Gnosticism

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Gnostic ideas have had an influence on Christianity

It is good for all of us to know something about the first-century Gnostic controversy, because this controversy continues to this very day, though in a different form. Gnosticism, and its cousin Neoplatonism (or Platonism), changed the face of Christianity by introducing ideas that have more affinity with pagan religions and philosophies than with the Judeo-Christian heritage represented by the Bible. This influence moved the Church away from its Hebrew heritage, notably regarding:

1. One, and only one, God. Gnostics and Neoplatonists influenced some Christians to embrace a God beyond being who could have multiple personalities.

2. The appreciation of Creation as reflecting the work of a good God, and the natural world as integrated with the supernatural world. Gnostics believed that the material world was the work of a lesser, evil deity, and therefore all that is material is unholy and ungodly.

3. The balance of knowledge and experience, with the idea that God is relational and reveals Himself in covenant with His people. Gnostics viewed “God” as beyond being, so to call God “the supreme being” would be to limit His greatness. This God was a far cry from the personal God of the Bible.

The Gnostic and Neoplatonic influence factored into the development of Trinitarian doctrine, as we document in our book One God & One Lord (Chapter 16). This influence is evident in such pro-Trinitarian arguments as: “God is mysterious,” or “If you believe in the Trinity you will lose your mind, but if you don’t believe in it you will lose your soul.” Secret knowledge, though not necessarily rational and biblically accurate knowledge, was the key to one advancing toward the Gnostic godhead. Trinitarian theologians continue to be the only ones who can explain or defend the Trinity, while most pastors and churchgoers just leave the complicated doctrine to the theologians.

Traditionally Jewish affirmation of the natural realm is exemplified in its concept of “kosher” foods. God made the food, but the world has become corrupted by sin. Therefore, food must be examined and blessed by a rabbi to be okay to eat. The same is true for sex. Rather than taking the perspective that many Gnostic and Platonic Christians have through the centuries, that sex is unclean in itself, Jews sanctified sex within marriage and considered it “pure” or “undefiled” (Heb. 13:4).

Gnostic tendencies toward a non-human Jesus in the early Church led monks and scribes who copied the manuscripts to add to the text to make it clearer that Jesus was a real human being. Some had been influenced to believe that Jesus did not sweat, defecate, or perform other normal human functions that were considered beneath him as the god-man. To counteract this, these scribes would add to the text things that would emphasize his humanity. Such is the case with the record in Luke 22:44 that depicts Jesus as having sweat like blood falling from his forehead. In his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart Ehrman well documents this as a forgery. [1]

Gnostic teachings were being widely disseminated by the end of the first century, and John the apostle addressed this teaching in his Gospel. One interesting way that God inspired him to do this was by recording the miracle of the changing of water into wine in Cana of Galilee. This would have been a slap in the face to Gnostics, who had no way to explain why he would do a miracle like that. Christians who legalistically deny themselves and others wine or other forms of alcohol also have a tough time with that record. Jewish teaching in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) shares both the upside and the downside of drinking. Wine “…that gladdens the heart of man…” (Ps. 104:15; Zech. 10:7), but is also “…a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). This affirms that God has provided fermented beverages, but expects humankind to be wise and not abuse them.

There are also forms of the denial of the physical body that are characteristic of Gnostic Christianity. For instance, even today some Christians feel that dancing is of the Devil, and who forbid even liturgical dance. But the Jewish perspective, and no doubt a part of first-century Church’s practice, was to rejoice before the Lord’s presence in dance. It is possible to dance using movements that are not sensual or provocative, and there is no biblical reason to believe that to so employ the body more fully in worship would be a sin.

There is no reason why today’s environmental movement should be led by atheistic evolutionists. Both Jews and Christians have a vested interest in the preservation of the wilderness areas and protecting our environment as the handiwork of God. The fact that sin has entered the world does not make the Creation of God unrecognizable as a masterpiece. We can clearly see the majesty of the Creator in the amazing beauty of the natural world, and should want to protect it as much as is reasonable. There are few things as awe-inspiring as to view pristine wilderness knowing that it is the work of God.

Another way that Gnostic or Platonic Christianity denies the material world is the way it teaches that the soul is immortal. The body, then, is considered unnecessary equipment, compromising the reality of, or the need for, resurrection. True biblical Christianity sees the body and soul as integral to one another, and neither being able to exist without the other. As we argue in our book Is There Death After Life?, believing in death as a graduation to a higher spiritual realm is not Christian as much as it is Gnostic and Platonic philosophy that undermines an appreciation of this earthly life. How many people have lost the will to live in a fight against sickness or injury believing that their death would usher them immediately into the presence of the Lord?

Another way that Gnostic or Platonic Christianity still rears its head is when we see ministers given a pass by their denominations or churches when they fail to integrate their faith and ministries with their personal, private, and family lives. Their faith and ministry should be authenticated by their family life, not discredited. The ancient Jewish paradigm was expressed in this maxim: “To know the relationship of the rabbi with God, look in the face of his wife.”

1 Timothy 3:4, 5 and 12 say that to be an overseer or a deacon in the Church one must “…manage his children and his household well.” Ministers who detach themselves from their most intimate family relationships and think they can still be effective ministers have succumbed to Gnostic thinking that divorces belief from behavior.

We are called to integrate our “regular life” with our “spiritual life” so that the two are seamless. God is interested in the single sparrow, and He is also interested in every detail of our lives whether seemingly “spiritual” or not. To serve the true God is to be called to live an integrated life, where one’s faith and practice are integrated, producing fruit that is apparent to all.


Endnote:

1. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford University Press, NY, 1993) pp. 187-194. Back to top