Old Heresy, New Heretics

Mark A Pierson
Thursday, May 1st 2008
May/Jun 2008

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Manuscripts hidden for centuries have resurfaced unexpectedly. When their secret contents are disclosed, scholars will be forced to rewrite the history books, and the Christian church will suffer a blow from which it may never recover. (Cue the ominous and conspiratorial theme music here.) For it turns out that the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as God incarnate whose death and resurrection redeemed mankind from sin was just one of many interpretations of the man, his life, and his teachings. Certain agenda-driven bureaucrats in the church and politicians in the Roman Empire exercised their power and enthroned this view as “orthodox” Christianity. Subsequently, they suppressed and destroyed all writings expressing a different take on Jesus. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, this is not merely another reference to a farfetched work of fiction. Rather, these are serious assertions made loudly and frequently by several renowned and influential scholars. They claim the secret contents of such documents have been disclosed, and Jesus’ identity was formulated by the church and later imposed by the state. By persuasively appealing to historical events and religious texts about which the common person knows little, this movement is denying the central tenets of Christianity. It is known as the new Gnosticism, and its advocates are playing for keeps.

Christians could once rest assured that modern heresies were too implausible to gain many converts. The new Gnosticism, on the other hand, is providing countless skeptics, atheists, and agnostics the perceived intellectual high ground they need to dismiss the New Testament. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are prime examples. (1) Furthermore, the significance of ancient texts was previously discussed only by professional academics. Today, the issue is nearly omnipresent in the media, in bookstores, in pop culture, and on the lips of college students. Add to this the current trend that blending novelty, intrigue, and Jesus is a surefire way to generate higher sales and larger audiences, and it appears the new Gnosticism is not going away any time soon.

But what exactly is the threat posed by the new Gnosticism? How did a long-forgotten heresy manage to return with a vengeance? Is there still reason to trust the New Testament and the Jesus found therein? These issues will be addressed as we cover the rise, fall, and reappearance of Gnosticism, examine Christians’ respons-es to it, and briefly inspect one scholar’s views.

A Heresy Is Born

The term “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnösis, which means “knowledge.” Special or secret knowledge about the cosmos is required in order to obtain salvation. Commonly included in this diverse (and confusing) belief system are the following tenets. Matter is inherently evil, created by a foul god who is either wicked, ignorant, or both. Within one’s physical flesh, however, lies a “divine spark” or an immaterial spirit, which is good. By accepting this knowledge about reality, one can cultivate the hidden light of divinity found within. Being “saved” is equivalent to being rescued from ignorance. After death, one’s soul ascends to the distant realm of the true, unknowable god. This vital gnosis can only be imparted by one who is himself “in the know,” which ultimately requires a redeemer from beyond this world. Enter Jesus Christ.

Titles such as Savior, Redeemer, Son of God, Light of the World, and Logos made Jesus a prime candidate for being this enlightened revealer of secret knowledge. However, Jesus reconciling all of creation to the God who made it by physically suffering and dying was repugnant. Equally problematic was his present bodily resurrection. Gnostics, therefore, needed to adopt Jesus without embracing the central claims of the New Testament. This was accomplished either by borrowing only certain parts of Christian texts, by interpreting Christian beliefs differently, or by creating new writings about Jesus.

This last option is the most notorious, for two reasons. First, many of these Gnostic writings have both “gospel” and a biblical name in the title. Among them is the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Judas. This gives the impression that they are similar to the four New Testament Gospels, either in content or in status. Second, most Gnostic gospels claim to contain “secret” teachings revealed by Jesus to an elite group. This allowed Gnostics to assert their superiority over the ignorant Christians.

Around a.d. 180, prominent churchmen such as Irenaeus began to oppose Gnosticism by arguing that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the only legitimate gospels, with all others containing fabrications. Tracts were distributed that demonstrated the rationality of Christianity and the veracity of the New Testament over and against the unreasonableness of Gnosticism and its groundless claims. Consequently, Gnosticism’s popularity faded. After Christianity was legalized by Constantine in 313 and the Nicene Creed was produced in 325, fewer and fewer remnants remained. Gnosticism appeared to be headed toward extinction.

