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The Trouble With Gnostics


cosmic brain

As I heard it in Sunday School, the early Christian Gnostics were world-denying escapists, who longed to transcend the physical realm and claimed to be in touch with higher spirits. They said that Jesus was a too holy to share in things of the physical flesh, and he never really died, because he was an immortal spirit. The Gnostics claimed to “know” the secret of life, while others lived in darkness. Their arrogance, really, was astounding. No wonder they were chased from the early church and disappeared from the historic record for ages.

But the older I got, the more these accusations seemed hollow. For one thing, the Orthodox churches, be they Baptist, Catholic, or whatever, seemed equally guilty of the same things they accused the Gnostics of. For another, most ancient Gnostics were more like ordinary hope-filled seekers of enlightenment than anti-worldly nihilists. Also, over the past several decades, the Gnostics have risen from the dead. They’re back in all their shades of spiritualism, offering their many paths to enlightenment. Once again they’re cutting loose from all forms of organized religion. Wherever the global marketplace of spiritual practices intrudes, all the conflicts that divided ancient Christianity are back. Other religions have these issues too, as in the tensions between Sufi mystics and Orthodox legalists in Islam. And in generally, it just seems that organized religions and Gnostic-style quests for personal enlightenment have never mixed. So why not?

Of course the great work by Elaine Pagels casts a lot of light on the old Gnostic-Orthodox conflicts. She compares their different goals and their different means for getting there. She pieces together the arguments which led them to utterly reject one another. And what was the root of their differences? It seems they started out with different assumptions on what was important, and argued from there. For example, was the main purpose of religion to build better, stronger communities, or was it mainly a tool for personal change? If those assumed goals seemed to compete, who should decide the priority? These kinds of questions appeared in Paul’s letters, and I think we can watch how they grew.

naked flower

Paul’s Problems with Religious Freedom

As Paul started his preaching career, he boldly encouraged people to experiment in building new kinds of community. He praised the initiative of female leaders and the mixing of ethnic traditions. He famously declared that human beings have no right to judge one another. He apparently believed that this realization could establish freedom, and banish strife from the world. But at the same time he felt responsible to ensure that his social experiments produced the right results. After saying that Jesus brought freedom, even from the Jewish law, Paul immediately faced a series of controversies over the limits of freedom. And for all his talk of liberty, he was still an ex-Pharisee and former agent of the national Sanhedrin, who was used to enforcing his moral standards on others.

When the church in Corinth made choices that Paul found offensive, he sometimes tried to argue like an elder brother: “‘We are free to do anything,’ you say. Yes … but does everything help build the community? Each of you must regard not his own interests, but the other man’s” (I Corinthians 10:23–24). Other times Paul presumed to answer like a Pharisee governor, in which case he could completely repudiate Jesus’ attitude toward sinners: “Make no mistake; no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the Kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 6:9–10).

Obviously, Paul had his own image of what sort of community the Corinthians should be building. And if their dreams for the church differed from his, Paul suggested they distrust their own sentiments—in favor of “the other man’s.” It sounded selfless and responsible. Church officials never tired of repeating it. But which other men should these people trust more than themselves?

As his churches grew, Paul’s priorities shifted. From trying to change individual lives, he focused more on building the organization. For example, he increasingly judged spiritual practices more by their effects on the community than by their effects on the individual practitioners. We can see it in his remarks about speaking in tongues:

When a man is using the language of ecstasy he is talking with God, not with men, for no man understands him. He is no doubt inspired, but he speaks mysteries. On the other hand, when a man prophesies, he is talking to men, and his words have the power to build; they stimulate and they encourage [others]. The language of ecstasy is good for the speaker himself, but it is prophecy that builds up a Christian community. (1 Corinthians 14: 2–4)

If the wider community found ecstatic speaking offensive, Paul would presumably ask the speakers to restrain their practice. That’s why he called for constraints on women when their leadership drew public resentment. He seemed to be saying that free Christians should subordinate their interests to those of the organization. If so, how subordinate?

Not all Christians agreed with this shift in priorities. Some wanted to focus on their own inner journey rather than strengthening the organization. For Paul, the best Christian was the one who sacrificed the most time, energy, and wealth in building the church. But he also spoke of his own inner visions as the primary inspiration for all that he did. How much of these inner experiences was it helpful for him share? Some things, he felt, should be shared only with those who were ready to understand:

And yet I do speak words of wisdom to those who are ripe for it, not a wisdom belonging to this passing age, nor to any of its governing powers, which are declining to their end; I speak God’s hidden wisdom, his secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our full glory. The powers that rule the world have never known it; if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But in the words of scripture, ‘Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love him’, these it is that God has revealed to [some of] us through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2: 6–10)

If his own inner visions would only confuse or offend others, Paul judged he should keep them hidden. It was a matter of what would help the church’s public image. So, was the individual or the organization the primary concern? In a conflict of interests, which should overrule the other? Jesus seemed willing to either defend or reject traditions based on what seemed more compassionate for particular people. But Paul and other church leaders increasingly treated the community as more important. Soon, those who made the organization primary claimed the label of “Orthodox.” And those who put personal experience first were soon labeled heretics, or “Gnostics.” The term meant “knowers”—especially knowers who claimed to know more than the clergy.

gnostic reader

The Gnostic Discipline Problem

Around 70 years after Paul died, a Christian named Valentinus began teaching Paul’s “hidden wisdom,” as reportedly learned from Paul’s disciple Theudas. And in this teaching, the priority of organizational over personal growth was reversed. According to Valentinus, the true church was not a particular organization; it was the portion of humanity that recognized its divine origin. It was not an institution set down from on high, but a human means of self-discovery. And Valentinus claimed that he had achieved such self-discovery. Now he offered teachings “beyond” the rules and beliefs stressed by most priests, to “those ripe for it.” But when Valentinus tried to present his wisdom, he came under growing attack from the professional clergy. One of the first signs of an emerging international orthodoxy was an agreement among many regional bishops that Valentinus was an unauthorized Gnostic teacher who should be chased from their church.

What was the problem? Jesus had simply debated whoever he disagreed with, and it was “the Orthodox” who treated him as a discipline problem. But now the Christian movement’s officials had their own discipline problems over who should follow who. The emerging professional clergy were starting to act like governors of their flocks. When other church members presumed to teach or play the prophet, there were struggles over who could speak for Jesus. These “Gnostic-Orthodox” conflicts lasted until the 300s, when the clergy gained state-backed power to outlaw opposition. But even before then, these disputes led to a first round of restrictions on freedom in the churches.

According to Tertullian (early 200s), the Gnostics favorite saying was “Seek and you shall find.” But what, he asked, were they seeking, and who were they seeking it from? If the church already offered every truth and sacrament needed for salvation, what else did the Gnostics want? Hippolytus raised a similar question in his Refutation of All Heresies (ca. 230), and he answered partly by quoting a Gnostic teacher named Monoimus:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate … If you carefully investigate these matters you will find them in yourself.

Apparently, this Monoimus wanted people to learn about salvation from themselves, instead of from Jesus and his church. Hippolytus was concerned. What would sinners learn if they tried to teach themselves? Wouldn’t the proud learn arrogance, and the hateful teach hate? Hippolytus felt it was fine for Christians to ask deep questions. He just accused the Gnostics of taking their answers from the wrong authorities.

To Tertullian, these Gnostics were guilty of a monstrous sin: they took their own inner experiences as more important than the word of God’s community. Of course there was a biblical tradition of people having visions and speaking as prophets. But Bishop Irenaeus (ca. 130–ca. 202) accused Gnostic laypeople of simply making up religion from their own private psychoses: “They are to be blamed for … describing human feelings, passions, and mental tendencies … and ascribing these things … to the divine Word.” Irenaeus found their arrogance astounding: “They imagine that they themselves have discovered more than the apostles, and … they themselves are wiser and more intelligent than the apostles.”

Sure enough, some Gnostics went about claiming to have realized their own inner divinity, calling themselves “royal sons” of the Lord. Referring to Jesus’ saying that people are more important than the Sabbath, some Egyptian Gnostics called themselves “Lords of the Sabbath.” Comparing their souls’ freedom to the power of absolute monarchs, they said “For a king, the law is unwritten.” Irenaeus, found their self-importance frightfully silly: “If anyone yields himself to them like little sheep, and follows out their practice and their redemption, such a person becomes so puffed up that … he walks with a strutting gait and a supercilious countenance, possessing all the pompous air of a strutting cock!”

For the Gnostics, no teaching or authority seemed to be final. If the bishops claimed to teach the received truth, the Gnostics said it was only a prelude to greater things. The Gnostics of Irenaeus’s church in Gaul didn’t reject their bishop’s sermons or rites; they just regarded these as “elementary teachings” on the path to more advanced knowledge. When Irenaeus tried to correct these people they replied, “We alone know the necessity of birth and the ways by which a man enters the world. And being so fully instructed, we alone are able to pass through and beyond decay.” We can imagine how modern pastors would feel if members of their congregations announced such wisdom.

