The Heresy that Wouldn't Die: Christian History & Biography

by Philip Jenkins

This world is not my home. As it stands, that statement reflects the views of a great many orthodox Christians, but a Gnostic would take it much further. From a Gnostic perspective, the material world is not just fallen but an utterly flawed creation, beyond redemption. God—or at least, the good, true God—certainly does not work in history. Escape is only available to the small minority who know, who recognize the need for liberation, which lies within. Wisdom, Sophia, is for the spiritual, the elite, and distinguishes them from the gullible herd of humans mired in the material, the victims of cosmic deception. They will remain asleep, while the true Gnostic is awakened.

Gnosticism has never gone away, however much some modern scholars lament the suppression of its hidden gospels in the late Roman Empire. The main themes survived, for instance, in the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, which explains how the world was created through the fracturing of the vessels into which the divine goodness was poured. In addition to seeking their own mystic ascent to God, believers also pledge themselves to achieving tikkun olam, the restoration of the broken world.

Within Christendom too, the fact that Christian states officially suppressed heresy just drove these ideas beyond the frontiers, into regions like Mesopotamia and Armenia. Gnostic and dualist ideas thrived across large parts of Asia in movements like the Paulicians and the Manichaeans, who taught the children of light how to liberate themselves from the evil god of this world.

Occasionally, these ideas were reimported into Europe, most famously in the Cathar or Albigensian movement, which was suppressed by a near-genocidal crusade in 13th-century France. The Cathars followed the old Gnostic ideas faithfully, offering full salvation to the "perfect" who absolutely renounced the world. These old-new movements relied chiefly on the Christian gospels, interpreting the parables in their own distinctive way. Like the early Gnostics, though, they also wrote their own scriptures, such as the Book of John the Evangelist. ("Then did the Contriver of Evil devise in his mind to make Paradise, and he brought the man and woman into it.")

Living in a Christian-ruled society, later Gnostics defined themselves against the church and its doctrines, which provided a foil for the truly spiritual. The Cathars rejected the Roman Catholic Church as, literally, the synagogue of Satan. Catholics followed the deluded God who had created the abomination of the world in which we live and whose bloody misdeeds are chronicled in the Old Testament. Ordinary Catholic believers were the sheep, in the sense of being docile, ignorant, and uncomprehending.

Old Nobodaddy and Women's LibAs Europe moved forward into the intimidating world of urbanization and industrialization, the identification between the church, the old God, and the evil society became ever more obvious to the spiritual children of Light. The Romantic English poet William Blake saw a world enslaved by a false God, Old Nobodaddy, the father of jealousy, who was a deceptive projection of society's own lusts and ignorance. Blake presented a full-blown Gnostic mythology, in which the spirit of the giant Albion has become lost and divided. The world is dominated by the rational intellectual force of Urizen, who is challenged by the revolutionary imagination in the form of Los. Only Los remembers the divinity that Albion has forfeited, and only he can awaken him. In the 19th century, the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire took the logic of revolt to its natural conclusion. If a church allied to a frightful and unjust society preached about God, then the only decent course was to praise the maligned rebel liberator, Satan.

From the end of the 19th century, original Gnostic texts became available once more. From 1896, any literate person could read the translation of the third-century Pistis Sophia, which offered a complete overview of Gnostic mythology. All the more striking in an age of women's empowerment, this scripture represents an extended exchange between Jesus and a number of female disciples, including Mary. The work had an impact in its day quite as powerful as the Nag Hammadi texts and the Gospel of Thomas would in later decades. Never believe any writer who claims that the world was ignorant of these radical insights until the 1970s!

Pistis Sophia and other texts had a huge appeal at a time when progressives and feminists were seeking to construct a new Christianity freed from the shackles of the hierarchical church. The best way to do this was to claim that, far from building something new, they were restoring the lost truths of the earliest followers of Jesus, doctrines suppressed by a sinister ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Writing in 1909, Frances Swiney claimed that the ancient Gnostics had been educated women, "early pioneers of the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinions, earnest intellectual women. … The Gnostics kept true to the original pristine faith in the Femininity of the Holy Spirit. A truth universally suppressed in the fourth century A.D. by the male priesthood of the Christian Church."

The (sleeping) child withinMany of the reasons that gave Gnosticism such a cachet in the first quarter of the 20th century still sound familiar today. Gnosticism offered a Christianity freed from elements that many thinkers found troubling, especially the Old Testament, which was being subjected to such devastating historical criticism. Nor were believers expected to accept New Testament gospels that higher critics argued were later, theologically inspired fictions. Through a Gnostic lens, Christianity was transformed from a religion rooted in history to a form of inner psychological enlightenment.

Once Christianity was understood as inner truth, educated observers no longer had to accept the unique claims of that religion, but could see the many commonalities that existed with other world religions. Buddhism in particular also taught enlightenment and waking from the sleep of illusion. Reconstructions of the "real" early Christianity reached a mass public through hugely best-selling novels like George Moore's The Brook Kerith (1916), in which a Jesus who survives the crucifixion ends his life by joining a party of missionary Buddhist monks.

Twentieth-century Gnosticism took many forms, both inside and outside the churches. Overtly Gnostic ideas inspired many esoteric groups and new religious movements, especially those derived from the Theosophical movement. To take one example of a modern esoteric religion, Scientology offers an unabashedly Gnostic mythology of sleep, forgetting, and reawakening. Believers are taught to return to the vastly powerful spiritual state they once enjoyed, but lost when that original being was trapped in the deceptions of MEST (Matter, Energy, Space, Time). No less explicitly Gnostic are the later works of that latter-day prophet Philip K. Dick, in books such as VALIS (1981).

Psychology was also a major vehicle for Gnostic thought. Carl-Gustav Jung, as much a mystic as a therapist, drew extensively on ancient Gnostic thinkers and mythology in works like Seven Sermons to the Dead (1916). Fundamental Gnostic assumptions underlie many forms of contemporary therapy, which lead patients to recognize the Fall through which they became entrapped in the world of illusion and dependency. Patients must above all recover their memories, through which they can overcome the states of sleep, amnesia, and illusion that blight their lives. As for ancient Gnostics, troubled souls are lost in an alien material world, trying to find their way home, to remember their true identity. The Gnostic idea of salvation became the psychologist's integration or individuation.

These parallels became particularly evident with the child abuse recovery movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Treatment of incest survivors implied such archaic themes as the loss of primal innocence through sexual sins inflicted on the patient, and the recovery of an untarnished child-like state: Memory is the gate through which we return to Eden.

A more authentic Christianity?But Gnosticism has also returned in an explicitly religious form, with the scholarly rediscovery of the ancient religious movements themselves. The best-known name is Elaine Pagels, whose pivotal 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels offered a religious synthesis very similar to that offered in Frances Swiney's day. Pagels likewise presented an ideal Christianity that was dehistoricized, psychological, thoroughly woman-friendly, and had many points of resemblance to Buddhism. For Pagels, moreover, as for later writers like Karen King, these ideas were not just an alternative fringe package labeled "Gnosticism," but the authentic core of the ancient Jesus movement. The ancient Gnostic gospels received a fresh advertisement in 2003 when Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code again argued that such movements were at the center, not the margins, of Christianity. Brown's heroine, who proves to be a descendant of Jesus, even bears the Gnostic-inspired name of Sophie.

Such ideas are intoxicating for the millions of people who have grown up in a Christian culture, who love the figure of Jesus, but who feel that there must be something more to the story than what is offered in the Bible or the churches. Gnosticism, as selectively repackaged by its modern advocates, amply fills this need and is buttressed by "authentic" ancient scriptures. Gnosticism, they feel, represents the pristine faith in a form that could never be appreciated by the vulgar herd of ordinary believers, who remain asleep. Surely God would never deign to make his truth available in a form equally available to everyone, however humble, and from all nations?

Philip Jenkins is professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford).

Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.Issue 96, Fall 2007, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Page 33


Matthew 18: A Systematic Philosophy for Dealing with Humans and Error--Part Two

Matthew 18:10-14 NKJV
(10) Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. (11) For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. (12) What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? (13) And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. (14) Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

This is part two of an ongoing study. For part one click here.

The above pericope is primarily recognized as the Parable of the Lost Sheep. It is a continuation of thought, however, and it only serves to further establish the concepts Christ has taught us to this point; primarily that we are His children and said children are to trust, obey, and be humble as well. Christ's use of parables serves to portray abstract concepts as practical.

An underlying principle in this pericope is that God is very interested in His sheep, i.e. His Children. This principle is expressed to the degree of going out and finding one lost sheep, out of a hundred faithful. Obviously then, God has concern for even the "one" who goes astray.

We should also note that here Christ has "shifted attention away from the physical violence of a hand or the lust of an eye to the mental attack of scorn"(1), that is why he mentions the word despise. Verse ten offers us a third warning; this warning says that we are not to despise even "one" of the little ones. The Greek meaning for "despise" here means to neglect or disregard, to view one as non-important.

The faithful interpreter here should remember that the message to the "children" in these passages is purposely being applied to His immediate audience, i.e. the children, surrounding Jesus, as well as subsequent believers, metaphorically.

Often when we disregard a person we consider them less competent as others; therefore, they are neglected, ignored, and even pushed aside. The end result of such behavior is possibly crippling to the potential of the individual, also they're abilities are untapped, and their growth stunted. Here Jesus shows us the principle of the Body edifying itself. If we should not disregard them, then it is almost certain that we should regard them properly, by prayer and blessing at the very least.

Vs. 10

This verse may serve as a point of interest because it possibly gives rise to the idea of guardian angels. I believe this to be true but I believe it applies to God's children generally, young or old. For example, the Psalmist declared prior this reference in Matthew:

For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In
their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
(Psalms 91:11-12 NKJV)

"In the Bible angels did more than deliver messages and observe human affairs. They also were personally involved in protecting God’s people in times of great need."(2) It is also common that angels minister to each believer (Hebrews 1:14; Psalm 34:7).

Vs. 11

This text causes us to search, because this verse is actually omitted in certain ancient Greek manuscripts. In fact, there are some translations (NIV, NET, NJB, TEV, Moffat, Godbey) that do not include this text in the English translations at all; others (NASB, HCSB, ESV) include brackets indicating it as inserted but omitted text.

The NKJV is our primary reference text for this study, so we will follow its pattern. The NKJV insert the verse but identify it as omitted in certain ancient texts. Dr. Spiros Zodhiates makes these comments:

"Since verse 11 is not found in some older manuscripts, certain commentators suggest it was added by later copyists from Luke 19:10 to provide a transition into the next three verses. But since it is found in most manuscripts, we suggest it is authentically from Matthew himself and Jesus used the same thought twice, once when He introduced the parable of the ninety-nine sheep here, and later when He spoke to Zacchaeus as recorded in Luke 19."(3)

In the context of this pericope, Christ is discussing lost sheep. Therefore, it is quite obvious that the states of those sheep are being referenced here as well. This is what Christ has come for, to save those people who are lost. The rendering of "lost" here is accurate since it refers to the occasion whereby one wanders away, much like sheep, and becomes lost. The sheep was lost because of its own carelessness however, of its own accord. The reference here is reminiscent of beginning things. For example, it explains much of the Incarnation ("come to save") and also tacitly references the lost condition that Adam and Eve’s rebellion brought upon humanity.

Adam and Eve was a people truly blessed by God. In fact, the Garden of Eden was a testimony of his favor towards them. They desired to know good and evil, and to choose what was right for their own selves. As a result of The Fall humanity has become much like sheep gone astray. It is by our own arrogance and negligence that we are often prey for predators stalking the flock. God never loses, purposely or out of weakness, any sheep He saves and brings into His fold. People are not lost because of God, (see the Good Shepherd, John 10:14) but because of their own determination to wander. (4)

This entire discourse (ch. 18) seems to touch on the root of human error, so much so that it even beckons the first happening of human error, e.g. The Fall. God's goal then is to reconcile lost people, it is His main purpose. It is ironic that we choose to wander from the Shepherd, purposefully, yet He still takes time to bring us back to the flock.

God deals with His sheep in various ways concerning their lostness; for a discourse on those who are lost and yet God allows to return of their own volition see the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).

Vs. 12

Here Jesus invokes the participation of those hearing. He says, "What do you think?" Obviously, He knew their thoughts but wanted them to think or talk this through with Him.

Part Three begins with studying forgiveness. Check back.


1. Exegetical Commentary on Matthew, by Spiros Zodhiates, Copyright © 2006 by AMG Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

2.. Understanding Christian Theology (560). Swindoll, C. R., & Zuck, R. B. (2003). Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

3. Exegetical Commentary on Matthew, by Spiros Zodhiates, Copyright © 2006 by AMG Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

4. Halley's Bible Handbook with the NIV Copyright © 2000 by Halley's Bible Handbook, Inc.


Early UPC Debates: Sabin and Urshan

Here is a video collage of an early UPC debate with Nathaniel Urshan, Robert Sabin, Walter Martin, Calvin Beisner and John Ankerberg. I believe there are 27 in total, but I have attempted to streamline those I have found for easy access and use.

NOTE: Martin uses intense emotive arguments to discredit Urshan and Sabin early on. I suggest we watch it and understand and learn. There are good answers to the grammar and syntax that Beisner and Martin bring up. Please make some comments about the video's. What would you have said in response? Better answer? Comment and let me know.



Here are some links to a myriad of responses to this debate, in some form, by David Bernard, Robert Sabin, et al.



My blog has several articles that address a few of the questions raised by Martin or Beisner from the standpoint of the text. Feel free to peruse. Here is a great Q&A link from a smart dude--Jason Dulle. This link may cover questions you may have too. I highly recommend you put his website and blog in your Favorites.


Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)