Tag Archives: Gnosticism

How Tradition defended Scripture & defeated Gnosticism in early Christianity

Continuing a critique of the phrase “Biblical Anglicans” and some possible assumptions behind it:

Throughout his five-volume series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Yale historian of Christianity, returned to the formative role of church tradition.

(Granted, as I said before, histories, like texts, are matters of interpretation. But some interpretations are better informed and more authoritative than others.)

In the fifth volume, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700), Pelikan writes (with direct quotations referring to sources listed in the margins of the book; the sources are omitted here for clarity):

Because it was the period in which historical theology came into its own, especially among Protestants but also among Roman Catholics and (particularly toward the end of the period) among Eastern Orthodox scholars, the nineteenth century confronted the idea of consensus of Christian tradition, and specifically patristic tradition, in a new way. It did seem remarkable that the apologists of the first three centuries in their defenses of the Christian message against pagans and Jews had “totally ignored the living tradition in their theory and criticism of revelation,” which they sometimes seemed to reduce to rational notions of God, creation, and immortality. A growing interest in the historical significance of Gnosticism for the emergence of orthodox Catholic doctrine led to the judgment that since Catholics and Gnostics alike had appealed to the authority of Scripture, the authority of tradition as “a principle standing above Scripture” became a way for Catholic orthodoxy to defeat Gnostic heresy. Irenaeus deserved recognition for being the first who “penetrated to the full value of the Catholic principle of tradition and developed its probative force.” Having supported the authenticity of the books of the New Testament from the tradition of the universal church, he had, moreover, helped to preserve the very Scripture that Protestants now sought to dissociate from tradition; and he had proved his thesis concerning the unity of apostolicity of the Catholic Church and its tradition by reference to the church of Rome, whose authority Protestants denied; Eastern theologians had to make a special point of explaining his statements about Roman primacy.

The boldfaced segments above were added by me.

Please also see:

Richard Hooker versus the Puritan position—more about the Anglican view of Scripture, Reason & Tradition

“Biblical Anglicans” as “one-third Anglicans”

Anglicanism and “Biblical Anglicans” as “one-third Anglicans”

Anglicanism, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker in the context of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition


Pastoring, philosophizing, and analyzing require gnostic insight

A portrait of Karl Marx.

Karl Marx (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note: Very little of what I write on this blog is aimed at the pastors at my church. For that matter, relatively few of this blog’s readers go to my church! My target is broader.

Read British historian Paul Johnson explaining the gnosticism in Freud and Marx:

Freud was a gnostic. He believed in the existence of a hidden structure of knowledge which, by using the techniques he was devising, could be discerned beneath the surface of things….

Gnosticism has always appealed to intellectuals. Freud offered a particularly succulent variety. He had a brilliant gift for classical allusion and imagery at a time when all educated people prided themselves on their knowledge of Greek and Latin….

Marxism, now for the first time easing itself into the seat of power, was another form of gnosticism claiming to peer through the empirically-perceived veneer of things to the hidden truth beneath…. Marx had pronounced, ‘The final pattern of economic relationships as seen on the surface…is very different from, and indeed quite the reverse of, their inner but concealed essential pattern.’ On the surface, men appeared to be exercising their free will, taking decisions, determining events. In reality, to those familiar with the methods of dialectical materialism, such individuals, however powerful, were seen to be mere flotsam, hurled hither and thither by the irrestible surges of economic forces. The ostensible behaviour of individuals merely concealed class patterns of which they were almost wholly unaware but powerless to defy….

Marx, Freud, Einstein all conveyed the same message to the 1920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man’s behaviour in society, were not to be trusted. Morever, Marxist and Freudian analysis combined to undermine, in their different ways, the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty toward a settled and objectively true moral code, which was at the centre of nineteenth-century European civilization.     (Paul Johnson, from Modern Times, revised 1992 edition)

Think about this for a moment. Johnson makes his case that Marx and Freud were two men who persuaded people with their thunderclaps of well-articulated, special insight into how things really are. The senses cannot be trusted. Motives and forces are at work, and they can neither be helped nor stopped.

When you say things and do things, special people have insight into what you really meant and what you were really doing and why you were doing it.

