Is there a gnostic in the house?

November 6th, 2019
by Chris

I was struck by a recent article from Kimberley Stover on Patheos, written as a heartfelt letter to God – or at least, the concept of God with which she had grown up. I have huge sympathy with her feelings, and like her reject completely that concept.

This reminded me forcibly of the Gnostic attitude to God, and particularly the God depicted in much (but not by any means all) of the Hebrew Scriptures. In what may possibly be the standard Gnostic approach to scripture, the figure generally considered to be God is actually the Demiurge, a lesser emanation of God (but possibly the principal medium through which creation occurs) who, fuelled by delusions of grandeur, sets himself up as being God; the true God is above and beyond the Demiurge, and the Demiurge, while not actually a Satanic figure, takes on some characteristics of the orthodox Satan. Indeed, some gnostic tendencies have led, ultimately, to some forms of modern Satanism; while true gnostics argue for worshipping only the true god behind and above the Demiurge, Satanists argue for worshipping the cosmic figure which actually wields the power.

Gnosticism is a label which has been spread around far too liberally by champions of orthodoxy over the years, notably by such early Church Fathers as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and is therefore a very amorphous accusation; properly speaking, “gnostic” refers to there being a truth beyond that on the surface of scripture, and (for instance) Paul’s reference in 1 Cor. 2:7 “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…” could very reasonably be regarded as gnostic in that sense, as could his reference in 1 Cor. 3:1-3 “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it; and even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh”.

So could the much repeated injunction in Mark to his disciples not to talk about Jesus. So, very notably, could Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son: I quote from an article in Think Theology

“Here is a list of Augustine’s allegorizations taken from Robert H. Stein’s The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (p. 46):

The man going down to Jericho =Adam
Jerusalem, from which he was going =City of Heavenly Peace
Jericho =The moon which signifies our mortality (this is a play on the Hebrew terms for Jericho and moon which both look and sound alike)
Robbers =Devil and his angels
Stripping him =Taking away his immortality
Beating him =Persuading him to sin
Leaving him half dead =Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God
Priest =Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)
Levite =Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)
Good Samaritan =Christ
Binding of wounds =Restraint of sin
Oil =Comfort of good hope
Wine =Exhortation to spirited work
Animal =Body of Christ
Inn =Church
Two denarii =Two commandments to love
Innkeeper =Apostle Paul
Return of the Good Samaritan =Resurrection of Christ”

OK, I know of no modern interpreters who would be likely to put forward an interpretation like Augustine’s. It is absolutely not apparent on the face of the story in Luke’s gospel. I certainly wouldn’t attempt anything similar myself, preferring to stick as closely as I can to what I think the Biblical authors were intending (and flagging any excursions I might make from that principle). However, as the article indicates, it was for most of the early history of Christianity a very common way of interpreting scripture. This was not a new phenomenon, either; Jewish interpretation has four categories, of which such allegorisation is merely the second (Remez), there is also Sod, which is an even deeper esoteric or mystical reading…

[In fact, the emanationist view of creation which forms the basis of the Gnostic’s concept of the Demiurge is one which is central to a lot of Jewish mystical writing, particularly Kabbalah. It seems possible that, in trying to eliminate “Gnostics”, the early church fathers also turned their backs on a huge part of the Jewish mystical tradition (which, I’d argue, makes much of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures unintelligible or at least impoverished as well…)]

I also know of no modern interpreters who do not bring something more to their interpretations of scripture – indeed, the very act of interpreting scripture argues that the meaning is NOT transparent on the face of the words as they appear on the page. Every theologian is, in this sense, a kind of gnostic… and, indeed, almost all of us interpret the Prodigal at least somewhat allegorically – we see the father in the story as being God, for instance.

So, I wonder, should I be suggesting that Stover is a Gnostic? Well, I suppose yes, in that very general sense of seeing something more behind the words. Yes, in the sense that she is treating the fundamentalist God-concept which she criticises as being a real supernatural entity, a false claimant to the title “God”. The thing is, despite the way she words the piece, I don’t for a moment think that she believes that God-concept to be a real entity, or that it is an emanation from the True God, a kind of intermediary claiming to be its source. I’m confident she attacks it as an inadequate interpretation of scripture – and that might be considered an anti-gnostic tendency.

However, I am not blind to the fact that I am now reinterpreting what she actually wrote – and that might itself be regarded as gnostic. Nor am I unaware that an interpretation might be regarded as an emanation from an original text – and that is gnostic again…

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