A Gnosticism of our own
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
'For Valentinus, the things spoken of in the Scripture are expressions of the truth that is most authentically perceived in the heart, and as such, they are truths also seen in other places, in the writings of the philosophers and elsewhere, enabling him to draw diverse sources into his amalgam.' Formation of Christian Theology, John Behr
‘Valentinus relies on his own heart’s visionary experience. There alone is the true origin of the wisdom that others routinely attribute to authoritative texts… One does not need to go to derivative sources, for the truth originally lies in the very interior of one’s being.’ David Dawson quoted in Formation of Christian Theology
'Gnostic doctrine is revelatory rather than traditional textual, or rational.’ Frances Young quoted in Formation of Christian Theology
I have never been much into the history of Gnosticism because it is so distant historically. However, in a general theology book I’m reading, the author described Gnosticism, and it caught my attention because of how modern it sounded. Gnosticism arose in the early centuries of the church, and claimed to be a true philosophy. However, in reading any of its teachings, you’d readily dismiss it as crazy.
What is important for us today isn’t the teachings of Gnosticism, but the underlying philosophy that we might share with it. This is because our culture shares a very similar underlying philosophy even though the doctrines are different. We could say that the broader culture today often interprets the world as a gnostic. They receive information from the world, news, the internet, and their own senses. From this, they interpret this amalgam of information (akin to revelation in Young’s quote above) through the authentic perception of the heart.
This isn’t to say that everyone has their own truth fully, there are boundaries to such a thing. Within the liberal American world, there are non-negotiables, and the same goes (to a lesser extent) for the conservative American world. These aren’t the only two groups of course, and ultimately we must first make an assessment of ourselves. Much of the American church has been led into similar philosophies where ‘the heart’s visionary experience’ is the standard of piety. Pentecostalism and legalism both share this problem. Interpretations of scripture derived from our individual selves tend to wrongly subtract to and add to the faith delivered once for all to the saints.
Let me give an example: how many times do we simply look to God to guide our lives but never go to him in his word through prayer? Do we ask the Lord to open and shut doors but neglect to search the scriptures? Do we long for a spiritual experience but neglect to engage meaningfully in the scripturally authorized gathering we call church? These questions prick my heart and challenge the superficiality that I might be tempted towards.
What I’m not saying is that we should kill our emotions. What I’m not saying is that God isn’t at work. What I am saying is that God has appointed specific means for us, the church, to cultivate true religion and piety. It is quite easy for us to go astray. It is quite easy for us individually to take all the pieces of scripture and add them up all wrong and be erroneous or even heretical. Irenaeus gives us a wonderful image here. He compared self-made religion (i.e. Gnosticism) to a mosaic. A mosaic is a picture made out of tiles. So the church attempts to teach and to walk and to live according to the authoritative and apostolic teaching God has given us in his holy scriptures, and this could be compared to a mosaic that is designed to look like Jesus Christ. But say someone comes and breaks up the whole mosaic of tiles and resets them and makes a different image: that of a fox. He is using the same pieces, but he has made a different image. He has distorted the teaching of Christ. He might go around and tell everyone that this image of the fox is really and truly Christ, but he is deceived and a deceiver. This is what we do when we rely on the interpretations of our hearts and build our theologies on individual insight versus scriptural tradition.
We are easily tempted by our own flesh and through the attacks of the evil one to neglect to put the effort in to stand firm on the traditions of the apostles. At times we are tempted to give up because we’re not getting anything. At other times, we are tempted to make it simply intellectual and not invite God’s Spirit to enlighten our hearts and minds. And still other times we are tempted to read our own heartfelt interpretations into the text and neglect what God actually inspired the author to communicate. We all are tempted and lean in toward these different habits, and by God’s grace they are not initially destructive. But a long-term diet of giving in to these temptations lead us to hold fast to false beliefs that are not grounded in God’s word but in ourselves.
This is why we have to take care to reading scripture with wisdom. As we mature in Christ, we come to see the great benefit of the Bible. We don’t have to live life based on our own whims which if we are honest often put us in difficult positions. Instead God speaks to us through his word which is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that we might be complete, equipped for every good work. And when we are grounded in God’s authoritative scriptures, we have a foundation from which we able enabled by God’s Spirit to cultivate a healthy heart, mind, and soul. May we take care to aim for maturity based on the sure foundation of God’s word.