A Different Way To Be Christian
The Gnostics were seekers, open to new knowledge, not fixated on the past but trusted the "living Christ."
"Pride" (C) Scott Angus
The Gnostic scriptures are so important because they reveal that many early Christians believed Christ's intent was different from what became "Christianity." Christ did not preach a set of beliefs. Gnostics did not believe his intent was to establish a Church, led only by males, that could dictate rules for faith and morality. His intent was not to establish Christianity as a political power to condemn others or to become a state religion. But that is exactly what happened. The early Orthodox Church, which was blessed by Constantine, literally set forth and defined Christianity as believing doctrines that their Church said were the only true teachings of Jesus and his Apostles. Christianity was established as a belief system, and the earnest battle over the right to true beliefs began.
Lost in the midst of many emotional struggles over beliefs was a different way to be Christian than claiming that there was only one true way to be Christian. Certainly, the Gnostics had beliefs but their's were open to change and not final answers. Beliefs were open to debate, but more importantly faith was a seeking for truth, not declaring it blindly or arrogantly. More than claiming truth by some self- proclaimed authority, faith was open process of seeking always an honest and open relationship with God through Christ. The Gnostics saw Christ's message more as a spiritual journey. And even though Christianity was established differently from what they hoped, the discovery of their Gospels and writings have the power, not to totally change, but to elevate a different approach on how we are Christian.
Gnostic Christianity emphasized one's experience and personal connection to Christ through what they called "gnosis." The experience of gnosis could range from what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road, to ones receiving enlightenment. Thankfully, the word "gnosis" wasn't given a precise meaning but obviously meant something more like insight or spiritual illumination rather than knowledge as just "fact" or a "set of beliefs." Those now known as Gnostics (not named that until later in history) were not a church but more what we might call a theological perspective. They did have a few leaders, both male and female, and had various and diverse theologies. They did have some unusual beliefs. Yet, because they didn't always agree with each other did not present a crisis nor negate their faith as false. (You will not agree with everything or believe all they said as well.)
Some leaders did write both Gospels and tracts that shared their Christian vision. Some of their Gospels contain the same sayings of the New Testament, but additional words and stories of Jesus stress the inward experience over belief. Some Gnostic writings went so far as to criticize items of belief like the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. They raised the importance and value of Mary Magdalene and women. Christ's intent was more spiritual than doctrinaire or ecclesiastical. Christianity was more about seeking a relationship with Christ than "either you believe or you don't." But without a support system, not all believing alike, and having the Emperor Constantine choosing the Orthodox, primarily for his political reasons, the Gnostic approach to Christianity was easily suppressed.
In contrast to the Gnostics, the early Orthodox, or what Bart Ehrman calls the proto-orthodox, (orthodox means 'right' or 'correct'), believed their Church had the authority and wisdom to declare, even in written decree, what all Christians should believe. Constantine agreed with them. If Christians "believed" the same, Constantine said it would bring "harmony" to the church and Empire. Therefore the Bishops, and Constantine, who financed the event, met in a village named Nicaea. The Nicene Creed became the official doctrine that was to define "Christianity." The vote was unanimous; well, that was because Constantine exiled those who dissented! (Read Constantine's Sword.) Constantine ordered "heretics" and "schismatics" to surrender their church's properties to what was beginning to be called the catholic, or universal church. Even though some have estimated nearly half of Christians were gnostic or heretical in their thinking, Orthodox Bishops (all male) and Constantine were able to tell the world exactly the correct interpretation of Christ and his intent. Constantine, a crafty and warring politician, was able to declare "officially" that those who agreed with him and his Bishops were the true Christians. And, amazingly, understanding himself as the "vice regent of God," he and the Bishops were able to silence others like the Gnostics who saw the meaning and purpose of Christ differently.
Constantine's Council did help Christianity to become the state religion, and officially by the authority of the Church, for a short time, to be one voice. Gaining state and ecclesiastical power, the patriarchal Christian Church was able to judge for Christ and God who was and wasn't a true Christian on the basis of what one "believed." Therefore, the war cry, against the poorly organized Gnostics, was even more strongly repeated, "HERETICS."
I am a heretic! I hope there are other Christians who will say so as well. I am a recently retired Presbyterian minister, having two Masters Degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, one for ordination, the second academic. Having served my last church for 30 years, I honorably retired to pursue my passion for early Christianity and particularly the Gnostics response to Jesus. Dedicated to the church, I am a gnostic Christian, which means in more modern terms, that I am a "seeking Christian," and that is how I identify myself.
Please notice I use a small "g" rather than a capital "G," in my reference to "gnostic Christians," as my purpose is not to preach Gnosticism, but to build a base of Christians, who think and believe in a gnostic way of faith. In her very thorough book, What is Gnosticism?, Karen King, of Harvard University, shares how hard it is to define Gnosticism. She argues it was much more a dynamic movement within Christianity rather than a religion unto itself. Unfortunately, the Bishops and many in history depicted Gnosticism falsely, as believing another set of doctrines, as a secretive sect, and as not believing in the "real" world. From their writings, however, we know they had a style of faith that could have made Christianity more a spiritual journey, less judgmental and exclusive, and much more positive as one relates to the world and Christ. Instead of condemning nonbelievers in Jesus to hell, the gnostic viewed Christianity as a way to experience the light and love of God for the good of oneself and others.
Like many parts of the Bible, the Gnostic books are challenging reading. The best introduction would be The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels, a Professor at Princeton University. She has written several outstanding books that the layperson can understand. Instead of "right belief" as she teaches in her wonderful best selling (2003) book, Beyond Belief, these Gnostic scriptures "preach" God is found primarily within oneself, not in the externals like doctrines, creeds, bishops, priests, and church proclamations. The Gospel of Thomas suggests the intent of Jesus was not a church, which had exclusive truths, but a spiritual relationship open to all. The Gospel of Mary (ascribed to Mary Magdalene) shows total openness to women. (Read The Da Vinci Code!) Not denying the validity of the New Testament writings, the authentic Gnostic scriptures lift up a different way to be Christian. It is more about relationship, than beliefs.
Traditional Christianity in time will be challenged to change some of its dictates with the discovery of the 52 Gnostics writings. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson, was first published in 1977, but it was not widely accessible to the general public until 1990. It includes all the Gnostic scriptures in English. These books found in Egypt in 1945, two years before the discovery of the The Dead Sea Scrolls, are far more important for Christianity. More than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which most likely were writings of the Jewish sect, the Essenes, the Gnostic Scriptures raise important challenges to traditional Christian belief. Three of these challenges relate to the Orthodox teachings on Theology, the Bible ,and the Church.
Theologically, for example, can you honestly say you totally believe every article of the Apostles' Creed? This document, or tool for authority, was not written by the Twelve Disciples or Apostles, nor was it essential for the Gnostics. They were not obsessed with believing in hell, the virgin birth, or bodily resurrection. Most Gnostics did not believe such. The Orthodox, much like today's Fundamentalists, said you believe these doctrines or go to hell! The 52 Gnostic texts (actually 46 as some are duplicates) certainly vary in detail. Yet, they support those who question theological articles in both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, who also question that God's divinity was limited only to Christ, and those who ask whether "right belief" is the simple ticket to heaven. According to the Orthodox, the theological "truths" and "creeds" as established by the Bishops, should not be questioned.
Regarding the Bible, the Orthodox, having assumed their new power, were able to determine basically which books and writings were to be known as the New Testament Canon. Because the "other" gospels did not comply with their theology, the Gnostic Gospels were excluded. Certainly, all the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi had some different perspectives, and thus they were determined not worthy of "holy" inclusion. That they were ordered destroyed is shocking and almost unbelievable. But such an action shows how unfairly Christianity, as we know it, was established. Only the chosen books of the Canon held the "truth." But that is not all!
The authority of the Church, questioned by the Gnostics, was the real threat! Indeed, because the Orthodox read other gospels that presented a Jesus whose mission was more than establishing one true Church, their writings needed to be destroyed! Also, it was clear that the Gnostics definitely believed women were worthy to be clergy. That did not sit well with the Orthodox theologians who would argue Jesus chose all males as his disciples. Indeed, the Gnostic Gospels uplift the discipleship of Mary Magdalene, certainly not the prostitute that Jesus spoke to at the well (as once charged), but as the closest and most trusted apostle and disciple of Jesus. However, the real problem with the Gnostics is that they did not give absolute trust to the "learned clergy" and the "truths" of the Church and did not accept blindly what they said! So to protect their truth and their church, the Orthodox began a long tradition of condemning not just the Gnostics, but any who raised questions of their authoritarian beliefs, as also being -- "Heretics."
Those who questioned "truths" were like Galileo--certainly-- a Heretic!
Yet, doesn't history teach us that it is often that "what is true"--not that which is "truth"--has been the correcting gift of many so called "heretics." And the irony is that often these rebellious heretics have brought about better understandings both for the world and religion. With all the new science of today, many traditional beliefs, like the location of heaven and hell, the earth being the center of the universe, and the "human" as God's final creation, are being tested as to what is real and true. Because the Gnostics did not see Christian doctrine as set truth and unchangeable, their style of faith is freeing and relevant today for those who want to remain Christian, being both honest to God and the world.
For the Gnostics, there would not be a major conflict between science and religion. Galileo, for example, would not have been condemned because his science didn't agree with the Bible. They were not Biblical literalists like today's Fundamentalists. The Gnostics saw God's Spirit flowing in the Bible, and not set in stone in order to affirm the prejudices, culture, and power of those in authority. Those of us who believe Christ's intent was more than establishing a set of rules for faith and morality, but rather, a dynamic way to connect with God, have powerful new resources. Beyond the standard judgmental style of Christianity, the gnostic approach opens a different way to be and remain Christian in today's complex world. Those who stand for the gnostic way to be a Christian have the new opportunity to declare to the world that Christ's message is far more positive, understanding, open, and loving than has often been its tradition.
A gnostic style of Christianity needs to take fire again. My dream is not to establish a Gnostic Church. We have enough churches. My dream is to develop a Network or association at the grassroots level of those persons who want or have a gnostic style of Christianity. This style does not require one to leave or detest any church or denomination. Yet across denominational lines, there is a need for those within and without the church, to declare that one's faith is free and different than traditional Christianity. So I hope some of you will join the "Network for SEEKERS OF GOD." (SEE "CONTACT US" PAGE)
Another dream has been fulfilled. After many years of research and responses to this web site, a book is available, published April 2012, but now (Dec. 1st, 2013) revised in a new edition, The Hidden Messages of Jesus: How the Gnostic Gospels Change Christianity. Although if purchased (it is appreciated and helps the movement), it is not essential to signing on to the Network. Please go other pages and the contact form at Contact Us.