Chalcedon Position Paper No. 74
(Reprinted from Roots of Reconstruction, 1991)
One of the most common of ancient heresies was Gnosticism, which is still very much with us. Gnosticism held that salvation is from the material or physical world, from flesh, and it comes through knowledge. Evil thus was not in man’s heart but in some aspect of his world: the flesh, the environment, for many today in technology, and so on. Gnosticism was a development of Greek thought, plus Far Eastern influences, which infiltrated Jewish and Christian thought. Many post-Christian Jewish writings, both mystical and apocalyptic, were influenced by Gnosticism, as was the later classis of gnostic thought, the Kabala. In Christendom, the gnostic influences continued for centuries and then began to diverge. At first, gnostics like Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, and William Blake had a Christian veneer, but subsequently gnostic thinkers broke with Christianity. In the realms of art and philosophy, the gnostics have been many. They include J. W. F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nerval, Rilke, Yeats, Mozart, and others, according to Benjamin Walker in his Gnosticism, Its History and Influence (186, 983).
Gnosticism was "antagonistic to the Old Testament and all that it stood for" (Walker, 7). This is a fact of central importance. Over the centuries, virtually all heresies have been hostile to the Old Testament, or have decreed that it is now an ended dispensation, or in one way or another have downgraded it in part or in whole. This has meant antinomianism, a hostility to Biblical law, and hence a vague and sometimes ascetic morality. Downgrading the Old Testament is a way of rewriting the New, because the meaning of the New is destroyed if the Old Testament is set aside in any fashion. As a result, the "New Testament Christianity" of such heretics winds up being no Christianity at all.
Any tampering with the full force of the Bible, either the Old or the New Testaments, in effect is intended to silence God, to diminish His spoken Word. It should not surprise us that the ancient gnostics held that silence best expresses God because He is a hidden deity (deus absconditus) who is unknown and unknowable. Moreover, He is impassible, incapable of emotion, feeling, or passion. (This is, of course, all alien to the God of Scripture.) In fact, many gnostics held that being or existence could not be ascribed to God, who is also beyond good and evil as well as existence. The modern gnostic, Paul Tillich, held that neither being nor non-being could be ascribed to God. To all gnostics, Biblical law was and is anathema, for to hold that God requires righteousness or justice of us is to entangle God in time and history.
Because the gnostics held that God is beyond good and evil, and beyond being, they could not identify God with any one form, i.e., either good or evil, or male or female. Hence, in their writings God had to be inclusive of both male and female, father and mother, while transcending both. The gnostic overtones in feminism are many.
Gnosticism did not hold Adam accountable for the Fall. It was something done to Adam. Modern thought, which looks to heredity, environment, the id and ego, or some like "cause" for human failure and sin is alive with Gnosticism. (For many gnostics, the Fall was into matter. Severus, a disciple of Marcion, held that man is divine from the navel up, and the devil’s creature from the navel down.) Man’s being for gnostics was tripartite: body, mind, and soul.
Gnosticism has always flourished in secret societies and lodges, most of which are full of gnostic symbols, rites, and doctrines. It has also espoused secret believing, i.e., making no necessary actions in conformity to one’s faith. As a result, gnostics in the church saw no harm in compromising with state demands by Rome for registration and certification of all churches. For them, the Faith was purely a spiritual matter, and compromise and apostasy were routine practices with them. None felt any moral hesitation in submitting to controls and avoiding persecution. One gnostic woman "saint," a hermit who had been a prostitute, decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; she paid her way by plying her old trade as a prostitute; since her faith was a "spiritual" one, what she did with her body was immaterial. Male gnostics sometimes resorted to castration to humble the flesh. Many gnostics were strongly ascetic; others went into libertinism to show their contempt for the flesh, often committing flagrant adulteries and other lawless acts to show their contempt for the flesh and the sins thereof.
In all these and a variety of other rites and acts, many of which are fanatically ascetic or sexual, the emphasis was on what man does, not what Christ has done. This should not surprise us. Its name comes from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Salvation comes, not from God’s grace, but from man’s knowing; it is thus man’s doing, not God’s. Gnosticism was thus a form of humanism within the church. The first statement in the Humanist Manifesto I, 1933, reads, "Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created." While gnostics talked about their God (a non-being), and "emanations" from Him, their cosmos was essentially a dualistic, evolving, cyclical realm which was self-existing; a non-being God cannot create. Hence their hatred of the Old Testament. Man in his cosmos of spirit and matter has an untangling job which is primarily intellectual and then by action. This action is non-moral. There is no sin in apostasy, compromise, adultery, or any other act, provided man moves with the knowledge that only our spiritual life matters. Moral passion is as wrong as immoral passion for Gnosticism. We must separate ourselves from all such concerns and concentrate on spiritual knowledge.
Gnostic influence spread into a variety of areas. In Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita shows gnostic thought, as does Mahayana Buddism, and Sufism in Islam, the Hermetics, the Neoplatonists, Manicheans, Cathars, Paulicians, Messalians, the Athingani non-touching sect, the Bogomils, Albigensians, Troubadours, Goliards, and others. It has never lacked defenders, as witness G. Kruger in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Faiths which exalt elitist man are usually very popular. Of course, theosophy and like beliefs are current manifestations of Gnosticism on one level of society.
As we have seen, the gnostic emphasis is on what man does, not on Christ’s work. As a result, Gnosticism is a humanistic religion. But this is not all. The doctrine of God in gnostic religions and philosophies in effect eliminates God. The consequences of this are far-reaching.
Many groups which are not gnostic in intent have still been influenced by Gnosticism, in their view of God’s law, the Old Testament, man’s part in salvation, and much, much more. All this leads to a loss of God’s immediacy. When I read the law of God, I hear God speak: He makes clear that my whole life, my mental and physical existence, is circumscribed and governed by His law. I cannot act nor think except within the boundaries of His law without incurring His personal wrath and judgment. At the same time, I am totally surrounded by His grace, love, and providential care. Because I take God’s Word very seriously and literally, I realize that God is closer to me than I am to myself, and He loves me better than I can ever love myself.
In fact, my relationship to myself must be at all times a mediated one: I can live my life only through Christ, my Mediator, and in terms of His enscriptured Word. I can have no direct or one-on-one relationship with anyone, only and always one under God in Christ and through Him. My wife, Dorothy, once told someone very close to her, who was trying to use and exploit that closeness, "You are trying to have a one-on-one relationship with me, but that’s impossible. I can only have a relationship that is mediated by Christ and His Word." This explains the nature of modern art: it seeks a direct and autonomous experience between the artist and the person. This experience is unmediated and unique; it is not a shared experience, nor is there a common meaning in the work of art for one and all. Immediacy is totally humanistic and autonomous.
For example, the Bible tells us that man is made in God’s image, in knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion (Gen. 1:26-27; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). There is thus a law against any worship of a man-made image as representation of or a substitute for God (Ex. 20:4-6). Only God can set forth His meaning. Modern art rejects this. So John Berger said, in Ways of Seeing, "all images are man-made" (9; 1972). The older art still saw the world as God-created not man-made. But all that is now ended, these men hold. "The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images" (33). These images are "valueless, free" (32), meaning free from God and His realm of law. In terms of the canons of modern art in every sphere, a man cannot be an orthodox Christian and still an artist.
Whether in the world of art, the sexual sphere, or any other realm, modern man wants total immediacy. One writer, himself a part of this world of art, satirized the drive towards immediacy by saying that motion pictures, having attained speech ("talkies") would go on someday to develop "feelies."
Humanist immediacy, the gnostic goal, has replaced the Biblical immediacy of God and the mediated relationship of man with all creation, including other people. One result of this change is that men find the Bible’s account of God’s immediacy embarrassing. The God of Scripture is too close, too blunt, and too ever-present to suit modern man. One reason why the Holy Spirit is so neglected or wrongly viewed by many is because in the Spirit the immediacy of God is inescapable. In Psalm 139:7-13, David says: "Whither shalt I go from Thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even here shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from Thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee. For Thou has possessed my reins: Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb." David praises God for what modern gnostic man rejects.
But men cannot escape the immediacy of God. They will know Him either in grace, or in judgment.