Gnosticism, Old School

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Neo Pseudo Gnosticism.

So last week, I started a new series about something I’m calling neo pseudo gnosticism, a heretical belief that I fear has crept into modern Christianity and has warped the way we view the world around us and even the way we look at ourselves.

But before we get into the neo pseudo, let’s review what the original gnostics believed.

Gnosticism was a heresy that started to spread through the early Church, especially in the second century. The gnostics produced their own versions of the gospels (many of which are being rediscovered in modern times; any time you hear a news story about researchers discovering some new gospel that will supposedly shed new light on Jesus’ life, 99% of the time they’re talking about a gnostic gospel). There were also what you might call “generic gnostics” around the same time, folks who held to gnosticism but without the particular Christian flavor. Which came first, generic gnosticism or the Christian version, is kind of a chicken-and-the-egg debate among scholars. My personal belief is that gnosticism grew out of Greek philosophy and eventually infected Christianity, but the chronology isn’t important. Their beliefs are.

Now I won’t go into all of the different varieties of Christian gnosticism. It’s a large umbrella and there are a lot of different varieties. What’s important for our discussion are two basic beliefs that were prevalent in almost every form of gnosticism, namely material evilness  and freedom through gnosis.

Let’s talk about the material evilness first. Gnostics believed that the physical world around us was inherently evil and corrupt, and irredeemably so. Only the spiritual is good. This physical world wasn’t created by God or the divine, but instead by a corrupt, evil copy of God. Most gnostics taught that a person’s soul was trapped within a prison of physical matter.

Obviously this was a situation that had to be rectified. The spiritual within us wants to be set free, but the only way that the soul could be released from its prison was through gnosis (the Greek word for “knowledge”). But not just any knowledge. No, this was special knowledge, handed down to select teachers who would only pass on this knowledge to worthy students. If you learned enough of the gnosis, you’d know how to free your soul from your body upon death.

Now that’s an oversimplified summary of the gnostics. Like I said, there was a large variety of beliefs that were woven through both the generic gnosticism and the Christian versions.

Early Christianity roundly condemned gnostic beliefs, to the point that for many centuries, the only way we knew anything about the gnostics was based on what the early Christian fathers said against them. It wasn’t until a cache of ancient manuscripts were found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Since then, gnosticism has seen a bit of a revival in some circles. Some folks have tried to pass it off as the earliest form of authentic Christianity. The media always seems to learn about a “new” gnostic gospel every Christmas or Easter (even though most of these new gospels were actually discovered decades ago).

But more problematic is the way that some weakened form of gnostic beliefs have infiltrated mainline Christianity.

No, most Christians don’t believe in demiurges or anything like that. Rather, they’ve adopted two beliefs that are pale echoes of their gnostic counterparts, namely:

  1. The physical world, rather than being inherently evil or corrupt, is instead viewed as inconsequential and ultimately unimportant to the eternal scheme of things, and
  2. The point of life is to be set free from our bodies to some sort of ethereal, spiritual paradise.

So what’s the problem with those two beliefs? To put it bluntly, they’re not Biblical. They shouldn’t be a part of Christianity. And to me, it’s problematic that they are.

But to see what I mean, you’ll have to come back next week, when we’ll dive into what Genesis has to say to these two beliefs.

Author @JohnWOtte examines old school gnosticism to look for its echoes in modern Christianity. Click To Tweet
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4 Comments:

  1. You said, “So what’s the problem with those two beliefs? To put it bluntly, they’re not Biblical. They shouldn’t be a part of Christianity. And to me, it’s problematic that they are.”
    My response to your statement is “why?” Better yet, “So what?”

    Your article offers nothing in the way of a correct alternative answer and comes across like a Facebook rant. My hermeneutics instructor would have called what you did here “preaching the problem and not proclaiming the answer.” If you’re going to come out against a position, you need to at least include the thesis of your proposed alternative. You don’t have to elaborate, since we will assume you plan to support your position in greater detail next time. Unfortunately, after reading this, I don’t know if I want to give you a “next time”.

    BTW – If my statement is harsh, you need to read James 3:1. You seldom get a second chance with people, so make your first opportunity count.

    Come on, John, my first year college composition students can do better than this. Bring the fire, not the rant.

    Respectfully

    • While I can see your concerns, I think there’s also a risk of loading too much information into one post, especially for people who aren’t used to these terms.

  2. One of the things I HATE about the current publishing/education industries is that they won’t let you take time to explain the beginning as a foundation, create the middle with glances back to the beginning interspersing lead-ups to development, and ending with some things answered but a lot of things that will wait until the NEXT BOOK (or phase or post). No one seems to have the ability to be PATIENT when someone is trying to give an overall viewpoint to be expounded upon in the next section. It seems that people who actually want others to THINK are now considered an “aggravation” since they won’t “do things the way everyone else wants it done”. Well, Mr. John, from the “Administrator of the Aggravation Committee of Complicated Development Tactics of Writing” you can always count on support… THAT’S ME! Yes, I have more questions. Yes, I may do more research like I did on the last post so I could keep up since it is interesting and I wanted to know more. And Yes, some may not take the time to pay attention. Then again, MOST seem to lap up every single stupid thing in the world without question or opposition. My main plea and prayer is “If I can just reach one!” and you need to do what you can in the way you can to reach those you can. You may not know who is reading this now that desperately needs to be challenged by this post to get them to question what is being slipped into current churches without ANY Biblical consideration. At least you’re trying to share information in the way that makes sense to you. THAT’S WHAT MATTERS SINCE THE ONLY ONE “GRADING” YOU THAT MATTERS IS THE ONE WHO KNOWS YOUR HEART ALREADY! *sighs* Why yes, that may be a TK rant… COOL ^____^

    LUV YA BUNCHES IN JESUS WITH HUGS & PRAYERS!
    Tonja Klein – TK ^___~ at http://www.eirinth.com

  3. Randy Alcorn calls this “Christoplatonism” and writes at length about it in his book, “Heaven.”

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