Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

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Micro Book Review: Dembski, End of Christianity

William Dembski, The End of Christianity (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009). Hardcover $16.38, Kindle $6.09 on Amazon 18/12/15.

Dembski End of Cty

This will be a quickie – supposed to be packing for summer holidays! A few comments on this book from perhaps the most recognized name in the Intelligent Design movement, Bill Dembski.

This is an ambitious book, trying to address two philosophical problems for Christianity simultaneously. The problems are:

  1. The problem of evil and pain, a perennial chestnut, and
  2. The clash between an apparently old earth and a biblical soteriology (teaching about salvation) that, notably in Romans 5, apparently attributes death in the world to the sin of Adam, and the re-entry of life likewise to the saving work of Christ.

I’m resisting the temptation here to exegete Romans 5. That would ruin our holiday plans. But here in nuce is Dembski’s solution: the destructive effects of the first sin of the first couple, yes, the true blue Adam and Eve, can apply retrospectively in time and be the cause of all pain, decay and death in the world from the very dawn of time. This allows Dembski to retain:

  1. An old earth in co-operation with mainstream scientific consensus, and,
  2. A full-blown, classic Christian doctrine of the Fall in its undiminished traditional form.

My final assessment: this is, despite appearing in a moderately-sized book, a grand intellectual venture, a tour de force if you like.

Ultimately, it never quite persuaded me. It would solve some philosophical problems if it did, and I could appreciate the ambition it represented. I like the Augustinian perspective of God being outside of time and able to operate independent of the flow of history. But every hint of corruption and decay, every hint of mortality in any creature, every star destined to burn out…all due to the transgression of a couple short of duds in Mesopotamian garden? I think there’s a problem of proportionality here that means it doesn’t win me over.

Happy to hear what you thought of it.

A Quick Thought on Christian Evidences from the Gospel of John

If I could have one event proven beyond doubt historically, it would be the physical resurrection of Jesus.

So it struck me as funny that, as I read the end of John chapter 19 in the last couple of days, the writer (for me, as I understand it, John the apostle) seemed to want to prove at this point in the story, not simply that Jesus really lived again, though he does spend time in chapter 20 establishing that too, but also, maybe especially, that he in fact really died!

John 19:34-35 in the Greek looks like this (thanks to BibleWorks):

ἀλλ᾽ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ. καὶ ὁ ἑωρακὼς μεμαρτύρηκεν, καὶ ἀληθινὴ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν ἡ μαρτυρία, καὶ ἐκεῖνος οἶδεν ὅτι ἀληθῆ λέγει, ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς πιστεύ[σ]ητε.

And in the NET Bible it looks like this:

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out immediately. And the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe.

So the author gives his best assurance at this point that Jesus really died (hence the blood has begun to separate). The temptation for his audience was apparently not to disbelieve the resurrection so much as to disbelieve the death of Jesus. Was John the evangelist to the Gnostics, attracted to the transcendent, pre-existent Christ but reluctant to believe that he was really physical, fleshly and mortal. (I’m reminded of the scene in The Matrix where Agent Smith has captured Morpheus and expresses his revulsion for his, and his real world’s, smell and sweat, its tangible, ‘sensible’ physicality.)

I know this is a world of debate and discussion, including when we can say Gnostics really got going, and when the Gospel of John was written. I’m not a New Testament specialist and showing my ignorance.

But it’s interesting, is it not?

And Something I’d Missed from Leviticus 21…

Did you ever notice that in Leviticus 21:10-11, the high priest is forbidden to tear his clothes or to put himself into an unclean state (i.e. for mourning purposes, e.g. with dirt on the head, presumably) even if it was his nearest and dearest, his father or mother who had died!

But in Matt 26:65 and Mark 14:63 we’re told that at the trial of Jesus, when Jesus responded to the insistence, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” by saying,

You have said it yourself. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mat 26:64 NET),

the response of the high priest is to tear his clothes! I’m not even sure how that is done, if those clothes are at all robustly made, e.g. the classic one-piece linen robe I understood the high priest wore. But assuming it’s possible, should we see this as an act of utter desperation at this apparent blasphemy? Something implicitly worse than the death of father or mother, a dent in the honour of Yahweh?

Surely a Jewish-Christian author such as Matthew knows that the high priest has done something technically illegal for the high priest, and I think he can assume that it’s common knowledge amongst his Jewish audience. What is his implicit commentary on the action? Is it that the high priest, in condemning Jesus, is in the act of doing something that breaks the law himself? Or should we interpret it simply as high emotion?

Over to you, dear reader!

Postscript to Jesus and Jihad: One Puzzling Sword Reference

When I heard the ‘Jesus v. Barabbas’ sermon early in January this year while on holidays, I was impressed, and wrote about it in the first of my two Jesus and Jihad posts. But I stopped at the door to talk with the pastor about one outstanding question I had.

