A New Gnosticism: An Old Threat to the Church

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, November 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

A New Gnosticism: An Old Threat to the Church


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


Historical analogies are both tempting and tricky. They are tempting because we like to learn about the present from past examples. They are tricky because the search for instructive examples can distort both past and present. Try hard enough, and any age begins to look like the fall of the Roman Empire.

Despite the danger, I want to suggest just such a historical analogy. My interest is partly historical but mainly moral. I think there is a genuine analogy between the situation of the church today and the challenge Gnosticism presented to the church in the mid-second century. My contention is that in both cases there is a crisis of identity and even of survival. More important, the shape and the resolution of the crisis in the second century have lessons--and a warning--for us today.

I am scarcely the first to note the similarities between ancient Gnosticism and the dynamics of contemporary religious movements. In fact, the January 26, 1927, issue of Commonweal had an editorial titled, "The Newer Gnostics." That editorial was genially content to skewer aspects of popular religion by contrasting them to the serene stability offered by the simple truths of faith espoused by the Catholic Church. I am less sanguine about the integrity of the church as a witness to those truths.

The powerful controversies about church authority, the relationship between spirit and matter, and other fundamental Christian precepts that swept across Christian communities between A.D. 130 and 190 and created a crisis of identity happened long before Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion. Christians had no great buildings or wealth. Martyrdom was a real possibility for those whose convictions about Jesus were sufficiently powerful or public to irritate ruling authorities.

In the first part of the second century, leaders like Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin spoke for a movement that had no state support, no cultural approval, and little by the way of central organization. How faith in Jesus Christ made a difference with respect to Judaism or the culture and religious practices of Hellenism was still not clear. Although the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and some other early compositions had been exchanged among Christian communities for some time, and local churches gathered collections of apostolic writings, there was as yet no need for a firm canon. And even though creedal statements existed, they were not yet much elaborated or standardized.

By the end of the second century, though, teachers like Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-200) and Tertullian (ca. 160-225) wrote extensive treatises against heretics on the basis of what they called the "Rule of Faith," argued for a set canon of Scripture, and located the teaching authority of the larger church in the bishops, regarded as the successors of the apostles. In short, the essential structure of Catholic Christianity had emerged.

I have two reasons for noting this remarkable transition. The first is to focus attention on the tendencies within the second-century church that required such a decisive response. The second is that some of the same tendencies are equally powerful today, but are generating little effective response.

Irenaeus's tripod of creed, canon, and apostolic succession not only shaped Christian orthodoxy, but provided the strategy for Christian self-definition from the second to the twentieth century: whenever there was controversy over doctrine or morals, bishops met in council, debated and discerned the Scripture, and elaborated or defended the creed. Today, I would argue, a "new Gnosticism" not only threatens the shape of Christian faith, but does so by questioning the reliability and authenticity of this traditional frame of self-understanding.

In order to understand the challenge posed by the new Gnosticism, it is important to grasp something of the earlier version. The first Gnosticism was a complex phenomenon, so complex that some scholars have suggested the term has outlived its usefulness.

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