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.