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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review Revival of the Gnostic Heresy

Two of the most intriguing movements in Christian history are Fundamentalism and Gnosticism. These two subjects were placed together in an interesting book entitled: Revival of the Gnostic Heresy -- Fundamentalism by Joe E. Morris (2008 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN® a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC, New York, NY). The book seeks to trace the history of the Gnostic doctrines to the arrival of Fundamentalism with as the title portends the idea that Gnostic religion has had a rebirth in what is now termed Fundamentalism.

To this end the book begins with a section on Gnosticism followed by a section on Fundamentalism. This is where the book shines. Written clearly and concisely it gives an excellent introduction to Gnosticism in Christianity. Christians for far too long have ignored the Gnostic doctrines and have assumed too little about fundamentalism ignoring some of the subtler ideas it encompases. The ignorance of the Gnostics is however understandable since it was not until the Nag Hammadi Library find in 1945 that we really had a good collection of the Gnostic documents. As the author points out:

“There are some who say that Gnosticism simply never left and that the relatively

recent discoveries of old books and publications of new ones had little to

do with “jump starting” a movement that never died. Those confident of this

belief are members of Ecclesia Gnostica and other Gnostic congregations like

them scattered around America and throughout the world. They were here first,

before James Robinson translated the ancient Nag Hammadi texts for the world

to read and before Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published.These latterday Gnostics will direct your attention to history and point out that the Cathars,

Rosicrucians, Knights Templar, Esoteric Freemasons, and Theosophists had roots

in Gnosticism.7” (Introduction page 3)

Gnosticism however is not some unified doctrinal statement of beliefs so the author takes some time to introduce us to some of the basic tenets. After Athanasius in 367 C.E. sent out his letter listing the 27 New Testament books and proscribing for destruction those writings which were not in harmony with the 27 the author writes:

“A secondary outcome of Athanasius’s declaration was an action at a remote

Coptic monastery. To protect their valued manuscripts, they buried them in the

desert. For seventeen hundred years, all we knew about Gnosticism was what

scholars could glean from a handful of texts and filter through the heavily biased

writings of the early Church fathers. The discovery of thirteen codices at the

foot of the mountain Jabal al-T_rif, near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper

Egypt, changed all that. These forty-six treatises, often referred to as the Gnostic

Gospels (though some are more Christian than Gnostic), have shed considerable

new light on Gnosticism, a very diverse phenomena represented by many groups

with myriad religious beliefs and practices. The task at hand, based on this new

knowledge, is to condense all of this data into a core of basic tenets.”

On page 26 the author summarizes the Gnostic concepts as follows:

Gnosis means knowledge, and it is knowledge that saves. For Gnostics, salvation

lies in discovering the truth of their identity, their origin, how they came to

this earth, and how they can return to the divine heavenly realm, which is their

ultimate destination and goal. This is the knowledge, the truth that leads to salvation.

But it is grasped by only an elite few who are “in the know.”

Gnostic cosmogony, or worldview, is dualistic. Reality is composed of spirit

and matter. Spirit is good. Matter is evil. Because there is evil in the world, it

could not have been created by the one True Divinity, or God. Therefore, evil

came about through a catastrophic cosmic disaster. As a result, the spirit became

trapped in the evil, material world. In order for this spirit, represented as divine

sparks in certain humans, to return to its heavenly divine realm it must acquire

saving knowledge. This saving knowledge comes from a divine redeemer. This

divine redeemer came into the world to save the lost sparks of the spirit.

So far, all of this sounds vaguely Christian. Then comes the significant factor,

or hermeneutical key, that differentiates Gnosticism from Christianity: flesh

is evil; therefore, the Gnostic redeemer is all spirit and never became flesh. For

Christians, “the word became flesh.” For Gnostics, the word became spirit. No

flesh was involved. From the Christian perspective, the Gnostic divine redeemer

was impotent. He (or she) lacked humanity.

Gnostic Christians were active in Christian Churches but did not believe all

Christians would be saved, primarily because they did not have access to the

saving knowledge. Because many belonged to the Church, and because of their

insistence that the one true spiritual God could not have been human, Gnosticism

posed a very real and major threat to the existence of the young struggling

Church. Their ascetic ethic was another serious challenge.

As with Gnosticism Fundamentalists also contain a variety of beliefs, thus there are different fundamentalist denominations and there are fundamentalists within most all denominations, the 5 Fundamentals then are starting points but do not encompass all of Fundamentalism. As the author states on page 86:

These five concepts are the “Fundamentals” of Fundamentalism. However,

Bawer reminds us that not all legalistic Protestants are Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are elitists, he states and “keep themselves apart from the evil mainstream culture and thus pure.”21 William Loader also cautions against viewing Fundamentalism as a monolithic system of thought.22 Many who are fundamentalist in their thinking are not fundamental in their demeanor, outlook, or behavior.

