Gnosticism in the Mainline

Peter R. Jones
Wednesday, June 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 2001

It is possible to be too spiritual for our own good. Ancient Gnosticism, for instance, has enjoyed a renaissance in American religion and in neo-pagan spirituality. As the 1996 moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly in a speech at the University of Chicago Divinity School, accepting the 1996 Alumnus of the Year award, said "One of our finest hours was when our Presbyterian publishing house, Westminster Press, published books on the death of God theology."

In fact, this "finest hour" has helped promote in the mainline or liberal Protestant churches a growing rejection of biblical theism. Death-of-God theologian David Miller already made the implications crystal-clear in 1974, "[T]he announcement of the death of God [is] the obituary of a useless single-minded and one-dimensional norm of a civilization that has been predominantly monotheistic, not only in its religion, but also in its politics, its history, its social order, its ethics, and its psychology." Then he prophesied, "When released from the tyrannical imperialism of monotheism by the death of God, man has the opportunity of discovering new dimensions hidden in the depths of reality's history." At the funeral of God, Miller announced the rebirth of the spirituality of gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome. At the time, this connection to spiritual paganism was not always obvious. Man had simply "come of age," having outgrown the need of the "God hypothesis." In 1979 Naomi Goldenberg, a leading feminist, declared (with no apparent conscious reference to the Death-of-God theology), "The feminist movement in western culture is engaged in the slow execution of Christ and Jahweh." The elimination of God, of course, was the ultimate goal of ancient Gnosticism, but behind the destruction of God was a deeply spiritual agenda. In this article, we will focus on a short history of Gnosticism's penetration into liberal Christianity.

Gnosticism for the Elite

With the discovery of a whole library of ancient Gnostic texts in 1945 and their translation and dissemination in 1977, old Gnosticism has undergone a modern revival. James Robinson, general editor of The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977) and an ex-orthodox Presbyterian minister raised on the Westminster Confession of Faith, in the introduction to these texts, declared his attraction to the alternate spirituality of Gnosticism: "The focus of this [Gnostic] library has much in common with primitive Christianity, with eastern religions, and with holy men of all times, as well as with the more secular equivalents of today, such as the counter-culture movements coming from the 1960's."

In the late seventies, Gnosticism and Orthodoxy were proposed to fair-play pluralists as two "valid" but relative ways or trajectories. "Neither," reassured Robinson, "is the original Christian position." He thus believed a fusion of both would bring a refreshingly new formulation for third-millennium Christianity. Recently the tide has changed, and the radicalism of the agenda is now obvious for all to see-as well as the logic. The second-century Mutarorian Canon, in rejecting Gnostic texts from its list, lucidly stated, "Gall cannot be mixed with honey." In other words, when you mix opposites, one must eliminate the other. Thus, the same liberal scholars who earlier promoted a fusion of orthodoxy and Gnosticism now claim that Gnosticism was the original form of Christianity. For them, the Orthodoxy of the New Testament has now become the interloper that must be eliminated. Says Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar founder, "Heresy actually preceded orthodoxy." Another Jesus Seminar adherent claims that "the Gospel of Thomas … was compiled in the mid to late first century … as valuable a source for the teaching of Jesus as Q, and perhaps more so than the Gospels of Mark and John." These mainline scholars now boldly place Gnosticism at the beginning of the line.

This scholarly work has given courage to the radicals in the mainline. Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong proposes, as the Church's only hope, a "new look" Christianity for a new millennium. Spong believes we come to "the end of an era [where] … most traditional Christian doctrines … have become obsolete," specifically the "theistic definition of God." In a similar vein, Carter Heyward, a "socialist, feminist, lesbian," Episcopal priest, dismisses the Trinity as a homophilial/ homoerotic image of relationship between males (Father and Son), rejects the divinity of Christ, and prefers the Gnostic "Sophia/Wisdom." Little wonder conservative bishops speak of "a crisis of leadership and faith" and a "state of pastoral emergency" in the Episcopal church.

Funk, a promoter to "canonical status" of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, enthusiastically adopts the radical program of Bishop Spong. Ominously, the next project of the Jesus Seminar is "The Mythical Matrix and God as Metaphor." Says Funk, "We are discussing the future of God, so to speak." With what happened to Jesus, one shudders to think what the Jesus Seminar will do to God.

However, modern "Christian" Gnosticism has not quite yet finished with Jesus. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? deny that Jesus ever existed. Far from being turned off from Christianity by their research, Freke and Gandy say their premise actually strengthened their faith. "What we've discovered is that the message of original Christianity was…about, for the original Christians, becoming a Christ oneself." This leads them to conclude that the Gnostics were the original Christians. Their book has been remarkably well received, reaching best-seller status in the United Kingdom, garnering at least one Book of the Year award, and receiving support from-John Shelby Spong!

