Unfortunately, as Michael Allen Williams has recognized in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category, the “
However, we are stuck with the term “
The ideological pattern is what William’s new category refers
While certainly, the appropriate worship of God for the faith of Israel would blur into social relationships, the holiness of God was not distinctively employed for ethical considerations until the New Testament, when the holy God had made Himself known in Jesus. Even here, the idea of holiness and transcendence was rooted in worship and reverence. God is the source of all that is good that can not be possessed or encapsulate in any part of the creation.
However, within Middle Platonism, transcendence
My point here isn’t to draw a perfectly reliable picture of what all or even most gnostics believed, however. The diversity is something that eludes overarching description, even if I were an expert on the material. Rather, the point is to draw a connection between the ideological patterns and the distinctive social pattern: “
As Williams observed, “gnostic” was in the heretical literature was a self-designation of some religious individuals of the type of person they were, not their religious identity. While their
At the social level then, “gnosticism” would seem to be the heresy of the (aspiring) intellectual elite. This may be reflected in 1 Corinthians. It has been used to try to explain the Corinthian wisdom that Paul opposes in 1 Corinthians, although this is historically dubious as an origin of the content of their wisdom; it was most likely a conglomeration of Stoic philosophy, Greco-Roman rhetoric, and the Jewish sapiential traditions. However, as Gerd Theissen has noted, “analogies between Corinthian gnosis and later Gnosticism could be found that in both instances a typical recasting of Christian faith is evident with its rise into the higher classes.”1 I would suggest the analogy is that in Corinth, due to their aspirations for ‘gnosis’/knowledge, they too draw on the influential intellectual resources of their age to try to explain the Christian faith and tried to under the roles of Paul, Apollos, etc. as presenting wisdom in the patterns they were familiar with. Even though the proclamation of the cross of Christ and the power of the Spirit had demonstrated that the wisdom of the educated, elite experts of their day was actually foolishness, the Corinthians insisted on thinking the wisdom of the world had value for understanding the things of God.
In other words, the social pattern of “Gnosticism” is contained in the following: 1) the aspiration towards knowledge of
However, for Paul, it is the person of Christ who suffered the cross and was raised from the dead that serves as a fundamental understanding of the Christian faith. Yes, Jesus ethical teachings do matter, but for Paul one started from faith and then moved to what we might call ethical formation and instruction. Yes, Jesus more intellectual teachings in the parables and proverbial sayings do matter, but one must become a spiritually mature person through the way one lived before the deeper, spiritual utterances and mysteries would be understandable from the leading of the Spirit. All ethics and wisdom were ultimately understood in reference to and in virtue of the cross of Christ and the soteriological significance of this event for how God is at worked in His people.
But in an intellectual “
What stands at the core of ‘gnosticism’ then is the belief that one can obtain some vantage point to make sense of the cross of Jesus Christ apart from the OT Scriptures that testify to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To interpret the meaning and significance of God’s Word by reference to any form of knowledge that isn’t from God Himself amounts to the impulse of gnostic heresy.
However, I want to distinguish this from the manner in which one comes to faith. In coming to faith, we may have ideas and beliefs about God that are not perfectly reliable. God may decide to accommodate to our ill-conceived understanding to make Himself known to us, but it is in such a way that once perceived, changes the criteria we used to perceive and understand God. God’s disclosure can come in the midst of human ignorance about God and then through that change the criteria we use to understand God. My target of “gnosticism” is more a criticism of the processes of reflective reasoning about God rather than a doctrine on when, where, and how God discloses Himself. To that end, I distinguish myself from the Barthian stream of the topic of revelation as I accept its critique as it pertains to the intellectual reasoning about the Christian faith, but allow God’s freedom to make Himself known when, where, and how He wishes. In the case of the former, there is a crystalized, stable knowledge that is used to reason and reflect about God that persists over the course of the time, whereas in the latter case, God can simultaneously disclose Himself to the hardened as they are hardened while also breaking their hardness.
This crystalization of knowledge that is used to analyze and reflect upon the significance of the Christian faith in parts emerges as part of the process of cognitive entrenchment, where the act of intellectual study requires intense dedicated focus to specific ideas again and again. As these cognitive ideas and concepts become activated again and again in our neural structure, they became more habituated as part of thinking and eventually become taken for granted in construal and interpretation. This is good in many ways as this is part of the process of developing a cognitive mastery in a specified field that allows one to become an expert: the ideas of the field become entrenched in one’s thinking, allowing efficient dedicated of cognitive resources to more complicated and difficult questions.