An Ancient Heresy Gets a Face-lift

Fast-forward to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when attempts to discredit Christianity had become commonplace. In The Gospel and the Greeks, Ronald Nash observed that scholars tried to demonstrate Christians’ dependence on Greek philosophy and mythology in formulating the New Testament. Though lack of evidence rendered this unpersuasive, they persisted in their quest by focusing on Gnosticism. In 1934, Walter Bauer claimed our information about Gnosticism was biased since it came from the church fathers. Perhaps, Bauer suggested, the fathers’ view about Christ prevailed not because it was true, but because all opposing voices were successfully silenced. Maybe the so-called heretics were misrepresented, or were even correct. Bauer ran with this theory, asserting that various Christianities initially competed for survival. Provocative as this was, it could not be substantiated, and Bauer was forced to rely on the argument from silence.

The following decade, over 50 Gnostic writings were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. (These are not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls, also found in the 1940s, but solely Jewish in character.) Each Nag Hammadi text was in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language, and was written in the fourth century. Important questions were being asked, with much disagreement over the answers. How many are copies or translations of earlier writings? Are these the same writings the church fathers referenced? What do they reveal about Jesus and the earliest Christians? With so many “heretics” finally able to speak for themselves, as it were, what do they have to say?

As could be predicted, the Nag Hammadi documents contain beliefs incompatible with biblical Christianity. Some claim Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection were symbolic, not literal. Others mention “God the Mother,” or refer to the Holy Spirit as female. Many have Jesus instructing his followers to look within themselves in order to find salvation and to commune with God. But the sheer number of texts suggested that Gnosticism may have flourished at one point. If the originals were written early enough, it could be that Bauer’s thesis is finally confirmed.

Scholars who assert that it is see themselves as knowing the truth about early Christianity, while those who accept the traditional history are ignorant. This is what constitutes the new Gnosticism. It is not about sharing beliefs with the ancient Gnostics; rather, it is about being enlightened to the truth that many primitive forms of Christianity coexisted, without any single view of Jesus being more legitimate than another. Those who claim otherwise are relying on faith, not facts, and have just as groundless a position as did the church fathers upon whom the idea of orthodoxy is based.

Ineffective Responses by Christians

Many Christians are unable to offer adequate rebuttals to the charges leveled by the new Gnosticism. Whereas challenges to Jesus’ identity were once answered by appealing to Scripture, questions about early Christianity raise doubts about its status as an objective arbiter of truth. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is anything inherently wrong with questioning Christianity’s origins. Rather, the answers are wherein the danger lies, including those often given by Christians. For once Christians fail to defend their faith effectively, the new Gnosticism pounces, equipped with convoluted responses that many laypeople are incapable of dismantling.

A common yet disastrous choice is to rush headlong into the trap of trying to defend the inerrancy and limits of Scripture by appealing to nothing more than the words of the canonical Scriptures themselves. Thankfully, invoking “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) as a proof-text appears to be on the wane, for this clearly commits the fallacy of circular reasoning (meaning, the truth of a document cannot be established solely based on what it says about itself). However, comparable arguments used centuries ago are frequently relied on today, and are equally unpersuasive in the face of the new Gnosticism.

Martin Luther claimed the chief criterion for determining a book’s divine inspiration was whether or not it placarded Christ. (2) In so doing, he assumed he already had the correct view of Christ that allowed him to pass judgment. But where else could he obtain this other than from the very documents he was examining? John Calvin’s primary way for knowing the true Scriptures was the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, he claimed Scripture is self-authenticating (that is, it bears witness of its own truthfulness). (3) In this way, he assumed a divine text not only exists, but also has certain qualities and performs specific actions. But how else could he know this without first presupposing the truth of the very writings he was studying?

These methods are not altogether worthless, and the Reformers did employ secondary means of a more objec-tive nature. Plus, they never could have predicted that Gnosticism would return to plague the church and nat-urally only addressed the problems of their own day. But that was a day when most Christians wrote for opponents who shared their same basic worldview. Sim-ilarly, when Catholicism asserted that Christ estab-lished the church’s authority by making Peter the first pope, that Scripture received its authority from the church, and that the right interpretation of Scripture belongs only to the pope, Scripture itself was invoked as support. This is obviously problematic, but battles were once primarily fought over the right interpretation of Scripture, not over the establishment of Scripture altogether.

