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Monday, October 08, 2012

Gnostic Christianity

Who exactly were the Gnostic Christians, and what did they believe? You would be hard pressed to go into your local bookstore, iBooks or Kindle and find books on Gnostic Christianity. There just is not a raving passion for studying it. Only a handful of scholars keep the dream alive of Gnostic Christianity.

There is some discussion among scholars as to the position of Gnostic Christians in the early Church. Some, like Profs. Karen King and Elaine Pagels of Harvard and Princeton, respectively, put the Gnostics squarely in the Christian fold. Others, like Prof. James Voelz of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, postulate that they should not even rightly be called Christians. It is true that Gnostic philosophy had infiltrated some corners of the Church throughout the mid-1st and early 2nd centuries (the Apostles Paul and John deal with this Gnostic influence in some of their New Testament writings), but these Gnostic groups were never part of the mainstream Church in terms of numbers, leadership or influence. This may be in part because the apostles  effectively checked their influence with their authority and teaching. 

Gnosticism comes from the Greek word γνωσις (knowledge), and it is a philosophy that held two key ideals: 1. matter is evil and the spirit is good, and 2. God is infinitely divorced from the world. Gnosticism, therefore, fit easily within the framework of Greek philosophy and thought in the first and second centuries. These ideals, however, are both unbiblical. 

Prof. James Voelz of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis believes Gnosticism is a merging of Platonism, Persian, Judaism and Christianity ideas. He also sees similarities between Gnosticism’s secret-saving knowledge and its modern offshoots in Masonic Lodges and Mormonism. He rightly identifies Gnosticism not as a Christian heresy but as an completely different religion. 

The Gnostic Christians believed Christians could and should receive a special knowledge to advance up the ladder of spirituality and salvation. This knowledge was something other and different from what was written in the books of the New Testament.  This belief separated them from the rank and file Christians. In this sense, the Gnostic Christians were a type of Christian Masonic Lodge where one moved up the ladder by obtaining the secret knowledge known to those in the community who had received it directly from Jesus or by someone higher up than they in the community. It is easy to see why the early Church and her theologians fought against these Gnostic Christians, for they added to the accepted Scriptures. This is the history of all the sects and heresies: they add documents to the Bible that are put on par with, or above, Holy Scripture. As such, the Gnostic Christians had separated themselves from all the other churches by adding to the accepted canon of Scripture. In part, this is why the early Church began to put together an authoritative list of what books were Holy Scripture, and which were not. In 397, the Council of Carthage established the authorized canonical list to be the 27 books in what we currently have in the New Testament. Earlier theologians and bishops had lists (as early as 170), all of which basically agreed with the accepted list compiled in 397. None of their individual lists included any sort of Gnostic Christian writings. By the way, these canonical lists were based on the witness to the antiquity and apostolicity of the various canonical books, rather than decreeing that the canon contained certain books. Furthermore, the Gnostic Gospels were merely a collection of Jesus' sayings, wisdom and knowledge. They rarely mention or quote the Old Testament. There are no miracles in them, and they did not focus on Jesus' death and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Prof. King's papyrus fragment seems to fall into this type of literature. The Gnostic Christian texts were never seriously entertained by many Christians as legitimate representations of the faith. Although some, like Pagels and King believe and teach otherwise. 

The Gnostics tried to merge their philosophy with Christianity. Where Judaism and Christianity emphasize the role of faith alone in salvation and the salvation of both body and soul, Gnostics taught that the soul’s salvation depended on the individual possessing quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulas. Gnosticism fundamentally rejected the Old Testament, its theology about the goodness of creation and especially the idea that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham and his faith. We see the beginnings of this clash between Judeo-Christian theology and classic Greek philosophy already in the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. In chapter 15 where he discusses the resurrection, Paul is dealing with the Gnostic aversion that the body would be resurrected and reunited with the soul. The Greeks only believed in an eternal soul that sheds off the body at death. They didn’t care about a resurrection, because being rid of the corrupt body freed the pure soul. In Greek thought, a resurrection would be a step back, for the body imprisoned the soul and death released the soul. Paul teaches in this letter that Christianity is anchored in Christ’s resurrection, and our own. Gnostic Christians found this, the central teaching of the Christian faith, to be distasteful. 
There is no strong evidence to suggest that the Gnostic Christians vied with the orthodox from the beginning. The earliest discovered Gnostic Christian document is the Gospel of Thomas which appears about 130. This is well after the New Testament books were already recognized as authoritative and widely circulated, read and accepted as Scripture. 

The Gospel of Thomas draws on most of these New Testament documents and adds some new ideas about Jesus and faith. All other major Gnostic Christian texts—like the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Mary, and so on—are clearly written in the second and third centuries. This is well after the Christian Scriptures are collected and accepted as a canon of texts. These canonical lists were used to evaluate other Christian writings in light of those that were apostolic. Among the second-century lists of authoritative Scriptures, the Gnostic texts are never listed—not even by the unorthodox, Gnostic-leaning Marcion in 140. There was never a time when a wide selection of books, including Gnostic ones, were widely deemed acceptable in the Church. 

In light of the fact that Gnosticism clashed with several important aspects of the Old and New Testaments, Gnostic „Christians“ don’t deserve to even be regarded as a legitimate development of the Christian faith, and therefore don’t fall into the category of Christian sects, but as a completely new religion that is antithetical to Christianity. And yet, Profs. King and Pagels argue that they are a viable and important part in the life of the early Church. Prof. King even shies away from labeling the Gnostic Christians as heretics or even Gnostic. While studying Gnostic "Christianity" might be beneficial for learning about life in general in the 2nd and 3rd centuries in the Middle East, we are not going to learn anything about the early Church since the Gnostics were not a recognized part of the believers. No amount of essays, books and presentations by Profs. King and Pagels is going to change the course of history. It is not about the victors writing the history, but about Gnostic Christianity being a dog that simply won't hunt. The Church rejected the Gnostics. They survived for a few centuries as eccentrics here and there, but in the end their ideals and philosophy simply did not carry and win the debate or the day. 

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