America's Gnosticized Evangelical Church

"As well as I can....I will briefly and clearly describe the position of the present false teachers....I am neither practiced in writing nor trained in rhetoric, but my love for you and yours encourages me to bear my witness about these teachings which have been hidden till the present, but have now by the grace of God come to light."  (Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, 130-200, in 'Against Heresies')

The false teachers were Gnostic Christians.   St. Paul called them the "super-apostles," the spiritual elitists who sought to accommodate the faith to paganism in spite of the apostle Paul's warning to converted pagans in Corinth:

"What harmony is there between Christ and Belial....between the temple of God and idols?" (2 Cor. 6:15-16) or between "the lord's table and the table of demons?" (1 Cor. 1021)  

Like its' modern Gnostic evangelical counterpart that seeks to grow the church and save souls by accommodating the faith to the felt-needs of America's paganized seeker-sensitive culture, ancient Gnosticism attempted to incorporate the seeker-sensitive spirituality of the Greeks into Christianity.

In his book,  "The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back," Dr. Peter Jones, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California, writes that the resulting perversion, 'Christian Gnosticism,' is a form of mystical Christian spirituality blended together with paganism. (p.6)

Where Dr. Jones clearly sees that occult New Age spirituality is Gnosticism returned with a vengeance, a many-headed Gnostic monster intent on obliterating supernatural Christian faith, the highly esteemed political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-85) identified certain modern secular movements as revised variants of neo-pagan Gnosticism.  In "Science, Politics and Gnosticism," he identifies them as positivism, Hegelianism, Marxism, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and the 'God is dead' school.

Our age is an age of Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnostic tendencies have been entering into the Protestant church for many long years.  The self-described Gnostic Jew, Harold Bloom,  a professor at Yale and New York Universities and author of more than 20 books including 'The American Religion" (1992) is delighted by the fall of Protestantism into Gnosticism and in response to Philip J. Lee's book, "Against the Protestant Gnostics," a profoundly penetrating analysis of Gnosticism within both the Protestant liberal and Protestant evangelical church, Bloom said:

"He (Lee) sees what I see, the American Religion, but what fascinates me moves him to dread and wrath, whether he encounters it among liberal or Fundamentalist Protestants."  (Preface to Against the Protestant Gnostics, p. xi)

In the essay, "The New Gnosticism," ( Michael Horton, Ph.D., J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California delineates the main features of both ancient Christian Gnosticism and its' modern counterpart, Gnostic Protestantism.  Horton begins with old Gnosticism.

Old Gnosticism

1. Eclectic and polymorphic.  As Philip Lee observes,

"Gnostic syncretism...believes everything in general for the purpose of avoiding a belief in something in particular. In the case of Christian Gnosticism, what is being avoided is the particularity of the Gospel, that which is a 'stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles." (Philip Lee, p. 80)

Horton agrees with Dr. Jones that Gnosticism emerged as a form of mystical Christian spirituality blended together with Greek paganism:

" We recall Paul in Athens, in the Areopagus, where "people did nothing but discuss the latest ideas" (Acts 17:21), telling the Greeks that they were "very religious." Gnosticism was an attempt to incorporate the seeker spirituality of the Greeks into Christianity."

2. Elitist, individualistic, and subjective (morally relative):

The gnostikoi (elites) were repelled by the ordinariness of the Christian "masses" and  "found orthodoxy boring." Rituals (i.e., Communion), traditions, and simple expositions of biblical texts  "for uneducated audiences" were offensive to their exalted intellects.  As spiritual elites who knew better than God, they required differentiation between themselves and the "herd." (Lee, p. 162)

3. Immanence (pantheism) over transcendence:

"... the Gnostic stresses God's nearness over his distant holiness and sovereignty. In fact, the individual self is a "spark" of the One (God). As one scholar puts it, "The self is the indwelling of God."  (Horton)

