Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gnosticism Part I – Can Christianity be reconciled with Paganism?

This post is taken from a Bible study that I prepared for our men's study last Wednesday. I am a rank beginner in this study of paganism and Gnosticism. I know that this brief study is inadedequate, but if you catch any errors, please leave me a comment and I'll do a little more homework and try to fix them or substantiate my points a little better.

The Gnostic says, “We’re not sinful, we’re asleep ... we’ve forgotten who we are as divine beings, we need to wake up”. – From a message by Peter Jones

Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The root of Gnosticism is salvation by knowledge – spiritual, deep, esoteric knowledge that comes from being in tune internally with the divine impulse that inhabits everything. Gnosticism was a highly experiential, sexualized, pantheistic, pagan and highly varied ancient religion.

Gnosticism reached its apex as a Christian heresy in the late 2nd Century, though it had its beginnings in the pre-Christian era and continued until the 5th Century. Formal Gnosticism is making something of a comeback in our time, but aspects of this teaching have a very wide influence indeed, from the radical Charismatics to Oprah Winfrey. This is because Gnosticism is a form of paganism. I think that paganism, in one form or another, eventually becomes a default position for people who reject the One True God.

Gnosticism has come to refer to a broad spectrum of ideas, though looking at the historical Gnostic religions, it is easier to assign common elements. Before we look at ancient Gnosticism, we’ll look at its broader roots.

Paganism is a primitive form of religion that seeks to manipulate spiritual forces found in nature through various means. The goal of paganism is power – power to manipulate the Force in nature. Paganism is found in many forms – ancient Greek religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca (witchcraft), Star Wars, native religions and other variations of monistic spirituality (see below).

General characteristics of Paganism:
· Pantheism: God is an impersonal force, not a personal being. God is identified with what exists and is not distinct from it. This divine, then, is found in rocks and trees and within all that is. The pagan worships the god within the individual and the god within nature.
· Monism: All is one. Monistic religions often use the circle as a symbol of reality. There is no distinction between creature and creator, because all is one. There is no sharp distinction between good and evil, light and dark, true and false, life and death – everything is a part of the great circle. Monism rejects the biblical, linear view of time and embraces endless cycles. Syncretism is a byproduct of this idea of monism – all religions ideas come from the same place and are going to the same destination. You can mix and match to your heart’s content.
· Dualism: Matter is seen as a deterioration or defect of the spiritual reality. This dualism is within the great circle, but it is a belief that the center of the circle – the purer spirituality – is superior to that which is on the fringes, the material. In this worldview, matter is bad and spirit is good.

Note the Christian counterpoint to each of these characteristics of paganism:
· Trinitarian Monotheism: God is personal, distinct from His creation, one in essence, three in persons and eternal. God is omnipotent and omnipresent in His creation, but not bound up in it. He identifies with His creation, but is not identical to it. The Christian worships the creator, not created things.
· Antithesis (“two-ism” to use Peter Jones’ word): Not only is there a sharp distinction between Creator and creation, but there are sharp distinctions between truth and error, light and dark, good and evil, male and female, etc.
· Integrity: “God likes matter, He created it” (C.S. Lewis). When God created the universe, He pronounced it “good.” The corruption came at the fall, not because of any inherent design defect. The body and spirit are united, and what God has joined together, let not man separate. The created order, including our bodies, are included in redemption (Romans 8:18-25). Time in the created order is linear and has a beginning, middle and end.

As Christians, we particularly need to be aware of the central truth of paganism: Monism – everything is one, everything is ultimately the same. Monism says that what we see now as variety and individuality are just points of the circle, and these points are an illusion. This is why the goal of religions like Buddhism is the cessation of being – absorption into the divine force (Nirvana).

Paganism applies this monism in the sense that each person is a microcosm of this big circle, a little circle in the big circle with the divine spark within. If we want to get in touch with the unity of things, we have to get deeper into ourselves and discover who we really are – find ourselves.

Spiritual power is found in feelings in the mystical new spirituality. Paganism rejects the concepts of true and false or received faith. What counts is discovering the secret to unlock your hidden potential. Irrational experience of the divine force is what counts. You cannot be spiritual until you stop thinking. Impressions, images, sounds and smells are the path to spiritual power not cognitive thought. Reason, logic, truth, antithesis and certainty are out.

There are many places in the New Testament where paganism is refuted, even if the connection is subtle. Here are some beginning passages to review with your pagan radar turned on:
· Romans 1:18-25
· Colossians 2
· 1 John 2:20-29

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sunday Hymn: I Asked the Lord

I fell off the Sunday hymn post bandwagon so long ago that I forgot what it looks like. I won't make any promises that I'll be back next week. I heard this hymn on the Indelible Grace IV - Beams of Heaven CD. I keep thinking about it. It is very profound, and more than a little bit scary.

1. I asked the Lord that I might grow in faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know And seek more earnestly His face

2. Twas He who taught me thus to pray and He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way as almost drove me to despair

3. I hoped that in some favored hour at once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power subdue my sins and give me rest

4. Instead of this He made me feel the hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell assault my soul in every part

5. Yea more with His own hand he seemed Intent to aggravate my woe Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, cast out my feelings, laid me low

6. Lord why is this, I trembling cried, “wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?” "Tis in this way" The Lord replied "I answer prayer for grace and faith"

7. “These inward trials I employ from self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy that thou mayest seek thy all in me, That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”

John Newton, 1725-1807

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Learning from the Bad Guys

A week ago last night we began a historical series in our mens' Bible study on Wednesday night. I'm calling it "Our Debt to Heresy," a title I ripped off from a Modern Reformation issue (May/June, 2001).

I'm not going to post the whole text of each study here, but I will post excerpts. If you spot mistakes, let me know in the comments, and I will take that correction to our study.

Our Debt to Heresy – Week 1: Introduction

· Introduction
· Gnosticism – Can Christianity be reconciled with Paganism?
· Montanism – What is the Nature of Revelation?
· Arianism – Who is Jesus?
· Pelagianism – What is Man?
· The Roman Catholic Church – Who Holds the Keys?
· Manifest Destiny – A New World, New Heresies

Setting the stage:

The Apostolic Age:
- See Acts 17:6 and context - Turning the world upside down
- Read Acts 28:11-31 - Jesus and the Kingdom
- Read Hebrews 2:1-4 - The foundation of the Apostles

The Post-apostolic Period:
- The Christian Life defended: The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
- Christians and the State: Pliny to Trajan
- General Christian teaching: Didache

Defining our terms:

- Heresy: from the Greek hairesis, meaning “to take or to choose.” In English, the word has come to mean a teaching or opinion that is opposed to orthodox doctrine.
- Orthodoxy: from the Greek ortho, meaning “right, true or straight” plus doxo, meaning thinking or opinion. It is literally “right thinking” (cf. orthopraxy, “right doing”). In English it has come to mean being in conformity to conventional standards. It the case of Christianity, it means holding to “the teaching,” i.e. sound doctrine.

David Calhoun on the Rise of Heresy:

The question is often asked, which came first? Did orthodoxy come first, followed by the heresies? Or did the heresies arise first and then the church in response to the heresies moved to create what we call orthodoxy? One modern scholar has put it this way, “In early Christianity there was no such thing as orthodoxy but only different forms of Christianity competing for the loyalties of believers.” This scholar believed that there were many ideas out there and finally some of those ideas won. Either the ideas of the Roman church, which became the strongest, were imposed on the entire church or, in some way certain ideas won. So in his point of view the heresies come first. There were many ideas and then gradually one idea became called orthodoxy. In that particular way of reading history the orthodox are simply the winners and the heretics are the losers. I describe that not because that is my view but because I want you to see that this question is one that people have given much thought to. The early church fathers did not view it that way. The early church fathers said that orthodoxy came first and then the heresies. The heresies were the innovations, the new things. Orthodoxy was not. Eusebius of Caesarea put it this way, “Orthodoxy does not have a history. It is true eternally. Heresy has a history, having arisen at particular times through particular teachers.” You can date the beginning of Montanism and Marcionism and these other heresies that we will talk about. But orthodoxy does not have a beginning. You cannot date it. Orthodoxy is eternally true and heresies come later, according to Eusebius. © Summer 2006, Dr. David Calhoun & Covenant Theological Seminary

How would we, as 21st Century Evangelicals, answer the question, “What came first, Heresy or orthodoxy?

Why does God allow heresy to flourish even to the point of almost overwhelming the church?

- Gnosticism – almost overwhelmed the church in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries
- Arianism – Was probably the majority report in the church by the beginning of the 4th Century
- The “Golden Age” of the Roman Catholic Church took over Europe almost entirely
- The popularity of Mormonism, the JWs and many other cults today.

Note the warnings of Scripture:
· Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. – beware of false prophets and abusive shepherds!
· Matthew 7:15-23 – bad fruit, wolves, false professions
· Acts 20:25-32 – wolves from without, false teachers from within
· 2 Thessalonians 2 – beware of great deception and the blindness that results
· Jude – earnestly content, for there are enemies of the truth
· Revelation – deceptions, the counterfeit trinity, etc.

We should not be surprised that the truth faces opposition in this world. Perhaps we should be concerned if what we believe and teach does not raise any controversy!

Resources for further study:
· www.churchtimeline.com – includes links to articles on major events and people
· www.monergism.com – oodles of articles on a variety of historical and theological issues from a trustworthy perspective
· www.equip.org – Home of The Bible Answer Man, articles on cults and aberrant theology

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Loaded Links

I've updated my links on the right side of the page - nothing major, just one addition and a few tweaks to keep things current.

Church Matters blog featured Dr. David Wells today, so I had to hurry up and add that relatively new blog to my roll. Don't miss it, there have been some excellent (and provocative) posts lately.

Just one more little plug: I never cease to be amazed at the ministry of Monergism.com. If you want a one stop shop for what's of value on line, this is your site. Monergismbooks.com is fantastic, too. We order stuff from there all the time. I'm excited about the books that are available to the church these days. Just click on "What's New" and "Coming Soon" list of books to see what I mean.

Friday, February 01, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

I've been sick this week with a nasty cold. Maybe my resistance to humour is low, but I thought this was quite funny.