Review of Against the Protestant Gnostics
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In 1987 Philip Lee took wrote Against the Protestant Gnostics. Drawing on all the latest evidence on Gnosticism from the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi library, Lee argued that there were more commonalities than between Gnosticism and Protestantism than are usually appreciated. Though himself a Protestant, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a Presbyterian parish minister, the questions Lee raised were deeply unsettling for the Protestant tradition. Had Protestant evangelicalism unwittingly recovered more than merely the canons of what Wesley called ‘primitive Christianity’? Had it, in fact, drunk deeply from the wells of ancient Gnosticism? In order to fully appreciate the questions raised by Lee, we must first understand something of the background to ancient Gnosticism.
Background to Gnosticism
Gnosticism refers to a broad network of religious movements which developed independently of Christianity in the second century, possibly earlier, but which quickly morphed to take on a Christian hue. At its most basic level, the Gnostic religions taught that salvation could be achieved through the attainment of hidden, esoteric knowledge (‘Gnosis’ in Greek). Significantly, this ‘salvation’ was not salvation from sin but salvation from the inherently bad material world. For the Gnostics, matter and spirit were not just distinguishable, they were divisible; indeed, the pursuit of a spirituality independent of the trappings of time and matter was the goal toward which Gnostic soteriology strived. Only those willing to reject the trappings of space, time and matter could find deliverance into the realm of pure spiritual bliss. What is needed to activate this deliverance is a revealer who comes from the realms beyond (the upper spiritual realm undiluted by matter) to show the chosen few that they have within themselves a divine spark. By listening to this divine spark instead of the pressing influences of the shabby material world around them, the elect can achieve enlightenment in this life and immortality in the next.
While there were a variety of reasons the Gnostics thought that the physical world is bad, the most basic reason is because they believed that the universe was the product of an inferior deity. As Philip Lee puts it
the material world itself is the result of a cosmic faux pas, a temporary disorder within the pleroma. The ancient gnostic, looking at the world through despairing eyes, saw matter in terms of decay, place in terms of limitation, time in terms of death. In light of this tragic vision, the logical conclusion seemed to be that the cosmos itself – matter, place, time, change, body and everything seen, heard, touched or smelled – must have been a colossal error.
Although it is probable that certain parts of the New Testament (perhaps 1 Timothy 1:4 and 1 John) were written to combat the early genesis of a Gnosticized Christianity, and while many of the Patristics regarded the sorcerer Simon Magus of Acts 8:9-24 as being the founder of Gnosticism , it was not until the second century that there is any evidence of Gnostic mythology being fully formed. Being fundamentally syncretistic, the various Gnostic systems absorbed different aspects of Judaism, Hellenic philosophy and Christianity, using the categories familiar to these religions but subtlety altering them along Gnostic lines. It may even be that the first Gnostics were deeply discontented Jews, wanting to preserve the basic storyline of the Jewish religion while interpreting it in radically subversive ways.
There is a certain plausibility to this latter suggestion. Imagine being a faithful Jew who had lived to see the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In 132 you pin all your hopes on Bar Kokhba, a would be Jewish Messiah who promised to rebuild the temple. You join tens of thousands of other faithful Jews in announcing that the era of the redemption of Israel has finally arrived. You and the other revolutionaries are so excited that you even commemorate the occasion by the minting new coins inscribed with the year 1. Then in 135 the Romans bitterly crushed the movement following a two year war, doing to Bar Kokhba what they always did to Jewish Messianic figures. If you had been a thinking Jew who had lived through the hope and disappointment of that period, there aren’t a lot of options. Either you can go on hoping that someone else will arise to be the real Messiah of Israel. Or you can abandon Judaism completely. If you chose the latter course, you could embrace Christianity with its teaching that the Messiah of Israel had already arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, but that the redemption He brought looked very different to the revolutionary agendas of Bar-Kokhba and all other would-be Messiahs. Or you might be tempted to retain some remnants of Judaism but to start reading your Old Testament upside down. The God of Israel is now the bad guy. The world is a low-grade, messy place – you begin to realize as you read the scriptures backwards – precisely because it was created by a low-grade, messy god, himself the offspring of a higher deity of which we occasionally catch a glimpse. Known sometimes as “father”, the God behind the bad creator god offers us redemption, but not the physical redemption of corporate Israel; rather, salvation is now seen in terms of salvation from the space-time universe – a chance for certain enlightened individuals to escape from the world that the bad god proclaimed good in Genesis 1.
Strange as this retelling of the Jewish story sounds, some scholars believe that the discoveries of the last century suggest that the genesis of Gnosticism may lay in the frustrated conjectures of tired and highly cynical Jews who had lived through the crushed hopes of the 130’s. Others have suggested that the Gnostic dialectic emerged from the trilateral intersection of Middle Eastern dualism, Jewish theism and Hellenistic astrology in the Post Alexander the Great world.
These are only some of the many theories. But whatever its origins, Gnosticism became highly attractive to cynical individuals who had lost hope in the goodness of creation. Against mainline Jewish and early Christian thought, the texts of the Nag Hammadi collection were characterized by “an estrangement from the mass of humanity, an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it, and…a withdrawal from involvement in the contamination that destroys clarity of vision.”
It didn’t take long before the Gnostics were reading Christianity upside down as well. Instead of identifying Jesus as the creator of the world (who was evil, according to many of the Gnostics), they saw him as the redeemer who shows us how to escape from this messed up universe. The mid 2nd century Gnostic teacher, Basilides, was typical in urging that the ‘Father’ sent his First-born ‘Nous’ (whom others called Christ) to reveal the gnosis necessary for salvation. Salvation for Basilides consisted of being delivered from the power of the Archonic agencies who had built the world. Since humanity’s fundamental problem is not that we are sinners but that we are material, what we do with the body is of no spiritual significant. Basilides used this deeply dualistic philosophy to justify indulging in carnal pleasures.
Valentinus is the most well known of the pseudo Christian Gnostics, as a result of the descriptions preserved for us by Saint Irenaeus. A “pompous Platonist who turned his gifts to the confusion of the church and the fabrication of intricate fables” , Valentinus developed a theogony that can be summarized as follows:
From the highest deity, the pleroma, “fullness,” there issue aeons in pairs. Their ultimate offspring, the son of one of the lowest aeons, Sophia, “Wisdom,” is the Demiurge, the creator-God of the Old Testament. Redemption is effected by the aeon Christ who united himself to the man Jesus at Jesus’ baptism. Christ brings humans gnosis, but only the ‘pneumatics’ (i.e., the Valentinians) are able to receive it. Salvation consists in entering the pleroma as pure spirit. (This summary comes from Skarsaune’s book In the Shadow of the Temple)
While not all the Gnostics shared Valentinus’s highly complex nomenclature, they did share his basic soteriology: the pathway to salvation lies in escaping from the material world to a realm of pure spirit. Jesus plays an important role in freeing us from matter since he is the one who brings the knowledge (‘gnosis’) necessary for the liberation of our spirits. But unlike the salvation offered by the Christ of the canonical gospels, which was transparent and publicly available to all, the Jesus of Gnosticism offered salvation on the other side of opaque and cryptic remarks designed only for those enlightened individuals able to decode them. The Gnostics pointed to a secret oral tradition that had been passed down by the apostles, in contrast to the open, popular and public tradition of the universal church. This secret tradition was at root anti-incarnational. As church historian J.N.D. Kelly put it, “Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostic (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.” Instead, many Gnostics taught some form of Docetism: Jesus merely appeared to possess a human body but was really a-material.
