain daily

This is why we need to continue to reform our lives, our culture, our thinking, our education, etc. Take for example, the innocent words of the old gospel hymn I used to sing growing up:

“This world is not my home, I am just passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”

Now, here is what God said:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Proverbs 8 says that wisdom rejoiced in his inhabited world and delighted in the children of man. Wisdom here can refer to God’s joy of creation.

Or Paul, who says in I Timothy that “God is the one who gives us all things to enjoy.”

Make no mistake. The Bible cautions the rich to not allow their possessions to lord over them, but at the same time God gives us all things so we may learn that this is our Father’s world.

Or think about this more popular hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.[4]

What they are trying to say is that by looking to Jesus the things of earth like sin and worldly pleasures will not have the same draw and attraction. But this is not how most people understand it. In fact, I remember hearing this hymn quoted by pastors who were preaching against the sin of drinking. In other words, the pleasures of this world are separated from Christ. It would have been more theologically accurate to say: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus…and our perspective of earth will become clearer, not dimmer. Jesus—according to John 1—created and sustains the world. He gives us the world for our enjoyment. There is no Biblical evidence that suggests we are called to escape this world. There is Biblical evidence that suggests we apply a heavenly ethic to our dealings, but never to wish to escape from it.

A few years ago, Pastor Mark Dever asked the aging Carl F. Henry—who was dying—if he longed to leave earth. Henry replied: “How can I? There is still so much to do here.” Carl Henry wrote some of the greatest works on Christian culture.

The reality is evangelicals are Gnostics in more ways than imagined.

Let’s take worship as an example:

We tend to marginalize the Pentecostals for being too emotional, but God expresses emotions. So the Reformed response is typically to avoid emotions. We do not want to express emotions, because that would be a sign of weakness.

This is not the image we get from the Scriptures. God actually commands emotions from us. What does Paul say? He says “Rejoice, I say, and again I say rejoice.” This is a command; not optional.

This idea of somberness, seriousness, and the idea that to have a dignified worship, we need to avoid joy is really Gnosticism creeping in.

Another example of this relates to physical expressions in worship. James Jordan writes:

“Evangelicals hear God command in Psalm 95, “O Come, let us worship and fall down, let us kneel,” but they don’t do it. They only fall down and kneel inwardly. For some reason they think that such “inner kneeling” is all God really wants. God does not care what our bodies do, it seems. (75).”[5]

We tend to internalize religion. It’s about how we feel. It’s about our private time with Jesus. It’s about our personal meditation. The only problem with this is that it’s not in the Bible. Does the Bible talk about meditating in God’s word? Does the Bible talk about spending time with Jesus reading the Bible or something like it? Of course it does. But it says these things in a broader context. Internalizing religion or our faith is actually the opposite of what the Bible teaches. The Gospel is public news. When we begin to view these internal actions as substitutes for the real, substantive, external call of God, we are becoming better Gnostics without realizing it.

Personally, I have a Bible reading plan, a pastoral prayer in my office every day, but these are not ends in itself, they serve the broader community. Even our personal prayers need to be communal. I remember in college many of my dorm friends saying they were going to skip Sunday worship because they already had their “quiet time” as they called it. Why be with God’s people? I have already sought after this secret knowledge in my prayer. Why rub shoulders with other Christians? I have already done my duty. This would be the 21st century version of Gnosticism.

So how do we avoid Gnosticism?

Let me conclude with a few observations:

First, we need a good dose of creedalism.[6] We need to be immersed in the creeds of the Church. We need to believe it, confess it, and teach it. It is a summary of our faith. The Creeds were formed to fight heresies like Gnosticism. Let me encourage you to practice the Nicene Creed in your home when possible. Familiarize yourself with the content of it.

Second, we need to avoid the gnostic tendency in worship. Gnosticism strikes most at the place God values most. We can come at times into worship with a half-heartedness. But the call to worship is a call to come—body and soul—prepared to do battle. This means we need to begin talking about worship in holy war language. Worship is not just an exercise in piety; it is an exercise in war-making. When someone asks you: “How is worship like at Providence?” You should answer them: “It’s like going to war!” We hear war instructions and we fight the world with our weapon, the gospel.[7]

Third, we need to lose this common refrain in the evangelical circle: “relationship, not religion.” It is probably one of the most absurd ideas I have ever heard. Religion means a group of people agreeing with a set of beliefs. James 1 says that pure religion acts on behalf of the poor, widow, etc. Religion is a set of beliefs that lead to certain actions. But so many people like to internalize and privatize faith. If you have only a relationship, then you can say “the only thing that matters is my relationship with Jesus.” It takes away from the responsibility we have to the body of Christ. If it’s only about relationship, then no one can interfere in my faith. This mentality needs to be challenged. There is good intention that comes with it, but we need a re-structuring of the way we think about the world, lest Gnosticism creeps in. No, it’s not just about my personal relationship, it’s about structure, order, liturgy, people, bread, wine, water, joy, babies, creeds, music, psalms, and a lot more.

