February 23, 2007

Gnosticism and My "Worthless" Seminary Training

A few weeks ago, I ran across a pastor who was mocking the seminary education one his staff members was receiving. One of my pet peeves is the arrogance it takes to think a degree is beneath them. I understand that many have used their degree to make others feel small and themselves intelligent. That is not the fault of education; that is the fault of the small people whose pride gets in the way of their effectiveness.

Anyway, after a conversation I had with some friends yesterday, I am very glad for that outdated seminary training I received.

The discussion started off with a rather bold question, "What do you think of Gnosticism? And why did the early church consider it heretical?"

To be honest, I struggled to remember the tenets of Gnosticism. I knew some of the basics, and the conversation was about more than just Gnosticism.

But if you thought Gnosticism was a problem for the First Century church and not for today, you are badly mistaken. Many of the Gnostic Gospels are making a comeback. People consider them the "Lost" Gospels or the "Forbidden" Gospels. They seem intrigued by the idea of a church system being secretive and fostering some sort of conspiracy. They also like the idea of a super-spiritual reality that supercedes a material world.

So I did a little research on Gnosticism to refresh my memory. Here are the keys:

1. Gnostics believed they possessed a special "gnosis" or "knowledge" that the normal Christian did not possess. It made them a sort of elite, more spiritual Christian than everyone else.

2. They believed that the material world was evil and that the spiritual realm was all that mattered. This led them to believe that God could not have created the world. They believed that the Yahweh of the Old Testament was not the same God as represented in Jesus. Yahweh was a sort of demigod that created the material world against the wishes of the God of Jesus. This also caused them to reject the humanity of Jesus Christ. Since God would never touch the matter, Jesus never really came in the flesh.

3. For the Gnostic, if Jesus were a real human he certainly was not divine. If he were divine, then he certainly was not human. He only "seemed" to be human.

4. They also held that since the material world was evil and the spiritual realm was all that mattered, their bodies could do whatever they wanted as long as the spirit was focused on God.

For the orthodox Christian, the problems should be clear. The main answer for us is that Jesus is both human and divine. He is the divine Word of God made flesh. This has been affirmed in every New Testament book.

The New Testament also emphasizes a holistic view of humanity. By this I mean that we are both physical and spiritual. There is no separation. Our spiritual side affects our physical side and vice versa.

Part of the problem with the concept of the "Lost" or "Forbidden" Gospel is the role of Council of Nicea and a misunderstanding of the Church under Constantine. It is true that when Constantine made the Christian Church an "official" religion that things changed. The misunderstanding takes place in thinking that the Council of Nicea some how dictated the books that should or should not be included in some sort of judiciary way.

They did not form a council that reviewed all the entries and then excluded some and hid others. The reality is that for 150 years prior the theologians and student of the disciples had been writing their lists of texts they felt were "authoritative." When compared with the writing of those who had actually been with Jesus, the Gnostic Gospels were found to be false. Don't worry, there were many, many Christian books that were rejected as being authoritative or on the level of "inspired" as the other books.

To illustrate I think about the American Idol competition I watched the other night. Several of the girls sang, and they were very good. But, when other of the girls sang, you could tell that they were in a completely different league.

Who knows, you may face a modern day Gnostic someday.

Check out the follow-up post here.

8 comments:

  1. Who knows, you may face a modern day Gnostic someday.

    A Gnostic like me.

    1. Gnostics believed they possessed a special "gnosis" or "knowledge" that the normal Christian did not possess.

    I would argue that a Gnostic has had an experience that some others may not have had - and immediate and intimate relationship with the Divine.

    2. They believed that the material world was evil and that the spiritual realm was all that mattered.

    While often repeated, this is third century slander that is not supported by source materials. The classsical Gnostics rejected the system - the "powers and principalities of this world" - not the world or the flesh itself.

    ...their bodies could do whatever they wanted as long as the spirit was focused on God.

    Again, common heresiological slander and not supported by historical or textual evidence.

    These misunderstandings are very common - however they are equally inaccurate.

    Lenten blessings,

    Jordan+

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  2. Jordan,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I appreciate the dialogue and hearing your side of it.

    If it were only those things, why do you think the early church rejected Gnosticism? It certainly wasn't just pressure from Constantine, as Gnostic ideas were being rejected in the early 2nd Century.

    By the time the third century rolled around, there was certainly room for slander and accusation. But the ideas of Gnosticism were rejected pretty early on before a Roman church became involved.

    Another point, having an experience that other Christians have not had does not make a person Gnostic. There are many Christians who have experiences that other Christians do not have. I think the Mystics would fit into this catagory, so the rejection of Gnosticism is about more than just the experience of the Divine.

    Again, thanks for the dialogue. I look forward to your response.

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  3. To add,

    I also notice that you didn't state a problem with my comment that Jesus was either only human or he was divine and not in human form. How do you get there if there is no problem with the material and spiritual realm? Or, is there some other way you get there doctrinally?

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  4. I would say that the historic "rejection" of Gnosticism was not monolithic. Clement of Alexandria was very Gnostic and was only considered "suspect" until the after middle ages. And yes, the mystics overlap profoundly with the Gnostics - and their reception was "iffy", or rather on something of a case-by-case basis.

    Certainly Paul was considered Gnostic by many, both in the immediacy of his personal gnosis and in his rejection of the "Kosmokrator" or prevailing system of injustice and cruelty in the world.

    As to the Divinity of Jesus - most Greek Gnostics saw him as a divine Archetype and not human, most Jewish Gnostics saw him as human but somehow subordinately divine. The knock-out theology of "100% God, 100% human" was by no means settled at or even centuries after Nicea.

    I've been reading your other entries, very interesting and glad I found you.

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  5. Hello Eric,

    I enjoyed your post. As a modern Gnostic and a Priest I would only like to add to what Father Jordan said in that most modern Gnostic Churches do have extensive seminary training. I personaly under went five years of study and training to become a priest. I was considered 'fast tracked'. It is often a seven year process.

    Your sister in the Light,

    Rev. Marsha Emrick

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  6. Marsha,

    Thanks for stopping by. I never realized this post would draw such attention.

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  7. 1. Gnostics believed they possessed a special "gnosis" or "knowledge" that the normal Christian did not possess. It made them a sort of elite, more spiritual Christian than everyone else.

    2. They believed that the material world was evil and that the spiritual realm was all that mattered. This led them to believe that God could not have created the world. They believed that the Yahweh of the Old Testament was not the same God as represented in Jesus. Yahweh was a sort of demigod that created the material world against the wishes of the God of Jesus. This also caused them to reject the humanity of Jesus Christ. Since God would never touch the matter, Jesus never really came in the flesh.

    3. For the Gnostic, if Jesus were a real human he certainly was not divine. If he were divine, then he certainly was not human. He only "seemed" to be human.

    4. They also held that since the material world was evil and the spiritual realm was all that mattered, their bodies could do whatever they wanted as long as the spirit was focused on God.


    The problem with these points (and with a lot of what is written about Gnosticism) is that they are derived from Irenaeus, who was writing a political and religious polemic against Gnostics. Relying on Irenaeus as THE primary and definitive source of information about Gnosticism is like relying on Bill O'Reilly as a primary source of information about antiwar protests.

    Fortunately, there is a growing community of Gnostics with quite an online presence. A great place to start is Fr. Jordan's 10 Things Religious Pundits Need To Know About Gnosticism.

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  8. Thank you for your comment Thomas. Jordan and I have already discussed and expanded on this post.

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