Protestant Gnosticism Reconsidered

Philip J. Lee
Friday, April 11th 2008
May/Jun 2008

In Against the Protestant Gnostics (1987), I argued that Gnosticism, an ever-recurring heresy within Christianity, was resurfacing in modern guise within North American Protestantism. Two decades later, Gnostic characteristics within Protestant Christianity have reached proportions that I could not have imagined, and have affected the social and political fabric of the United States in ways that I could not have predicted.

From a sociological point of view, there has been in the United States a near triumph of innovative Christianity. The rapid growth of megachurches, the phenomenal advance of various cults, the success of entertainment religious programming on radio and television-all witness to the self-created energy of a do-it-yourself form of the Christian religion. Anyone familiar with the history of the church and the Gnostic threat to Christian orthodoxy must be aware of the old Gnostic drumbeat of me, me, me resonating across the land. From the halls of Liberty University to the Oval Office itself, this vigorous and creative religion has carried the day.

A moment during the third presidential debate of the 2004 election provides a clear illustration of the contrast between this innovative form of religion and historical Christianity. (1) Toward the end of the debate, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer addressed President Bush with these words: "You were asked before the invasion, or after the invasion, of Iraq if you'd checked with your dad. And I believe, I don't remember the quote exactly, but I believe you said you had checked with a higher authority. I would like to ask you, what part does your faith play on your policy decisions?" Bush responded:

First, my faith plays a lot-a big part in my life. And that, when I was answering that question, what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very-it's very personal….Somebody asked me one time, 'Well, how do you know?' I said, 'I just feel it.'…When I make decisions, I stand on principle, and the principles are derived from who I am….The principles that I make decisions on, are part of me, and religion is part of me.

By contrast, Senator Kerry answered the same question by referring to Christ's summary of the law that he was taught in church and parochial school. Regardless of one's politics, the justification for different views was radically different and the favorable press favored the president's passionate inwardness over the senator's appeal to authority.

Following the debate, the media were almost unanimous in praising President Bush's response to the question and in ridiculing Senator Kerry's response. The president, they said, was sincere and passionate about his faith while the senator was merely answering the question by rote. Whatever the outcome of the debate had been in answer to other questions of the moderator, there was no doubt that the president had won the religious question hands down.

A close look at the contrast between the two answers shows President Bush's religion to be almost entirely personal, having to do with a private relationship with God that goes beyond public scrutiny. He prays a lot, and his religion is authenticated by his feelings. Although the president's answer is, no doubt, sincere, it has very little connection to what has historically been considered Christianity.

Even a few decades ago, Protestant Christians might have recognized in the senator's statement a confession close to the biblical faith. The fact that in 2004 the profession of a private faith was so much more acceptable to the popular media (and perhaps later to the electorate) than was a traditional statement of faith and how it affects ethical choices is a cogent example of where we have come as a culture.

In Against the Protestant Gnostics, I identified several characteristics of Gnosticism and contrasted them with the characteristics of what I called "ordinary" or "historical" Christianity: (2) knowledge that saves versus knowledge of the mighty acts; an alienated humanity versus the good creation; salvation through escape versus salvation through pilgrimage; the knowing self versus the believing community; a spiritual elite versus ordinary people; selective syncretism versus particularity. It is not possible in this article to go into the rationale behind these various contrasts. I will, however, demonstrate the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years by looking at them in the context of these same categories.

Escapism vs. Pilgrimage

All Christians, of course, depend upon knowledge. There is a legitimate Christian gnosis. In 1987, I argued that whereas ordinary Christians consider the essential knowledge of the faith having to do with YAHWEH's mighty acts in the covenant with Israel and the new covenant with Christ's church, a large proportion of North American Christians have been fixated on a knowledge having to do with a saving formula.

Historical Christian "know-ing" would have to do with the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, Ruth, and all the other protagonists of the Old Testament drama, as well as with the central-for-Christians story of Jesus, from his birth to his resur-rection and ascension. Christ-ian knowledge would also include the theological and practical wisdom of the Epistles, the miraculous history of the earliest church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and the strange but beautiful poetry of the Apocalypse. Historical Protestantism professes a belief in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-as known (revealed) in these various parts of the Bible.

