The First Church of Christian Gnosticism
Many Christians believe and teach a form of factual neutrality where some subjects, for example, science, geography, politics, mathematics, can and should be taught without any regard to religion since “facts speak for themselves.” This is most evident in education where a self-conscious sacred-secular divide is maintained and supported by Christians. Ninety percent of Christian parents send their children to government schools. Since these parents believe that math is math and history is history, the religious stuff can be made up at church.
One hour of Sunday school and an hour at Youth Meeting each week and maybe a mission trip in the summer can’t make up for five days a week, six hours each day, 10 months of the year, 12+ years of a government-developed curriculum that is humanistic to the core. The humanists understand the importance of education in creating worldview shifts and control, so why don’t Christians? Charles Francis Potter, who founded the First Humanist Society of New York in 1929 and signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, made no secret of the purpose of the American public schools:
Education is thus a most powerful ally of Humanism, and every American public school is a school of Humanism What can the theistic Sunday-school, meeting for an hour once a week, and teaching only a fraction of the children, do to stem the tide of a five-day program of humanistic teaching?1\
R. J. Rushdoony pointed out the Humanist design for education in his books Intellectual Schizophrenia (1961) and The Messianic Character of American Education (1963). According to Rushdoony, modern government education “is erosive and destructive of all culture except the monolithic state, which is then the ostensible creator and patron of culture. When it speaks of the whole child, it speaks of a passive creature who is to be molded by the statist education for the concept of the good life radically divorced from God and from transcendental standards.”2 Rushdoony was not the first to understand the goal of statist education. Robert L. Dabney (1820–1898) saw it more than 100 years ago:
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[T]he Jeffersonian doctrine of the absolute severance and independence of church and state, of the entire secularity of the State, and the absolutely equal rights, before the law, of religious truth and error, of paganism, atheism, and Christianity, has also established itself in all the States; and still the politicians, for electioneering ends, propagate this State education everywhere. By this curious circuit “Christian America” has gotten herself upon this thoroughly pagan ground; forcing the education of responsible, moral, and immortal beings, of which religion must ever be the essence, into the hands of a gigantic human agency, which resolves that it cannot and will not be religious at all. Surely, some great religious body will arise in America to lift its Christian protest against this monstrous result!3
What would America be like today if the Church of Jesus Christ had heeded Dabney’s warnings and some “great religious body” had arisen to make the break from an educational system that was designed to be the indoctrination center for the State and its messianic motives? The usual Christian response is to reform the public schools, to get more parents involved, sue to get a moment of silence, prayers at sporting events and commencement exercises, release programs, and legislation to teach the Bible as literature as they’ve done in some states.4 There will be pressure groups in some cities to teach the Koran. Then there’s the question of how the Bible will be taught. Will the Old Testament be taught as myth? For example, NBC News anchor Chuck Todd has said that “Trump voters ‘want to be lied to’ since they believe in ‘fairy tales’ — like Noah’s Ark.”
Will someone teaching on the Olivet Discourse point out that Jesus was mistaken about His coming?
Some years ago, I received an email from a woman who asked me if I could direct her to some information that refutes Gnosticism. She wrote that a friend of hers “claims to be on an extraordinarily intense spiritual ‘pilgrimage’ of ‘really pressing in to know God intimately’—but this guy has in effect divorced himself from the material world and from all relationships (including his wife and 10 children) which he views as a hindrance to his spiritual growth.”
Gnostics claim to have special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge”) on how to live the Christian life that is not revealed to “ordinary Christians.” God’s revelation in Scripture is not good enough or sufficient to give direction on how to live the Christian life. Of course, this refutes what the Bible says when it states that Scripture is “adequate” and equips the Christian “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). She went on to say that this friend, a farmer, “was putting up hay recently and needed to get it in as they were expecting rain. Before he finished, he remembered that he had scheduled a Bible study, so he left his hay in order to keep the ‘spiritual’ duty. The rain came and the hay was lost, but he felt justified that he had chosen the higher calling.”
Another feature of Gnosticism is the belief that there are two separate realms—“one spiritual, the other material. The spiritual realm, created by God, [is] all good; the material realm, created by the demiurge, all evil. Man [needs] to be saved, not from Original Sin, but from enslavement to matter.”5
A further expression of Gnosticism was expressed by someone who “doesn’t believe in voting because that is a ‘worldly affair,’ and he wants only to be engaged in truly spiritual activities.” For the Gnostic, the material world is on a lower plane. Only “spiritual things” are useful and profitable. A Gnostic-like belief might forbid marriage while advocating “abstaining from foods” even though “God has created these things “to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3). Godliness for the Gnostic is defined as a retreat from the world and despising the things of the world.
[The Gnostics] devised a dualistic cosmology to set against the teachings of the early Christian Church, which, they claimed, were only common deceptions, unsuited for the wise. The truth was esoteric. Only the properly initiated could appreciate it. It belonged to a secret tradition which had come down through certain mystery schools. The truth was, God could never become man. The Gnostic secret is that the spirit is trapped in matter, and to free it, the world must be rejected.6
For the Gnostic, life “must be escaped at any cost.”7 But if there can be no immediate material escape, then a spiritual escape is a good enough substitute. The Gnostic escapes from the responsibilities of history. But for the Christian, history is the realm of decision making, and, therefore, is anti-Gnostic. If we are not responsible for history, then we are not responsible for decision making. Even a casual reading of the Bible will show that our faith is to be lived out in the world so that “fruit”– good works — is manifested for the world to see and for Christians to judge (Matt. 7:15–23). No restrictions are placed on where this fruit is to mature.
One of the central issues that divided gnostics and orthodox Christians in the early Church was their understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. The Church Fathers accepted the political worldliness of the Jewish faith, contending that religion and politics are interconnected and inseparable. The early Puritans and even Jonathan Edwards, following classical Calvinism, would have been clearly orthodox in this regard. The world of politics, of human institutions, was for them an essential locus of God’s redemptive work.8
What is contemporary Gnosticism like? While it might not manifest itself in ascetic practices like pole-sitting, it does reveal itself in an institutional escape. Institutional escape is not in the Protestant tradition, however. Our nation’s earliest Christian citizens did not view escape, eschatologically, ascetically, or institutionally, as being biblical. Education, publishing, law, science, medicine, and politics, to take just some worldview areas, were to be governed by the Word of God as were ecclesiastical affairs. Modern-day Gnosticism thrives in a climate of escapism which means a retreat from this world and responsibility to do anything to change any part of it. If this world means nothing, then I am not responsible for its evils.
- Charles Francis Potter, Humanism: A New Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1930), 128. Quoted in David A. Noebel, J.F. Baldwin, and Kevin Bywater, Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1995), vi. [↩]
- R. J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis and Education (Vellecito, CA: Ross House Books,  1998), 10. [↩]
- Robert L. Dabney, Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney: Secular, ed. C. R. Vaughan, 4 vols. (Harrisonburg, Virginia, Sprinkle Publications,1994), 4:548. [↩]
- David Van Biema, “The Case for teaching the Bible,” Time (March 22, 2007). [↩]
- Dusty Sklar, The Nazis and the Occult (New York: Dorset Press,  1989), 140–141. [↩]
- Sklar, The Nazis and the Occult, 147. [↩]
- Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 122. [↩]
- Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, 123–124. [↩]