My brother’s last move in our game of “Gnostic Chess” was a lengthy and well-reasoned attempt to undercut my original claim that the Evangelical Church (broadly construed) is influenced (implicitly) by Gnostic ideas. Jim attempts to ground the discussion historically and to bring clarity to our understanding of “Gnosticism,” both beneficial and informative moves.

However, my brother’s characterization of my position is faulty from the outset. In short, he insists on attacking a position I do not hold. He writes: Christians ought to believe in the resurrection of the body. But does failing to believe in the “literal” bodily resurrection–or to understand the subtleties, semantics, and implications of Tertullian’s position–make them Gnostics? The argument fails on lack of evidence and oversimplification.

My original wording was this: “The Gnosticizing of the Christian Church needs to end, and quickly. The body is at the center of Christian theology (see Paul) and the evangelical Church has forgotten it.” The language here is crucial: the statement implies that the evangelical Church has adopted (implicitly) attitudes and ideas that are more suited to Gnosticism than Christianity, and nothing more. This does not entail that my students are Gnostics.

What bearing does this clarification have? I am criticized for having an “oversimplified” view of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, as my brother points out, resists being reduced to one or two central tenets. Fundamentally Gnosticism centers around the body. To quote Wikipedia, Christ was then sent to earth in the form of the man Jesus to give men the gnosis needed to rescue themselves from the physical world and return to spiritual world. It is this impetus to escape matter or even to disregard it that produces the sort of lifestyle Wikipedia explicates: Christ was then sent to earth in the form of the man Jesus to give men the gnosis needed to rescue themselves from the physical world and return to spiritual world. My argument is that my students share this desire to escape physicality by treating heaven as “spiritual.” Notice the claim does not hinge on actual definitions or practices of Gnosticism–rather, it hinges on the Gnostic attitude toward the body. The branches of the Gnostic tree are united by their disdain of all things physical, and it is this disdain that seems to have crept into the evangelical church. Subsequently, the argument that I have “oversimplified” things is not relevant to my position.

As for your list of worship styles that are themselves corporeal, I agree that these are inherently corporeal. However, “kneeling” is not a widespread practice in the evangelical Church and the importance of it is almost NEVER given theoretical grounding. When people are not given the right reasons for a practice, there is a danger (perhaps even a tendency) to adopt the wrong ones. The lack of theological education by the evangelical Church has made its members more prone to adopt anti-Christian attitudes.

At any rate, you asked for specific ways in which the resurrection of the body would matter to a Christian. Let me clarify what I think about worship: if the physical body is given its appropriate position in Christian theology, then a form of worship will develop that will be overtly and intentionally corporeal. Hence the traditional liturgical approaches to worship. If not given prominence, then “corporeality” will be incidental to the worship (i.e. there because it can’t be escaped) and will not form the context or basis of worship. This is the charge against the evangelical Church. Again, attitudes, attitudes, attitudes. The Christian difference toward the body is one of attitude.

Finally, to the charge that my argument suffers from a “hasty generalization,” I answer thus: it is surely a generalization but is most definitely not hasty. The immediate cause of my musings was my experience of my 16 students. The fact that NONE of them took the body seriously surprised me, but perhaps it probably shouldn’t have. I’m not sure what sort of empirical evidence I could marshall for this claim, for as I’ve stated, the practices of Christianity will not be limited to Christianity. I don’t see how empirical evidence could prove the case one way or another. Of the twofold practices of “Gnosticism”–asceticism and disregard–the evangelical Church has clearly adopted the latter. My students had never thought about the role of the body in the spiritual life. For evangelicals, the body (and sex and Creation) are irritants that we’ll be free of once we reach “heaven.”

One final piece of evidence, though: if the corporeal world is to be redeemed, then the corporeal world matters and may provide some sort of knowledge of the next life. Grace doesn’t destroy nature–it perfects it. This seems grounds for also placing a high value on aesthetics–physical beauty can help us acclimatize ourselves to heaven, and subsequently has a place in worship. This aesthetic approach to spirituality (again, not limited to Christianity!) is itself inherently physical. Beauty is a pleasure of the eyes. I take as further evidence of the Gnosticizing of the evangelical church their disavowal of all things aesthetic, especially in their worship. Iconoclasm and anti-physicalism go hand-in-hand. See Calvin (who is just a tad disparaging toward the physical body) for an instance of these tendencies.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

8 Comments

  1. “I take as further evidence of the Gnosticizing of the evangelical church their disavowal of all things aesthetic, especially in their worship. Iconoclasm and anti-physicalism go hand-in-hand. See Calvin (who is just a tad disparaging toward the physical body) for an instance of these tendencies.”Matt, it’s these blanket statements that I just can’t figure out. You’ve been in churches–you know that even in the blandest Baptist building there’s an organ, and a great big cross behind the pulpit, and Smiling Jesus paintings, and neat red carpets. Maybe they’re crappily aesthetic–but then, I’ve never been a big fan of stain-glass windows or Romanesque arches; De gustibus. The first churches met in houses and synagogues, hardly the magisterial cathedrals you seem to be suggesting as the requirement for aesthetically-informed worship. Am I reading you wrong?

