The New Gnosticism
The Scriptures teach that God, Who created all things and Who is infinitely personal, is simultaneously transcendent (Ps. 97:9; Is. 55:8-9) and immanent (Ps. 139:7-8; Gen. 1:26- 27). He is not to be identified with His creation, yet all creation declares His glory (Ps. 19:1-6). There is no great chain of being between the devil and God, with God having being and the devil non-being.
Today immanence has become the preoccupation of almost all men, Christians included. As a matter of fact, Harold Bloom has made the undeniable assertion that the American religion, regardless of its distinctives, is Gnosticism.1 While you cannot put ancient gnostics, evangelicals, liberals, and mystics into one mold, a contention can be made that Gnosticism is permeating our culture, including Christianity. The ancient gnostics so emphasized God’s immanence they came to believe that God was actually part of them. The line between God and self became indistinguishable.
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the finding the Nag Hammadi Literature in 1947 has caused an increase in academic curiosity with ancient gnostic texts and their relation to the early Christian community. There are many books on the market today claiming to be "lost" Biblical texts that are really gnostic teachings. In fact, Christians have known of these texts for years, but they were excluded from the original canon of Scripture. The revival of Gnosticism today and the New Age movement actually is more the result of nineteenth-century Romanticism and revivalism than the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. According to Richard Tarnas:
"…religion itself was a central and enduring element in the Romantic spirit, whether it took the form of transcendental idealism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, pantheism, mystery religion, nature worship, Christian mysticism, Hindu-Buddhist mysticism, Swedenborgianism, theosophy, esotericism, religious existentialism, neopaganism, shamanism, Mother Goddess worship, evolutionary human divinization, or some syncretism of these. Here "sacred" remained a viable category, whereas in science it had long disappeared. God was rediscovered in Romanticism — not the God of orthodoxy or of deism but of mysticism, pantheism, and immanent cosmic process; not the juridical monotheistic patriarch but a divinity more ineffably mysterious, pluralistic, all-embracing, neutral or even feminine in gender; not an absentee creator but a numinous creative force within nature and within the human spirit."2
There is a gnostic influence touching all of our culture, from science to politics, from art to religion, from business to education. Its distinctives will sound very familiar to you:
Immanence, Not Transcendence
Gnostics believed that they were God or that God was actually part of them. Their spirit was the "divine spark" that was of God. Self becomes the focus. It is interesting to see how modern psychology and its self-help pantheon follows in the shoes of C. J. Jung, a self-confessed gnostic psychologist (see the Jones article in this issue). The orthodox distinction between Creator and creature is blurred and God’s holiness is thrown out the window.
Spirit Versus Matter
Spirit is good and matter is evil. This had a great impact on early Christianity and spawned much of the ascetic movement.
"Western Christian mysticism was a product of the monastic world and its search for spiritual release. As we mentioned, Christianity was early affected by the in-roads of Gnostic dualistic thinking in which a heavy emphasis was placed upon the antithesis of matter and spirit, body and soul. The Christian doctrine of salvation from sin by many became quickly transformed into the belief that this meant a deliverance from all materiality and earthly existence...."3
The Fall, according to Gnosticism, was not from innocence into disobedience, but from pure spirit to physical bodies. Self, being imprisoned in this material world, is in a battle between light and darkness, spirit and matter. The modern counterpart of this is called "mind over matter." Salvation means escape from the body and the physical world. This anti-resurrection, anti-incarnation worldview breeds perfectionism, causing pride in those who see themselves as higher up on the ladder of perfection (1 Jn. 4:1-3).
One must be inner-directed and not subject to creeds, doctrines, rituals, sacraments, or any people or structures of authority. Experiential rather than liturgical or doctrinal forms of public worship are promoted. The leaders of the movement were those who claimed to have secret knowledge of divine revelation. They gloried in their rebellion against traditional church teachings and structures in contrast to New Testament teaching about believers submitting themselves to church officers (Heb. 13:7).
"God told me!" Gnostics believed that whatever happened to them in their own private experience was the final court of appeal. The subject (the knower) had priority over the object (the known). True spirituality was inner, experiential, and mystical. This stands in stark contrast to Christianity, which looks outward to Christ and the cross. The church, the community of the redeemed, confesses its faith in what God did in history, not what happens in an individual privately. The Holy Spirit is given to the whole church to unite it with Christ.
"Ancient gnosticism loathed the patriarchal and authoritarian qualities of official Christianity. From the gnostic point of view, the structure and discipline of the Church stifled the spirit."4 Michael Horton in his provocative book, In The Face of God,5 draws attention to the gnostic celebration of the androgynous self stating the belief that while the body may be male or female, the spirit is free. Gnostics, whether old or new, take offense at the idea that God not only became human flesh, but that He became a man.
Gnostics claim an unmediated access to God’s Spirit and that they get their knowledge (gnosis) through secret revelation and mystical experience. The Christian sacraments use material elements such as bread and wine (eucharist), water (baptism), speech (preaching), and printed word (Scripture) as the means of grace. They are, therefore, too unspiritual to give us anything of a spiritual (anti-matter) nature. Yet these are the very things early Christians used in worship (Ac. 2:42, 46; 20:7). These common elements were available to all and therefore challenged the private, elite nature of Gnosticism.
Gnostics claim to believe in the Bible, yet also claim they alone have the correct interpretation. The church formulated creeds to stave off the false teaching of the gnostics. These provide a plumbline by which the words of Scripture can be understood. The creeds were created by councils within the church and not by individuals. The first seven councils of the Christian church provided an effective creedal blow against heresy. The church’s use of creeds represented the fact that the present generation doesn’t possess the whole truth, but is determined to pass on the apostolic faith it has received. It also provides an effective guard against the potpourri spirituality of Gnosticism as seen in the New Age movement.
