The Gnostic Gospels Part 6; “Whose Church is the True Church”?

The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.

For 2,000 years Christian tradition has denounced Gnostic teachings and virtually destroyed all over their writings. With the discovery at Nag Hammadi we finally were able to see another perspective in the evolution of Christianity. Gnostics felt persecuted by not only pagans but by fellow brothers in Christ who viewed Jesus’ message differently from their own.

Jesus explains in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth that certain individuals advancing the name of Christ will have indeed created an imitation of the true church, “having proclaimed a doctrine of a dead man and lord, so as to resemble the freedom and purity of the perfect church.” This encourages individuals, according to Gnostic belief, to subject themselves to the earthly representatives of the world creator who in his “empty glory”, declares, “I am God, and there is no other beside me.” These people persecute those who have achieved liberation through gnosis, and attempt to lead them astray from “the truth of their freedom.”

The Apocalypse of Peter describes Catholic Christians as those who have fallen “into an erroneous name and into the hand of an evil, cunning man, with a teaching in a multiplicity of forms,” allowing themselves to be ruled heretically. Their obedience to bishops and deacons is perceived as their bowing to the judgment of earthly leaders.

By the year 200 A.D. the battle line had been drawn; orthodox and Gnostic Christians both claimed to represent the true church. Question is, how could a believer tell which was true?

Gnostics, who represented the few, pointed to baptism not being enough to make one Christian. The Gospel of Philip went as far as to say, many people “go down into the water and come up without having received anything,” and still claim to be Christian. Professing of the creed was not enough to Gnostic Christians either, for “anyone can do these things.” Quoting Jesus (“By their fruits you shall know them”); they required evidence of spiritual maturity to demonstrate a person belonged to the true church.

Orthodox Christians, by the late second century, had established an objective criteria for church membership. Whoever confessed the creed, accepted the ritual of baptism, participated in worship, and obeyed the clergy was accepted as a fellow Christian. The Bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for evaluating each candidate on insight, spiritual maturity, personal holiness, etc., would require a far more complex and larger administration. It would also exclude those who simply needed what the church could give. To truly become a catholic “universal” church they had to include as many as possible within its doors.

Orthodox Christian Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, believed that wherever the bishop is present so can the congregation, much like where Christ is so is the church. He also believed it to be true that if the Bishop wasn’t present then Christ must not be as well. To join the Bishop is to join the Christ and to separate oneself from the Bishop is separating oneself from God. That alone gives the Bishop “Christ-like” authority on Earth.

Irenaues, Bishop of Lyons, agreed wholeheartedly with Ignatius and added any Christian writing not found in their version of the Christian bible shall be deemed heretical. The Catholic Church alone offered the complete system of doctrine and outside of this church there was no salvation.

Gnostics agreed that what distinguishes the false from the true church is not its relationship to the clergy but the level of understanding of its members and the quality of their relationship with one another. The Apocalypse of Peter states that “those who are from the life… having been enlightened,” discriminate for themselves what is true from false. They will not attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons. They participate in “the wisdom of the brotherhood that really exists… the spiritual fellowship with those united in communion.”

Non-Gnostics believed the “imaginative” and “fantastic” views of Gnostics, which contrasted with “matter of fact” orthodox views, proved they understood little and focused more on social relationships. For Gnostics believed in friendships with one another and the intimacy of a “spiritual” marriage between “fatherhood, motherhood, brotherhood” within the church. Gnostics focused on individual spiritual development, while the Catholic Church focused on community responsibilities of a church.

Gnostics were chastised by Orthodox Christians like Irenaeus and Tertullian for raising theological questions about their faith and making statements such as; “This is not so,” “I take this in a different sense,” and “I do not admit that.” They believed questioning lead to heresy.

Tertullian would not stay orthodox for long though, as he eventually joined the “new prophecy” Montanist movement. A movement supposedly inspired by the Holy Spirit. Tertullian’s writings began to point at the clear differences between the empirical church and the spiritual vision of the church.

Several members of the Catholic Church left at this time as well. Whether it was a political move or not, I won’t go further into but many were quoted as saying the visible church (the network of catholic communities) had either gone wrong or been wrong from the beginning. The true church was “invisible.”

Martin Luther made the same move 1,300 years later. His devotion to the Catholic Church changed to criticism then rejection. With other Protestant reformers he began to insist that the true church was “invisible”, therefore not identical to Catholicism.

The Authoritative Teaching, another text discovered at Nag Hammadi, vehemently attacks the Catholic Church. It details the story of the soul coming down from heaven full of “being.” But when this soul enters into the body it experiences sensual desire, passion, hatred and envy. The allegory refers to the individual soul’s struggle against passions and sins. It could also be translated as a spiritual person being surrounded by those who are not like them and the battle that ensues.

The author continues, speaking on “brothers” of the church actually being outsiders. Stating self proclaimed “Christians” are worse then pagans who at least have an excuse for their ignorance. These people “do not seek after God.” The Gnostics believe the message of Jesus was not to bring forth a paint by numbers set of answers but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching; “seek and inquire about the ways you should go, since there is nothing else as good as this.”

“…the ones who are ignorant do not seek after God… they do not inquire about God… the senseless man hears the call, but is ignorant of the place to which he has been called. And he did not ask, during the preaching where is the temple [you speak of] into which I should go.”

Those who merely believe the preaching they hear, without asking questions, and who accept the worship set before them, not only remain ignorant themselves, but “if they find someone who asks about his salvation,” they act immediately to censor and silence him. The true church is not a visible one, but that “she has an invisible, spiritual body.”

Many people refused to question the rule of faith and common doctrine, maybe out of fear of being blasphemous. Many orthodox Christians in the past preached only “heretics and philosophers” asked questions about faith and both parties should be dismissed. They preached “blind faith” and protested that, “With our faith, we desire no further belief.”

Another major difference between Gnostic and Orthodox ideologies is that Gnostics believed all doctrines, including their own, as simply approaches to the truth while Orthodox belief is that their doctrine is in itself the truth. Bishop Irenaeus preached to accept faith in what the church teaches and recognized the limits of human understanding.

Another political aspect of it all can be viewed from an economic standpoint. Gnostics preached to separate “yourself” from this world, do not follow earthly leaders and drop all worldly possessions. The Orthodox view was to worship the Lord, follow the bishops and the churches doctrine while also maintaining a normal family life and find employment. Which belief system would a government that relies on public service and consumption want to make its state religion?

All sects of Gnostic and Orthodox Christians didn’t separate themselves from one another. The Western School of Valentinians, a Gnostic belief system lead by Ptolemy and Heracleon, felt Gnostic and Non-Gnostics deserved to be in the same “spiritual church”. Their view; Non-Gnostics still recognized Christ but just didn’t have a full understanding of him. Drawing upon the traditional metaphor spoken by Paul; “The eye can not say to the hand, I have no need of you…” All believers are part of the body of Christ, therefore members of the church.

As stated previously the bishops did not like the Gnostic approach and decided it was necessary to established a catholic [meaning: universal] church. Allowing anyone who would submit to their system of organization into their “physical” church, regardless of if they were a member of Christ’ “spiritual” church. The only members not allowed were people who challenged any of the three elements of this system; doctrine, ritual, and clerical hierarchy. Three of the main components of Christianity that the Gnostics challenged. The Gnostics continued to only allow the spiritually mature into their gnosis [meaning: knowledge] for Jesus said, “many are called, but few are chosen.” The result; the Catholic Church would grow into what it is today, while the Gnostic church in its original form would only last 3 more centuries.

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