They possess Fundamental beliefs because they were raised in a Fundamental milieu and knew nothing else. Their spirituality, however, functions on a different level. They are not ideologues. They manifest an openness, compassion, and flexibility not usually associated with their more rigid and purist cousins. “Their approach to the Bible is just an element of their spirituality.”23 He advises this additional caution: "Some assume all too readily that to espouse anything other than a fundamentalist stance towards the Bible means to devalue it.”24 The Bible is not an all-or-nothing proposition. In spite of its flaws, it is appreciated and valued. There are many differences and variations within the multiple Fundamentalist denominations. Some espouse themes and concepts not included in the Five Fundamentals.

In the summary of the chapter on The Basic Tenets of Fundamentalism Similarities between Early Christianity and Fundamentalism page 88 the authors writes:

Today’s Fundamentalism is a relatively modern phenomenon that began as a reaction

to modernity. The basic tenets of Fundamentalism were first generated in a series of pamphlets written between 1910 and 1915 entitled “The Fundamentals,”

which were reduced to the “Five Points” generated by the 1910 General

Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian: biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of

Christ, substitutionary atonement of Christ, bodily resurrection of Christ, and

the historicity of miracles.

It is significant that the first tenet is biblical inerrancy. Without it, the others

would not be tenable. Of the five, the one less commonly held is the substitutionary

atonement that portrays God as punishing his Son. There is linkage

among the remaining four to the extent that they all rely on each other. If one

falls, the others fall with it. This reasoning suggests that, for Fundamentalists,

salvation comes from “right belief ” and not grace, a concept that aligns them

with Gnosticism.

One is cautioned against lumping Fundamentalists into one theological mold.

Not all Fundamentalists share every principle. In cases where they unanimously

agree, emphasis often falls unevenly across the spectrum. There are differences

and variations among the multiple denominations. Some have dominant themes

that are not included in the “Five Fundamentals.” Examples of those differences

include snake handlers of Appalachian notoriety and foot-washing Baptists.

In some ways, current Fundamentalism is similar to primitive Christianity.

Early Christianity, in a short period of time, understood its beliefs and practices as

representative of the one true religion. All others were excluded from the circle of

salvation. Some Fundamental denominations and sects are preoccupied with the

“golden past” of the Church’s history. This “golden” time should be maintained

and relived at some future time.

The idea that “right belief” aligns the fundamentalist to Gnosticism is interesting. The first reaction most would think to this comment is “well don’t all Christians believe that right belief is important if not critical to Christianity.” Here I think the author is wrong. Having grown up after the age of Fundamentalism in a church filled with Fundamentalist perhaps my view of Christianity is thoroughly indoctrinated with Fundamentalism’s philosophy. Yet I don’t really think he is right because as he noted this idea of right belief existed in the early Christian church and it most certainly existed during the Reformation. Where even remarkable Protestant thinkers thought other Protestant thinkers were so completely wrong as to be of the Devil. He may be correct in regards to the Gnostic idea that right belief causes salvation and Fundamentalist think that their right belief causes salvation whereas the majority of Christianity see the salvation process as up to God’s grace. But even there it is doubtful that many Fundamentalist would think that it is really their right beliefs that save them as opposed to God’s grace.

The author attempts to identify dualism as very similar between the Gnostics and the fundamentalists. However here I think he fails because it is simply a part of Christianity, dualism is even as the author notes prominent in the New Testament.

For some, dualism and Gnosticism are synonymous.11 Dualism is certainly

not a foreign concept to Christianity. It is ever present in the New Testament and

in some parts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. That is hard scriptural

fact. Themes in the Gospel of John and Letters of Paul are unmistakably dualistic.

They are conspicuous in the Gospel of John. When the writer (or writers)

speaks of light and darkness, the spiritual versus the physical world, he is in the

realm of dualism. Though he does not speculate about the divine or lower worlds,

Paul’s letters are replete with the antithesis of flesh and spirit, where “flesh” represents

fallen humanity. Perkins expresses that “Paul’s perception of the flesh as

the entry point for the sinful desires that ultimately bring death to humans unless

they receive the Spirit of Christ comes very close to what one finds in Gnostic

mythologizing.”12 This dualism of evil and good, flesh versus spirit, surfaces in the

synoptic gospels and Johannine epistles, which, most scholars agree, were targeted

by the writer specifically against a Gnostic group or sect that had broken away

from the Church.

These dualistic themes within the New Testament, however, are within the

context of an incarnated Christ, “The word became flesh” (John 1:14). They are

pulled together, gathered into that singular event and person, so the polarities,

the contradictions, are subsumed and held in balanced tension. Except in parts of

the Gospel of John, a theological dialectic is maintained between the humanity of

Christ and His divinity. Conflicts would rage about this issue for centuries. The

strife continued through the Councils of Nicaea (325 CE) and Chalcedon (451

CE) where the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human, were hammered

out and articulated in creedal form.13 The dualism of Gnosticism and Fundamentalism, of the physical world versus the spiritual world, is another matter. Most scholars contend that they are not only imbalanced but also significantly skewed toward the divine pole of the theological spectrum.

