With books like The DaVinci Code and recent offerings from Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and others, including a big story in
Time magazine, it is safe to say that gnosticism is hot right now. This interest in gnosticism has actually been building
for many years, even since Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels appeared around 1980.
The spark of all this interest was the discovery of an ancient library in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. In this library were many
lost books of the gnostic Christians who thrived around the 3rd century. The gnostics were subjected to strong criticism
by the mainstream churches, and eventually their movement died out. The discovery of the library gave scholars and Christians
a more direct look at the gnostic movement. Pagels' book brought some of their ideas to a mass audience.
The problem here is several-fold. In the first place, selling books in America appears to require the overlay of a simplistic
good-guys vs. bad-guys approach to things. According to this invented framework, pushed shamelessly by almost every writer
on this subject, the gnostics were gentle mystics in touch with a profound and benign spirituality, but were brutally persecuted
and oppressed by the monolithic, authoritarian, patriarchal, paranoid psychotics who controlled The Catholic Church. This
simplistic and anachronistic way of framing things appears in a lot of pop literature, but it is hardly worthy of people purporting
to be serious scholars. It is also false.
In her latest book, Beyond Belief, Pagels invents two dastardly villains who set out maliciously to do in the happy and
innocent gnostics: the Gospel of John and St. Irenaeus of Lyons. John's gospel is presented as a tract written mainly to
dissuade Christians from following the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas. Irenaeus writes his massive Against Heresies to
lure believers away from popular gnostic teachers. In her eyes, the main issue is control, institutional centralization,
setting boundaries, enforcing received definitions, and provoking a profound mistrust of individual experience. She presents
the orthodox as a cabal of niggardly old men concerned with keeping Christian faith boxed into doctrines and definitions over
which they could be the sole gatekeepers, determining who was in and who was out.
Irenaeus was asking questions of verification: How do we know when a doctrine is true and when it is someone's personal
invention? To give us this answer, he proposed looking to the apostolic tradition and the Church. But for Pagels, as for
the gnostics, this is not even a legitimate question. Why does there have to be one, single standard? Why can't we all reinvent
Jesus in every generation and community to suit our own needs? She reveals her modernist bias by claiming that individualism,
innovation, and progress, seen in the development of art in the modern age, is normative for authentic spirituality.
But gnosticism did not die out simply due to any organized persecution by the orthodox. The Church's power did not become
so centralized and focused until centuries later, and in the east at least it did not generally have the kind of police power
which today we might identify with the Spanish Inquisition. Heresy and diversity existed and even thrived in the eastern
Church. The Church was not the Gestapo Pagels and others would have us believe. It makes more sense to understand that these
books simply did not make the cut and stand the test of time. They became irrelevant, dated, obsolete, and anachronistic.
When they were collected for the library in Nag Hammadi, it was like someone who haunts old record stores for "one-hit
wonders" and other obscure singles of the 60's and 70's.
Granted, it occasionally happens that something thrown out with the trash in one generation becomes relevant later, even
much later. A prime example of this is the music of Hildegard of Bingen, which was all but forgotten for 900 years, before
becoming popular at the end of the 20th century. Pagels and others do make the case that the ideas expressed in the gnostic
writings resonate with our spiritual longings today.
This may be true, but it is not necessary to invent a sordid tale of brutal repression in order to explain it. The fact
that the story is presented in these terms betrays a primary agenda of many who write so glowingly about the gnostics. For
one reason or another they hate the organized, institutional Church. Most of this is aimed at Roman Catholicism, but any
form of the Church as an organized community is apparently abhorrent to them. It is this very modern prejudice, more than
historical accuracy, which informs the way they present the story of the gnostics.
One reason gnosticism faded was the inadequacy, indeed falsehood, of its vision. Few of those who are quick to romanticize
gnosticism today want to be reminded that many forms of gnosticism were so "spiritual" that they expressed a suspicion
of and hatred for matter, and even creation itself was considered the evil product of an evil demigod. This is not exactly
a foundation on which to build an ecological spirituality. Indeed, it is the kind of earth-hating pseudo-Christianity that
James Watt might endorse.
Another reason for the failure of gnosticism is that gnostics made miserable martyrs. Gnostics would readily deny their
faith in Christ when required to do so by the imperial government. If, as they believed, the body and matter were evil or
illusory, why would they get so exercised about what they did in the body? In choosing to save their own skins the gnostics
were weakening their own movement as well as alienating those among the orthodox whose friends and family members did become
Finally, I suspect the gnostic teachings simply didn't work. Doctrine and ascesis have a point and goal which is, in
Christian terms, participation in what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Any spirituality that doesn't actually produce this
transcendence, but meanders instead in circles, wallowing in its own self-indulgent narcissism, will eventually either fade
from history or acquire a new reason for being.
