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Ryan H.

Gnosticism

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I've always found the gnostic, non-canonical gospels to be fascinating historical documents, and over the course of the last few weeks, I've been stumbling into more contemporary forms of gnosticism, like that adhered to by critic Harold Bloom and author Philip K. Dick. I have a cursory knowledge of gnosticism--enough to explain its basic tenets and enough to comment on when an idea seems to have a gnostic edge--but I don't have any significant in-depth knowledge about the phenomenon. I'd be interested if any of you folks have encountered any literature on gnosticism that you might recommend, whether it deals with gnosticism in late antiquity or is an expression of a more contemporary formulation.

And, just for kicks, here is what Philip K. Dick suggested were the tenets of gnostic belief:

The Gnostic Christians of the second century believed that only a special revelation of knowledge rather than faith could save a person. The contents of this revelation could not be received empirically or derived
a priori
. They considered this special gnosis so valuable that it must be kept secret. Here are the ten major principles of the gnostic revelation:
  1. The creator of this world is demented.
  2. The world is not as it appears, in order to hide the evil in it, a delusive veil obscuring it and the deranged deity.
  3. There is another, better realm of God, and all our efforts are to be directed toward
    1. returning there
    2. bringing it here
Our actual lives stretch thousands of years back, and we can be made to remember our origin in the stars.
Each of us has a divine counterpart unfallen who can reach a hand down to us to awaken us. This other personality is the authentic waking self; the one we have now is asleep and minor. We are in fact asleep, and in the hands of a dangerous magician disguised as a good god, the deranged creator deity. The bleakness, the evil and pain in this world, the fact that it is a deterministic prison controlled by the demented creator causes us willingly to split with the reality principle early in life, and so to speak willingly fall asleep in delusion.
You can pass from the delusional prison world into the peaceful kingdom
if
the True Good God places you under His grace and allows you to see reality through His eyes.
Christ gave, rather than received, revelation; he taught his followers how to enter the kingdom
while still alive
, where other mystery religions only bring about amnesis: knowledge of it at the "other time" in "the other realm," not here. He causes it to come here, and is the living agency to the Sole Good God (i.e. the Logos).
Probably the real, secret Christian church still exists, long underground, with the living Corpus Christi as its head or ruler, the members absorbed into it. Through participation in it they probably have vast, seemingly magical powers.
The division into "two times" (good and evil) and "two realms" (good and evil) will abruptly end with victory for the good time here, as the presently invisible kingdom separates and becomes visible. We cannot know the date.
During this time period we are on the sifting bridge being judged according to which power we give allegiance to, the deranged creator demiurge of this world or the One Good God and his kingdom, whom we know through Christ.


Edited by Ryan H.

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I've always found the gnostic, non-canonical gospels to be fascinating historical documents, and over the course of the last few weeks, I've been stumbling into more contemporary forms of gnosticism, like that adhered to by critic Harold Bloom and author Philip K. Dick. I have a cursory knowledge of gnosticism--enough to explain its basic tenets and enough to comment on when an idea seems to have a gnostic edge--but I don't have any significant in-depth knowledge about the phenomenon. I'd be interested if any of you folks have encountered any literature on gnosticism that you might recommend, whether it deals with gnosticism in late antiquity or is an expression of a more contemporary formulation.

This might not be what you're looking for, but Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian has some substantial gnostic elements to it, ones I didn't really pick out until after I finished and read some critiques.

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From a non-heresy perspective:

Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels is a classic - very representative of contemporary scholarship on these texts. Her more recent Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas is a very compelling read, as it tracks her personal spiritual journey through what has become an academic discourse.

From a heresy perspective:

The standard historical work is Robert Grant's Gnosticism and Early Christianity. It is dated, but still valuable.

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Kurt Rudolph's Gnosis is also a helpful introduction to Gnosticism in Late Antiquity.

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And, just for kicks, here is what Philip K. Dick suggested were the tenets of gnostic belief:

Sounds just a little bit like hyper-Calvinism.

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Sounds just a little bit like hyper-Calvinism.

In what way?

