Dear Church Family,
In the sermon this past Sunday, I spoke of the danger of the encroachment of certain Gnostic beliefs upon the Church and the Christian faith. Specifically, we addressed the Gnostic tendency toward a disdain for the physical nature of things. In the sermon, I quoted from a book called, Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee concerning the Gnostic disdain of the sacraments. In that book, Lee describes Gnosticism as its own religion – a religion of despair, elitism, and syncretism.
After the sermon, I received a couple of questions about Gnosticism and what other beliefs are associated with this heresy. And, I suppose defining Gnosticism as a religion of despair, elitism, and syncretism is a bit too general. So, to better answer those questions, I thought I would provide a brief overview of the main points of the second chapter from Lee’s book, “Gnosticism as Heresy.”
Lee enumerates six contrasts between the teachings of Gnosticism and the Christian faith:
(1) An alienated humanity (Gnosticism) versus a good creation (Christianity)
The Bible insists that the creation was well made. At the end of each day of creation in Genesis 1, God saw that it was good. At the end of the sixth day, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Even despite the effects of the fall and the curse of sin and death, Christians still affirm that the created order retains some portion of that goodness with which it began.
Gnosticism, on the other hand, “simply cannot endorse that positive vision of the Creation…The basic issue is clear: gnosticism must deny any direct link between the Creation and God” (Lee, p 16). As a result of this line of thinking, God does not have any contact with the created order, Christ as our Savior could not have a true body, and Gospel accounts of the New Testament become allegorical myths.
(2) Knowledge that saves (Gnosticism) versus Knowledge of Mighty Acts (Christianity)
The Bible gives an account of the mighty, salvific acts of God: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). In the Scriptures, we have several things linked together: God the Father and God the Son, the Old and New Covenant, history and nature, the saving acts of God in the history of man.
In Gnosticism, salvation is not based upon a knowledge (and trust in) the mighty acts of God, but rather what Lee calls “”the imaginative treatment of a private vision.” According to Gnostic teaching, “To know Christ was not in any sense to have knowledge about the ‘historical man of flesh and blood’ but rather to be personally related to the mythical heavenly being who liberates humanity from historical concerns” (Lee, p 20). The Scriptures, then, are discounted as history and reinterpreted as a spring-board for speculation.
(3) Salvation through escape (Gnosticism) versus salvation through pilgrimage (Christianity)
Based in the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, the New Testament sees human existence – particularly the existence of the redeemed people of God – as a lifelong pilgrimage. The Apostle Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
For the Gnostic, “Knowledge of God required the exact opposite, a turning away from this world” (Lee, p 23). Because a person is essentially spirit, according to the Gnostic, man must realize that he does not belong in the cosmos – in this creation. He must escape his earthly existence. Thus, because the knowledge of God is thought to be pure only when it is unencumbered by time, place, or any other tangible ensnarement – such knowledge of God requires a total escape from the world.
(4) The knowing of self (Gnosticism) versus the believing community (Christianity)
In both the Old and New Testaments, the knowledge of God is not self-discoverable. God has revealed Himself in and through a community (His people, the Church), therefore He may be known only through that community. Indeed the Word of God is written on the heart, but God instructs His people to teach His Word diligently to their children in community (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). “Fellowship” (or koinonia, Acts 2:42; 2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 John 1:1-7) is a necessary element of the Christian life: “God is faithful, through whom you [plural] were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
For the Gnostic, salvation entails not being saved from sin, but being saved from ignorance. Thus, salvation is defined as an escape into the self where through introspection one finds the true knowledge. “The solitary nature of the religious quest is a continuing theme of gnostic literature…There is within this philosophy no real need for the other; the individual is a complete unit of faith and knowledge” (Lee, p 28). Of course, the end result of such an introspective search for the knowledge of God is that the god which one finds is nothing more than a reflection of one’s self.
(5) A spiritual elite (Gnosticism) versus ordinary people (Christianity)
In his first epistle to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Far from an elitist mentality that privileges the super-knowledgeable or super-spiritual, the Bible warns that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
In contrast, the Gnostics often divided humanity into three categories: (1) “the somatic ones who were content to exist on a bodily level;” (2) “the psychics who functioned at the level of mind, intellect, emotions – the commonsense types who composed the ‘many’ in the Church;” and (3) “the pneumatics, or gnostikoi, who were worthy of understanding the mysteries” (Lee, p 34). This hierarchical view of humanity is clearly seen in the Gnostic work, The Gospel of Thomas, as it retells the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in pursuit of the one lost sheep. In the New Testament Gospel accounts (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:1-7), the good shepherd chooses to go after the one lost sheep because the one needs him, not because he is unconcerned for the other ninety-nine. In the Gospel of Thomas, upon finding the one lost sheep, the shepherd says to the sheep, “I love you more than the ninety-nine”!
(6) Selective syncretism (Gnosticism) versus particularity (Christianity)
For Biblical Christianity, there is an exclusive particularism. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no once comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). The Apostle Peter boldly declared that the one way of salvation was through Jesus Christ: “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And, this particular way of salvation was through the particular Jesus of the incarnation: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3).
In contrast, Gnosticism is a system of religious plagiarism. “The gnostic appropriation of every useful symbol or idea is often referred to as the syncretistic aspect of the gnostic type” (Lee, p 40). As long as an idea or belief could be seen as spiritually edifying, the Gnostic could appropriate it to his own version of ‘the knowledge of God.’ Thus, Jesus Christ is viewed simply as a vague spiritualized being, and one among many. Augustine was a member, for a time, of a gnostic sect of the second century known as the Manichaeans. “Augustine explains that, for them, Jesus not only was revealed light, but was present everywhere: he signified ‘man’s life and man’s salvation hanging on every tree’” (Lee, p 42).
My intent in providing this summary of Lee’s points is not simply so that we may learn a bit of history about a heresy that arose in the early church. My hope is that, by learning and understanding the ways in which Gnosticism is contrasted with Biblical Christianity, we might be better able to spot these Gnostic tendencies today. For, make no mistake, you will find these Gnostic tendencies being taught alongside Christian orthodoxy, and you may even find them in your own thinking. In fact, in the remainder of Against the Protestant Gnostics (more than 200 pages), Lee shows how these teachings of Gnosticism have wormed their way into Christian teachings, particularly in North American Protestantism.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch