The Gnosticizing of Evangelicalism

As the Nag Hammadi Library of gnostic writings began to be made available to scholars in both editions and translations, the Dutch scholar, W. C. Van Unnik, surveyed a handful of these writings and compared them to the New Testament texts. He noted, “Nobody who is to any extent at home with the currents and undercurrents of our spiritual life today is likely to assent to this description of Gnosticism. Such widely separated movements as theosophy and anthroposophy have been instanced—and with every justification—as modern forms of Gnosticism. Time and again one comes across similar ways of interpreting Christianity—for example, among the Rosicrucians who, just like the ancient Gnostics, give out their interpretation as the real ‘truth’ of Christianity.” (W. C. van Unnik, Newly Discovered Gnostic Writings: A Preliminary Survey of the Nag-Hammadi Find, Studies in Biblical Theology 30 [Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1960], 89.)

I am, however, not so sure Christianity has not, after all, suffered from a gnosticizing influence throughout its centuries. And I am becoming more and more convinced that American evangelicalism—in almost all of its denominational (and non-denominational) forms—has suffered both bruises and lacerations at the hands of this phantom philosophy. After several years of living and breathing the air of American evangelicalism, experiencing firsthand both the smog and the fresh ocean breezes, having drunk from both the pure spring waters and the cracked cisterns of our tradition, having eaten the bread made from both the ground wheat and crushed tares of our living and departed saints, I have become increasingly concerned about the influence of essentially gnostic ideas on Christian truth.

I have developed an unscientific sense that gnosticization of Christianity is a constant threat. It is not, as was once believed, a challenge of the second and third centuries that was overcome by the institutionalization of the church, the formation of the canon of Scripture, and a concretizing of a common creed. Rather, all of these things necessitate human interpretation, which opens the door to countless presuppositions and preunderstandings. I have come to believe that the delicate balance—nay, the excruciatingly painful tension—that marks the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation as well as its implications for an incarnational theology and worldview, is simply too difficult for most humans to sustain without being pulled or pushed to one pole or the other. That Jesus Christ is both God and man, that the Bible is both divine and human, that salvation is both physical and spiritual, that the kingdom is both heavenly and earthly—the balance of such statements are far too easy to disrupt when humans begin to interpret and apply them in the twisted chaos of both the psychological and cosmic realities of this present world. Worldviews constantly collide with the Christian conundrum and confront the incarnational irreconcilables with demands for modification, reinterpretation, and reform. Thus, I believe the gnosticizing of Christianity seen in the early centuries of the church is a phenomenon that we can detect throughout church history. And it is a challenge that threatens to distort and destroy evangelical theology today.

When I say that evangelicalism is suffering from gnosticization, I do not mean that some specific form of Gnosticism or a Gnostic system—ancient or modern—is directly exercising influence on the thinking of modern Christians. Rather, evangelicals have long ridiculed many of the extreme expressions of classic Gnosticism—the distinction between the unknown Father and the unknowing creator god; the numerous emanations from the Father, the fall of Sophia, the creation of evil matter, the complex revisions of orthodox Christian truth, and so forth. These errors are easy to avoid, and evangelicals have remained essentially orthodox in their avoidance of Gnostic heresy. Furthermore, I do not mean that evangelicals have become Gnostics. I do not believe the gnosticization of evangelicalism means that evangelicalism has ceased to be fundamentally and authentically Christian. The effect of gnosticizing has not caused evangelicalism to fall into heresy. It has, rather, maintained a classically catholic and orthodox identity.

What I actually mean by this assertion is that, like some sectors of the ancient church in the second century, evangelicalism has reinterpreted Christian truth—or adopted others’ reinterpretations—that diverge from a classic incarnational theology. That is, contemporary evangelicalism has fallen into the pattern of trying to relieve the incarnational tension and has, to a large degree, opted for the same kind of spiritualizing, other-worldly, non-material philosophical direction as the ancient Gnostics.

What does this look like? Many evangelicals fail to maintain a doctrine of Scripture that takes seriously both its fully human and fully divine qualities. We have created a view of humanity more in line with a body-spirit dualism in which the “true me” is entrapped in a body, regarding God’s physical creation as a mere “shell” that needs to be shed. We have spiritualized the ordinances, stripping them of their sacramental power and relegating them to mere symbols and memorials of spiritual truths. We have severed the spiritual church from the physical church, the universal from the local body of Christ, and have made membership in one (the spiritual) possible without membership in the other (the physical). We have put up with a dichotomizing between the spiritual, personal experience of salvation by an invisible faith and the material, physical manifestation of faith through acts of love, manifested in a radical division between justification and sanctification. We have tolerated extreme expressions of the Spirit working directly with individuals outside the physical, institutional community of Christ, allowing many radical departures from classic Christian orthodoxy by means of special “movements” of the Spirit or new revelations. We have opted for a spiritualized and personalized eschatology that de-emphasizes the redemption of this physical creation through history, and even premillennialists have suggested that God’s plan for this world includes its absolute destruction rather than transformation and resurrection.

Sadly, this already long list could continue.

What is the solution to the gnosticizing of evangelicalism? I believe the only lasting solution is a rigorous christocentric theology that continually checks and corrects biblical interpretation, dogmatic systems, and practical applications against the standard of an authentically incarnational christology.

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