Oh, just the "we live in a deterministic prison absolutely controlled by a demented/arbitrary/capricious deity" thing. Oh yeah, or the "having an exclusive knowledge of God in your own select little special group that no one else is allowed to have" thing. Along with the "we are dead in our sins/asleep/completely incapable of doing anything good until the deity awakens us first" thing (Dick's #s 5 & 6). And finally, this would also include believing that Scripture has a "secret hidden meaning" that can only be understood by selected group. I've personally found passages like I Timothy 2:1-6 equally useful against both Gnostic and Calvinist teachings. I don't think that it's merely a coincidence, but I haven't really researched any historical connection between the two yet. It's just that my arguments against Gnosticism are occasionally identical to my arguments against Calvinism.

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Oh, just the "we live in a deterministic prison absolutely controlled by a demented/arbitrary/capricious deity" thing.

Well, I doubt any Calvinist worth their salt--hyper or otherwise--would refer to God as demented, arbitrary, or capricious.

True, maybe it's just me, I think a God who creates some persons to go to heaven and most persons to go to hell, a God who wills for Adam and Eve to do what He tells them not to do and then punishes them for it ... is arbitrary, capricious and even demented.

Oh yeah, or the "having an exclusive knowledge of God in your own select little special group that no one else is allowed to have" thing. [ . . . ] And finally, this would also include believing that Scripture has a "secret hidden meaning" that can only be understood by selected group.

Is this a traditional Calvinist/hyper-Calvinist belief? As a Calvin-reading, card-carrying Calvinist, I've not really encountered such a tenet. Sure, I've encountered the belief that Scripture will be best understood with the aid of the Holy Spirit, which the Elect have, but I've never seen anything quite as preposterous as what you've just suggested.

Right, but it's not that Scripture and the gospel can be best understood with the Holy Spirit's help, it's that Calvinism, as my Calvinist friends have explained to me, interprets verses like I Cor. 2:14 to mean that the gospel cannot be understood at all unless the Holy Spirit first awakens/revives/regenerates someone who is otherwise dead in their sins. I read Calvin's Institutes years ago, and I still remember sections of it that just took things too far.

Calvin, Institutes, Book Two, #20 -

It thus appears that none can enter the kingdom of God save those whose minds have been renewed by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit. On this subject the clearest exposition is given by Paul, who, when expressly handling it, after condemning the whole wisdom of the world as foolishness and vanity, and thereby declaring man’s utter destitution, thus concludes, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned,” (I Cor. 2:14). Whom does he mean by the “natural man”? The man who trusts to the light of nature. Such a man has no understanding in the spiritual mysteries of God. Why so? Is it because through sloth he neglects them? Nay, though he exert himself, it is of no avail; they are “spiritually discerned.” And what does this mean? That altogether hidden from human discernment, they are made known only by the revelation of the Spirit; so that they are accounted foolishness wherever the Spirit does not give light. The Apostle had previously declared, that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him;” nay, that the wisdom of the world is a kind of veil by which the mind is prevented from beholding God (1 Cor. 2:9). What would we more? The Apostle declares that God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world,” (1 Cor. 1:20); and shall we attribute to it an acuteness capable of penetrating to God, and the hidden mysteries of his kingdom? Far from us be such presumption!

This whole chapter seems to just gloss over passages like Romans 1:18-20 and 2:13-15. And it's basically why I can't accept the doctrine of Total Depravity. I believe man is lost and has a sin nature, but I can't believe man is totally and completely depraved. It logically follows from Calvin's reasoning here that man, therefore, doesn't have any free will of his own, partly because he can only attain any kind of spiritual knowledge by the Holy Spirit electing to show it to him (and not to others). Who were the first group of theologians who started denying free will? Yep, it was the Gnostics, who also look like they were the first to teach total depravity. This isn't to say Gnosticism and Calvinism are the same. Reformed theology gets far more right and doesn't mess around with Christ's incarnation or a Demiurge god or anything like that. It was the Gnostics who started teaching that the physical created world is completely totally depraved and evil. That we can't help but sin because of our evil natures and flesh that we're stuck in (goodbye any chance of free will). It seems like Calvinists threw out the more extreme "physical matter is evil" stuff, but then just kept total depravity and the denial of free will anyway.

Edited by Persiflage

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Ryan H. wrote:

: Calvin acknowledges those passages; indeed, he believed in the ability of natural/general revelation to condemn an individual.

Well, if that's ALL that Calvin got out of those passages, then he missed the point. Paul wrote his letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome partly to caution them against feeling superior to those pagans over there. That's kind of what Romans 1 and 2 are all about -- Romans 2:15 even makes the point that an uncoverted pagan's conscience will not only "accuse" him but sometimes even "defend" him when the day of judgment comes.

