In our ancient church course we have been working through the basic ideas and foundational figures in the Gnostic movement of the second century AD.
After we survey the Gnostic movement we turn to Marcion. As I describe these two related but distinct movements every year I am impressed by how similar they are to post-eighteenth-century evangelical and Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity in America. The Gnostics offer salvation from the material world and access to a complex spiritual hierarchy through the acquisition of secret knowledge.
At the core of these movements is a hierarchical view of the world. At the bottom of the hierarchy is the physical material world, which was said to be inherently evil. At the top of the hierarchy was said to be a spiritual (i.e., immaterial) world. In between are degrees of “aeons.” Those degrees represent a hierarchy of being and of secret knowledge. One analogy is the Masonic system. A 32nd degree Scottish Rite Masonic has accumulated quasi-secret knowledge by degrees and when he gets to the pinnacle he becomes a “worshipful master.” There are clear Gnostic overtones in the Lodge. The first thing every Mason learns is that they have secrets and you must not reveal them on pain of punishment.
Whether it was Cerinthus, Basilides, Valentinus, or later, Marcion they all disparaged the “god” of the Old Testament, whom they regarded as a “demiurge.” His chief sin was creation. He was regarded as inferior to God of the New Testament. In Marcion’s case, the god of the Old Testament represented law and judgment and the God of the New Testament represents love without law.
For their part, the Gnostics regularly rejected the idea that Jesus was God or that he was crucified. Some of them argued that it was Simon the Cyrene who was crucified. All of the Gnostics denied Jesus’ true humanity. They said he only “appeared” to be human. Thus their view of Christ is described as “docetic” from the Greek verb which means “to appear.”
The Gnostics divided the world into three groups: the Gnostics, i.e., those who had the secret knowledge; the “catholics” (i.e., the Christians), and the “fleshly” or “soulish,” i.e., those without awareness of transcendent truths or realities. Is that not the way that the charismatics and Pentecostals look at the world: There are those Christians who have the gift(s) of the Spirit (e.g., tongues, prophecy, being slain in the Spirit etc), and those ordinary Christians who do not. Then there are unbelievers who are equivalent to the Gnostic category of “fleshly” or “soulish.” The Charismatic and Pentecostal leaders, like the Gnostic leaders have the secret knowledge, which they dispense to those who are worthy, i.e., who have enough faith. I have had Charismatic Christians offer to “give me” the Holy Spirit.
It was when we got to Marcion, however, that it really hit me to what degree we continue to replay the errors faced by the ancient church. Not only did he radically divide the Old and New Testaments and not only did he deny the law of God, but he also denied the validity of the pastoral epistles. How much does that remind one of aspects of Dispensationalism? Here the lines between the Gnostics, the Pentecostals/Charismatics, and the Dispensationalists get blurry. All of them are offering what is essentially secret knowledge that they alone have to explain what Christians heretofore have never known and could not know from Scripture and the ecumenical creeds.
What is there about the New Testament, taken on its own terms, that would lead one to think that the Old Testament is “not for today”? Certainly that would be shock to Matthew, who relied heavily on the Old Testament. It would be a complete surprise to the writer of Hebrews, whose sermon/epistle is a commentary on Psalm 110 among other things. When was the last time a typical American evangelical, or Pentecostal, or Charismatic congregation sang Psalm 110?
What is it about the New Testament, taken on its own terms, that would lead a Christian to conclude that there are two classes of Christians, those who have “the blessing” and those who do not? The ancient, catholic (notice the lower case) post-apostolic church knew nothing of any such distinction. Montanus and his followers were charged with teaching something like what the Pentecostals and Charismatics teach but they were condemned for it.
Marcion was a pastor’s son who, tragically, came under the influence of the Gnostics. He refused to repent and was excommunicated from the congregation in Rome. He founded his own sect around AD 144. As I described his development I was reminded of the words of H. Richard Niebuhr, about mainline Protestant liberalism:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross (The Kingdom of God in America) (HT: Zac Reeves for looking up the quotation for us in class).
Niebuhr’s description of the liberal Protestant mainline (e.g., the UCC, the UMC, the ELCA, the ECUSA, the ABC, the Disciples of Christ, and the PCUSA) is a brilliant description of Marcion.
There is an alternative to the Gnosticism and Marcionism of Modern American Christianity. It is the Reformed confession. It seeks to be biblical, ecumenical (or catholic, i.e., adhering the ancient ecumenical or catholic creeds, e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed) and confessional (e.g., the Heidelberg, Belgic, Canons, or the Westminster Standards). The confessional Reformed churches are not perfect nor sinless but they are not shot through with Gnosticism or the spirit of Marcion.
With Irenaeus we affirm the goodness of creation against the Gnostics. We reject the spirit-matter dualism and hierarchy of the Gnostics in favor of the Biblical and ancient Christian distinction between the Creator and the creature.
The salvation we offer is a real salvation, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, from the very real wrath of the very real God. We affirm the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, it is built into our theology. With Barnabas (AD 120) and Irenaeus (AD 170) we affirm one covenant of grace administered variously throughout the history of salvation.
With the ancient, orthodox, catholic church we affirm Christ’s true deity and his true humanity. We explicitly reject the Gnosticizing tendency of the Anabaptists to dematerialize the humanity of Christ (e.g., the Anabaptist doctrine of “celestial flesh” of Christ).
Biblical, historic, confessional Reformed Christianity is not a collection of secrets. It is the revelation of public teaching and the public acts of redemption. Jesus was crucified in public and his resurrected body was seen by hundreds. He ascended to the Father in the sight of the Apostles. Our Scriptures are not secret. We offer no secret knowledge by degrees. We have pastors, elders, and deacons. We have no Gnostic leaders with secrets for sale. The 66 books of the canonical Scriptures (including all of the Pauline epistles) are public and our confession is public. The Scriptures are our final rule (canon) for Christian faith and life. We are not bound to the idiosyncratic opinions of leaders who claim to receive direct revelations from God. Indeed, any pastor who claimed to receive direct, extra-canonical revelations should be subject to discipline in our churches.
We are catholic Reformed Christians in the truest sense of those words. There are not two kinds of Christians in the Reformed churches. There is only one kind of Christian: sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone.
If you are weary of the quasi-Gnosticism of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions or the quasi-Marcionite quality of American evangelicalism or the liberal Protestant mainline, you are welcome to join us. See the resources below for more information. Our teachers and members are not perfect but we are earnest about being biblical, catholic, Reformed and evangelical in the best senses of those words.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC)
- How To Find A Confessional Presbyterian Or Reformed Congregation
- Another Way To Find A Confessional Reformed Church In North America
- When Confessional P & R Congregations Do Not Exist Or Disappoint
- Niebuhr On The Marcionite Character Of Theological Modernism
- Trueman: Marcion And Opposition To Singing God’s Word
- Therapeutic-Gnostic Pentecostalism?
- Critical Theory Is A New Species Of Gnosticism
- QAnon, Evangelical Gnosticsm, Manichaeism, And The Kingdom Of The Cults
- The So-Called “Celestial Flesh” Christology Is Just Gnosticism
- Gnosticism And Christian Universalism
- Office Hours: Simon Gathercole On Gnosticsm, Canon, and Competing Gospels
- Epiphanius Of Salamis (c. 315–403): It Was Gnostics Not Christians Who Made Images Of Christ
- How To Avoid Rome’s Gnostic Response To Gnosticism
- Ironically, Gnosticism Is A Nasty Business
- HB Classic: Holograms, Gnosticism, Celebrity, and Mission
- Evangelicals and Gnostics Together?