Where is dualism, the splitting of reality into physical and spiritual (evil and

good) compartments, evident in Fundamentalism? On the surface it is not openly manifested. Nothing in its creedal statements, resolutions, or “Five Fundamentals”

overtly states that the Spirit is good; matter is evil. There are no seminary

classes in conservative schools of theology labeled, “Dualism 101.” It is neither an

obvious theme preached from pulpits nor sung specifically from hymnals. Dualism

is not among the Fundamentalist “formulas” one hears—sin, salvation, judgment,

redemption, atonement, and so on. But dualism is there. It is imbedded

in the themes of evil flesh and saving spirit. Dualism is evident when one speaks

of the bad world and the need to set oneself apart from that world by leading a

spirit-filled, or spiritual, life . . . by knowing Jesus. It is implied in any messages

one hears about a God who is good and a Satan or devil who is bad.14 (page 94)

What appears to be the case here is that the author wants to make the dualism his corner stone argument but it simply does not work because dualism is simply a part of Christianity. On a related not however he does present a better argument:

Gnosticism is basically a return to salvation under the law. “The Gnostics

believed that salvation must be earned. They believed the individual must make

a science out of his own redemption.”26 This also sounds very much like Scientology,

where one works through a number of spiritual levels to attain the pure

spiritual self through a process called “auditing.”27

In Fundamentalism, one achieves salvation through personal decision.

This is not a divine act of pure grace and acceptance from above. This is conditional

grace. One must accept, and “know,” Christ before salvation is possible.

There is no other way. This is one of the results of dualism. Religions advocating

their way is not only the way, but the only way, imply an either–or dualistic split

in reality. This is Fundamentalism. It is Gnosticism. (page 98)

This has always been a weakness in the Fundamentalist Christian worldview where they use the text that says there is no other name by which men can be saved than Jesus. So what about all of those who have never known about Jesus? It is a terrible limitation on God but it is a wonderful inspiration for the Christian to tell people about Jesus. It unfortunately has lead to the kind of street corner evangelists who draw a crowd telling how Jesus loves them and condemning them as horrible sinners and then asking to pray the “sinners prayer” for salvation. They get to hear about Jesus but that is about all and it is not a very attractive Jesus at that. No doubt it has led to others doing true evangelism and missionary work also out of a genuine desire to spread the gospel and save souls.

According to the book the dualism’s keystone is as follows:

The most significant similarity between the two religions, the keystone of both

and the one upon which this book is predicated, is their concept of divine

redeemer, the Anointed One, the Christ….(page 98)

Doctrinally, Fundamentalists give a tacit cognitive (literal) nod to Christ’s

humanity. At deeper more visceral levels, with their near-obsessive need for inerrancy

and purity, it is very difficult for them to conceive of the Christ as capable

of doubt, fear, despair, sadness, depression, or loneliness, or to see him as human,

of being compatible with sin . . . of being sin. They are much more comfortable

with Luke’s patient, serene, and resigned righteous martyr who, during his crucifixion

from the cross, utters, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46);

as opposed to the hostile, lonely, despairing, and agitated Jesus of Mark who

becomes “deeply distressed and troubled” (14:33); whose soul is “overwhelmed

with sorrow to the point of death” (14:34); who asks his Father to “take this cup

from me” (14:36); and who, eventually, from the cross, cries out “My God, my

God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34)?29 In short, for Fundamentalists, divinity

dominates humanity.

This is the key similarity between Gnosticism and Fundamentalism. Their

redeemers never achieve humanity; they never become flesh and blood. They

never become real but evolve into fantasies and magic that many scholars argue

is the Oriental mystical cradle from which Gnosticism came. It is easy to see how

this type of one-sided Christology might affect one’s approach to the Bible and

scriptural interpretation. The Bible truly becomes the divine. (page 99)

While he may be fairly accurate here as to what people see that does not make it accurate as to what the Fundamentalists are teaching. As he notes the Fundamentalist has a cognitive nod to Christ’s humanity, that it may not encompass the passion the author wants it to encompass does not warrant it as the keystone connecting Gnosticism to Fundamentalism. It is not only Fundamentalists who see that “divinity dominates humanity” it is all of Christianity because if humanity dominate Divinity there is no hope, salvation would be a dream that God Himself could not grant. After all the New Testament focus is “God with us” we already know what humanity is like and it is not pretty even when not involved in sin agitation, despair and loneliness plague us, it is a comfort to know Christ felt those pains also but far more comfort to know that the divinity conquered all of those and death as well.

Hopefully I have covered adequately the major considerations of the book, at least the major portions which I think are encompassed in the title of the book. But you will notice I end at page 99 of a 230 page book not counting the Bibliography. While I can’t fully agree with the proposition the book puts forward I do find this book to be packed with useful information and challenging material. The book written in a very easy to read style that is wonderful to find on the subject of history and religion. And after all how could anyone pass on the chance to read a book attempting to connect Gnosticism to Fundamentalism?

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