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#1 Ryan H.

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 09:13 PM

I've always found the gnostic, non-canonical gospels to be fascinating historical documents, and over the course of the last few weeks, I've been stumbling into more contemporary forms of gnosticism, like that adhered to by critic Harold Bloom and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:

  • The creator of this world is demented.
  • The world is not as it appears, in order to hide the evil in it, a delusive veil obscuring it and the deranged deity.
  • There is another, better realm of God, and all our efforts are to be directed toward
    • returning there
    • 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., 01 February 2011 - 09:14 PM.


#2 Darrel Manson

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 10:16 PM

As the one most often accused of gnostic tendencies (and, I might point out, without denying them) I look forward to seeing what might come up here.

#3 Jason Panella

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Posted 02 February 2011 - 12:32 PM

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.

#4 M. Leary

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Posted 02 February 2011 - 12:39 PM

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.

#5 John

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Posted 02 February 2011 - 05:21 PM

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

#6 Ryan H.

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Posted 02 February 2011 - 09:49 PM

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.

I was hoping you'd make some recommendations.

On a related note, I just picked up two of the texts you recommended on canon formation (the ones by Brevard Childs and John Hultgren) and hope to dig into them soon.

#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 03 February 2011 - 03:27 PM

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.

#8 Ryan H.

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Posted 04 February 2011 - 05:57 PM


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.

In what way?

#9 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 02:16 AM


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.

#10 Ryan H.

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 09:07 AM

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. :P

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.

#11 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 06:18 PM

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, 05 February 2011 - 06:19 PM.


#12 Ryan H.

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 06:54 PM

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.

This whole chapter seems to just gloss over passages like Romans 1:18-20 and 2:13-15.

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.

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.

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.

Who were the first group of theologians who started denying free will?

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.

#13 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 10:03 PM

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.

#14 Ryan H.

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 10:24 PM

Well, if that's ALL that Calvin got out of those passages, then he missed the point.

You would be right about that, but I don't remember enough to know if that's the only way Calvin treats those passages (either in the INSTITUTES or in his vast sea of sermons and other work). I'm just speaking from his broader stance on general revelation, which I know gave some reference to those passages.

EDIT: A-ha, here is Calvin's commentary. Too long to post here, but it does give a fuller reading of the passage than just the simple idea that has been cited here.

Edited by Ryan H., 05 February 2011 - 10:32 PM.


#15 Ryan H.

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 10:36 PM

Here's an interesting question, sorta related to Gnosticism:

Are there any active Christian communities today that embrace the Gospel of Thomas, which isn't really Gnostic, but has some seeds of that train of thought? Or any of the other non-canonical gospels, for that matter?

Edited by Ryan H., 05 February 2011 - 10:36 PM.


#16 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 February 2011 - 03:15 PM

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 [b] 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.

#17 Ryan H.

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Posted 08 February 2011 - 06:43 PM

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

I won't go into a full length response, but I will say that the distinction between those two in Arminian and Calvinist theology is more a matter of semantics than actual substance.

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.

Sure. But Calvin would say that in man's fallen state, the beauty of nature would tend to lead man toward idolatry, not toward God, unless aided by the revelation of the Holy Spirit.

Then I guess that begs the question, why call it "Total Depravity" in the first place?

Historical name, I think. There are other names that have been put forth for it, but it's often futile to fight against the common name of something.

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

Well, what Sproul puts forth is not a misunderstanding of the doctrine. What he puts forth is more or less the party line. While total depravity does not hold that man is as depraved as he could possibly be--that the image of God is hopelessly lost--it does signify that human individuals are turned inwards, inherently self-worshippers, and thus, until they have been regenerated, made to look outwards toward God, they cannot fully believe.

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.

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

Oh, and for what it's worth, there is apparently a surviving gnostic religion: Mandaeism. It's a small religion, though, with only 60,000 to 70,000 adherents.

#18 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 08 February 2011 - 09:52 PM

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.").

#19 Ryan H.

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Posted 09 February 2011 - 07:15 AM

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

#20 Rich Kennedy

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Posted 09 February 2011 - 08:20 AM

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.