February 24, 2007

Gnosticism Revisited

Yesterday's post received some unexpected attention.

I have always been a supporter of open discussion. I also believe that when we discuss another person's point of view that we should be respectful enough to present it fairly and not set up straw men that are easy to knock down. Generalizations are just that: generalizations. They are not true across the board for everyone in that particular stream, but are meant to give some basic handles to understand the general concepts and principles.

I took the time to visit some of the blogs and websites of those who commented. I respect the tone and the respectfulness of those who commented. I think we all agree that we disagree on some very fundamental issues. I don't want to misrepresent their views.

I know, however, that I disagree with what I perceive to be their views, and I don't want to start a big "battle" over the differences. I cannot change their mind, but I feel strongly about mine as well. Just as they have studied and evaluated, so too have I. We have come to different conclusions.

Here are some of my observations about their beliefs (again, this may be a generalization and not true of all modern Gnostics):

1. There are multiple levels (pleroma) of gods that as they move further away from God have less knowledge of that God and may even be hostile toward him. The god who created the world is not the ultimate divinity. There is a dualism: good vs evil, yin and yang kind of thing going on also.

2. "Experience" or "Gnosis" is a direct connection to the Divine. This experience is much like experiencing nirvana in Buddhism.

3. As Jordan pointed out, Gnosticism varies in its understanding of Jesus' divinity. Some believe that Jesus is subordinately divine but not human (one of the lower gods of the pleroma). Others believe that he is human but not divine.

4. I still think there seems to be a separation of the material and the spiritual realms. There seems to be a dislike for the material and desire to escape from it.

5. Some seem to suspect the Gospels and New Testament writings as a form of supression of the truth as they see it.

6. Gnosticism was not rejected as heretical in one swoop. There were parts that have been accepted and parts that have been completely rejected throughout the history of the orthodox Christian Church.

7. They seem to be a combination of several religious structures and systems. I think one of the websites even spoke of their history in such terms. Christianity being one of them. They have elements of Buddhism, etc.

8. They do not consider themselves a heretical sect of Christianity. They hold that it started earlier.

Here is my stance:

1. I am an orthodox Christian as defined by the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. I think the Creeds give us the boundaries of the Christian faith. I also believe that the 66 books of the Bible as we have them have been divinely guided by God. Many texts, besides the Gnostic ones, were excluded as not being "inspired."

2. I believe there to be One God in three distinct persons. Father-Son-Holy Spirit. I do not believe in multiple, lesser gods. I believe that the Yahweh of the Old Testament is the Abba Father of the New Testament.

3. I also believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

4. I believe that we can experience God's presence. I don't quite understand what the Gnostics mean by experiencing the Divine other than the correspondence to the experience of Nirvana. I don't want to make too much of this because I don't fully understand their side. I do, however, think there is a difference between their understanding of experiencing the Divine and my understanding of experiencing the presence of God.

5. There seems to be a hint of "conspiracy theory" behind some of what I have read. This is just my impression, and I don't mean to demean their view in stating it that way. One website spoke of the Gospel writers attempting to hide the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Pharisees, and that Paul, despite claiming to be a Pharisee, was not.

6. I think it is sometimes easy to read things into the Early Church Fathers because they were still wrestling with what Jesus taught and who He was. Some of them espoused views that could be seen as hints of heretical belief. I think as people wrestled with who Jesus was and what He taught, they declared things heretical in bits and pieces as they determined that they didn't jive with what seemed to be part of Scripture and the Community. I think this is where we look to Tradition (capital T) to help us as well. I think that many may have had an experience similar to what the Gnostics describe as gnosis, but the true difference comes when we look at their beliefs about Jesus, the Bible, and God. The Gnostics are right, the "experiences" they describe can be similar, it is the root beliefs that are vastly different.

7. I believe that because God is the same throughout both the Old and New Testament and that He is the creator of the world, that we are holistic beings. We are both material and spiritual. I believe creation to be good, but fallen. I also believe that the atonement brought by Jesus was for all creation.

8. They don't seem to want to be considered a heretical off-shoot of Christianity, and it is probably more accurate to see them as a completely separate religious structure that has elements of the Christian faith in it. It is my evaluation that many of their beliefs stand in direct contrast to orthodox Christian faith. This just means that they are not Christian, they are a completely different religious structure.

I know I have not expressed their beliefs fully or comprehensively. Any misunderstanding is fully my own and not meant to demean those who hold them.

I think that listening to those who disagree with us and attempting to understand their views is an expression of "loving our neighbor as ourselves" which Jesus taught us. Listening and attempting to understand does not mean that we accept them as true or right; it means that we value the person who is stating them. Loving and valuing the person means that they have the right to believe whatever they want to believe. But we each have a right to disagree with each other.

Sometimes people think that listening and understanding someone means that we are accepting their beliefs as true. That is misleading. We can truly hear them and understand them, and only then can we adequately and properly disagree because we know what we are disagreeing with. Until we understand, we are not able to properly evaluate their stance and determine where we stand.

In looking at the various views, I have been drawn ever closer to affirming the orthodox expression of the Christian faith.

Those from the Gnostic churches that have visited and commented have been very respectful. They have simply attempted to be understood and not misrepresented. I should only hope they would do the same for me.


  1. Loving and valuing the person means that they have the right to believe whatever they want to believe. But we each have a right to disagree with each other.

    I couldn't agree more - I appreciate your respectful inquiry and stance; we have so much to learn from one another.

    I could go through your list and point out this misunderstanding and that, but I certainly don't wish to "hijack" your excellent blog and make it about *my* religion and tradition.

    One quick note: The "Jesus as Pharisee" article was written by an orthodox Jew, and does not reflect a Gnostic perspective. I don't think that makes it a conspiracy theory, it just points out that the Gospels are not to be taken as historically accurate.

    Anyway, your kindness is appreciated.



  2. Jordan,

    Thank you for returning and pointing out that I had mistakenly applied something to Gnosticism that did not belong.

    I think the conclusion you make is one of those areas where we will have to agree to disagree. I believe we each have looked at the evidence and fallen on different sides of the fence. I believe the Gospels to be historically accurate and you do not.

    Again thanks for reading and commenting. I don't want to comment on another position by setting up straw men that are easy to knock over. I hope I gave you the respect of a fair hearing. People can also go to your blog and check out the stuff you have there through your name-link here in the comments.