Based on “The New Gnosticism: Is It The Age of the Spirit or The Spirit of the Age?” by Michael S. Horton, Modern Reformation, July/August 1995 Vol. 4.
At Big Springs Community Church, Montague, California, we’re going through Ligonier Ministries’ Dust to Glory. Today, we were at the end of the segment on “The Early Years of Jesus.” R. C. Sproul says that the Bible has scant information on Jesus’s childhood, except for his infancy and when his parents took him to the Temple when he was 12 years old. So he mentions that the Gnostics tried to fill in the blanks of the “lost years” of Jesus with their own “Gospels.”
(In 1945, the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt was discovered, yielding 52 so-called “Gospels.”) In the October 7, 1994 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Gordinier wrote that spiritual “seekers” “[come] up with a soothing sampler of Judeo-Christian imagery, Eastern meditation, self-help lingo, a vaguely conservative craving for “virtue,” and a loopy New Age pursuit of “peace.”
This Gnosticism was already present in the ancient church,from the time of the apostles until the third century. Paul called the Gnostic prophets “super-apostles” who claim to have more knowledge (gnosis) and preached a different gospel (2 Cor 10:5 ; 11:5-6, 13; Tm 6:20).
The Old Gnosticism
1. Eclectic and polymorphic. A “cut-and-paste” spirituality emerges from the Gnostic writings. It is generally agreed that Gnosticism emerged as a form of mystical Christian spirituality mixed with Greek paganism. In its very nature, it was a diverse mixture of various religious systems.
2. Individualistic and subjective. True spirituality is through mysticism, inwardness, meditation, and self-realization.
3. Immanence over transcendence. Stresses God’s nearness over his distant holiness and sovereignty. The self is a “divine spark,” and its relationship with “God” is romantic, even erotic.
4. Spirit over matter. Sometimes called “mind over matter,” the Greek and Gnostic worldview is dualistic: the world is made of matter (evil) and spirit (good). Evil, suffering, illness and death are all attributed to matter. Imprisoned in a material world, the self is alienated from its true home. There is war between Light and Darkness, Spirit and Matter, the Divine Within and the World Outside. The source of all alienation, despair, loneliness and abandonment is the physical world.
5. Anti-institutional. 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, liturgies and sacraments.
6. Anti-sacramental. Because of the immediate relationship with the “Spirit,” the material means of grace–the printed word, water, and bread and wine–actually hinder real fellowship with God.
7. Anti-historical. Gnosticism emphasizes instead the self’s personal, direct encounter with God here and now, and has little or no place for the historical events of God’s saving activity.
8. Anti-Jewish. Gnosticism harbored a deep distrust of the Old Testament God, a wrathful Judge who created the evil world, while the New Testament God (Jesus) was the God of Love (Marcionism).
9. Feminist. Ancient Gnosticism defined characteristics of femininity as love, freedom, affirmation, and nurture, while those of masculinity were defined as justice, law, wrath, and strength. “Sophia,” the Greek goddess of wisdom, became the “God” of many Gnostics.
The New Gnosticism
Often passing for psychology, philosophy and religion, Gnosticism is now back with a vengeance and in American spirituality.
Revivalism. The revivalistic evangelicals wanted to escape from this world by a personal experience of being born again, and successive experiences: A second blessing or a rededication would revive the soul in its flight toward Deity and full surrender.
Self-centered relgion. The study of the self, self-consciousness, self-esteem, self-worship replaced the study of God and his redemptive acts towards sinful mankind.
Moralistic, therapeutic preaching. Preaching turned from the objective emphasis on God’s saving work in Christ, to techniques for self- improvement, psychologically and morally conceived.
Anti-doctrinalism. Because of anti-intellectualism. both liberals and evangelicals disdain doctrine for personal experience, and objective truth for personal transformation.
Pentecostalism. Emphasis on self and experience resulted in the emphasis on the Spirit’s “gifts” of healing, speaking in tongues, and other “signs and wornders.” Pentecostals demean the written Word in favor of direct revelations, experience and emotions.
Experience-based salvation. 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 preaching of the Cross, but the preaching of “my personal relationship with Jesus,” the day when “Jesus came into my heart.”
Prosperity gospel. In Christianity, faith is trust in God’s specific promise of salvation through Christ. In Gnosticism, faith is magic, a technique for getting what we want by believing in it strongly enough.
Anti-church. The Spirit is the inner, experiential aspect of religion; institution is the outer, established form of religion. The church imparts knowledge, not of sin and salvation by Christ’s atonement, but by practical techniques for Christian living. The church that will get the vote of the seeker, then, is the church that offers (and delivers) more techniques, innovations and secret “how-tos” than others.
Why are the so-called Gnostic Gospels not included in the New Testament? They fail the test of canonicity. Biblical canon is the rule or standard by which books are recognized as God’s Word or not:
1. Catholicity in the early church. By the end of the 2nd century, 21 of our 27 NT books have been recognized almost unanimously as authoritative God’s Word. In 367 AD, Athanasius listed all 27 books of the NT universally received by the churches, and confirmed by the Council of Carthage in 397. No early church council made a canon. None of the Gnostic gospels were included in these early lists.
2. Apostolicity. The book has to be authentically written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle (Mark, Luke) in the 1st century. All Gnostic gospels were written in the late 2nd century and later by writers pretending to be apostles (Gospel of Thomas; Acts of Peter) or associates of Jesus (Gospel of Mary; Gospel of Judas).
3. Apostolic doctrine. The doctrines and events in a book have to be consistent with the authentic books. All the Gnostic gospels are full of heresies and fables about the life and teachings of Jesus. They “were uninterested in the historicity of the faith and in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Instead they focused on his public sayings as well as his purported secret teachings that he had not entrusted to the masses, or even to all of the apostles.”
4. Sufficiency of the Canon. Based on 2 Timothy 3:16. The Westminster Confession of Faith 1:6 affirms: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory and man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly stated in Scripture or by good and necessary inference may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or by traditions of men.” (emphasis added)
Examples from Gnostic Gospels
Gospel According to Thomas: Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Gospel of Philip: “. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth].”
Secret Book of John, which opens with an offer to reveal “the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence” which Jesus taught to his disciple John.
Testimony of Truth tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while “the Lord” threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it.
Gospel of Thomas: Jesus said [to Thomas], “He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.”
The childhood of Jesus: (summarized from “Jesus as a Child” by Frs. J. Roten and T. Janssen, University of Dayton) Mentioned in the following apocryphal writings to show that he is superhuman: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2nd century), the Pseudo-Matthew (6th-7th century), the Arabic Infancy Gospel (ca. 6th century), and the Irish Versified Narrative (ca. 700 AD).
1. He gives life to the clay sparrows, is master of the Sabbath, and shows at an early age that His knowledge is that of the God-Man. Jesus is a healer and restores health and even life. The portrait of Jesus is a mixture of transcendent and bountiful personality and, at the same time, he acts like an ornery and vengeful little brat.
2. Events dealing with Jesus and the birds follow a similar pattern. Jesus gathers water, makes it clear, clean, and good. He then uses it with clay to make birds, usually twelve sparrows. He does it on a Sabbath. When chastised, he makes the sparrows chirp and fly away. He punishes his accusers.
3. Jesus is attacked or vilified by one or several boys; he curses the attacker who dies or is incapacitated. The conversation with Joseph or/and Mary leads to the restoration of the boy’s health or life. The stories mention the wonderment of the people, Jesus’ every word becomes immediate deed, the rejection of Jesus and his parents, and the puzzlement of Joseph (and Mary).
4. “Jesus and the Alphabet” introduces to the Lord’s wisdom and knowledge. He reveals himself, through the mouth of his teachers, as more learned than all the masters. He reads their minds, and declares that he is before all ages. He is not Joseph’s son.
5. A boy named Zeno falls from the house-top where Jesus and other boys were playing, and is dead. The parents accuse Jesus of having pushed Zeno. He returns the dead boy to life for him to testify in favor of Jesus innocence. Everyone glorifies God.
6. Jesus heals a man’s foot, heals from viper bite, heals a sick child, a workman, and the poisoned boy. In one instance, Joseph heals in the name of Jesus.
7. Jesus carries water in his garment, stretches beams of wood, produces a miraculous harvest, and tames wild beasts.
8. A group of boys, hiding from him, are punished. He changes the boys into goats, and orders them to leave the house where they were hiding. Women present at the scene ask for his mercy. He answers that the “sons of Israel are like the Ethiopians among the nations”, but eventually takes pity and restores the kids to their former condition, telling them: “Come, boys, let us go and play.”