Hang around evangelicalism long enough and you’re bound to hear the “gnostic” critique.

It was given the most legitimacy by N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope, who reminded the world that our bodies are raised up in the last day.  And yes and amen to that.

But before that, Michael Horton offered this takedown of many of the central themes of evangelical piety and worship:

“It would seem that the critics of modern American religion are basically on target in describing the entire religious landscape, from New Age or liberal, to evangelical and Pentecostal, as essentially Gnostic. Regardless of the denomination, the American Religion is inward, deeply distrustful of institutions, mediated grace, the intellect, theology, creeds, and the demand to look outside of oneself for salvation. This, of course, has enormous implications for the Christian life and worship, as well as theology.”

Of course, “gnostic” is a loaded term and one that demands some precision.  The sort of features that drive evangelical suspicion of the physical may not, in fact, be the same as those that motivated the actual gnostics in the second century.  My working hypothesis is….

Well, I’m not going to say my working hypothesis.  At least not now.

Instead, I’m curious to hear your opinion.  Read Horton’s article.  And then let me know.

(How) Are evangelicals gnostic?

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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.


  1. (How) Are Evangelicals Gnostic? | Mere Orthodoxy: http://bit.ly/deNpMG via @addthis

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  2. Matt – have you read Harold Bloom’s book “The American Reliigon?” He argues Horton’s thesis that you quoted quite extensively. He says that the Mormons and Southern Baptists are destined to be the largest American denominations/sects as they are the most quintessentially American religious groups. And they are the most quintessentially American because they are the most gnostic.


  3. Very interesting article. I agree entirley that we must place the cross back into the center of worship and Christianity…too many churches are so focused on mystical experiences of God and have removed the cross from its central place. I also agree that too many churches focus on the needs of their congregants, becoming large self-help groups rather than the body of Christ; however, I think Horton goes too far when he begins suggesting it the church is caught up in an unbiblical “greasy familiary.”

    Perhaps I am misreading Horton, but he seems to be suggesting that such familiarity is not Biblical, that a Christian cannot come befor God. The quoting of Exodus, where God places Moses between the people seems to suggest that God is prepared to smite anyone who attempts to come before Him. Horton says, “We automatically assume that having a personal relationship with God is a good thing. We invite people not so much to confess that they are helpless sinners, spiritually dead and enemies of God, who need to turn from self to rely on Christ alone for salvation, but instead we push them more to enter into a personal relationship with God by experiencing a direct encounter of rebirth. In Scripture, it is not always a good thing to be close to God.”

    I have a few problems with this. First off, it takes the personal out of the faith, and though I absolutely agree that a key part of coming to know God is a confession of sin and a total reliance on Christ, I think that the Bible teaches that the purpose of that confession of sin and reliance on Christ is a return to the right relationship with God and each other. We are told that we have freedom to call God our Father (Rom 8:15), which would be meaningless if we were forbidden from coming before Him. Even in Exodus God’s desire was to dwell among His people; it is after thier sin that God moves outside of the camp and away from them. Yes, God requires that the people not touch Mt. Sinai, but Horton seems to miss the fact that in Exodus 24:11 God invites the elders of Israel to up onto the Mt, where they see God. It says, “So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” Eating and drinking togeather is a key part of establishing relationship in the Bible, and here we see the elders (Not just Moses) eating before the Lord. Exodus 29: 45 also makes expresses God’s relational nature: “And I will reside amon the Israelites and I will be their God. And they will know that I am the Lord their God, who brough them out of the land of Egypt, so that I may reside among them…” A chapter or two later Israel has cast a golden calf and God moves His tabernacle outside of the camp. But God’s desire was to dwell with His people, to live among them and to have a relationship with them.

    Secondly, the focus on mediation seems to ignore the fact that our mediator is God himself. As Trinity, God the Father and God the Son are one, in that eternal communion of the Godhead. Our mediator is Christ, and when we come before Him we come before God. No where does the Bible teach that God is displeased when His people come before Him and no where does it say that God does not always hear…in fact, we are told that God knows our needs even before we ask. We are commanded to come boldly before the throne of grace. There is not one time where God says, “Do not seek me, do not know me…Be distant from me.”