Clearly the Gnostics were an endless headache. How were the designated priests supposed to handle laypeople who claimed “higher” teachings than those of the bishop? What if they claimed to receive new revelations directly from God or Jesus, and said those insights should supersede earlier teachings? The followers of these new revelations formed associations within churches. They often regarded themselves as a spiritual elite, and looked down on other members or clergy as less evolved souls. Irenaeus sensed a danger of division as a Gnostic group in his church conducted its own special rites. In their services they drew lots for playing roles of “prophet” or “priest,” and both women and men played these parts. They taught that the Old Testament God who demanded blind obedience was a false deity; the true path to enlightenment required learning independence from authority. What was this, Irenaeus asked, other than license to “overthrow discipline”?

Discussions between Orthodox and Gnostic Christians tended to go nowhere. The Gnostics could always claim their critics were too spiritually immature to understand them. They could even quote scripture on this, because Paul made the same potentially infuriating argument:

A man who is unspiritual refuses what belongs to the spirit of God; it is folly to him; he cannot grasp it, because it needs to be judged in the light of the Spirit. A man gifted with the Spirit can judge the worth of everything, but is not himself subject to judgment by his fellow men. For (in the words of Scripture) “Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who can advise him?” We, however, possess the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14–16)

Surely though, some line had to be drawn on who could speak for God. Irenaeus warned that the Gnostics, “… put forth their own compositions, while boasting that they have more gospels than there really are … They really have no gospel which is not full of blasphemy. For what they have published … is totally unlike what has been handed down to us from the apostles.” If every Christian’s inner vision had the status of divine revelation, wouldn’t Jesus’ teaching grow subordinate to every lesser person’s “insight”?

No doubt many Gnostic practices and teachers were less than helpful. As Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them.” And most clergymen claimed that the Gnostics’ fruits were foolishness, division, and collapse of all authority. But the Gnostics judged their spiritual practices by the effects on themselves. With a somewhat experimental attitude they asked what worked in lifting the pain of fear and despair. They said all experience was a learning process, and they were “on the path.” But their path was a subjective, personal experience. It was not the usual focus of civic-minded Christians who would build a moral majority.

spirals of light

The Future of Orthodoxy

As the Christian community grew, its bishops increasingly turned to issues of administration. With so many souls to lead, they grew concerned to establish common guidelines for all, and to enforce them. The church started to resemble a state within a state—often more concerned to govern its flock than inspire it. Where many Gnostics spoke of personal paths of “growth to the stature of Christ,” Orthodox leaders like Tertullian seemed bent on setting an upper limit to growth: “Away with all attempts to produce a mixed Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, or dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Jesus Christ, no inquiring after enjoying the gospel! With our faith we desire no further belief.”

In reply, the Gnostic “seekers” accused the clergy of throwing out the very goal of religion. Their Apocalypse of Peter called Orthodox bishops “waterless canals.” The Testimony of Truth accused, “They say, ‘[Even if] an [angel] comes from heaven, and preaches to you beyond what we preach to you, let him be accursed!’” Some Gnostics threw Jesus’ words against the clergy: “Alas, alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites that you are! You shut the door of the Kingdom in men’s faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others are entering, you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13) How could the clergy win this debate unless they threw out people who contradicted them?

Where Paul had revised his original ideals to limit the challenge of female leaders, the later clergy shifted things further, to block initiative from non-ordained men. Rather than allowing “their” churches to be corrupted by other people’s foolishness, the bishops increasingly agreed to “excommunicate” insubordinate members, ban their unapproved books, and discredit their personal quests for enlightenment. In that case, Christianity could become a matter of observing rules and following the right authorities, with rewards or punishments accordingly.

We can see how these disagreements grew into an impasse of utter frustration, followed by the suppression of Gnostic religion for over a thousand years. And as we encounter similar issues today, we can see how the question of who’s boss tends to conflict with the question of what works to heal suffering. Maybe now we’re more aware of choosing which questions we answer.


Frend, W.H.C., The Early Church

Grant, Robert M., Augustus to Constantine: The Trust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World

Griffith, Brian, Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels

Perkins, Pheme, Peter: Apostle for the Whole Church

Written by Brian Griffith

Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.


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