Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Were the Gnostics the Real Christians?

Much has been said in recent times about the Gnostics. They are sometimes presented as original Christianity, which was suppressed by orthodoxy. What can we say to this?

What did the Gnostics believe? They held there was initially one God, whom other beings (called emanations) came out of. One of these emanations rebelled against the whole, resulting in the creation of the material world, which is evil. Humans are trapped in this world, and our goal is to escape it. Christ (who is seen as one in this hierarchy of emanations) could not really become a man because matter is evil. In some versions He only appeared to be a man, a ghostly being without physical substance; in others He made a deal with the ordinary man Jesus, who He then deserted at the cross. The result of this for the follower is either hatred of the body, resulting in strict rules, or the belief the body is evil, so you can do whatever you want with it and it will not affect you spiritually. (Some have claimed this last is a slur by the orthodox.)

Now Gnosticism fits in better with Greek philosophy than the original Jewish beliefs. Also, there are too many things in the Christian story that are inconvenient for Gnosticism to believe Gnosticism was first. The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension all conflict with a Gnostic view of the world, and it is hard to see how these ideas would have developed if Gnosticism had been first. Also, the orthodox argued Gnosticism was a later development. They told their people that the way to tell true doctrine was that it had been handed down from the apostles (a view perhaps too simplistic) and that later innovations should be dismissed. If this was a bluff, it was a colossal one, and if it was not true, a very dangerous one. The Gnostics are presented as not claiming to be first, but to be holding a secret teaching that Jesus gave to the inner core of His disciples and that was different from His public teaching. The extant Gnostic gospels would themselves bear this out. This has the look of people trying to explain away the fact that their teaching was a later development.

Also the problem for many who claim Gnosticism as the original is that it will not produce what they want. What they want is a purely human Jesus without any claim of deity. What Gnosticism gives them is an inhuman Christ who cannot really join Himself with humanity (they may leave Jesus human but He becomes just an instrument). There were groups that saw Jesus as purely human, but the problem is a purely human Jesus is irrelevant. It is the Jesus who is God become flesh and broke the power of sin, death and hell who turned the world upside down. A purely human Jesus would have collected a small following, left behind a few sayings and vanished into obscurity. Even the Gnostics would have known that.

No comments:

Post a Comment