In this the third installment of an ongoing series about the heresy of Antinomianism, I want to focus a little attention on a related but different spiritual perspective, that of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism was perhaps the most widespread and dangerous of the heresies that impacted the Christian Church in its first few centuries. Gnosticism was not merely a Christian heresy. There were Jewish Gnostic sects as well.
We know a lot more about Gnosticism since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered in 1945 in Egypt. A full text of the famous, or infamous, Gospel of Thomas, was part of that discovery.
We already knew a fair bit about Gnostic tendencies from Christian writings and a few other Gnostic writings, but this discovery of manuscripts dated in the 2nd century AD was truly significant.
Gnosticism is not easy to define, describe, or practice. There are few true practicing Gnostics today. What we have is a cheap and easy Western “co-opting” of some Gnostic tendencies. We’ll get to that later.
The word “Gnosticism” come from the Greek word for knowledge – “gnosis.” In religious contexts, Gnosticism usually is referring to knowledge about or pertaining to God or a deity of some kind. In Gnosticism itself this knowledge is a secret sort of knowledge given to a few, and to be gained through a series of steps or levels as one ascends in one’s ability to connect with the One behind it all.
Gnosticism is varied and very hard to wrap one’s mind around. I will try to do so here, and then, later, try to explain the intersection of Gnosticism with Antinomianism. I am writing this synopsis off the top of my head. I have read several Gnostic gospels along the way, and kind treatments of them, so I am not just flying blind here. If you want I am sure there is a Wikipedia section on Gnosticism. There is also a Gnostic Society.
First, in Gnostic spirituality, there exists behind and above all appearances a singly deity who inhabits a world of pure spirit. This deity has invested a spark of his (its) reality in the created order. The goal of Gnostic spirituality is to find oneness or peace or life or love or whatever with this deity beyond all things.
Second, in Gnostic spirituality, the material world is looked at either as inherently bad, or at best as a profound distraction, or again, an irrelevancy. The goal in Gnostic spirituality is to find ones way to the deity behind it all.
Third, this quest, described differently in different Gnostic traditions, involves progressive levels of understanding and enlightenment, aided by differing kinds of physical/spiritual habits, and always by coming “into the know,” that is, into the knowledge of how to ascend to the heavenly splendor.
Fourth, in some Gnostic traditions there is a Savior figure, a spirit or spirit being sent by the One to aid us in our quest back to the reality of the One deity and his splendor. It was thus easy for there to be a co-opting of the Christian message about Jesus, and an adoption so to speak of “Jesus” as this Gnostic Savior figure. This is why Gnosticism became very dangerous for the Christian church, because versions of it used Christian language and symbolism freely, or even, as in the Gospel of Thomas or Gospel of Judas, rewrote the Christian message itself from a Gnostic angle.
Fifth, in all forms of Gnosticism I have read or read about, the created order as we now experience it is inherently either very bad, or at best a hindrance to true spiritual attainment. In fact, the “God” who created the physical world, often referred to as the “demiurge” was a very bad being, the source of true evil. This “demiurge” is often equated with the Creator God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Much of Gnostic teaching involves helping the seeker to see the truth about this evil being, so that the One true deity behind all the phantoms and distractions of this world can be found. At root, Gnosticism is as contrary both to Jewish and Christian teaching as a philosophy or spirituality can possibly get.
Sixth, the pathway to “gnosis” was normally one of ascetic denial of the material order. There was a true self denying rigor to most forms of ancient Gnosticism. Generally this rigor was designed to free oneself from the confines and distractions and passions of life in this material world. In this sense Gnosticism has a ring of Eastern mysticism to it. But, as things went, there were also “versions” of Gnosticism that saw the material world not so much as bad but merely as irrelevant. Thus, the manner in which one lived in the physical body was, well, not relevant to the pathway to enlightenment.
Seventh, the notion that the God behind all things would become enmeshed in the physical order would have been pure blasphemy to the Gnostic – unheard of, unspeakable. Therefore the notion that it would be a good thing for the Creator God of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures, the evil “demiurge,” to become a person, a real physical person, was unspeakable, laughable, ridiculous. The Christian notion of “incarnation” is as contrary to Gnostic spirituality as something can get.
Eighth, although the Gnostic writings (despite attempts of a few scholars who are all goo-goo over the Gnostics, and despite the story line of the Da Vinci Code) were written well after the Christian Gospels, and although Gnosticism proper did not reach its zenith until the second and third centuries AD, one can sense a concern about pre-Gnostic thinking already in some of the canonical writings. Indeed, the Apostle John’s well known introduction to his gospel has anti-Gnostic polemic written all over it. Not only is Jesus equated with the God who created all things, and not only was he sent into this world, but in the phraseology of John’s prologue “the Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Ninth, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures affirm the original goodness of the created order, and both Jewish and Christian spirituality understand that how we actually live in these bodies, in this life of flesh, is absolutely and centrally significant. Spirituality disconnected from life in the body – a life lived in obedience to the word of the Creator God, who not only made all things good but who is goodness in its essence – such a spirituality is unthinkable. For the Christian, the themes of incarnation, of sacrificial death rooted in sacrificial love, and of bodily resurrection in a new but very physical and very real and tangible human body are the very grounds of the “good news.” All of these great acts are meant to restore us to real relationship with the Creator God, the One the Gnostics hate and believe to be the cause of the fundamental evil of the physical order.
Tenth, therefore, for the Christian, how one lives out life in the body is utterly significant. We are told to love one another in a myriad of practical ways that involve real relationships with real physical human creatures like ourselves. We are told by the One who knows, because, well, He made us and all things in His image, what is and what is not appropriate as to bodily life in the real world. We are told that the problem of our existence isn’t the created order, but our rebellion from the Creator’s will, and the mess that that rebellion has created physically and spiritually speaking. And so, much of Christian spirituality involves becoming the very kind of this-world, physical, bodily, human beings we were created to be. We embrace the created order, and where things have gone wrong, in ourselves and in our social structures and environment, we seek to make them right. So, rather than escaping from the physical order, or thinking of it as irrelevant, the Christian embraces it, and finds new and transformed life in it, all the while in true spiritual fellowship with the Creator God who made all things.
I will try to connect the Antinomian and Gnostic dots next time.