Modern evangelicalism is the new Gnosticism... well, sort of

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I have long harboured the suspicion that in certain respects, in certain habits of thought, modern evangelicalism has more in common with second century Gnosticism than with first century Christianity. I accept that the analogy is impressionistic and cannot be pushed very far, but I still think that there is something in the view that modern evangelicalism operates with a core a-historical redeemer myth not so different from Gnostic redeemer myths: the redeemer descends into the world to rescue people from their sins and, in the end, transport them to their true home in heaven. This mythicized narrative controls much of the language of evangelical piety, worship, evangelism, and popular theology. It barely makes contact with the biblical narrative of a historically situated people.

There are also some hermeneutical similarities. In his Hermeneutics: An Introduction Anthony Thiselton argues that Gnostic writers drew extensively on the language of the New Testament but quite radically changed its meaning by reframing it philosophically. He quotes Samuel Laeuchli: “There is a tension between the meaning in the original frame and the new frame into which it is inserted.”

This phenomenon surely goes some way towards accounting for the difference between Reformed theology and the New Perspective. Reformed theology has taken the language of Paul and reframed it in order to address a very different theological problem in a very different theological context. Modern evangelicalism has simply inherited that reframing. The New Perspective is an attempting to return the language to its original frame.

Thiselton points out that early writers such as Irenaeus also objected to the bad Gnostic habit of removing texts from context and redeploying them in support of a quite different theological program. Irenaeus famously complained:

They disregard the order and the connection of scriptures… just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed… out of precious jewels, should this take the likeness of the man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox… and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.8.1)

That would nail a lot of preaching and teaching today. I am not suggesting that modern evangelicalism has lost touch with the structures of biblical thought to the extent that second century Gnosticism did—not at all. But the hermeneutical practice is widespread: atomized texts are extracted willy nilly, with scant regard for narrative or argumentative context, and made to serve some other purpose at the whim of the preacher or teacher, who then maintains and declares that this is what scripture teaches.

We make allowances for the practice because we think that no real harm is done by it, we think that no one in our churches is likely to care one way or the other, and the eclectic mosaic effect is quite appealing in a way. But it’s becoming intellectually unsustainable, and the danger is that if it collapses, the whole edifice of Reformed and evangelical thought will collapse with it. The New Perspective offers a way to return to the original frame. Once we have done that properly, we can start to ask what it would mean to live and think in relation to it.

This is a really interesting post.  There's a question underneath the discussion which raises questions not only about Evangelicalism and Gnosticism but also about the relationship between dogma and truth.  The quotation from Ireneus is eyecatching but begs a question; aren't the orthodox painting a picture too?  Who is to say whether our account or the gnostic account are authoritative.  Indeed, if mysticism is correct, is there not a danger in any orthodoxy of worshipping an idol of our own construction rather than the true God. 

@Phil Wood:

Phil, that’s a very good question. Thiselton actually comments: “No doubt the Gnostics claim a rationality of their own, and argue that the Fathers of the Church interpreted everything christologically.”

My view is that the best safeguard we have at the moment is to resist our preferred theological biases and to pursue a historical(-critical) reading of the NT, as best we can, in the light of its literary and historical context. That may well give rise to a new idolatry, but as they say, semper reformanda.

Incidentally, I see this less as a matter of worshipping the true God than of telling the right story about the people of God.

Justin B. | Thu, 05/05/2011 - 15:28 | Permalink

Hey Andrew,

Do you have a citation for the Irenaeus quote? I wanted to make sure I didn't forget that one. Thanks for posting!

Andrew -

Great post and challenging stuff. I am surprised you didn't place a side note that says you are even willing to take the new perspective even further with embedding Scripture in its historical narrative.

One thing that I think we must allow for is what I might losely term as the devotional-prophetic context. I actually have an article posting tomorrow on my blog looking at some of this. But, while I think we start with the historical narrative (maybe grammatical-historical context), if that is fully possible, we must allow for this kind of devotional-prophetic context of Scripture speaking beyond the narrative in which it is cast.

I am aware that this is overdone by some, even grossly over done (maybe even by myself). Such can make for a stirring sermon if one would like. But I wonder if some kind of balance would allow for some 'reframing'. Not in the sense of what you would identify that full reformed theology has done, but in the sense of allowing a specific Scriptural context to speak outside that Scriptural context.


Scot, I read your post. I entirely agree regarding the “devotional-prophetic” context. You make the point well. I am less convinced about christological readings of the Old Testament, but that is another matter.

But the question also still remains as to whether shifts in the narrative-historical understanding of the New Testament are not now becoming so acute that those layers of theologizing dependent on it also need to be quite radically overhauled.

My sense is that we cling to what is familiar at the devotional-prophetic level because we don’t yet see an alternative mode of discourse. But the disjunction between our understanding of the New Testament and the popular evangelical rhetoric is becoming so great that sooner or later something will have to give. I have just made a similar response to some comments by Michael Gorman on Daniel Kirk’s blog.

Quite an interesting perspective on this.  I agree with your assessment of a contextualess approach by modern evangelicalism.  And I like your phrasing of returning to "the original frame" as a way to understand the situation.  But it does appear that, especially on matters of escapism and non-historical readings of the text, that modern evangelicalism has much in common with gnosticism.

C. Ehrlich | Fri, 05/06/2011 - 17:07 | Permalink

Suppose you are right and that a true appreciation of what it means to live and think biblically requires that a person first understands "the original frame." How esoteric will this required understanding turn out to be?   If extensive scholarly insight is prerequisite to grasping God's directions for our lives, I'd expect this to be worrisome. 

So I'd be interested to hear what the original frame would tell us about the place of scripture in the life and thinking of a non-scholar, given that such a person might not have access to the original frame as an interpretive key.  

@C. Ehrlich:

Your basic question needs to be answered—I don’t have a pat response right now. But I would say that the “extensive scholarly insight” is needed to get us back to a valid starting point and then to give some guidance in developing a user-friendly theology. But I certainly don’t think that the overall argument forces into an esoteric cul-de-sac.

@Andrew Perriman:

Right.  I suppose the original frame might find its most valuable service in debunking the various contemporary theological trends which, while they may appear quite commonsensical to the devotee, often look deeply questionable and even perverse to those unreached by the dubious privelege of their parochial influence. 

@C. Ehrlich:

A simple response might be that we need to translate the history and culture of the bible as well as the language, and put as much effort into all three. Think about how much time, organization, expertise and money went into making a bible translation and then put sufficient effort as well into translating the history and culture for the benefit of the lay reader. This is rarely even attempted in my opinion and an a priori adherence to tradtional theology is held over and against a plain reading of scripture according to its original and natural context. This creates distorted and confused readings and leaves ordinary people completely lost as to the meaning of the text. 

The classic example of this is in Dispensationalism, and the 'hopscotch' use of texts (Hal Lindsey's phrase, not mine!) used to construct the 'doctrine' of the rapture. But it also happens in the debates about women's ministry...

paul bischoff | Sat, 11/02/2019 - 09:47 | Permalink

Dr. Perriaman

Look for my book, Evangelicalism Is Dead, coming out by Wipf and Stock in mid-2020.

I totally agree with your correct suspicions about Evangelicalism and Gnosticism…this is THE issue!  Old heresy…new face!

Dr. Paul O. Bischoff

@paul bischoff:

Sorry,  make that Perriman