Monday, November 2, 2009

Are Gnostics heretics?

I have really enjoyed reading the comments you left in my post about the Gnostic quiz. Something that occurred to me again and again as I read what you had to say is how much this term exists in tension with traditional religions.

The traditional religions define themselves as "not Gnostic" because the term is perceived as a marker for "heretic." So Mormonism, for one example, will self-define as "not Gnostic" (as we saw in some of your comments) while an outsider studying Mormonism and its formation may see the major signifiers of a modern Gnostic movement (as we also saw in some of your comments). Why? Because Mormonism has the esoteric teachings and practices surrounding the Temple in which the insider's knowledge is transmitted to the initiate, a transtheistic god viewed in ways very different from traditional Christianity, new revealed scriptures that reinterpret and critique traditional interpretation, and a critical subversive stance regarding traditional Christianity. And it became a separatist Christian tradition, if not a new religious movement (again, this is likely a matter of perspective).

Keep in mind that "gnosis" is not a particular set of beliefs so much as it is knowledge that is esoteric (hidden and revealed to a few), mystical (direct immediate experience of God), and subversive (critiques traditional religion).

It is this last segment of the definition that makes "Gnosis" different from other forms of knowledge and other religiosities. The Gnostics believe(d) that the traditional religion does not understand even its own scripture, and that they alone knew/know the true God who exists beyond the god(s) of traditional religion. So my question today is this. Are Gnostics "heretics" by self-definition? In other words, is this only a polemical perspective of the non-Gnostic defining the Gnostic as a heretic? Of is there something intrinsic about Gnosis that makes it heretical?


rameumptom said...

Great question.

I suppose a lot of it has to do with the concept of orthodoxy. In Biblical history, there have always been heretics and the orthodoxy that fights it.

OT scholar Margaret Barker has written how the Deuteronomists of Josiah's time became the new orthodoxy, changing the old temple rites. They tossed out angels, the Tree of Life, and other things from their sacred rituals; leaving the Israelites with temple-lite.

It was this new orthodoxy that Jeremiah fought against.

And we see the same thing with Jesus, as he attacks the Pharisees, Sadduccees and hypocrites. Jesus attempted to bring about a new orthodoxy, or perhaps restore an older Messianic tradition.

Ancient Christian Gnosticism seems to have tried to do the same thing. As orthodoxy began to reject continuing revelation, miracles, etc., the Gnostics attempted to bring forth their teachings as a restoration of older things (thus focusing on rediscovered teachings from and about dead prophets and apostles).

Heresy is in the eye of the beholder. For the orthodox, they have historically seen their role as a defender of the pure faith, ensuring it is not tainted by false creeds or doctrines. Of course they will view any challenge to their doctrines to be heretical.

But what happens if the orthodoxy is based upon heretical forms? What then? Origen was once THE defender of the faith, until St Augustine declared him a heretic, because of Origen's teachings on Christ being subordinate and separate from God. In such instances, who gets to decide orthodoxy? The winners?

TonyTheProf said...

I think the old concepts of heresy cannot easily be applied in a modern situation. Perhaps inclusive / exclusive as a spectrum would be better?

For instance, how restrictive are churches in allowing outsiders in? In our church, anyone can come who wants to receive communion, the table is Jesus open invitation, not the churches.

In some churches, different denominations are welcome to partake of communion, but in others less so.

The Gnostics clearly wanted an exclusive club, and they are the extreme form of this spectrum.

The real question becomes: what is wrong with being exclusive?

Stephen said...

Gnostics certainly are not heretics by "self-definition"; no one is likely to define his/her own beliefs as "heretical".

Your very interesting question, as all philosophical questions, comes down to a matter of definitions. What do you mean when you say "gnostic"?

If by "gnostic" you mean "anyone who teaches 'hidden' things that are not necessarily broadcast to the world," then Jesus himself would have to be considered gnostic. In that case, the question becomes, Was Jesus heretical? (Good luck with that one...) If by "gnostic" you mean something else, e.g. the Wikipedia definition of demiurge v. pleroma belief system, then you have to ask a second question:

What do you mean when you say "heretical"? That is, from which belief system do we define variation as heresy? If by "heresy" you mean anything that contradicts the modern sects of creedal Christianity, then certainly any text seen as "gnostic" is heretical. In my (tiny) experience, when the average person speaks of "gnostic heresy", he means exactly this. Of course, if I wish to define Latter-day Saint belief as the standard against which all heresy is defined, then some so-called "gnostic" teachings won't be heretical at all, while much that is taught in larger Christianity (and, by the way, by many Gnostics) will be heretical.

