Gnosticism: The Heresy That Keeps on Troubling the Church

We can not be absolutely certain about the origins of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism but it may have been birthed as a pseudo-Christian heresy in the first century by the man named Simon Magus, a Samaritan sorcerer (magus actually means magician) who is named in the Book of Acts. Some church fathers, in a type of prophetic way, referred to him as the progenitor of all heresies. He had a consort named Helen and had about thirty disciples who traveled with him. He attracted significant crowds with special revelations, esoteric insights and various kinds of "signs and wonders." So impressive was his reputation as a miracle worker that the Romans made a statue in his honor which said: "To Simon, the Holy God." Arland Hultgren, in his scholarly book The Earliest Christian Heretics (Fortress Press, 1996) says that many of his fellow countrymen in Samaria regarded him as their deity. Simon even prophesied that he would rise on the third day thus prompting church fathers to see him as the "false messiah" warned about in Matthew's Gospel.

Here the link is unclear. Some think Simon's followers became the first Christian Gnostics. The book of Acts records his conversion experience and baptism by Philip (around AD 40). Simon, in other words, had a great conversion experience and then filled his mind and ministry with his own unique revelations. The church, unlike so many such figures today, soundly condemned Simon Magus. Giovanni Filoramo, in A History of Gnosticism (Blackwell, 1992), says, "The ancient defenders of the Christian faith regarded [Magus] as the heresiarch pare excellence, the incarnation of evil, which in his own way succeeded in spreading the discord of heresy."

The earliest Christian preachers and teachers saw Gnosticism as a direct threat to the gospel of Christ. Historian Paul Johnson grasps the importance of this when he writes:" The most dangerous Gnostics were those who had, intellectually, thought their way quite inside Christianity, and then produced a variation, which wrecked the system. Paul fought hard against Gnosticism, recognizing that it might cannibalize Christianity and destroy it" (A History of Christianity, Touchstone).

I think the danger the early apostles and church fathers saw in Gnosticism was that this belief system would eventually direct the faithful away from the outward-focused, world-redeeming, servant-steward mission of the church. Gnostics twisted words and meanings so as to create a great indifference toward the physical world. Matter was evil, spirit was good. Gnosticism was focused inwardly on escape from the wicked world.

Paul Johnson adds that "Gnosticism was and indeed still is a spiritual parasite which used other religions as a carrier. Christianity fitted into this role very well" (A History of Christianity). It combined elements of popular teaching with Greek Platonism, Jewish philosophy and near Eastern myths.

Question: Is it possible that modern American Christianity has unwittingly, or otherwise, syncretized major elements of Gnosticism into its faith system? Not only is it possible it has happened and is happening. It happens not so much by bold statements of defiant heresy as it does by concessions to popular culture. Protestant writer Philip J. Lee, in one of the finest books on this subject I have ever read, says, "The decline of an authentic Protestantism and the ascending of Gnostic Christianity in North America have wrought horrendous results and threatens even more tragic consequences in the future" (Against the Protestant Gnostics, Oxford). Lee adds, "If G.K. Chesterton was right in describing America as a nation with the soul of a church, then that is one thing. But when America becomes a nation with the soul of a Gnostic church, that is quite another."

What made Gnosticism so powerful in the earliest era of the church? It was seductive in its appeal. Put seduction with creedless modern evangelical Christianity and you have the breeding ground of modern Gnostic errors. And you have few teachers who recognize this since the Gnostics always insist that they are Christians. Philip J. Lee concludes: "Despite the vast cultural differences between North American Protestantism and ancient Gnosticism, the parallels between the two innovations can no longer be ignored."

American churches adopted an anti-intellectual stance in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals took this to a whole new level of expression. The result has been little concern for carefully thought out orthodoxy married to little or no concern for love and for real people in community. We have majored on saving the soul of a person without making real disciples. The fruit is bittersweet, even heretical at many points. You hear it routinely when we denounce the physical world as bad when Christ came to live in this world and redeem it precisely because the God who created it as good still deeply loves it.

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