March 01, 2005

Regarding Gnosticism

Can you recommend resources that directly refute Gnosticism?

A timely and relevant question in light of the revived interest in the Gnostic "gospels," due to the work of figures like Elaine Pagels ("Beyond Belief") and Dan Brown ("The DaVinci Code").

Let me first start with a brief summary of Gnosticism. Here's one I've found that will do nicely:

"A combination of the philosophy of Plato and Eastern mystery religions, Gnostics believe salvation comes from knowing (gnosis), especially knowledge of secret, hidden teachings. The early Christian Gnostics claimed their secret information gave them great insight to true Christianity. Some claimed to have wisdom that Christ gave in secret. There were (and are) multiple groups of Gnostics, some denying the divinity of Christ, others the humanity. Most identified the God of the Old Testament with the evil diety who they believed created the material world in which souls were trapped; they tended to revere those who opposed him."

Unfortunately, Gnosticism tends to be a rather broad camp, so if someone is attempting to advocate for this religious perspective they are obligated to first give an account of which particular flavor of Gnosticism they are advancing and why that one.

The authority of Gnosticism is grounded in its claim to be the true expression of the teachings of Jesus. That is to say, Gnosticism is allegedly the true Christian heir and what we know of as "orthodox" Christianity is simply the muddleheaded usurper and historical victor. Probably the best approach to answering Gnostic advocates is to make the case for the superior reliability and authority of the Biblical documents, which are most unfriendly to the doctrines of Gnosticism. Let me offer some helpful points to be made in this discussion.

Most scholars (even skeptical ones) now admit that the New Testament documents were authored in the First Century and come out of the heart of the Christian community at that time. There is zero evidence that the Gnostic documents are equally early works. Most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) have traditionally dated them to the 2nd - 4th Centuries. They do not have the same pedigree as the canonical texts, i.e., there is no line of descent from the Apostles to these texts like there is for the canonical works (we have extra-biblical writings discussing authorship in fact).

The Gnostics themselves referenced the canonical Gospels and seemed to have no problems with them. It was just their mystical interpretations of them and their added theology that led them down the path of heresy. Since both classical Christianity and Gnosticism have these texts "in common," it seems only logical to look at these established texts to begin arbitrating the dispute. Unfortunately, when we compare these with the Gnostic "gospels" the discrepancies quickly become apparent.

Gnosticism is an absolute break with the Jewish tradition of the time of Jesus, while classical Christianity is a complement to it. If no theological ties can be established to Judaism, then we are essentially talking about the introduction of a brand new religion. The Gnostics were keen to avoid this, and for this reason they engaged in extensive historical and theological gymnastics to attempt to discredit or symbologize the Old Testament.

Christianity is often accused of plagiarizing its theology and stories from the ideas and mythology of the surrounding culture, but in reality it is Gnosticism that is far more in line with the mythology and philosophies of the Greco-Roman culture.

It is interesting to point out that Gnostic beliefs are even more incredible than those of classical Christianity. Someone opposed to classical Christianity may find, upon investigation, that ancient Gnosticism is not as palatable as they first imagined. For example, Gnosticism rejects the Christian idea of one good creator God in favor of a complex cascading series of heavens and gods (the Pleroma), with the creator of the material world being imperfect and even, perhaps, evil. Gnosticism asserts that matter is actually inferior and corrupt, and so they tended to be more or less ascetic (i.e., they denied the pleasures of the flesh). They had some rather strange views of Jesus. Most skeptics would like to merely humanize Jesus, but the Gnostics merely tamper with the nature of His divinity (e.g., He's some lower-order being in the Pleroma) or suggest rather arcane things about His humanity (e.g., His body was really just a ghost). The Gnostics were not very egalitarian. Not all had, or were capable of receiving, the hidden knowledge (gnosis). Even that knowledge which was required to attain "heaven" was rather tedious and cryptic -- far less encouraging and accessible than the simple Gospel of Grace found in classical Christianity. Additionally, feminist theology seems to be rather fond of Gnosticism, but this only makes sense if one is ignorant of, or intentionally suppresses, the anti-feminine tendencies of the Gnostics. Take, for example, this passage from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: "Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."

And for one more example of the questionable character of the non-canonical texts, let me quote something from the "Gospel of Peter":

"And early in the morning as the Sabbath dawned, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region roundabout to see the sepulchre that had been sealed. Now in the night whereon the Lord's day dawned, as the soldiers were keeping guard two by two in every watch, there came a great sound in the heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descend thence, shining with a great light, and drawing near unto the sepulchre. And that stone which had been set on the door rolled away of itself and went back to the side, and the sepulchre was opened and both of the young men entered in. When therefore those soldiers saw that, they waked up the centurion and the elders (for they also were there keeping watch); and while they were yet telling them the things which they had seen, they saw again three men come out of the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following, after them. And of the two they saw that their heads reached unto heaven, but of him that was led by them that it overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying: Hast thou preached unto them that sleep? And an answer was heard from the cross, saying: Yea"

These kinds of accounts make the Biblical Gospels seem almost mundane by comparison. It is easier to see the Gnostic texts as being corrupted or mythologized versions of the canonical texts than vise versa.

Here are some worthy articles for further study on the issue of Gnosticism:

This one is a "short" article from one of our partner ministries:

Here is a more exhaustive treatment of the subject in a two-part series from the Christian Research Journal:

And if you are looking for more extensive materials I could recommend numerous books, but that would depend on what angle you are coming from on this issue. For example, if you need to defend the canon of Scripture over/against the Gnostic texts, I'd recommend books on the reliability of the Bible and the making of the canon by people like F.F. Bruce, Craig Blomberg, or Norman Geisler. If you simply wanted to defend against charges made in a book like The DaVinci Code, I'd recommend something like Richard Abanes', The Truth Behind the DaVinci Code.

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