Is Your Christianity Gnostic?
Nearly a year ago I cashed in my independent, Protestant, evangelical faith for the ancient Christian faith of Eastern Orthodoxy. In a short blog series I attempted to catalog much of my first year’s worth of “a-ha moments” as I stumbled through my new found home. As this first year comes to a close I continue to discover many points of doctrine and practice which I once considered genuine within the ancient Christian faith – the faith of the Apostles and Church Fathers – but have found to be little more than modern spins on various ancient heretical themes.
Perhaps the most astounding discovery as of late is how deeply entrenched I was in Gnostic practice and belief. Though I was never avowedly Gnostic, in the sense of explicitly denying the incarnation of Christ, my actual practice of the faith implicitly denied the incarnation. Indeed, as I look around much of the independent, Protestant, evangelical world today this implicit denial of Christ’s incarnation is found in abundance.
Gnosticism* has certain characteristics which are consistent across the various Gnostic groups, whether of the Christian or non-Christian variety. Most notably, Gnosticism favors a dualistic view of existence, i.e. that existence is divided between two competing and irreconcilable realms – the spiritual and the material. The spiritual world is the pure, the real, and the important sphere while the material world is the corrupted, the phantasmal, and the unimportant sphere. In Gnostic-Christian terms, the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil.
A second notable feature of both ancient and modern Gnostic belief is the idea that one’s knowledge is that which “saves”. The Gnostics whom the Apostles encountered believed that Jesus had revealed a secret knowledge, which, once gained by the individual, was sufficient for salvation. Hence the incarnation was superfluous given that the critical issue for salvation was what Jesus taught, as opposed to who or what He was(is).
These two aspects of Gnostic thinking had immediate consequences for the early Church. The Gnostic’s view that the physical world stood in direct conflict with the divine made it impossible for them to conceive of God incarnating Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Unavoidably, this dualistic view required one to understand salvation as a mental and emotional experience; an activity of the spirit (and/or mind) to the exclusion of the body. This vantage point further necessitated a denial of all those aspects of Christianity which witness to the incarnation: the sacraments, the view of a concrete Church community, history, asceticism, and a denial of the holiness of all creation.
It is my perception that there exists a very close association between the Gnosticism as it appeared in the early Church and that which we find in Christian circles today: an implicit denial of the incarnation.
I am not aware of any mainstream evangelical sect which explicitly denies the incarnation. Indeed, from my experience, evangelicals hotly defend the doctrine. But in their actual practice there is no mistaking the absence of the practical implications of Christ’s incarnation. Just look at the usual evangelical treatment of the Eucharist. At best, if communion is taken at all, it is treated as a little more than a memory devise, something to help the believer set his or her mind on Christ and His sacrifice; a ‘point of contact’ (as it was once explained to me). There is almost never any sense that the elements truly become His flesh and blood.
Interestingly, St. Ignatius (the 3rd bishop of Antioch after Peter c.98-117 AD) noted that one can easily spot the Gnostics among Church congregants because they excuse themselves from partaking of the Eucharist, in part because, “they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Smyrnaeans 7:1).
This view of the Eucharist, once forwarded by outspoken Gnostic groups, is today shared by the vast majority of pop-evangelical, Protestant sects.
There are many similar examples. If one looks at the predominant evangelical views of the various incarnationally-charged doctrines of the Christian faith one will again and again find this implicit Gnosticism at work. For example:
a.) The church community is generally understood in terms of an “invisible” spiritual community without a concrete presence in the physical world.
b.) Salvation is understood as something affected by one’s mental energies wholly divorced from bodily participation (i.e. the concept of faith as a divine mental exchange, of sorts, and grace as non-cooperative).
c.) The physical world is regarded as fallen, corrupt and fit for destruction; something to escape from.
d.) Baptism is treated as a mere symbol of salvation, something that one does in obedience, but not as a necessary salvific event.
These are merely a few samples from a much larger continuum of outright Gnostic beliefs which permeate the pop-evangelical world today.
Returning to the original question: is your Christianity Gnostic? This is a tough question because once a person finds Gnostic tendencies in their Christian walk they are forced against the wall of an either/or decision: will it be orthodox Christianity or will it be Gnostic Christianity? Well… maybe it’s not tough for all people, but it is rare to find an individual who is prepared to live with the sort of cognitive dissonance that is created by holding two competing and contradictory beliefs, such as these two. But, to each his own. I am just thankful that the Orthodox Church is still alive and well; still lighting the way home. I look forward to weeding out even more Gnostic tendencies in my walk this next year to come!
Thanks for reading.
(*Gnostic beliefs were never codified in a coherent system, hence the title “Gnosticism” is a bit of a misnomer.)