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Gnosticsm & the Proclamation of Christianity with special reference to John's Gospel (Cont)


Let's list some of the 'uncertainties' to start with :

Atonement : How can we believe that the death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth, on a Roman crucifix- put away a world's sins? How can that death have any bearing on God's forgiveness of our sins today?

Resurrection : How can we believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead? Is not a theory of resuscitation by His disciples after severe trauma, or the stealing of the body, or 'just one of those myths' that proliferate in ancient religions, easier to credit than the Christian doctrine of resurrection?

Virgin birth : How can we believe in the virgin birth as described in the Bible?

But I have not finished !

What about the miracles? How can one believe that He walked on the water, fed 5,000, raised the dead?

Yet these are not the real difficulties, the big uncertainties. The supreme mystery that the Gospels confront us with does not lie here. Neither does it lie in the Good Friday message of Atonement, or in the Easter message of Resurrection. The supreme mystery is the Christmas message of the Incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made Man and that He became human without loss of deity, i.e. Jesus Christ was as truly and fully divine as He was human.

C.S. Lewis answers to some of these questions in a small but excellent and very readable book : "Mere Christianity", (Collins fontana books, 1966). It cost Graham 3 shillings and 6 pence when he was still at school. You will also like "Surprised by Joy", about his progress from Atheism to Christianity, see [49].

Also, Helmut Thielke (a remarkable German theologian) in "I believe - the Christian's Creed", Collins, 1969, gives an lively readable review of this subject.

My Purpose : Summarise what Gnosticsm is and then show the differences from Christianity [4], as proclaimed in the New Testament with special reference to John's Gospel.

John's Purpose : 4th Gospel written so that 'you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.' [5]

Gnosticsm [6] : A complex religious movement which in its Christian form came into prominence in the 2nd century, having originated in pagan cults and trends of thought. By the end of the 2nd cent the Gnostics had mostly formed separate sects. Different forms were developed by particular teachers, such as Valentinus [7], Basilides, and Marcion [8], but some features are common to the movement as a whole.

A central importance was attached to 'gnosis': the supposedly revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and destiny of mankind, by means of which the spiritual element in man could receive redemption. The source of this special gnosis was held to be either the Apostles, from whom it was derived by secret tradition, or a direct revelation given to the founder of the sect.

Gnostic teaching distinguished between the Demiurge or 'creator god' and the supreme, remote, and unknowable Divine Being. From the latter the Demiurge was derived by a series of emanations or 'aeons', the youngest of which, according to Valentinus, was Sophia who 'fell' when she conceived the Demiurge. He was the God of the Old Testament (OT), the immediate source of creation and he ruled the world, which was therefore imperfect and antagonistic to what was truly spiritual.

Redemption was effected by the aeon Christ, who united himself with the man Jesus to bring some special men the saving knowledge ('gnosis') of their origin and destiny. These special ones are the spiritual men or pneumatics who had been given a seed of divine spiritual substance, a spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body. Valentinus taught that these are the men who, through their intuitive gnosis, enter 'the pleuroma'; other Christians (called psychics) by faith and good works attain only to the middle realm of the Demiurge; the rest of mankind is given over to eternal perdition.

Most Gnostics taught that the function of the aeon Christ was to come as the emissary of the supreme unknowable God, bringing 'gnosis'. As a Divine Being he neither assumed a human body nor was crucified, but either inhabited a human being, Jesus, or assumed a phantasmal human appearance. Some early Gnostic writers have even suggested that he was laughing in heaven as he observed the scene of this deception at the crucifixion.

In summary Gnosticsm is distinguished by the conviction that the material order, the material world, of which we are a part, is evil and separated off from a higher order; entirely spiritual, having no contact with matter [9]. Emancipation from evil can only come about through Gnosis.

"True Gnosis (or Knowledge) could lead to the deification of certain members 0f human kind": This was the aim of Hermetist religious and mystical writings [10]. It is unbiblical and of course completely unacceptable for Christians.

It differs from Humanism which rejects all religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts (Collins Dictionary). 'Humanism is humanity sufficient for itself', i.e., humanity is its own god.

The vision of Communism is, at first magnificent. Its blessings appear to be dazzling but have never materialised. Bluntly it doesn't work as promised. Instead it becomes a despotic tyranny when put into practise. Communism has universal ideals. "All men are equal", "Equal Distribution of Income", "From he who has, to him that has not". But in practice these aims need a strong 'Secret Police' for their enforcement.

Gnosticsm differs as it is not universal but selective. Only certain individuals can attain to its ideals.

Gnosticsm has often been seen as a 'bizarre playing with words and ideas'. However when examined more thoroughly it is found to be a serious attempt to resolve real problems: the nature and destiny of the human race, the problem of evil, and the human predicament. It has had an influence on modern literature (e.g. Blake and Yeats), Theosophy (Blavatsky), Anthroposophy (Rudolph Steiner) and the psychologist C.G. Jung. Manicheism, a later offshoot, was for a time a world religion, reaching as far as China.

Until recently the anti-Gnostic writers were the main source of information. The Nag Hammadi Coptic texts were found in Upper Egypt in 1945-1946. Over 40 treatises were found, previously unknown. These have given a more sympathetic view of the Gnostics. They vary widely in date and style, some dating from the 2nd century. Most of the items are superficially Christian overlaid by strong Gnostic tendencies.

Gnosticsm is regarded as an essentially syncretistic [11] religious movement older than, and originally separate from, Christianity. It readily accepted some Christian ideas, as those beliefs became popular with the wider public. But these ideas had to be altered, sometimes radically, in order to fit into their system.

There can be no question on the one hand of the significance of New Testament (NT) influence on Gnosticsm. On the other, there is now little doubt that John and the writers of the 4th Gospel were influenced by Gnostic ideas but the message of this Gospel is a far different thing.

The purpose of the Gnostic teachers was to motivate the chosen ones through a form of 'escapism'. The initiate was shown the means of escape: from the bondage of matter, from the rule of malevolent powers, and given the opportunity of attaining immortality if he was fit for Higher Thought [12].

Dodd continues: "Gnosis is not so much knowledge of God, in any profoundly religious [13] sense, as knowledge about the structure of the higher world and the way to get there and this can only be known by revelation usually conveyed in the form of myths." Various metaphysical [14] concepts are often personified in myths [15].

"Gnosticsm seriously claims to secure access to a realm of being altogether other than the world of sensible experience. It does this through communication of detailed knowledge of that 'other world' through myths, rather than any properly religious attitude (Dodd)." [16]

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  1. Useful abbreviations for Christianity and Christian are Xianity and Xian but I have tried not to use these in this document.
  2. John 20: 31 (NIV) and discussion in Marsh pp. 47,48 (book ref. in [6] below).
  3. From: Dodd C H "The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel", Cambridge University Press, 1954; John Marsh "The Gospel of Saint John", Penguin Books, 1991; "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church", ed. by E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1977 and "The Oxford Companion to the Bible", ed. by B.M. Metzger and M.D. Coogan, Oxford University Press, 1993.
  4. Valentinus was born in Egypt but lived in Rome from c.135 to c. 165. He had hopes of being elected bishop but was passed over, and seceded from the established Church.
  5. Marcion (d. c. 160) taught that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the exclusion of Law. He consequently rejected the Old Testament (OT), holding that the Creator God depicted therein had nothing in common with the God of Love revealed by Jesus. This Creator seeks to hold the human race in slavery and uses ethics and the law for this purpose. Hence it could be seen as a positive duty to disobey all such commands. Such ideas led to libertinism in some Gnostic cults; a lofty religious philosophy side by side with sensual indulgence. However the main direction of Gnosticsm was towards asceticism.
  6. 'This Gnostic outlook probably stemmed from Egypt but was governed by a sharp, characteristic Greek, division between the spiritual, regarded as good, and the material, deemed to be evil. In such a system no place for a real Incarnation of God could be found; one consequence was Docetism : a system that acknowledged Jesus as Son of God but claimed that this was merely a seeming or phantom event. These Gnostic and Docetic views were entertained in the First Century CE by Cerinthus, and in the Second Century by Basilides, and by those whom Ignatius of Antioch attacked.' (See Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 377, 378 on the First Epistle of John. Book ref. in [6] above).
  7. The Hermetic writings were believed to have been written by The Egyptian god Toth. Hermes Trismegistus (thrice greatest) was the name that the Greek Neoplatonist devotees of magic and alchemy gave to Toth.
  8. Syncretism: The tendency to combine the characteristic teachings, beliefs and practices of differing systems of religion or philosophy. Thus the Gnostics borrowed freely from Greek, Egyptian and Jewish philosophy and Christian religion and many religious cults. It is sometimes difficult to detect which is being adopted at different parts of their writings.
  9. Dodd C H "The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel", pp. 97-114. Book ref. in [6] above.
  10. Religious: Relating to, or concerned with religion. Religion: The ordering of one's life, one's conduct and character, in the light of one's beliefs about God i.e. the practical working out of a man's response to divine revelation.
  11. Metaphysics: Metaphysical study dealing with the nature of first principles, esp. of being and knowing and the nature of reality.
  12. Myth: 1. A usually traditional story about ostensibly historical superhuman beings of an earlier age. This customarily serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. 2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. 3. An ill-founded belief held uncritically esp. by an interested group. 4. The whole body of myths.
  13. Many of my quotes from C H Dodd are without a page reference but come after an allusion to, or in the context of, this book by Dodd. Book ref. in [6] above.

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