Gnosticism and Christianity: Did Gnosticism Lose out to Christianity?

Article ID: DG040-2 | By: Douglas Groothuis

The following is an excerpt from Article DG040-2 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be read by following the link below the excerpt.


GNOSTICISM AND CHRISTIANITY- GNOSTIC UNDERDOGS?

Although Pagels and others have provoked sympathy, if not enthusiasm, for the Gnostics as the underdogs who just happened to lose out to orthodoxy, the Gnostics’ historical credentials concerning Jesus are less than compelling. It may be romantic to “root for the underdog,” but the Gnostic underdogs show every sign of being heretical hangers-on who tried to harness Christian language for conceptions antithetical to early Christian teaching. Many sympathetic with Gnosticism make much of the notion that the Gnostic writings were suppressed by the early Christian church. But this assertion does not, in itself, provide support one way or the other for the truth or falsity of Gnostic doctrine. If truth is not a matter of majority vote, neither is it a matter of minority dissent. It may be true, as Pagels says, that “the winners write history,” but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad or dishonest historians. If so, we should hunt down Nazi historians to give us the real picture of Hitler’s Germany and relegate all opposing views to that of dogmatic apologists who just happened to be on the winning side. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus went to great lengths to present the theologies of the various Gnostic schools in order to refute them biblically and logically. If suppression had been his concern, the book never would have been written as it was. Further, to argue cogently against the Gnostics, Irenaeus and the other anti-Gnostic apologists would presumably have had to be diligent to correctly represent their foes in order to avoid ridicule for misunderstanding them. Patrick Henry highlights this in reference to Nag Hammadi: “While the Nag Hammadi materials have made some corrections to the portrayal of Gnosticism in the anti-Gnostic writings of the church fathers, it is increasingly evident that the fathers did not fabricate their opponents’ views; what distortion there is comes from selection, not from invention. It is still legitimate to use materials from the writings of the fathers to characterize Gnosticism.”50It is highly improbable that all of the Gnostic materials could have been systematically confiscated or destroyed by the early church. Dunn finds it unlikely that the reason we have no unambiguously first century documents from Christian Gnostics is because the early church eradicated them. He believes it more likely that we have none because there were none.51 But by archaeological virtue of Nag Hammadi, we now do have many primary source Gnostic documents available for detailed inspection. Yet they do not receive superior marks as historical documents about Jesus. In a review of The Gnostic Gospels, noted biblical scholar Raymond Brown affirmed that from the Nag Hammadi “works we learn not a single verifiable new fact about the historical Jesus’ ministry, and only a few new sayings that might possibly have been his.”52Another factor foreign to the interests of Gnostic apologists is the proposition that Gnosticism expired largely because it lacked life from the beginning. F. F. Bruce notes that “Gnosticism was too much bound up with a popular but passing phase of thought to have the survival power of apostolic Christianity.”53Exactly why did apostolic Christianity survive and thrive? Robert Speer pulls no theological punches when he proclaims that “Christianity lived because it was true to the truth. Through all the centuries it has never been able to live otherwise. It can not live otherwise today.”54