My brother called me a couple of months ago and asked, “What is Gnosticism?” Well, that’s an open-ended question, given the diffuse character of the Gnostic mindset, and so I gave a rather diffuse and open-ended answer. I should have questioned him further because it turns out that a speaker at his church had accused contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic. That’s something that is far easier to nail down. This essay deals with the side that’s easier to nail down and leaves the question of the vaguely gnostic mindset that permeates our society for another time.
In the context of contemporary Evangelicalism, it is simplest to say that one of the main things that made Gnosticism a heresy was its assumption that salvation was a form of knowledge. (By the way, if you didn’t make the connection, the English word “know” is something of a transliteration of the Greek word gnosis. A “Gnostic” is literally a “knowledge person.”) It is therefore easy to accuse Protestantism of the Gnostic heresy because in Protestant (and especially Evangelical) shorthand, salvation is knowing. (Remember J.I. Packer’s runaway best-seller, Knowing God?) Salvation is believing Jesus Christ and accepting his message by faith. Protestantism, because of it’s emphasis on the Bible, and because it matured alongside the Enlightenment, is a very rational sort of approach to Christianity. The simplistic approach is to say that since Gnosticism is a heresy, and Protestantism is a lot like Gnosticism, Protestantism is therefore a heresy.
And let’s face it, that’s overly simplistic … and simplistic is usually dangerous.
Accusing some denomination or flavor of contemporary Evangelicalism of being Gnostic (very popular at the moment) is sort of like accusing a political movement of being Fascist. First and foremost, both are emotional rather than rational arguments because the actual meaning of either “Gnostic” of “Fascist” is rather vague but fraught with emotional freight.. Second, both are anachronistic, because the things that made Fascism what is was were specific to the the time between the two wars, just as the things that made Gnosticism what is was were specific to the intersection of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian thought of the second and third centuries C.E.
But back to the original issue: How is knowledge of Jesus Christ related to the Christian life? there is a beautiful passage in Philippians 3 where Paul piles image upon image, indicating some of the faces of the multifaceted jewel that is our goal in the Christian life:.
8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Notice that “knowing Christ” is emphasized twice in this passage: “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” But “knowing” is not the goal. Paul not only wants to know him, he wants to “be found in him” (v 9). He wants a “righteousness from God” (v 9). Verse 10 sounds like building blocks, beginning with knowledge and then moving beyond that to “the power of his resurrection,” sharing in his suffering,” and “becoming like him in his death,” all of these building blocks leading to a specific kind of life: “that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
It’s the last part of the passage that gets at what I suspect makes it so easy to accuse Protestantism, and Evangelicalism in particular, of Gnosticism. Paul is working hard; he’s an apostle, and he’s not even sure he will attain the resurrection. In other words, the Christian life is hard; it’s expensive; it’s action oriented.
From the beginning the Protestant movement has had a weakness toward what Bonhoeffer (a WWII Protestant pastor killed by the Nazis) called “cheap grace” and what is often called “easy believism” today. (I mention Bonhoeffer to remind us that this is not a brand new phenomenon.) It also needs to be noted that easy believism is rampant all across the Christianity of the wealthy, industrialized Western world. Orthodox priests rail against it regularly. The lack of life-changing commitment in the Roman Catholic church is scandalous. But conservative Protestantism, with its unique emphasis on empirical knowledge in conjunction with easy believism, almost always takes the brunt of the Gnostic accusation.
True salvation, the real Christian life, is not knowledge, it’s experience or activity. It’s “gaining” Christ and then being “in him” (to borrow Paul’s phrase from vv. 9-10. It is knowledge, but it is knowledge that leads to suffering, death, and resurrection. It is not bringing the message of God down into my head, it is moving upward toward God (v. 14).
Of course this message is not foreign to mainstream Evangelicalism at all. The particular way that Evangelicals (especially those with some Reformed sensibilities) emphasize Christ alone, scripture alone, and faith alone can obscure the the Apostle Paul’s strong emphasis on “the obedience of faith” (Romans) and pressing on toward the prize of Jesus Christ (Philippians) as well as the more mystical sense of being “in Christ” (or as John puts it, being “one with Christ” and Peter’s “partaking in the divine nature”). But let’s be honest, that’s rather different than being an outright Gnostic.
In review: What was Gnosticism? In this context, it was a world view and eventually a Christian heresy that believed in a special knowledge (in contrast to activity or transformation) that was salvific. Is Evangelicalism Gnostic? No. But since much of contemporary society has many Gnostic tendencies and Protestantism and Evangelicalism have a particularly knowledge-oriented relation to the Bible and their understanding of salvation, it is certainly easy to understand why the accusation pops up so frequently.