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True, maybe it's just me, I think a God who creates some persons to go to heaven and most persons to go to hell, a God who wills for Adam and Eve to do what He tells them not to do and then punishes them for it ... is arbitrary, capricious and even demented.

Well, FWIW, this problem isn't escaped in other Christian traditions, such as Arminian or Catholic thought. Indeed, it's a strong challenge unless you advocate Open Theism, which brings with it other significant difficulties.

Open theists are funny to talk to, but I always feel like I should be smoking weed whenever I do talk to them. "It's like, there is no future for God to know man, because, like, the future hasn't happened yet, so it doesn't exist. So God only just knows millions of alternate universes inside his own head, man. Think about it ..."

However, there is a distinct difference between theological positions that say [a] everything that happens is God's will, or some things happen that are against God's will. Each position says something different about who God is.

I don't want to take this thread into a study of Calvin's theology--it's gnostic theology I'm interested in--but I don't think so. Calvin acknowledges those passages; indeed, he believed in the ability of natural/general revelation to condemn an individual. In Calvin's mind, I don't think the "naturally revealed" attributes of God, such as his power and law, are the same thing as the "spiritual mysteries of God." And, while it's been a while since I've read Calvin, Calvin's sense of the "revelation of the Spirit" has some broader aspects, as he acknowledges in other passages of his INSTITUTES.

I wonder what Calvin would say then to Christians who believe general revelation exists to point nonbelievers towards God. "His divine attributes" include a lot more than power and law, for instance, I'd bet a majority of the A&F crowd would argue that the beauty that is inherent in Creation also says something about God's attributes.

Total Depravity does not hold that man is "totally and completely depraved," in the sense that he is as depraved as he could possibly be, but rather, that there is no aspect of his being that has remained untouched/unstained by sin.

Then I guess that begs the question, why call it "Total Depravity" in the first place? You end up confusing intelligent guys like C.S. Lewis as a result -

"This chapter will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature." - Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, chapter 4

And then you have guys like R.C. Sproul going around interpreting "Total Depravity" to mean that unregenerate man cannot believe in the gospel. "A cardinal point of Reformed theology is the maxim: 'Regeneration precedes faith' ... We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order that we may believe." - Sproul, in Chosen by God, pg. 72

Calvinism/Reformed theology does not object to the notion of "free will" as a philosophical entity. It does not deny agency, except in its most obnoxious, over the top forms. What it does deny is the willingness of the human soul to reach for God of its own accord. In gnostic thought, it seems to be less a discussion of human tendency and nature, but rather that we are, in a quite literal sense, in a mental prison, ala THE MATRIX. In truth, it seems to have a bit in common with Scientology.

Alright, my disagreement here would go too far into the Reformed theology debate that isn't the point of your thread. Even if I disagree, I do respect Reformed theology - it's far more interested in getting doctrine right than vanilla evangelicalism is. And, whether there are similarities between to the two or not, a Reformed theologian is probably going to be better equipped to deal with Gnostic error than your average evangelical theologian would be.

On a final completely different Gnosticism related note, I've always found it humorous that 4 out of 5 pastors preaching on I Corinthians 7, take verse 1 as the header/summation of Paul's teaching in the chapter. It wasn't until I listened to a sermon by Mark Dever (who is Reformed, btw), that I finally heard it explained that, translated properly, the statement in I Cor. 7:1 should be in quotation marks. Paul is quoting the Gnostic teaching that he spends the rest of chapter 7 arguing against. 7:1 is not the Paul's summary of his own argument. Just another example of how Gnostic influence can still sometimes influence the modern church.

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Ryan H. wrote:

: I don't understand why you distinguish between "evangelical" and "Reformed" as if they are separate camps.

Well, the two words do signify different (albeit overlapping) things. "Reformed" is a subset of "Protestant", whereas "evangelical" is not; it is a term that can be applied to Catholics and Orthodox as well.