4. Spirit over matter:

" Sometimes called in our day "mind over matter," the Greek and Gnostic worldview is dualistic. That is, it divides the world into matter (evil) and spirit (good). Evil, suffering, illness and death are all attributed to the existence of matter and the "Fall" was not from innocence to rebellion (as in the biblical account), but from pure spirit to physical bodies. Imprisoned in a material world, the self is alienated from its true home. This theme of a war between Light and Darkness, Spirit and Matter, the Divine Within and the World Outside, and the sense of alienation, despair, loneliness and abandonment in the physical world, is the recurring key to understanding Gnosticism.  In our day, Matthew Fox, repeating the warning of self-described Gnostic psychologist C. J. Jung, expresses this sentiment well: "One way to kill the soul is to worship a God outside you." (ibid, Horton)

5. Anti-institutional orientation:

"Associated with matter and the physical imprisonment of the self, institutions are viewed as spiritual enemies. The Outside God and the Outside Church are enemies of the soul, directing the self away from one's own inner experience to others and to formal structures of authority, creeds, doctrines, rituals and sacraments." (ibid)

6. Anti-sacramental:

"If the self enjoyed a direct and immediate relationship with God's Spirit, and knowledge came through a secret revelation of a mystical nature, surely the introduction of material means of grace-the printed word (accessible to everyone), water (in Baptism), and bread and wine (the Eucharist)-actually become impediments to real fellowship with God. They are insufficiently "spiritual" for Gnostic piety, as rebirth (a prominent Gnostic theme) is by the Spirit in opposition to matter. Furthermore, the gnosis (Revelation Knowledge) was based on the idea that only a few really knew the secrets, while Christianity's emphasis on Word and sacrament, available to anyone who could read or eat, challenged this private, spiritual elitism." (ibid)

7. Anti-historical and focused on escape:

As spirit is opposed to matter, and individual inwardness is opposed to an institutional church, eternity is opposed to time. Salvation for the Gnostic is redemption from the body, institutions, and the grinding process of history into which the pure self is mercilessly thrown." (ibid)

8. Anti-Jewish:

" While biblical religion focused on God's personal involvement with the world in creation and redemption, through the bloody sacrifices that anticipated the Messiah, Gnosticism harbored a deep distrust of the Old Testament God. In fact, two Gnostic sects appear in this connection. Marcion (d. A.D. 160) rejected the Old Testament entirely on the basis that it represented a wrathful Judge who created matter and imprisoned souls in history, while the New Testament God (Jesus) was the God of Love. The Creator-God (Old Testament) and the Redeemer-God (New Testament) were viewed as opposites in Marcionism. In addition to the Old Testament, Luke's Gospel and Paul's epistles underwent radical revisions." (ibid)

9. Feminist and androgynous:

" Ancient Gnosticism... divided the world into spirit and matter as columns of "good" and "bad." They defined characteristics of femininity as love, freedom, affirmation, and nurture, and these were in the "good" column, while those of masculinity were defined as justice, law, wrath, and strength, and put in the "bad" column. This is in sharp contrast to the Christian God who, in both Testaments, is a good, gracious, loving and saving, as well as just, holy and sovereign Father. "Sophia," the Greek word for "wisdom," after the goddess of wisdom, became the "God" of many Gnostics. The 13th-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote, "What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth," and this image is replete in the mystical literature." (ibid, Horton) 

"Ancient Gnosticism," Lee writes, "loathed the patriarchal and authoritarian qualities of official Christianity. From the Gnostic point of view, the structure and discipline of the Church stifled the spirit." (p. 158).

The antipathy toward nature (God's creation) was reflected in the Gnostic celebration of the "androgynous (i.e.,  sexless or 'gay') self." While the body (evil matter) may be either male or female, the spirit is "free."

Gnosis is not only anti-historical and morally relative but anti-intellectual and feelings-oriented.  This is why St. Irenaeus called it "pseudo-knowledge" and Paul told Timothy it was "knowledge falsely called" (1 Tm 6:20) as it preferred "heart knowledge" (feelings) to "head knowledge," (morally informed reason, logic, apologetics) although Christianity knew no such dichotomy.

