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|| WHO WERE THE GNOSTICS?
WHAT IS GNOSTICISM?
The word "Gnostic" is actually an umbrella term for many different heretical religious sects. These groups arose primarily around 200-400 A.D. Rather than being some kind of "long lost Christianity" or "original Christianity" which you might have read about, this is far from the truth!
Gnosticism existed in the Pagan religions of Persia around the 1st Century B.C. Since Gnosticism was a Pagan religion that existed a century before Christ, it is impossible it was somehow the "original" Christianity. It would be like saying Olympian Paganism was the original Christianity.
No Gnostic scriptures have been found older than the 5th century A.D. Gnosticism was a rebellion against traditional Christian beliefs and attempted to combine Paganism with Christianity. Some Gnostic groups had beliefs that often contradicted the beliefs of other Gnostic groups. The one thing thay all had in common was that all of these groups departed from the orthodox Christian faith. Some of the various beliefs of these groups included:
*A belief in reincarnation
* That Lucifer and Christ were brothers
* That Jesus was not the only begotten Son of God
*That Jesus was actually the Archangel Michael
*That Jesus was all divine and not man
*That Jesus and Christ were two separate beings
*That the Creator God of the Old Testament was evil
* A rejection of all the sacred books of the Old Testament
*That John the Baptist was actually the Messiah, not Jesus
*That Satan is really Christ’s father and the God of the Old Testament is the Devil
*That salvation came through good works alone, and not grace
*That every sin in the Bible was a virtue and held orgies as part of their rites
* A belief in magic words and magic spells
*That women were inferior to men and some groups believed were incapable of salvation
* That sex between men and women was evil
*That the "villains" of the Bible (i.e., Cain, Simon Magus, the Serpent, Goliath, etc) were actually the "good guys". A sort of "Biblical character inversion".
* That The Serpent of the Garden of Eden was actually good and that God was evil
* The worship of the Greek goddess (an idol) of wisdom, "Sophia"
*That homosexuality was permissible and the only sex human beings should have
If you are a Christian reading this, I urge you not to believe that Gnosticism is compatible with Christianity!
Myth: "There were several different "Christianities" competing with one another. St. Paul’s just happen to win out. "
Christ established His Church in Jerusalem. It was headed by his earthly brother, James. The idea that somehow hundeds of different Christianities sprang up at once is impossible. In fact, Ministers in the various Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian,etc., ) Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia, Nestorian Churches, Church of Utrecht and it's offshoots, Roman Catholic Church, and some branches of the Lutheran Church can all trace who ordained them right back to one of the 12 Apostles. This is known as Apostolic Succession. Apostolic Succession is proof that Christ's Church has never left the earth. Most ministers with Apostolic Succession can trace their lineage back to the Apostle Matthew.
Gnosticism is said to have been formed at the same time as orthodox Christianity, but this isn’t the case! Gnosticism was a syncretism of the sorcery of European Pagans, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Pagan philosophers such as Plato. It was an attempt to introduce Pagan ideas into Christianity. In 1945 several ancient Gnostic books in the form of leather scrolls were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Among the Nag Hammadi texts was a copy of Plato's Republic. Also found in the Nag Hammadi texts mentioned was a book called The Testament of Truth. It’s an account of the Garden of Eden from the serpent's point of view! A false book titled The Gospel of Thomas written around 400 A.D. was also included. Bible skeptics, liberal theologians, occultists, and such types get a big hoot from these books, but to orthodox Christians they are worthless as sources of scripture. These scriptures mock the Judeo-Christian God constantly, trying to portray him as evil, bigoted, and jealous. Obviously, Gnosticism is a rebellion against Christianity. Orthodox Christianity logically must have existed before Gnosticism, since if it hadn’t, there would have been nothing to rebel against.