Why, if Jesus disowned the way of the sword, did he in Luke 22:36 say to his disciples, shortly before his arrest:

35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:35-36 NIV)

Very un-Jesus-like, I thought, and asked the pastor what he thought. He sounded a little unsure, but thought it might have been for security reasons. I wasn’t convinced it was a really sound answer at the time, but happened across the passage in Luke this morning. And now I am. The other things Jesus says they now ought to acquire are travelling things, or that is my first impression. Moving to a different Bible version, here are verses 36-37:

36 Then He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one.
37 For I tell you, what is written must be fulfilled in Me: And He was counted among the outlaws. Yes, what is written about Me is coming to its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:36-37 Holman Christian Standard)

In other words, “I’m an outlaw now, and you’re going to have to hit the road.” And the roads were not safe places – something like the roads here in Australia could be in the mid-nineteenth century, when a coach might be stopped by what we (and probably no other culture) call ‘bushrangers’. So on the road, they needed a (ahem) bum-bag, a backpack, and…a sword.

How can I show that this was the reason for the sword, and that it doesn’t ruin Jesus’ non-violent reputation?

First, when they say they can muster two swords (v. 38), he says that’s sufficient. Not enough for a revolution, but enough for security on the road.

Second, when one of the disciples (not identified here in Luke) just hours later in the Garden of Gethsemane, starts swinging his sword to resist Jesus’ arrest, Jesus will have no part of it. This eager disciple actually takes the shine off what Jesus says next, that it suits the religious leaders’ style to ambush him at night as if he was a brigand, a Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly Helmethttp://nationaltreasures.nla.gov.au/index/Treasures/item/nla.int-ex13-s2

But he wasn’t, so he didn’t go down firing in a metal suit, or swinging a sword. The eager disciple had gotten it wrong. That wasn’t the way to do it. Jesus wouldn’t inflict death for his cause. He would ingest it.

Interval: That Barabbas and Jesus Sermon

Here’s the link to the sermon just mentioned: Barabbas or Jesus. Yes, that’s the King James he’s using! But I encourage you to stick it out for the worth of what David has to say. Not flowery, and his voice wasn’t strong, but I thought it was insightful and balanced. Trust you enjoy, and part two will be along presently.

Jesus and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Heard a great sermon at my parents’ church in Coffs Harbour, in mid-north coast NSW, Australia last week. (Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and a great place for a summer holiday.) It’s actually a rather old-fashioned church in worship style, but I respect the pastor, David Mitchell, and he was on the money last Sunday.

His talk was based on Matthew 27:16-26:

16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:16-26 NIV)

In light of the Lindt Cafe hostage drama a couple of weeks prior in Sydney, and then only a few days before he spoke, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, David’s angle was to use the text above to help us think about how the Christian should view sacred vigilantes or holy war.

The message was simple. This episode in Jesus’ final trials presents to us alternate ways of advancing a cause: the way of Jesus, and the way of Barabbas. Barabbas is the partisan, the vigilante, the sicarius or dagger bearer. He was willing to kill for the cause and had such kills chalked up already. Were they Romans, or were they Jews who had co-operated with the Romans? It’s funny how the vigilante ends up killing his own people so freely where they are perceived to co-operate with the enemy. They are easier to reach, for one thing.

David admitted with simple honesty that Christians (or Christendom, we might say) had used this approach in the past to try to advance the cause, infamously during the Crusades. But the Crusades did not have good theological justification from the New Testament and specifically from Jesus’ teaching. If you want to run a Christian (military) crusade, you really need to ignore many parts of the New Testament. (Is the Old Testament a different story? Let’s hold that off for the next post.)

The way of Jesus is not the way of the sword. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ disciples decided it was time for a heroic last stand, and took a swipe at the arresting party with a sword (Matt. 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51).  John’s Gospel alone identifies the wielder as Peter, and he probably wasn’t just aiming to remove the guy’s ear. As a soldier, he made a good fisherman.

Each Gospel reports that Jesus brought this final resistance to an abrupt halt, while casting Jesus’ reply and reasoning rather differently. But Matthew offers the most detail. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Jesus continues there by saying that if he wished to resist his enemies, he would sooner use heavenly troops and weapons. But that was not his purpose in any case. His victory would come ironically by way of abject defeat and death, followed by unexpected return from death.

A spiritual kingdom cannot be won and defended with human weapons (John 18:36), even if its citizens live in a human world. The Crusades were not only barbaric in practice but were theologically ill-conceived. The way of Jesus is not the way of Barabbas. The New Testament defends the secular government’s right to ‘bear the sword’ for purposes of maintaining justice in society, and arguably, for national defence, but it never authorizes the use of force or violent militancy to advance the Christian cause.

Jihad can never be the tool of the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus never has permission to kill for the cause.

The disciple of Jesus simply has permission to die for the cause. Indeed, where necessary, the obligation so to die.

But if it came to that, would I be willing to die? I hope so. Would I retaliate? I hope not, but when we’re angry, reason takes a back seat. Would I reneg? I don’t know. I hope I would join the great and honoured ranks of the martyrs.

What would you do?

Next post: Joshua and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad