The Inner Light: On Orthodoxy and Gnosticism by Gene Ciarlo
An old song from mid-20th century was once very popular. It was entitled “The Bible Tells Me So.” Have faith, hope and charity, that’s the way to live successfully. How do I know? The Bible tells me so. Be good to your enemies, and the Blessed Lord you’ll surely please. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.
Simple, isn’t it? Just follow the Bible and you’ll be okay. Maybe a Christian fundamentalist or evangelical will agree totally with that message, but history, and the history of Christianity, suggests a different story.
We know that there are 27 books in the canon of the New Testament. Most Christians know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four Gospels, even though the actual writers of the texts may not have been Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The Good News was spread by word of mouth, but that style of handing on the message could not continue forever. Ultimately, over 40 years later, accounts were written by certain people who attached the names of well-known disciples to their writings in order to give them greater support and credibility. If Matthew wrote the text, their thinking went, then that’s the way it must have been, those are the words Jesus must have spoken and the things that he must have done. The same goes for the titled authors of the other 26 designated books.
However, there is also the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, another of Philip, and the secret Gospel of James. It is rare that we hear anything about those texts because they are not part of the New Testament. They are just a few of the 52 texts or codices that were found buried in Egypt, at Nag Hammadi, in 1945. Most of them date back to around the time that the familiar four Gospels and letters were written. They are called the Gnostic codices. The words alone sound ominous.
We know what it means when someone is an agnostic. From the Greek, the prefix a- means “without,” and gnosis means “knowledge.” Agnostics believe, but they are not sure what they believe. It is “unknown” to them. However, Gnostics know. Gnostics, in the apostolic age, believed that they were enlightened, that the men and women who by baptism had given themselves over to a Christian way of belief and lifestyle were blessed with an enlightenment and awareness of “what it is all about,” what Jesus was about, what his teachings were about. It was intuitive. Certain leaders among them in those earliest days of the church wrote treatises about their beliefs and practices—the Gnostic codices.
The range of belief and practices among the Gnostics was very wide because there were no rules or structures, no appointed leaders or guides, which would have been essential sociological elements for the sake of order and posterity. The Gnostics wanted things to be more freewheeling. Knowledge was an individual enlightenment that required, first of all, self-knowledge. It meant that individuals received their own wisdom and awareness as to what was to be believed, understood, and practiced about Jesus and his Way. Thus, if individual Christians felt enlightened with certain knowledge of Jesus’s words and deeds, then there were bound to be various expressions of those beliefs, unpredictable and random. That style of religion does not augur well for a social and religious movement that is destined and intended to exist and expand well into the future.
If you consider that the Gnostic texts were written around the same time as the books of the New Testament, the question arises: Why were the 27 books picked to be the inspired texts for Christians to live by and not any of the Gnostic texts? Furthermore, why were those manuscripts buried in earthen urns in the desert of Egypt only to be accidentally discovered in 1945? Evidently somebody or some group of people were trying to keep them hidden. There may be good reason why Gnosticism did not gain popular recognition, whereas the Orthodox Christianity with which we are so familiar became “the Way” to follow the mind and spirit of Jesus the Christ.
Early theologians and historians such as Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Hippolytus, a recognized teacher in Rome, and Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, as well as a host of authority figures who wrote and taught about Jesus, provided a hierarchy of leadership from the second century onward. They wanted and needed order, thinking ahead about the way the ecclesia, or assembly, would gather and worship in the decades and centuries to come. They probably were not thinking from a sociological perspective, but instinctively they realized that there must be structure and there must be some sort of hierarchical succession if a body of believers was to thrive and grow.
As a result, from early on in the church there were designated leadership roles: bishops, priests, deacons, and people who would preside over the gathered assembly of believers. Furthermore, there was even a prepared structure and order for the breaking of bread, the Eucharist, as found in the Didache, a second-century patristic document, and throughout the Apostolic Tradition.
In her award-winning book The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels summarizes well the distinction between the Gnostics and the Orthodox and all those who today profess Christianity:
Although major themes of Gnostic teaching, such as the discovery of the divine within, appealed to so many that they constituted a major threat to catholic doctrine, the religious perspectives and methods of Gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion. In this respect, it was no match for the highly effective system of organization of the catholic church, which expressed a unified religious perspective based on the New Testament canon, offered a creed requiring the initiate to confess only the simplest essentials of faith, and celebrated rituals as simple and profound as baptism and the Eucharist.
Among the Gnostics, there was no problem of authority and leadership. This may have been a major factor in their downfall. Authority, as always among large groups of people, becomes an absolute necessity and often a problem. Who will succeed the charismatic leader? Who has the right to lead, to speak and act in the name of Jesus? Among the Gnostics, whoever was moved by the Spirit to preside at the breaking of bread, he or she would do the honors. There was no hierarchy or rank when they came together to remember Jesus. One’s spiritual life was personal and individuated, deep and dependent upon each individual’s commitment to the mind and spirit of Jesus.
A theology likewise was critical to establishing, sustaining, and growing the Christian faith. A prime example, a theological anchor among the Orthodox believers and leaders such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus (as well as Linus, Cletus, Clement, and Sixtus, the early bishops of the church in Rome), was that the heart and soul of the Christian movement depended on the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection, bodily resuscitation from the dead, was absolutely crucial, and everything in subsequent teachings and practice was dependent upon that fact. The Gnostics, for the most part, did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For most of them, because they followed a variety of beliefs as the Spirit moved them, Jesus’s resurrection was spiritual. He may have been seen by individuals and multitudes, but those appearances were not physical, bodily ones.
Another very important consideration in deciding which texts to accept and which to reject was the role of women in the earliest days of the church. According to the Gnostic texts, women held an equal footing with men and took leadership roles in the church as the Spirit moved them. There was absolutely no distinction in roles between men and women. Granted, there are indications in the Orthodox New Testament that women were vital to the growth and development of the apostolic church, but this did not last very long into the first century of the church’s life. Noted church leaders were adamant in their conviction that only men were to assume positions of leadership. Some Christians, especially among the Gnostics, might say that the early church Fathers “hijacked” Orthodox Christianity and molded it to their image and likeness rather than to the likeness of Christ.
Keeping in mind the Resurrection of Christ, the roles of women in the church, and the requirements of leadership in general—just to note a few outstanding differences between Orthodox and Gnostics—we must understand that the Gnostic gospels would not be acceptable as part of the canon of the New Testament. They had to be sidelined, if not squelched completely. It is no surprise that the Gnostic texts were hidden in the desert of Egypt.
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The Gospel of John had to come to the forefront of texts to be revered and cherished in the early church. John spoke zealously and vehemently about the resurrected Christ, not only as Son of God but actually God incarnate. According to Bishop Irenaeus, John’s Gospel should come first theologically because it alone proclaimed the divinity of Christ. Paul’s letters were filled with the centrality of the Resurrection and Jesus as the Son of God, whereas the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were vague in their wording about the status of Jesus relative to God the Father.
Finally, in the fourth century, at a major council in Hippo in present-day Algeria, it was decided and proclaimed that 27 books were theologically acceptable to the hierarchy of the church and were set in stone. That was the end of the line for any other beliefs and practices, especially those of the Gnostic “heretics.”
Gnosticism, however, would not be so easily dismissed. The Gnostics strongly opposed the “easy” way of Christianity that hardly required the necessary struggle and challenge to discover truth and to convert one’s life to the spirit of Christ. Pagels elaborates on this point:
The Gnostics could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure, until one found one’s own path, “for,” as the gnostic teacher Heracleon says, “people at first are led to believe in the Savior through others,” but when they become mature “they no longer rely on mere human testimony,” but discover instead their own immediate relationship with “the truth itself.”
I find those words to be eminently poignant, for our time and for the past two thousand years. There is an overwhelming amount of superficiality without the “work” of forging a spiritual life among the Catholics and Christians who have been ignorantly baptized in the names of God. I believe that this sort of thinking and acting over two thousand years has brought us to an historical point at which Christianity is in death throes for lack of depth and conviction among those who may still identify as Christian. They often characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They very likely may never have known the kind of conviction, zeal, and commitment to “the Way” that the apostolic church knew.
To sum up, among the earliest followers of Christ the Gnostics saw the Orthodox Christians as unenlightened. They might have said, “You just don’t understand what is really happening here and what Jesus was trying to say.” This is especially evident in the days following the Council of Nicea, convoked in 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who proclaimed Christianity the religion of the state. It then became fashionable to profess belief in Christ. It was easy, too easy. Follow the crowd, get baptized, and become socially and politically acceptable. Christianity became a habit, like one’s best suit of clothes to be put on and taken off randomly. Quite frankly, keeping these historical developments in mind, I can’t help but feel a bit sympathetic with some Gnostic beliefs regarding knowledge and understanding of the Christian mysteries, leading to deep personal conviction.
In 2022, with the understanding that we now have of spirituality, leadership, democratic principles, and the role of women in society, politics, and the church, I don’t think there would have been such a rush to bury the Gnostic texts. Need I say more? ♦
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.
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