Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Gnosticism, Part 1

passioncartoonThis summer, my church is taking a break from its usual approach to adult Bible classes and going back to a more traditional approach — each class has a different subject. I thought I’d teach some new material on the Restoration Movement, tracing its roots all the way back to the First Century. I have no interest in trying to prove the continuity of the Churches of Christ back to Pentecost. That’s not the point of the series at all. Rather, the idea is to show through history how we became the people that we are.

And when I speak of being the people that we are, I don’t mean in contrast to the Baptists. I mean in contrast to what God meant for us to be. The goal is to help us see how various patterns of thinking have crept into Christianity (in the broadest sense) and how we in the Churches have sometimes rejected those errors while sometimes buying into other errors. Why reject some and not others?

We’ll see how it goes.

The first lesson is on Gnosticism, but I’d be better off, I think, to call it Platonism. It’s just that it’s gotten to be customary to speak in terms of the Gnostics.

Plato was, of course, a Greek philosopher who wrote centuries before Jesus. His works had become the centerpiece of Hellenistic thought in the First Century. After Alexander the Great had conquered the “world,” that is, the eastern Mediterranean areas east through Babylon and Persia, Greek thought had come to dominate the thinking of that part of the world — including Palestine. Indeed, Alexander’s successors worked diligently to convert the Jews to Hellenistic thinking and had some success. The Saduccees we read about in the Gospels were Hellenistic — and they included most of the priestly class.

Hellenistic thought had many features, but the one we want to focus on is Plato’s understanding of the spiritual world. He taught a radical contrast between the material and the spiritual. The spiritual is good and pure; the material is base and wrong. Thus, a “Platonic relationship” is love without sex — love being holy and pure but sex being base and wrong. This led to some Greeks honoring homosexual sex above heterosexual sex because homosexual sex had not prospect of creating children. It was seen as somehow purer.

Judaism, of course, took a radically different view of things. God’s first command to the married was–

(Gen 1:28a)  God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

God could hardly have more clearly said that sex is good — a gift from God — and that bearing children honors the Father of us all.

Platonic thought also demeaned the Creation. This world is a poor imitation of the real thing in heaven. As Plato expresses it through the voice of Socrates,

Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other people up, they find themselves objects of scorn and ridicule.

According to Socrates, physical objects and physical events are “shadows” of their ideal or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by physical objects, physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances.

Thus, in Platonic thought, the physical world is a mere shadow, and not the real thing.

In Judaism, however, the physical world is made by God himself.

(Gen 1:31)  God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.

When Christianity arose out of Judaism and expanded into the Hellenistic Gentile world, the two points of view quickly came into conflict. The most immediate problem was the difficulty the Greeks had with imagining God become incarnate: God in the flesh was a contradiction in terms to the Greek thinker.

(1 Cor 1:22-25)  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Another difficulty arose from one strain of Platonic thought: asceticism. The idea was that we can escape the evil of this material world by rejecting its pleasures. If we refuse all fleshly pleasures and instead focus on the purely “spiritual,” we come closer to God.

(Col 2:20-23)  Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

(1 Tim 4:1-5)  The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

The opposite approach also arose — antinomianism. The idea was that because the flesh is inherently corrupt there is no reason to even try to escape our fleshly natures.

(1 Cor 6:12-20)  “Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”–but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

Some in Corinth argued, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” — surely meaning “Sex for the sex organs and sex organs for sex” — that is, that we were made to enjoy sex and therefore should do so — even with temple prostitutes. Paul argues against this on several grounds, one of which is —

19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

In other words, there’s an essential connection between our spiritual and fleshly natures. It’s not that the flesh is so far removed from the spiritual that we can’t control it. Rather, the flesh is so holy that God is willing to live within our bodies through his Spirit.

Now, while this kind of thinking was a serious problem in New Testament times, it became much worse later in a movement called Gnosticism. Gnosticism takes its name from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism took several forms, but became a substantial heresy within Christianity, producing volumes of writings that have been found and give insight into the peculiarities of this approach to Christianity.


14 Responses

  1. I have been surprised several times by those with distinguished CofC pedigrees when they expressed a desire to be cremated as they have become tired of their bodies due to illness, obesity, and other health problems. When I suggested that the resurrection will include a resurrection of our bodies they wondered where I ever got such a strange idea. I explained that it would be a glorified body and free of defects, alas to no avail. They viewed the best situation as being a disembodied spirit floating around in spiritual never never land. How sad to be in the CofC for 60 years and rarely miss a bible class and still be so ignorant of the clear teaching of scripture regarding the resurrection of the body; adopting instead the popular philosophy of the day. And they haven’t a clue that the popular philosophy of the day is over 2000 years old. Do you think it is possible that we view other concepts through the lenses of ancient Greek philosophy? Someone suggested he knew people that bowed down and worshiped at the altar of Freewill. Surely he was exaggerating!

  2. I don’t want to be cremated because I’m tired of my body, but rather because I think boneyards are a waste of created space.

    Jay, I’m rereading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in 10,000 Places, and I was just reading how he deals with Gnosticism as the great threat to the goodness of the created order and the meaning of the Incarnation. He points to Genesis 1(goodness of time) & 2(goodness of place) and John 1 as the foundational texts for living out the goodness of creation.

  3. Randall,
    Two questions: (1) Do you think cremation deters a future bodily resurrection? (2) Are you really sure that those COC folks mean that they do not believe in a future bodily resurrection. I am shocked to think so, then not so shocked at the same time.

  4. Gary,
    To answer your questions briefly,:
    1. No, I do not believe cremation deters a future bodily resurrection. I do believe that some (much?) of the time it is a reflection of a lack of understanding regarding the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Historically, I think Jews and Christians buried b/c of a belief in bodily resurrection and others e.g. Buddhists cremate in part b/c they do not believe in a resurrection of the body. We know that God is capable of resurrecting the body of anyone including those burned (completely consumed)in fire, lost at sea and eaten by sealife, cremated etc.

    2. Yes, I am sure that those I referred to did not believe in a resurrection of the body – at least at that time. I queried them on this point as I know them well – i.e. some are relatives and others long time friends including an elder. They confirmed their belief and expressed surprise at mine. I trust I was able to pique further interest in this doctrine.

    Glad to hear your experience has been different than mine.

  5. Randall,

    In my experience, nearly all members of the CoC (around here) assume heaven to be filled with disembodied souls. The bodily resurrection is very rarely taught, and when taught, seems a bit odd.

    For those readers new to the concept of a bodily resurrection, see my series from last summer on N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

  6. I’m not familiar with that book, but the reviews on Amazon are pretty glowing. I’ve added it to my wish list.

  7. Randall and Jay and All,
    I have to admit I am shocked by this. I guess I just assumed all these years that the COC part of the Restoration movement believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This may explain a lot: missionaries who beat each other up over doctrine, perverts in the pulpit, and very contentious people as elders, and duplicitous members. If Christ is not risen (in His body as taught by Paul), we are still in our sins and not saved. If one does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then that person is not saved, not even if they are baptized “correctly”. A church of unsaved people claiming to be the “one true church” is scary and evil.
    I think this conversation is probably the most important one we have stumbled across. Polls should be done and questionnaires sent out and elders and preachers given a short course in systematic theology first, and then a massive preaching campaign in all Churches of Christ should take place to expose this problem and call a false church to repentance-IF it is a significant problem.


  8. Gary,

    Most COC people I’ve talked eschatology with believe in the bodily resurrection of JESUS, but also 1) they assume that his body stopped being tangible, etc., at the Ascension, 2) his body was ONLY raised to prove he was the Son of God to the disciples and the Jews, and 3) when we are raised, we’ll skip the embodied stage Jesus went through, because Peter says creation will be annihilated anyway.

    I believe it is an uneasy wedding of Platonism/Gnosticism with ancient Judeo-Christian incarnated eschatology. “We know creation is bad now, and we’re all going to heaven where only spirits live, but Paul and the gospel writers talk about Jesus’ resurrection body SO MUCH that we can’t just ignore it.”

  9. Gary,
    I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. You should understand that not only is the resurrection of the body not accepted as it should be but even the concept of theology is not well accepted. I have had elders in a large CofC (that considered itself “progressive”) tell me that theology is a bad word. For decades the only mention of systematic theology in class or from the pulpit was to ridicule it.

    You might notice that even among the progressives being missional is great but being theological is often irrelevant at best and often times even worse than irrelevant.

    Our lack of understanding is exceeded only by our disinterest in truly understanding biblical teaching. We have abused the word “doctrine” for so long that many otherwise intelligence people now think doctrine is a bad word w/o realizing their position is self contradictory.

    You may be able to understand that I have finally given up on the CofC. There are now enough progressives to carry on and I am simply too tired to spend my retirement years fighting the traditionalists any longer. Even the “progressives” don’t believe in the unconditional love of the LORD and know better than to teach it. Of course, the CofC is still my family and I will continue to read news of my extended family. No matter how dysfunctional (even abusive) my family may be I will continue to love them read news from home. I just won’t spend as much time with them as it is not healthy.

  10. Dear Randall,

    I know too well what you mean. After I spent 2 years at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas, there was no chance of my return even to a somewhat “liberal” and “liberated” COC in 1974. That was true in 1978, when I became friends with old brother Leroy Garrett, a very great man (and he knows it!). I love him anyway.

    The COC was my adoptive family of faith in 1965, after spending a couple years in a Baptist Church, which is where I first came to faith in Jesus in 1964, but never considered myself a Baptist.

    You are right. It is not very healthy to hang around the traditionalists, who are in ignorant bliss about they believe, they only know what they don’t believe on the basis of CENI interpretation. I went to Ft. Worth Christian College with Mac Deaver. He was a brilliant preacher and debated then, and I was impressed by him and his father, as I was very young in the faith. I imbided all the sectarianism and became as legalist as any till about 1970. That is when I quit preaching for the COC, and did alternative service and went to seminary. I left in 1971, and it took me over 20 years to shake most of the residue off. I am glad I studied for 4 years and read the Bible, and learned a few ways and tools to examine the Revelation of God-the Bible. At least I had a few tools for study, much of what I have rejected since. I appreciate the good, and I try to forget the bad (which was most of my experience with the COC).

    God bless you,

  11. Awsesome!!..This changes everything!!….I have been in the research of this arena for some time, it indeed is refreshing!! Thanks Jay!!


  12. Gary,
    I do love my family, both the traditionalist and others – I just can;t be around the traditionalists very much. Like you, I consider Leroy Garrett a personal friend even though I have been able to spend only a few hours at a time with him since i departed Texas i the late 1980s.

    In my family I learned the gospel – that God loves me though I am a horrible sinner and that Jesus died for me knowing full well who I was. In spite of the way we distorted it the gospel was still there in the scripture. I learned to read, mediate on and trust scripture and use it to guide my way. – the objective standard against which I hope to measure all things.

    So many good things in the CofC; and yet, so many distortions of the simple message and so many convoluted arguments to justify such nonsense. For years I felt obligated and even called to minister to them – that is to try to present the gospel in the CofC.

    God has relieved me of hat burden and led many others to that work. i look forward to using the gifts he has given me in my extended family now as they also minister to me. None the less I will still be interested in news from home and how my first family is doing. May God bless them everyone.

    May God also bless you in service Him as he leads you.

  13. […] Paul’s concern is broader than Judaism. The worship of angels was hardly typical of a First Century Jew, and so the commentators are inclined to conclude this was a practice pecular to Colosse. And there was something about this practice that led to asceticism — a Grecian approach to religion that later came to typify Gnosticism. […]

  14. […] Jay Guin: Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Gnosticism, Part 1 […]

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