    To define modern Christianity as overly familiar is to miss the point that that familiary has its very roots in God Himself. Within the Godhead there is perfect unity and we are invited to be part of that community (though our sinfullness keeps us from full experience of it and our participation is different because we are not God and thus not perfectly part of the community!) The purpose of atonement was to restore a broken relationship and to allow us to come back into loving submition of the God who created us. I fear that in his desire to protect the faith from self-centered worship, Horton gets perilously close to mechinizing the faith and removing the relational element of God’s call on our lives.


  4. (How) Are Evangelicals Gnostic? http://bit.ly/c0IqNF //I’m *really* curious to hear opinions on this.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  5. David,

    I’ve skimmed parts of Bloom’s book, but haven’t read the whole thing. I quoted Horton, if only because he’s an “insider” and has a bit more credibility within our particular circles. : )


    “To define modern Christianity as overly familiar is to miss the point that that familiary has its very roots in God Himself.” This might be my favorite sentence ever written in a comment at Mere-O. Lots to chew on in your excellent, excellent points….thanks for sharing them. (And yes, I’m holding back because I’m curious what others have to say!). : )


  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson, D.Philip Veitch. D.Philip Veitch said: (How) Are Evangelicals Gnostic? | Mere Orthodoxy: http://bit.ly/deNpMG via @addthis […]


  7. Matt,

    You make a good point that current evangelical motivations are not exactly the same as those of 1st century gnostics. But I don’t think the main point in labeling Evangelicalism as “gnostic” is to suggest that they are merely an identical reincarnation of the 1st century version. The point seems to be that many evangelical tendencies are the same as the major tendencies of gnosticism. In this case, the suspicion of concrete institutions and “mediated grace” (as opposed to a purely subjective, personal and unmediated religious experience).

    Still, if I were going to make these exact same critiques of evangelicalism, I would probably avoid using the term “gnostic”, if for no other reason than it would only create confusion. Instead of focusing on my actual critiques, everyone would probably be pointing out all the ways that evangelicalism is NOT like 1st century gnosticism, or else simply pointing out, as you rightly did, that “gnostic” is a loaded term open to many interpretations. In other words, it ends up being a conversation stopper.

    Now, all that said, I do think that Horton has a point. American religion is definitely one that is suspicious of mediated, objective reality (because it threatens personal freedom). American Christians, by and large, do not like to be told that they cannot, on average (law of large numbers!) read the Bible for themselves. They don’t want to hear that it has to be expounded for them by a trained teacher. (This is actually an inherent problem for Protestantism, I think, because a lot of Protestants think of it as a threat to Sola Scriptura). They also don’t want to hear that there are all sorts of restrictions put on them by God about where and how they are to worship, where and how they are to receive His means of grace, etc. Only in modern America would anyone seriously suggest that you can sit alone in your room and take Communion by yourself (with plain water if you want! Who cares? As long as you “experience” what Communion is supposed to symbolize). In fact, even if few to no evangelicals actually, explicitly held negative attitudes toward physical reality, their very attitude toward all things physical and temporal would betray their true beliefs. The very fact that they would say that when, where, and how you do things is ultimately unimportant to God (who cares I how I dress when I go to church?) betrays that what they truly believe is that the inner, subjective, and spiritual reality, the immediate connection between one’s soul and God, is the only thing that is important.

    At the same time, let me say that I don’t like Horton’s emphasis most of the time either. While it is true that God’s grace is heavily mediated, and that no human being can stand “naked” before the very face of God and live, it is also true that His mediated grace is still grace! We still experience the divine! In Christ, God Himself is mediated to us through human flesh. Does that mediation make Christ any less God? Definitely not! So I think Horton’s problem might be that he opposes “mediation” and “familiarity”, which is a false opposition. Mediation and familiarity are two sides of the same coin. It is through the mediation of Word and Sacrament (and ultimately the mediation of Christ Himself) that we become more and more “familiar” with God.


  8. Also,

    I now see what you meant when you talked about Horton’s uncharitable tone:

    “We must reject the American Religion, with its belief in “God” a uniquely American deity who has no theological definition. Whether worshipped by the liberals as the “Benevolent Spirit,” or by evangelicals as the mascot for America and moral virtue, or by charismatics as the power-source for higher spiritual experience, this idol must be pulled down from every high place.”

