We should respond to this proposition the way Christians have done since the early 2nd century, by recognizing the claim for what it is, paganism disguised as Christianity. Specifically, it is Gnosticism, a variety of loosely related persons and movements with common themes and interests that flourished in the second century in reaction to Christianity. Pro-Gnostic scholars have claimed for nearly a century that Gnosticism was the original religion (or “spirituality”) which was supplanted by Christianity, by force, as “orthodoxy.” The great problem with this claim is that there is virtually no evidence for it. The evidence is very strong, however, that, as the second-century fathers and apologists claimed, the Christian faith came first and then was attacked by the Gnostics, who tried to revise it radically. This debate has been renewed in the modern period. Peter Jones has been chronicling its renewal for years.
Gnosticism did not offer salvation from sin or the wrath of God to come, but rather they offered escape from our humanity via secret knowledge (hence Gnosticism, from gnosis or knowledge). They posited a sort of ladder of being between this existence and the next—it’s always a ladder isn’t it? No wonder a cross is so offensive!—According to the Gnostics, our fundamental problem is not legal (sin) but a lack of being, a lack of divinity. In effect, they were siding with the serpent, “You will be like God” (Gen 3:4–5). They posited a radical dualism between the immaterial (spirit) and the material. The latter was said to inherently evil. What we need, they said, is to escape it by climbing the ladder of gnosis. They set the “Old Testament God” of wrath, whom they regarded as a mere “demiurge” (not the real God) against the “New Testament God” of love. This, of course, is familiar to anyone who has experienced modern liberalism. If, said the Gnostics (and others), the material world is evil, created by a demiurge, then Jesus could not have been truly human. He only appeared (docetism) to be human. This theology led to radical extremes. If the body is evil and not quite real then either we must tame it via asceticism or we may indulge it completely via libertinism. Once again, this practically describes late modern life. Either we must starve ourselves or become Epicureans.
The Gnostics tuned Jesus from the God-Man Savior into just another teacher of mystical, esoteric secrets about how to climb the ladder of being into the One. They divided believers into classes, those who had the true gnosis (gnostics), psychikoi (the intermediate class), and the catholics (ordinary Christians—there was no reference to Roman Catholicism intended in the earliest use of catholic—and, finally, the sarkikoi. One sees analogous divisions in some forms of Christianity, where the fruit of the Spirit is for “mere” Christians but the “power” and the “gifts” of the Spirit are for those who’ve had “the [second] blessing.”
Some of these ideas about Jesus existed already in the 1st century. The Apostle Paul warned against some of them to the Colossians (e.g., principalities and powers; “don’t touch” etc). In 1John, the Apostle John condemned as “antichrist” anyone who denies that Jesus is true human and true God. The early post-apostolic Christians responded to the Gnostics in a variety of ways. One way, which might surprise some evangelicals, was their appeal the unity of salvation between the Old Testament (used on the broad sense) and the New Testament by highlighting the continuity of the covenant (of grace). Barnabas, Irenaeus, and Justin, among others all made use of the idea of God’s covenant promises fulfilled in Christ to show the essential unity of God and salvation between the Old and New Testaments. According to the Christian understanding of the Scripture and the history of salvation there are not two or three gods. There is one God who has revealed himself progressively in the history of salvation. There is no “Old Testament God” as over against a “New Testament God.” The fundamental confession in the Hebrew Scriptures is the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4:
Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.
This language gets picked up in the New Testament (1Cor 8:6; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Rom 3:30; Gal 3:20; James 2:19), which itself explicitly and repeatedly affirms that the same God who redeemed Israel out of Egypt is the very God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who redeemed elect sinners from the wrath to come by is obedience, death, and resurrection. Paul draws continuity between the Corinthian Christians and Israel in 1Corinthians 10. Paul calls the Galatian Christians, “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The NT way of reading the OT sees that it was God the Son who spoke to us in the garden, it was God the Son who delivered us through the Red Sea, and it was God the Son who thundered from Sinai (Hebrews 12). Our Lord himself said that all the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to himself (Luke 24). Christ is the ground of the unity of redemption. The types and shadows pointed forward to Christ (Col 2:11–12) and in Christ they have their yes and amen (2Cor 1:20).
I tried to explain this a bit in two recent episodes of the Heidelcast: What’s New About the New Covenant?
Our second response to the Gnostics was affirm the inherent goodness of creation. In Genesis 1, Yahweh Elohim, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit declared all that he had made to be “good” (Tov). It is easy to think that because this world is fallen that it has always been so. It hasn’t. Creation was not broken but it had the potential to become broken. Our problem was not a lack of knowledge, as that liar the Evil One implied. Our test was whether we would obey and we were made so that we could obey but mysteriously, tragically, in the mysterious providence of God, we freely chose death over life. Since the fall we have lived in a broken world that is corrupted by sin and afflicted with suffering and death. Nevertheless, we affirm the essential goodness of creation per se. This is God’s world. He is good. He is not capable of evil nor is he capable of doing evil. He is not a demiurge. There is no God beyond God. He is (see Exodus 3; John 1, and John 8:58).
His goodness is still evident in creation, in his preservation of creation and in his restraint of evil, The goodness of creation still appears in beauty, in life, and in joy. Despite the pervasive effects of sin and corruption, the goodness of creation peeks through and sometimes it even shines.
The Gnostics were wrong on all counts, on the nature of the human problem, on the nature of the remedy, and on the nature of things. Our response to Gnosticism, wherever it appears remains the same: God is one and therefore there is “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6).
God did threaten judgment in the Old Covenant and so he has in the New Covenant: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31) because “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). This language comes right out of the Old Testament, because there are not two Gods, one old and one new, one wrathful and one loving, but only one God who is both righteous and merciful. We find mercy in Christ, just as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets did and, if we do not turn to Christ, then we shall find wrath from that same Christ, from whose mouth comes a sword of judgment (Rev 19;15, 21).