Do Gnostics need to be Christians? (revised)

[A note to my readers: Writing this article has been a real can of worms for me. I think I should preface this work by warning that this material is not suitable for everyone. For example, if your faith in Jesus helped you to over-come a great obstacle in life; or if you believe that your faith in Jesus saved you from a demonic attack or possession, then I recommend that you don’t read this article. This article is not meant to address or question such experiences, and I claim no authority to speak in those areas. This article addresses my personal issues involving certain historical problems. I don’t believe it’s a good idea for every person to occupy themselves with these issues as it may do nothing to help or improve your situation here in the present. On the other hand, some of us are in a position in our lives where we need to resolve our problems with the past so that we can be at peace in the present.  —jw]

On the historical record Gnosticism first appears as a form of Christianity. The Catholic Church Fathers of the second and third centuries wrote numerous treatises against Gnostics whom they regarded as false Christians, as heretics who spread blasphemous doctrines about God under the name of Christianity. The writings of the Catholic Fathers mark that historic struggle where various theological schools vied for sole control of the Christian name and legacy. In the forum of public opinion the Catholic Church eventually won that battle; and the Gnostics and other so-called “heretics” were destined to be a persecuted minority, oppressed by the ‘Christian’ Roman State. The Church historian Eusebius recorded the edicts of the Roman Emperor Constantine against the “Valentinians, Marcionites and Paulicians” (Life of Constantine, 3:64f). Whether we like it or not the Catholic Church won the rights to the Christian name and the legacy of Christ. And for centuries to follow the Church would enforce those rights through violent repression, through the threat of imprisonment, torture, and cruel public executions—all in the name of Jesus Christ.

As a Gnostic today I contemplate the precedents of the past with great interest. I believe that the Gnostic heritage contains profound truths far more powerful than anything I learned in mainstream Christianity. Yet the name of the very teacher whom the Gnostics revered, “Jesus”, also proved to be very powerful in the hands of their enemies. At the same time I was also appalled by the wicked hypocrisy of the Catholic Church; which spread it’s gospel across the world with the use of invading armies and with the use tactics we identify today with terrorism. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace? How could the Catholics possibly justify the brutal suppression of other sects, religions and cultures, all in the name of Jesus?

For me the answer to this question, and the source of this paradox, was revealed in the pages of the New Testament, and in the words that are attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. In these words there is a paradox. Jesus is widely known for these lofty words in Mt. 5:9,

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called the sons of God.”

But then in Mt. 10:34 Jesus also said,

“Think not that I came to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword…”  [1]

So much for the Prince of Peace, and Peace on Earth, and all the other good Christmas cheer! In my opinion the two passages above expose the fatal flaw in Christianity that confronts anyone who seriously lays claim to the Christian name. The problem is that the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, can be used to justify anything. There really is no clear theological or ethical standard. And indeed this lack of a standard proved useful for Catholics and Protestants who were carrying forth their conquests and genocides, with a sword in one hand, and the “Gospel” in the other. The passages from Matthew above are just one example. An entire book could be written on this problem. (Numerous books have been written on the general subject of New Testament theology and its paradoxes: J. Charlot, New Testament Disunity; Werner Kummel, Theology of the New Testament; J. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. The problem is that the New Testament writings do not contain a consistent theological standard. As for the inherent contradictions in Jesus’ Gospel preaching, see my articles Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, parts I and II.)

As a Gnostic I have come to realize that it really is futile to bother with any claim to the Christian name. I am a Gnostic, not a Christian. And I believe there is some merit to the traditional ‘orthodox’ argument that “Gnostics” are not “Christians.” Of course the problem for the ‘orthodox’ crowd is that neither Jesus nor Paul ever used the word “Christian.” They never called themselves or anyone else “Christians.” And the books in the NT that do contain this word are of secondary importance and of doubtful provenance (i.e. Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).

