Fundamentally Gnostic

Gnosticism and its influence

Gnosticism and Us

More than we care to admit, we are influenced by platonic thought [the body is a prison to the soul] and Gnosticism [the physical and spiritual worlds are inviolably separate]. And a number of texts can be read to imply such meaning. For example, 2Pe 2:10 speaks of those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires. And Ro 8:3 references ‘sinful flesh.’

In Gnosticism, the physical and spiritual worlds are inviolably separate. Paul addressed Gnosticism in seminal form. A sophisticated belief system, Gnosticism displayed itself in differing forms wherever it was established.

Incipient Gnosticism

In Corinth, Gnosticism took on a very base form. Since the spiritual world [the soul] and the physical world [the body] are separate, it doesn’t matter what you do with the body. ‘Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food’ [1Co 6:13]! Since my soul is hidden with God in Christ, it doesn’t matter what I do with my body.

In Colosse, Gnosticism took on a very ascetic form. Since the spirit is what mattered, the body should be starved of its affections. They delighted in self-abasement [Co 2:18, 21, 23], practiced man-made rules that treated the body harshly — but had no spiritual power.

Someone in the Corinthian church believed incest was acceptable. At Colosse, this would be considered abhorrent. But whether it led to fleshy ‘indulgence’ or ‘denial,’ the common link was the separation of the material and spiritual worlds which is the Gnostic heresy.

And Sunday Services are different because ……………

Gnosticism and Christianity

‘Christian Gnostics’ try to merge these differing belief systems. There are Gnostic interpretations of the gospels and other texts. And there are ‘Gnostic gospels.’ Gnosticism is recognized as an heresy, but the church never quite eliminated it entirely. We’ve never been as good at recognizing Gnostic heresies as say the Arian-Sabellian family of heresies.

Nothing is helped by our ignorance of this belief system, especially since Gnosticism seems to be undergoing a resurgence. Yet a strain of Christianity still regards the body as a prison of the soul. There, the ‘gospel’ serves to free souls [‘save’ them] from the corruptions of the flesh. And Fundamentalism seems particularly vulnerable to this.

Gnosticism Today

If you’ve ever heard, ‘forget feeding the hungry and save the soul,’ if you’ve ever heard ‘the body is for a few years, but the soul is for eternity,’ those are Gnostic ideas. If you’ve ever heard Col 2:21 mishandled to affirm ‘do not handle/taste/touch’ rules, the same applies.

Shaming and/or treating the body unsparingly and demanding a practice of strict asceticism — all this would get cheering Gnostics on their feet.

Paul is utterly clear that such man-made rules/religious precepts have NO value to restrain fleshly indulgence [Co 2:23]. Myriads of fundamentalist sermons contradict this and make Paul a liar. Were an intelligent Gnostic well studied in the Gnostic interpretation of the Bible to align with an IFB sect, few preachers would sense anything wrong with their belief system.

Answering Gnosticism

The obvious answer to Gnosticism is Jesus Christ in whom ‘all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form’ [Co 2:9]. In the incarnation, God who is spirit assumes flesh. But if so, Gnosticism is finished. While Christian Fundamentalists confess Jesus’ incarnation, few have any clue what this means theologically. They’ve no idea how to use the incarnation to ply apart the spirit/material dualism selling Gnosticism as Fundamentalism.

Further study

While I’ve not read the whole thing and won’t vouch for every argument made, an intelligent and insightful paper looks more extensively at the similarities between Gnosticism and Christian Fundamentalism. Fundies who review it may the discussion of Gnosticism strangely familiar.

A Church of Fundamental Faithlessness

A clear demonstration of the meaning and power of God's kingdom intention.
A clear demonstration of the meaning, power and soteriological intent of the kingdom of God.

If we see Kingdom justice and Gospel righteousness as an ‘either/or,’ we might want to rethink a few things. More easily said than done. Why?

Luke 4x18-19

Whenever justice is mentioned, panic erupts. Accusations of heresy follow. Could the intention be to retain earthly systems of power and authority intact? Recall the uproar caused by Jesus’ birth:

‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’ [Mt 2:3].

What produced Herod’s distress if not his deep reliance ON Caesar’s authority? And Jerusalem’s distress: why did good Jewish believers react the same way to Jesus’ birth unless it was because they as much as Herod were deeply invested in that earthly power system called imperial Rome?

