N.T.WRONG

Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Gnosticism – Vision – Spring 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on June 15, 2008

Vision.org is a Church of God magazine-website. In the Spring 2008 edition, Vision provides an overview of Gnosticism.

It makes one good point: 

“Gnosticism was eventually banished from the Roman Empire and all but disappeared, but it should not be presented as the loser in the struggle with the orthodoxy that emanated from Rome. While Gnosticism may have departed the scene in the empire, the orthodoxy that remained had absorbed many facets of Gnostic understanding and its approach to the Scriptures. The two are in fact siblings, the result of the same interpretive approach to Scripture, although differing in degree.”

While Gnostic Christianity is often presented as the “loser” in the battle with proto-orthodox Christianity, it is worth remembering that the boundaries between Gnostic and proto-orthodox Christianity were not clear-cut. Proto-orthodox Christianity was shaped by Gnostic Christianity, and to some extent proto-orthodox Christianity was Gnostic Christianity. At least as late as the second century, Valentinus can still be considered for the position of Bishop of Rome, and what might be categorized as “Gnostic” terminology and concepts can show up in writings that have more in common with later orthodoxy than Gnosticism – such as the Epistle of the Apostles or Clement of Alexandria. The distinctions between proto-orthodox Christianity and early Gnosticism are ones of degree only, and are in flux, continually being worked out.

Yet, the article tends to make some conservative and unwarranted conclusions:

“what we know as the New Testament is the product of Judaic writers speaking to fellow Jews as well as to gentiles who wished to acknowledge the God of Israel as established in those Holy Scriptures known as the Old Testament. It was their view that the Apostolic Writings were to be read through the lens of the existing Scriptures, which validated the teachings of the later texts. The writings of the Gnostics, by contrast, are written on a totally speculative basis.”

Many Proto-orthodox Christian claims – such as Jesus’ claim to be “Son of Man”, the belief in an end-times Messiah, and an eschatological battle between Jesus and an opposing figure called ‘Satan’ – are just as much “speculative” developments as were the Gnostic ones. None of these ides are in fact in the Old Testament. The Vision article seems to presume that while Proto-orthodox Christian developments naturally flow from the Hebrew Bible, Gnostic developments do not. But it is important to recognize that both streams of tradition applied highly imaginative, speculative, and just plain unusual lenses in their rereadings of the Hebrew Bible. They are both “speculative” while at the same time being based on older Jewish traditions. Jewish traditions were developing in many directions in these centuries, exhibiting both continuity and discontinuity from the Jewish traditions which preceded them. The Sethian characterisation of the Old Testament God as a Demiurge or Yaldabaoth is essentially tied to Old Testament traditions. The discontinuity that results from characterizing the Old Testament God as inferior and ignorant is a vital method by which some Gnostic writers developed these Old Testament traditions. Is it any more discontinuous than saying that the one Lord of the Old Testament Psalms is actually two Lords – both Father and Son?

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