Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Christian Gnosticism

Recently I was in India speaking at a training school for pastors. One of the major issues that they were dealing with was publications being disseminated by fundamental Hindus claiming that Jesus was not a peacemaker, that the Bible was an unholy book because spoke of sinful men who had done evil things, and the number one issue that the pamphlet addressed was that Jesus was married and had had children. 

Now the issue of Jesus coming to divide families has more to do with either Christ's return or the problems faced when one member of a family chooses to follow Jesus but the rest are non-followers. And the issue of sinful men and their story being told has more to do with the fact that the Bible refuses to cover up mankind's sinful nature. In both of these types of questions the answers come directly from Scripture and learning to apply the principles found in the Bibles.

But the issue of Jesus purported marriage and subsequent children is an issue that must be addressed from a historical perspective of the early church and the religions of the early centuries of the common era. Yes there are Biblical passages that can be used to refute this information but it must be combined with an understanding of the historical issues of the day. 

My last session with these future pastors and their professors was taken up with addressing the issue of Gnosticism and it's impact on Christianity. Below is a summery of the talk I gave earlier this month in India.

The information is a bit long but I believe worth the read.

Christian Gnosticism
Dr Vallen Prest

There has been a lot of publicity about a slip of paper from the 4th century written in Coptic Egyptian that a professor at Harvard thinks says that Jesus had a wife. Should this change our Christian faith? Is this a smoking gun that will change the way our faith is viewed? does it matter if Christ had a wife or even a child?

To place this scrap of paper into its proper perspective we must understand the people who wrote it.To do this we must first overlook the fact that this scrap of paper has no provenance. This means that we have no clear understanding where this piece of paper was found what else was found with it and how that might change our perception of this paper.

What we do now is that this fragment of writing is written in Coptic Egyptian. That there are gapes or spaces that tell us there are missing words. These missing words could change the meaning of what is bring assumed by this professor and the media.

There is no way that we can recover the missing words. The tests that have been performed on this document tells us that the paper is 4th century and the ink also appears to be from the same time period.

One other small issue is that Dr. King (the Harvard professor who has the Coptic fragment) chose the word “wife” which would be better translated “companion.” This reading could provide a different understanding of the fragment.

Is this the first fragment that has been found that indicates an alternative story of Jesus? No. In fact there are all sorts of documents that claim to tell us stories about Jesus.  Many of these documents were also written during the same time period.

What do we know about these other documents? They compromise a collection of documents from a group of people who were considered heretical Christians. They were known as Gnostic Christians.

So what is Gnosticism?

To understand Gnosticism we must first understand its roots. The roots of Gnosticism can be traced back as early as the Persian Empire and its religion of dualism. This religion taught that there were two equal deities, one totally good and the other totally evil. These two entities worked as kind of a yin and yang. For the world to properly exist there must be summitry or balance between the two opposing forces.

One of the philosophical ideas that came out of dualism was Gnosticism, which believed that anything that was of or from the spiritual realm was good and anything from the physical realm was evil. This played out with the belief that the flesh or the body was evil and the spirit was good.

This ancient heresy has two major streams that flow out of this belief of the good of the spirit and the evil of the physical. Because of the evil of the body one stream practiced licentiousness. Since the body is unimportant, evil and won’t last therefore everything goes!

The other stream produced a form of legalism within the church. The spirit was good but anything we did in the body was evil and therefore had to be controlled and at times beaten into submission. One can see the rise of monasticism directly from this teaching. We separate ourselves from the world and all of its corruption. Some of the Anabaptist groups of the reformation era (that still exist today) came to similar conclusions. The Puritans of England also often forbade many pleasures of the body.

In its most extreme form the followers of these teachings refrained from any form of sexual pleasures and the only way that these sects could grow was through converts. Here in America a religious group known as the Shakers (because of their intense shaking worship) that had existed since the founding of America ceased to exist when their last surviving member died in the early nineteen hundreds.

Gnosticism can be found in many different religions today. Its roots crept into the church as early as the end of the first century and beginning of the second century. By the fourth century it had come to full bloom and was a heresy that the ancient church addressed and opposed. Even today we still see the roots of dualism can be seen in Christianity. For example, the sacred is good but the secular is bad or the notion that Christianity is a religion of “no” to any pleasures.

God created man and in Genesis chapter One

26  Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."  
27  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.    
Genesis 1:26-27 (NIV)

And in Chapter Two we find out that God not only formed man from the dust of the ground (physical) but God also breathed into Adam the breath of life (certainly spiritual since God is a spirit John 4:24)

7  the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.    
Genesis 2:7 (NIV)

 at the end of day 6 He claimed that everything He had created (all of the physical creation) was very good. God created man in his own image and claimed his created as “good.” It is only after the fall of man that evil entered into the heart of man.

31  God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning--the sixth day.
Genesis 1:31 (NIV)

At the core of Gnostic teaching is knowledge, especially secret knowledge. This special knowledge could only be passed on to those who were worthy of ascending to the place of knowledge. This knowledge would allow a person to eventually ascend past the physical world into the spiritual world and become godlike.

If we know or have secret knowledge about something or someone we have power over them. This information allows us to control them. Ancient religions believed if we knew the true name of something (or someone) it allowed us to control that item or person.

The more knowledge the less in control we really are. The more knowledge we have the more we are controlled by pride (1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 2:15-16). Our problem as believers is not that we need more information. No our problem is not a lack of knowledge but rather a lack of application of the knowledge that we already know.

While there were many different Gnostic beliefs the main ones consisted of the fact that Christ was less than God but higher than any other spiritual being. The lowest of the spiritual beings was Jehovah who created the physical world and was therefore the creator of evil.

Christ was a spirit who descended on the man Jesus at his baptism and when Jesus was arrested the spirit of Christ left him. Therefore while Jesus physical body died Christ did not die. He tricked Satan into killing Jesus.

Another belief is that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and was revived after he was taken down. The licentious stream believed after the cross that Jesus married and had children.

The other group (the legalists) believed that Christ would never marry much less have children because the flesh was evil. This group spiritualized the concept of the bride and the acts of procreation to mean the spiritual bride and converts were known as children.   

I have read many of the Gnostic writings and can attest to the fact that their quality of writing and concepts are not even close to those found in the New Testament canon. Most of these writings are not complete and are almost child-like in their construction and content.

The vast majority of these works are in Coptic and ancient Egyptian language and were found in Egypt. The only copies of these works were written in the end of the third century and fourth century. No early copies of these works exist in earlier centuries. Of additional interest to me is that this fragment has no provenance and casts serious doubt over its authenticity.

A former professor of mine made the following comments regarding Gnosticism and the recent fragment that has made the news.

Sensationalism catches the interest the news media and sometimes Christians get worried about such sensational news reports. Please do not worry about such accounts. Such ideas are not new, and calling Mary Jesus' wife is Dr. King's translation for the Coptic idea of companion. The Gnostics had ideas that intimacy with the divine was best expressed in sexual terms so that in the Coptic Gnostic Gospel of Philip the highest sacrament was called the Bridal Chamber. Gnostics believed that intimacy with God was to be understood sexually. 

These late 3rd - 4th century and following documents were hardly accepted by the Church as authentic representative expressions of portraits of Jesus.
Dr. Gerald Borchert, IWS Trustee and Professor Emeritus

John wrote the Gospel of John to proclaim that Christ had come in the flesh and was not simply a spiritual being.

1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2  He was with God in the beginning.    
3  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
4  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
5  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.    
John 1:1-5 (NIV)

14  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.    
John 1:14 (NIV)

The First Epistle of John was written to refute that Christ Jesus had not come in the flesh.

1  Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
2  This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,
3  but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.    
1 John 4:1-3 (NIV)

Paul also addressed this in his letter to the Galatians.

6  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--
7  which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
8  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!
9  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!    
Galatians 1:6-9 (NIV)

While this is at best a quick overview of the problem of Gnosticism I hope that it will help address the needs of the faith community where you are.

A final note of caution, please remember that apologetics is a wonderful tool for helping to build up the wavering faith of believers it is not an evangelistic tool. No one has ever been argued into heaven. Only the Spirit drawing people to God the Father through the sharing of the Gospel will bring people into the Kingdom of God.

All for the Kingdom

Pastor Val

1 comment:

Dwight said...

"I have read many of the Gnostic writings and can attest to the fact that their quality of writing and concepts are not even close to those found in the New Testament canon. Most of these writings are not complete and are almost child-like in their construction and content."

Interesting to note that newer Gnostic-based writing such as Dan Brown's DaVinci Code is similar. Perhaps more sophisticated, but still very child-like in its construction.