While this is of great benefit in dealing with perilously difficult and abstruse questions about incredibly complicated and complex material, it is a problem when it comes to the theological understanding of God. God is not ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ in the same way that studying the history of theology is complex. While understanding God may defy easy comprehension, it is for different reasons. The
However, this difference and distinction in the reasons for such complexity and difficulty in comprehension is rarely, if ever, noted. Consequently, when developing an entrenched set of understandings that come from intellectual mastery and expertise, it is easy and tempting to transfer this mastery to knowledge about the person of God; this is especially the case if one’s mastery is something like Biblical or theological studies because both the Bible and theology take God as the primary object of understanding. However, Biblical Studies is about mastery of specific texts, that is the SCriptures, other historically relevant materials, and the secondary sources that discuss them. Theological studies is about mastery of the various theological thinkers of the past and their understandings of God. They are not about God per se.
The blurring of our mastery from one domain that leads us to believe have an understanding of God and His purposes in virtue of that entrenched, and often unconsciously so, knowledge is where we begin to move towards the social pattern of “Gnosticism” which I refer to as the gnostic impulse. It is here where we use the intellectual resources of our era to then gain a vantage point to comprehend the significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, whenever we see an over-intellectualization of foundations of Christian faith, we are witnessing a movement that was consistent with the social pattern of
The presence of education is not, however, a sign of the gnostic impulse. For instance, in the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, there are many professors and students here who are well-trained and educated that are sympathetic to the limits of human education and expertise to understand God. Rather,
2) A division of the people based upon adherence to certain intellectual ideas that one uses to determine the superiority of one’s Christian’s status. Division within the early Church was a part of the church; some people were known to be more spiritually mature than others, as the very way the New Testament employs the metaphor of maturity and the stages of life suggest. There was no idealized vision of pure equality in the early Church. Rather, the criteria for the stages of spiritual maturity seem to be the ability to discern between good and evil. But this needs careful qualification: growth in terms of good and evil emerged through putting into practice instruction and learning from that, most notably God’s instruction. Discernment emerged from more tacit forms of learning, rather than abstract, reflective schemes. However, when the spiritual maturity of Christians is thought to be determined by their adherence to specific intellectual frameworks, at this point we are dealing with the social gnostic impulse of elitism masquerading as spirituality. The Corinthians probably evaluated maturity based upon the intellectual foundations they had, whereas Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16 leads them to believe they are among the mature who he teaches wisdom to, only to switch the tables and say “you are but children because of what you do” in 3.1-4. When the acquisition of specific intellectual foundations is considered normative for determining maturity within the Church, including those intellectual foundations used to determine in a top-down what is good and evil, one is witnessing the gnostic impulse.
To be clear, these two patterns are the fruits of the
However, the gnostic impulse begins to emerge whenever we submit the significance of the cross-shaped foundations of Christian faith to the shape of various intellectual frameworks. It is the occupational hazard of Christians who seek and possess education, particularly of a level of education that allows one’s thinking to be largely uncontested and thus allow one’s thinking to crystallize and entrench itself. This particularly emerges when the education one possesses is seen as having a level above the diverse and widely distributed spiritual gifts of the Spirit that build and edify believers; when the educated defines themselves above such a work of the Spirit, it becomes easy to get entrenched. To that end, the “safest” place for a Christian intellectual to avoid the gnostic impulse is in a Christian community that takes seriously the gifts of the Spirit, whether it is formally “Charismatic” or not, where they receive and are accountable to the work of the Spirit in others that can “un-entrenched” their entrenched intellectualism.
In other words, the most powerful hedge against the ‘gnostic’ re-appropriation of the cross of Christ for other ends is the Spirit who forms the Church in conformity to the power of God demonstrated in Jesus’ cross.
- Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, 134.
- And maybe I am rationalizing my own positions and those similar to me, but I am not aware of this. But, in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 4.4, I am not acquited by my lack of awareness of any wrong, but God is ultimately my judge
- Controversially, I would say this applies even to the idea that people must adhere to the *intellectual doctrine* of the Trinity in order to be saved. I take the doctrine of the Trinity to be true and the best theological formulation we have for making sense of the Scripture confession about God, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that protects that proclamation of Gospel but is not itself the Gospel. It is the persons of the Triune God, not the doctrine of the Trinity, that redeems people. Thus, the gnostic impulse need not postulate something that is propositionally false, but rather it switches the grounds of Christian faith from the cross of Christ to the ideas about God.