'Among the Gentiles'– Was Christianity a Greco-Roman Religion? Part VI

In his discussion of Gnosticism in Chapter 14,  there is not much to quibble with in terms of the actual analysis of Gnostic thought and, to the degree we can tell anything about it,  Gnostic praxis. Johnson is right that “however diverse the respective Gnostic systems are in detail, they are remarkably consistent with regard to their basic soteriology.” (p. 215).   One is saved by what one knows, not who one believes in.  The key to salvation is revelatory knowledge, and if you don’t have the wattage to understand it, then you can’t be among the elect and saved.   Salvation becomes a human self-help program for egg heads.   Johnson is also right that the dramatic dualism of Gnostic soteriology  (matter is tainted or evil,  spirit is good) involves a repudiation of the creation theology found in the OT  (and NT as well).  Relgiousness C is indeed the order of the day— Gnosticism is a world denying religion, longing for the day that the soul escapes either spiritually or literally from this mortal frame.  Any Gnostic could have said ‘this world is not my home, I’m just passing through. My destiny is in the spiritual world.’

Gnostic anthropology breaks people down into three categories and is deterministic there are those completed bound up in and defined by matter, those able to choose between matter and spirit, and those completely defined by spirit.  The first category is lost by definition and due to pre-determination does not matter.  One of the benefits of the discoveries at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the late 1940s is that these discoveries actually confirmed that when one makes allowances for the polemics in Irenaeus’s  arguments against Gnosticism,  nonetheless, he has assessed the religion rightly.  He knows its basic character and tenets.  What Irenaeus accurately attests to is “That a significant number [we can never know how many] of those calling themselves Christians in the second century saw themselves as spirit trapped in matter, sought in Christ the revelation of their true identity, and longed for release from the entrapment of fleshly existence.” (p. 221).  What Johnson is prepared to say about these folk is that in regard to the people who wrote the Nag Hammadi collection of documents, “it is difficult to deny the sense that they were written by people who were motivated by religious convictions just as authentic as those held by Christians of Type A…and Christians of Type B….In many of these writings, it is possible to detect the classic impulses of mysticism. We find in them the longing for the absolute and eternal, driven by a sense of despair at being trapped in corruptible matter.”: (p. 222).   Johnson then concludes on this basis that “My argument that ‘ways of being Christian’ are in continuity with ‘ways of being religious’ in Greco-Roman culture is given real support by the presence, cheek by jowl, of Hermetic writings and Gnostic gospels.” (p. 222)      But there are significant problems with this entire way of viewing the matter.

In the first place, it must be doubted that Gnosticism can be seen as an ‘authentic’ form of early Christianity.   Again the issue is not the sincerity of the devotees, or the reality of certain religious expressions or experiences they may have had.  The issue is that there is such a fundamental denial and rejection of the OT and early Christian symbolic universe and narrative thought world,  for example a rejection of  OT creation theology, the goodness of matter,  a rejection of much of what early Judaism affirms,  even a rejection in various of its forms of monotheism, and from a Christian point of view, a rejection of the Incarnation of God’s Son, the negating of the historical and soteriological importance of his life, earthly teachings, and death as a means of salvation, and also a rejection of the notion of bodily resurrection as the means of completing the salvation process.

When one puts all of this together, Gnosticism clearly falls out of bounds of what was meant by Christianity in the first century A.D. and in its foundational documents.   This is precisely why there was such a strong reaction to Gnosticism by Irenaeus and other apologetes, and however much we may feel Ireneaus went beyond the bounds of speaking the truth to those who err in love,  he was not wrong in his analysis.   In short, Gnosticism is not a form of early Christianity, it is a hijacking  and redefining of certain Biblical and Christian ideas, sprinkling them into a Hermetic and Plationic and mystical and radically dualistic soup and calling it good.    Thus, while I quite agree that what you see in the Hermetic corpse and in Gnosticism is close at the level of ideation, this does not prove Johnson’s thesis that early Christianity was like Greco-Roman religion in terms of its ways of being religious much less prove that apostolic Christianity should be dubbed a Greco-Roman religion.

I am of course aware that in the rising monastic movement, there were Christians with defective symbolic universes who thought that asceticism in itself was good, because they believed that the flesh was inherently evil.   The difference between say a Tertullian once he became a Montanist and a Gnostic however is vast in other regards.  Tertullian continued to affirm an orthodox Christology and soteriology in various ways.  One could never claim the Gnostics did so.   In short, there is a difference between an early Christian who has some defective theology or ethics or praxis, and a non-Christian.

The Gnostics do not deserve the label Christian, if the earliest Christian documents have a say as to what that term should mean, never mind in the OT has a say in what one ought to think about monotheism and creation.   Gnostics want to neither be in the world or of the world.   Christians are called to be in the world, and affirm the goodness of the world God created, without letting the fallen world ethos shape its way of viewing reality (Rom. 12.1-4).   I am thus not in agree with Johnson when he concludes on p. 233:  “the writers and readers of compositions such as  the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Thomas represented, in reality, one of three ways of being Christian”  (p. 233).  While there is reason to see some of the material in those two sources as consistent with the meaning of the phrases ‘Christian thought’ or ‘Christian ways of being religious’, that cannot be affirmed of much of the stuff one finds in those documents,  indeed too much of the contents of those documents.   Calling those document Christian, is like calling the Book of Mormon a composition within the bounds of apostolic Christianity theology, ethics, and ways of being religious.   But sadly, it isn’t though it does involve a mythology as creative as some of the things one reads in early Gnostic documents.


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