Sunday, April 09, 2006

Gnosticism: A Re-emerging Worldview

There has been at least some "to do" lately concerning the new document that has surfaced recently known as The Gospel of Judas. This is an interesting find for several reasons, on which Albert Mohler gives a pretty good discussion, but I will name a few reasons briefly here. First, as Wikipedia reports above, there are roughly 50 New Testament Gospels that we know of. They are not in the cannon for a reason. Mostly because they were generally not written by the person to whom the Gospel is credited, save the 4 that made it in (for one is more likely to read a gospel by someone notable like Thomas or Judas than he is one written by a nobody, say, Nick Fox). Secondly, the gospel dates to the 2nd, maybe even the 3rd century, hundreds of years after the death of Judas. Thirdly, the Gospel is attributed to a heretical group who called themselves Christians in the first few centuries called the Gnostics.

That is where I want to go today: Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a group that claimed to have a "secret knowledge" about Jesus and spirituality that the bulk of Christians did not have. They believed that all flesh and matter was evil and that spirit was good. The Gospel of Judas is a perfect example of the literature that this group produced. These gnostics show their face in the New Testament in several ways. First, Gnosticism/Dualism is the primary worldview in place in Corinth, which helps explain all of the problems that are going on which Paul is responding to. Secondly, John is responding to gnostic ideas in his Gospel, which is why we see the most conclusive proofs of Jesus humanity and deity.

A form of Gnosticism is popular today, though unknown to many, and that is where my thoughts will be for the rest of this column. These traces, or should I say sprouts, of Gnosticism permeate pop culture, the media, and many times the lives of Americans. People today are craving a "secret knowledge" that only a few have. In the words of Joel Manners, "Americans love a good conspiracy. Whether itÂ’s the Kennedy assassination, UFOs, or the recent 9/11 conspiracy theories, we love to believe that something is being hidden from us." Joel nailed it. We have become infatuated with being "in on something," even if it is ridiculous. This trend is Gnostic through and through.

One of the most famous yet overlooked displays of Gnosticism in our culture today, and I am indebted to my friend and colleaguee Josh Belcher for this, is the Matrix Trilogy. In the movie, the physical, material things the characters see all around them are not real and merely a superficial "cage", similar to how Gnostics view flesh and matter. The reality is what is beyond the Matrix, the "Real World", or the spirit world to a Gnostic. There are literally dozens of other examples of this in the movies, but Idon'tt have time to go into that here. However, what concerns me is how attractive the idea of gnosticims would be if it were to catch on, and indeed is already has, though perhaps unintentionally. A Gnostic, since the flesh does not matter, can physically do whatever he or she wants. He can have sex with who he wants, he can drink whatever he wants, eat etc. This earthly shell does not matter. What matters is what a person believes spiritually. Can you imagine what a generation of Christianss," let alone non-Christians, doing anything they want with their bodies looks like? It is a scary thought. We must guard against Gnosticism at all cost, and teach on what the Bible says about our bodies and Jesus', the care and respect they deserve, as well as the open message of truth the Bible offers, as opposed to a "secret knowledge." It will be interesting to see if this trend continues over the next 5 years as it has over the last 5.


Doug E. said...

Great post! Gnosticism's spirituallity seems to be finding it place in the emergent church a bit too.

God Bless,


Joel Maners said...

Get Post Nick. Gnosticism is a very real threat in today's church.

Gnosticism also reveals itself in the notion that there is something more to be grasped. Of course, Orthadox Chirstianity teaches that you are "fully equipped for every good work" when you come to faith. Basically, there is nothing more to be recieved. Gnosticism teached at there is a higher level of conciousness to be reached. There is always something out there that you don't have and you should strive to attain it. We see this expressed in the life of the Christian through prayer, study and meditation. There's nothing wrong with the disciplines as long as you don't fall into the trap of trying to attain something that you don't have. In Philippians 3:12, Paul is saying that he is striving to take hold of what he has been given. He is not saying that he is trying to convince God to give him something more. There is a difference.