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  2. “Matt, it’s these blanket statements that I just can’t figure out. You’ve been in churches–you know that even in the blandest Baptist building there’s an organ, and a great big cross behind the pulpit, and Smiling Jesus paintings, and neat red carpets. Maybe they’re crappily aesthetic–but then, I’ve never been a big fan of stain-glass windows or Romanesque arches; De gustibus. The first churches met in houses and synagogues, hardly the magisterial cathedrals you seem to be suggesting as the requirement for aesthetically-informed worship. Am I reading you wrong?”

    Again, it’s the problem of attitude. Aesthetics are begrudgingly accepted, but only because we (like it or not) intuitively think there is something wrong with bare walls. The same iconoclasm of the Reformation (particularly the Calvinist movement) has been tempered in evangelicalism. Find an evangelical willing to spend money on their church building because they think it will help them worship. I think you’ll be hard pressed to.

    One clarification that might help: my point was that there are physical aids to worship and aesthetics has been considered one of these. Find an evangelical who uses the bad picture of Jesus to help him worship. The broad majority would consider that idolatry.

    Secondly, the early church (bless them!) also met under threat of death by Rome. As soon as they were able to decorate their walls, they did. It started, if I remember correctly, around 300 or so.

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  3. I love Gnostic Chess. I just hate the pieces.

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  4. You seem to restrict your definition of worship aids to the visual (iconography) and the directly physical (kneeling, which is never mentioned, as far as I know, as a tool of worship in the N.T., but I’m willing to be corrected on this)–but you’re missing the “lifting of holy hands” and the whole spectrum of music. Ask any evangelical if music “helps them worship,” and I’ll bet $5 (I’m a teacher, too) that they’ll say “absolutely.” Watch a Southern Baptist service and tell me that they’re not “corporeal” as they shout and “dance before the Lord.”

    It seems that you want to pin down the charge on the evangelical church in the broadest terms, which means resisting every counterexample in the defense of your theory, and ignoring the complexity within the various evangelical sects. Furthermore, your major argument is “attitude,” which, unfortunately, is mysterious unless you a) talk to people and b) assume that what they tell you is what’s “really” going on in their heads. Maybe George Barna’s done some research to that effect?

    At any rate, I have a research project for you: clarify your terms, go out and make the survey about worship attitudes and the creeping Gnosticism in American evangelicalism (and, as a counter hypothesis, that it’s more about the rise of scientific materialism, the infusion of Eastern philosophy, or just anti-intellectualism in general, or some other combo platter). Write a doctoral thesis, and get that PhD it’s time you started.

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  5. 1) I’m not sure any forms of worship are directly mentioned in the NT outside of singing.
    2) Ask any evangelical who thinks “lifting holy hands” why he does it. I’ll give you the same $5 if his answer has anything to do with the role of the body in the spiritual life. Again, acting with the body does not entail acting for the sake of redeeming the body.
    3) Yes, my argument does rely on talking to people and yes, it does assume that they tell us what is “really” going on in their heads. Should I assume otherwise? Perhaps I (or YOU!) should tell them what is going on in their heads. Wouldn’t THAT be fun! If Barna’s done research, I haven’t seen it, but would be interested in it.
    4) You haven’t posed a counter-example that would falsify the thesis. I take it that generalizations are useful as a tool of cultural analysis, and subsequently grant that I have glossed over complexities within evangelical denominations. Why? Because I teach 60 students from various denominations and have talked to numerous other Biola students who are also from various denominations. If there are differences, they don’t manifest themselves on this issue.
    5) Condescending tone aside, you’ll notice that I never identified the cause of this Gnosticizing. In fact, the conversation wasn’t over “What problem plagues the evangelical Church” (which your “counter-hypotheses seem to answer) but “Does the evangelical church have Gnostic attitudes or tendencies? I could accept any of your “counter-hypotheses” as causes for the phenomenon I have argued exists.

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  6. 3) Yes, my argument does rely on talking to people and yes, it does assume that they tell us what is “really” going on in their heads. Should I assume otherwise?No, I’m not giving some sort of radically skeptic critique of self-knowledge. Think about research methodology–people often give surveyors the answer they think is expected, or don’t know how to properly answer badly-worded questions, or give answers that are biased by biased questions. It’s not about “lying” or that people don’t know what’s going on in their heads.

    Sure, generalizations are useful–in their proper context. But until you break down the demographics, determine all the intervening variables, and take all the data into equal consideration, you’re going to fall prey to confirmation bias. You have to first establish that 1. your 60 are a representative sample and 2. you asked them the right questions and they gave true answers. Addressing #1, your group is much younger than the average church group–and perhaps their attitudes will change over time as they mature both mentally and spiritually (in research, this problem is called, appropriately, “maturation”).

    I’m coming to better understand your view, now, as far as the difference between the ends (Gnostic attitudes) and the means. But throwing a 1st-century word into the discussion might obscure more than it clarifies–especially since there are two entirely contradictory results of basic Gnostic beliefs about the body.

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  7. Here is an example of the complexities in religious beliefs among Protestant ministers (perhaps a more representative group). Note, unsurprisingly, that Barna’s questions don’t touch on the “corporeality” issue at all. I’d be curious to see this sort of poll run again, with different questions.

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  8. […] I have sometimes argued that the evangelical church is afflicted by the ancient gnostic heresy.  The old heresies don’t die.  Like the eastern notion of reincarnation, they are always being revived and cast in different clothing.  Gnosticism is one of these (as is Pelagianism, Docetism, etc). […]

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