Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 2: Defining Gnosticism

| By Mark H. Mann

In my previous blog, I offered a sympathetic critique of a recent op-ed piece in which the authors called for the integration of Christian faith and secular forms of knowledge, such as science, as an alternative to the anti-intellectualism of many conservative religious groups in America. In my response, I argued that science is just as much a Christian way of learning about and understanding the world as it is a secular way, and that a more appropriate way of understanding anti-scientific attitudes among such groups is in terms of the resurgence of an ancient Christian heresy called Gnosticism. Defining historical Gnosticism will be the main thrust of this blog, while in the next I will identify ways that resurgent Gnosticism can be found in anti-scientific attitudes among some Christian groups today. However, before we dive into our discussion of Gnosticism, I first need to clarify a couple matters based upon issues raised in the wonderful comments many of you made after my first blog.

First, I mean no disrespect toward those who hold views typically identified with Christian fundamentalism. My relationship with Christ has been profoundly shaped by numerous persons who identify themselves as fundamentalists, including members of my own family. I have learned much about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus from them—both by their lives of faithful service and their commitment to education and the life of the mind. I also feel deep sympathy for certain aspects of the fundamentalist aversion to the way that science has been used (and abused!) in the modern era. I find it intellectually irresponsible the way that science has been used as a kind of bludgeon to depict believers as mindless idiots, and especially those with fundamentalist leanings. I also consider it naïvely unhelpful when non-religious people claim that religious people can, for instance, quite easily ‘believe in God and evolution’ as if it were as simple as having cake and ice cream for dessert. While I am convinced that one can be a faithful Christian and believe in science (even macroevolution!), I also recognize the challenges that scientific theories such as Darwinism present to certain aspects of traditional Christian faith.

Second, I need to clarify my use of the term ‘heresy’. This term has a long and complex history, and has often been used to demonize others, so we should certainly use it with care. Nevertheless, it can also be a helpful concept for understanding the history of Christian theology. The early church wrestled with many important theological doctrines, such as the Triune nature of God, or the dual nature of Christ. In many cases, the church reached decisive conclusions about these issues that were formalized into creeds (such as the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed) that came to define what we call Christian orthodoxy, or “right belief/worship”. So, the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) together helped the early church define the doctrine of the Trinity, affirming that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons who co-equally and co-eternally share a single, common essence. This is admittedly a complex teaching, and can be difficult to understand and explain. So, it should be no surprise that I would occasionally find my students espousing descriptions of the Trinity that were flatly rejected as unorthodox (that is, ‘heretical’) by the early church. I know that my students only desire to be faithful Christians, and are merely struggling to explain a very complex and mysterious truth. So, it is my responsibility as a theologian, professor, and Christian to educate them about the teachings of their own tradition, and help them see more clearly what scripture and the church have to say about who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and why this doctrine is important to Christian faith.

Third, the problem with teachings once defined as heretical, is that they just don’t disappear, but have a tendency to re-emerge from time to time. So, some liberal modernists reject the full divinity of Christ, and are therefore clearly out of step with historical Christian orthodoxy, and hold beliefs that the early church defined as the heresy of Ebionism. This is what I have meant in pointing out the fact that certain Gnostic ideas have reemerged in the tendency among many fundamentalists to distrust the findings of science.

Gnosticism was a widespread and amorphous spiritual and religious movement in the Greco-Roman world influenced by a wide variety of philosophical and mystical traditions of the pagan world. It began to exert influence on Christianity almost from the moment that the apostles first began to take the gospel to the Gentile world. So, we find a response to Gnostic ideas in some of the New Testament writings (especially I & II Timothy and Titus), as well as the development of specifically Gnostic gospels, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Such was the influence of early Gnosticism in the early church that it led to the development of the first New Testament canon in the mid-second century (our current New Testament canon was not officially formalized until the 4th century) and one prominent Gnostic named Valentinus was apparently a candidate to become bishop in Rome around the same time. By the end of the 2nd century, many Christian Gnostics had split off from the mainstream church, surviving as a kind of alternative brand or denomination of Christianity, though some overlap remained until the early 4th century. At this point, with the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the development of official, government sanctioned orthodoxy, the mainstream church undertook considerable effort to stamp out Gnosticism.

Gnostics, including those who considered themselves Christians, held to a wide variety of teachings, but a few key beliefs were affirmed by all Gnostics. [Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies is the best contemporary account of Christian Gnostic teachings, including those of Valentinus, and can be found here.] First, they believed that the Supreme Deity (God) was utterly transcendent, immaterial, immutable, and impassionate. Second, they believed that the material universe was created by some lesser deity or being (often called the Demiurge) out of ignorance or as a kind of cosmic mistake. Thus, Gnostics generally held a pretty negative view of the physical world, treating it as a realm of evil and ignorance. This presents us with a serious problem, claimed Gnostics, because each of us has (or, more properly, is) a soul that has become separated from its true home with God and trapped within a physical body within this world of materiality, ignorance and evil. To make matters worse, the ways that we naturally learn as physically bound beings is through our senses, which are directed toward and therefore can only give us knowledge about the petty and/or evil matters of the material world. In other words, our senses only lead us deeper into the dungeon of our ignorance.

Of course, Gnostics taught that there is a way out of the dungeon: Gnosis, which is Greek for ‘knowledge’ and the source of the name given to those professing these beliefs. That is, true Gnostics are those who possessknowledge! And we are not talking about just any knowledge. Obviously it cannot be gained through observation or study of the physical world. And, according to most Gnostics, our minds are so bent and twisted by their attachment to our physical bodies, that we cannot reason our way to the Truth, either. Instead, to be saved we need to receive special knowledge, typically through a teacher or sacred text, which is otherwise not available. For Christian Gnostics, this is why Jesus is important—he was sent by the Father (the Supreme Deity and not the Creator, who is the one who holds us in bondage) to reveal this special knowledge and free the enslaved from their imprisonment. Jesus accomplished this by revealing special, ‘secret’ knowledge to a handful of disciples whom he then sent to share this gospel with others. This is the theme of Gnostic gospels such as of Judas and Magdalene: Jesus has given these two oft-derided disciples special gnosis, while withholding it from other disciples, and their task is to pass it on to those worthy to receive it.

The early church rejected Gnosticism for several reasons. For one thing, Gnostics tended to believe that Jesus, as an emissary of the spiritual realm, only ‘appeared’ to have a physical body, and therefore neither was fully human nor suffered and died for us on the cross. Indeed, it would have been anathema to think that the true Son of God might become incarnate and take on a horrid physical body. Gnostics also tended to distinguish between the God revealed in Jesus and the one who created this world and who had a covenantal relationship with Israel. Why, for instance, would the Supreme Deity have created this filthy, evil physical world, or what interest would the True God have with bodily existence as expressed in all of the Jewish food and purity laws? Moreover, there is no way that the perfect and unchanging God of Spiritual Freedom and Love revealed in Jesus would ever change his mind or get angry or jealous, as God is often depicted of doing in the ‘Hebrew’ scriptures.

In response, the early Church embraced its heritage and continuity with Israel and the Old Testament and affirmed that there is only One God, the Father of Jesus, who had created a good and wondrous world to express his glory and love. Moreover, they affirmed a fully incarnational Christology: Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human, taking upon himself all that comes with being human--including hunger, emotions, temptation, and death—except without sin (Heb. 4:15).

Hopefully this brief introduction to Gnosticism proves a sufficient foundation for our discussion of how Gnostic attitudes have emerged in contemporary anti-scientific attitudes among some Christians. If not, please let me know what is unclear or confusing, and I will do my best to provide clarification.


About the Author

Mark H. Mann

Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.