Church History, Columns, Pastorate, Spotlight

The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back

In the early 2nd century one of the gravest threats faced by the early Christians was a movement that we know as Gnosticism. It thrived by radically revising Christianity. According to the Gnostics, the material world is evil, the Creator God of the Old Testament was a minor deity, Satan is the hero, there is a hierarchy of “aeons” (think the degrees in the Masonic Scottish Rite), and salvation comes to the illuminati who have secret knowledge. They disparaged ordinary Christians as “catholics” (remember, this is long before the rise of what we know as the Roman Catholic Church). Those who are ultimately delivered from the evil material world (which, they said, is evil because it is material) are those who gain the secret gnosis(knowledge). The early Christians (e.g., Irenaeus) fought this heresy with metaphorical might and mane. They saw it for what it was (and remains): a heresy of Christianity and an anti-Christian theology, piety, and practice. Versions of this view of the world and of the faith have resurfaced from time to time, in different forms. Unfortunately, since the early part of the 20th century, in part because of the discovery of a large body, in Egypt, of hitherto lost texts, there has been a renaissance of Gnosticism, with its proponents renewing the ancient claim that Gnosticism was the original form of Christianity and orthodoxy was arbitrarily and falsely imposed on the world by the powers of this world.

Manichaeism was another ancient error opposed by the early Christian church. The most famous Ancient Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354–430), left his Christian upbringing and became a teacher of Manichaeism for 9 years before the Lord convicted him of the greatness of his sin and misery, gave him new life and true faith. Thereafter, he became a great and unyielding opponent of Manichaeism. You have likely encountered Manichaeism even if you did not know it. It is the philosophical framework for the entire Star Wars series. In Manichaeism, founded by Mani (c. 216–76), who was born in the Persian Empire but exiled to India, the world is divided into light and dark, good and bad. It is integrally related to Gnosticism. The attraction of the simplicity of this explanation of the world is as obvious as it is false. Many analysts have fairly described modern politics as Manichaean, insofar as every question is divided into right and wrong, and each side positions itself as the light and the other side as darkness and evil. To say the least, it is difficult to have a conversation (an actual conversation where differing points of view are expressed and politely debated, in contrast to what is now called a “conversation,” in which one side browbeats the other into submission) with evil.

EVANGELICAL MANICHAEISM AND GNOSTICISM

In these very brief sketches of these two anti-Christian movements the reader may have noticed some points of contact with popular, contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice. Both movements took a dim view of the Old Testament. How often does one hear evangelicals dismiss the Old Testament in quasi-Gnostic or quasi-Manichaean terms? In the Pentecostal and the Charismatic movements, it is typical to distinguish between those Christians who have the secret knowledge of the Spirit and “the gifts” and those mere ordinary Christians who must muddle through with just Scripture as a revelation from God. The Gnostic and Manichaean views of God and the goodness of creation (or the lack thereof) may seem quite familiar to those raised in fundamentalist circles. Some forms of pre-tribulational Dispensationalism also have Gnostic echoes.

Sadly, as a result of the influence of Gnostic and Manichaean ideas in non-confessional evangelical congregations and para-church organizations and personalities, evangelicals seem especially susceptible to conspiracy theories and even to dangerous movements such as QAnon. Recently Emily Belz has published an introduction to the QAnon phenomenon in World Magazine. In it she sketches the origin and the influence of this movement. It is a form of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, in which the illuminati have the true picture of the world, they understand the secret forces at work behind the scenes, while the rest of us poor schlubs muddle through life reading and applying holy Scripture, praying, paying attention to the world around us, and seeking wisdom. The illuminati, those who are devoted to Q (probably a reference to the German word Quelle (source), which in biblical studies is often abbreviated Q). In biblical studies, Q is the theoretical shared source of the synoptic gospels. Like the Q of QAnon, no one has ever seen it and no one can say certainly what is or is not in it. The Q of QAnon is a shadowy and ostensible source of the true gnosis about who is really in charge of the government etc.

