Probing the past for perspectives on the present, a Presbyterian pastor in Saint John, New Brunswick, Philip J. Lee, brings to trial North American Evangelicals in Against the Protestant Gnostics (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987). As one might guess from the title, Lee takes for his mentor St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose second century treatise, Against Heresies, sought to defend the orthodox faith from various gnostic perversions.
“For the gnostic Christian, ancient or modern,” Lee says, “simple faith (pistis) is not sufficient. Instead, there must be knowledge (gnosis)” (p.3). Almost always, Gnostics have these characteristics: 1) a deep sense of metaphysical alienation; 2) a proposed scheme of knowledge to overcome alienation; 3) a world-denying, escapist stance which often disdains material things; 4) an exclusivist, aristocratic elitism, promising real salvation to the enlightened few; 5) a syncretistic compulsion to compound diverse strands of theories and perspectives. Given these identifying marks, much of what follows entails Lee’s analysis of how gnostic notions have flourished, been condemned, or slipped silently into the darker niches of Christendom. As Lee shows, the main tenets of gnosticism have almost routinely, across the centuries, been condemned by the Church, though nothing seems to prevent its weed-like re-surfacings.
Rooted in the biblical teaching that creation is good, Christians have never rightly tolerated those who would disparage it. Given the inevitable Docetism of most gnostics, Christians have insisted on the down-to-earth materiality of the Incarnate Christ. Salvation is revealed to Christians primarily through God’s historic dealings with His people and thus to the highly visible (if not always highly edifying) believing community. Salvation comes not, as Gnostics assert, through elusive inward workings which bring enlightenment and deliverance for individuals. The typical gnostic strategies for “self-realization” and personal well-being (staples of TV prosperity gospel preaching) has routinely been labeled “sin” by the Church. Another important distinction involves the sacraments. Whereas Gnostics tend to downgrade, if not dismiss them, the orthodox from the early centuries through the classic Reformers have tenaciously clung to the worth, indeed the soteriological centrality, of at least Baptism and Eucharist.
In North America, however, and especially from beachheads within those Puritan communities which focused unduly “on self” and tended to view “humanity from an elitist perspective” (74), Gnosticism wormed its way into the nation’s religious life. Those sectarian movements (cultivating what Ernst Troeltsch called an “individualistic Protestantism of active-holiness”) which permanently dyed the religious life of America’s faithful seemed especially vulnerable to gnostic notions.
Consequently, Lee titles the second part of his study “Gnosticism in Ascendance in North America.” The ancient Gnostic traits typify many churches, especially those rooted in the Calvinist tradition. Unwilling to celebrate the full range of biblical revelation, North American Protestants, Evangelicals included, have embraced Marcion’s notion that the only religious truth worth proclaiming is that of the Redeemer-God, who in Christ saves us. Alienated from creation, lacking roots in the historic faith-community, there’s little to celebrate but a here-and-now of forgiveness with the added expectation of by-and-by personal bliss.
Too often, North American Protestants have replaced remembrance of the “holy events” celebrated in Scripture with “private illumination,” what Jonathan Edwards described as “a Divine and Supernatural Light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God” (103). This nicely suited the emergent Enlightenment ethos of the 18th century and led, Lee thinks, to an “inversion of Calvinism” (p.104). Thus, in our time, as Charles Glock and Robert Bellah observe: “Immediate experience rather than doctrinal belief continues to be central along all the religious movements, including the Jesus movements, and in the human-potential movement as well. Knowledge in the sense of direct first-hand encounter has so much higher standing than abstract argument based on logic that one could almost speak of anti-intellectualism in many groups” (p.113).
Evangelicals emphasizing the need to be “born again,” Lee argues, frequently fall into various forms of escapism, yet another gnostic trait. We would like to reach a spiritual peak which frees us from nature–from the body and its sexuality, from time, history and politics. Seeking such still obsesses many evangelicals, Lee thinks. “The history of American revivalism has often featured vigorous attacks against the flesh, flesh interpreted as body. Dancing, theater, the plastic arts were all forbidden or discouraged because they were correctly perceived as making a connection between the human spirit and the human body” (p.132). In a chapter entitled “Narcissism: From the Sacred Community to the Inner Self,” Lee links the ancient gnostic fixation on self-realization with modern religious self-help movements. Such a tendency surfaced in the First Great Awakening, when a follower of Jonathan Edwards, Ebenezer Frothingham, could say: “If we rightly consider the Nature of Practice in Religion, or Obedience to God, we shall see an absolute Necessity for every Person to act singly, as in the sight of God only; . . . to bring the Saints all to worship God sociably, and yet have no dependence upon another” (p.145).
Two centuries later, this narcissistic individualism would hallmark the self-adoration disguised with slogans such as “self-expression” and “self-fulfillment.” Such are now elevated to unquestioned “rights” by millions of Americans, and churchly concerns–the ancient Christian notion that one is saved within the Church, Calvin’s teaching that apart from the Church there is no truth–virtually disappeared. Especially within American Methodism, H. Richard Niebuhr insisted, there appeared “that great revolutionary movement of the eighteenth century that placed the individual at the center of things and so profoundly modified all existing institutions” (p.156). (Here let me argue a bit with Niebuhr and Lee: both illustrate a condescending distaste for America’s typically democratic, people-shaped denominations. Historians rooted in European churches, and Easterners displeased with the populism of America’s frontier, often treat Methodists et al. unfairly!)
Back to Lee! The fourth gnostic trait, he lists, elitism, also characterizes some modern North American Protestants. New England Puritans self-consciously cultivated an elite corps of truly righteous believers. In Jonathan Edwards one finds a pastor who allowed only visible saints membership in visible congregations. Revivalists and revivalistic churches have often sought to clearly paint black and white differences between the “saved” and the “lost.”
The fifth and final gnostic trait Lee discerns in American religion is syncretism. Especially in the mainline, liberal churches, there has developed a genial, tolerant, eclectic spirit which often refuses to even restrict itself to clearly Christian sources and doctrines. Almost anything goes under the rubric of “faith” so long as it is sufficiently nebulous. By definition, syncretism has “an aversion to the particular. Within American Protestantism that aversion has been felt especially toward the particularity of Church and sacraments” (p.182). Consequently, the noted Church historian Winthrop S. Hudson, summing up his study of American Protestantism, found little but “the form of surviving memories and a lingering identification with the resources of historic Christianity” (p.185).
On the basis of his analysis, Lee concludes that much of American Protestantism has become gnosticized. Wallowing in anarchic individualism, anti-institutionalism and anti-sacramentalism, waffling with a spineless doctrinal pliability, it desperately needs to recover authentic Christian roots and routines. What he proposes is a “renewal of hope” through “the degnosticizing of Protestantism.”
Unfortunately, whereas Lee’s critical analyses frequently hit the mark, his proposals for reform, while suggestive, prove less satisfactory. Among other things, he calls for: 1) more liturgical worship services (returning the sacraments to their rightful centrality); 2) less concern for quick-fix pragmatic success criteria (certain that slow growth may be more enduring than over-night sprouts); 3) stronger discipline within the Church; 4) better biblical preaching (written in the pastor’s study rather than the so-called “office”); and, 5) the displacement of the self as the center of God’s saving work through the proper understanding of the Church, not the individual, as the Body of Christ.
Against the Protestant Gnostics prods one to think! It may not always accurately assess the situation. Those of us in the revivalistic wing of Evangelicalism may rightly deflect some of Lee’s barbs, which at times are off the mark, Certainly he seems to propose less than satisfactory solutions to the problems he raises. But the book focuses on an important theme. And it shows, I think conclusively, why today’s American churches seem so unlike the Ante-Nicene Church or that espoused by classical Protestant reformers such as Calvin.
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A decade ago Tom Oden, professor of theology and ethics at Drew University, published Agenda for Theology: Recovering Christian Roots. Recently he has revised and republished the book, titling it After Modernity . . . What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, c. 1990). Having discovered that both he and his “postcritical” students hunger for “the available power of the Christian heritage rather than trendy ideas of minor modern heretics” (p. 16), he calls readers to recover their authentic Christian roots in the Ancient Church, for “it is from the martyrs, saints, and prophets of Christian history, more than from recent riskless interpreters, that we learn of the value of classical Christianity” (p. 13).
In part one of the book, “The Courtship of Modernity,” Oden urges us to reject many of our era’s most seductive proposals. To do so means discounting “modernity,” which he describes as “a narcissistic hedonism that assumes that moral value is reducible to now feelings and sensory experience” (p. 31). Indeed: “Narcissism is a key mark of modernity. Myself becomes the central project of moral interest; self-enjoyment and self-development become the central goals” (p. 79). Oden knows whereof he speaks: in some deeply personal, confessional, passages he reflects on all the “movements” he earlier joined and championed, only to find them short-lived and inconsequential. Older, and wiser, he has found profoundly satisfying rootage in classical orthodoxy, especially that of the first five centuries of Church history.
A major step on this journey involved making a transforming discovery: proper hermeneutics! By learning to listen to the text itself, becoming obedient to it (not the latest scholar’s interpretation of it), he found what “was the most improbable and difficult and revolutionary thing that has ever happened to me” (p. 80). He discovered his rightful role as a theologian. He discovered that for the first thousand years of Church history theologians listened to and obeyed the text.
Today, however, rather than seeking to clarify and declare the ancient text churchmen cultivate novelty. During the last two centuries, “critical” scholars, which Oden tackles in Part Two, “The Critique of Criticism,” have pretended to objectively deal with biblical materials. In fact they usually asserted, in religious terms, their peculiar generation’s prejudices, thus imposing a “naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts” (p. 101). Rejecting fashionable moderns and their cavalier treatment of ancient texts, Oden prefers Origen’s abiding confidence that the Holy Scriptures are not mere human productions, but rather written by humans under the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” scriptures subsequently “transmitted and entrusted to us by the Will of God.”
Having cut a wide swathe through modernity’s most treasured artifacts, Oden turns in Part Three, “The Liberation of Orthodoxy” to his more constructive agenda. Long concerned with pastoral theology and praxis, he thinks churchmen today need once again to stand strong against heresy. If the church survives, transmitting its traditions from generation to generation, its teachers must conserve the treasury of the past. So heresies must be forever highlighted and resisted. In Oden’s view, heresy basically means “self-choice,” prefering one’s personal interpretation over that of the believing community. Unlike heretical movements, orthodoxy conserves by continually asking “What in fact did the apostles teach?” (p. 162).
At the heart of orthodoxy one finds no simple lists of static dogmas but the living Lord Jesus Christ. At the heart of orthodox communities one finds believers loving the resurrected Christ. This, above all else, the church must maintain.
Oden closes his treatise with a somber chapter entitled “the winter temperament.” As he looks around, the cultural landscape looks somewhat like a bombed out city. All the fond aspirations of earlier times have failed and lie about like frozen litter on an abandoned playground. And “the most revealing nexus of these failures, I think, lies in the impotence of modernity to sustain interpersonal covenants, to nurture responsible commitment in enduring associations and intimacies” (p. 195). This is most glaringly evident in the failure of secularized marriages which are often entered into as “little more than a cost-benefit calculus, not a solemn promise in the presence of God” (p. 195).
The hope that sustains Oden, I suspect, is what St Augustine discovered amidst the collapse of the Roman Empire: the City of God! While he doesn’t stress that correlation, his message is akin to that of the great African saint. And insofar as Oden finds firm foundations in the same faith which shored up Augustine, the ancient Orthodox way, he reminds us that however unsettled our times there is something to rest upon. For Oden, T.S. Eliot’s words (quoted by J.I. Packer in his foreword) suffice:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
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Along this line, few books rival an old one! G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (Image Books edition, 1959) was first published in 1924 and deserves repeated re-readings. In it he seeks “to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me” (p. 9). After, trying, as a young man, to be avant garde and daringly original, the mature Chesterton simply “discovered what had been discovered before” (p. 11), orthodox Christianity, the tenets of the Apostles’ Creed. Had Tom Oden read, as a youngster, and heeded, Chesterton’s message, he might have avoided some lamented dead-end pathways.
As a young man, an agnostic by the age of 16, Chesterton cheerfully embraced the reigning notions of modernity. He had no grounding in Christian philosophy; he naively accepted what educators and publicists said concerning “certainties” such as Darwinism. His journey to orthodoxy came when he read the alleged authorities (Huxley, Spencer, et al.) and found them advocating learned nonsense.
For all their intellectual sophistication, Chesterton found “moderns” in his day befuddled by “the suicide of thought.” Thinkers doubted there’s truth to be found, though they never doubted the truth of their personal thoughts. Espousing materialism, they insisted everything (thought included) flows from rigidly determined sources, making free will and personal decision meaningless. Yet, of course, they passionately argued their views and insisted you change your mind and accept their mechanistic interpretation of events!
One thing struck me, noting the intellectual heavyweights Chesterton debated, is this: most of them today are utterly passe. The most advanced thinkers fifty years ago have largely slipped into the wastebaskets of intellectual history! More current champions now dominate the academy and the media, though their ideas, differently dressed, haven’t changed much. Yet the orthodoxy Chesterton championed (if not Chesterton himself) remains continually contemporary.
For example, Christian dogma gives one reason to believe in both the dignity and depravity of man: created in the image of God we have a right to assert human dignity, but fallen in Adam we find it necessary to seek forgiveness and grace. At the heart of Chesterton’s message is an abiding awareness of the necessary truth of original sin, “the only part of Christian Theology which can really be proved” (p. 15). Modern thinkers, then and now, prefer to evade this truth, but accepting it enables one to make sense of oneself and one’s world.
In addition, Chesterton found himself amazed that anti-Christian polemics seemed so contradictory. (One critic would complain that Christianity was too complex, the next would accuse it of being too simple.) So Chesterton turned to Christian sources to discover for himself exactly what was being attacked. There he found the key which reclaimed for him the world he’d hungered for since infancy, the “romance of orthodoxy.”
Like C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is one of those slim treatises we may rightly deem a “classic.” It helps bring us back, with delightful style, to the substance of historic Christianity.
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