In twentieth century America, Communists sought to infiltrate the government,
labor unions, and other key organizations. They were taught not to advertise
their party affiliation. McCarthyism arose in response to this underhanded
approach. Unfortunately, the remedy was a graver threat to America liberty
than the original malady.
Gnosticism faced the early church with a similar dilemma. The church-going
crowd sat happily hymning Jehovah; but there in their midst was an initiate,
a 'knower,' who laughed at Jehovah and worshipped Barbelo, or Bythus. When
you asked him what he believed, he might not tell you; it was a 'secret.'
Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and these initiates knew enough to keep
in the shadows.
When it was the Communists who were subjected to investigation and interrogation,
some people held them up as shining examples of freedom under attack. But
there would have been no campaign to unmask the Communists had they stood
up as brave men and declared what they believed. If they had not masked
themselves, they could not have been unmasked. Why the secrecy? Can democracy
survive if the voters do not know candidates' true affiliations? They were
not playing by the rules when they concealed their true beliefs and affiliations.
The New Testament church operated by consensus: "Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to
send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas,
namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among
the brethren. They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the
Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. . .it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord. . ." (Acts 15:22-25).
The church response to the gnostic threat was to build up the bishops'
authority. But this is not how it was planned; all Christians are priests:
"But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called
you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people
but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have
obtained mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10).
The church was not intended to be a society where some people lord it over
others: "You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I
am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought
to wash one another’s feet." (John 13:13-14). The church became an
authoritarian society in response to this heresy's challenge. Bishops like
Ignatius and Cyprian infantalized the laity, teaching the people to follow
the bishop like little ducklings, because they were not bright enough to
see through the gnostic mask. This distortion of church life grew steadily
worse until, in the middle ages, the church was dispatching armies to murder
heretics. The people who were "a royal priesthood" became spectators
at church, not even admitted to communion in both elements; a church governed
by the consensus of those "assembled with one accord" devolved
into autocracy. Whose fault was it?
To the modern defenders of gnosticism, the gnostics were, not the root
cause of the church's loss of her New Testament egalitarianism, but innocent
victims, heroes standing up for freedom against the totalitarianism closing
in. But had the gnostics defended their ideas in the public market-place
rather than hiding behind their Wizard of Oz act, gnosticism would not
have presented such an insidious threat. People invested years of their
lives in achieving the standing to learn the gnostic doctrines. The apologists'
strategy therefore was to force disclosure, because to learn these doctrines
is to laugh. It was the gnostics' foes who wanted open and free public debate. Ideally, the remedy for bad speech is
more speech. The gnostics wanted no speech, but only silence and secrecy. The people who would not play by the rules of religious
controversy were the gnostics, not the orthodox.
If the gnostics were the romantic heroes their defenders claim: "We
can see, then, that such gnosticism was more than a protest movement against
orthodox Christianity. . .many gnostics, like many artists, search for
interior self-knowledge as the key to understanding universal truths --
'who we are, where we came from, where we go.'" (Elaine Pagels, 'The
Gnostic Gospels,' p. 134) -- why not publicize, and defend, their 'discoveries'?
The gnostics should be blamed for the church's slide into authoritarianism,
not celebrated as free spirits: "We can see, then, how conflicts arose
in the formation of Christianity between those restless, inquiring people
who marked out a solitary path of self-discovery and the institutional
framework that gave to the great majority of people religious sanction
and ethical direction for their daily lives." (Elaine Pagels, 'The
Gnostic Gospels,' p. 149).
Author Pagels' readers are expected to believe that heresy-hunters like
Tertullian and Hippolytus were motivated by a desire to magnify Rome's
power. This is the same Tertullian who ridiculed the gnostics as polytheists:
"Tertullian ridiculed the gnostics for creating elaborate cosmologies,
with multi-storied heavens like apartment houses, 'with room piled on room,
and assigned to each god by just as many stairways as there were heresies:
The universe has been turned into rooms for rent!'" (Elaine Pagels,
'The Gnostic Gospels,' p. xxix). But Tertullian did not really care about
monotheism, we are expected to believe; he cared about political power.