A number of pseudo gospels arose in an attempt to lend credence to their alternative Chrstology. These texts, which came to light in the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, give enormous insight into the nature of second century Gnosticism. The most important of these discoveries was the Gospel of Thomas. A collection of obscure aphorisms divorced entirely from the larger narrative of Israel and the Old Testament, The Gospel of Thomas present what many have taken to be a glimpse into the true Jesus before Orthodox Christianity muddied the water with books like the synoptics. Thomas, like many of the other Gnostic texts, portrays Jesus as the revealer pointing the way to the Gnostic paradise in the world beyond. Just as Basilides taught that what one did with one’s body was inconsequential since salvation was a-material, so a cardinal feature of Gnosticism was that what happened in the world should not be the concern of the enlightened ones. Any attempt to improve the world, or to apply Christ’s lordship to culture, was like polishing brass on a sinking ship. Echoing Buddhism (and it seems that Gnosticism was at least partly influenced by the array of mystery religions pouring into the Greco Roman empire from the East, many of which may have had Buddhist roots), it taught that those elite who had achieved saving gnosis should occupy their souls with ‘spiritual’ things, leaving the world to its own devices. This latter point, perhaps more than any other, served to polarize Gnosticism from both Christianity and Judaism. As N.T. Wright has noted in his book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus,
…whereas most Jews in the two centuries on either side of the time of Jesus were emphasizing the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven, and the justice of God breaking in to history to make everything right, rescuing the created order from its plight of corruption and decay and giving to this people renewed (resurrection) bodies to live gloriously within this new world, vindicated after their suffering on his behalf, the Gnostics were teaching precisely the opposite. The true god whom they worshiped was, they believed, “completely removed from this transient world of pain and suffering created by a rebel and a fool.”
Keeping in mind that Gnosticism was never a monochrome movement (indeed, there is something about it that seemed to positively encourage imaginative intellectuals to invent new mutations ), we can still cautiously chart some of the following general features:
- Doctrine of creation: The material world is bad, the product of an inferior deity or entity.
- Doctrine of the fall: Man’s fundamental problem is not that he is a sinner but that he is material.
- Doctrine of Christ: Jesus merely appeared to have a material body. This is known as Docetism. The human and physical element in the person of Christ is a deceptive appearance.
- Doctrine of salvation: Salvation lies in escaping from the material world to a realm of pure spirit. This is attained through private gnosis/knowledge offered by Jesus – a gnosis that awakens a divine spark within the subject.
- Doctrine of the church: The people of God are the enlightened elite who have obtained the gnosis necessary for salvation.
- Doctrine of the world: What happens in the world is of no importance.
- Doctrine of revelation: True revelation comes through a secret oral tradition handed down by the apostles, in contrast to the open, popular and public tradition of the universal church.
It is not hard to understand why Gnosticism was attractive in second century Mediterranean culture. Since God the Father (the divine, pure and wise God behind the capricious creator god) was not in the business of putting the material world to rights, it followed that what happened on the earth was of little consequence. Thus, as Niebuhr rightly perceived, most of the Gnostics had little problem colluding with the ruling powers in order to escape persecution. By reducing Christianity to the level of an intensely personal, private affair, Gnosticism left the imperial idolatry free to go about its business unchallenged. Moreover, it taught that what happens in this world is of little importance and serves only to distract us from genuine enlightenment. Thus, while the early Christians were being thrown to the lions for rivalling the political priorities of Rome, many of the Gnostics “seemed intent precisely on pursuing a lessening of sociocultural tension between their religious movement and the larger social world.” Gnosticism thus became a highly attractive option to those Christians who wished to retain some vestiges of Christian categories without upsetting the ruling powers. It was also highly attractive to the intelligencia of the Mediterranean world where its inherent complexity, cynicism and affinity with Greek thought could be worn as a badge of intellectual sophistication.
The Gnostic tendency towards isolation bore some affinity with even the best Christian thinkers, including the authors of The Teaching of the Twelve, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas and First Epistle of Clement. Similarly, it could be that the Gnostic denigration of matter unconsciously influenced the sexual attitudes held by the early fathers. Additionally, a case might be made that the rise of monasticism, especially when underpinned by a theology of asceticism, represented the continuing influence of a crypto-Platonic approach to the physical world in both the Western and the Eastern churches. Yet the sharp antithesis the early Christians drew between their religion and that of Gnosticism, together with their constant affirmation of the goodness of the created order, should caution us from too quickly assuming that the demarcation between Christianity and Gnosticism was anything less than clear.
