Monday, April 4, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Gnosticism

We're in our penultimate week for the heresies class, and this week's topic is Gnosticism. One of the oldest "heresies," Gnosticism actually predates Christianity. Although there are many different "schools" of Gnosticism, some central beliefs are common to most, and many of those principles find their roots in Greek philosophy.

Basically, Gnostics believe that there are two types of existence--material and spiritual--and that the latter is to be preferred to the former. As humans, we are called to detach ourselves from the material world and seek union with the spiritual as the material world is somewhere between "an obstruction to the realization of our calling as human beings"  and downright evil (Bergquist).

When Christianity came along, to many Gnostics it sounded surprisingly familiar: God descended from heaven to earth, we strive to ascend with Jesus into heaven, we are called to let go of our attachment to material things and live simply for the sake of the kingdom. To them, Jesus represented the "supreme Gnositc master," who showed humanity how to escape this physical existence in favor of union with God in heaven. And, to our modern ears, all that sounds both vaguely Christian though definitely Gnostic.

So why is Gnosticism bad? Where did it go wrong? Why were the Gnostic gospels banned as heretical texts? And why is there such a renewed interest in those texts today? Well, to put it plainly, Gnosticism, by de-emphasizing the physical world, 1) undermines the beauty/goodness of creation, 2) undermines the importance of the incarnation, and 3) leaves no room for the redemption of the created order. Instead, it prefers to escape this material world in favor of a purely spiritual realm. And that's heresy. We can't exist without our bodies. We're not just "spirits" or "souls" trapped inside a body. We are human beings--body and soul, inseparably united. Gnosticism isn't salvation; it's escapism.

But that's an easy trap for us to fall in. Sometimes this physical life doesn't seem all that good (cancer, drunk driving, tsunami, etc.), and sometimes this physical realm is the only thing that seems to be separating us from God. Sometimes it seems like Jesus is telling us to leave this world behind. Sometimes it feels like there's a spark of divinity hidden within each of us, and that, if we only get back in touch with it, we'll be in better shape. But all of that denies the beauty (though brokenness) of creation. Each of us is a beautiful part of God's world made in God's image--beautiful enough for God to become one of us (incarnation) in order to redeem and transform us (without destroying that which makes us human/physical). So, just say no! to Gnosticism.

Here's a video on the subject from the Rt. Rev. N. T. Wright, who was the most recent bishop of Durham before retiring to become a research professor in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He does a good job of explaining why Gnosticism is back.

And here's a copy of this week's slide show. It includes the scripture lessons--even some Gnostic references. If you have questions or comments, please leave them.


  1. Thought the Bishop's video comments summarized the appeal of gnosticisim very well. Not exactly sure where he was going with the swipe at America and the organized church at the 5:36 point . . .

  2. Yeah, John. A little dig at our lack of an established church--certainly undeserved. We do prefer to avoid established religion, but not all of us Americans like a separation of church and state because, as NT Wright put it, we misunderstand what establishment really is. Perhaps a loyal subject of her majesty's crown isn't in a very good place to appreciate why disestablishment is so appealing.

    Actually, the CofE is fairly regularly threatened by those wanting to disestablish the church, and, given a recent UK legislative movement to remove the church's current exception from discriminatory legislation, those like NT Wright who firmly support establishment are feeling particularly under attack.

    Good comment, though. He's good at making ancient theology relevant for today.


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