Finally, I believe that the greatest response to Gnosticism is the life of Jesus. Our Lord Jesus laughed, cried, ate, drank, died a bodily death, and was raised bodily. And this latter point is important, because there are some who believe all these things, except that Jesus was raised bodily. They believe Jesus was raised only as a soul. But the Scriptures speak of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His body still bore the scars of his death. The resurrection is the Christian response to Gnosticism.

Gnosticism reflects this internalization of the Christian life; a downgrading of the material world as evil from which we need escape and it diminishes the importance of creation. The Gospel says the abuse of the material world is evil, not its proper use. The Gospel says that our Father gave us a world full of joy, so we might become a people of joy.

[1] Gained some insights from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/demiurge  Greek δημιουργόςdēmiourgos, literally “public worker”, and which was originally a common noun meaning “craftsman” or “artisan”, but gradually it came to mean “producer” and eventually “creator”.

[3] The Myth of the Demiurge according to Wikipedia: One Gnostic mythos describes the declination of aspects of the divine into human form. Sophia (Greek: Σοφια, lit. “wisdom”), the Demiurge’s mother and a partial aspect of the divine Pleroma or “Fullness,” desired to create something apart from the divine totality, and without the receipt of divine assent. In this abortive act of separate creation, she gave birth to the monstrous Demiurge and, being ashamed of her deed, wrapped him in a cloud and created a throne for him within it. The Demiurge, isolated, did not behold his mother, nor anyone else, and thus concluded that only he himself existed, being ignorant of the superior levels of reality that were his birth-place.

The Demiurge, having stolen a portion of power from his mother, sets about a work of creation in unconscious imitation of the superior Pleromatic realm: He frames the seven heavens, as well as all material and animal things, according to forms furnished by his mother; working however blindly, and ignorant even of the existence of the mother who is the source of all his energy. He is blind to all that is spiritual, but he is king over the other two provinces. The word dēmiourgos properly describes his relation to the material; he is the father of that which is animal like himself.[12]

Thus Sophia’s power becomes enclosed within the material forms of humanity, themselves entrapped within the material universe: the goal of Gnostic movements was typically the awakening of this spark, which permitted a return by the subject to the superior, non-material realities which were its primal source.

 

[5] James B. Jordan. Creation in Six Days: A Traditional Reading of Genesis 1

[6] Creedal theology.

[7] The Bible does speak about the things of the heart, but mainly because the heart is a reflection of the actions of the person. When there is impurity in our lives, our hearts need be cleansed by repentance continually.

 

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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7 Responses to On Gnosticism, An Introduction

  1. Pingback: 120119–George Hach’s journal–Thursday | George Hach's Blog

  2. reyjacobs says:

    Romans and Galatians are an introductions to Gnosticism.

  3. reyjacobs says:

    You can oppose songs like “This world is not my home, I am just passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue” to a quote from Genesis “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” But its Paul who says our citizenship is not on earth but in heaven. The whole escaping the world thing is there. You cannot deny Paul’s Gnosticism. Nor can you deny that the first to use the Pauline epistles were the Gnostics: Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides.

  4. reyjacobs says:

    Nor can you deny that in 2nd Cor 3-4 there is the theme of the Demiurge in Paul where he opposes “the god of this world” (who he says blinds the Jews against the gospel) to another god, “the God who said let the light of the gospel shine.” He speaks of two gods. He is a Gnostic. You will say “he is merely speaking of the devil when he says ‘god of this world’” yet it is clear enough that in no orthodox sense can the devil be termed a god. And since he connects this ‘god of this world’ with the Old Testament in alleging that this ‘god’ uses the Old Testament to blind the Jews, he clearly is teaching the Gnostic concept of the demiurge. Paul is a Gnostic.

  5. Uri Brito says:

    Concerning your first question, I would strongly encourage you to buy http://www.americanvision.com/myths-lies-and-half-truths/ This answers that common misinterpretation. We are called to impress heaven’s pattern on earth.
    I would also encourage you to take a listen to my Ephesians’ series where I address your concerns: http://www.wordmp3.com/search.aspx?search=ephesians+uri+brito

    Paul is alluding to a heavenly ethic. Our citizenship is heavenly; heaven, which has now descended upon earth through the inauguration of the kingdom realities in Jesus Christ.

  6. Uri Brito says:

    Concerning you second point, no orthodox believer would argue that way, and as far as I know no commentator would assume something so absurd.
    The god of this age, the devil, was bound in the coming of Jesus (Heb. 2:14; Romans 16:20). The god of this age lost his power in the coming of the New Age after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Please see N.T. Wright on these issues. He will be compelling, and biblically clear. Peace.

  7. Pingback: Gnosticism « Earthpages.ca

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