“Against the Protestant Gnostics”

I think this is a year where I’m called to develop my fantasy story beyond where it went in my last year of college (when I stopped for a long time to reconnect with reality). Ironically, when I started creating this fictional universe, I was unashamedly Gnostic; now, five years later, Gnosticism is the very thing that I’m writing against. I’m talking about the whole horrible, human-hating, body-hating, reality-hating, relationship-hating, pleasure-hating ideology of despair and alienation which has reasserted itself in different disguises throughout my life, first in the form of Calvinism and then later on (when I gave up religion altogether for a season in college) in the form of Jungian psychology.

In one of my last entries I wrote about how I’m considering making my villains essentially Calvinists because for me Calvinism has been the great villain, just Gnosticism under a different name with a Christian veneer. Now I’m reading a book, Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee, which makes the connection explicit. Lee’s contention (and he is himself a Protestant) is that Gnosticism has taken over the American church by hijacking the Calvinist faith of our Puritan forebears. Calvinism in Europe was apparently a God-honoring, life-affirming theology, but Calvinism in America somehow became distorted into terrible forms. American Protestants, while professing to hate Gnosticism (when it comes, for example, in the form of Jungian mysticism), are actually unknowingly its foremost practitioners.

Here are a few select passages, to give you an idea:

            Alienation: From Gratitude to Despair

          St. Augustine in his polemic against the Manichaeans might himself have fallen into a Gnostic trap. His interpretation of the poetic image of the Fall of humanity’s original parents in a literalistic way and the extension of the consequences of that Fall to all persons per generationem left the Church with a theological formulation too close to [Gnosticism] for comfort. Some Calvinists, furthermore, were not content with the ambiguity of Augustine’s and Calvin’s wordings; they added the unambiguous doctrine of total depravity. The Synod of Dort (1619) had proclaimed that “the Fall has left man in a state of corruption and helplessness: his gleams of natural light are of no value for salvation.” The La Rochelle Confession of Faith (1571) had said it more explicitly: “We also believe that this [hereditary] vice is truly sin and that it suffices to condemn the entire human race, even infants in the wombs of their mothers, and that it is taken as a sin before God.”

So long as Christians are aware that language about original sin and total depravity is being used to describe an imagined world apart from the graciousness of God for the purpose of increasing the thanksgiving of the faithful, Christian thinking remains orthodox. As soon, however, as such language is no longer seen as a poetic suspension of the actual but is taken literally in the sense that it is believed to have infused the cosmos from the outside, a barrier has been broken and those profound but perilous doctrines of the Church have become Gnosticized. As Ricouer explains, when the source of evil is located entirely apart from ourselves, “the cosmos . . . is satanized and hence provides the human experience of evil with the support of an absolute exteriority, an absolute inhumanity, an absolute materiality.” Carried to this extreme, sin is no longer a matter of mea culpa; some other force is culpable.

This highly deterministic view of sin, a tenet of ancient Gnosticism…

Pause! Lee seems to be suggesting that a fatalistic attitude towards sin is a relic of Gnosticism. That would make sense, because such thinking is all over my journals and novel. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to quit sinning is because I was convinced that I was pre-ordained to sin by the malicious whims of God, which pulled me into a vortex of anger and depression. I believe that there is a cosmic element to sin, but the danger appears to be in believing that we are thereby rendered helpless victims of fate. No wonder the world becomes cruel and forbidding!

And this was precisely the attitude of some of my erstwhile most beloved theologians:

            . . . became a feature of the extreme form of Puritanism that dominated American evangelical religion. Whereas the ancient heresiarchs had read God’s words of creation, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” as the mistaken and bungling act of the archons [note: this is called “reverse exegesis”], the New England theology concluded that these words were, apart from redemption in Christ, totally ineffectual.

I ran into this notion whilst reading the opening chapters of John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis. He says man was originally made in the image of God, but loses that image altogether through sin and can only regain it by conversion. Thankfully, I eventually encountered the Catholic position on the subject, which set me straight. Losing the image of God would make us, in effect, reprobate (beyond the possibility of salvation). Of course there are many, many Calvinists who come dangerously close to saying this is what actually happens (R. C. Sproul, ahem).

            The end result is the same: in both systems, humanity finds itself thrown into a chaotic world, at the outset alienated from God, from fellow humans and certainly from the self. “This world is all over dirty,” Jonathan Edwards observes:

Everywhere it is covered with that which tends to defile the feet of the traveller. Our streets are dirty and muddy, intimating that the world is full of that which tends to defile the soul, that worldly objects and worldly concerns and worldly company tend to pollute us.

. . . With the failure of the apocalyptic hope, the faith of the North American evangelicals, like that of Marcion, began to rest in an alien God: a God apart from creation, apart from matter, apart from sinful humanity. American theology would not say with Marcion that the Creator-God was other than or opposed to the real God. Evangelicals knew enough Church history to avoid that blatant misconstruction. They were in fundamental accord with Marcion, however, in maintaining that the only real concern of religion has to do with the Redeemer-God whose intentions are made clear in Christ. And even the revelation of Christ pertains exclusively to the realm of the spirit, not to the kingdom of the flesh. There is, then, nothing about the world, as world, in which to take pleasure. In fact, pleasure itself is suspect because it represents a misapprehension of the spiritual truth that the created world is worthless.

Suddenly I feel as though I’m ten years old, and back in church! I remember once in seventh grade, a friend of mine stood up in Sunday school and—to the accompaniment of myriad giggles—read the famous “body” passage in Song of Songs chapter 7. Our teacher hand-waved away the unabashed eroticism of those verses by explaining that it was all just a metaphor for Christ and the Church. A very, very sexual metaphor.

            Gnosis: From Holy Event to Private Illumination

          We cannot help but wonder again why American Christians have made such a radical departure from traditional Protestantism. Could another answer be that American Protestantism, like ancient Gnosticism, fundamentally altered the faith by its understanding of the human predicament as ignorance rather than sin? When American Calvinism interpreted original sin and total depravity in such a literalistic sense that life became utterly determined by the caprice of God, it followed that humanity itself was no longer culpable. Despite all its talk about man as “sinful wretch” and “worthless worm,” American evangelicalism, in the final analysis, did not hold man responsible for his sin. Ricoeur sees this as the reason why, for radical Calvinism,

salvation comes to man from elsewhere, from out there, by a pure magic of deliverance, without any connection with human responsibility or even personality . . because evil is thing and world, myth is knowledge.

I even see this mentality here at IHOP, where I find myself having to explain with some regularity that the blood of Jesus doesn’t just magically make us perfect, and that we actually have to, you know, choose goodness in order to become truly good people. Again, it was partly because I had no concept of this truth that I was pulled into the vortex of anger and evil. Why even bother to choose goodness if it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference? (No, I was not a very nice person, and I had virtually no concept of love). Tragically, this “magical blood” theology all but necessitates that salvation is a matter of knowing the right things. The moment your intellect assents to the knowledge of the lordship of Jesus, you’re immediately saved. What else is this but Gnosticism? Little wonder that George Weigel said the ancient heresy is “remarkably resilient, even protean.”


Gnosticism’s knowledge is not knowledge in the usual sense. It is, as Irenaeus called it, pseudo-knowledge, an aberration of knowledge. Nowhere is this more evident than in American gnosis, for the end product of that gnosis is the profound and relentless anti-intellectualism that has plagued and continues to plague American Protestantism and indeed American life as a whole.

Popular revivalism not only was unconcerned with intellectual and cultural developments in the contemporary world, but, according to Ahlstrom, in the church life of revivalistic religion, “intellectualism was deprecated and repressed.” Any serious discussion of theology or doctrinal controversy was considered potentially divisive and thereby destructive of the evangelistic aim of converting sinners.

Fred Clark once wrote an excellent post questioning the wisdom of virally replicating a contentless faith. This could be so easily satirized.

I had an idea for a scenario satirizing the marriage of modernity and religion that we call “creation science,” where “faith scientists” were hard at work proving that religion is true by empirically demonstrating that rain falls on the evil and the good, and that love covers a multitude of sins. That was one of my favorite chapters in Gulliver’s Travels. Honestly, I think one of the reasons I find certain denominations so attractive is because when I began studying Catholic theology, I felt like for the first time in my life I was dealing with a religious institution that encouraged the pursuit of reason and beauty. It seems to be better in Methodism, too.

But I think ultimately the Thomistic model is the only real antidote for Gnosticism, because for Aquinas (borrowing from Aristotle) goodness, beauty, reason, and ultimately God, are not separate things. In other words, goodness is a person, and that person is Jesus. The two are not separable. And likewise with beauty and reason. So that even the smallest act of goodness partakes of the nature of God. This is a surprisingly contentious issue within Evangelicalism. But Hans Urs Von Balthasar famously said, “Truth is symphonic.” Amazingly enough, it all goes together. It’s all one thing. When you make “goodness” into a separate category, ontologically distinct from God Himself, you’re laying the foundation for an alienated humanity. And it becomes easy to make the argument (which I’ve heard over and over again) that humans always, automatically recoil from goodness. There’s a kernel of truth in that statement, but it’s also true that humans are drawn to goodness, because humans are drawn to God.

And of course, when God ceases to be identified with beauty, reason, and goodness, the ultimate goal of existence necessarily becomes “salvation”:

Daniel Day Williams has shown that for many of the revivalists, the ultimate standard for judging every doctrine and every practice of Christianity was thus, “Will it help or hinder the salvation of men?” With such a pragmatic standard, is it any wonder that serious students of Scripture and dogma have often suffered ridicule in local churches and even in seminaries?

Bishop Warren A. Candler of the Methodist Church was almost a caricature of revivalistic anti-intellectualism. He openly discouraged his clergy from theological studies for fear that they might become modernist. Congressman Hal Kimberly, during the same period of the 1920s, urged a tight restraint on reading: “Read the Bible. It teaches you how to act. Read the hymnbook. It contains the finest poetry ever written. Read the almanac. It shows you how to figure out what the weather will be. There isn’t another book that is necessary for anyone to read.”

Obviously, if you don’t think of God as “the highest form of the good,” it’s easy to believe that reading the Bible and the hymnal are the only things that matter.

                        Escape from Nature

                   By 1730, according to Perry Miller, New England was “a parched land, crying for deliverance from the hold of ideas that had served their purpose and died.” The universal program of serving a sovereign God with His immutable plan and opposing evil on all fronts, regardless of the immediate outcome, had lost its appeal. Jonathan Edwards was beginning to speak of the great desire to “be as it were swallowed up in him [Christ] forever.” His wife, Sarah, seems to have achieved this goal for herself:

My soul seemed to be gone out of me to God and Christ in heaven, and to have very little relation to my body. God and Christ were so present to me, and so near me, that I seemed removed from myself . . . the glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swallow up every wish and desire of the heart.

Surrendering, being swallowed up, melted, annihilated were images that increasingly expressed the deepest feelings of the American soul. Even Emily Dickinson, despite her immense personal courage, was to confess:

I never hear the word “escape”

Without a quicker blood.

If the individual understands himself or herself to be a helpless captive within a hostile prison, what other course could there be but escape? Dickinson, however, would refuse the escape route which was mapped by the New England theology and which remains today the prevailing way of one strong segment of American Protestantism.

That route, the means of escape, became exclusively, for the evangelicals, the way of being born again. The concept of total rebirth, of the drowning of the old person and the rebirth of the new, had also held an immense appeal for the ancient Gnostics. In the Corpus Hermetica, a non-Christian Gnostic work, the spiritual teacher Hermes advises the young man to shun the temporal for the eternal, the “dissoluble” for the “indissoluble;” finally the teacher is able to say to his disciple, “now, my son, you know what the rebirth is.” Similarly, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus recorded by St. John (“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”) became the key to the understanding of all faith and order. This one soteriological image, which is rarely used in Holy Scripture, became for many Americans the theme of every sermon, the supreme test of orthodoxy, and in these latter days a label for the authentic Christian.

This is why lately I’m reluctant to describe myself as a “born-again Christian.” I mean, we might as well say, “I’m a Real, True Christian!”

In the next paragraph, Lee plunges right into the problems with a contentless faith:

            The typical sermon in American revivalism described the horrors of the world, humanity’s alienation from God, the thrust of God’s anger (hell fire) and then, the method of escape, “you must be born again.” The purpose of preaching was thought to be nothing other than soul-saving, persuading the hearers to receive the Lord, to be born again before it became too late. If in ancient times, Plotinus had complained that the Gnostics “say only, ‘Look to God,’ but they do not tell anyone where or how to look,” much the same thing could be said of American revivalism. It was a call, almost totally lacking in content, to accept Christ, to surrender, to be saved. The same lack of content even today (from the evidence of radio and television) characterizes much of what might seem to be the predominant Christianity of modern America.

So I guess it isn’t really all that surprising that liturgy and sacrament are also almost entirely lacking in American Evangelicalism. Lee analyzes why in the epilogue:

            The irony of Protestant history is that although the sixteenth-century Reformers fought like tigers to restore the wine to the people, their descendants have now deprived the people of both bread and wine. The Protestant celebration, when it is on rare occasions held, has been spiritualized to the extent that it could scarcely be recognized as a meal at all. The purely symbolic wafer [?] of the Roman celebration, which John Knox thundered against as a distortion of Christ’s “common bread,” has in most Protestant churches been replaced by minute, carefully diced pieces of bread unlike any other bread ever eaten by any culture. The common cup which the mediaeval Church withheld from the faithful is, except among Anglicans, still the sole possession of the clergy. The unordained are now given thimble-like glasses filled with Welch’s grape juice. The symbolism is quite clear. We all come before God individually; with our individual bits of bread and our individual cups of juice, we are not of one loaf and one chalice. Our relationship to Christ is private and personal. What may even be more significant is that by partaking of this unearthly meal with our unearthly bread and unwinely wine we are making a clear statement that the bread and wine of spiritual communion has no connection with earthly communion. It is an unmistakable Gnostic witness against the significance of ordinary meals: common bread, wine, the table fellowship of laughter and tears.


            A renewal of Protestant liturgy will require a restoration of the sacramental life that has slowly but surely been lost since the Reformation. Certainly, there must again be frequent celebration of the Eucharist with the goal being a weekly celebration in every congregation. Although many Protestant liturgical studies have called the service of Word and Sacrament the norm for which the churches should be striving, so far frequent communion has not been considered important enough for a major conflict within the Church.

Oh, that hurts my heart.

One thought on ““Against the Protestant Gnostics”

  1. I’m afraid this is a pretty generic comment, but, this is very good. My background is too weak to comment substantively, other than to observe that you might (*might*) be drawing too much distance between the rejection of the world in early American Reformed religion and their immediate Old World forebears.

    (cf “Calvinism in Europe was apparently a God-honoring, life-affirming theology”)

    I’d be interested in a comparison with parts of Europe that were sufficiently homogenously Reformed on a scale where political power could be fairly coterminous with church power (Scotland after Knox? Geneva during/after Calvin? ) as was the case in e.g. the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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