04 March 2017

Gnosticism through a Dominionist Lens Part 1

The Hellenistic-Judaizing Spectrum
After watching this brief lecture from Ryan Reeves a professor at Gordon-Conwell I've decided to use it as something of an object lesson, a framework with which to interact. The information is fairly basic but is viewed and interpreted within a framework that I would argue is something less than Scriptural.

Reeve's views represent what might be described as a typical but certainly flawed understanding of these issues. The usefulness of his lecture comes not in using it as a dead horse to be beat, but as a foil, a framework with which to interact. The right questions and issues are there. The errors of the Gnostics as well as Reeve's erroneous and skewed critique provide an ample opportunity to interact with both streams or currents, for both have long plagued the Body of Christ.
Sometimes the response to Gnosticism can be just as bad and as dangerous as the original error. His thinking is not out of the mainstream but in fact represents an outlook that has come to be the modern orthodox position within conservative Evangelical and confessional circles. 
However, I don't believe his position represents historic Protestantism and for many years I laboured within this battlefield contending for the 'historic' Reformed position, one that I used to hold very zealously and dear.
Finally I came to the realisation that though the older generations of Reformed and Protestant leaders did not embrace either the New Calvinism of present popularity or the Quasi-Theonomic Dominionism and Rationalism of modern Reformed and Evangelical Christianity, nevertheless there were deep problems and in many cases the nascent seeds and foundations had been laid for these later if unfortunate developments.
I do subscribe to the Calvin vs. the Calvinists school of thought. I do believe Protestant theology, even the conservative and confessional variety took a bad turn in the 17th century followed by an especially bad turn in the 19th, and embraced forms of rationalism. The effects were wide ranging affecting both theology proper as well as questions concerning Scripture. I also believe that the theology of the 19th century in particular was intertwined with the sociological context and milieu and that these factors have also had a profound effect on how people think and consequently the questions they raise, even in our own day.
Because of false meta-narratives regarding the West, Britain, America or several other organising principles and contexts, theology as a whole took a bad turn and has given us the disastrous and confusing chaos of our own day.
I say this not to champion the old Reformed Orthodoxy but to make a point.
Ryan Reeves does not represent the theology of the Reformers and yet in some respects he might be closer than I am... and in others I am certainly closer than many a 'confessional' 21st century Presbyterian. Whether Reeves is a Presbyterian or not, I have no idea. I would peg him as maybe something of a Reformed Baptist, but I could be wrong, and frankly most Presbyterians are (in my estimation) Baptists in all but name. They may apply water to infants but in doctrine they embrace Baptistic categories and presuppositions.
This is all introduction to the context of the brief Reeves lecture on Gnosticism. There is much that he gets right but also a great deal that is wrong and misunderstood. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. I say this not to champion moderation or a spirit of compromise but to argue that there is a third position, which rejects both the Gnostic paradigm and the world-affirming Dominionism of Reeves. It's not properly a compromise but instead a wholly different position that rejects both or (to be charitable) represents what might be described as triangulation.
The New Testament is fighting a battle against two impulses... the Paganizing tendencies that we often identify as Gnostic but also the Judaizing impulse that overtook not only Jewish converts but even appealed to many Gentile Christians. Misunderstanding the Old Testament, the nature of the Christian life and our place in the world, many misled people found hope, solace and grounding in identifying with the Old Covenant, its tactile ethics and this-worldly promises. Paul and the author of Hebrews demolish this understanding and posit a doctrinal framework that is rooted in Christ, a theology for otherworldly minded pilgrims and exiles. The imperatives of this doctrine are hostile and foreign to both the Paganizing Hellenist and the Judaizer to both the Gnostic and the Dominionist. These equally spurious creeds are not mutually exclusive. In fact in most cases, their adherents have created some form of hybrid what might be described as Hellenised Judaism and thus a Hellenised/Judaized form of Christianity, an error which reverberates from and even haunts the pages of the New Testament itself.
This reality further demonstrates that the answer is not 'in the middle' but is in fact 'other' and a rejection of both, while at the same time acknowledging that just as with many philosophical systems and non-Christian religions, there are hints and shades of truth contained therein.
This is the threat the Apostles contended with, a rival system of thought which in many cases approached, imitated and even appropriated the language and concepts of orthodox Christianity.
At about 4 minutes into this brief lecture, Reeves brings up the issue of Platonic cosmology and while he's right to identify the influence of Platonic thought and categories on Gnostic thinkers, it could be said that something crucial has been missed. While Gnostics may indeed have had a problem with the actual materiality of matter, what Reeves refers to as 'ickiness', he misses the point that these questions were not just biases against the material. Following Plato there were cosmological considerations regarding what is true and false and an appeal was often being made to a true or real world which was beyond our own existence on Earth.
