Gnostic Heresy – Alive and Well

In my Personal Manifesto of a Christian Naturist, point #19, I stated that, “I believe dualism and Gnostic heresies have crept back into the church and most are unaware of it.” As I wrote the little “manifesto” piece, I remember wanting to throw ideas out there that would cause people to go deeper and explore further rationales. A couple of people have asked for an expansion on what I meant by gnostic heresies. This article is my attempt to answer their questions.

I must admit, I am no expert or scholar when it comes to understanding Gnosticism beyond what one can find in commentaries and reference books. Before embracing naturism, I was one of those church leaders who assumed these wrong ideas had been dealt with by the early church fathers. David L. Hatton and others turned me on to the idea that the heresies had “crept back into the church.” It didn’t take me long to subscribe to that notion and realize that I too had been unknowingly complicit in perpetuating Gnostic heresy myself for many years!

So what does it mean? That is the question! The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Gnostics taught that there was a mysterious or special knowledge reserved for those with true or awakened understanding which could save one’s soul. They accepted the Greek idea of a radical dualism between God (spirit) and the world (matter). For our purposes, the Gnostic application would be spirit=good; body=bad. The goal is to free the spirit from it’s embodied prison.

The ethical behavior among the early proponents of this false doctrine varied immensely. On the one hand, you have those that avoid all “evil” matter in order to be seperate and avoid contamination. This even led to ascetic practice and literally beating their bodies into submission. The other end of the spectrum was a sort of libertinism and freedom to participate in any and all indulgences. Since they believed to possess insight regarding their divine nature, it didn’t matter how they lived. Obviously, both of these extremes exhibit grossly flawed thinking.

Both Paul and John countered these heretical teachings (Col. 2:8-23; 1 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; Titus 1:10-16; 1, 2, 3 John). Jesus in Revelation 2, had strong words opposing the Nicolaitans, who many believe to be a Gnostic sect. True to the definition of the word “heresy,” this teaching caused division in the church fellowship. Gnostic texts in the Apocrypha are not recognized as Scripture and were refuted by early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Hippolytus, Refutations of All Heresies; Epiphanius, Panarion; and Tertullian, Against Marcion.

Chad W. Thompson in the very first chapter of his book, That Famous Fig Leaf, points out the ways Gnosticism led to some interesting conclusions within the church, infecting it with a negative view of sexuality. A church father, Origen, reputedly castrated himself believing both his body and sexuality to be his enemy. Clement of Alexandria taught that Christ didn’t even have a physical body.

After giving a few more examples, Thompson describes an evil and surprising result:

The Gnostics also devalued women, as it was their bodies that tempted men to sin. Ninth-century church father Theodore of Studius forbade monks from having even female animals, insisting that by becoming monks, they had “renounced the female sex altogether . . .” In the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII wrote, “The church cannot escape from the clutches of laity unless priests first escape the clutches of their wives.” Pope Urban II, a contemporary of Pope Gregory, ordered any priest who violated celibacy to be thrown into prison, and his wife and children sold into slavery. To Augustine, one of the most influential extra-biblical writers in Christian history, the body “presseth down the soul.” Augustine became the bishop of Hippo, and believed the penis was evil, semen was cursed, and intercourse was infected by sin even in the context of marriage.

While these ideas seem outlandish today, the dangerous doctrine of Gnostic dualism is still alive and well.

Again, Hatton mentions this throughout most of his writings. I will pull several quotes from this 20 page article on his website. He does not mince words when he confesses the following:

Our scrupulous loyalty to a prudish view of the body wasn’t just poor theology. It was an unwitting—perhaps sometimes even an idolatrous—cultural investment in heretical error.