And of course, some Protestant churches that have a capital-E "Evangelical" in their name are not necessarily "evangelical" in the sense that the word is used nowadays. See, e.g., this Christianity Today piece from yesterday on Eric Metaxas's recent book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("Metaxas misses that DB is a liberal with some evangelical sympathies or leanings. Such mistakes are easier than one might think. Even something as simple as the title of the liberal Lutheran Church in German can be confusing: 'Evangelical,' inherited from the Reformation, when 'evangelical' was the common term shared by Protestant Reformers and their heirs. Bonhoeffer can easily strike one as more evangelical than American liberal theologians from the same era, because the latter were locked in a death struggle with fundamentalism. But a writer of Metaxas's caliber should have known better.").

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Sure. But I was puzzled by his pitting one against the other; there are many Reformed evangelicals.

Many Evangelicals believe some aspects of Reformed theology, but almost never everything of, say the Five Points. Evangelicals preach a little too much of a subtle, or not so subtle participation in one's own conversion. There is a sort of "Christ died for everybody. Receive Him now!" aspect to practical Evangelical theology and preaching. As my best friend at church constantly reminds me (and he is neither E or R), it goes back to Finney and the Second Awakening. This sort of thing rankles the Reformed at best and curdles at worst. The tendancy of new congregations and ministries to be unaffiliated seems to muddy the difference at times these days.

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I said MANY. I learned the hard way from discussions and arguments with Reformed bretheren that many never means all, or most. I grew up in a milieu quite different than yours. The basic of Evangelicalism as I understand it are:

  • Born Again
  • Evangelism/Missions
  • Inerrancy
  • Divinity of Christ
  • His Death and Resurrection

I don't think that any of those are incompatible with Calvinism. However, those beliefs are not exclusive to Reformed doctrine either. Much of Evangelicalism has its roots in the Second Awakening which backed away from pure Reformed teaching. If I am not mistaken, some Reformed are a bit uncomfortable with traditional notions of evangelism and Missions. Such notions are the hallmark of the tradition out of which I came. While I cringe at the PR methods of the para-church mission my parents once worked for (notably a come on that implies relief of hunger and lack of shelter, for example, that finishes with a plea for funds for propagating the Gospel in its unique way and no further mention of the come on issues; nothing wrong with either point in my mind, but to use one only as an attention grabber for the other I don't like), I certainly and whole heartedly agree with their reason for being and their ministry. I'm betting that the more comfortable a Reformed pastor or congregation is with emphasis on witnessing and evangelism and missions, the more evangelical the pastor and/or congregation. Honoring these in the breach is just as good. So much of my heritage does too

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I guess it is. The many I referred to almost never accept the five points as a package. I could have worded that better. I'm sorry.

I'm in my late fifties. It is my recollection that evangelicals of my stripe and yours only started to become familiar with each other in my teens and early twenties. One could say that a significant aspect of my adulthood has seen increasing comingling of these stripes. And yet, there are still somewhat pure examples of each still around.

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I'm in my late fifties. It is my recollection that evangelicals of my stripe and yours only started to become familiar with each other in my teens and early twenties. One could say that a significant aspect of my adulthood has seen increasing comingling of these stripes. And yet, there are still somewhat pure examples of each still around.

Yeah — many in my congregation, maybe even denomination, would describe themselves as both (or at least recognize that they were part of the 'greater evangelical world'). The people that only stick with Reformed are mostly the oldest members or 20-somethings.

OK, how 'bout them Gnostics?

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OK, how 'bout them Gnostics?

Yes. Sorry for the hijack.

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Just finished N.T. Wright's Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, a response to the buzz about the "Gospel of Judas" around the time of the Da Vinci Code's popularity. I'm not super familiar with any of the Gnostic "Gospels," but it seems like Wright does a nice job of briefly introducing them before focusing on Judas. I realize that one of the book's main target audiences is Joe Public, especially anyone that might pick the book up hoping to learn more about "what the Church hid." Wright spends much time disproving some of the main claims about "Judas" (that it was suppressed by the Church; that the Gnostics of the second century were really peaceful, accepting people that were persecuted by Christians; that the Christ in "Judas" has any connection to the Christ in the canonical Gospels; etc.) He closes with a good summation of the good news of Christ and how radically different it is to the dualistic nature of the Gnostic worldview.

It's a quick read, but — like some of Wright's other works — suffers from the "too soon" syndrome. You can tell Tom wrote this on a lunch break, or something, after his publisher asked him to respond to the Dan Brown hysteria. He rambles a bit, and repeats a lot. It feels like a long 146 pages (even with the ginormous white space on each page). Still, it might be worth checking out.