I also see dualism at work in the thought life of the church today. Like you said, it's the idea that my spirit and body are separate. The Bible clearly teaches that when I look at your body, I'm looking at you. What you do with your body is important because that is you. I hear Christian young women all the time rationalize wearing skimpy outfits by saying that, it's what's on the inside that counts. That may be true but to the Christian mind, the inside and outside are one. What you do with your body matters.

Thanks again for the post.


Josh Belcher said...

Nick great post.
It would be interesting to try and find some Gnostic trends in today's worship songs and Christian literature. Worship songs are incredibly efficient at transferring information about Christianity. One may argue that people absorb more about Christianity through worship songs than the Bible itself (scary).
Gnosticism has a nack for making God a mystery and making the secrets of that mystery only available for a select few. I had a disturbing moment with somebody in a leadership role at my church claim that Matt Redman "knows secrets about God."
Mind you I don't know if they meant to exaggerate or not. But it wouldn't surprise me if they were not. I am not saying anything bad about Matt Redman; He is a very talented Christian worship artist. I don't think he means to come off mystical. Many of his songs focus on pursuing God's Presence: very Biblical concept.
One book that has a Gnostic feel to it is "God Chasers" and "God Catchers." It seems that the central idea of these books is that God can be experienced in a very powerful way if we seek Him enough. It uses the Biblical example of Moses asking God to show Him His glory. God does not grant this request. Instead he kind of waters down His glory so that Moses can experience as much as possible. I once heard that this experience was how Moses knew how to write Genesis' creation account: just from this experience alone! Quite a mystical interpretation.
It's also kind of interesting to remember when the Matrix movies were released and how many Christians thought that it was a perfect Christian allegory. Now there is nothing wrong with seeking God. But at what point does the meditation on God's mysterious nature become unhealthy? The Bible teaches that God is everywhere, but it also teaches us to seek God (which implies some extra effort) Maybe the punch that Gnosticism packs is that it, like many cults, takes one aspect of the faith and exploits it and makes it as if it were the faith in total. So one perfectly healthy truth becomes damaging when it is maintained as the central tenet of belief.
(Oh and thanks for citing your source)

Nick said...

Interesting thoughts Josh.

I think it is important to make the distiction, which you hit on briefly, between the mystery of God, and some secret knowledge that only a few have. The NIV uses the word mystery 25 times in scripture, 19 of them in the New Testament and most commonly by Paul. 10 of them, in fact all that are not Pauline, are used in apocalyptic literature, which makes sense considering the nature of that genre of writing.

But what I am interested in is Paul, who often talks of the "Mystery of God" and the "Mystery of the Gospel." The Gospel is undoubtedly mysterious, as is God. How does it all work that Jesus took our sins? How was he fully God and fully man? How does the Trinity work? There are certain things that will always be "mysteries" to us on this earth. Things, thought we "know" them, we will not fully understand. What we need to guard against, I offer, is the idea that some have it and others dont. I think you would agree with this Josh, and Joel, from what I think you guys are saying.

To continue on with this point, is it too much of a strech to say that because of these mysteries, our view of certain truths (Trinity etc.) is a bit blury? Maybe "misted", or even "mystical"? I'm sorry to use that word, for I know it is loaded, and I do not mean it prejoratively. But, is it okay for a Christian to ponder these truths in a way that some would say mystics do?

Just running with thoughts. Let me know what you think.

Joel Maners said...


I think you hit the nail on the head. There are certain truths that are indeed mysterious. The trinity, how God could love us, the incarnation of Christ, what heaven will be like etc. etc. there are hundreds of mysteries. But the fact that something is a mystery does not equate with the idea of exclusivity. There is no such "knowledge" that some Christians have over other Christians. (This is a problem I have with Masonary) I think what the Emergent church is reacting to is the Fundamentalist idea that we can wrap up these truths so tightly with our theology that we choke out all mystery. Ultimatly God cannot be put in a theological box. This is why the Pharasees did not recognize Jesus as the Christ. He didn't fit their preconceived ideas of what the Christ would look like.

Nick said...

Great point Joel. I appriciate those two points you mentioned. The main thing I like about the Emerging church Movement is exactly that: they don't pretend to have it all figured out the way a lot of others do. They embrace mystery.

Good insight on the Pharisees as well. It shows how blind we can be from our expectations.