Antinomianism III: Gnosticism

 

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.

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9 Responses to Antinomianism III: Gnosticism

  1. Sophia Sadek says:

    Thanks for the postings on antinomianism. They are quite intriguing.

    I don’t know where you got the idea that the ancient Gnostics didn’t have any care for how life was lived and that enlightenment did not depend on one’s lifestyle. As far as I can tell, their discipline required a very ascetic way of life. Perhaps you are confusing the difference between their perspective on the live styles of those who do not seek enlightenment with the life of the student.

    Good luck with your endeavor.

  2. joelblog says:

    Sophia,

    I think if you re-read the post you will see that I said or implied that most Gnosticism involved an ascetic discipline. Eventually I will speak to how the current interest in Gnosticism has little of its former rigor. But Gnosticism was a broad and very diverse movement. I have read Gnostic writings that are almost as varying from each other as they all are from Christianity. Yet, even in the ascetic rigorous Gnostic sects, the REASON for the asceticism had to do largely with how they understood the created order. This is undeniable. Their view of it was very very negative. Plus, the rigor, the discipline did not correspond to Christian or biblical ethics for the same reason. So, in some cases, even when there was a kind of ascetic rigor, they may have also been a disregard for many aspects of life that Christianity considered significant – and this disregard was grounded again in their view of the created order as fundamentally bad. Shall I quote Gnostic chapter and verse. So, yes, in the sense that in most Gnostic sects enlightenment was related to one’s lifestyle, it was a creation denying ascetic lifestyle that was involved, and usually an ascetic renunciation of creation’s legitmate pleasures.

  3. Sophia Sadek says:

    Oops! My mistake: you did mention the ascetic practice of the ancient Gnostics. Still, it does indicate that they weren’t as opposed to law as you have made them out. There are different levels of law. What is considered just under the Law of Moses is not considered just under a higher law.

    It’s interesting that you consider the Gnostic reason for asceticism to be invalid. The ancient Gnostics have been beaten up over their supposed dissatisfaction with divine creation. In fact, they appear to have been most dissatisfied not with the pleasures of divine creation, but with the pleasures of luxury. Of course, many of the orthodox critics of the Gnostics were quite addicted to luxury. They saw luxury as an aspect of divine creation. I doubt that the Gnostics would agree with that assessment.

  4. Joelblog says:

    Sophia,

    It is important for me to say that I do not derive my views of the Gnostics from the church fathers. I read the Gnostics for myself, and I read about them from people who like them. I was just reading from a favorite Gnostic yesterday…Sophia, this is a blog piece about Gnosticism as a religion and in some cases as a Christian heresy, and its relation to modern Evangelical antinomianism. Because the Gnostic did NOT respect, like, or honor the Jewish/Christian creator God, he did not like the “law” or “rules” of that creator God. It seems without possibility of contradiction that this was the case in general. The entire Gnostic metaphysic required it; and in practice such was said over and over. The demiurge or “creator,” as a lower level emanation of the true One Being behind it all, well, how do you say it, screwed up. There are various stories and mythic explanations for this, but it is at the essence of the Gnostic divergence from both Judaism and Christianity. Seeking oneness either through an ascetic regimen, or through meditative techniques, or through inner searching for the light of the great One within, and of course all according to the secret paths revealed to the particular Gnostic teacher, all this led away from any sense of necessary “obedience” to the laws of the demiurge. This is what I am getting at precisely. Plus, many Gnostic sects did have a huge hang up about the messy parts of the material order, like sex and birth, messy parts blessed in the creation story. One of the problems is the great diversity amongst the Gnostics. These days, as I will try to explain next week when I get the time, our culture is in a spiritual and metaphysical moment that is very receptive of Gnostic thinking, and very opposed to good old fashioned Judeo/Christian ethics. I know Elaine Pagels (whom I like and respect) and the Da Vinci Code (the author of which I do not respect) like to paint the story as if the church railed against Gnosticism because of a male centered church authority power trip. Now with the space of time to look at it, and since we have so many Gnostic writings, almost any Christian who upheld the importance of the creation story of Genesis, and the Fall, and the basic biblical idea of redemption would reject Gnosticism out of hand. It is just a different religion altogether. Many prefer it.

  5. alice says:

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about the “emerging church”.

  6. Nicholas says:

    Hello All!

    I have been seeking Truth with a real hunger for it since I was about 15. Now 27, I have been graced with Truth by way of Christ. Not at all through any church or organization. Not by any space creatures or aeons or by any half-cocked, self-important preacher/intellectual/guru. I did not “find Jesus” so easily.. I even checked behind the couch!

    I live in Alaska and during a long cold winter in 95 I was struck with a sudden and urgent need for meaning.. for God and for some kind of proof, some kind of sign from Him that would let me know He was there and He was not oblivious to me. I had a Bible, I was no stranger to the charismatic Christian church and, even at 15, sensed the danger of blind belief and half-hearted conditional servitude to a tyrant god who wielded oppression and fear. And who gladly dealt it out in spades for all those who dared to question Pastor Bland and his boring, insultingly simple sermons delivered in a mono-tone and passionless 1-2hr torture session.

    By His grace I never shunned the scriptures because of my dissatisfaction with the church. In fact had always been drawn to them despite of being force fed their meanings. Long story so I will just say Christ revealed Himself to me in such a way that was undeniable. He revealed not only that He was there and aware of me. He showed me that He had been with me all my life. This was enough to shake the very foundation of my being and forced me to dramatically reconsider everything I thought I knew. It was the first dose of His Presence. He left me with two words “beseech me”.

    After I was able to recover from the Glory and shock of Him personally addressing me I had to look up the word “beseech” as I was unfamiliar with it. I wept and praised Him and thanked Him for giving me what I had been seeking and then some!! It was more than I could have possibly hoped for and the reality of it had me wiped out for a week or two after. I was in a state of shock and had a new sense of the fear of God which I read about in scripture. More than that I had been blessed with a personal relationship with Him and I knew that if I asked He would answer. I took my questions a little more seriously.

    Anyhoo, I have been greatly interested in ancient scriptures and not scared to read any of them.. the Holy Bible had been a wonderful source for me and I when I found out that there was scripture that had been left out and looked into why they had I was eager to read them for myself. I trust Him to be my canon and the opinions of the church mean little to me.

    I got hold of a book called “The Other Bible”. Through that book I became familiar with Dead Sea Scrolls and with Kabbalah and with loads of interesting information. There were tons of Gnostic texts, Christian Apocrypha and strange and mysterious new sayings of Christ. I was excited to dig in and see what all this was.

    I love all the Dead Sea Scrolls and was interested and blown away by The Zohar. The Gnostic texts I dug into with the same enthusiasm at first. As I read through and started to understand them I was disgusted. Strange, science-fiction images of aeons and all sorts of wierd alien concepts. I was even more sickened at the outlandish and obviously contrived way they implied that The Creator was flawed and that ALL creation was essentially the work of a spoiled and stupid baby god conceived by some weird man-woman aeon (what is that anyway? I get images of giant robots or aliens) I laughed at the absurd idea and shook my head as to why anyone would commit any kind of faith to these ideas. Reminded me alot of the outlandish and even silly claims of Scientology mixed with the childish rebellion of satanism. The fact that they claimed Christ is the only factor that makes these scriptures anything more than a funny thing to read aloud to your friends using your best darth vader voice. HOw anyone could mistake this drivel for Truth is a mystery.
    Anyway just my 2 cents for what its worth.

    Thanks reading,

    Nick

    BLESSINGS!!
    Nick

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