The Dusty Web of Gnosticism
[Below is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the Fall 2004 edition of Vineline: Connecting the Vineyard Churches in Canada, a now-defunct publication. I remain indebted to Dr. Derek Morphew for the instruction I received during my time learning via the Vineyard Bible Institute.]
Though it's been many years, I can still remember as a young Christian moving into our "new" church building (really an old building) in Austin, Texas. The formidable task before us was to clean it up and make it hospitable for our little Pentecostal church family and any prospective converts we could somehow persuade to visit. We had to build new walls, replace an old toilet, add a fresh coat of paint all around, and put up a new sign announcing our arrival. But before doing any of that, we had to clean up the place. A thick layer of dust covered not only the floor, but various papers, folders, coat hangers, soda cans, candy wrappers – and in every corner of the building, cobwebs. Those always caught my attention. I would see one of these long abandoned dusty spider webs, and wonder: Whatever happened to the spider?
A somewhat similar question faces believers in the church today. Throughout even vibrant assemblies of sincere evangelical believers, some strange and very old doctrines are strung about the fringes and corners of the church. Who came up with these beliefs? Are they biblically valid? In an enlightening VBI course, The Spiritual Spider Web, Derek Morphew has grappled with these questions. The following is a brief overview of Dr. Morphew's comprehensive teaching on Gnosticism, and why it should be of concern for believers today. After taking a closer look at the web, we may well conclude that the time has come for some theological "spring cleaning" in our own churches.
Defining and Recognizing Gnosticism
The term "Gnosticism" draws from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. Common to the many expressions of Gnosticism is a core belief in the spiritual significance of knowledge. This is knowledge of a distinctly metaphysical nature. Like its ancient counterpart, the neo-Gnosticism that lingers on in the church today is really a collection of many belief systems, from a variety of cultures and metaphysical disciplines, traceable to the New Testament period and before. One of the more distinctive characteristics of Gnosticism – a pronounced dualism of mind and body, physical and spiritual - was developed by Plato four centuries before Christ.
In addition to the basic ideas of dualism and salvation based on knowledge are some other decidedly non-Christian philosophical and theological assumptions: An elitist, self-centered view of man, a "spiritual" or anti-incarnational view of Christ, an assumed spiritual hierarchy of believers, and a general super spirituality that (ironically) tends to breed immorality. The "spiders" who first weaved this web in the church in the first and especially into the second century, influential Gnostic teachers such as Simon Magus ("the sorcerer," Acts 8), Marcion and Valentinius, are long gone. Their influence unfortunately remains.
Though all this philosophical "mumbo jumbo" may seem quite removed from traditional evangelical theology, the fact is that Gnostic teachings have trickled down through the ages of church history all the way to the present day. The often well-meaning believers captivated by these ancient doctrines rarely, if ever, come right out and say "I am a Gnostic." Indeed, they themselves are probably unaware of exactly how they came to embrace such beliefs. Because the "spider web" of Gnosticism by its very eclectic nature defies easy definitions, it is able to thrive in churches otherwise identifiable as solidly evangelical. Still, there are some signs that indicate a church community may be infected with neo-Gnostic influences. These include "super-spiritual" brethren who seem to always have a word from the Lord for everyone else; an emphasis on "special insights" reaching far beyond a justifiable reading of Scripture; a tendency to rank believers according to their spiritual gifts or office; and a seriousness about all this that seems to reject genuine humility as much as it does "the flesh."
Gnosticism in Scripture
For many of us, the preceding description of Gnosticism may call to mind certain Scriptures. I recall first reading the "Spiritual Spider Web" material and coming away impressed with how well it explained the substance of many New Testament epistles. Although Gnosticism didn't become a fully recognizable system until the second century, it remains clear that Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for example, is loaded with references to emerging Gnostic ideas. Not only did a large faction of the Corinthian church promote the notion of superior wisdom, but they openly fawned over various apostles as superior beings (a habit that caused much division in the Corinth assembly). Paul laments further that they had endorsed "spiritual" truth to the extent that they were indifferent to bodily sins like fornication, and even denied the reality or importance of the physical resurrection of Christ. Read in this light, 1 Corinthians becomes a powerful apostolic commentary on Gnosticism – "that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:5).
Similar arguments appear in the letter to the Colossians. Paul here specifically affirms that Christ himself is the creator of the universe of physical matter, and that in him the "fullness" of God dwells bodily (Col. 1:15-19; 2:9. Pleroma, or "fullness," was a favorite term of the Gnostics to describe the sum total of deities emanating in succession from the Ultimate or Supreme Deity). This appears to be an example of Paul, in Morphew's words, "out-Gnosticizing the Gnostics." He's beating them with their own language and assumptions. Paul's basic nuts-and-bolts theology was evidently a necessary corrective to the elaborate Colossian heresy, an empty yet super-spiritual "philosophy of men" that led to false humility, bogus visions and exaggerated experiences, and an extreme form of self-denial that somehow always managed to find an audience. Paul's pastoral letters likewise exhibit a certain anti-Gnostic apologetic character.
John's writings are no less firm in their rejection of Gnostic assumptions. The prologue to John's Gospel declares plainly that "the Word became flesh." That is, the highest form of spiritual truth became physically embodied in a flesh-and-blood person. In 1 John the Apostle explicitly defines a belief in the Incarnation (historical reality and physical humanity) of Jesus Christ as the litmus test of the faith, and conversely, denial of Incarnation as the hallmark of the spirit of Antichrist (1 John 4:2,3). John furthermore consistently defines spiritual "knowledge" – a concept most coveted by the esoteric Gnostic intellect – in terms a practical, active, obedient relationship with God available to all men. In John's thinking, to know Christ is to know the truth (John 8:31, 32). Much the same could be said of other New Testament writings, notably 2 Peter and Jude.
Contemporary Gnostic Manifestations
Of course, all this would amount to little more than a curious lesson in Near Eastern history, except for the fact that Gnostic teachings still bear much influence in the church today. Morphew points out that, whereas the Pentecostal movement has a wide and varied membership, so that it would be irresponsible to describe it as Gnostic per se, nonetheless "certain traditions and emphases within Pentecostalism have definite links with Gnosticism." From the more overt Pentecostal deviations – such as the Branhamites, the Church of the Living Word, or the Way International – to more scripturally grounded renewal movements, the danger among Pentecostals and Charismatics is always to overemphasize or redefine the role of the spiritual.
One of the salient features of Pentecostalism, for example, is an emphasis on spiritual gifts, which taken to an extreme results in the chaotic carnality first manifested in the Corinthian church and later embraced by heretics like Montanus. A Gnostic-like dualism of "flesh" and "spirit" is often used by Pentecostals as a standard by which to divide all of life into worldly and spiritual activities, hobbies, churches, ministries, songs, books, and even modes of dress. This sort of practical dualism tends to eventually spill over into personal "spiritual" versions of morality. Even pastors and evangelists with evident giftings may come to see no real problem with adultery or other sins committed "only" in the body.
If and when this focus on the "spiritual' becomes entrenched enough, Scripture can become marginalized. As Bill Jackson has written (in the process of "setting the Vineyard in context"): "Movements that have embraced the ministry of the Holy Spirit through spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing have often been relegated to the fringes of orthodoxy because they neglected the Word." In the late E.W. Kenyon, Morphew has provided one example of a contemporary teacher seemingly taken in by Gnostic thought at the expense of sound doctrine. Kenyon greatly influenced such popular "Word-Faith" personalities as Kenneth Hagin and Hagin's disciple, Kenneth Copeland.
I remember a few years ago skimming through some of Kenyon's works in a friend's library and thinking something was wrong with his theology, though it seemed highly structured and accompanied by plenty of biblical references. Morphew has helped explain the roots of the confusion. While presenting much commendable evangelical preaching material, Kenyon also holds to an ontological rather than relational understanding of salvation. In other words, a person is saved only by actually sharing in the very essence of God. For Kenyon and his many elitist followers, to "partake of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4), is to literally become deified, or at the least semi-deified.
Other indications of Kenyon's distorted doctrine include a distinctively Platonic dualism, in which all knowledge is either spiritual ("revelation-knowledge") or carnal ("sense-knowledge"); a personal canon of Scripture remarkably similar to that of the second century Gnostic Marcion, which deems Paul's writings spiritually superior; and a view of Christ himself as a strictly "spiritual" redeemer whose work of salvation therefore took place in the spiritual abode of hell, rather than at the cross. This last tenet of Kenyonism is a serious error because it strikes at the very heart of the Christian message of salvation.
Much more could be said, and for those interested I strongly recommend the course itself. However, let it at least be said that the purpose of Morphew's study is not to simply engage in some happy "heresy hunting." The contemporary church is divided enough as it is without our help. Rather, there resides in the examination and repudiation of false doctrine a higher calling, to identify and illuminate the truth. Theological refinement is a practice that serves church and individual alike. From this practical perspective The Spiritual Spider Web is not merely a critical academic exercise, but a means to further inform our own beliefs – those articles of faith that ultimately determine our behavior, the quality of our relationship with Jesus Christ, and the effectiveness of our witness.
Like all erroneous teachings, neo-Gnosticism leads us to ask questions that typically lead us to reasonable answers. Dualism, for example, may seem sound at a glance, but further examination reveals that the biblical view of reality is inextricably holistic. There are no sharp divisions between body and soul, flesh and spirit. Those terms represent various concepts according to specific contexts, and should not be taken as descriptions of watertight categories of being. Sins may be committed in the mind as well as the body – in many cases both – while the body is the temple of the Spirit, to be respected precisely for that reason. The bread and wine we partake of in the communion sacrament is a reminder of Christ's body and blood, physical elements of his essentially spiritual sacrifice on our behalf. We discover then that sanctification involves the whole man, "spirit, soul and body" (1 Thess. 5:23).
This discovery process reveals the value of apologetic theology. Jesus, Paul and Peter all warned of false prophets arising in our very midst and bringing destructive heresies with them. Apologetics therefore builds valuable defenses for the church against its own self-destruction. Unless consciously recognized and removed, the small seeds of Gnosticism may grow to bear much bad fruit even in our own congregations. In the meantime, as we learn, we are encouraged by Scripture not to revel in the false knowledge of the spiritual elite, but "to grow in the true knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).
 Morphew, Derek, The Spiritual Spider Web: A Study of Ancient and Contemporary Gnosticism (Vineyard Bible Institute, 2000).
 Jackson, Bill, The Quest for the Radical Middle: A History of the Vineyard (Vineyard Press International, 1999).