But had this antithesis been properly preserved? This was the penetrating question that Philip Lee took up in 1987 and his answer was less than reassuring.
…that familiar presence of Gnosticism, is as close at hand as the reality we call Protestantism… something like the ancient misalliance has occurred in our own time, particularly in the North American expression of Protestantism…within Protestantism the faith of Christ has become so interwoven with gnosis that it is difficult to separate one from the other” (from preface)
“As a Protestant, I believe I have identified the elusive modern Gnostics and they are ourselves…” (not sure where that last quote was from)
Lee was postulating nothing new. The 19th century theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) had suggested that the Protestantism of his day, by turning its back on the historical character of the church, was in danger of collapsing into “a wretched Gnostic abstraction.” In 1976 Holifield had argued that “a metaphysical contrast between spirit and flesh” is at the heart of Reformed theology. Similar critiques have been part of the staple Roman Catholic criticism against Protestants ever since the reformation. But the publication of Against the Protestant Gnostics was the first time a scholar had used Gnosticism as an organizing motif for understanding the Protestant narrative.
In putting forward the thesis that Protestantism had been Gnosticized, Lee was not unaware of the pedigree of Gnostic influences throughout the course of church history. He maintains, for example, that very early on the church was Gnosticized as it was Hellenized, Platonized, stoicized and romanticized. That this is true can be seen in the support given to the Alexandrian school, where the crypto Gnosticism of Origen is well established. Additionally, the rise of monasticism, especially when underpinned by a theology of asceticism, represented the continuance of a “gnosticized atmosphere.” Through their engagement with burgeoning heretical movements, such as the rise of the Albigenses or Cathari in the 11th through 13th centuries, Lee suggests that the church often forged new syntheses in the ongoing dialectic between heresy and orthodoxy. The theology of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) is an example of a sustained polemic leading to an unconscious absorption of the enemy’s argument, even as Augustine unconsciously adopted some of the flavour of his Manichaean opponents. Yet these Gnostic undertones never reached fruition in the Western medieval church. Lee suggests that the almost complete integration of religious thought and worldly concerns, together with a high sacramentalism, kept the feet of medieval Christendom squarely tethered to the earth. Though occasionally flirting with Gnosticism, the fundamental commitment that Western medieval church had to the integration of the material and the spiritual, ensured they retained the dialectical balance that is the essence of orthodoxy.
…even among the most solid leaders in the ancient and medieval Church, we find Gnostic motifs. But what should not be forgotten is that teachers such as Origen, Augustine and Bernard were expounding many other doctrines as well, that they were aware of the necessity to present the Gospel in an honest and comprehensive way.
If Christianity can be said to have offered an escape from cosmos, it also provided a reentry into cosmos, cosmos reconsidered. Bernard, for example, continued to cling to the Eucharist. The mass itself, the voice of the whole Church, contained the words per quem haec omnia simper bona creas (through whom you always create everything good), which Jungmann explains as ‘taking up again the antithesis against Gnosticism and Manichaeism’… No doubt, the Church’s suspicion of cosmos led to some unfortunate attitudes toward the flesh, human nature, and sexuality…But the beautifully simple understanding of Irenaeus that ‘the glory of God is a person who is fully alive’ remained within the Church’s consciousness. The otherworldly and escapist aspect of medieval Christianity has been exaggerated.
The definitive question in heresy, Lee argued, is that of degree. Heresy involves one truth being carried to an illogical or dangerous degree, at the exclusion of those balancing truths which allow one to maintain a dialectical tension. In the case of Gnosticism, it involves focusing on the other world at the exclusion of this world, a fixation on soul without body, self without Church, spirit without matter. At the time of the Reformation, Lee suggested, certain seeds were planted that would eventually result in this dialectical balance being lost. He points out that in the theology of the magisterial reformers, the role of the Eucharist (the very thing that had tethered mediaeval spirituality to the material world) began to be subservient to the preaching of the Word. That this was true in the case of Ulrich Zwingli (1484 –1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504 –1575) has been well established. Lee shows, however, that this was a tendency to which neither Luther nor Calvin were immune. For Luther, the Word could stand independent of the sacraments , with the interesting corollary that as long as one has faith the eating and drinking become unnecessary accessories.
