Early in the life of the church, the defenders of the orthodox faith by people such as Irenaeus of Lyons had to face off against a creek that branched off and the river of Christian tradition: Gnosticism. What Gnosticism taught is impossible to answer because a) there was not a monolithic Gnosticism or a central authority that resembled what emerged in orthodox Christianity and b) the scattered nature of our sources make it hard to systematically reconstruct the various branches of Gnosticism. But one key element that distinguished the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics was hermeneutical: how it is that one should come to understand the Scriptures?
For the Gnostics, there was a general pattern that they laid claim to having a secret teaching that made sense of the Scriptures. Much like the Pharisees used the traditions of the elders that controlled how they understood and applied the Torah, the Gnostics also had an oral tradition from teachers, such as Valentinus, that they used to interpret the Scripture. This secret teaching unavailable to others was contrasted with the public confession that existed throughout the orthodox churches. At one level, the distinction between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism is at the level of public and shared vs. private and secret hermeneutical knowledge.
While this contrast between public and private knowledge is helpful in a historical analysis of the causes behind the pluralism of Gnosticism and the unity of the emergent catholicity, I think this is of a secondary value theology.1 I think the shared tradition of the early churches has a derivative value coming from the central core of the apostolic faith: the hermeneutical key of the cross to provide the right understanding of the Scriptures. A shared tradition ensures a common confession across the churches that protects the epistemic centrality of the cross through a common voice, even if this was not the overt intention of Irenaeus and later Catholic thinkers in establishing the importance of catholicity and tradition for interpreting the Scriptures.2
The deeper theological difference I would suggest divides the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics is that differences they have in how one rightly interprets the Scriptures. But to be clear here, I am not referring to hermeneutics in the senses we usually hear it in referring to a prescribed methodology and principles for right interpreting the words of a text, such as Scripture. Rather, I am referring more so the pre-understandings we bring to the act of interpretation that influences how we construe the meaning of what it is that we read.
For the Gnostics, it came in the form of specific ideas and concepts that they taught. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies immediately catalogs a Gnostic cosmology of Aeons as preexistent powers/beings that they can then see being referred to in the Scriptures. For the Gnostics, the pre-understanding was essentially a form of metaphysical mythology that one can then see mentioned in the Scriptures.
By contrast, the orthodox Christians creeds and practices functioned to maintain the centrality of the cross in the narrative of redemption, even if there was a penchant to address metaphysical concerns like the Arian controversy. While not presenting the cross as a key to interpreting the Scriptures (although, the person of Jesus was early on taken as the center of understanding the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament), they kept the Jesus’ crucifixion front and center in the Church’s worship and life. I would say they value of this is that by keeping the cross in the center, it had the value of training people to understand the Scriptures with the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in mind, even if that was not the intentional purpose a common theology and tradition was used to serve.
So, from a hermeneutical angle, I want to suggest what makes orthodox Christianity so different from Gnosticism: orthodox Christianity makes possible, although does not ensure, that one’s understanding of the Scriptures is influenced by a way of life defined by the cross. The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings, the epistles of Paul, the visions of Revelation, etc. can come to be comprehended by people who have been formed by a cruciform life. One’s own experience, one’s own formation, one’s own memory informs and influences every part of one’s reading of the Gospels, for instance. The necessary (although perhaps not sufficient) conditions for right interpretation rest upon personal participation in the Church’s worship and praxis.
By contrast, Gnosticism appealed to some specific set of teachings as the necessary condition for right interpretation. Once you get these specific concepts, you have the hermeneutical key to find everything else that is important to learn. I want to suggest that there are two problems with this: it leads to (1) a form of eisgesis that leads to interpretations that massively diverge from the basic sense of the words of Scripture and (2) leads to a form of intellectual reductionism that stifles real creativity.
While the former is covered by Irenaeus and others, the latter is of particular ‘interest’ to me. It might sound surprising to suggest that the Gnostics, often times heralded as those fights against the dogmatic powers of the narrow-minded orthodox, would lead to a stifling of interpretive creativity, but I would suggest this is the problem with all forms of interpretation that emphasize specific ideas as the necessary key. When one has a specific doctrine or set of doctrines in mind, be they Gnostic or any other theological system, one’s mind becomes trained to pick up on these specific cognitive patterns in one’s reading. Whatever the idea is, one engages in a form of cognitive entrenchment that leads one to see this idea everywhere one can find it.
Allow me to give another alternative from my own experience. Early in college, I developed a doctrinal obsession with the idea that one could lose one’s salvation. To be clear, this wasn’t simply motivated by some sense of crippling fear that God would reject me. Rather, it was taken up in my intellectual conflict with what I saw to be the bad interpretations among many people from my Southern Baptist background, particularly Hebrews. I was so focused on this that when I started really reading the Old Testament, the Bible I had regularly underlined all the passages I saw that warned about judgment about sin. It was not until years later that I started reading about creation and redemption in the Old Testament that my reading of the OT began to dramatically change. I had developed a doctrinal fixation that impacted what I read and saw in the Bible, as the exclusion of so much more that was there.
