Gnosticism. Some of Its Beliefs, Practices and Continued Influences in the World. Part IV
Since they believed that world is to be destroyed, what happens on it and to it was not a major concern for the Gnostics. Only those who were of the light were to be saved; when the world was annihilated, those who were not found to be of that light would share the same fate as the place they lived on. This dualistic way of thought often worked to create various theories of predestination; those who had the gnosis knew themselves to be from the light, and anyone else, well, they were not worthy of concern. Even when we find texts which support a third category, such as in the Tripartite Tractate, it turns out that it was seen as existing only as some combination of light and darkness; salvation will require one to be purified from all that is of the darkness, all that is made of matter, and anyone who is of this third category of existence will only be partially saved. “Mankind came to be in three essential types, the spiritual, the psychic, and the material, conforming to the triple disposition of the Logos, from which were brought forth the material ones and the psychic ones and the spiritual ones. Each of the three essential types is known by its fruit. […] The spiritual race, being like light from light and like spirit from spirit, when its head appeared, it ran toward him immediately. […] The psychic race is like light from a fire, since it hesitated to accept knowledge of him who appeared to it. […] The material race, however, is alien in every way; since it is dark, it shuns the shining of the light because its appearance destroys it. And since it has not received its unity, it is something excessive and hateful toward the Lord at his revelation,” Tripartite Tractate 14 in The Nag Hammadi Library.3rd ed. Ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990). Gnostic eschatology was based upon this simple dualism. “For everyone must go to the place from which he has come. Indeed, by his acts and his acquaintances each person will make his nature known,” On the Origin of the World 127 in The Nag Hammadi Library. 3rd ed. Ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990). The essential evil nature of those who were among the damned was proved by their lack of concern for spiritual things. They were ignorant, and had no desire to become among those who were in the know. Since many pagans did seek after the truth, they show that they might be among those destined to be with the light, but those who have no concern whatsoever for the truth show how their true a-gnostic ignorance leads to a brutal, devilish nature. “But these – the ones who are ignorant – do not seek after God. Nor do they inquire about their dwelling-place, which exists in rest, but they go about in bestiality. They are more wicked than the pagans, because first of all they do not inquire about God, for their hardness of heart draw them down to make them their cruelty. Furthermore, if they find someone else who asks about his salvation, their hardness of heart sets to work upon that man. And if he does not stop asking, they kill him by their cruelty, thinking that they have done a good thing for themselves,” Authoritative Teaching 33 in The Nag Hammadi Library. 3rd ed. Ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990).
With respect to their disregard for what happens to the world, it is not surprising that some would come to flaunt it licentiously. If Simon Magus was the primary founder of heresy, he was only the first in a long line of similar heretics. Even during the time of the Apostles, Gnosticism quickly developed and multiplied; even some of those whom the Apostles trusted were seduced away from the truth, and created Gnostic sects of their own. One such example is with the Nicolaitans. They claimed to be followers of the deacon Nicolaus (Acts 6:5). Ancient sources differed in regards to the role that Nicolaus had in their development: either he was directly responsible for their teachings, or they latched on to some obscure sayings of his, used them out of context, and formed their own religious group using his name as a way to quickly gain followers. In the book of Revelation, John commended the Ephesians for rejecting the teachings of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:5), but criticized some at Pergamum for following them. “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then,” (Rev 2:14-16a). The leaders of the Church held no doubt as to the lack of moral fortitude shown by the Nicolaitans. “They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence, ” Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, I.XXVI.3. Clement, unlike Epiphanius and Hippolytus, believed that Nicolaus and his family were free from blame, and had restrained themselves from such vices (cf. StromataIII.26(1)). But, he was in agreement as to the errors of the Nicolaitans. “Similar too are those who claim to be followers of Nicolaus. They keep one of the man’s dicta, forcing its meaning, ‘One must misuse the flesh,’” Clement of Alexandria, Stromata. Trans. John Ferguson (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1991), II.118(3) [I have used this version of the Stromata here, because the earlier Ante-Nicene Fathers edition left this part in Latin]. According to Epiphanius, the Nicolaitans split into many different sects such as the Phibionite and Borborites (cf. Epiphanius, PanarionI.26). Moreover, he said that the latter of the two was to live in such a perverted way, with such disgusting sexual rituals, that they were known to eat the fetuses of their women if they had accidentally became pregnant during their sacred rites.
Libertine Gnosticism was very difficult to “stamp out.” While Eusebius believed that their heresies had been as quickly overcome as it took to describe them, it is clear that their movement to regions beyond the outskirts of the Roman empire allowed them to thrive for several centuries. “The Borborites – whom Epiphanius and Theodoret knew and catalogued as one of the sects related to those very Gnostic writings we have now recovered – were established as far away as Persia: under Justinian II (685 – 95) they returned from thence into Syria and Armenia,” Jean Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics. Trans. Philip Mairet (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), 311. Clearly, people would find aspects of their teachings to be desirable, although they might not want to engage in the gross excesses attributed to them. There must something very pleasing to believe that one is special, one of the elect, and that nothing anyone can do will remove them from such a glorified position.
After the majority of the Gnostic sects had perished, many of their teachings and ideas could and would continue to influence Christian thought. Even great thinkers such as St Augustine were not entirely free from their influence. Augustine, who in his early life was attracted to the teachings of the Manichaeans, worked very hard to overcome the influences of their dualism from his theological writings. While he was generally successful, the small hints of his previous association could be found, picked up on, and developed by later generations. At the same time as he sought to deprive evil of its foundation by denying it substantial reality (thus, making his firm break from the Manichaens), Augustine nonetheless continued to create dualistic interpretations of the world as can be seen in his division of humanity into the saved “city of God” and the “mass of the damned,” the “city of the devil.” It does not take much to use this to say that world is ruled by the devil, and that Christians, while currently living in the world, are not of the world, and that the world has no place with us in eternal life. Thus it is not surprising that an Augustinian, Martin Luther, would build his theology upon easily misconstrued and abused aspects of Augustine’s thought, and make out of them a doctrinal position which demonstrated a Gnostic-like understanding of salvation, up to and including, a renewed antinomianism.
Before discussing Martin Luther and his theology, a small caveat needs to be made. Martin Luther was not a systematic theologian, and, except for some underlying tendencies which he wanted to defend, he did not always teach a consistent theological system. And as such, what is being offered here is not a comprehensive examination of his theological views, but only a highly-simplified presentation of one line of thought that can be found in some of his works. It is, to be sure, self-consistent even if it contradicts other aspects of his thought. But it is being picked out because it shows us how Gnostic-like his ideas could sometimes be. Even if Luther, like Augustine before him, would develop and change his theological views when needed, so too did that leave Luther’s thought free for the picking, for people to later come and take up whatever they wanted from them, live them out, and feel justified for what they did because it was Luther who had said what they believed.
Luther, so the story goes, was worried about his own salvation. He saw not only the greatness of his sins, but also his inability to overcome them. How could someone like he ever be saved? Then, as if being guided by the light of revelation, he was inspired by a gnostic-like insight about salvation. He came upon it in his reading of over the works of Paul. We are saved by grace, and nothing we can do will change it. We are all living in the world of sin, we are all sinners, and there is nothing we can do about this either. The only way the anger of the Father can be appeased is by seeing his divine Son, whom he loves. By our faith in the Son, the Son covers us with his image; ontologically we remain as we were before faith, but because the Father sees the Son in us, he loves us too. He imputes righteousness to us because of the Son, while in reality we are still sinners worthy of damnation. One could say (although Luther would not) that we would become docetical sons of the Father, turning typical Gnostic Christology upside-down (instead of the Son seemingly becoming one of us with an illusional human nature, we seemingly become the Son with an illusional righteousness). And with this illusion, given to us by the Lord, in a way established by his sacrifice on the cross, we are free from the consequences of sin. Indeed, we must realize our sinful nature with a boldness which honors Christ’s sacrifice for us. “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner, ” Martin Luther. Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521. From Wortburg (Segment). Translated by Erika Bullman Flores. From Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Schriften. Dr. Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol.15, cols. 2585-2590. For those who are saved, nothing will separate them from salvation; they have been given grace, and are free from the rules of the law. For those who are among the damned, those who are predestined to perdition, not only are they sinners, but because human nature is fallen and evil, they cannot will to do any good. They cannot be saved. They are in bondage, and God reinforces that bondage, God hardens their heart, by not giving them the grace needed to be saved. “Now, Satan and man, being fallen and abandoned by God, cannot will good (that is, things that please God, or that God wills), but are ever turned in the direction of their own desires, so that they cannot but seek their own. […] Since God moves and works in all, He moves and works of necessity even in Satan and the ungodly. But he works according to what they are, and what He finds them to be: which means, since they are evil and perverted themselves, that when they are impelled to action by this movement of Divine omnipotence they do only that which is perverted and evil,” Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. Trans. James I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1990), 204. Thus, while Luther, like orthodox Christianity, rejected the idea that there were two opposing forces ruling the world, he seems to have transferred such a dualism to the Godhead itself, allowing him to accept with the Gnostics before him the idea an angry, righteous Father who controls the world so much that he even creates humans to be agents of evil in the world (but, Luther would point out, God does not do the deeds, only his agents do it for him and for this reason he is not guilty of any actual evil).
As many saints such as Sts Thomas More, Ignatius Loyola, John of the Cross, and Robert Bellarmine knew, there were considerable problems within Christendom which needed reform. It is not surprising that in such a confusing atmosphere, Gnostic teachings could be and would be revived. They offer a sense of stability; one does not have to worry about theological and moral difficulties if one is among the elect. Even if the rest of the world is in chaos, one’s faith provided the means by which one could be assured of salvation; they knew they would overcame the world and its evil influences. Luther and Calvin, in their slightly different teachings on of predestination, heightened Augustine’s sociological dualism and reawakened aspects of Gnostic thought. Lutheran libertine notions would be met with Calvinism’s rigorous ascetic-like legalism, but both would agree with one another about the fundamental evil of the world. And, with the rise of Protestantism in England, these Gnostic tendencies would be spread throughout the world as England took upon itself to become a world-spanning colonial power. Because of the powerful presence of the English in the world, people living under their influence would be socialized to think within the dualistic framework which permeated Protestant thought.