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I'm not sure how much this reflects historical Gnosticism, but I found this

with Timothy Freke interesting.

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Sounds just a little bit like hyper-Calvinism.

In what way?

Oh, just the "we live in a deterministic prison absolutely controlled by a demented/arbitrary/capricious deity" thing. Oh yeah, or the "having an exclusive knowledge of God in your own select little special group that no one else is allowed to have" thing. Along with the "we are dead in our sins/asleep/completely incapable of doing anything good until the deity awakens us first" thing (Dick's #s 5 & 6). And finally, this would also include believing that Scripture has a "secret hidden meaning" that can only be understood by selected group. I've personally found passages like I Timothy 2:1-6 equally useful against both Gnostic and Calvinist teachings. I don't think that it's merely a coincidence, but I haven't really researched any historical connection between the two yet. It's just that my arguments against Gnosticism are occasionally identical to my arguments against Calvinism.

Well. Some would say that there is a historic connection, which if it is to be believed, manages to run a thread through pretty much all of Western Christianity, considering

that Luther was an Augustinian monk. This could possibly explain why your arguments against Gnosticism are sometimes the same as your arguments against Calvinism.

http://www.allaboutreligion.org/gnostic-christianity-faq.htm

From the article

Gnostics also believed that mankind was wholly evil and some sects even renounced marriage and procreation. They also believed in two gods, one evil god and one good god.

Their teachings are believed to have influenced Saint Augustine in the development of his theology of "total depravity" of mankind and concept of God. For nine years St. Augustine

adhered to Gnostic Manichaeism, a Persian philosophy proclaimed in southern Babylonia (Iraq) that taught a doctrine of "total depravity" and the claim that they were the "elect." He then turned to skepticism.

Next, Augustine was attracted to the philosophy of Neoplatonism. He blended these beliefs with his later Gnostic Christian teachings. His teachings were in turn passed on to John Calvin in his extensive study

of Augustine's writings. It is very easy to follow the trail of John Calvin's theology from the pagan religion of Mani in Babylonia to his writings in France and Geneva.

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Of all the so-called Gnostic Gospels the one that fascinates me most is the Gospel of Thomas. Not really a gospel if you mean that it includes the story of the life of Christ. Thomas’ doesn’t do that. It is more like a giant Sermon on the Mount with Jesus sharing his “words of wisdom” in talks and parables. Themes of self-discovery are very important with Jesus being a source of enlightenment. What is interesting is that it is dated to as early as 60AD, or the same time the canonical gospels were written. Large portions of this gospel are rewordings of the synoptic gospels especially, which leads some scholars to believe that Thomas had might have used the same source as Matthew and Mark, the so-called Q theory. Though no one will ever know, one wonders if there are some lost phrases here that came from the mouth of Jesus. While the has church did its best to snuff out this gospel, its themes resurface in Teresa Avila, St John of the Cross, and many other places.

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ldwenzel wrote:

: Of all the so-called Gnostic Gospels the one that fascinates me most is the Gospel of Thomas. . . . What is interesting is that it is dated to as early as 60AD, or the same time the canonical gospels were written.

Well, by SOME people, at least. Wikipedia quotes two scholars who say:

Assigning a date to the Gospel of Thomas is very complex because it is difficult to know precisely to what a date is being assigned. Scholars have proposed a date as early as AD 60 or as late as AD 140, depending upon whether the Gospel of Thomas is identified with the original core of sayings, or with the author's published text, or with the Greek or Coptic texts, or with parallels in other literature. . . .

Most interpreters place its writing in the second century, understanding that many of its oral traditions are much older. . . .

And of course, given that quite a few of the sayings in Thomas also appear in the canonical gospels, no one would dispute that it reflects older traditions on at least SOME level. But as far as when the Gospel of Thomas ITSELF was actually composed ... it seems we're looking probably at the 2nd century, AFTER the canonical gospels were composed, rather than the 1st.

: . . . Thomas had might have used the same source as Matthew and Mark, the so-called Q theory.

Actually, Q theory holds that Matthew and LUKE used Q (in addition to Mark) when forming their own gospels. But it's only a theory, and we don't actually have any hard evidence that the Q source actually existed. If "Q" is simply understood to mean "all the material that Matthew and Luke have in common that cannot be found in Mark", then it could refer to many sources, not just one.

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