Retraction/Clarification 4/21/22. It has been brought to my attention by Keith that his intention was not to compare Richard Rohr and Rob Bell’s writings to Gnosticism in general, but to Valentinus’ specific book The Gospel of Truth. It is always my goal to make sure that all of my writings are honest critiques, so in this spirit, I give you this clarification.
Recently, in his article “First Century Deconstruction” my friend Keith Giles gave the impression that Gnostics were simply misunderstood heretics much like those within progressive Christianity.
“Honestly, I feel like I could trade out the names Valentinus and Ptolemy with names like Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, or swap out Irenaeus with Alisa Childers or Sean McDowell, and this book would read like a blog on Patheos.”
Although I agree with the characterization of Alisa Childers and Sean McDowell with Irenaeus (by all accounts Irenaeus was a diva), I think the comparison of Gnostics to Richard Rohr and Rob Bell (and any other progressive Christian) is a mischaracterization of what it meant to be a Gnostic in the first few centuries of the Early Christianity.
Using Elaine Pagels as his historical guide, Giles went on to celebrate the great treasure trove of documents the Gnostics produced – particularly Valentinus (on the Gospel of Truth). By the end of the article, the impression is given that the Gnostics were simply a sect of misunderstood heretics who were treated unfairly by the establishment.
My first response is that scholars like Origen were misunderstood heretics. The Gnostics could not hold Origen’s intellectual jockey. To be clear, I am not a fan of Elaine Pagels, but her romanticizing of the Gnostics is next-level bull shit. I have a great deal of respect for Keith, and usually agree with much of his writing; however, in this case, I think he has relied too much on Elaine Pagels and not enough on other, better historians.
Therefore, what I would like to do is provide an antithesis to Keith’s understanding of Gnosticism.
A Very Brief Gnostic History
The term “gnostic” is of Greek origin and means “knowledge”. The Gnostics believed they had a secret knowledge that no one else was privy to. Most people will probably not know that Gnosticism didn’t actually start in the Early Church but late first-century Judaism. The early Gnostics were not content staying in Judaism (who also didn’t appreciate their influence) but made the natural bridge over to Christianity. Paul was a die-hard opponent of Gnosticism and its influence over early Christianity (of course Pagels denies this as well).
By the end of the first century, and on through the next couple hundred years of Christianity, there were many Gnostics who had written in the style of the New Testament writers (the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Mary, etc.). The goal was to sneak their writings into the Church to influence its teachings for conversion purposes. What distinguishes many of these writings from those within the Canon is their mystical nature. Many of them also developed stances contra to the prevailing wisdom of the time. In other words, they were oftentimes contrarian. It was Gnostic writings that the church had to sift through in order to establish the biblical Canon in the fourth century. Ironically, it wouldn’t be the Early Church that the Gnostics would find to have the most influence over, but the modern Church (but that is a different article for a different time).
Issues with Gnosticism
I would argue that Keith’s article is more of an apology for Gnosticism than it is a deconstruction of early Christianity. Believe it or not, I have no actual issues with Gnosticism as long as it stays Gnostic. My issue is when it is blended with Christianity without distinction. I am a liberal thinker open to many possible iterations of Christianity, but I am still a Christian. At the end of the day, after our experimentations have been completed progressives still must call themselves Christian – followers of Christ; not some alien implant.
Some may think this is a non-issue. That Gnostics simply believed differently than the power brokers of knowledge of the time. That they were simply a heretical group no different from people like Origen or Arius. However, the Gnostics were more than just a mystical version of Christianity. They were a religious/philosophical cult that primed its followers to adhere to ridiculous ideas. They would be perfect for a Dan Brown novel.
Ideas like humans are really no different than other animals except that if they convert to Gnosticism they receive the “spark” of God (AKA the spirit of God). Or that Jesus was more like a Ghost than a human being.
Then some beliefs resemble many aspects of modern Christianity that we progressives attack daily. Such as that our bodies are evil and we should do what we can to shed their depravity (evangelicalism). That some people are just carnal and it is up to the great God who ultimately chooses who is Gnostic (the Reformed Tradition).
Although we know little of their social strata we can surmise that they were more like a club of small groups led by a Gnostic Teacher. The only good that they seemed to do was the inclusion of women within their gatherings. Since the spirit of the individual is all that matters, and the spirit is genderless, then it makes no difference if the person is male or female in this world. Both are essentially equal.
Most Gnostics were not “Christian” and they would not have wanted to be. Being a Christian was beneath them because only they had the secret knowledge of salvation. With that said, some Gnostics were Christian in that they were churchgoers who had some superficial conversion to Gnostic ideas. Or for those churches that had such a Gnostic influence over them that they were largely Gnostics meeting in a Christian church.
There were also certainly bishops who had perhaps unknowingly converted to Gnosticism like Marcion. Ultimately, Gnostics were more like Freemasons than they were Christians. They were a secret society that possessed secrets that only certain people were privy to.
So is there any use in reading Gnostic writings as a Christian? Yes. As is the case with reading anyone about religion we are given a unique perspective on Christianity, but even then we should be careful not to grant Gnostics any authority over our beliefs. They are
cunning and attractive ideas because they tickle our philosophical minds, but those beliefs are simply hokum when it comes to truth – which is the goal of progressive Christianity, is it not?
I think the real benefit of Keith’s article is his critique of the establishment’s characterization of Gnostics during early Christianity. That is the real deconstruction aspect of his article. It is true that the early Christians embellished and sensationalized the Gnostics and perhaps gave them much more press than they deserved. But, ultimately, I think that shows just how passionate these church leaders were in trying to prevent Gnostic influence over the Church. It was this passion that ignited the growth of the Church and made it what it is today – for better or worse.