Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Gnosticism, Part 3

passioncartoon

Another area where Platonic thought crept into the church is in our understanding of the “soul” and the afterlife. In Biblical usage, our bodies will be resurrected. Indeed, “resurrection” specifically refers to the reanimation of the body. However, in Greek thought, the soul survived death but not the body.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of a “spiritual” resurrected body, which we often take to mean a disembodied body (you see my point), but which really means a body “from the spirit,” not “made of spirit.” Our resurrection body, Paul says, will be like Jesus’ resurrection body, and the fact of Jesus’ resurrection with a spiritual body proves that God can and will do the same for us.

The early church actually taught that belief in a bodily resurrection was essential to salvation. And yet, it wasn’t long at all before the Greek version of the afterlife became orthodox, and the notion that we might have resurrection bodies became peculiar, even unattractive. You see, to a Greek, the physical is bad and salvation means escaping this world. But to the Jew, salvation meant repairing this world and returning to the Garden — two very different things.

And so, what does this have to do with the modern church? Where do we see this kind of thinking in current evangelical Christianity? How do the Churches of Christ partake of this error?

Here are some thoughts. I’m sure the class will have more.

* Victorianism is an English invention and has nothing to do with God. The idea that sex is dirty and not to be talked about or a matter for embarrassment — a necessary evil — is Platonic or Gnostic, but not Christian.

* The notion that the Creation will burn and so we have no responsibility for the environment is Gnostic. Man was charged with tending the Garden. We are given the task of caring for God’s Creation.

* Those who refuse to have children out of some notion that the world is too evil for kids are not at all Christian in their thinking. You don’t have to have children to please God. Not everyone can have children, and some folks really aren’t cut out for parenting. But refusing to have children out of selfishness — to preserve a comfortable lifestyle — is not Christian. Indeed, one of the highest services anyone can provide God is a house full of Godly children.

* Those who see the church building or worship service as “spiritual” in a way that’s separate from the rest of life have stumbled into dualism. It’s not that there is nothing special about the assembly. Rather, the error is in thinking that women should be more modest at church than at school, that we should be more quiet and reverent at church, that we should refrain from humor at the church that’s okay outside the building. When we require special clothes, special faces, and special airs to be “in church,” we’re being Greeks, not Christians. And God won’t be fooled, so I don’t know why we bother.

* The worst error of this nature we make is to make salvation depend on a high level of knowledge. When salvation is based on gnosis rather than pistis, knowledge rather than faith, we’ve stumbled into modern Gnosticism.

* Similarly, when we separate doctrine from morality — orthodoxy from orthopraxy — we are Gnostic. Thus, when we declare that God will forgive a lack of Christian living but not error in doctrine, we’ve placed knowledge over faithfulness, the intellect over the heart — and this is a great sin. When we fellowship a refusal to care for the poor and sick and a lack of evangelism but deny fellowship over a failure to properly discern the meaning of silence, well, we’re just as Gnostic as can be. When we imagine that Judgment Day will be about having the right positions on the issues rather than having cared for “the least of these,” well, that’s Gnosticism and very, very un-Godly.

Perhaps the biggest failure of Gnostic thought is its disconnection from the heart of God. God describes himself —

(Deu 10:16-21)  Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. 20 Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.

What does it mean to be like God? To hide in our buildings separate from the world? To declare ourselves saved by superior knowledge? To make ourselves miserable because this is pleasing to God?

No. To be like God, we enter the world, rescue those in slavery and oppression and help those who cannot help themselves. To be like God, we see food and clothing as necessary and good, and so we give good things to those in need — even to aliens. And rather than dividing the world into the good and bad, we show no partiality — all to overcome the Fall and fix what’s broken.

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11 Responses

  1. Jay,

    Thank you for exposing the latent Gnosticism within our movement! I especially appreciate your contrast between “orthodoxy” and “orthpraxy!” (Is that a word, or did you coin it? Either way, I like it!) Also, I appreciate your thought that we tend to believe we are saved by proper knowledge of doctrine more than by faith in Jesus!

    Soldier on, brother!

  2. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of a “spiritual” resurrected body, which we often take to mean a disembodied body (you see my point), but which really means a body “from the spirit,” not “made of spirit.”

    NT Wright contends, in Surprised By Hope, that the -ikos suffix in Greek actually means something like “powered by.” Like a boat with sails is wind-driven, and a submarine is nuclear-powered, we are currently soul-driven (psuchikos, “natural”) but in the Resurrection we will be Spirit-driven (pneumatikos, “spiritual”).

    This idea reminds me of Paul’s line in Galatians 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us walk by the Spirit.”

  3. That cartoon is just wrong.

  4. And yet also quite right.

  5. However, in Greek thought, the soul survived death but not the body.

    That’s not unreasonable, based on passages like these. The question of a bodily resurrection is entirely separate from the question of souls in Paradise.

    1Sa 28:11 Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
    “Bring up Samuel,” he said.
    1Sa 28:12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
    1Sa 28:13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
    The woman said, “I see a spirit coming up out of the ground.”
    1Sa 28:14 “What does he look like?” he asked.
    “An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
    Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
    1Sa 28:15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
    “I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”
    1Sa 28:16 Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy?

    Luk 23:43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

  6. I am at that age where I go to a lot of funerals, three in the last two years of close family members. I have been struck by how restrained, even impoverished, the services were with regard to the scope of the blessed hope. Plenty of references to being in a “better place,” of no sickness and no sorrows, but only passing reference to what Wright calls “life after ‘life after death'”, i.e. the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth, and the restoration of creation to its original divine purpose. We may try to find hope in a sort of non-material “spiritual” future, but that is neither how we are made nor what we are told is our destiny. Our reluctance to speculate in areas that are not perfectly clear should not keep us from celebrating a promise that is so central to God’s plan.

  7. How can one honestly compare the gnostics who believed the god(s) hand selected them to receive a hidden revelation with

    Christians today who encourage everyone to study the “open” revelation from God (bible) that is available to all?

  8. God seems to expect man to acquire and use his revelation(s). Examples are Jesus and the the Sadducees (Mk 12:18-27) who missed the power of God for resurection in “God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob..” and fishermen figuring out the weather by the sky (Mt 16:1-3, maybe red sky in morning, sailor’s warning, at night sailor’s delight) but not seeing God’s signs. Jesus expected man to find scripturesand use it.
    God does accept faith and Jephthah (Judges 11) is an example of faith over knowledge. Jep kills his daughter to fulfill a vow to God, violating direct command Dt 12:31, 18:9-13 not using legal substitution Lev 27:1-8. He didn’t know and what he knew, keeping a vow, he did, and God accepted it.
    It seems that our era is different, Acts 17:30 ignorance of what God is was overlooked but now……
    Lastly, a Gnostic was often secret, hidden knowledge not prior revelation. Every cult does this by we are the true chidren of God, since we…….. (special knowledge).
    To put it in James style, Satan has better knowledge of God than us, and can quote scripture well (the temptations) but is still in rebellion to I Am.

  9. NT Wright argues convincingly in Surprised by Hope that “resurrection” in the ancient world referred to a physical resurrection. An article by Wright going back to the original evidence is at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm.

    I address the thief on the cross in the Where are the Dead? posts at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/surprised-by-hope/

    Regarding Samuel’s appearance, “spirit” translates “elohim.” The KJV says “gods.” ESV and AV say “a god.” It’s a tough one, and hardly one to hang your hat on.

  10. Because some of us deny the salvation of those who haven’t read the Patristics and read them into the scriptures. That’s not the same as urging the study of the Bible.

  11. The existence of a plausible alternate interpretation is not conclusive proof against the conventional interpretation.

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