Whose Church is the "True Church"?

Review of Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, New York, 1989.

Until the discovery some fifty years ago of a collection of ancient gnostic texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, most of what we knew of gnosticism came from orthodox Christian attacks against it. With few exceptions, the gnostic writings had been lost to the ravages of time--or rather, to be more precise, they'd been suppressed by the ancient Church as the work of heretics. With the recovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, we can now study the gnostics in their own words. We can compare their teachings with orthodox accounts of those teachings, and the theological debate between orthodox and gnostic Christians can be considered anew, with something closer to equal footing given to each side. Nothing of the sort had ever happened in the history of Western religion, and there's good reason to assert that the Nag Hammadi texts are a more significant, if less famous, discovery than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Considering the evidence Elaine Pagels presents in The Gnostic Gospels, most reasonable readers will be liable to conclude that the ancient gnostics were guilty of just those things they were accused of by the orthodox. Irenaeus, the second-century Bishop of Lyons, wrote of the gnostics that they "put forth their own compositions, while boasting that they have more gospels than there really are," and that

every one of them generates something new every day, according to his ability; for no one is considered initiated [or: "mature"] among them unless he develops some enormous fictions.

This generation of new doctrines and teachings different from those held by the orthodox church was probably the gnostics' most serious offense. The gnostics didn't simply hold variant interpretations of the recognized scriptures; rather they came forward with "new" scriptures of their own. According to Irenaeus, the gnostic writings are "totally unlike what has been handed down to us from the apostles."

Pagels' study in fact more or less justifies Irenaeus' anger. She shows clearly that many gnostic writers de-emphasized the records of Jesus' life that survived in the (soon-to-be-canonical) Gospels, preferring instead to find essential Christian truths in their own visions and mystical experiences. Gnostic writers often wove these experiences into compositions written on the same models as those that served the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. One problem with these gnostic texts was that they were slightly belated: from Irenaeus' point of view, the canonical writings were already in circulation and there was no need for more. The other problem, and probably a more serious one, was the excessive respect shown in gnostic writings for personal spiritual experience as opposed to common tradition. Many of the gnostics knew Jesus not so much as the historical Messiah of the New Testament, who rose from the dead and ascended unto heaven, but rather as a personal spiritual interlocutor, or even as a potential for transcendence in the Christian's own soul. According to the gnostic Gospel of Philip, whoever achieves gnosis becomes "no longer a Christian, but a Christ":

You saw the spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father....

Another text found in Nag Hammadi, The Gospel of Thomas, has the following:

Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.... He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him."

In writings such as these, the gnostics undermined the singularity of Jesus. In their scriptures, it was not so much that God had become man in the Christ, but rather that each man could become a Christ through the gnosis. The gnosis, a kind of innate knowledge of one's own true essence, of one's own divine origin as a spark fallen from the deity, could make of one a literal soulmate of Jesus. If we are to believe the second-century gnostic Theodotus, the gnostic understands

who we were, and what we have become;
where we were, and where we are going;
from what we are being released;
what birth is, and what rebirth.

According to orthodox writers, gnostic arrogance in society matched this exalted vision of the power of gnosis. There's perhaps nothing surprising in this either. If one's own inner religious experience is the only arbiter of religious truth, what's to stop every aspirant who can pull a grave face from saying he's reached the seventh heaven of spiritual attainment? Irenaeus writes:

They consider themselves "mature," so that no one can be compared with them in the greatness of their gnosis, not even if you mention Peter or Paul or any of the other apostles.... They imagine that they themselves have discovered more than the apostles, and that the apostles preached the gospel still under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are wiser and more intelligent than the apostles.

In addition to its ascription of arrogance, this citation raises a second important point about the character of the gnostic movement. As with the heretic Marcion, the gnostics were generally inclined to make a distinction between their God and the Jewish God of the Old Testament. For the gnostics the God that sent Jesus as messenger was not the God we read of in the Books of Moses. Rather, Moses' God was to be identified with the gnostic Demiurge, an aberrant divine being who created the world and botched it. This gnostic doctrine of the Demiurge had theological implications that put gnostic thought about life in the world in direct contradiction with Jewish religion and with what would become orthodox Christianity. If the world was an evil place it was not because of man's sin, but rather because the creator of the world was not the true God. Combined with the gnostics' stress on intellectual attainment, this theological distancing from the religion of the Jews has led many scholars to consider gnosticism a kind of Hellenism run wild: a movement sprung from a melding of Christianity, Neoplatonism and the pervasive ethos of Mediterranean mystery cults. According to these scholars, if the Gospel of Matthew puts Christianity closer to the prophets and Judaism, the gnostic gospels would put it closer to Greek philosophy and the Neoplatonists.