On the other hand, the knowledge that I have described as Gnostic has to do with a special knowledge, a spiritual insight, which provides access to a given formula for salvation. If certain ideas are held and certain feelings are felt, if one has been "born again" in a manner in harmony with a peculiarly North American Christian culture, that person can be saved. Saving knowledge, according to this formula, is not about what God has accomplished, but rather about what the believer has accomplished in a psychological and emotional sense.

I pointed out that those two types of knowledge have been present in North American Protestantism for quite awhile, possibly since our European ancestors brought Christianity to these shores. What I did not realize in 1987 was that Christianity as a "knowledge which saves," a process for self-redemption, would become the accepted religious norm. What I have described as ordinary Christianity has, in the eyes of the media and the general public, become passé and irrelevant. The public reaction to discussion of religion in the 2004 presidential debate is a clear example of this development.

An Alienated Humanity vs. the Good Creation

In 1987, I argued that many Protestants on both extremes of the theological spectrum were in despair about the human condition itself and even about the creation. I noted that this despair and feeling of alienation emanated from a series of tragic events in the 1960s and 1970s: the assassinations of a president, a presidential candidate, and a prominent black clerical leader, followed by a failed Vietnam War and the scandal of Watergate.

Fourteen years after my book, the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, added a new dimension to that despair. Christian leaders asked openly in the various media, "How could a loving God allow this unjust calamity to take place-on American soil, to our own people?" For many Christians, the catastrophe of 9/11 has led to the profound fear of a nebulous and spiritualized enemy-Terror.

Salvation through Escape vs. Salvation through Pilgrimage

Despair, alienation, and fear can, quite naturally, lead to the desire to escape. In Against the Protestant Gnostics, I illustrated various ways in which American Protestantism had become escapist-drawn toward the otherworldly, repelled by the limitations not only of sinful existence, but even of human existence itself. I contrasted this escapist tendency with the less compelling concept of Christian pilgrimage. The pilgrimage, which is the "ordinary" Christian's journey toward salvation, involving "many dangers, toils and snares," requires a continuing confession that "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and done those things which we ought not to have done." The pilgrimage depends on constant nourishment through Word, sacrament, and prayer and recognizes the likelihood that we will end our earthly sojourn not like Elijah, carried off by a band of angels, but like our Lord, crucified (with him), dead and buried. Rather than longing for an escape from this world, ordinary Christians adhere to the words of the Nicene Creed: we "look for the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the world to come." Ordinary Protestants recall Jesus' prayer for his people: "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (John 17:15).

Since 1987, there has been a near triumph of escapist Christianity. For example, Tim La Haye's Left Behind series of novels about "the Rapture" depicts escape for "born-again" Christians through a cataclysmic event that whisks them out of this sinful world, leaving nonbelievers behind to cope with airplanes without pilots and automobiles without drivers. The Left Behind series has sold more than 65 million copies, making it the most popular literature on our continent.

La Haye has been well received by and has developed close ties with some prominent Protestant evangelicals such as the late Jerry Falwell, and has even entered the political arena by endorsing Mike Huckabee, an enthusiastic fan of the Left Behind series, in his bid for the Republican nomination for president. What had at one time been a minority position among Protestants-a radical millennialism, with its dread-filled expectation of impending doom-has now become quite respectable in certain Protestant circles.

Left Behind is only one of the many escape routes being offered to Christians in our time. For example, popular television evangelist Benny Hinn teaches Christians how to be happy and how to make money. Creflo and Taffi Dollar offer their TV and radio audiences "blessing explosions" and methods for creating the successful lives they want. These escape routes are ways to avoid the pilgrimage-the hard tasks demanded by the disciples of the cross.

The Knowing Self vs. the Believing Community

In 1987, I noted that in North America an emphasis on the individual's response to the gospel was replacing historical Protestantism's focus on the gospel itself. John Calvin warned against the tendency "to combine a man's thoughts so much to himself," refusing to look outside of himself in faith to God and to his neighbor in love (Theological Treatises XX, p. 228).

Whereas, in 1987, I recognized a self-centered faith as a growing phenomenon, 20 years later, the Gnostic religion of self appears to have taken over both right-wing and left-wing religious camps in North America. The religious right, which has had an overwhelming influence on the political scene in the U.S., is concerned entirely with the individual's "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." The resulting political thrust has been one of very little social and environmental concern.

On the other hand, among left-wing Protestants, there seems to be a general consensus that "religion is a very personal thing," having nothing to do with corporate life or public behavior. Christianity is acceptable so long as it is unrecognizable and innocuous, so personal that it does not show. The only authentic society for this religious camp is a secular society. Thus, contemporary Protestantism, at both ends of the spectrum, appears to have become a faith that is all about me.