I have my own personal opinions on what constitutes heresy and on what "gnostic" means. I'm happy with everyone else having his/her private definition, as well. What I find distasteful is when various definitions are used sequentially to form bad logic, e.g.:

1. Many Mormon teachings are gnostic in character.

2. Gnosticism is heresy.

3. Therefore, Mormonism is heresy.

Of course, people are welcome to consider Mormonism as heresy, or as fairy tales, or as a roast beef sandwich, for all I care. But when "gnostic" is defined differently in adjacent usages, it muddles the meaning.

1. My sense of humor is dry.

2. Dry things lack water.

3. Therefore I need to be doused with a hose.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PAULYR said...

There is no doubt that leaders of orthodox or mainstream Christianity in the early centuries after Christ identified gnostics as heretics. Did gnostics themselves have a problem with this label? I think not.

tyler m taber said...

I just stumbled across your blog. Nice work. I especially liked your posting on the Gospel of Thomas...the one with FAQ's on it.

Seth R. said...

Hidden knowledge wasn't the only attribute of the Gnostics.

Vehement rejection of a corporeal God was also a big feature (reminds you of someone - but it ain't the Mormons).

Seems there's plenty of Gnostic vibe to go around.

Pastor Bob said...

Wouldn't Gnostics consider orthodox Christians to be heretics?

mac said...

My answer to this question is that gnosis is BOTH heretical and not heretical at the same time. This answer is based on a fundamental in the Quantum world view concerning reality. See quote below.

"One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality." .......quote ScienceDaily (Feb. 27, 1998) — REHOVOT, Israel, February 26, 1998

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Rationalist, liberal, once of Reformation, ofsshoots would not be called Gnostic, because there is no pretence to a secret infomation. The esoteric might be significant but also the notion of secret knowledge, or specific insight on the same material is the important part of gaining the label Gnostic.

rameumptom said...

I do not think the ancient Gnostics would have considered the proto-orthodox as heretics. Instead, the Gnostics often would meet with the standard church, believing there were two levels of gospel truth. The first level belonged to the proto-orthodoxy of the day, and then the higher order belonged to the mystery/secret of the Gnostic sect they belonged to.

As for the Gnostic concept of a non-corporeal God entering into orthodox Christianity, I think it is actually a matter of Hellenism, rather than Gnostic teachings subverting or injecting themselves into the proto-orthodoxy. Both proto-orthodox and Gnostic authors began to heavily use Greek philosophy to explain the gospel. Christianity began as a Jewish sect, but was transformed heavily by Paul as he took it out to the Gentile nations. And as the Gentile converts began to outweigh the Jewish converts, the focus and teachings for conversion changed dramatically. To convert Greeks, it was felt that one had to teach via Greek philosophy.

The Greek concept that the earth was imperfect, and God, being perfect, must be made of some other substance, changed the anthropomorphic God of the Bible into the perfect God of Greek philosophy. So, in this instance, I do not believe it was Gnosticism that influenced the proto-orthodox Church, but that Hellenism influenced both.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Well said Ram,

Also, I think that Gnostics were/are subversive in that they are mistrustful and critical of the ecclesiological establishment/anti-establishment. But then again reformers also fall into that category. Also, failed reformers/maintainers of a religious tradition often end up heretics in the history books.
And remember the first rule oforthodoxy : because we are right, we get the bible-right to be jerks about it.

James said...

Heretic to whom? Certainly we Gnostics go against the majority, However it is not out of simple desire to be different.

There are a whole lot of religions (including Agnosticism and Atheism) that are much easier paths to follow than Gnosticism, which though it avoids judaising, is still a complex discipline, and cannot be approached lightly.

So am I a Heretic? If you wish. I generally don't pause long enough to consider or even care what other religions might think of me. I KNOW I am on the correct path for me.

Secret information? Hardly. We are pretty excited about what we learn, but it excites no one else :) It's probably always been that way.

Seth R. said...

That might be what Jesus meant with his "pearls before swine" remarks. And how he explained to his disciples that they would be privy to the explanations, while the masses would only hear the parables.