The gnostic writings did not make it into the New Testament. Some writers blame this on something akin to Nazi book burning.
Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, fantasizes that the bishops who met at Nicaea in 325 had before them a pile of
gospels, all with equal claims to legitimacy, and the decision was made to include only four for cynical, political reasons,
and viciously suppress the rest. As if the Church calculatedly chose a non-mystical Jesus who could be used to prop up an
imperialist ecclesiastical institution.
This fantasy belies the fact that the Church used basically two criteria when determining the canon of the New Testament.
In the first place, a book had to have a sound claim to apostolic authorship, and secondly it had to have already achieved
a wide use in the Church. Thus, many gospels were not included simply because they were obviously not authentic but written
much later under pseudonyms.
The books included in the New Testament by the early Church were those that were judged to be the oldest and most universally
One of Brown's more breathtakingly wild assertions is that the Gnostic gospels were more ancient than the ones that made
it into the New Testament! No one, not even the folks at the Jesus Seminar, denies that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John are the earliest. And these are also the books that circulated to all corners of Christianity; they had been
used and quoted by scholars and Christian leaders for two centuries. There may be very early material in some other gospels,
most notably in the gospel attributed to Thomas; but Thomas was not part of the consensus that had developed across the living
Church itself. The books with the greatest claim to authenticity and age remain the four we have in the Bible today. Many
books of which the orthodox approved didn't make this cut either. Works like the "Gospel of Nicodemus" were not
part of the canon, but their content became part of the broader and less authoritative Christian tradition.
There is a further fantasy prominent in novels and movies that these books are still proscribed and somehow forbidden
by the Church. This is ridiculous. I can buy a copy of The Nag Hammadi Library at Borders today. They are read and studied
in mainline churches. If you wanted to start your own gnostic congregation, no one would stop you. We can learn much from
such works, especially about the history of the early Church. But they are not part of "the unique and authoritative
witness to Jesus Christ" which the Church accepts as its Holy Scripture.
Some charge that the Church was caving in to the dictates of the Emperor. This is ridiculous. The Church already had
many martyrs. The Emperor had figured out that the believers would rather die than succumb to political or legal pressure.
If the New Testament canon were so inherently imperialistic, why did the Roman Church in the West keep it out of the hands
of the laity for a thousand years? Far from being reactionary tracts, the canonical gospels have inspired more than a few
revolutions over the centuries. Indeed, the Emperor may even have preferred the more palatable Arian version of Christianity
to the orthodox consensus hammered out at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Several later Emperors were various
kinds of heretics, yet the Church remained steadfast. Clearly the Emperor did not dictate Church doctrine.
Part of the attraction of the gnostic gospels is their apparent mysticism. But the Church has a deeper, higher, and more
powerful tradition of mysticism derived from the canonical gospels. Christians who seek the mystical roots of the faith would
do much better to study the New Testament and the writings of apostles and mystics of all ages. This side of the faith has
often been discounted or buried, but it is still there. The writings and stories of Irenaeus, Antony, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa,
John Chrysostom, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Pseudo-Dionesius, and others contain material of infinitely greater value
than most of what faded from history with the gnostics. Another part of the attraction is the perceived relevance of the
gnostic approach to people living in the post-modern world. This does not commend the gnostics so much as it condemns us.
For the gnostics appeal to our self-centeredness, our excessive individualism, our fear of community and hatred of institutions
and tradition, our willingness to be told what is most gratifying to us, and our self-indulgent abhorrence of real personal
change. They present an easy and convenient gospel for affluent and irresponsible people, not a difficult path of transformation
leading us to the Kingdom of God.
In the end, we are left with the question addressed by Irenaeus and dismissed by Pagels. That is, how do we know if a
way of doctrine and practice is true, or if it is simply a product of someone’s imagination? Pagels can only believe
the question is pointless by holding that there is no truth, only different subjective perspectives and approaches. For her,
apparently, as with most of post-modern thought, there is no transpersonal standard, no real transcendence, no living God,
and no verifiable spiritual path. There is only what seems to work for me at this particular moment. That is, in my view,
a hellish and intolerable existence in which spirituality is reduced to inventing diverting stories to distract us from nihilism
Surely there is more hope, truth, beauty, goodness, and value in the Christian view as articulated by Irenaeus, that the
good God made the world, and out of love for the world, became human in Jesus Christ to save the world. By trusting in him,
rather than in the short-sighted, distorted vision we have by ourselves, we human beings may have life eternal with and in
God. We know him by the power of his Spirit in the memory and authority of the community he established: the Church.