A Spiritual Elite vs. Ordinary People

In Against the Protestant Gnostics, I pointed out in an affinity between ancient Gnosticism's elitist tendency and that found among certain Protestants. I especially noticed a spiritual elitism in those who separated themselves from ordinary Christians by claiming they had been "born again" in a way not covered by ordinary baptism. I also pointed to an intellectual elitism among some liberal Protestants, who put themselves in a more respectable category than ordinary Christians who still rely on the biblical stories, the creeds, and the sacraments of the ancient church.

One of the most alarming developments of the last two decades has been the near triumph of this elitist expression of Christianity. What has changed is that among the media and in the popular consciousness, this form of religion is the only form that matters. Those who insist on describing themselves as born again in a fashion different from ordinary baptized Christians have now become synonymous in the popular mind with the "real" Christians. Sometimes they are called "church-goers," as if no one else goes to church, or "believers," as though no one else believes.

Another elitist group, those who attack traditional Christianity-who consider themselves far too learned to accept what they consider an outmoded form of the faith-is also taken seriously. The Jesus Movement, Bishop Spong, and various Gnostic enthusiasts among feminist theologians are also taken seriously. What does not even appear on the radar screen of the contemporary North American consciousness is the ordinary historic faith of ordinary believers.

Selective Syncretism vs. Particularity

My argument 20 years ago was that when religion becomes a do-it-yourself thing centered on the self, almost anything goes. When the particularity of the Cross has been replaced by Gnostic day dreams, all sorts and conditions of faith and action take over. I said then that in North America we were moving toward a spiritual mélange in which almost any ingredient is allowed. What is not allowed would be a Christian faith based on the particularity of Jesus Christ the Lord: his birth, his life, his teachings, his healings, his death on Golgotha, his resurrection, and his ascension to the Father. That particularity, what St. Paul called the "scandal of the Cross" (Gal. 5:11), would not be tolerated within a neo-Gnostic faith.

As it turns out, the development I described in 1987 has all but come to pass over 20 years later. We see an endorsement by the religious right of preemptive war and even of inhumane torture, positions diametrically opposed to those of historical Christianity. On the Gnostic left, we see not only a disdain for the New Testament account of the life of Jesus, but also a challenge to the very historical existence of Jesus. At the same time that we have experienced a rejection of the particularity of a Christ-centered gospel and its inescapable demands on its followers, we have witnessed the promotion of the more attractive, self-centered gospels of second-century Gnosticism. We are told that the gospels of Mary, Thomas, and Judas correct the constricting, Christ-focused agenda of ordinary Christianity.

The present orthodoxy seems to be that there is no such thing as heresy; my belief, so long as it is sincere, is as acceptable as the next fellow's. If The DaVinci Code claims that the New Testament is a fraudulent document invented by the early church for its own nefarious purposes, well, why not? Syncretism has apparently carried the day.

All this may sound terribly discouraging for ordinary Christians. Perhaps the picture I am painting is too dark. I hope so. To my mind, however, the scene is discouraging only if it goes unrecognized or if ordinary Christians give up the struggle.

We have on our side the strong weapons of faith. All we are lacking is the courage and the trust to employ them. These are not self-created weapons; they are gifts from the Lord to his church. This struggle is not about us versus them; it is about the glory of God. Our weapons are still the Holy Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the ministration of the sacraments, the historic creeds, pastoral care for the faithful, the communion of saints, and prayer.

How to employ these weapons in an age of Gnostic ascendancy is another question. But recognition of the formidable opposition we face would seem to be the first task.


Calvin, John. Theological Treatises XX. In Library of Christian Classics, ed. and trans. J. K. S. Reid. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.

Commission on Presidential Debates. The Third Bush-Kerry Presidential Debate (13 October 2004), http://www.

Lee, Philip J. Against the Protestant Gnostics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

1 [ Back ] I am using a section from the debate to illustrate this contrast, not to make a political statement.
2 [ Back ] I use the words "ordinary" and "historical" to describe Protestants who follow a classic or traditional form of this faith. The term "orthodox," meaning "proper praise," is probably a better word. "Orthodox," however, has a connotation of rigidity and of the static that I do not wish to convey.
Friday, April 11th 2008

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