In this book, Elaine Pagels doesn't seriously enter into questions of the origins or intellectual affinities of gnosticism. Pagels considers instead the relations between gnostic teachings and what would become orthodox teachings. Considering both gnostic texts and orthodox diatribes against the gnostics, she analyses theological differences in terms of issues of religious authority. To be brief, Pagels is interested in questions like the following: What tests did orthodox Christians apply to statements of religious truth in order to determine whether those statements were true or false? How did they insure that a teaching was authentically part of the Church established by Christ? Who had the right to make that determination? And likewise: What tests did the gnostics apply to the same ends? How did gnostics prove the authenticity of their teachings and experiences? On a variety of questions, the orthodox and the gnostics had very different ways of understanding what constituted truth, as they had incongruous ideas about who was entitled to preserve and teach that truth. The theological meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, the importance of apostolic succession, the position of women vis-a-vis men in the early Church, the question of whether Jesus and the apostles after him had passed on a secret teaching in addition to the teachings known from the New Testament--these are some of the thorny problems Pagels takes up in this context of religious authority. She is particularly keen to trace the communal significance of different elements of doctrine, and the interpretations she presents are impressive. That she everywhere keeps her arguments thoroughly grounded in the ancient texts makes this book even more compelling.

To what extent can we draw a clear line between the gnostics and the orthodox? In some respects we can, in others we can't. For example, as regards the question of the status of the creation of the earth, orthodox Christians and gnostics had quite distinct doctrines. For the orthodox the world was created by God, the true God, whereas for the gnostics the world was created by the misguided Demiurge. As regards the claim of some gnostic teachers to be in possession of "secret teachings" of Jesus, teachings which he originally bequeathed to chosen disciples, we may feel initially that Valentinus' talk of secret teachings was simply a ploy to increase the aura of mystery around him and his movement. We may feel that the notion of secret doctrines has nothing to do with the spirit of Christianity, but everything to do with the spirit of self-aggrandizing occultism both then and now. And yet if we are careful readers of the New Testament, we might remember the following words from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is speaking to his disciples:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.

What is the nature of this "secret of the kingdom of God" distinct from the parables? Is it a question of the continual presence of the disciples with Jesus, and so of their experiential knowledge of his status and his mission? Or is it a question of another, separate discourse, one that is not really presented in the four Gospels, but that was handed down through certain of the apostles? I incline to believe it is more the former than the latter, but one cannot be sure. Paul also writes in his second letter to the Corinthians of being lifted up to the third heaven and hearing "inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes of "God's secret wisdom," a wisdom that he, Paul, speaks "among the mature." (II Cor. 12:4; I Cor. 2:6-7) Are these "mature" to be equated simply with Christians and those amenable to Christianity, or is Paul here hinting at something like a secret doctrine in addition to the doctrine we find explicit in his letters? In any event, whether one takes such texts literally or not, there seems to be little question that there's something of a communality of language between the gnostics and certain of the New Testament writers. Does this then imply some communality of doctrine or practice? In the Gospel of Luke, we read what is probably the single most gnostic-sounding statement in the New Testament: "The kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) How is this to be meshed with other New Testament texts that seem to indicate the kingdom of God is an actual future historical event? Such questions aren't new, of course, but they take on new dimensions now that we can consider them in relation to the discovery at Nag Hammadi.

One initially feels in The Gnostic Gospels that Pagels is writing as an apologist for the gnostics. The effect of the whole, however, is one of impartial weighing and sifting rather than proselytizing for a resurrected gnosticism. Pagels' arguments come full course when she acknowledges that Christianity may very well not have survived were it not for the political acumen of the orthodox bishops, those same bishops, moreover, who saw it as their duty to crush the gnostic movement:

Had Christianity remained multiform [i.e. had it continued to include a variety of gnostic communities in addition to the orthodox community], it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity. I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed. Anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement.

Such statements take a certain amount of intellectual honesty. Pagels, after all, is acknowledging that in her opinion the Church's suppression of religious dissent was a necessary condition of its own consolidation and historical survival. Such notions don't get on well with the American academy's obsessions over the past few decades with "celebrating difference." Pagels, ultimately, seems to consider gnosticism as a vibrant and philosophically sophisticated ancient movement that did, in fact, pose a grave danger to Christianity. Or: The Church was compelled to suppress it, to burn its "scriptures," but we are lucky now to be able to study those scriptures for ourselves. Is there a kind of double standard here? Certainly there is. Is it wrong? To begin to answer this question would in itself take more than a short essay.

I'm unaware of Pagels' own beliefs. Perhaps she holds them in reserve in all her books. In any case, a Christian can read The Gnostic Gospels without feeling either attacked or condescended to. Its careful evocation of the struggles of early Christianity and its straightforward presentation of both the profundities and excesses of gnosticism have justly made it a classic in the field.

Eric Mader-Lin

Order it direct from Amazon.com.

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