Antagonistic to the Old Testament
Like most heresies, Gnosticism viewed the Old Testament negatively. Both Marcionism (A. D. 160) and Manichaenism (A. D. 3rd century) rejected the Old Testament, which represented God as a wrathful Judge who created matter and imprisoned souls in history. This logically implied antinomianism, a hatred of God’s law. They contrasted the New Testament God ( Jesus) as the God of love and grace against the Old Testament God (Jehovah) as the God of wrath, i.e., grace versus law.
As the spirit is opposed to matter, salvation means redemption from the body. Eternity is opposed to time. Therefore history is of no concern to the gnostic. Direct, present, personal encounter with the Spirit is paramount in order to escape the reality of time. The fact that God created the world and time and pronounced it "very good" (Gen. 1), and then unfolded His plan of salvation through matter and history has no place in Gnosticism.
Gnosticism (Greek, meaning "knowledge"), being anti-historical and subjective, was shallow intellectually because it based its knowledge on immediate experience. It was what the Apostle Paul called "knowledge falsely called" (1 Tim. 6:20). It preferred "heart knowledge" over "head knowledge." Christianity affirms both by weighing everything in the light of Scripture.
Gnosticism has always remained just below the surface throughout church history, yet its impact has been strongly felt at certain times. The humanistic Renaissance and Romanticism were revivals of Greek and gnostic influences. Romanticism remains a potent force in Western culture today and is shaping modern American Christianity, both liberal and evangelical. We can see it in the tendency toward subjectivity as opposed to relying on God’s objective Word, as well as overplaying immanence and paying lip-service to God’s transcendence.
The driving force of revivalism in the nineteenth century was a personal experience of being born again and "second blessing" theology which preached escape from this world in a flight into God by surrendering all. "Doctrine was considered an encumbrance, as were creeds, liturgies and sacraments, and the anti-intellectual strain reared its ugly head."6 Charles Finney is the premier example of a Christian leader who promoted these teachings.
Under revivalism, preaching shifted from the objective saving work of Christ to the believer’s subjective experience of God’s saving work in Christ, resulting in self-improvement techniques and psychological emphases. The gospel became a secret formula (gnosis) for rebirth, self-realization; and direct, unmediated experiences with God.
The shared gnostic components of Romanticism and pietism produced the father of modern liberalism, Friederich Schleiermacher, who insisted that the essence of Christianity is "the feeling of absolute dependence." Schleiermacher had great influence on Walter Rauschenbusch, the leader of the social gospel movement, and also on Adolf von Harnack, another leading liberal theologian.
Protestant liberalism gave us Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking school which gave us the human potential movement. Like the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy, these involve an attempt to escape the power of nature through psychological (self-help) techniques. Mind over matter is an attempt to control one’s response to the uncontrollable aspects of existence. Some would call it magic. Positive thinking substitutes faith for God. It is interesting to note that Peale has supported Billy Graham campaigns and Graham considered Peale to be a born-again Christian.
The church growth movement is another consequence of positive thinking doctrine. It is faith that makes churches grow. Possibility thinking and goal setting are prerequisites for church growth according to C. Peter Wagner and the font of the movement, Donald A. McGavran.7 Finding people’s needs and giving it to them, rather than serving Christ and His Kingdom, is the focus. The antithesis between the redeemed and the unredeemed has become blurred. Today we can see that there is really very little difference between evangelicals and liberal Protestants in their approach to ministry. As Lee says, ". . . evangelicals seem to have metamorphosed themselves into the most harmless of liberal Protestants."8
In line with the gnostic exaltation of faith is the "Word of Faith" movement. The founder of this movement was E. W. Kenyon who was plagiarized by Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and others. Kenyon was very interested in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.9 It was Kenyon who introduced gnostic concepts of knowledge into faith theology. He distinguished between sense knowledge and revelation knowledge which in his followers became a distinction between mere written revelation and the word that truly saves, being the "Rhema" word.
The point of this essay is not to argue that respected evangelical Bible teachers are cult leaders. No doubt, many of these leaders would be the first to condemn Gnosticism as heretical. It is not intentional error that is in view here. The problem is that American Christianity is not even conscious of what is happening. Instead, it continues on as though everything is all right. Yet, the American religion, in spite of denominational distinctives, is largely Gnosticism. Experience over doctrine, the personal over the institutional, feminine over masculine,10 immanence over transcendence, it doesn’t matter whether you are New Age or liberal, evangelical or Pentecostal, Gnosticism is the American religion.
1. Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York, 1992).
2. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, 1991), 372-373.
3. Michael W. Kelly, The Impulse of Power: Formative Ideals of Western Civilization (Minneapolis, 1998), 271. See also Kenneth Ronald Davis, Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania; Kitchener, Ontario, 1974).
4. Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York, Oxford, 1987), 158.
5. Michael Horton, In The Face Of God (Dallas-London-Vancouver-Melbourne, 1996). I am indebted to Horton for drawing attention to much of what is presented here in this essay.
6. Horton, 65.
7. C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow (Glendale, CA, 1976) and Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, 1970), both cited in Lee, 210.
8. Lee, 210.
9. D. R. McConnell, A Different Gospel.
10. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977). Douglas says the defeat of Calvinism by anti-intellectual sentimentalism led to a feminized church.
A. Bruce Dayman (BTh., MTS) has pastored, been a college lecturer and a Christian school principal. He and Leslie, his wife of 22 years, have five children. They currently reside in Victoria, British Columbia. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.