New Gnosticism: trends, religious expressions and tendencies

1. Narcissism:

"....what the Bible calls 'forgiveness' is received not from the Almighty...but from the self....Self-loving-self is the primary pattern of grace.  When such eternal significance is given to a narcissistic 'human experience' and we see such implicit Gnosticizing of the human personality, we can only say what Irenaeus in exasperation was forced to say of Valentinus: 'Iu, Iu, Pheu, Pheu!" (Lee, p. 152) 

2. Elitism

While orthodoxy maintains that all who receive baptism, repent of their sins, confess the creed, participate in the Eucharist and agree to obey the Church are Christians, the Gnosticized evangelical church heaps,

"...ridicule on those mere Christians who only attend weekly services.  Apparently, there is no one more worthless than the weekly church-goer who simply sits in the pew and drops something in the offering plate..."  On the other hand, the real Christians, the worthwhile ones, "are those who become involved in mission studies (and) take part in organizational activities..." There is little doubt that such differentiation between involved (real) Christians and the ordinary nominal Christians, "is a classic example of elitism, an insult to thousands of simple, non-organizational Protestants who desire the Word and Sacraments and other means of grace (in a simple, ordinary church) and who on a day-to-day basis witness to the faith in their homes and on the job."   (Lee, pp. 265-266)

Ordinary Christians and ordinary congregations have been made to feel inferior to Gnosticized "innovative ministries, mission fields and other more avant-garde endeavors."   Against the extravagant elitism of Gnosticized born again evangelicalism, "there must emerge within Protestantism an appreciation of ordinary Christians.  The emphasis should be precisely on participation in the liturgy.  All other ecclesiastical functions are secondary and responsive to the Church's essential gathering about Christ's Table." (ibid)

3. Irreverence, irrelevance and therapeutic messages:

 "...preaching (has) turned from the objective emphasis on God's saving work in Christ, to techniques for self- improvement, psychologically and morally conceived. Considered too offensive for the immortal and innocent self, the Law was not suitable for preaching unless it could be shown that it was somehow beneficial for personal transformation. Divine commands had to be seen as attainable and reasonable principles for self-enhancement and universal love. Damnation was entirely out of place as a purpose for the Law, or for any sociable discourse. Similarly, the Gospel, hardly distinguishable now from the Gnostic law, became a secret formula (gnosis) for rebirth, self-realization, and the personal unmediated experience with the Divine. This was true equally for liberals and evangelicals, Unitarians and revivalists, as well as for the many Gnostic cults that were born in this environment (Christian Science, Unity, Adventism, etc.), however differently each may have stated it." (Michael Horton)

4. A Christ who does not redeem but merely reveals:

"Ironically...the liberal Christology has not been substantially different from that of the evangelicals.  In one important respect, the two polarities have....come together: both essentially proclaim a Christ who does not redeem."  Though Christ is given center stage "He is not responsible for the Creation.  He is not the Incarnate God who...has access to all persons alike: Muslims, Jews, atheists, Hindus, as well as Christians.  He is not empowered to bring healing to the world....The Jesus of this mind-set must be known in order to effect change; his only function is to bring saving knowledge." (Lee, p 107)

 Another way to shed light on the Gnostic tendency to regard Christ as revealer only is to observe the Protestant fascination with technique.  There are techniques for church growth, conversion and for saving paganized postmoderns:

"Both liberals and evangelicals disdain doctrine for personal experience, and objective truth for personal transformation, and in this sense, each is, in its own way, Gnostic."  (Michael Horton)

5. Rebirth or magical Gnosticized born againism---immediate purification (perfection) of the soul.  Horton comments:

"...the experience of "rebirth" comes neither through the Word of the Gospel nor through the water of Baptism, but through a "Spirit Baptism" that is direct and immediate. The Word is primarily seen as an instrument for coaxing the individual into accepting the new birth. The new birth, especially if one judges by the testimonies of converts, is not so much the result of hearing with human ears, in human words, a declaration of things that happened in human history. In short, it is not so much the preaching of the Cross, but the preaching of "my personal relationship with Jesus," the day when "Jesus came into my heart," that is central."

Philip Lee:

"Whereas classical Calvinism had held that the Christian's assurance of salvation was guaranteed only through Christ and his Church, with his means of grace, now assurance could be found only in the personal experience of having been born again. This was a radical shift, for Calvin had considered any attempt to put 'conversion in the power of man himself' to be gross popery." In fact, "Rebirth in God is the exact opposite of rebirth into a new and more acceptable self, as the self-acclaimed born again Christians would see the event" (pp. 144, 255).

Horton again:

"Also in terms of their views of Christ, liberals and evangelicals reveal a common Gnostic tendency. While the liberals divided the Jesus of History... from the Christ of Faith (resurrected God-Man), proclaiming that the Spirit of Christ lives and calls us into vital communion even though his body is not raised, evangelicals often seem to worship the spirit of Jesus apart from his humanity. "Jesus in my heart," at the end of the day, is more important for personal Christian experience, piety, and worship than Jesus in history. Although evangelicals insist on a historical resurrection as a matter of official creed, in actual practice, one wonders why it is important if the spirit of Jesus is in one's heart? After all, no one believes that Jesus takes up physical residence in one's heart, so what can we mean by "asking Jesus into our heart" other than inviting his spirit? Little is said of the biblical notion that it is the Holy Spirit who unites us not to the spirit of Jesus in our hearts, but to the God-Man in heaven according to both his divine and human natures."

6. Faith is magic:

In Orthodox Christianity, faith is trust in God's specific promise of salvation through Christ. "In Gnosticism, faith is magic. It is a technique for getting what we want by believing in it strongly enough."  As church-growth guru C. Peter Wagner, an advocate of the Vineyard movement puts it, "Empirical evidence also validates the absolute necessity of faith or whatever else you want to call it-possibility thinking or goal setting-as a prerequisite for church growth."  (Horton)

Gnosticized faith turns out to be a synonym for humanist possibility thinking, church growth and missional ambitions.   Against this, the Second Helvetic Confession (a 16th century Reformed statement) declares,

"Christian faith is not an opinion or human conviction, but a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles' Creed, and thus also of God himself, the greatest good, and especially of God's promise and of Christ who is the fulfillment of all promises."

7. Immutable truth, moral absolutes, creeds, doctrines, traditions, obedience and institutions divide people, especially narcissists for whom:

 "Spirit is the inner, experiential aspect of religion; institution is the outer, established form of religion. This distinction is increasingly pertinent because of the strong emphasis on self in contemporary culture and the related shift from objective to subjective ways of ordering experience."  Orthodox Christian theism, "is too restricting, but spirituality offers a way of plugging into the divine with the correct spiritual technology." (Horton) 

In other words, the purpose of the church is not liturgy, sacraments and other means of grace but the impartation of elitist therapeutic knowledge; it is not of sin and salvation by Christ's atonement, but of elitist techniques for successful Christian living, church growth and missions. It is purely narcissistic and individualistic as well as pseudo-moralistic. The church that scorns ordinary Christians in favor of accommodating paganized seekers is the church that 'grows' and this is the Gnosticized church that meets the felt-needs and appetites of seekers and offers and delivers more gnosis-saving techniques than others.

From its' beginning, the Church has always been distressed by heresies, and Gnosticism has been one of the most dangerous and destructive of all heresies.  And though the Gnosticized contemporary Protestant Church appears to be a hopeless case,  Philip Lee advises us not to conclude that the problems and heresies plaguing the Church are overwhelming or insoluble.  Renewal can occur, but only if and when,

"...Protestants are prepared to be honestly critical of their own religion, and then determine to do something about it." (p. 218)

The appointed place for the beginning of renewal, of any reform or purification of the Church must be the pulpit,

"...the platform from which that Word contrary to all our mistaken words is proclaimed.  Any successful foray against heresy must be launched from that spot.  In fact, insofar as the historical Church has been serious about combating false faith, Gospel preaching has been her primary weapon.....What could be more Protestant than to begin a new reformation with the preaching of the Word?" (ibid)

@Linda Kimball