Gnosticism vs. the Gospel of Incarnation

Gordon Carkner
October 21 2020


“Religion brings us into creative connection with that which we can neither control nor master.” says Mark C. Taylor, Department of Religion at Columbia University. Gnosticism, both historically and presently, offers a starkly alternative religion to Christianity and a constant temptation that appeals to the individual ego. It offers a religion “under our control, and on our terms.” However, we find some elements of the Gnostic outlook within the Christian community itself, seeking to shape its future. I am grateful to Warren Brown and Brad Strawn of Fuller as well as Australian Mark Sayers of the Red Church for their astute cultural consciousness of this problem. Along with others, they help make sense of a growing phenomenon which threatens what we know as authentic discipleship. We find a combination of Gnostic beliefs within Egyptian, Persian, Jewish, Christian, Greek, Florentine Renaissance cultures. For the following inquiry, our focus will be on Greek (especially Plotinus) and Christian types.

Put succinctly, the Gnostic believes that the time-space-energy-matter world (one studied by the hard sciences) is inferior or evil. There is an inferior, evil or capricious creator (demiurge) behind it. Thus, people long to escape the world of matter to a more sublime place where they can discover the divine spark within them. They can proceed to this sublime place on their own by means of special hidden knowledge (gnosis), mentorship and special technology (magic). This world and our bodies are taken as a trap for the soul (immaterial self) which desires to be set free. In Greek thought (Plotinus), the soul desires to be one with the all, a sentiment like a goal in Hinduism: where atman, the individual soul, seeks to become one with Brahman, the world soul, to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Doctrinal creeds and logical consistency do not matter so much to the Gnostic, who likes to mix philosophies and religions together. For example, Pico in Renaissance Florence collected the whole eclectic Corpus Hermeticus, which included a large variety of Egyptian, Persian, and Greek Gnostic writings. Truth is a lower value. Doctrinal boundaries can get in the way of personal fulfilment or of a person seeking to achieve divinity. This aspiration is something that fit in well with Renaissance thinking of the elevation and glorification of man, a significant break from medieval thought. Notwithstanding, it is important to note that the church condemned Gnosticism as a heresy and sought to repress its practices at various stages in history.

The goal of the Gnostic is to maximize their individual choice, authority and control over their destiny and to reach the highest plane of existence possible. It is a stance which is rebellious 2 against moral code and tradition. Furthermore, there tends to be a body-soul or body-mind dualism, as we see in French Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes—from whom we get the idea of a human as a ghost in a machine. The soul or spirit of man is seen to be the higher entity, sometimes in contrast to the evil body. This Enlightenment thinking has most definitely impacted the contemporary evangelical church. The great fear of Gnosticism is that the soul will be reduced to the body or determined biologically (making us nothing but our neural networks or our DNA). This is a legitimate concern in an age of scientism. Gnosticism has slipped into Christian conversation, music and preaching all too often. Frequently, we speak of escaping this world spiritually for heaven, thereby promoting irresponsible cultural and ecological attitudes about where we live. One stream within evangelicalism tends to give up on the ‘evil’ world, thus handicapping our understanding of redemption, and weakening the teaching on the incarnation. One author put it in terms of ‘biblicistic non-empiricism’, meaning that we do not have to study the world, because we have the Bible and therefore the answer to every question. This creates fundamental problems and much surreal confusion.

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Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, the Director of Graduate & Faculty Campus Ministries, along with his wife Ute love connecting with future global leaders within the graduate student university community. Through hospitality, biblical investigation, prayer and discussions of faith and academic studies, these students are drawn into kingdom concerns and introduced to God's powerful agape love. 

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