Donna Steichen, a Roman Catholic, theologically conservative journalist, documenting the effects of radical, pagan feminism in the Roman Catholic Church, states, "There is little practical reason for optimism. For the present, much of the American Catholic Church is occupied by enemy forces." In the spring of 1998, one of these radical Roman Catholic feminists, Rosemary Radford Ruether, gave the Sprunt Lectures at Union Seminary, which is an historic, mainline Presbyterian institution in Richmond, Virginia. In a public lecture to future ministers of the gospel she stated, "Redemption does not mean sending down the divine from some higher spiritual world where God is located, into a bodily world…, but rather perhaps it means the welling up of authentic life in a true creation…." Giving new meaning to Christmas, she declared, "Flesh became Word, not Word became Flesh. God is not the power of dominating control from outside but the ground of life-giving relations and their ongoing renewal."

"Life-giving relations" flourish in contemporary mainline ecumenism at the expense of Christian dogma. Churches Uniting in Christ (CuiC) calls upon Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists to join together in an organic union where, by the very fact of joining, each church automatically approves the theology of the others. The union would include denominations that ordain homosexuals, and one group, the Light of Life Community Church, that denies orthodox teaching on Christ and the Trinity, and affirms a monistic/pantheistic view of God.

Bill Phipps, the moderator of Canada's largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Canada, denies the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and deity of Christ, as well as the reality of heaven and hell. "People have to realize," Phipps explained, "that within our church there's a wide range of faith convictions." The denomination's General Council, in support of the moderator, announced, "Rarely, if ever, do we use doctrinal standards to exclude anyone from the circle of belonging." The Church as "the circle of belonging" resembles more and more the all-inclusive circle of pagan monism where all religions and faith expressions are welcomed-all, that is, except historic orthodoxy.

This same pantheistic view of God is openly promoted by the Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. In their bi-monthly publication, More Light Update, they send a call for spiritual testimonies of various examples of "connection to The Source, the sacred, the realm of The Spirit … , and all the other ways of describing It." The call continues, "Dykes! Send us … profound mystical experiences, connection to The Source …, the connection between sex and spirit…. How do you connect to The Source? Prayer? Art? Ritual? Magic? Trance? Dance? Mind-altering substances … spells, chants, charms, … [for compiling an anthology of] writings by bi-sexual people of faith (Jews, Christians, Pagans, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and those following other spiritual paths)." Here is the fulfillment of Miller's prophecy following the liberating "death of God"-"the opportunity of discovering new dimensions hidden in the depths of reality's history."

This viewpoint is not Christianity, and it is not new. It is virulent paganism illegally squatting in the very temple of the Lord, as in the vision of Ezekiel. But in these tolerant times even attempting to make such a judgment, as many conservative Christians in the mainline churches do, is identified as a sign of theological sickness. So the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), in the midst of the outcry over the outlandish worship of the pagan Gnostic goddess, Sophia, at the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference, made the unforgettable statement, "Whatever you think of Re-Imagining, the style of discourse-the use of words like heretic, pagan [by those critical of it]-is not healthy."

The radicals know better. In a moment of unusual lucidity, ordained Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and well-known lesbian Janie Spahr, transparently wonders, "Maybe we're talking about a different god." From a different perspective, John Christie, a conservative United Methodist minister, agrees. Reacting to the marriage ceremony performed for two lesbians by Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Nebraska, a fellow United Methodist minister, Christie claims that there are two religions in his denomination, "One based on Scripture and one that feels we are in a new age with new truths."

Gnosticism for the Unsuspecting Masses

Most people in the pew are not caught up in this radical rejection of the faith. In vast numbers, however, they have adopted the contemporary notions of theological tolerance, effectively giving up any solid ground on which to oppose the onslaught of radical Gnosticism. The sociologists have demonstrated this. Pollster George Barna recently stated that "America is transitioning from a Christian nation to a syncretistic, spiritually diverse society."

A notable case in point says it all. "The choice is simple … between the eternal and the passing … between Jesus Christ and the world, I've Made My Choice. I love Jesus Christ…. How about you?" These were the words of Bill Bradley, then a basketball star in the 1960s. In the '90s, Bradley the seasoned politician, says: "Christianity offers one way to achieve inner peace and oneness with …the world. Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism offer others. Increasingly I resist the exclusivity of true believers." Reflecting this same trend, Mary Ann Lundy, from the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), now deputy director of the World Council of Churches, and a professing worshiper of the goddess Sophia, announces, "We are learning that to be ecumenical is to move beyond the boundaries of Christianity … yesterday's heresies are becoming tomorrow's Book of [Church] Order." As Lundy and Bradley demonstrate, the ground has shifted.

At the heart of this kind of ecumenism is the idea that all religions are the same. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk writing most appropriately in the magazine Gnosis, a publication dedicated to the promotion of Gnosticism in the modern world, says, "Envision the great religious traditions arranged on the circumference of a circle. At their mystical core they all say the same thing, but with different emphasis." The theoretical basis of all this is the belief that behind all religions is the same experience of the unio mystica-variously called "deification," "the seventh, highest mansion," "holy marriage," or "unitive vision." A leading "Christian" scholar, Huston Smith, believes that the present work of the Spirit is producing an "invisible geometry to shape the religions of the world into a single truth." Some in the established churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, believe Smith is a prophet for the Church of the third millennium.

The message of contemporary "Christian" syncretism shares a Buddhist view of God, "You're not going to find truth outside yourself…. You become a Buddha by actualizing your own original innate nature…. We only have to awaken to it."

Prophecies and Warnings

A major figure of the Theosophical movement, Alice Bailey made a striking prophecy in 1957: "The coming struggle will emerge within the churches themselves…. The fight will then spread to thinking men and women everywhere who, in a protesting revolt, have denied orthodox churchianity and theology." The prophecy is coming true. Observes New Ager Marilyn Ferguson, "An increasing number of churches and synagogues have begun to enlarge their context…now the heretics are gaining ground, doctrine is losing its authority, and knowing is superseding belief."

Writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, Dutch Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck warned, "The twentieth century … [will] witness a gigantic conflict of spirits … between the old and the new worldview." New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen, in the 1920s saw the beginnings: "The truth is that liberalism has lost sight of the very centre and core of the Christian teaching … the awful transcendence of God." Theologian Francis Schaeffer, in the early 1970s, predicted, "Pantheism will be pressed as the only answer to ecological problems and will be one more influence in the West's becoming increasingly eastern in its thinking." Cultural critic Os Guiness got the term, "The Eastern religions will be to Christianity a new, dangerous Gnosticism." It is not difficult to see that these predictions have come true.

The Real Agenda of Gnosticism

Both eliminating the Creator God of biblical theism and promoting deep spiritual union with the god of paganism lie at the heart of Gnosticism.

Long before Naomi Goldenberg declared feminism's intention to undertake "the slow execution of Jahweh," Gnosticism declared the "death of God" at the hands of the pagan goddess, Sophia. The Hypostasis of the Archons states, "She [Sophia] breathed into his [Jahweh] face and her breath became a fiery angel…and that angel bound Yaltabaoth/Jahweh and cast him down into Tartaros [Hell] below the Abyss." According to On the Origin of the World, Sophia, at the end of the world, will "drive out the gods of chaos whom she had created together with the First Father [Jahweh]. She will cast them down to the abyss. They will be wiped out by their own [injustice] … they will gnaw at one another until they are destroyed by their First Father. When he destroys them he will turn against himself and destroy himself until he ceases to be."

In place of the God of the Bible, Gnosticism offered pantheistic spirituality. Jesus reveals to James that when James reaches Him Who Is, "you will no longer be James; rather you are the One Who Is." In other words, the Gnostic Jesus promised that we are all divine Christs. Such status for the believer is based on pagan pantheism, and this, too, is at the core of Gnosticism. The goddess Sophia is everywhere. She declares, "I am intangible, dwelling in the intangible. I move in every creature … every power and every eternal movement and … [in] every material soul." Because she is everywhere and true Gnostics believe they are divine, they are thus able to enter into deep, spiritual communion with her occult power.

This is the essence of Gnosticism-anti-Christian pagan occultism-now masquerading as new-look Christianity. Is this judgment too harsh?

Consider Harold Bloom, a world expert on Shakespeare and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. As a young man in the 1960s, Bloom converted to Gnosticism. He remembers with relish the deep sense of personal liberation in discovering that he was uncreated, as old as God! "We are unsponsored, since the god of this world, worshiped by the names of Jesus and Jehovah, is only a bungler … who botched the False-Creation that we know as our Fall…. It makes a considerable difference to believe that you go back before the Creation." Liberated from his Jewish upbringing, Bloom became a pagan monist.

Without any compunction to make Gnosticism palatable to Christian sensibilities, he offers what he believes to be the essence and origin of Gnosticism. He proposes shamanism as the essential paradigm of all esoteric spirituality, in particular the "idea that once there was no barrier between Heaven and earth … [and] the shaman is the person who can break through our limits … [via] out-of-the-body experiences, in order to invoke the world of the spirits." And then he makes this amazing statement: "The shamanistic belief … that a self that is the oldest and best part of one, a divine magical self … seems to me the origin of all Gnosticism-Gnosticism … [emerged] … from shamanism, particularly from the shamanistic occult or magical self."

Johannes van Oort, professor of Church history at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, warns, "Gnosis in one form or another is expected to become the main expression of secular religion in the new millennium. In order to equip the Church for this new age, the scientific study of Gnosticism is vital." But, in light of the above, we need to ask if Gnosticism, in spite of the stalwart efforts of its conservative members, will also become the "main expression" of mainline Christianity.

Wednesday, June 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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