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Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 4 – Religious Identity and Tradition

Closely tied to a gnostic understanding of salvation (cf. Part 2) is the sense of religious identity being defined in terms of knowledge. This was discussed to some extent in Part 3, but it requires further elaboration and examination of some of the key New Testament passages. According to the gnostic (and Gnostic) viewpoint, the (elect) believer comes to know, that is, to become aware, of his/her true identity in relation to God (or the Divine). Among certain Gnostic groups we find the idea that a spark or seed of the Divine has been ‘trapped’ within the fallen material world or sin and darkness. Knowledge of salvation comes—proclaimed and revealed by the Savior (and/or his messengers)—to believers trapped so as to have been ignorant of their true identity as offspring (sons/children) of God. There is, indeed, something of this religious worldview reflected in the New Testament Scriptures, but not quite in the manner expressed by many Gnostics. It is in the Pauline and Johannine writings that we find the closest parallels. A number of the most relevant passages are summarized here:

The Pauline letters

1 Cor 2:6-16—I have discussed the entire section 1:18-2:16 in an earlier series of notes. The logic of Paul’s theology can be described this way:

  • The Gospel contains the secret, hidden wisdom of God
  • This is conveyed to the apostles and preachers of the Gospel through the Spirit
  • Those who receive/accept the Gospel receive the Spirit which is at work in them, allowing them to understand
  • The Spirit instructs and guides believers so they can discern the wisdom of God—we thus have “the mind of Christ”

From a theological standpoint, there is some question as to what extent God—specifically the Spirit—is present and at work in believers prior to hearing the Gospel and coming to faith. Given Paul’s statement in verse 11, how do people respond in faith the Gospel without the work of the Spirit? Paul typically employs the language and image of a favor (xa/ri$) or gift—i.e., the Spirit as a gift given, presumably at the time one receives the Gospel, though it may also be connected with the moment of baptism. However, the quotation in verse 9, apparently citing loosely and adapting Isa 64:4, adds an interesting dimension to this; consider the last portion of the quotation:

“…the (thing)s God prepared for the (one)s loving him”

In the context of 1 Cor 1:18-2:16, these “things” are the hidden things of God, the wisdom of God, which, according to Paul’s way of understanding it is: (1) manifest in the person of Christ, (2) revealed in the Gospel, and (3) made available to believers through the Spirit. Yet these things were prepared or made ready by God ahead of time (in the past), for those in the present who are already loving Him. This same idea is suggested in 1 Cor 8:3—”if any (one) loves God, this (person) has been known under [i.e. by] Him”. Here the sense of predestination is stronger: God has known the believer ahead of time, the perfect tense indicating past action which continues into the present. Cf. also 1 Cor 13:12.