I would similarly contend that this becomes a routine problem in modern theology, when certainly doctrinal fixations become paramount. Whether it be a fixation with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, a progressive obsession with love, etc., the end result is that readings of the Scripture emerge that often times overlook and miss parts that don’t directly pertain to that. Doctrinal fixation, whether intended or not, becomes a hermeneutical key that influences, if not controls, our act of reading and interpreting.
I would contend this is a problem, even if one has some doctrine that can be found at some point in the Scriptures. I would contend this is a problem, even has a doctrine that substitutes some moral principle such as love in place of a less emotionally powerful idea that gets labeled as “doctrine.” And it is this that I consider the primary problem of Gnosticism; the key to rightly understanding the Scriptures is some specific idea. That the important ideas are totally foreign to the Scriptural witnesses makes Gnosticism a full-blown heresy, but that it treats ideas as the key to understanding is a more pervasive problem that is not monopolized by formal heresy, but also by even the seemingly orthodox.
On the other the hand, a way of life defined by the following by taking up one’s cross influences one’s interpretation not by specific ideas that one keeps cognitively in front of oneself and masters, but the various experiences of following Jesus that colors how we read everything else. The experience of forgiveness in the midst of extreme hurt from others can help us to comprehend Jesus’ own discourse about forgiveness. The experience of shame and rejection can help us to comprehend the shame of Jesus’ cross. The conflict one experiences in obeying God over other people provides insight into the most important commandment being the love of God before the love of neighbor. There is no single, overarching idea one can find that can express the significance of forgiveness, of overcoming shame, of experiencing the tensions between our social commitments, but as one lives a life following Jesus by taking up the cross, the various experiences of life we have shed light on the meaning and significance of these teachings.
I present that as a narrow set of examples to highlight this: the necessary hermeneutical key of the Scriptures is pointed towards, but not given, by the creeds of the Church. Only when we live out what the creeds point towards do we then gain a hermeneutical perspective that can help make sense Jesus’s teachings, for instance. But this form of life and obedience is not some way of obtaining merit in the eyes of God, but is more like what Paul says in Philippians 3.7-11:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead
This is spoken in the context of Paul’s rejection of his status and excelling as a Jew and Pharisee. What partly undergirds this confession of Paul is his devaluation his prior way of life, which including being a Pharisee that was likely defined in part by the practice of interpreting the Torah with specific principles and ideas in mind. This interpretation of Torah would then lead to the emergence of a behavioral pattern of supposed righteousness based upon the Torah, but rather find one’s bearings and understanding in the crucified Christ and sharing in the resurrection power found in Christ. Through taking up his own cross, through being like Jesus in his death, even if a more muted form of death in suffering and pain rather than the full-blown death of biological cessation, Paul would find a significance far greater and more important than his prior life that emphasized the role of righteousness via specific ways of interpretation.
Now Paul didn’t reject the importance of interpreting the OT Scriptures, as even as a cursory view of Romans and Galatians will show, but the center of his understanding becomes profoundly cross-and-resurrection centered. However, Paul didn’t do what the early churches soon did thereafter in seeing the person of Jesus Christ referenced through archetypes throughout the Old Testament. Rather, he became a better reader of Scripture by letting go of his prior intellectual commitments to his Pharisaical Judaism. Rather than trying to treat Abraham as a prototype of righteousness based upon his obedience to circumcision or willing to sacrifice Isaac (Mattathias’ speech in 1 Maccabees 2.52 see Abraham as a prototype through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac), Paul could rightly emphasis Genesis 15.6 is the place where Abraham was justified in God’s eyes before the commandment of circumcision had even arrived. Why? I would contend because his understanding of the Scriptures became less defined by specific, overarching ideas and more by a specific way of life formed in accordance to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that influenced how he understood the Scriptures.
This is perhaps where Gnosticism was going off track, even as its heresy turned it into a disastrous train wreck: it was tempted by the value of higher cognition as providing the key for understanding, just as like the Corinthian church sought intellectual wisdom from their teachers to help them to grow and mature.
We can define this tendency towards the valuation of specific ideas influenced interpretation as part of a top-down process of higher cognition, where our mind filters out much of what we read except that which conforms to the ideas we have in advance.
Higher cognition certainly has a value in the church, but it doesn’t provide the necessary criteria for understanding the Scriptures. When the necessary conditions for understanding the Scriptures are being satisfied, such as following Jesus through walking by the Spirit, then higher cognition can help to marshall the other resources that can be helpful, such as theological knowledge. I would even extend this further to even include the higher cognitions associated with Biblical Studies, such as the knowledge of Biblical languages, history, etc., although the higher cognitions of Biblical studies tend to be a bit more diversified than with a knowledge of a particular strand of theology.
However, the ideas and practices of higher cognition don’t provide the secrets to understanding, but they are tools that are of great use. Their effectiveness, I would say, is conditioned to having access to the ‘secrets’ that emerge in our hearts as a result of trusting and then living in accordance to what is publically confessed by the Church: Christ crucified.
- I don’t mean secondary in a pejorative, diminishing sense, but rather as establish a value to it that isn’t ultimate.
- Consequently, because church tradition began to emphasize catholicity as a necessary condition for defining the boundaries Church rather than as a value instrumental in protecting the fundamental integrity of the apostolic confession, I would say you saw a gradual shift in how one understood Scriptures that over the course of centuries lead to the Protestant Reformation.