Gnosticism in its various forms has been remarkably persistent in the history of the church. Both the apostles Paul and John dealt with early forms of it in their epistles, and Irenaeus of Lyons critiqued it in Against Heresies. A number of surviving “Gnostic Gospels” date from the second through fourth centuries. As Justin Holcomb points out in his recent book Know the Heretics, the influence of Gnosticism continues to this day and has filtered down into popular culture. ______________
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls has given weight to a perception that Jesus’ teachings were hijacked by an institutionalized, patriarchal church in the fourth century, because it seems as though there is secret information about Jesus that mainstream Christianity has been withholding. Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, to cite only one example, appeals to information from the Gnostic gospels as factual truth. The character Sir Leigh Teabing, an expert on early Christianity, describes the suppression of the Gnostics by the church: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.”(1) Teabing then blunders, however, when he says, “The early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.”(2) Ironically, the problem with the Gnostics was exactly the opposite–the church had to fight to show that Jesus was human and material against groups that would accept only his divinity.
Gnosticism has made a surprising spiritual renaissance. Gnostic churches have been established (3) and writings about Gnosticism are currently in vogue in bookstores. Although the strong asceticism that characterized some early forms of Gnosticism is almost entirely lacking today, Gnosticism has also contributed to New Age spirituality. Consider the promise of a book featured on Oprah in recent years called The Secret: “Without The Power you would not have been born. Without The Power, there wouldn’t be a single human being on the planet. Every discovery, invention and human creation comes from The Power. Perfect health, incredible relationships, a career you love, a life filled with happiness, and the money you need to be, do and have everything you want, all come from The Power.”(4)
“The Power” is classic Gnosticism–a silent, supreme god that also lives inside of you and who will allow you to become as powerful as you wish. Often, as in Gnosticism, a Jesus separate from the God of Israel is featured in New Age beliefs as a spirit guide or key to enlightenment, but never as a Lord who calls for repentance and dependence on the Savior’s life, death and resurrection.(5)
What sets Christianity apart from Gnosticism is that in Christ, the supreme character of the once-hidden God has now been definitively and exhaustively revealed, so much so that Jesus could tell his followers that those who had seen him had seen his Father. There is no God that remains hidden from plain sight or reserved for an elite, enlightened group of people. Instead, Christ has made supreme knowledge of God available in his life, death and resurrection, and that knowledge was written and recounted in the Christian Scriptures that testify to Christ.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 that the message of Christ, not ourselves, is supreme: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
(1) Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Random House, 2003), 251.
(2) Ibid., 266. There were a few groups where this was true. The Ebionites, of which we know very little (and mostly from Irenaeus), apparently believed that Jesus was only a good human being.
(3) See www.gnosis.org.
(4) From the official website of The Secret and The Power, http://thesecret.tv/thepower/.
(5) For a good guide to how Gnosticism has affected American religion, see Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).
The Tolle Lege (“Take up and read”) series focuses on excerpts from notable books in philosophy, theology, apologetics, and related areas.