04 March 2017

Gnosticism through a Dominionist Lens Part 4

Elitist Knowledge

Reeves raises the issue of the Gnostics and the notion of Elitist Knowledge. Operating in a manner reminiscent of the mystery religions, later Freemasonry and found today in groups like the Mormons, many of the Gnostic groups carefully guarded the secret knowledge and the initiate was introduced progressively in stages. There were the lower orders of followers and then there were the elite which possessed the greater and deeper secrets, which were often all but closed or hidden to the regular members.
While that paradigm finds no exact parallel in the modern Evangelical Church, one may speak of a tendency toward elitism that is found in the clergy-laity distinction, the embrace and veneration of the academy and in particular the emphasis that reigns supreme in the world of denominations.
While on the level of the street, many Evangelical leaders are simply privy to more time and desire to learn, there's often another element to the relationship between leader and follower. The Scriptures certainly present ecclesiastical offices and these same men possess a type of authority of the Church. It is the authority of the shepherd, not the lord or aristocrat.
The clergy-laity distinction often has a tendency to fall into the aristocracy-peasantry divide and there are instances in which knowledge is something protected and guarded by the elite. The 'layman' who ventures into that world of knowledge is viewed as both a blessing and a danger. I must say, and this is a subjective assessment on my part, I have found that many 'pastors' are reticent and guarded when it comes to a layman becoming theologically educated. They don't want to be questioned. They want to be obeyed. An educated layman has to be brought 'on board' and integrated into the Church structure... usually under the premise of 'lay' eldership, a notion the New Testament doesn't actually teach. The New Testament teaches a plurality of elders but the case for distinctions of office within the local presbytery (council of elders) is weak if nonexistent. It is a convenient tool developed in the early Church as a mean to justify episcopacy and it as largely retained (in modified form) by most factions after the Magisterial Reformation.
And yet beyond the normative patterns of ecclesiastical structure we find the world of the academy. While it is not my intention (in any way shape or form) to decry the quest, usefulness and right desire for knowledge I have found that when you have an institutional system and with it schools, universities, buildings, salaries, pension plans etc., there's often a mindset that goes along with it. There's an impulse toward protectionism and the policing of knowledge. The flock is not viewed as a group to be shepherded unto flourishing, but controlled, managed and in many cases exploited. The difference here can be quite subtle.
In the end what I mean to suggest is that the tendency toward Elitism rears its head wherever faction and institution are found. And it is the scholars in the upper tier of the academy where often the highest degrees of this elitist tendency and pomposity are to be found. The knowledge isn't 'secret' as per the Gnostics but there is a disparaging attitude toward anyone who would dare to venture into their realm without the proper credentials or to put it another way, one who doesn't possess the proper passwords, hasn't gone through the initiations etc...
It's something to think about.
On another level there is definitely a tendency toward Elitism to be found among certain Hyper-Calvinists within the Reformed world. I'm speaking of a loosely defined group or quasi-faction located within the Reformed world and often on its fringes. For many within this group, salvation is reduced to form of Gnostic-type knowledge. The saved are those who know and understand not just the basics of the Gospel but a deeper system of truths surrounding the issues of election and predestination. And you must get it right. There are a series of gateway shibboleths and specific ways of framing the issues and arguments. The 'somewhat' ignorant might be saved but are viewed (de jure) as something of a lower order. Those who learn the concepts and lingo and yet refuse to comply with the jot and tittle of the formulation are castigated and rejected as heretics. While not quite the same as what was found among the Gnostics, there is a similar tendency at work to be sure.
The same could be said among the elite 'scholars' of Dispensationalism or even the pseudo-prophets of the Charismatic movement. The knowledge in the case of the latter is of a different order but the tendency is the same.
What does all this have to do with Reeve's assessment of Gnosticism? It's just this, that the tendency extends beyond the Gnostics and once again that strange brew of Hellenistic Judaizing infected the Church from other angles than merely cosmology and soteriology.
It would be a mistake to understand the forces opposing the Apostles in the New Testament were merely Gnostics of the Syrian, Egyptian or Persian school. The nature of error, the heresy combated by the Apostles in the New Testament is somewhat elusive and hard to pin down. It's clearly there, in every epistle and yet it's never clearly defined. There are reasons for this I believe. I would argue the errors represent tendencies and impulses, a spectrum of errors that have and will continue to plague the Church throughout this age. The New Testament's lack of clarity on this point affords it (by design I believe) a generalised utility and applicability to the Church in all contexts. Sufficiency is both by design and of great practical utility.
To be fair Reeves' purpose in this brief introductory lecture was something less than a complete fleshing out of Gnostic thought along with its implications and influences. And yet, without at least a hint of these questions, the presentation risks straying into territory that can become somewhat misleading. This is what irked me about his video and prompted me to use it as a monition or object lesson.
At 21 minutes into the lecture Reeves raises the issue of the relationship between body and soul. Are we bodies with a soul or souls with a body? Reeves dismisses the dichotomy and argues that we are existentially body-soul creatures, that in our essence as it were, we are at least partly physical creatures.
This is a difficult question and I'm not sure if the Scripture gives us enough information to formulate a complete doctrine. Theology of course seeks to do just that through what is believed to be warranted but speculative inference and deduction.
But the question becomes even more subtle when one considers that post lapsum, in light of the curse we are primarily souls with bodies that are referred to in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 5 and 2 Peter 1) as impermanent or temporary tents, tabernacles for the soul that are to be laid aside. The language is not one of transformation but of temporality, impermanence and defection. We are at present in an improper state as it were and this is something Reeves not only misses but would surely reject.
But this is complicated by the fact that not only do we find language speaking of our bodies as tents but expressions such as to be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5.8). While Paul is not discounting the expectation of resurrected and redeemed flesh, the soul apart from the body is viewed as closer to the ideal than the soul present within the body of This Age.
The Biblical doctrine is something other than the Gnostic hostility to the body and yet it's not reflected by Reeves views either. Once again the Gnostic view has a certain plausible surface similarity to what Scripture teaches. Gnosticism could, due to the closely related concepts, find a means to infiltrate and tweak the doctrine of Scripture. The sanctification even deification of creation found in Reeves view represents once again the Hellenistic Judaizing strain being combated in the New Testament, an error that (it could be argued) falls within the Gnostic spectrum or is at the very least an equally dangerous error being put forth by the false teachers seeking to subvert the Apostles. Once again it must be emphasised that the Gnostic Spectrum was not exclusively dualist but there also monist tendencies to be found within certain groups and certainly among the Judaizers.

Continue reading Part 5 (final)