I don’t regard myself as a Christian because I don’t believe that the history and doctrine of Jesus as presented in the New Testament are credible. Even if Jesus did actually exist there is still no way of really knowing who he was, and which opinions are really his. That leaves open the question regarding the passages from Matthew as quoted above: Which saying really came from Jesus? Was it “blessed are the peace-makers”? Or was it “I came not to bring peace”?

I know that the ancient Gnostics did not handle the issues the way I have chosen to do. But a lot has happened in the last 1,800 years. Since the time of Valentinus and Marcion so many evil things have been done in Jesus’ name that this name can no longer be regarded as “holy.” This name, and all the muddle and confusion that goes with it, belongs to orthodox Christianity (falsely so-called). I do believe that some elements of the Gospels were written by genuine mystics with Gnostic leanings; but it is no longer realistic to take the position that all the diverse Gospel teachings originate from one source (again I recommend my articles Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, parts I and II for a presentation of the problem).

I still revere and contemplate the Gnostic myths. But for me it is no longer practical to apply the name of Jesus to them. It was the “Savior” who came down from the Pleroma, not Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really belong in the essential core of Gnostic myth. The Gnostic myth is about the Savior. That essential theme is true. The use of the name Jesus is extraneous. Furthermore I must state my feeling that the people who developed these myths never had any contact with the historical Jesus. What they had was a legend, and they used this legend, and the name “Jesus”, to convey a mystical truth. (The same is true of St. Paul, and it is well-known that his doctrines were not connected with an historical Jesus.) Today there is no reason to assume a literal connection between Gnostic myth and Jesus, and all the problems that inevitably go with it.

In their own way, and in their own time, the ancient Gnostics understood the issues to which I refer. They did not believe that the words of the Apostles, or of Jesus, were wholly true or accurate. The Catholic Father Irenaeus described the Gnostic position this way:

“But again, when we refer them to that tradition that originates from the Apostles… they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For they maintain that the Apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Savior; and that not the Apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place (Sophia), and yet again from the Pleroma. But they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner!” (Against Heresies, 3.2.2., cf. 3.12.12.)

At least one Gnostic teacher of the second century understood the issues completely, i.e. Basilides. Irenaeus reports that the followers of Basilides declared that they “are no longer Jews, nor yet are they Christians.” (Ibid., 1.24.6)

The ancient Gnostics understood in their own way that the Apostles did not have a clear concept of the truth, and that even Jesus himself did not speak the truth in a clear way. The Gnostics believed that the Apostles were just the beginning, and that the learning of the truth was part of an ongoing spiritual process. Thus the Gnostics of Irenaeus’ day admitted that they knew more than the Apostles. The Apostles weren’t right about everything; and the learning of the truth is part of a process of spiritual growth. The reason that ‘orthodox’ Christian tradition cannot admit to any knowledge beyond the Apostles is because that tradition is spiritually dead.

With the benefit of both hindsight, and spiritual development, I, as a Gnostic today, am fully aware that the Apostles were not right about everything. And I know that the teachings of Jesus are a collection of discordant and contradictory elements. It is useless for me to cling to Jesus as any kind of authority. The core truth of Gnosticism is beyond all this. On the intellectual level the core truths of the Gnostic creed are Five: 1) the purely good Unknown God above the judicial Creator; 2) Dualism: the contrast and conflict between spirituality and materiality; 3) The Three Natures: the notion that the universe is comprised of three levels of reality and substance: spirit, soul and matter; 4) that the aspiring Gnostic must seek the revelation of the Divine within through personal soul-searching. 5) Faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Sophia), which will guide the aspiring Gnostic into Wisdom. For me personally, these are the five central tenets of Gnostic intellectual truth which will open the door to Gnosis. Otherwise there are millions of people today, and countless millions through the centuries, who pray to Jesus, or through Jesus, all day long and they are no closer to the truth.