Such days of luxury have long since vanished. Christians can rarely appeal to their own dogmas, institutions, or manuscripts without being confronted by objections like those of present-day Gnosticism. It is likewise insufficient to remain reticent, either out of fear or ignorance, waiting for the current storm to blow over. The thinking Christian needs satisfactory answers. Otherwise, doubts may ensue and genuine inquiries from unbelievers will be met with silence.

Knowledge Falsely So-called

Apologists are confident that an investigation of Christianity’s nascent years and of Scripture’s reliability will validate the truth of the Christian claim. Nonetheless, many are finding it necessary to do more these days than let the facts speak for themselves. One can no longer depend on scholars being motivated by a genuine desire to understand the past, speculating preciously little beyond what can be demonstrated to be true. A new method of scholarship rules the roost, from which stems the current Gnosticism. It is now perfectly acceptable to blend research with conjecture while claiming an impartial yet groundbreaking conclusion. Thus, a particularly devious aspect of the new Gnosticism is its ability to give the impression that the latest findings have eliminated the arguments and evidences Christians previously used to confirm their faith. The facts are now being spoken for (or against) by those who have a vendetta against Christianity.

But more intricate attacks merely require more sophisticated rebuttals. Thankfully, learned Christians have already done our homework for us. Books listing facts in support of Christianity have been supplemented with works that directly refute the new Gnosticism. (4) Being familiar with these arms Christians with rough and ready answers when put on the spot, and provides confidence that further ammunition is available if needed. Below is a sampling of general points one can make.

Regarding the origin of Gnosticism, there is little agreement. Scholars, however, are certain of its influences: Platonic thought, stressing spirit over matter; Zoroastrian dualism, with opposing deities; and Greco-Roman mystery religions, emphasizing secrecy, and incorporating diverse beliefs. Since the New Testament understanding of Jesus stems from the context of Old Testament Judaism, it is misleading to suggest that any view of Jesus is as legitimate as another. The Messiah has a particular heritage-hence, the first believers were primarily Jews. The Gnostic Jesus, on the other hand, is entirely incompatible with the Jewish standards for the Messiah of Israel.

Similarly, the Nag Hammadi documents reveal that Gnosticism was a hodge-podge of incongruent beliefs. Certain texts claimed there were two gods; others claimed there was a hierarchy of gods. Some Gnostics saw Jesus as their redeemer; others thought it was Seth or Adam. A few texts make no mention of anything Jewish or Christian whatsoever. This is in sharp contrast to the uniform monotheism of the Old and New Testaments, as well as all New Testament authors agreeing on the identity of significance of Jesus.

The issue of dating is wrought with disagreement, but not on this crucial point: every New Testament book was composed prior to the end of the first century, but Gnostic writings are from the second to fourth centuries or even later. Moreover, the New Testament’s accounts are confirmed by other first-century Christian writings (namely, the Didache and 1 Clement), as well as by non-Christian historians who wrote by the early second century (such as Tacitus, Josephus, and Suetonius). Furthermore, half of the Gospel of Thomas, the earliest Gnostic text, was borrowed from the canonical Gospels. Add to all of this the admission from the Gnostics themselves that they were few in number, and it hardly seems justified to claim that competing Christianities abounded with none having been established before the rest.

Orthodoxy and heresy were clearly distinguished long before Irenaeus. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he vehemently proclaimed there to be only one correct view about Christ, with all opposing views being damnable (Gal. 1:6-9). Moreover, it is clear from this and other epistles that Paul’s central teachings were known by his audience as early as the first decade after Christ (Gal. 3:1; 1 Cor. 11:23, 15:1-4; 2 Thess. 2:5). (5) As an extra-biblical example, there is the case of Marcion. Arriving in Rome in 139, he claimed the Jewish creator-god was evil, and Jesus merely appeared to have a physical body that was crucified. That Christians swiftly excommunicated Marcion indicates a standard of orthodoxy was already in place.

Assessing the Methods of Elaine Pagels

Judging by literary output and media exposure, the chief proponent of the new Gnosticism is Elaine Pagels. She has authored five books on Gnosticism and is regularly featured on television and in various journals, magazines, and newspapers. Her personal experiences and erudite opinions are carefully combined to produce fluid, readable material. The Gnostic Gospels is her most influential work and was among the first to use the Nag Hammadi texts to challenge Christianity. In a more recent book on the Gospel of Thomas, she speculates that it was written around the same time as the Gospel of John, with the two authors having been rivals. She last wrote on the Gospel of Judas, questioning what is actually known about Jesus’ betrayal.

With such an affinity for Gnosticism, she was asked if she is a Gnostic herself. Replying in the affirmative, she added that understanding the term to mean “a quality of awareness” is key. (6) Presumably, the awareness pertains to how orthodoxy came to be.

Engaging Pagels entails identifying her methods more than handling specific points. Thus, her use of higher criticism when approaching the New Testament is most noteworthy, for this flawed enterprise relies more on abstract speculation than on tangible data. (7) This helps explain why her “facts” are often mere assumptions at best, such as eyewitnesses not writing the Gospels, the authors using various sources, and a late composition that allowed spurious material to be added. For support, she often notes what “most scholars” say, yet she disapproves of church fathers having appealed to the majority when arguing against Gnosticism.

Pagels frequently tries to discredit the New Testament by citing its supposed contradictions, acting as if each is an open-and-shut case. For example, John’s Gospel is said to contradict the synoptics because it has Jesus clearing the temple earlier in his ministry, as well as dying on a different date. (8) But why must we assume that Jesus rebuked such sacrilege only once? And why does Pagels not mention that two Jewish calendars were in use at this time?

Concerning her own embracement of the new Gnosticism, she reveals two crucial moments of influence. In her youth, she was distressed to hear fellow church goers pronounce damnation on her unbelieving friend and she permanently ceased attending. Much later, Pagels read in the Gospel of Thomas that salvation consists of bringing forth what is within you, which struck her as “self-evidently true.” (9) From these incidents, we see Pagels employing subjective criteria for determining truth. If her friend had been declared saved, would she have never left Christianity? If Jesus’ claim to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6) strikes someone else as self-evidently true, do we have a stalemate?

Finally, a specific example of Pagels’ techniques may prove insightful. She notes the intolerance of some church fathers who limited women’s roles in the church, and praises the Gnostics for recognizing diversity. (10) However, she makes no mention of the closing line of her favorite Gnostic book, the Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus says the only way for a woman to enter heaven is if she first becomes a male!

Then You Will Know the Truth and the Truth Will Set You Free

The new Gnosticism may persist awhile, but it will not end Christianity. Although it is efficient at turning possibilities into certainties in the blink of an eye, its theories cannot stand up in light of the tangible evidence. The Nag Hammadi find is interesting, but there is no sound reason to trust a single Gnostic writing over any of the New Testament documents. Neither are there viable grounds for claiming that orthodoxy and heresy remained undistinguished for centuries.

Christians should prepare themselves with facts supporting Christianity and critiques of opposing viewpoints. Otherwise, doubt may ensue among believers and skeptics will think their suspicions are confirmed. As a final suggestion, Christians ought to read the Gnostic gospels alongside the canonical Gospels to see firsthand the disparate views of Jesus. One is a mystical guide whose life is unimportant and who points man inward to find God; the other is the promised Messiah whose passion, death, and resurrection are central and who is himself God in the flesh.

1 [ Back ] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 286. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 145, 167. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2007), pp. 112-113.
2 [ Back ] Martin Luther, Luther's Works: American Edition, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House and Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1986), 35:396.
3 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), vol. I, vii, pp. 1-5.
4 [ Back ] The author recommends Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006) and Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), pp. 23-63, as helpful introductory materials on the new Gnosticism.
5 [ Back ] See Craig Blomberg on this point in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 42-45.
6 [ Back ] Diane Rogers, "The Gospel of Truth," Stanford Magazine (January/February 2004), online at http://www. stanford magazine/2004/janfeb/features/pagels.html.
7 [ Back ] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), pp. 19-66, provides a helpful summary of higher criticism.
8 [ Back ] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House Inc., 2003), pp. 23-24, 35.
9 [ Back ] Pagels, pp. 31-32.
10 [ Back ] Pagels, p. 159.
Thursday, May 1st 2008

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