Christian History: Greek Philosophy and Gnosticism

So yeah, I haven’t been playing fighting games, so no Fighter’s Corner for you (though I did pick up Street Fighter X Tekken, so I’ll have something in two week). But, on the other hand, you get theology on Saturday, so that’s pretty good! It’s technically the Sabbath, in any event, so I win.

If there’s one thing that the modern Christians tends to ignore, it’s history. Not secular history, with its ideological basis and loads of assumptions that naturally exclude a theological worldview, but Christian history. To know where we are going, it’s important to recognize the history of the past without placing judgment on it for being different.

To note a particular example: many people denigrate the Crusaders and their religious wars as a whole without knowing the whole context. They assume that the Crusders operated under a set of self-interesated norms, and didn’t take the Pope’s claims seriously that it would absolve them of their sins. Still, that’s to take an entirely uncharitable view of that history; instead, we might see them as zealous believers who found themselves in error unintentionally. We need to think like Christians, rather than non-Christians, about our history.

Christianity traces its roots through 2,000 years of conflict and hardship, as well as many successes. Many of these were fought on intellectual battlefields, attempting to define Christianity in lieu of other religions, beliefs, philosophies, and traditions. These were done for very specific reasons: to retain the Gospel message. Although we could, as some do, view this process disingenuously, we here will view these various movements, and their detractors, with a critical eye to why it does not accord with Christianity, and how such problems were dealt with. Perhaps this is an indication, more than anything else, of how we must now respond to the modern era as well. It’s true with most of these heresies, as they were called, that they had many adherents, so don’t think this is just “ancient history” – this kind of thing still goes on today. Our context deals with a more secularizing and liberalizing influence, but that’s happened many times through Christianity’s existence – to learn our past helps us in the future to combat such ideas.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to commit Saturdays to “Christian History”, a short overview of, well, Christian History over the years. Hopefully it’ll be an eye-opening look at the history of Christianity itself. I suppose you could call it “religion” if you wanted, but that tends to carry negative stereotypes (even if the category does hold true). At times, it’ll appear like a diatribe against various heretical ideologies, but they still enjoy existence today, and I don’t intend to give them any ground. Enjoy, and leave some feedback!

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

If society naturally engenders certain kinds of thoughts, then this society, and by default Christians in that society, spoke the language of Greek Philosophy. How else would the metaphysical assumptions begin, or attempts to explain them, apologetics, as well as ethics, aesthetics, and all the rest? A conciliatory air finds it way into the Christian paradigm from the very beginning, even as its claim brook no compromise for the early Church!

Plato and Aristotle’s teachings, by the time of the early Church, existed as major philosophical movements that attempted a true construction of the universe. They had, in time, developed into a monotheism with a transcendent, immutable God who is being rather than becoming. Becoming was the state of human affairs – always changing, never stopping. Being , thus, had to be the state of the deity, but this also means the Greek God did not communicate with creation in any sense, a direct contrast with the God of the Christian religion. Whether it be the Platonic Ideal or an Aristotlean “unmoved mover”, the results were the same – “God” did not interact with creation.

Furthermore, the concept of the Logos/demiurge, the temporal nature of the world (conceived in terms of “order” in the world) requiring ascetic practices to make humans more like God, and the “rational” soul as the real person all permeated the very cultural mindset of these civilizations. In other words, whether intentional or not, Christianity developed from its origins out of a Greek/Roman philosophical context. Christianity, rather than sticking to its Hebraic roots as a wholehearted belief, a faith, had started the rational road to metaphysics. Once the Apostles departed the earth, the achievements of the “sub-Apostlic” age would stay with the Church for millenia. Even in John 1, there are traces of this (and by traces, I mean just that, as it is still sacred Scripture; it transcends its origins); Justin Martyr used this passage to support his apologetic agenda for example.

Of course, that brings up the mind/body distinction and many other concepts foreign to the early Church, but we’ll get into that in another article.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, is not necessarily a movement in itself, but it conveys the general sense of a bunch of different religious movement that arose at the same time as the early church. They believed in 1. a supreme God totally remote from the world, who has no part in creation. 2. That creation was the work of a lesser deity, often though of as the God of the Old Testament. Between the evil world and the supreme God is a “hierarchy of being”, wherein a path must be taken from here to there. Our souls, our divine spark is trapped within the body, so we need salvation to escape from here. Things are hostile from here to there, so what we need is gnosis, knowledge, to get there. Salvation is a process of gaining knowledge, like a set of passwords or self-knowledge. They had their own Scriptures, practices, and traditions, yet claimed authority from the original Christian movements.

St.-Irenaeus Statue

Irenaeus argued against this, as you might think of Gnosticism as a competing religious movement. He knew the truth, but some were being led a dark path into a hybrid philosophical Christianity – and that can never bode well. He, at times, believed the description of such doctrines made it self-evident that they were wrong. However, we can’t settle for such a thing in our framework – why is this wrong? He though the idea of “special traditions” was simply absurd, because why would Christianity have hidden knowledge? Think of how we spread the Gospel nowadays – we freely and without pretense try to deliver that message to people in a way that fits their circumstances, really. Jesus talked to the drunkards, the sinners, and the prostitutes even as they represent society’s worst and most base elements. Even the Apostles preached and taught freely to ANYONE (that is key) who would listen.

Gnosticism, by appealing to some special knowledge, is a farce if made into Christian terms. Irenaeus goes a slightly different route by showing the consistency of the Gospel message since the earliest Church, showing a clear and consistent message being spread that in no way involves gnosticism. He says in his book Against Heresies:

All who wish to see the truth can clearly contemplate, in every church, the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world. We can list those who were by the apostles appointed bishops in the churches and their successors down to our own time (Editor’s Note: His time, obviously, in the 2nd century AD). They neither taught nor knew anything like what these heretics rave about. Suppose the apostles had known hidden mysteries which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” privately and in secret. Surely they would have handed them down especially to those to whom they were also entrusting the churches themselves. For they wanted their successors to be perfect and blameless in everything.

Furthermore, gnostics have their own set of Scriptures (such as the Nag Hammadi) – even historically, the Christian Scriptures go back to the early Church much more accurately than gnostic ones, which most certainly were written in the second century, not the first like the Gospels. As well, Irenaeus was the first to talk about New Testament along the Old Testament. He also brought the twofold distinction of Scripture and tradition, as well as apostolic succession – he was so close to their time that he meant a literal “handing down” of the information from the original Apostles and their apostles to the early Churches. So yeah, he really meant it!).

If anything, we should take one conclusion: Christianity’s message is plain, straightforward, and inclusive. Your level of education, from whatever secular or religious perspective, does not restrict you from the love of God. That’s exactly what Irenaeus fought against, and as our culture becomes increasingly elitist and educated, something to which we should defend with our dying breath.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I once met a real life Gnostic. Then after he was exhausted of defending his atypical faith, he became an agnostic. Irony at its best?