Rom 7:7-25—Paul frequently uses language and imagery expressing the idea that God, through Christ, has delivered humankind from bondage to the power of sin (cf. above for this same idea from a Gnostic standpoint). It is described in almost cosmic terms in Rom 5:12-21, while here in 7:7-25, we see it presented from the vantage-point of the individual believer. Paul sets himself, rhetorically, in place of this representative human being, using the first person (“I”). This person could be identified with those who are “loving God” (prior to receiving the Gospel), desiring (in his spirit) to fulfill the Law of God, but unable to do so because of the power of sin residing in the “flesh” and controlling it. Uniquely Pauline is the idea that revelation—in the Law (Torah), prior to encountering the Gospel—brings a kind of preliminary saving knowledge, in that it brings knowledge (i.e. recognition, awareness) of sin. But Paul’s understanding in this regard is two-fold: (1) the Law brings (saving) knowledge, but at the same time (2) through the Law God has imprisoned all human beings (including believers) under sin (Gal 3:22-24; Rom 11:32). For more on Paul’s teaching on the Law, cf. the articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Rom 8:19-25—Here we find the cosmic image of creation groaning and suffering in bondage. Again, we have the idea that God is the one who has set it under bondage (to sin and death). Admittedly, the reference in verse 20 is somewhat ambiguous, where it states that the thing formed (creation, collectively) was set under the order of (i.e. subjected to) sin and death “not willingly, but through the (one) putting it under (this) order”. Commentators debate just who “the (one)” is, but, in my view, based on the context in Romans, and other passages in Paul’s letters, it should be understood as referring to God the Father (the Creator). In certain Gnostic systems, the Creator—that is, the one who fashioned the fallen and sinful material condition—was a kind of inferior divine Being (a Demiurge). This is foreign to Paul’s thought, but the idea of God setting Creation (and humankind) under bondage to the power of sin has certain points in common with Gnostic theology. The eschatological theme in Rom 8:19-25 involves the eventual deliverance of creation from this condition of bondage, and is tied directly to the presence (and identity) of the elect believers (the “sons/offspring of God”). Indeed, this is specifically described in terms of revelation—the earnest expectation and hope of creation is to receive (from God, or from heaven) “the uncovering (a)poka/luyi$) [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God”. This could be understood in the sense that the sons of God (believers) are already present in creation, but that creation is unaware of their true identity. In verse 21, the future hope for creation is defined as being “set free from the slavery of decay, into the freedom of the honor/splendor of the offspring of God”. The implication is that all of creation will be renewed in the same way that believers in Christ are renewed—in particular, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (v. 23).

Col 1:12-13—As part of the great declaration in vv. 9-20, describing the person and work of Christ, the author (Paul) states that God the Father is the one

“who (has) made us able (to come) into the portion of the lot [i.e. the inheritance] of the holy ones in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and made us stand together (away from there) into the kingdom of the Son of his love”

There is, in this description, language and imagery that is similar to gnostic modes of expression—the dualism of light and darkness, the idea of being rescued out of a realm of darkness, believers as “sons of light”, believers as heirs of God, the kingdom of the Son, etc. Of course, these can be found at various points throughout the New Testament, but their combination here, within two short verses, is what gives the passage a “gnostic” ring. The deliverance out of darkness is tied directly to the work of God through the person of Christ; elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is connected more properly with the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:4-6). The idea of believers being called out of darkness is found in 1 Pet 2:9, and goes back to Old Testament imagery, preserved within the early Gospel tradition—Matt 4:16; Lk 1:78-79, etc, and cf. 2 Pet 1:19.

Eph 5:13-14—Here, in connection with the same light/darkness dualism we find the additional idea of the soul “awaking” to its true nature. This is expressed in the quotation (possibly from an early hymn) in verse 14:

“Rise, (you) the (one) going down to sleep, and stand up out of the dead, and the Anointed (One) will shine (light) upon you!”

This line itself suggests the initial conversion of a believer—i.e., of responding to the Gospel and coming to faith. It may originally have been associated with the ritual of Baptism. However, here Paul (or the author) cites it as part of ethical instruction (exhortation) directed to believers. The context clearly has to do with abandoning sinful behavior and associations, and walking according our true nature, that is, as “offspring (i.e. children) of light”. The image of the soul waking to its true nature and identity is a common gnostic motif, though here the orientation is ethical rather than soteriological. The exhortation “walk according to the light, as you are in the light” is stated in a similar context in Galatians 5:16-25, but in terms of the Spirit: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also step in line (i.e. walk) in/by the Spirit”.

Other passages could be added to these mentioned here, but those above give a suitable number of representative examples from the Pauline writings.

Johannine writings

These will be discussed further in the supplemental article on knowledge and revelation in the Gospel and letters of John. Here I will simply list some of the more notable references:

In the Gospel1:9-13; 3:5-8, 18-21; 5:37-43; 6:44-47; 7:17, 28-29; 8:12, 31-38ff; 10:3-9, 14-16, 27ff; 11:25-26; 12:35-36; 14:21-24; 15:3ff, 15-16, 19; 17:6-26; 18:37

In the Letters1 John 1:5-7; 2:5-6, 19-20ff; 2:29-3:2; 3:10, 19; 4:2-6, 9-10; 5:1ff, 10-12, 18-19; 3 John 11

The strong dualism running through the Gospel and letters of John will be discussed in the last part (Part 6) of this series.

Other aspects of Christian Identity

There are other important aspects of Christian identity—that is, of the believer’s religious identity in Christ—which serve to counteract or counterbalance any gnostic tendencies, such as could be drawn from the language used in the passages cited above. Again, we are best informed about early Christian tradition and instruction in this regard from the Pauline letters. Here are some of the more notable aspects:

  • Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” (e)n xristw=|), and the related idea of belonging to Christ, which can be called mystical and spiritual(istic), rather than gnostic. That is to say, we are united with Christ, both symbolically, and through the presence of the Spirit, and participate in the power of his death and resurrection. The expression is so common in Paul’s writings that it functions virtually as a title for believers, a religious identification. Of the many references, cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 15:18-23; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:4; 3:26-28; Rom 3:24; 6:11; 8:1f; 12:5; Phil 2:5; 3:8-12; Col 1:28; 3:1-4; Eph 2:6ff. It is rare in the New Testament outside of Paul (1 Pet 3:16; 5:10, 14, and note Heb 3:14).
  • The idea of believers as a “new creation”, may seem, on the surface, to have a gnostic tinge to it, but it can just as easily be understood in the opposite sense—believers in Christ come to be completely different than they were before. The main passages utilizing this expression, or varying forms of it, are: 2 Cor 5:16-21; Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11ff; and Eph 2:14-18. The Johannine idea of the “new birth”, of believers born out of God, is perhaps closer to gnostic patterns of thought.
  • The symbolism of the rite of Baptism was important for Paul, in that it symbolized the believer’s identification and union with Christ, specifically in the sense of participating in his death and resurrection—cf. 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Rom 6:3-4ff; Col 2:11-12; 3:9-11. Paul inherited the ritual motif of “putting off” the old, sinful way of life, and “putting on” the new life in Christ. The various Gnostic Christian groups seem to have retained Baptism, along with other rituals, though certainly giving to it a somewhat different meaning and significance, even as Paul may have done. He perhaps was the first to connect baptism specifically to the idea of believers sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The emphasis on the real, physical death (the crucifixion) of Jesus as central to the Gospel message, would separate Paul from many of the Gnostic groups known in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Gnostics, with their strong (metaphysical) dualism, especially when assuming the evil of the material condition, appear to have struggled greatly with the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and attempted to explain or interpret it in various ways (some less plausible than others). In 1 and 2 Corinthians, where he may be combating certain gnostic tendencies, Paul sets the message of the cross in direct contrast to the (supposed) wisdom and knowledge of the world. Cf. especially 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 and my earlier notes on this passage.
  • Likewise Paul’s teaching on the presence and role of the Spirit in (and among) believers also distinguishes his understanding of Christian identity from that of the later Gnostics. While most Gnostics emphasized the invisible and eternal world of the Divine (against the evil physical/material world), they, for the most part, do not seem to have been Spiritualists—that is, they do not define and understand their religious identity and experience predominantly in terms of the (Holy) Spirit. For Paul, on the other hand, the Spirit was fundamental to his thinking and teaching; even when referring to knowledge and revelation, he almost always qualifies and connects it in relation to the Spirit. Of the many relevant passages, cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 12:13ff; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 3:17-18; 5:5; 11:4; Gal 3:2-3; 5:16-26; Rom 5:5; 8:9-12; Eph 4:30.
  • In his emphasis on Christian love, Paul draws on early Gospel tradition going back to Jesus’ own words. The so-called “love command (or principle)” was fundamental to Paul, especially in his ethical teaching—cf. Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1ff; 12:31-14:1; 16:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; 1 Thess 4:9; Col 3:14. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets love against (spiritual) knowledge, arguing that love is far superior and necessary for governing all aspects of Christian behavior, especially for our relationships to others in the Community of believers.
  • Paul repeatedly mentions the suffering of believers—their endurance of hardship and persecution, etc—as an important mark of Christian identity. For Paul, it was closely tied to the idea of our participation in the death of Jesus (cf. above). The experience and endurance of suffering also served as a example to other believers, and as a witness to the Gospel. Cf. 1 Thess 2:14ff; 2 Cor 1:6f; 2:14-17; 4:7-12; 6:3-10; Gal 4:19; Phil 1:12-14ff; Col 1:24, etc. Gnostic groups also experienced persecution—including, sadly, at the hands of other “orthodox” Christians—but they would not have ascribed much importance to (physical) suffering in this life.

Some of these points can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, including the Johannine writings. However, there are several other aspects of Christian identity expressed in the Gospel, and especially, the letters of John, which are worth noting briefly:

  • The overwhelming primacy of the person of Christ. In Paul’s writings, the Christological emphasis is usually put forward in connection with: (a) the message of the Gospel, (b) the believer’s union with Christ, and/or (c) the ecclesiastical aspect of the Community of believers as the “body of Christ”, etc. In the First letter of John, on the other hand, following along the lines of the great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel, Christian identity tends to be aligned more directly with the person of the Son (Christ) himself. Ultimately, this extends to what may be properly called orthodoxy—i.e. correct belief about Christ; on this, cf. below.
  • Love in the Gospel and letters of John takes on a somewhat different sense; while continuing the tradition of the “love command/principle”, it is given a centrality to the identity of believers that is really not found anywhere else in the New Testament (Paul’s great chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians being the closest). In 1 John, the presence of love in the believer is virtually synonymous with the presence of Christ, and indicates that the believer is “out of (i.e. from) God” and has been born from Him. Cf. 1 Jn 2:5, 10, 15; 3:1, 10-18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 5-6.
  • Compared with Paul’s use of baptism symbolism, in the Gospel of John there is a different kind of imagery used to described the believers union with Christ and participation in his death, etc. It is found in the drinking/eating and water/bread symbolism in the great discourses of Jesus—Jn 4:7-24, 34; 6:22-59; 7:37-38f. If baptism is implied in the water imagery of 3:5ff, it has a different sense than in Paul. Jn 19:23 and 1 Jn 5:6-8 have water (and blood) connected more closely with the death of Christ.

One unique feature of the Gospel and letters of John is the way it establishes a correct belief about Jesus—who he is, where he came from, etc—as essential to the Christian identity. This is indicated in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel (3:18; 8:23-24; 14:10-11; 17:3, 20-21; cf. also 20:28, 31), and takes on greater significance in the letters, where incorrect belief regarding Christ marks those who have separated from the Community and also the “spirit of antichrist”—cf. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-5, 6-12ff; 2 Jn 7ff. For more on the Johannine writings, cf. the supplemental article in this series.

Revelation and Christian Tradition

One other topic which needs to be addressed here is the early Christian understanding of revelation in terms of tradition—that is, of (apostolic) teaching and instruction, going back to the words of Jesus, which has been preserved and transmitted to believers. Paul frequently refers to his own apostolic authority as a minister who proclaims the Gospel (as revelation) and gives instruction for the congregations under his charge. At several points, he ties his own commission and ministry to specific revelations he received from Jesus (Gal 1:12, 16; 2:2, etc; cf. also Eph 3:1-6ff). By the time of the Pastoral letters (whether or not one regards these as authentically Pauline), as also in the letters of Jude and 2 Peter, in particular, there had developed a strong sense of a collected body of Gospel witness and (apostolic) teaching which was being threatening by false and aberrant Christian ‘leaders’, and which had to be safeguarded by the faithful minister. Jude summarizes this as “the trust [i.e. faith] given along at one (time) [i.e. once] to the holy ones” (v. 3); it was to be “fought/struggled over”, i.e. the minister should contend and fight to preserve it. The clear context of 2 Pet 1:16-21 is that this tradition (lit. that which is given along, passed down) goes back to the apostles, the eye-witnesses of Jesus, including Peter himself. It is no coincidence that the Transfiguration scene is mentioned, as it is a powerful example of divine revelation—God manifesting his presence and glory in the person of Jesus.