This Earth and its matter were to some extent viewed as defective and deceitful, not to be trusted. The Gnostics are rightly identified with Plato and not Aristotle in their hearty rejection of empiricist epistemology. The senses deceive.
Now at this point we could enter a rather lengthy and complicated dispute over these same points and questions within a Christian context. The role of the senses and logic are much debated points throughout the history of Christianity and even today we are no closer in coming to a consensus on how to deal with these questions in the realm of apologetics and theological prolegomena.
As a Biblicist I too would be one who is somewhat dubious with regard to the trustworthiness of empirical data as well as acknowledging the severe limitations with regard to human logic and its categories.
One thing that needs to be considered is the fact that Gnosticism gained traction within the early Church because on many points it sounded and seemed so close to what the Apostles actually taught. While radically different, it was close enough to Scriptural paradigms that it could be presented as an alternative model, a viable form of exegesis, and a tradition which could seem to plausibly expand on what the New Testament taught.
This was its insidious nature. It sounded a lot like New Testament Christianity but was actually quite different.
This is not the picture that's often presented to us wherein Gnosticism is presented as the polar opposite of Christianity. It is, but it isn't. It's the similarities that provide points of contact.
On this first point it must be said that the Scriptures do in fact provide narratives, apperceptive commentary and concepts of a true spiritual world in its language and presentations of prophetic and apocalyptic revelation, its visions of heaven and certainly in its typology. The spiritualised and sometimes even allegorical readings of Old Testament prophecy and narratives establish hermeneutical principles that can indeed be abused and run astray. The answer is not to fall into literalism or in the case of matter... to venerate it. The conflict is more subtle.
Reeves is right to identify Gnosticism as a non-monolithic movement. I would describe it as both a tendency and a loose framework of ideas but more properly as a spectrum. There were obviously a multitude of Gnostic groups, each with their own variation of cosmology and epistemological sources and authorities.
It was syncretic, mixing and re-working Scripture with extra-Biblical ideas and concepts. While the Judaizing groups were not technically or properly speaking Gnostic, they were guilty of the same tendency. Reading the Old Testament through a lens that negated Christ and replaced His heavenly eschatological Messianism with an ethic and expectation of worldly glory and dominion led to perilously false concepts of not only soteriology but cosmology, eschatology and certainly one's teleology regarding this present world or age. The Gnostics combined various dualistic and in some cases pantheistic views from the Hellenistic world which necessarily incorporated tendencies from Persia, Syria, Egypt and perhaps even India.
Reeves next attacks the notion that Gnosticism antedated Christianity and yet it must be said that he's both right and wrong on this point. Gnosticism in terms of its foundational philosophy did indeed antedate the New Testament. In its form as a Christian Heresy, then yes it was subsequent to the Christ's Resurrection and yet is already appearing on the scene (in prototype form) within the book of Acts. It's Hellenistic philosophy plus Christianity and often in the New Testament it's a case Judeo-Hellenistic philosophy being combined with Christianity.
This syncretism lives on and continues to be reinvented as the Church passes into different cultural milieus. Today's syncretic heresies possess certain similarities, as false religion always reappears in similar guises and yet at the same time it can be quite different as we march through time and history. And also today we have many syncretists who will also argue their particular gloss represents the 'true' meaning or elucidation of Biblical doctrine.
Another reason the Gnostic spectrum appealed to people within the Church was because it combined Scripture with a host of ideas from the cultural milieu into (and this is so important) a coherent metanarrative, a comprehensive and holistic philosophy that afforded a type of elitist knowledge regarding the world and how it worked. There are many today who claim the label of Biblicism and yet in reality actually represent this holistic philosophical tendency and have unfortunately confused the two.
The Biblicism I would argue for is one of submission and even suspension... not of belief or even logic but an acknowledgment of limitation. This suspension of inquiry, this rejection of the quest for coherent holistic system is itself an act of and component of faith and trust. It is to acknowledge that we live in a cloud, in a fog as it were and it only the True Light of Jesus Christ as revealed in His Word that shows us the way. His Word is not to be developed, elaborated upon, probed, teased out or integrated into a larger system of thought. It is to be submitted to and obeyed. Informed ignorance is our lot and we must be content.
This is not to suggest that we cannot benefit from a rich body of doctrine which is the source of endless doxology and contemplation. But we must be very reticent in applying metaphysical or epistemological grids, let alone meta-narratives. We have some notion of this world's course and the nature of the world to come and yet in truth this knowledge is severely restricted. We certainly are given no warrant for the formation of civilisational narratives. We are limited to the theme of the Church vs. the World and its powers.

Continue reading Part 2