This is the same Tertullian who, for most of his Christian walk, was in
fellowship with the Montanists, condemned as heretics by Rome. If his motive
was to build up Rome's power, why did he choose fellowship with the Montanists
rather than with Rome, when he could not have both?
Anti-pope Hippolytus makes an even unlikelier booster for Pope Callistus' ambitions. If Hippolytus and his colleagues
were in the heresy-hunting game as a facade for power politics, with their real agenda being to magnify the Pope of Rome, then
why condemn this same Pope as the heretic he was? This author cannot make herself believe that anyone really cares about whether
there is only one god or a whole crowd, and so therefore the fuss must all be about something else: something real, like politics.
Presumably the people who were dying because they would only confess one God were thinking about something else at the time; something
important, like who was going to be elected bishop.
The apologists employed an argument against gnosticism which emphasized
the shortness of the chain linking the churches of the second and third century to the
apostles. They brought this up as a check on the gnostics' out-of-control
New Testament interpretation. For example, when Paul talks about heights
and depths: "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor
angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things
to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature. . ." (Romans
8:38-39),-- he is, according to gnostic exegesis, sketching out the contours
of his pantheon. As a check on such interpretation, the apologists called
Paul's churches to testify. Paul had established churches throughout Greece
and Asia Minor; he taught the members, and appointed officers (Acts 14:23).
Nor was it really such a long time ago; while the people Paul taught face
to face had gone on, some of those whom they in their turn had mentored
were still around; there were still, at that time, only a few links in
the chain. Now if Paul had intended to teach polytheism in his letters,
as the gnostics contended, then why were the churches he founded consistent
in their intentional commitment to monotheism? Given multiple, independent
transmission lines, how could the message have become so corrupted, in
only a few generations? Why would Paul teach the people he lectured face
to face just the opposite of what the gnostics claimed he taught in his letters?
The apologists' argument emphasized how very short the transmission line was, as indeed it was in these authors' day. When
a message must be repeated multiple times, opportunities for loss or degradation
multiply. How could these authors have anticipated that their argument
would in years to come be inverted, and the church would begin to glory
in, not how short a transmission line connected her to the apostles, but how gloriously
long, and filled with such colorful characters. By the institution-builders'
logic, if a short transmission line is good, a long one is even better.
According to 'The Gnostic Gospels,' not only did these apologists anticipate
that their argument would be turned upside-down, this was just what they
wanted. The gnostics were hapless bystanders to an argument that was really
not about them. When, in centuries or indeed millenia to come churchmen
would boast of how long the chain was stretching back to the apostles, this was just the same
as the early church apologists stressing how very short it was. But how could sensible authors like Tertullian and Hippolytus
anticipate a development of their argument premised on the notion that
'long' is no different from 'short'?
According to the author of 'The Gnostic Gospels,' Christians believe in
Jesus' bodily resurrection because this belief fosters papal power:
". . .why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all
others as heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms of its
religious content. But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of
bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise
exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine has served to validate
the apostolic succession of bishops, the basis of papal authority to this day." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' pp. 6-7).
Likewise with other doctrines. This author sees no more point in counting
gods than in counting telephone poles, or license plates. Therefore, the
apologists liked monotheism, not because they saw any more point than this
author in counting gods, but because, in some mysterious way, it boosts
the power of the bishop. Who knew? Did polytheism ever diminish the power
of the Mormon hierarchy? Never mind. Imagine academia's surprise and perplexity
should they discover there are people who believe in monotheism and resurrection
who are not papists.
Gnosticism's gloomy legacy does not stop its wide-eyed admirers from trying to get this turkey to get up and fly.
The boulder blocking their path is the gnostic library itself, which
is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those people
who would like to encounter the kind of literature which gnosticism
has been falsely advertised as being: