Today I got an email from someone that left no return address. It was about gnosticism, a deviation from early Christianity that is enjoying a bit of a revival today, but not in its original form. (Click the link to read more about gnosticism in a new window.) Gnosticism molded itself to the intellectual/spiritual atmosphere of the Roman empire, and it has molded itself to the same atmosphere in America today.
As a result, those who are trying to revive gnosticism pass themselves off as enlightened and open-minded.
But they’re not enlightened or open-minded. They’re just wrong.
There are some things that are just true. History is not what you make it to be. History is what it is, and you are either learning it accurately or you’re fooling yourself.
This person wrote me and said:
If you base your information about gnosticism from a book by a person who called them heretics your information is going to be wrong.
Is that true?
That sounds plausible, maybe even apparently true, but on what basis should it be true? If I learn about a religion, and I decide that religion is wrong, then that means everything I learned about it is false? How is that logical?
When I was a young Christian, I loved reading “cult” books. I especially like Walter Martin, and he especially liked to take apart Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine. He most definitely called them heretics.
As a result, I heard Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom I talked to somewhat regularly, warn me that Walter Martin’s portrayal of them was inaccurate.
But you know what I found? The more I talked to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the more I saw that Walter Martin was right on the money about them. He had done his homework. Everything he told me panned out.
Now, it’s true that his speech was inflammatory. It’s true that he put emphasis on the more embarrassing things, while both groups tended to avoid talking about those things.
That’s normal, but it doesn’t make what he said inaccurate.
Most of what I learned about gnosticism was learned from Irenaeus’ very long book, Against Heresies, written around A.D. 185. I’ve read it twice, and I’ve referred to it often, so I’m very familiar with it.
Later, though, I got my hands on copies of gnostic writings. (Well, not my hands actually because I found them all on the internet.) The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and The Apocryphon of John are a couple I read.
Those both jived completely with what Irenaeus said about gnosticism. And although Irenaeus spent most of his time on the Valentinians, the group with which he was most familiar, he was careful to say that gnostic teachers were always inventing new doctrines, so what he was saying wouldn’t apply in every detail to all gnostic groups.
Every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability, for no one is deemed "perfect," who does not develop among them some mighty fictions. (Against Heresies I:18:1)
The point is to find out what is true. I took the time to verify that what Irenaeus said is true.
The real point in writing him off as a heretic hunter is to avoid what’s true. The person who wrote me accuses me of being wrong because I lean on Irenaeus, but my concern is truth, so I have done the work to have a solid basis for what I say. Supporters of gnosticism write Irenaeus off because they don’t like what he says, not because they’ve taken the time to determine whether it’s accurate.
When it comes to history and religion, what’s true remains true no matter what you wish were true.