The most pernicious and troubling of all heresies that the Christian church has battled against since the days of the church fathers has been Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a term used to describe a religious movement of the early Christian centuries which laid special emphasis upon knowledge (Greek: gnosis) of God and of the nature and destiny of man. This knowledge—"of who we were or where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth" (Clement of Alexandria)—was believed by ancients to have redeeming power. It could liberate the soul from the sway of cosmic forces. The earliest information we have about Gnosticism comes from the writings of Christians who opposed it; e.g. Irenaeus (iconic image above), Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Tertullian, etc. They saw it, and its unique gospel, as a deadly enemy of the true gospel of Christ. The famous scholar Adolph Harnack called Gnosticism "the acute Hellenization of Christianity."

A one-sentence description of Gnosticism, offered at a popular Web site on the subject, says:

[Gnosticism is] a religion that differentiates the evil god of this world (who is identified with the god of the Old Testament) from a higher more abstract God revealed by Jesus Christ, a religion that regards this world as the creation of a series of evil archons/powers who wish to keep the human soul trapped in an evil physical body, a religion that preaches a hidden wisdom or knowledge only to a select group as necessary for salvation or escape from this world.

Scholars disagree about both the origins and developments of Gnosticism. I have my own opinions, which are fairly standard in their direction, but I hold them quite loosely. One thing I am sure about. Gnosticism drew from many sources. It was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic writing, by the Wisdom literature, by Greek philosophy and by Philo of Alexandria. Gnostics made extensive use of biblical texts, especially from the Old Testament, and most especially from the early chapters of Genesis. Like all real heresies it borrowed from the Scripture and other literature to create a pattern of thought and practice that proved unfaithful to the apostolic witness.

Gnosticism, based upon more recent research of texts, seems to have been a serious attempt to deal with the human predicament by rejecting this world as inherently evil. The material world is not God's creation but the work of an inferior being, or beings. Gnosticism's chief characteristics are: (1) A radical cosmic dualism that pits good and evil in a battle in which the outcome is in doubt. (2) A distinction between the unknown transcendent true God and the creator. Eventually the god of the Old Testament became a demiurge, a god who is not the same God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3) Man in his true nature is essentially akin to the divine, thus there is a spark of the divine, the heavenly light, imprisoned in the human body. (4) A myth which is often used to narrate some pre-mundane fall, to account for man's present state and his yearning for deliverance. (5) The saving gnosis by which human deliverance is effected and man awakened to recognition of his true nature and heavenly origin.

If you read the five characteristics carefully you can see the subtlety of it all. Gnostics very often used the same language and words as orthodox Christian writers. The creation story in Genesis became the story of a hostile demiurge who wanted to hold mankind in subjection through a lack of gnosis. Like so many heresies, Gnosticism employed Christian words in ways that were often neutral and thus they can only be understood in a Gnostic context. You need a scorecard to know the players in this instance. Only with a specific knowledge of gnostic systems can you begin to see the deadly error for what it really is.

An illustration will suffice to show my point here. The distinctly Christian elements of the gospel narrative make no real difference in Gnosticism. You can substitute almost anyone, or any idea, for Jesus' actual life, death and resurrection and get the same message.

Did Gnosticism plague the apostles in the first century? We are not sure. Some think there is evidence that elements of it were already there but the full flower came in the second and third centuries. Irenaeus called Simon Magus "the father of all heresies" and suggested he was a kind of proto-Gnostic. What seems apparent is that the New Testament era seems rather fluid when it comes to the role Gnosticism had directly in attacking the faith. But this would soon change. Perhaps Gnostic and heretical ideas co-existed alongside of orthodox ones for a time. But we know for sure that the church eventually saw this great heresy for what it was, an all out attack on the core of Christian orthodoxy.

The great nineteenth century theologian and church historian Phillip Schaff wrote: [Gnosticism] is a peculiar translation or transfusion of heathen philosophy and religion into Christianity." Schaff saw elements of Gnosticism in his own day, especially in parts of the growing revivalism of his time. N. T. Wright, a modern scholar, adds: "Gnosticism in one or other of its many forms has been making a huge comeback in our day. Sometimes this has been explicit, as for instance in the New Age movements and similar spiritualities that encourage people to discover who they really are. Just as often, though, Gnosticism of a different sort has been on offer within would-be mainstream traditional orthodoxy."

My question is simple, but I think quite profound? Have Christians in the West slowly embraced a type of Gnostic influence without understanding the implications or errors of this kind of thinking? We have turned increasingly inward and looked for peace and comfort, rather than salvation and discipleship. We have been taught to pray a simple prayer to accept Jesus, which can sound awfully like incantation in the way we employ the method. We are then told to begin a journey inward, rather than outward toward the created world that will become the "new heavens and new earth" when Christ returns. We are taught that we should desire to "escape" the world and that the Rapture will get us out of this sinful place. We are then urged to tell others about this rather distorted message that we call the "simple gospel."

All of this has led us away from the world to the margins of society. From the margins we began, back in the 1970s, to throw bombs at the culture and the producers of popular media and art. We lost our moral standing, we had no compelling message for people who knew they needed to live in this present world and we spoke about escaping to the next world, somewhere off in the by-and-by. This came to a boiling point in the popular book, The Late Great Planet Earth (Hal Lindsey) and then the even more popular Left Behind books. There are those who think this material has little or no influence on the church. I am not one of them. I think we have an entire generation that believes in the theology of "I'll fly away" and the result is chaos in many churches.

Question: If we have seen so many real conversions, as claimed, since 1970, where have all the disciples gone? Why does all the evidence say these converts have no coherent Christian worldview? What happened?

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  1. R. Sherman February 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I certainly have no disagreement with the Gnosticism = Heresy thesis. As with most heresies which are not based upon some new, additional revelation but rather stem from a question, it seems “christian gnosticism” comes from a misreading of certain scripture, e.g. Romans 12:2. That said, Solomon reminds us that “all is vanity” in this world.
    Alas, I don’t follow the ultimate conclusions you reach in your last two paragraphs. I certainly agree that Christ’s message is one of salvation and abundant life, but such abundance does not equate to earthly riches or accolades. Stated differently, what is the message which we Christians should have been preaching from early 1970s on?
    As for withdrawing to the margins of society and “throwing bombs” at the cultural institutions, again, I’m not sure I get your points. Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, I seem to recall the beginnings of social rejection of the Judeao-Christian ethic, primarily born from the post-modern desire to “deconstruct” everything in sight. Thus, values which a mere ten or twenty years before were unquestioned were now open to criticism and rejection.
    Stated differently, Christians didn’t withdraw from the world, the world withdrew from us.
    The bottom line, I think, is given that because of Original Sin, our world/universe is flawed place, requiring the sacrificial atonement of God Himself to fix, we are going to be confronted with a Good/Evil Dualism, which will exist until the End of Days. The fact that we contemplate that and long for God’s victory over sin and death, is not necessarily an indication that we’re going off the doctrinal rails.

  2. Bill Kinnon February 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    This is a good and timely post, John. I’ve pointed it out to my Twitter friends.
    The siren call of Hip Gnosis (forgive the pun) is alive and well, unfortunately, in the church.

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