    This is definitely WAY overstating his case. To lump all of evangelicalism together and call their God a “mascot for America” and unequivocally an “idol” is just too much. Although, this article was written back in 1995, before folks like Dallas Willard (with his strong anti-gnostic message) had a prominent voice within evangelicalism (and before the beginning of the YRR movement), so maybe such rhetoric was seen as a necessary evil back then, to wake evangelicals up from their dogmatic slumbers! :P


  9. I liked a lot of the stuff this guy had to say. I think there’s a lot of truth to what he says. I do believe that evangelicalism has over-emphasized the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that transcends corporate membership and liturgy. I did also appreciate his taking evangelicalism to task on the subject of sacrament. I don’t entirely buy the criticism about the Word, but I do. Lots of pastors make easily misinterpreted statements that might just sound to laypeople like “at the end of the day, take what you can get from the Scripture and follow that.” (Well-meaning pastors urging parishoners to consult the Bible to check their sermon-work may well be putting that message out.)

    I do think Gnostic is an unhelpful choice of words, and I’m also not sure all the implications he drew out of the ‘theology of glory’ are really implied by it (I’m also not sure that the Roman Catholic Church, of which I an a member, really teaches it, at least not as he characterizes it.) And I’m probably harping on this a bit much, but I’m skeptical that (particularly, but not only, in the East) the Early Church Fathers were really all that in line with Reformed theology. From what I have read they’re not always out of line with it, but still. I also did not appreciate his anti-mysticism; while certain mystics are certainly misreadable, I can’t think of any of the major mystic-Saints who seriously believed they didn’t need Christ to approach the Lord. I guess coming at this as a Catholic and someone who’s more than okay with speaking again about the idea of sacraments, I still feel like he may have ‘over-corrected’ a little bit, y’know?

    To end on a positive note, this has opened again the idea for me that Calvin didn’t actually hate creation, which I’m pretty sure is something most people who aren’t grinding axes somewhere (and who haven’t listened to those axe-grinders) don’t believe anyway.


  10. I suspect, that any “gnostic” tendencies in American Protestantism (particularly evangelicalism) stem from:

    1) an almost “genetic” anti-Roman Catholicism that builds a wall of seperation by rejecting any that even “seems catholic” – such as much emphasis on the sacraments, mediation of the clergy, the liturgy that engages all 5 senses (insense, colorful vestments, choral music, oil, water, bread & wine, etc.)

    2) a post-enlightenment emphasis on the individual and the interior nature of “religion” that was absorbed uncritically (over against the corporate/hierarchical and outward/ceremonial nature of Roman Catholicism, I might add)

    3) a reading of Scripture that does not fully understand the cultural assumptions of the ancient world (so for example – getting back to the first comments – we might be tempted to infer that “coming to God as Father” means something exactly like our own experiences with Baby Boomer parents, when in fact parenting in the ancient world was much more authoritarian).


  11. As an EO Christian where EVERYTHING we believe and do hinges on the materiality of the Incarnation, it is too easy to throw the “gnostic gauntlet” down in front of Evangelicals who generically distrust anything concrete, physical, tangible and fleshly… except where they do. F’rinstance, what is “worshiptainment”? Isn’t it an Evangelical “sacrament”… a physical means to an emotional response (albeit confused with “spiritual experience”). In the end I think one could almost accuse Evangelicalism of borderline spiritual solipsism (whatever works for me) as David pointed out.


  12. Gnostic? No, their theologies don’t tend to be so developed. Manichaen from the Augustinian line of descent of much of their understanding of moral theology and soteriology, yes, but in not a developed gnostic sense of gnostic mysticism and disdain for creation, the body, and the purity (freedom from imprisonment) of the soul or spirit (nous). No, they feel that Christ is just like them and is the apotheosis of some neo-Nestorian, pietistic ontology. The pitfall here is clear-Christ is not Redeemer, but a “supreme preacher coming from the best family” leading them in their elections and showing them their destinies because they follow Him. Christ is a denominational super-man whose Divinity simply means their “cause” and “election” are right in God’s eyes, and their denomination interpreting scripture will take it the rest of the way, while Christ gets all the elect sinners into heaven.

    There is no Divine (or divinized) humanity, no real holiness, but an election of “certain” flesh to a destiny of holiness predicated on a rationalist conviction. It is here that God “assumes” them and makes them holy once and for all, for that is their destiny. This isn’t disdain of the flesh, but celebration of certain flesh and its lack of need for real penance and submission to Christ as a lord over creation. Offensively neo-Nestorianism.

    I have always felt Pietism to be neo-Apollinarian in many respects, while the disdain for the Theotokos and total lack of understanding of the concept of Theanthropos and the role God-manhood plays in the redemption of human nature and justification is simply all too Nestorian in a blasphemous way to bother to take much of their teachings to heart. Ancient heresies regurgitated by the same unclean spirits in more confused, contemporary ways, outside the saving enclosure of the Church and life in the Holy Spirit.

    Their unwitting perpetuation of Blessed Augustine’s war with Pelagius and the Orthodox (or “Masilians”, “semi-Pelagians” in Latin heretical banter) is war where some of the Manicheism could take form, but, honestly, the ultimate formlessness of their moral theologies never develops into gnosticism. Moreover, they would pitch a battle with themselves “heresy hunting” if anything “platonist” could be ascribed to their “scriptural” soteriologies and sola fides/sola scriptura modalities. They would be the first to stoke the fires of Inquisition if anything “platonic” could be found.

    No, their Manichean inheritance from Blessed Augustine acts in a odd mutation. They stress that ontological antinomies are reconciled by election, where the flesh is destined to be redeemed by God, no matter its condition. Their god can not only have part with sin, but makes it holy. They preach another christ. Blasphemy. Therefore, they do not give any negative weight to a body which actually bears God within it and the throughly transfigurational moral event it represents and its absolute effect on deification of humanity. They are elect and Christ’s flesh and human nature was the same as theirs, even though they may sin. God-bearing to them is unknown, not understood, inessential, for a real personal Christ who lives in them and sanctifies them is not understood, even disparaged as “neo Platonist Orthodox corruption of scripture”.

    The theological writings of the Third Ecumenical Council refute not only Calvinist theology (and its expressions among the denominations) but also the moral theology of Blessed Augustine which he formulated in his war with Pelagius. One theological construct simply need be explored and patristically examined, the terminology and theology of the “Theotokos”. Protestantism then slithers away and all of Orthodox theology is affirmed in the most sovereign of ways.

    No, they believe that God elects a handful of sinners to salvation once they confess and realize it and damns everyone else, irregardless of whether or not they strive to or bear Christ within. Nor do they recognize the reality of holiness that God bearing expresses, partially because they are outside of the Church and cannot fully experience it and partially because the pride of believing in “ones election” doesn’t allow them to understand that the type of “faith which saves” which they affirm doesn’t need Christ perfecting human nature and redeeming it from sin on the Cross inasmuch as their heretical theology taken to its logical conclusion would mean that God’s election does not need Christ on the Cross to provide grace and salvation. God simply chooses sinners and enraptures them, sins and all. Election redeems them. Blood and sacrifice are redundancies to eschatological election and “destiny”. This is an act of destiny where the Divine Will saves irregardless of Christ and His sacrifice.

    No, Protestants in general have no concept of the sinfulness of the body and human nature (much the less it as a prison for the spirit). Elsewise, they would strive for holiness and understand “once saved, always saved” is hubris to a demoniac degree, while a Gnostic (or even Manichaen) would argue that flesh should not be saved as it is inherently profane and must be escaped. Protestants argue that they are destined to be with God warts and all with the implication that Christ had the very same warts (even though He may not have done nothing to get them).

    R M Malleev-Pokrovsky


  13. Matt, this is a fantastic blog. I wouldn’t normally go around accusing evangelicals of gnosticism. For one thing, I don’t know enough about the original gnostics to beat others over the head with that name. In terms of evangelicals’ “suspicion of the physical,” three things come to mind.

    First, as other commenters have noted, the seeming rejection of any incarnational reality in worship or the sacraments. Baptism and the Eucharist are assumed to be mere symbols of a preceding reality, which almost makes them out to be necessary due to some human weakness (if only we were spiritual enough to grasp the mystery of salvation without these tangible symbols!) rather than a fulfillment of how we, as material and spiritual beings, are designed to worship.

    Second, I never heard a single sermon when I was an evangelical about the importance of respecting the human body after death. I don’t recall hearing any suggestion that scattering someone’s remains after death was any less dignified than marking the final resting place as the place from which so-and-so would be raised from the dead. Even a century or two ago, I suspect, evangelicals would have had the same opinion on this issue as the Catholic Church.

    Third, (some) evangelicals’ theology of sex and contraception seems to assume that the essence of “sex” is the spiritual union of a man and woman, rather than combining that element with a rather specific behavior/physical component that clearly communicates the gift of love through the body. I think this becomes clear when we consider the willingness of some evangelical leaders to condone sexual activities within marriage that stray pretty far from what Christians used to consider “sex” (Driscoll is a good example of this).


  14. Stephen “Steve” Sponsler July 28, 2015 at 5:46 am

    Most Gnosticism in any protestant church was learned from so-called catholicism. They have always had the religio-political “systematic’ clout to influence millions..and also had the desire to absorb others into them at the cost of sacrificing the truth for power. They will deny it and say, ‘you will hear protestants say this or that’..maybe because it’s true. There is simply no getting beyond how contradictory some of their scriptural interpretation is to the Truth and man made doctrines and traditions which clearly are profaned against in scripture. Falling back on the ‘traditions of the fathers’ is not an an acceptable excuse. Who were these so called ‘fathers’ and why couldn’t they have been wrong? They were just like everyone else is. Let God be True and every man a liar.


  15. We see this so often in the Evangelical world that it now looks more like professional wrestling or a variety show than an actual service. Maybe I just prefer contemplative prayer as a bias, but I can’t see the worth of being entertained when I should be prostrating in the presence of Our Lord.


  16. Interesting how us “evangelicals” are the gnostics when the devilish cathorthodox churches worship the “mother of god”, just as the gnostics exalted and worshipped “sophia”, the mother of the demiurge, and the asceticism of monasticism is an echo of the gnostic rejection of even the permitted pleasures of the material world. The cathorthodox vipers are described in 1 Tim 4:1-3. Liars, women haters (except their harlot mother, the church), and abusers of fasting. Let your high-and-mighty clergy save you from hell. You don’t have the rock, but a stone tied to your neck. Before your rotten “church fathers” Christ was.


    1. “Rotten church fathers ” ;the apostolic church fathers where disciples of the 12 apostles… even in Evangelical apologetics they are use to draw an early account to the new testament tradition… learn some early church history; but sorru that u find the disciples of paul peter and john to catholic orthodox. ..


  17. Mariology is crypto-gnosticism


    1. Or it came from the prophet Isaiah.


  18. It’s unfortunate that you demean protestants as witless as you express a complete lack of understanding of what it is we believe.


    1. Shayne Swenson June 6, 2016 at 4:32 am

      As a former Evangelical and convert to Orthodoxy, I would say Mr. Pokrovsky hit a home run with his assessment. Though his critique is harsh, he is not “demeaning” anyone, and is merely illustrating the obvious deviations from traditional apostolic Christianity. Protestantism, of any banner, is effectually an extreme reduction of what the developed early church knew at best, and a profoundly arrogant DIY emotive self improvement at worst. Re-read the above comment and investigate his criticism on your own, without fear. You will eventually learn too much and come to a very real crossroads, that is if you allow yourself to be honest with the facts.


  19. So long as Christ commands to love others, even one’s enemies, any belief system hindering that command is gnostic – this is why Paul asks, “Is Christ divided? [denominations]” It’s far better to yield completely to the Holy Spirit for wisdom in the moment, surrendering oneself completely to the will of the Father in order to love others. Anything else is junk and a dead work.


  20. Absolutely gnostic. Haven’t we all heard the “but does he KNOW the Lord?”. And said by one who considers himself “in” the gnosis.

    2 Peter was largely written to counter it, as I’m learning.

    Anyone who isn’t in the apostolic church is this way, absent the Eucharist, the privileged form of “gnosis”.


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