Gnosticism adapted Christian symbols and terminology to suit itself. There were many different strains of Gnosticism, with some sects having beliefs that contradicted other sects. For instance, some sects taught sexual abstinence, while some taught indulgence of any sex act, while some only allowed homosexuality. Most taught women were evil, while some allowed women ordination in their priesthood. But nevertheless, they all shared some core beliefs. In all Gnostic literature there is the recurring them of light battling darkness, and trying to obtain "light". Gnostics believed in attaining enlightenment (the gnosis, lit. "Knowledge") as a means for salvation and reject the idea of salvation by the grace of Christ. They believe all matter is evil, created by an evil god. They usually believe in reincarnation, and that the soul is reincarnated until it achieves perfection through the "gnosis". In these respects, they are much closer to being Hindus or Buddhists than Christians. Their main deity was a serpent god called "Abraxas" (ah-BRA-ha) or "Ophite". Abraxas is where the ancient magic word "abracadabra" comes from.
Another trait was a strange sort of character inversion. The villains of the Old Testament became the heroes, and vice versa. For instance Simon Magus, who was a rival of St. Paul in Acts, was an important figure in the Gnostic religion. Rather than seeing him as a false teacher, the Gnostics thought he was a prophet, and some sects even worshiped Simon Magus as god. Magic played a big part in Gnosticism. The book Ancient Christian Magic is a catalog of Gnostic spells and sorcery. Anyone who wants a real look into what Gnosticism was really like should read this book. In it are spells for love money and revenge. In one surviving papyrus containing a Gnostic love spell, the sorcerer commands the victim to become completely obsessed with the him and leave her husband and children. Another spell calls for revenge on an enemy. Another uses a waxen image of an ape. Clearly, these are things no Christian would be part of! No one in their right mind can believe Jesus would want people to cast spells for revenge or to make women leave their husbands. Gnosticism is an attempt to try to have both Christianity and Paganism, and failing. The spells of the Gnostics are things of the superstitious, not the enlightened. In areas where only Gnostic Christians were known, the word "Christian" became synonymous with sorcerer to the Pagans. One thing Gnosticism clearly is not is an early or "true" form of Christianity. The symbol of the Gnostics was a serpent biting it’s own tail to form a circle. This was because in ancient times Pagans believed a serpent could hold it’s own tail and roll along like a wheel. So even the symbol of Gnosticism is not a symbol of enlightenment...but superstition!
Some Gnostic groups were/are:
The Marcionites The founder was Marcion (100-160 A.D.), a ship owner who lived on the Black Sea. He is considered the first Gnostic Church father. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament (Jehovah), the Demiurge, was a false god. Jesus was sent by the real god to rescue mankind from false teaching and destroy the Demiurge. Marcion was excommunicated from the Christian church by his own father (a Bishop) for adultery. Marcion later started his own Gnostic church which completely rejected the Old Testament (because Marcion was an anti-Semite) and only accepted Marcion’s re-written Luke and 10 epistles of Paul as scripture. The sect was later absorbed into the Manicheans. The Yezidis Originated in Persia, probably around the 6th century A.D. Originally they were not classified as a Gnostic sect by scholars, but the two are so similar that many modern authorities are reclassifying the Yezidis as Gnostic.
The Yezidis are a sect of Kurds that worship Satan in the form of a Peacock, called "Melek Taus" who they believe created the universe, and is a "god of good". They believe Jesus to be only a human prophet, whom they think carries their souls to heaven on a silver tray to be with Satan after they die. There are currently 30,000 Yezidi living in Germany. They number about 800,000 worldwide and live thorough out Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and Iran. The Yezidi believe they are not the "children of Adam" as the rest of humanity is, but believe they are descendants of the demon Azazel. Some ancient sources describe the founder of the Yezidis to have been a Christian (probably a Gnostic Christian) in charge of a library.
The Mandeans Originating in the 2nd century A.D., along with the Yezidis, it is one of two ancient Gnostic sects that made it into the 21st century. The Mandeans live in Southern Iraq and South Western Iran. The Mandeans reject Jesus as the Christ and are hostile towards him. Clearly, this indicates they were created as a rebellion against Orthodox Christianity as the other Gnostic sects. They believe that god is a hermaphrodite, that John the Baptist was the true messiah and practice frequent baptisms in their rituals.