Isn’t all that very, very similar to the claims of many pastors today? They know exactly how your (rarely defined) “heart” is bent. They have knowledge of hidden workings of your mind, your will, and your emotions.

You work hard because you worship money — it’s this internal idolatry, hidden within your external pretentions of providing for your family and being responsible.

Isn’t this exactly what people fallaciously do when they “read” assumptions and presuppositions “into” what others say?

It’s an assumption if the insight does not match with the gnostic theory.

It’s an insight if the assumption matches with the gnostic theory.

Well, perhaps Freud and Marx have won the day. I find it very difficult not to think in the very ways that Johnson describes.

Now think about this from another angle: Could it be that Christian thinkers, from Augustine to the “heart doctor” Puritans, set the foundation for Freud’s and Marx’s gnostic mode of thinking?

I admit — thinking of Augustine and Puritans in gnostic terms seems a little unlikely. However, looking inward, to motives, rather than outward, to actions, is essential to Christianity.

Maybe Johnson isn’t entirely accurate with his use of the word “gnostic”? But then again, I find it hard not to think about any available school of thought without some reference to a “hidden” structure of what’s really going on with and within humans.

I’m still thinking this through. What do you think?

Related articles ↓

Augustine, the former gnostic, and his many heretical views (bjorkbloggen.wordpress.com)

What Is a Gnostic? – by Stephan A. Hoeller


Agnostic and Gnostic


Wrong having Gnosticism?


(A)theism and (a)gnosticism


Tradition can help us avoid gnosticism

“…because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes, in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology

I like that quotation because, when I was younger, I felt like the Christian faith was about disembodied spiritual experiences, but that’s probably because (where I was for most of my upbringing) instant and immediate experiences of God were valued more than biblical study or any reference to previous generations of Christians.

So I place a slight stretch on the word “gnosticism,” applying it to any anti-materiality accompanied by specially obtained knowledge or experience. The “doctrine of creation” and, as academic as it might sound, “historical locatedness” are definite remedies for gnosticism.

When New England Puritanism departed from Calvin’s view of the Church, guess what happened?

“The Puritan changes often brought the New England theology perilously close to gnostic Christianity,” writes Philip J. Lee in his book, Against the Protestant Gnostics. “Of particular concern is the Puritans’ concentration on self and their tendency to regard humanity from an elitist perspective.”

Lee goes on to evaluate a development in later New England Calvinism that gave us much of the mess we’re in today:

“Rather than God entering into covenant with His people Israel or with His redeemed Church and the individual participating in covenant insofar as he is related to Israel or Church, under this new form of Calvinism, the individual makes a covenant with God directly; it is a one-on-one relationship. The influence on North America of this theological shift has been enormous.

“Closely connected to the conflict of corporate covenant with individual covenant was the Puritan preoccupation with the elect. Again, when the founders of New England society first landed, their Calvinism was pretty well intact. Thus, though their Church required a certain number of the intellectually elite to understand and convey the rather intricate dialectics of Reformed theology, the Church itself was not elitist, either from the point of view of intellect or spirituality. Church membership implied not a full understanding of a particular doctrine but rather an appreciation of God’s good will toward his people. And most of the early Puritans in North America would have agreed with their mentor, Calvin: ‘It is not our part to separate elect from reprobate … …. we acknowledge as members of the Church all who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ.’ …

“This mood of charity prevailed in New England in the early days….

“Despite its orthodox beginnings, however, New England and, finally, most of North American Protestantism was to fall into other hands which were neither catholic nor charitable. An evangelical elite was to gain ascendency and make the question of conversion the central question of Christianity.”

— from Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee

Keep your freedom: how spiritual seekers can avoid some traps

Almost all cult leaders and Christians who manipulate place a high emphasis on being “led by the Lord.”… In the first century those who thought that personal revelation was an authority above Scriptures were called Gnostics…. We must ever guard ourselves against the words and pet phrases that hint of superior spirituality…. When we divide life into snug “spiritual” and “nonspiritual” compartments, we are thinking heretically and may blindly accept a cultic view of life.

— Harold Bussell, in his book By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians