The real problem with Gnosticism

I’ve written on this subject a few times now because “Gnosticism” seems to be the label of choice when we want to attack the position of other Christians. I think there are two problems with this. First of all, I think it prevents us from understanding the actual position of people we disagree with including when they are making errors. Secondly, I’m not sure that we always have a clear understanding of what Gnosticism is.

What most people know about the Gnostics is that they were into some form of secret knowledge and thought that spirit was good, matter was evil. Therefore, they thought that our salvation was all about using secret knowledge to escape matter and become spiritual.  That’s not a bad starting point but actually there is a little bit more to it.

There was an ancient view of the world in which what we might refer to as Divinity -the ultimate power that exceeds and pre-cedes the Universe is something that is impersonal, unknowable spirit.  The universe itself is in effect an accidental and probably unwelcome thing.  The Divine cannot approach and become contaminated with creation and creation cannot approach and come into contact with it. Rather the spirit matter within the Universe has to be released from matter to be re-united and submerged into the divine. That world-view finds its way into a lot of different religious beliefs.

It also found its way into various “Christian traditions” and we use the umbrella term “Gnosticism” to describe them but this may well not be a single entity. Those traditions seem to have enjoyed their own traditions and legends about Jesus. This led to the creation of “Gospels” although these books are very unlike the Gospels we have both in terms of content and style with the focus less on the narrative of what Jesus did and more on collecting sayings and dialogues (in much the same way as Plato records Socrates words and dialogues).

This is helpful to our thinking. To be sure, I notice a lot of Christians are a little bit foggy on the afterlife and also how to engage with contemporary issues. That fogginess is as much a result of folksy pietism and a culturally based fear of worldliness as anything.  However I don’t think those things arise out of Gnosticism per-se.

Now, the real “Gnostic” danger is this.

  • The temptation to overlay aspects of Christian belief and tradition onto a non-Christian worldview. When that happens you get bits of the Bible thrown in but you have the wrong narrative. 
  • A loss of focus on what Jesus did -specifically his accomplishment on the Cross. This is replaced with ideals which again tend to be imposed onto someone’s view of Jesus/God.  Consider the phrase “My God would not ….”
  • A concept of a God who is unknowable, distant and not involved.

It may be worth taking a bit of time to look at those challenges and consider where we have seen those dangers arising.  It is also of course good to do some soul searching and make sure that we have not slipped into them.


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