Gnosticism defined

When I was first reading about gnosticism many years ago, I came to the conclusion that, with its many possible meanings and manifestations, it was too complex and difficult a concept to be useful in ordinary discourse. Then I came upon this passage in Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, p. 124, in which Voegelin successfully identifies the core principle that is common to all forms of gnosticism, the enlargement of the soul so as to include God within man, and thus eliminate the frustrating and uncomfortable experience that God is outside and above man:

The attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei, the cognition of faith, will afford; and Gnostic experiences offer this firmer grip in so far as they are an expansion of the soul to the point where God is drawn into the existence of man. This expansion will engage the various human faculties; and, hence, it is possible to distinguish a range of Gnostic varieties according to the faculty which predominates in the operation of getting this grip on God. Gnosis may be primarily intellectual and assume the form of speculative penetration of the mystery of creation and existence, as, for instance, in the contemplative gnosis of Hegel or Schelling. Or it may be primarily emotional and assume the form of an indwelling of divine substance in the human soul, as, for instance, in paracletic sectarian leaders. Or it may be primarily volitional and assume the form of activist redemption of man and society, as in the instance of revolutionary activists like Comte, Marx, or Hitler. These Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivinization of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 28, 2003 04:23 PM | Send

Contemporary scholars of ancient Christianity are generally correct, I think, to reject the use of the term gnosticism in describing various forms of heterodoxy. The evidence is too thin, and we are too dependent on orthodox writers who lump too many different heresies under the gnostic label.

This doesn’t mean, however, that modern definitions of gnosticism such as Voegelin’s aren’t useful in understanding how much of liberalism and modernity are really a Christian heresy. To rephrase part of Voegelin’s point, the Christian belief that God became man has led to the tempting belief that man might become God.

After church in the second century, one of your fellow congregants who was an adherent of Valentinus might have pulled you aside and offered you the opportunity to learn a special gnosis, the deeper, truer meaning of the gospel you had just heard. This teaching, which would reveal the gospel to be a metaphor for a more abstract and cosmic reality, was accessible only to an elite. St. Augustine’s career can be seen as a struggle against this sort of elitism, whether found in Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, or the thought of Julian of Eclanum. The endless “Matt vs. all takers” thread is an extended argument on the meaningless of liberal equality, but consideration of gnosticism should remind us that there is nevertheless a true form of Christian equality which liberals seek to deny and supplant.

Posted by: Agricola on September 29, 2003 10:18 AM

Christian equality, if this Catholic has it right, consists in the equal value of all souls to God - God loves all His children unreservedly, even though we can reject His love and condemn ourselves - and our Lord’s offered gift of salvation to all men.

The peril of Gnosticism is its temptation to the pleasing hubris of believing that, potentially, there is nothing and No-one above man. If man can but penetrate the right mysteries, he can be as God. Christians know where that comes from. We should all know where it leads… HRS

Posted by: Howard Sutherland on September 29, 2003 11:26 AM

“If man can but penetrate the right mysteries, he can be as God.”

That is the conventional definition of gnosticism. But Voegelin’s definition shows the deeper meaning of gnosticism, of which the conventional definition is one manifestion among others. Penetrating the mystery of God through secret knowledge is one way of making man as God; but so is, for example, the feeling or mystical experience that my own self is God or that God is inside me (which is a typical belief of New Age religions).

A person I know said to me many years ago: “We can make ourselves as nothing so that we merge with God, or our selves can become so large that we become God.” The first path he described was the classic path of mysticism; the second was a New Age type of gnosticism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 29, 2003 11:44 AM

However one refines the definition, the temptation and the danger are two-fold. First, the belief that one is below nothing and nobody is an invitation to cast off all restraint. Second is the belief that, having penetrated to the heart of the mysteries and become “as God,” one is entitled to impose one’s vision on the unenlightened by force. I was not trying to offer a perfect definition of Gnosticism, only to observe that a variant of the Gnostic temptation has been present in all of the destructive movements that have plagued Western civilization at least since the French Revolution, even though those who propagated those movements would not describe themselves as Gnostics. The temptation transcends the Christian heresy. HRS

Posted by: Howard Sutherland on September 29, 2003 12:00 PM

If Mr. Sutherland hasn’t already read them, he may be interested in reading the last three chapters of Voegelin’s New Science of Politics: “Gnosticism—The Nature of Modernity”; “Gnostic Revolution—The Puritan Case”; and “The End of Modernity.” Also, there is Voegelin’s short book Science, Politics and Gnosticism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 29, 2003 12:17 PM

“If man can but penetrate the right mysteries, he can be as God.”

This sounds eerily familiar:

“And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods …”

Different angle, same story.

Posted by: Joel on September 29, 2003 2:15 PM

Not quite that simple. A few verses on:

“And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”

It has always been interesting to me that, outside of Genesis, the scriptures are home to few if any meditations on the nature of divinity and its relation to man’s nature. This contrasts markedly with the mystic religions of the East.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on September 29, 2003 2:35 PM

There’s no contradiction. Jesus quoted the Psalms where God said, “I have said ye are gods, and all of you are the children of the Most High.” He cited this as a defense in His own claim that He was the Son of God — it was not against Jewish law to make such a claim.

The point is that this temptation was made to Eve that she should violate a direct command of God, asserting her own self-will to achieve something in her own way rather than God’s way. That is where gnosticism and all other mystical teachings err. Religion in general, which promises man that he can reach whatever is the running definition of god-consciousness and fulfillment through his own works and will, as opposed to submitting to the revelation that God has given.

As a more recent example, the use of psychedelic substances such as LSD caused some to recognize a transcendent reality, but not in a way that led a person to the Lord. Instead, many turned to Eastern religions. (Think of George Harrison.) It represented a ‘turning inward’ in a search for truth, as if the truth could be found in ourselves.

Man is made in the image of God; man is a tripartite being of body, soul, and spirit. The mystery of love and communication which we enjoy are an integral and eternal facet of the triune God. God is love, because within the Godhead there is perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which have existed eternally. Perfect communication within the Godhead has existed eternally. These divine attributes we have been given to experience, with one all-important caveat — their use must also conform to the holiness of His nature. Evil communication, selfish ‘love’, are an offense to Him.

This is why we need a Saviour, and it’s also where there must be a place of eternal punishment for those who will not accept His free offer of salvation. (Which also answers the question — Just how serious is sin?)

God’s law is honored either by its being obeyed, or by punishing the transgression of it. The salvation offered to all is not based on our having kept it, but on the fact that the penalty for its transgression has already been executed in space-time history. God can then be “both just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.”

Posted by: Joel on September 29, 2003 3:47 PM

For those who are interested in him, I keep a set of Eric Voegelin Study Pages at

Posted by: Bill McClain on September 30, 2003 8:07 AM
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