The Manicheans This sect revered a Persian named Mani, who claimed he was the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Started in 230 A.D. in Persia (Iran), it spread throughout the Roman Empire. It survived in Tajikistan until the 13th century. Mani, the founder of the sect was killed by Zoroastrians in 276 A.D. Unlike Jesus, he did not rise from the dead, proving his claim to be the Holy Ghost false¼except apparently to the Manichans. Manicheans practiced abstinence, and believed that all matter was evil but inside each person was imprisoned a soul, a spark of the "divine light". Only after many incarnations could a person achieve salvation. Manicheanism influenced many later dualistic heresies. The sect was divided into a priestly level, and a layman’s level that took care of the needs of the priestly level.
The Ophites This sect originated around the 2nd century A.D. in Syria. The Ophites worshiped the serpent of Genesis, (i.e., the Devil, which they called Ophite) whom they believed brought mankind enlightenment, rather than his fall. This would technically make them the first Luciferians. They were said to have a very elaborate theology. Sophia was said to have given birth to the evil creator god, here called "Ialdabaoth". Sophia gave birth to another son, "Mind" (Ophite) that took the form of a serpent. The Ophites are an inspiration for many occult groups, from Theosophy to Satanists.
The Cainites The Cainite sect was a good example Gnostics who practice Biblical character inversion. They take their name from Adam’s son Cain who they believed was actually a virtuous person, rather than cursed by God for killing Abel. They also believed Judas, the Sodomites, and every villain of the Bible were virtuous people as well, since they were the enemies of "the Demiurge (Jehovah)", and the Demiurge was evil. Writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanus have all stated the Cainites were lawless, and tried to break every taboo. They sound very similar to modern occult groups who live by the creed "Do What You Will" as their only moral guide. They believe Judas brought about mankind’s salvation by betraying Jesus, which they considered a "sacred act". Among their scriptures was a forgery called The Gospel of Judas. The Sethians or Sethites A sect that existed around the 2nd Century A.D. They believed Cain, Able, and Seth represented three forces of the universe. They boasted the ludicrous and unprovable claim that they could trace their lineage to Adam through Seth, and were thus older than Christianity. Neoplatonism (i.e., Greek Paganism) is thought to have been an influence on the group, although they are said to have been similar to the blasphemous Cainite sect.
The Bogomils/Cathars/Albigenses A medieval Gnostic sect. The sect seems to have been a direct decedent of the Manichieans. The Manicheans were thought to have disbanded around the 6th Cebtury A.D., but the sect made a comeback in 11th Century Europe as the "Cathari". The Cathars started in Bulgaria as a movement in the 11th century and spread to Western Europe. In the 12th century the grouped flourished in Southern France and Italy and were called Albigenses. The sect lived in open defiance of the Pope, who of course wasn’t thrilled by that. The sect was wiped out in the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church by the 14th century. Yes, this was a terrible thing, but also keep in mind, they weren’t Wiccans. The group was divided into two levels, "the perfect" and "the believers". The perfect lived in celibacy and regarded marriage as evil.
Heterosexual intercourse was considered evil, since it created children. The sect is also said to have practiced homosexuality, since it didn’t create children. The vulgar term for anal sex, "bugger", comes from the word "Bogomil", another name for the sect. The sect rejected many Biblical doctrines, including the divinity of Christ, regarding him merely an angel. One peculiar doctrine of the Bogomils was that the soul escaped through the anus. They believed Lucifer created a mud stopper to keep Adam's soul from escaping. This ridiculous doctrine probably played some part in the group's belief in sodomy.
The sect influenced Jewish though in 12th century France, and thus led to the Jewish-occult system of philosophy called "Cabala". Cabala (also spelled Kabala, Qabala, Kaballa, Kaballah, etc.) became the basis for almost all Western occultism. The Bohemians Started by a German shoemaker named Jacob Boheim, born in Alt Seidenburg, in 1575. One day Boheme claimed he had a revelation that inside each person dwelt a "divine spark".Many of Bohem's ideas sound identical to Gnostic groups that existed centuries prior. The Lutheran Church of his day charged him with heresy, and he was ordered to cease writing, however he continued to do so anyway. Boheme’s writings are a favorite among various Rosicrucian Orders and Martinist Orders.
There are also some modern day Gnostic sects as well.
The Gnostic-Catholic Church/Universal Gnostic Church This church was started by Jules-Benoîît Stanislas Doinel du Val-Michel. He was an Occultist, Spiritist, and Freemason. While working as a librarian for the Library of Orleans in France he became obsessed with Gnosticism. In 1888 he claimed "Eon Jesus" appeared to him and commanded him to start a Gnostic Church, with a man known as Doniel as Arch Bishop. The group was said to teach Satan was the good god of the Universe and the God of the Old Testament was evil. They also were said to embrace ideas akin to Marxism, calling it "The Brotherhood of Man". This church has ties to the occult lodge Ordro Templi Orentis, and includes occultist and quasi-Satanist Aleister Crowley as one of its "Bishops". After Crowley became involved, the Church became completely "Crolweyized", and Crowley’s religion of Thelema replaced whatever similarities to Christianity there might have been.
Christian Science The Church has many beliefs in common with Gnostics, including that Jesus and Christ were two different people, reincarnation, that Christ didn’t died for our sins, and life is an illusion. Mary Baker Eddy started this movement from writings plagiarized from husband number three, a hypnotist named Phineas Quimby. Unity and New Thought are offshoots of Christian Science. Eddy predicted she would never die...but she did anyway in 1921. A false prophecy from a false prophetess. Her followers dressed up a manakin in her clothes and paraded her around in a carriage to fool people into thinking she was still alive. When people figured out the hoax they threw stones at the carriage.
Various "Mormon" Churches There are over 100 denominations that follow the strange teachings of the "prophet" Joseph Smith. The two largest denominations are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with headquarters in Independence, MO (which later changed it's name to Community of Christ). The beliefs of this sect are so out of align with the rest of Orthodox Christian Theology held by the majority of Christian Churches that Mormon denominations are closer to being classified as Gnostic sects. It would take another book to try to examine them all in detail, so I only will give a few details.
Mormon missionaries encourage their followers to ask god for the "burning of the bosom" to know the Mormon gospel is real, similar to "gnosis" of earlier Gnostic cults. Like the Gnostics, Mormons believe that Adam's fall was necessary for their salvation...in other words, our salvation depends at least in part on Lucifer! Mormons believe Jesus and Lucifer were brothers, a view Gnostic groups of the past also held. Mormons believe in a goddess they call "Heavenly Mother", and many Gnostics also believed in a goddess. They also deny the Trinity, the virgin birth, that Christ was the only begotten Son of God, and many other core beliefs of Christianity...which is also similar to Gnosticism. Salvation by Grace is rejected for salvation through good works, which is another key point of many Gnostic cults. The Mormon temple rituals, and other practices such as the squaring of the arm to give a blessing or seal a grave, secret grips and handshakes, are lifted directly from Scottish Rite Masonry, which appears to have its roots in Gnosticism, via the Templars. The similarities between Gnostics and Mormons are even noted by Mormons. Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley wrote of the similairities thinking it somehow proves Mormonism to be true.
Jehovah's Witnesses a/k/a Kingdom Hall The Jehovah's Witnesses have many similar beliefs in common to the Gnostic groups of the past, and their theology is out of line with Orthodox Christianity. Again, here's just a sample of their beliefs. JWs deny the divinity of Christ, believing he was the archangel Michael incarnate, which was a belief of the Cathars and other Gnostic sects. They teach for some reason that Christ did not die on a cross, but died tied to a stake instead. JWs reject the idea of the Trinity and salvation through good works rather than grace, two more Gnostic beliefs.