Not that Jesus wasn't willing to share information with everyone. It's just that not everyone was going to care about it or appreciate it.

James said...

The Gospel of John itself is a pretty heretical text. Countless apologetics have been written to explain how it doesn't really mean what it says. Simply reading it(in english) without prior "orthodox education", we find out very quickly thru hidden innuendo that no man has ever seen God, Moses is a murderer and a liar, and salvation is dependent on knowing the true god, which, until the coming of Christ, has been hidden. No wonder authorship has been a various times ascribed to Marcion.

The Bible itself is full of these wonderful little arguments, as various authors contribute their viewpoints, and supports a myriad of differing theological and ideological viewpoints.

Blake said...

It seems that Mormons are separatist Gnostics as defined by Dr. DeConick even from the perspective of Mormons. In addition to a tradition of initiation into knowledge disclosed only to the members of the separatist organization, Mormons also view the tradition as in apostasy -- tho just what that means is open to discussion. Mormons add new scripture and believe that they (we) are the genuine continuation of God's covenant people and not the tradition.

However, "orthodoxy" or "heterodoxy" are value judgments made from a particular perspective. Certainly as a Mormon I don't see myself as heterodox. I do see myself as a gnostic in the sense of a being a one who knows, in possession of special revelation and seek to persuade others to open to the possibility of becoming part of the Mormon community.

sparkwidget said...

I question the use of "subversive" in a description of Gnosis. I am sure the Gnostics did not consider themselves subversives. I am also doubtful that there was a monolithic church to subvert in the Gnostic hayday anyhow.

It could be said that mainstream Christianity is equally subversive of established religion, IE Roman/Greek religion and Judaism. Furthermore, it could be said that the Church successfully subverted Gnosticism. Thus "subversive" loses its force as a distinguishing feature of Gnosticism.

I try not to let the traditional language of heresy and orthodoxy creep into my speech about Gnosticism, which developed earlier than the clear distinction of these terms. I prefer to say this-doxy, that-doxy, or the other-doxy, rather than right-doxy or wrong-doxy, to keep our historically later biases out of the picture.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Ummm, I think subversive is the right word considering the context of the post. This post was piggy-backing onto another post which was braving the dangerous ground of drawing parallels between present-day Gnosticism and current incarnations of traditional religions. In this present day context, I don't see what other word would work. Subversive is not inherently a pejorative term.

Moreover, Gnosticism, which is Hellenistic in origin, would have to have been, by definition, 'subversive' in relation to the original Jewish sect which was the Jesus movement.

rameumptom said...

Once again, "subversive", like "heretic" are all in the viewpoint. From the viewpoint of orthodoxy, Gnostics were both heretics and subversive. And the terms would have been used as pejoratives.

However, from the viewpoint of the Gnostic, they were neither. We aren't looking at any specific group being subverted, per se. After all, the Christian-Jewish sect was severed by Paul before the Gnostics took root in Christianity.

And Hellenism affected both the Gnostics and proto-orthodoxy of the day.

Perhaps the best phrase may be "competing Christian sects." As that is exactly what they were, regardless of which sect you found yourself in.

zOrv said...

It would seem to me that heresy is so often a "charge" or "heretic" a label used by the controlling leadership of an established religious group to exclude or limit the power of those who do not agree with the established definitions and/or interpretations of that group. Thus the Roman Catholics at one time considered Galileo a heretic, not based on science or evidence but based upon a perceived threat to traditional interpretations and power structures. Seems to me the charge of heresy is designed to remove from fellowship and influence those who threaten the power structure or interpretations of the traditional stake holders in a defined religious group. So I guess that means heresy is like liberalism - what is a liberal? Someone who is a little "left" of me :)

Orville Erickson

findingpeace said...

Gosh, there is so much interest in gnosticsim. Great discussion :)

It's funny though the word heresy, so much fuss is made over it and from looking at its use for over hundreds of years, it has made quite the stance on breaking people apart and creating so much tension when there is a disagreement on a set of beliefs.

Heresy, from greek, stems from the meaning 'choosing' or choosing a different belief, way of thought.

But gnosis is much more then a different belief. And with a simple word, and putting a negative connotation to it really limits what can be explored when someone wishes to see any true teachings found in gnosis.

IF you like, here's a video some of you might be interested in: