Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Our Collective Faith 11


The two most common heretical slurs tossed around today are “Pelagianism” (or is little friend, semi-Pelagian, which is more slur than substance) and Gnosticism (or neo-Gnosticism). The most formidable early threat to orthodox Christian faith was Genosticism, and the 10th chp of  Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe is about that threat.


The chp is by Anders Bergquist, an Anglican vicar at St John’s Wood in central London.

Do you think there are any real Gnostics today? What elements of gnosticism do you see at work today?

Since “Gnosticism” commonly gets tossed at others today, let’s get a good definition on board. Gnosticism is a set of teachings in which:

1. People claim they are saved by initiation into special knowledge;
2. Taught by “a Jesus” who was not fully human and did not die;
3. Proponents practice special disciplines to effect release from the evil material realm that was created by an inferior god (Demiurge);
4. And this leads to reunion with the transcendent Divine Being.

Gnosticism was a category used by the orthodox (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus) against a group of teachers (Valentinus, Basilides) rather than the explicit teaching of one person. The gnostics fed on typical church gatherings and appealed to “secrets.”


We used to rely on the critics of gnosticism to understand them. But now, since the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, we have an entire collection of sources (see: The Nag Hammadi Library
). This literature is fantastical, mythical, and elaborate. Central to everything is that the material world is evil and the spiritual realm is the truth. Humans with a shard or spark of the true spiritual world, the Pleroma, are the gnostics. Texts like The Gospel of Judas and The Gospel of Thomas interpreted the canonical Gospels in a gnostic direction.


The orthodox, probably unfairly, extrapolated from the gnostic despising of the material world to the gnostic practice of sexual promiscuity, but the evidence we do have suggests the gnostics were ascetical rather than profligates. But, the orthodox scored a decisive blow when orthodoxy argued that there was one God, the Creator, and that Jesus took on bodily flesh and was really human. The material world is good. Furthermore, the gnostics increased the number of authoritative books of Scripture.

These opponents, contrary to the popularity of conspiracy theories at work today (propagated, unfortunately, too often by Bart Ehrman), knew the theological danger of gnosticism — with its radical depreciation of materiality and all that would mean for Christ’s humanity and for redemption — and fought hard to suppress the heresies. It wasn’t because they feared folks reading those texts so much as that they feared the denial of Christian truth. They did things the way things were done then: suppress by burning and by use of violence.

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Mike M

posted April 21, 2009 at 1:25 am

But gnosticism wasn’t restricted to Christianity. An interesting study would focus on the spread of gnosticism from ancient Persia to Babylonia to the Jews in captivity to Second Temple Judaism. For ancient Hebrews, a duality of “body” vs.”soul” was heresy and yet that dualism crept into Judaism by the time of Christ. Some scholars have even developed this gnostic lineage to the Qumran community (see their “apocraphyl” writings).

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Mike M

posted April 21, 2009 at 1:31 am

Sorry: to answer your question. Gnosticism is alive and well in the secular theology of our age which states that “good people” who believe Jesus is God go to Heaven as angels and that “bad people” who don’t believe that Jesus is God go to Hell for eternal torment. Of course “good people” are those who have thrown away all the earthly (bodily and therefore “bad”) desires of the flesh in exchange for spiritual enlightenment.

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posted April 21, 2009 at 4:59 am

I found Michael A Williams ‘Rethinking Gnosticism: And Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category’ particularly enlightening (no pun).

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posted April 21, 2009 at 7:54 am

Gnosticism raises its head whenever you hear someone refer to “the spark” or “the divine spark” that is within each of us or how we need to look inside to find ourselves (see Oprah.)
It seems that rapture (“Left Behind”)folks have a lot of gnostic tendencies since this theology downplays the material world.
Plato & greek philosphy seem to rule the roost in our western culture over against a Jewish/biblical wholistic understanding of the integration of mind, body, and soul. Which brings up a point here. When people read the word, “soul” in the bible, they tend to think, “non-material” when that’s not the meaning of the word.
This is a tough one because I have found it difficult to help folks think of the Christian faith in non-gnostic terms because for them, “that’s the biblical understanding.”

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Travis Greene

posted April 21, 2009 at 9:07 am

Do you think there are any real Gnostics today? What elements of gnosticism do you see at work today?
I see probably more of the elements of gnosticism at work than true gnostics, although there are some of those as well. The gnostic “divine spark” idea has been married to a bourgeois appropriation of Eastern religion, and if Jesus shows up, he’s a strangely Buddhist-sounding mystic. I haven’t read it, but Deepak Chopra’s recent book seems along this vein.

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posted April 21, 2009 at 9:22 am

Scot, to your first question re. whether there are any gnostics today, I’ll offer a quote from Rev. Dr. Leander Harding, who in turn is largely quoting Harold Bloom’s “The American Religion”:
Harold Bloom, an iconoclastic literary critic at Yale, wrote a book published in 1992, with the title ?The American Religion.? Using an argument developed by Msgr. Ronald Knox in his magisterial work on ?Enthusiasm? and by the Presbyterian theologian Phillip Lee in his book ?Against The Protestant Gnostics? Bloom makes a convincing case that the real American Religion that is the unofficial but actual spiritual mythos which gives shape to the American worldview and energy to the American religious quest is some form of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, ancient and contemporary, teach that the true and deepest self is a spark of divinity which has become lost and imprisoned in a corrupt world. The drama of salvation is the drama of rediscovering this secret self and reuniting this spark with the divine one. This is accomplished by access to a secret knowledge or ?gnosis? which is unavailable to the uninitiated. Gnostic versions of Christianity have been a problem for the church from the earliest times. The struggle with Gnosticism caused St. Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) to write his chief work ?Adversus omnes Haereses.? Gnosticism is hard to kill and has many contemporary fans including the scholars of the Jesus Seminar who champion the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
Bloom thinks that it matters little what is on the label, the flavor of the product is more often than not Gnostic.
?Mormons and Southern Baptists call themselves Christians, but like most Americans they are closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians. I have centered on Mormons and the Southern Baptists than on other major denominations . . . but most American Methodists, Roman Catholics and even Jews and Muslims are also more Gnostic than normative in their deepest and unwariest beliefs. The American Religion is pervasive and overwhelming, however it is masked, and even our secularists, indeed even our professed atheists are more Gnostic than humanist in their ultimate presuppositions. We are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the creation.? (The American Religion, p. 22)
The quintessential American Religion is the quest for the true and original self which is the ?pearl of great price,? the ultimate value. Finding the true self requires absolute and complete freedom of choice unconstrained by any sources of authority outside the self. Limits upon personal freedom and choice are an affront to all that is sacred to the American Religion. When the self determining self finds ?the real me?, salvation is achieved and the ultimate self has achieved contact with the ultimate reality. Finding your true self is to the contemporary Gnostic the same thing as finding God. For the Gnostic the purpose of the religious community is to facilitate the quest and validate the results. The contemporary Gnostic church, which can appear in both conservative and liberal forms, is the community of those who know that they have found God because they have found their own uncreated depths. For both the Southern Baptist and the latest devotee of the New Age salvation is often reduced to the level of personal experience, which can only be validated by those who have had similar ?deeply personal? experiences.

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