Gnosticism Reimagined? (Part 2)

SecretKnowledgeGnosticism Defined

Before we delve into the evidence it’s important to define Gnosticism.  Otherwise we’ll be talking about a theological label rather than an actual heretical belief system.

The Encyclopædia Britannica’s online article defines Gnosticism as follows (emphasis added).

Many of the so-called gnostic groups are characterized by a mythology that distinguishes between an inferior creator of the world (a demiurge) and a more transcendent god or order of being.  Another frequently encountered theme is that there is a special class or race of humans that is descended from the transcendent realm and is destined to achieve salvation and to return to its spiritual origins. Salvation is understood as a revelation that reawakens knowledge (gnosis) of the race’s divine identity; in contrast, the more “orthodox” Christian emphasis is on redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In order to understand what’s to follow its important to delve more deeply into some of these key concepts.  These Gnostic ideas are generally at odds with orthodox Christian doctrine, and, on many central points are in direct contradiction.  Thus, Gnosticism isn’t another perspective on Christianity.  No, it’s an irreconcilably false set of ideas about Christianity.

The Demiurge

One key concept is that of an inferior God, the “demiurge.”  The web site Theopedia describes the Gnostic belief in two Gods as follows.

God is wholly transcendent, that is, he is far removed from his creation. He did not create the material universe because it was instead created by an evil or lesser God, sometimes called a “demiurge”. God is thus too perfect and pure to have much to do with the evilness of the material universe.

The Scriptures

The Christian History magazine has devoted an issue to Gnosticism.  The following excerpt discusses the implications of this belief on interpretation of Scripture (emphasis assed).

Gnostics identified the evil god/creator with the God of the Old Testament; this had profound implications for their understanding of Scripture and the history of Israel. …

… the Gnostic approach was far more denigrating of the Jewish heritage. In fact, one classic passage in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth uses Isaiah 45:5-6 to show that the God of Israel is inferior; a true God would never need to declare that he was the only God. This text also includes a fascinating litany that states, in parallel fashion, that “Adam was a joke,” followed by naming Abraham, David, Solomon, the 12 prophets, and Moses also as jokes! The capstone is the declaration that the God of the Jewish Scripture is also a joke. Each litany ends with the words “we have not sinned,” referring to the Gnostics’ claim to proper spiritual understanding. (This is an interesting declaration in light of 1 John 1:8- 2:2, which clearly states that those who claim not to have sinned are in error.) Gnostic interpretation of Scripture, therefore, often made the villains into heroes and the heroes into villains. For example, Eve and the serpent in the garden were the ones really in touch with the knowledge of the ultimate God; the inferior creator misled humanity. (In fact, some Gnostic groups were known as the Naassenes or Ophites, from the Hebrew and Greek words for “serpent.”) The 20th-century classics scholar Arthur Darby Nock once quipped that all one needed to do to create Gnosticism was to turn Genesis upside down and do inverse interpretation!

In other words, in order to create Gnosticism we need to directly contradict the teaching of Scripture.  This inversion of Scripture isn’t limited to Genesis.  For example, in the Gnostic view, Judas Iscariot was the hero of the passion story.

Salvation by “Special Knowledge”

Gnostic belief in salvation by “special knowledge” is highlighted by the following Gnostic writings quoted in Christian History magazine.

This, therefore, is the true testimony: When man comes to know himself and God who is over the truth, he will be saved, and he will crown himself with the crown unfading. — The Testimony of Truth

The Savior said to them: “I want you to know that all men born on earth from the foundations of the world until now, being dust, while they have inquired about God, who he is and what he is like, have not found him. … But to you it is given to know; and whoever is worthy of knowledge will receive (it) … ” — The Sophia of Jesus Christ

Dualistic Worldview

Gnostic dualism regarding both God and creation is summarized in Christian History magazine.

From a Gnostic perspective, the material world is not just fallen but an utterly flawed creation, beyond redemption. God—or at least, the good, true God—certainly does not work in history. Escape is only available to the small minority who know, who recognize the need for liberation, which lies within. Wisdom, Sophia, is for the spiritual, the elite, and distinguishes them from the gullible herd of humans mired in the material, the victims of cosmic deception. They will remain asleep, while the true Gnostic is awakened.

Note also the central place of an elite who possess a “special knowledge” unavailable to the ignorant masses in this passage.

The Gnostic Christ

Gnostic rejection of Christ’s humanity is highlighted by the following Gnostic writings quoted in Christian History magazine.  This rejection flows from Gnostic dualism, which conceives of the spirit as “all good” and the material world as “all evil.”  Thus it is inconceivable that God (i.e., Christ) would actually partake of the material world through the Incarnation.  For, to so do is to soil the perfection of spirit with the vile evil of the material world.

But I [Christ] was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. But I did not die in reality but in appearance … it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.” — The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

[Jesus said to Judas:] “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. … Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.” — The Gospel of Judas

Although there is much more that could be conveyed about Gnosticism, this should be sufficient as a foundation for what follows.  Readers can find much more by following the provided links.

Road, meet Rubber

Let me conclude by asking a question.  Given the above description, were a church’s leadership found to be strongly influenced by or theologically open to  Gnosticism, would you view this as:

  1. A liberating good;
  2. Of no consequence one way to the other;
  3. A devastating indictment?

What follows may well force you to answer this question as a practical matter.

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