St. Paul and the author of the Gospel of John certainly understood these tenets in their own ways. And the words of “Jesus” show the influence of these ideas in certain Synoptic passages (e.g. Mt. 5:38–48, Lk. 6:35; see may article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, II). I have no doubt that Paul and some other New Testament writers were people who had genuine mystical encounters with the Divine, and that these encounters influenced these writers toward Gnostic ways of thinking. The reason the New Testament is of any interest at all is not because it is “Christian”, but because some writers show the emergence of Gnostic thought in their expressions. For this reason these writings are valuable sources of insight.

Personally I consider Gnostic truth to be the product of a reaction to, and repentance from, the errors and contradictions of early Jewish and Jewish Christian doctrines. And it is only in this context that there is a meaningful connection between Gnosticism and Judeo-Christian traditions.

I’m certain that Hellenistic Judaism and the Jews of that generation and culture provided the historical situation where the intellectual points of Gnostic truth first emerged. In that period Jewish tradition and theology presented a paradox that Greek speaking Jews were in a unique position to solve. The problem was that Jewish tradition laid claim to the one true God, and to the Law and ethics, and righteousness, as supposedly revealed by that God. All other nations were simply depraved idolaters who lived in darkness.

Ironically the subsequent fortunes of the Jewish nation did not show the benefits of this supposed revelation. The Greeks and the Romans were superior to the Jews, and Zion lay hopelessly under the heel of Greco-Roman domination, both culturally and politically. This paradox led some Jews to re-evaluate this lofty theological and moral standard which their ancestors had so arrogantly lifted above everyone else. These Jews arrived at the conclusion that the tradition and theology of Moses was a lie, at least as it was traditionally understood. Thus it was among Hellenistic Jews that the elements of Gnostic truth first emerged, and the first elements of this can be seen in Philo Judaeus, Stephen, Nicolaus, Simon Magus and St. Paul. (The latter four names were actually members of the obscure “Hellenist” wing of the early Church at Jerusalem.)

In general, Gnostic theology emerged as the result of efforts by theologians to resolve theological ambiguities and paradoxes in both the Old and New Testaments. When these obscure elements fell into line in a certain way they resembled truths that the mystics recognized from their own experiences. Gnostic doctrine was born. Paul wrote under the influence of these ideas, and some of these ideas were placed in Jesus’ mouth. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that Jesus or his original followers were Gnostics, or even thinking that way.

My point overall is that Gnosticism is really a tradition by itself. It is not Christian. Christian refers to orthodox Christianity and its obsession with Jesus and the mixed bag of doctrines that are attributed to him–all compounded by a literalist reading of the scriptures. Gnosticism is about the direct encounter with the Divine. The intellectual Gnostic creed is meant to inform the aspiring mystic that God is something beyond any tradition or theology. The true Gnostic is someone who has encountered the divine and has learned this truth first hand. This is not a “Christian” phenomenon. And I think that the Gnostic creed alone provides the clearest explanation of the relationship of the Divine to the world, and to worldly traditions.

Now please understand that my forgoing statements are not meant to be a pronouncement against any readers who are Gnostic Christians. I have no criticism whatsoever to offer against Gnostic Christians. But I do have personal doubts as to whether Christian tradition is relevant to core truths, or whether Christianity is in fact a stumbling block. If there are Gnostics out there who can make Christianity work then I wish them well. My message is meant for those who may never be able to make peace with their Christian background. They need to know that there is a way to move forward, and to leave the past behind. —jw

Note

1] Early Gnostics interpreted passages such as Matthew 10:34 as allegories. E.g. Irenaeus explains that according to the Gnostics Mt. 10:34 refers to the power of Horos who separates spiritual substance from material substance (Against Heresies, 1.3.5.). Whether this intepretation is consistent with the original intent of the person who wrote Mt. 10 remains as an open question to me. I suspect that Mt. 10 preserves Jesus’s original, historical message: it is a message intended for Hebrews only and is laced with false prophecy (Mt. 10:23).

By Jim West. Copyright © 2007, 2012; revised January 27, 2014

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  1. #1 by jacqueline reid on October 23, 2013 - 3:47 pm

    your posting dognostics need to be christian rings true for me.it sums up everything i have felt with regards to christ

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