Interestingly, this same aspect of revelation—the words of Jesus and the Divine Truth manifest therein—passed on to the apostles, etc., was an important element of Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Many of the (apparently) Gnostic writings, such as those preserved in the texts from Nag Hammadi, are couched as pseudepigraphic “Gospels”—that is, as teaching by Jesus, usually set after the resurrection, given to select disciples. The Gnostic texts frequently suggest that this teaching reflects special revelation to which other Christians are not privy. Clearly, it was a way to ensure that the distinctively Gnostic approach to the Gospel and interpretation of the Christian message, had apostolic authority, being connected to the eye-witnesses of Jesus, just as we see in Lk 1:2; 2 Pet 1:16ff. Other (proto-)orthodox Gospels and writings use the same (literary) method of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity. Many critical scholars would claim that at least several of the New Testament writings (e.g., the Pastoral letters, Ephesians, 2 Peter) are also pseudonymous; the weight and quality of the evidence for these claims varies, and, in any event, remain controversial in more traditional-conservative circles. Admittedly, the emphasis on tradition is strongest in the later writings (those likely written after 60 A.D.)—the Pastorals, 2 Peter, Jude, the Lukan prologue, etc. Two verbs tend to be used to express the idea of revelation passed down from the apostles, from the first generation(s) of believers down to the next:

  • paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), with the derived noun para/dosi$ (parádosis). More commonly used in reference to the betrayal of Jesus (in the sense “give/hand over”), it also carries the figurative meaning of passing along teaching, instruction, etc. from parents to children, and from one generation to the next, including within a religious setting (cf. Mk 7:13; Acts 6:14). A specialized sense of this latter meaning was used in early Christianity—for use of the verb, cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Pet 2:21; Jude 3; for the noun, 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, and note the negative sense in Col 2:8. It continues to be used in early Christian writings (cf. 1 Clement 7:2; Diognetus 11:6; Irenaeus 3.3.3).
  • parati/qhmi (paratíth¢mi, “set/put along[side]”), with the derived noun paraqh/kh (parath¢¡k¢), used in the concrete sense of placing an object (food, etc) before someone, often in the sense of providing help or assistance; figuratively, it can used with the meaning of entrusting something (or someone) into the care of another. A specialized sense of this latter meaning developed in early Christianity. These are the words used in the Pastoral letters—1 Tim 1:18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; they do not occur in the undisputed letters of Paul, certainly not in this sense (cf. 1 Cor 10:27). Cf. the separate note on 1 Tim 6:20-21.

By the later part of the 2nd century, Gnostic groups and teachings had become widespread and influential enough that Irenaeus felt the need to write his five-volume work Against Heresies, to defend his (proto-Orthodox) position as representing the true Apostolic Tradition. The interpretation and application of Scripture was employed more regularly to demonstrate this, since both “sides” could lay claim to the Apostolic heritage. However, many Gnostics proved to be quite adept and incisive as commentators of Scripture (cf. Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, preserved by Epiphanius). Since various passages in the New Testament could, conceivably, be interpreted various ways, and plausibly so, depending upon one’s expectations and presuppositions, it was difficult, at times, to rely on the Scripture itself to provide decisive proof. Origin’s massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel of John was begun, in large part, as a response to the Gnostic Heracleon’s own commentary (the earliest such NT commentary known to us). The main problem, of course, was that Gnostics worked from a religious/theological worldview which was markedly different, in certain respects, from that of the proto-Orthodox; as a result, they were bound to see the same passage of Scripture in a somewhat different light.

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