We’ve been trained by the body taboo of church tradition to guard our speech. But no redemptive good news about our sexual nature ever came from the body shame language formulated by that taboo. Within evangelical hymnody, homily, and humor there is a subtle array of Gnostic attitudes toward the material world in general and toward the human body in particular. We often claim biblical ground for trivializing “this world” as “not our home” and for preaching a Greek dualism that neglects the importance of the body and its inherent sexual character. Pulpits are parodied for skimming over sexual issues with evasive wittiness. Expected laughter from the pew confirms the stereotype. Absence of a substantial and thorough evangelical theology of sexuality—or even a sound theology of our physical embodiment—is telltale evidence that this caricature of our uneasiness with sex is real. But this comical avoidance, and the attitude it betrays, is no joking matter in our present social climate. It’s an inexcusable offense that has surely offended our Creator for a long time. Immersed in this prudish mindset, past Bible teachers, if not lulled into Gnostic thinking themselves, have showed little concern for a creational view of the material world or for an incarnational view of the human body. The legacy of this doctrinal deficit sets an agenda for remedial theological work, starting with a godly, pure-minded attitude toward the body and its sexual physiology. Only divine truth about our sexual embodiment can drive out the false spirit of Gnostic prudery and body shame. 

His reference to divine truth is not one that is concealed for those lucky enough to have the secret insight. No, that would sound just like the Gnosticism we are siding against! He’s advocating for the simple truth revealed in God’s word and in the Edenistic ideal. He’s pleading for Christians to look beyond our culturally biased perceptions, and see humanity as God sees us.

Hatton does not trace the origin of this heresy back to the early church, but much earlier, as early as you could go… way back to Genesis and the creation story:

Three relationships simultaneously fell apart when Adam and Eve ignored God’s direct, personal guidance by imbibing that fruit: separation from God, discord with each other, and estrangement from their own bodies. Evangelical teaching on the restorative dimensions of Christ’s redemption focus almost exclusively on those first two categories. We basically ignore the third. But of the three, Adam and Eve’s bodily alienation was recorded as the first and immediate result of their gnosis-based independence in morally determining what was “good and evil.”

So this is not a new problem. It’s been around forever. It rears its ugly head and causes havoc upon all of humanity in its wake. All the ills of society, when you boil them down, are an affront to the image of God (imago dei) stamped both on our bodies and our souls. To ignore the issues of the body, is to surrender this part of ourselves to Satan’s plan and away from God’s design. So we reap what we sow, and living within the world’s system in a hyper-sex crazed culture (again, nothing new), we are forced to try to either frantically avoid all that is deemed as evil or succomb to it’s powerful allure.

Legalism or libertinism ensue. Angelism or animalism become the only apparent choices, neither one being the healthy alternative of a godly view of incarnational truth.

What’s the answer then? If this kind of thinking is so ingrained in us, how can we ever expect for the majority of Christians to experience an improved perspective? There simply are no easy answers. This view of the intertwining of body and soul is not a hidden truth. It’s been there all along! The serpent attacked the first moment he could, and he hit hard. Naturists don’t have secret knowledge. They are simply as body-friendly as God intended us to be. It’s not difficult when you accept the truth, it’s just agonizingly hard for many to see because we are blinded and conditioned by both society and by church teaching through man’s traditions.

You can read the whole of Hatton’s argument here, but I’ll close this article with this quote:

Having their sacred idol of a cultural body taboo prophetically smashed may be the need of some Christians. But the bulk of the church must be led gently, gradually. Habits of chewing legalistic fruit from “the ‘gnosis’ of good and evil” which perpetuates body shame are deep-seated. An iconoclasm of Gnostic attitudes must begin theologically and progress pastorally. What we must not do is to try preserving the status quo in a peaceful religious ghetto. God expects us to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  We must work toward banishing Gnostic ideas from the Christian church, along with Gnostic porno-prudery. Both have clearly dishonored our Creator. Both have utterly failed to bring godly change to our sex-obsessed, sexually aberrant culture.

May we do our part to tactfully buck the system that has failed the world practically from the start. May we be advocates for a healthier and holier view of both body and soul.

4 thoughts on “Gnostic Heresy – Alive and Well

  1. John

    Excellent article! It reminds me of how incorrectly I had interpreted Paul’s thesis of “why do I do” in Romans 7. In it, he ends in verse 24 with “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”. For many years I perceived my body as the problem just like the gnostics did. But the real problem is in verse 23 when Paul addresses “the law of my mind”.
    I’m currently reading David Hatton’s book, “Who Said You Were Naked”. He brings this issue to light with great clarity.
    Thanks again for another informative article.

    Liked by 2 people

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