Another belief of Gnosticism was that the creator God of Genesis (i.e. Jehovah) was an evil being, because he created an imperfect, evil world. Matter is considered evil, and therefore any god that created matter was a god of pure evil. They call this god "The Demiurge". Some sects banned heterosexual sex since it created children, and therefore created more evil, since children were made from matter. This could be why the Sodomites were hailed as heroes in some sects. These sects often endorsed homosexuality, since it couldn't create children. A medieval sect of Gnostics called the Bogomils was said to have been exclusively homosexual (9). The god above the Demiurge was the "real" god. They believed that the serpent of Eden was the real god, and they identified him with their serpent god Abraxas and the Ophite serpent. The serpent of Eden (i.e. Lucifer), they believed, tried to save Eve by bringing her enlightenment when he told her to eat the forbidden fruit. The Greek goddess Sophia (wisdom) was also worshipped by the Gnostics. In some sects, it was believed Sophia sent the serpent into Eden to enlighten Adam and Eve.
Jesus and Christ were to separate beings according to the Gnostics. Since Jesus was made from matter, they reasoned he couldn't be divine. Jesus was an imperfect man who was nailed to the cross, while Christ was a perfected spirit who got away. Gnostics also felt that since Christ had tried to save man, as had the Serpent of Genesis, that Abraxas/Ophite must have really been the father of Christ. In some Gnostic sects, it was taught that Lucifer and Christ were twin brothers. Thus, in Gnostic theology, Jehovah is the devil and Lucifer is god! So Gnosticism is really the first form of devil worship. It is a form of Luciferianism.
Goddess worship, an idea completely alien to Christians and Jews, is part of Gnosticism. Many Gnostic sects worship the Greek Pagan goddess Sophia, which they believed was the "goddess of wisdom". The worship of Sophia is straight out of Paganism, and no where in any Judeo-Christian writings is there a mention of goddess worship.
Unfortunately, some modern day secular scholars herald Gnosticism as a superior from of Christianity. Perhaps it’s because they feel that the more pagan philosophy of Gnosticism better explains why evil exists in the world, and they like the idea of becoming an enlightened being through seeking knowledge, rather than faith in grace of the orthodox Christian. Secular scholars dismiss what much of what contemporary critics such as Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote about the Gnostics, insisting it is merely "Christian propaganda". They prefer to read the writings of the Gnostics themselves (like the Nag Hammadi library) to draw their own conclusions. This is hardly an open-minded attitude. Imagine if someone only read Mien Kampf and drew all their conclusions about Nazism from that source.
In reality, Gnosticism was a very superstitious religion. Their view of the universe might be called hysterical at best. Their accounts of creation are wild and chaotic. In the creation account of one Gnostic sect, angels repeatedly raped Eve, reflecting how that sect viewed the universe.
Gnosticosm had little cohesion as a movement. Beliefs of sects varied far and wide because each sect relied on it's own personal "revealtion". Gnosticism was never able to achieve the feeling of unversal brothethood orthodox Christianity experienced (the word "catholic" does mean "universal", after all), and so it was destined to fail as a movement.
Far from being enlightened, Gnostics were obsessed with magic and spells, and Gnosticism is a favorite subject of occultists to this day. The book Ancient Christian Magic is a catalog of magic spells used by Gnostics. They include love spells, money spells and spells for revenge. Despite all the talk about being "enlightened" the Gnostics were some of the most superstitious people of their day! It's no wonder orthodox Christians of ancient times wanted no part of them. Nor should modern day Christians.
At the council of Nicaea in 497 A.D., after centuries of persecution from Pagans, the Christians could now breathe easy and decide what true Christian doctrine was. With all the new converts, there was some false doctrines creeping into the Christian theology, and the council assembled to put an end to these false doctrines. Orthodox Christians flatly rejected the doctrines of Gnosticism, and Gnosticism was officially branded a heresy by the early church fathers. Nevertheless, Gnosticism never completely died out, and from time to time throughout history it resurfaces. Even today there are many groups that call themselves "Gnostic". It isn't hard to see how a religion that believed the God of the Bible was evil and the serpent of Eden was a god of "enlightenment" could easily evolve into devil worship. 1948 in Toledo, Ohio barber and fortuneteller Herbert Sloane started the "Our Lady of Endor Cultus Satanis Coven." It held many beliefs typical of the ancient Gnostics; inversion of Biblical heroes as villains and vice versa, the worship of the Ophite serpent, chanting of "Nema, Nema, Nema, Nema!" (Amen backwards), etc. etc. The group is said to have dissolved after the death of Sloane. In Los Angeles the Abraxas Foundation is a Gnostic cult founded by a Charles Manson follower named Nicholas Shreck. The Abraxas foundation believes that the weak should be destroyed, paving way for the strong. These groups could be considered both Gnostic and Satanic. Errors of Gnosticism
The errors of Gnosticism are quite apparent. Some people in trying to define Gnosticism as "over intellectualized", but considering how Gnostics were very superstitious, I don’t think the word "intellectual" firs the bill. A catolog of various Gnostic spells and incations for love, money and even revenge can be found in the book Ancient Christian Magic by Marvin Myer and Richard Smith. The book would have been better titled Ancient Gnostic Magic, since true Christians don't believe in magic spells! Most Gnostic magic is concerned with "words of power". Abraxas was a favorite magic word of some Gnostic sects. Abraxas was the name of the Gnostic god, and it's where the word Abracadabra comes from. One spell mentioned in the book has to be rcited over an image of an ape. Another spell is a love spell used by a Gnostic sorcerer to try to take another man's wife away. The book also has illustrations of amulets Gnostics used. The amulets look crude and primitive and not something a supposedly enlightened Christian would ever deal with! Gnosticism is a core foundation of Western occultism. It is the epitome of superstion, not enlightenment.
Gnosticism in all it's forms denied the divinity of Christ, and abandons salvation through grace, and this is usually the starting point for every heresy. Gnostic Christianity probably arose, not only to hold on to Pagan traditions, but to try to explain why God allows evil in to exist. But true Christianity teaches that only the grace of Jesus Christ accepted through faith is the only thing that can obtain salvation. The creator God of the universe is not a being of evil. Evil does exist, and it was brought into the world because man disobeyed God.
God allows evil to exist until the end of time when it will be destroyed. Why doesn't he destroy it now is something God only knows. But Gnosticism doesn't really answer the question either. All it does is present God as a less than all-powerful being locked in a constant struggle with an equally powerful evil force. This is no different than earlier faiths like Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Mithraism, etc., Faith is important to the Christian. Christians know they will never have all the answers to their questions about God, and so we accept what we don't know on faith. We do know that before the fall of Adam and Eve that they were innocent. After they fell and evil was introduced into the world, man lost his divine perception. The Gnostic on the other hand believes he can do better than this by some kind of mystical enlightenment. This isn't a unique theme in eastern religions, and is taught by Buddhism and Hinduism among others. There are many aspects of Gnosticism that are downright blasphemous. Saying that God is evil and the devil is really God is the ultimate in false doctrine. Also, there is no room for the worship of the goddess Sophia. A good example of what orthodox Christianity believes is found in the ancient Apostles Creed. It basically lays out the doctrines of what orthodox Christians should believe, ie. The Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, etc.,
Much of modern day occultism has it's roots in the Gnostic religion. The Cabala, Freemasonry, and many practices of Western sorcery have their roots in Gnosticism. The Gnostics are also an influence on Wiccan and Neopagan groups.
The New Gnostics and the Wisdom of Irenaeus
by Douglas Groothuis
Christian apologist par excellance, G.K. Chesterton observed in 1930 that "We hear much about new religions; many of them based on the very latest novelties of Buddha and Pythagoras." The perennial war of ideas develops few new weapons systems, but rather uses the same cognitive ammunition throughout the varied campaigns of intellectual history. Despite the dizzying diversity of religions, ideologies, and faiths simultaneously contending for our allegiance in pluralistic America, the basic world-view options are not unlimited. The intellectual combat between the New Age movement and orthodox Christianity boils down to several central points which were recognized by the early church eighteen hundred years before New Age celebrity evangelist Shirley MacLaine spoke to her first disembodied spirit.
A poster I saw at a retreat center read: "There are two important facts about the universe: 1. There is a God. 2. You are not he." This is Christianity in a nutshell. The Creator God is not confused with his creation. Humans are not now, nor will they ever be, divine. God is a personal being (a He), not an impersonal principle, force, or essence (God’s an "It"). A New Age version of this poster would read: "There are two important facts of the universe. 1. There is a God. 2. You are It." Or, in the words of Joseph Campbell from the television series and book, The Power of Myth: "You are God, not in your ego, but in your deepest being, where you are at one with the nondual transcendent."
Campbell, who died in 1987, was a contemporary prophet of the New Age. He frequently harks back to Gnosticism for spiritual inspiration, saying that we can live out of the sense of Christ in us as Jesus lived out the Christhood of his nature. He also directly quotes from Gnostic text The Gospel of Thomas to the effect that Jesus' mission was to reveal the deity of all people. This is the heart of New Age spirituality: we are divine and we must rediscover this potential in order to better our world.
Neo-Gnostics, such as Campbell and many in the diverse New Age camp, imbibe at the well of gnosis, but not without straining out what offends modernity's tastes. The harsh Gnostic dualism of dark matter versus pure Spirit is ignored or redefined in psychological terms. The fantastic hierarchic cosmologies of innumerable spiritual beings is likewise winked at or interpreted, in good Jungian form, as manifestations of psychological processes. Yet the ancient appeal of Gnosticism remains: There is a hidden and secret wisdom (gnosis) that can be directly experienced by turning within. This is not found in traditional orthodoxy, which is merely exoteric or external, but in the deeper or esoteric meaning. The supreme realization of gnosis is the spark of divinity within. Underneath the illusions of ignorance burns the fire of the unlimited.
The exact origins of Gnosticism are a matter of great scholarly debate, but we find it thriving as an alternative to orthodox Christianity in the second century, and several New Testament writers such as John and Paul may have been be responding to Gnostic or proto-Gnostic elements in their letter to the first century church. The greatest apologist against the Gnostics was the early church theologian Irenaeus, who wrote Against Heresies in approximately 180 A.D. From this work we can cull several principles for dealing with the neo-Gnostic or New Age teachings so widespread today.
First, Irenaeus went to great lengths properly to identify and explain the beliefs of the "Gnostics so-called," those who supposedly knew reality. Reading through Against Heresies one discovers a careful analysis of the Gnostic system in its different forms. Until the discovery of many primary Gnostic texts near Nag Hamaddi, Egypt, in the 1940s, Irenaeus and other apologists provided nearly all of our knowledge of the Gnostics. Although some have disparaged the church fathers' treatment, historian Patrick Henry observes in his book New Directions in New Testament Study that they have integrity and "it is still legitimate to use [their] materials to characterize Gnosticism." Irenaeus, while opposing Gnosticism as a world-view antithetical to Christianity, labored to fairly present its views fairly.
No matter how ridiculous or blasphemous Christians find various New Age teachings, caricature is never an appropriate apologetic. Irenaeus, and all good apologists since, have tried to avoid the straw man fallacy. The Gnostics cleverly combined truth and error such that any critique of their doctrine demanded precision. As Irenaeus said,
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced...more true than truth itself. 1.1.1.
Second, Irenaeus discerned that Gnosticism was not a minor deviation from biblical revelation but an utterly alien world-view disguised as Christianity. Therefore, in responding to the heretics, he articulated a Christian response adequate to throw the Gnostic perspective into aberrational relief. He was not content to chronicle falsehood. He demonstrated biblical truth. As Harold O. J. Brown notes in his book Heresies: "The fact that Against Heresies is so comprehensive is due in no small measure to the fact that the heresy against which it speaks was not limited to a particular point or doctrine, but was an alternative vision of religious reality spanning a wide range of doctrines."
Irenaeus should inspire us today to present "the full counsel of God" in response to New Age deviations. If New Age ideas of self-deification and unlimited human potential are infiltrating the world of psychology, let us mine the rich lode of psychological insights from the Scriptures to counter the counterfeit. The same holds true in every other area as well. Biblical alternatives must be discovered, developed and implemented. You can't fight something with nothing.
Third, Irenaeus knew that biblical misinterpretation was a key weapon in the Gnostic arsenal. Gnostics defended any number of unbiblical doctrines by appealing to Scriptural texts out of context and with no respect for the original author's intention. Irenaeus realized that they "gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures" while "they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets and the words of the apostles" (1.8.1) Irenaeus says this ad hoc interpretation (or eisegesis) "disregards the order and connection of the Scriptures." He likens this to taking apart the individual jewels that make up a skilled artist's beautiful image of a king and rearranging them so as to make them into a dog or a fox (1.8.1).
Cults have always twisted biblical texts in service of their own unbiblical message. We, like Irenaeus, should unmask the artificiality and dishonesty of such literary license when it appears in New Age circles.
Fourth, heresy is not only unbiblical; it is illogical. Irenaeus not only defended orthodoxy as the original and legitimate faith, he also attacked the irrationality of Gnostic theology. In one memorable passage, he lampoons the common Gnostic claim that the ultimate Godhead is absolutely unknowable and unnameable. The apologist finds it odd that the Gnostics speak so much and with such metaphysical gusto about that which, on their own terms, they can neither know anything of nor say anything about! Since the Gnostics assign a wide variety of names to spiritual principles which they take to be unnameable, Irenaeus proposes his own cluster of ultimate spiritual entities consisting of Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, Cucumber, and Melon (1.11.4)!
Irenaeus's satire spotlights the stupidity of making the absolute reality beyond all words or thoughts. If this were so, any name--even the Cosmic Cucumber--would be equally appropriate or inappropriate for God. When modern, neo-Gnostic Joseph Campbell asserts in The Power of Myth that "God is beyond names and forms" and even "transcends thingness," we should remember the rank illogic of such remarks, especially when Campbell later goes on to say all sorts of things about the God who cannot be known!
Fifth, Christology is at the center of Against Heresies. Irenaeus knew that the Gnostic distortion of the meaning and work of Jesus Christ was its most dangerous aspect. Gnostics, then as now, divide the man Jesus from "the Christ" in various ways. The Christ is viewed as a spirit that temporarily visited Jesus and left him at the cross. Irenaeus realized that this perversion of Jesus leaves us fast in our fallenness because it denies that Christ died for our sins. Jesus is viewed as an enlightened man visited by the same Christ who elicits our the Christhood in each one of us. To this Irenaeus responds:
The Gospel...knew of no other man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knows as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again (3.16.5)
Irenaeus argued that only through the suffering of Jesus the Christ could sinful beings be redeemed, "for...it was not possible that the man...who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself" (3.18.8).
New Age versions of Jesus repeat this ancient error in similar ways. Jesus is viewed as a man who tapped into a universal Christ Consciousness. He is viewed as an example of what a self-realized master can do. The cross, then, loses all biblical significance. The resurrection, if considered, is spiritualized. It does not vindicate Jesus as the unique Lord and Savior, but provides an example of possible human attainment. The Jesus of biblical revelation must be lifted up in the face of these confusions.
The Gnostic planks of self-deification, biblical distortion, irrationality, and Christological confusion are mirrored in the neo-Gnostic elements of the New Age movement. With an eye toward Irenaeus we can discover principles of confrontation just as applicable today as they were eighteen hundred years ago. Heresies will be with us until the End, but new heresies are hard to find indeed.
--Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Phhilosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of several books on new religious movements.
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