Another GospelPreaching, teaching, reinterpreting the law and the prophets, miracles and healing, exorcisms, raising Lazarus, controversies with temple bosses, lawyers and pharisees — Jesus continually resisted the powers of this age! That was his agenda, which makes it our agenda. We can sympathize with council’s exasperation with Jesus:

“If we let him go on like this, all men will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place [jobs, status] and our nation.” [Jo 11:48].

The kingdom that Jesus embodied evoked a faith incompatible with the powers of this age. That’s the thing. We know where Jesus’ agenda took him; we know where it will take us. An exasperated Thomas put it best:

‘”Let us also go, so that we may die with him”‘ [Jo 11:16]!

And what of us?

Do not we separate kingdom and Gospel in order to avoid confronting the earthly powers of War, Famine, Pestilence and Death in Jesus’ Name? Is that not why no less than Jerusalem, Herod, the council or Thomas, many of us are dismayed by a mere mention of kingdom or justice?

What if Gospel fidelity isn’t at issue at all? What if it is a frantic desire to escape the potentially lethal consequences OF faithfulness to the King?

What if the issue is that our devotion and loyalty to Caesar runs deeper than our commitment to the risen Lord of Creation, Jesus Christ?

What if the interest is to preserve our deep investment in that earthly power system called ‘Capitalism’ or the ‘United States of America?’

What if the issue is that we have confidence in the United States military than in the promises of God to keep and preserve us?

What if it is that the narrative of American Exceptionalism of Manifest Destiny is more compelling for us than Jesus’ death and resurrection?

What if our ‘trust’ is invested in our political system and its functionary head of state, in our national economy, in our military, in our stories of and belief in American greatness? What if these are the idols to which we cling bow down in reverence? What if that is our de facto religion and all that remains of our ‘faith’ are platitudes about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, a gospel offer of forgiveness, and future blessedness?

Such a ‘faith’ incarnates nothing, disturbs nothing, challenges nothing. Since this ‘kingdom’ has no earthly implications [for the present at least], there is no reason it should cause an uproar.

Perhaps Caesar, Herod, the Jerusalem city and council, scribes and pharisees understood better than many fundies and evangelicals the import of Christ’s presence. That may be a good reason to ponder the view of kingdom and of Christian/nation relations in another post.

Grace for a Broken World I

Pray for the World

Christie Thomas makes a spiritual practice of something I’ve long thought should be a spiritual practice. And while it isn’t my own practice, I wish it had more exposure. Ms. Thomas’ days begin with newspaper reading and prayer over world crises. There is plenty for which to pray. Ms. Thomas lists these points.

We have unstable world leaders with fingers too close to weapons of mass destruction.

We have terrorist cells scattered everywhere, caring for no one except their need to destroy others and bring in their own versions of “heaven” with them as kings and rulers.

We have grinding poverty shoving hard-working people face-down to the barren ground.

We have an over-sugared world exploding the epidemic of metabolic diseases, the most common being diabetes.

We have political leaders who have no concept of the common good, driven instead by personal ambition and a need to take down the “other,” whomever that may be.

Ms. Thomas’ post also observes that:

And we have a Christian church that . . . well, it does do a lot of real good, but primarily turns inward on itself, arguing over minutia, seeing its own power plays and back-room dealings.

Poverty [including food insecurity and public health] and political failure [the erosion of democracy and rise of militant extremism] are grave issues. They work injustice and havoc worldwide.

And the church? It does do much good. Years ago, I learned that the Seventh Day Adventists maintain a world-class flying hospital that can land anywhere on earth within 24 hours.

Yet many church bodies do spend reserves on minutia. Others deem kingdom life as a distraction or heresy. Darrin Yeager notes that 1Co 15:1-4 sums the gospel in terms of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Then he adds:

‘Strange. No mention of social justice, or regulating inputs and outputs; Paul must have been negligent in failing to mention the heart of the Gospel.’

1Co 15:3-4 was a very early church creed. With resurrection being denied, [1Co 15:12ff], Paul very reasonably replies with 1Co 15:3-4. Does that make Jesus’ death and resurrection a case against kingdom justice? Hardly. And what Mr. Yeager says Paul ‘neglected’ to ‘mention,’ Peter proclaims freely in Cornelius’ house:

“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him’ [Ac 10:38].

Peter weaves kingdom life with Jesus’ death and resurrection into a seamless narrative [Ac 10:39-43].  It is bookmarked on both ends by the Spirit’s presence and power  [‘anointing with the Holy Spirit…God was with him’ (v. 38) cf. ‘the Holy Spirit fell on them’ (v. 44)]. There is no Gnostic kingdom/gospel dichotomy here. Nor should there be with us.