Similarly, Lee finds Calvin occasionally colluding with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper as well as the Gnostic devaluing of matter. The Eucharist, as important as it was in Calvin’s system, remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write: “Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.”
Lee makes clear that this does not represent the breadth of Calvin’s sacramentology and it should not be overlooked that elsewhere the Genevan reformer did wage a robust defence of the instrumentality of the sacraments and advocated a type of Real Presence. “Despite the ambiguity of Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist, any honest reading of his work will dispel the common notion that the great Genevan sponsored what later became a Protestant individualistic approach to the sacraments.” Nevertheless, Calvin did leave himself vulnerable later generations to suggest that he “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.”
It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology, Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace.”
“In maintaining a distinct dualism between…spirit and flesh, he would always be on guard against awarding too much dignity to the visible Church as Church, and he would always be suspicious of the externals of religion.
For all their implicit Gnosticism, however, Lee was as generous to the reformers as he was to medieval Christians. There may have been Gnostic motifs in the thought of the reformers, yet Lee argued that they were far from Gnostic if their theology is taken as a whole. The earthiness of Luther’s personality, Calvin’s ability to maintain a dialectical tension between nature and grace, transcendence and immanence, creation and redemption, together with the reformers’ stalwart commitment to the visible church all mitigated against any implicit Gnostic tendencies. They shared with the Church Fathers and with the writers of the New Testament, “legitimate gnostic elements” but “resisted oversimplification”, thereby “kep[ing] alive a dialectic and, thereby, maintained a continuing orthodoxy within the context of the Church, the living body of Christ.”
Lee believes that it was when Calvinism came to North America that this first began to change. While “the first North American Puritans and some early liberals were also able to sustain the precarious theological tension which is essential to true faith” , the descendents of the Puritans did introduce subtle changes into Calvin’s theology which “often brought the New England theology perilously close to gnostic Christianity.” This included a heightened emphasis on the self and a type of elitism which relied on Calvin’s doctrine of election without his teaching on the judgement of charity. Moreover, as the 18th century progressed and the Puritan apocalyptic hope failed, North American evangelicalism developed an abiding sense of alienation. Covenantal categories of Calvinist theology were retained but restructured around an individualistic paradigm. “The real transformation effected by eighteenth-century Puritan thought was the individualization of the covenant, the appropriation of a corporate Old Testament image to describe what became essentially a private psychological event.” Lee finds the shift beginning as early as the first great awakening. In an attempt to ward off the growing threat of Arminianism, the Puritans began placing greater emphasis on God’s gracious act of converting the individual sinner while downplaying any stages in the salvation process. Under the influence of Jonathan Edward’s preaching, the emphasis “dramatically shifted from the mighty acts of God to the religious experience of the Christian person.” Lee contrasts this with the older historic Calvinism in which everything depended on the external reality of what God had accomplished in history while not being indifferent to the individual’s mode of grasping the event. Lee identifies the “inversion of Calvinism” taking place whenever “the inner feeling and the assurance of conversion had become the distinguishing features of the Christian person” . This, together with a new emphasis in liberal circles on salvation through gnosis , a growing climate of elitism among the Puritans and their descendents , the penchant among the revivalists to present salvation as an escape from the world at the same time as downplaying the visible church and the means of grace made all but complete the emalgamation of Gnostic categories into North American Protestant religion.
To order a copy of this book through Amazon, click here.
Further Reading on Gnosticism
- 8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed
- Was Jonathan Edwards a Gnostic?
- Beholding Beauty
- Dorothy Sayers and the Aliveness of All Things
- Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology
- Life After Life After Death
- Thomas Howard at his best
- Gnosticism, Marriage, Singleness, Matchmaking and Martin Luther
- Are members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches Christians?
- Institutional Religion