This gets us back to the attraction of conspiracy theories. Such theories are the refuge of the frightened, the intellectually lazy (though this is not to say that they are not industrious), the gullible, and, ironically, the ill-informed. It is difficult to tell if American evangelicals are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories but it seems so. Remember, there are millions of evangelicals who expect to be swept away secretly at any moment, in the so-called secret rapture, who expect a three-and-a-half year tribulation or a seven-year tribulation, to be followed by a literal, millennial reign of Christ on the earth during which the temple will be rebuilt, the sacrificial system will be re-instituted, who ostensibly follow a rule that calls us to read Scripture literally where possible so that the millennium of Revelation 20 is taken literally, but finds allegories of helicopters and the (former) Soviet Union in the same portions of the Revelation, the most symbolic book in all of Scripture. Evangelicals have been playing “spot the Anti-Christ” for decades. To be sure, the old Reformed theologians regularly described the papacy as anti-Christ but they did not guess at which world figure was the anti-Christ.

Conspiracy theories are attractive because they offer a single explanation for complex, sometimes bewildering phenomena and we surely live in a bewildering time–making such explanations seem particularly attractive. It is uncertain when the USA has been besieged simultaneously by a pandemic virus and nightly riots for nearly 100 consecutive days on the eve of national elections. We have had riots, pandemics, and elections but all at the same time? It is also true that there are shadowy figures in the background of global and national politics, with deep financial pockets, who seem willing to try to influence the culture and elections. But the difference is we know who they are and can track their financial contributions. According to QAnon, the real powers in the earth are hidden from mere mortals. Only Q knows who they are. Only Q reveals them and their schemes. That Q should become an object of faith for evangelicals makes sense in a culture in which personalities have been peddling secret insights into Scripture and history. In the internet age, of course, the next great peddler of secrets would himself be a secret, known only via social media or discussion lists and the like.

Some whom Belz interviewed for the World introduction to QAnon liken the movement to a religious cult. Conspiracy theories have cultic aspects. Those who remember Harold Camping may know something of the frustration of trying to persuade those who have secret knowledge about the future to give it up. Harold was an entrepreneur, who had a gift for doing quirky radio and for explaining amillennial eschatology to premillennial Dispensationalists, but he became obsessed with a bizarre scheme for interpreting the Bible and predicting the date of the return of Jesus. He refused to hear anyone and many of his followers imitated his stubbornness. He repented of his sins and errors before he died but he did a lot of damage to Christians and churches along the way. Harold claimed to have secret knowledge, which was hitherto unavailable to mere mortals and even to Jesus on this earth (Mark 13:32). As a Manichaean, Camping declared the visible church anathema (darkness) and himself to be the light. His followers could not explain why he was right but they were sure he was, despite the Scriptures and despite the pleading of orthodox Reformed pastors and teachers to abandon their speculations. Such is the evangelical cult of personality and devotion to secret knowledge.

KISS THE SON

Reformed folk need not speculate about secret powers behind the scenes. We know who is in charge of all things and it is no secret. King Jesus the Messiah has been installed on the throne over all the nations. Of course they rage against him. The Psalmist and the Apostle Peter, who quoted him (Acts 4:25, 26), spoke about it explicitly: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” He warned us that there kings and rulers “set themselves” and “take counsel together against Yahweh and his Messiah…” (Ps 2:1–2). God laughs at these pretenders (vv.4–5). He has set his Christ on Zion, his holy hill (v. 6). He has entered into his royal glory. Jesus is ruling now. He permit foolish governors to trouble his church but the nations all belong to Jesus. One day he shall “break them all with a rod of iron” (v. 9). He warns the kings of this age that they are liable to be dashed like “a potter’s vessel” (v. 9). He calls them to rejoice with trembling and to kiss his him (not the pope) in submission “lest he be angry” (v. 12): “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (v. 12).

Certainly people plot but, in God’s time, they shall be found out and exposed either now or at the judgment. We fear no ruler because we belong body and soul, in life and in death, to King Jesus. We obey the magistrate and we partake in no speculative, foolish conspiracy theories. Through the prophet Isaiah the Lord told us how to respond to QAnon and any other foolishness like it:

Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken (Isaiah 8:12–15).

Yahweh is the sovereign of the heavenly armies. Listen to his Word. Serve him in quietness and godliness (1 Thess 4:11) as we sojourn as exiles and strangers like Noah (1 Pet 2:4–11). There is no secret knowledge. There are not endless aeons. There is only this age (aeon) and the age (aeon) to come (Eph 1:21). The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. There is one covenant of grace, one salvation, one baptism, and one faith. It is revealed in Scripture and confessed by the church. Evil is not dueling with good. There is no “force” and there is no balance. There is only sin and death, grace and salvation. Jesus of Nazareth is God the Son incarnate, who died, was raised, ascended, rules, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

Filed under: Church History, Columns, Pastorate, Spotlight
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.