Friday, October 14, 2005

Gnosticism, The Canon and Dan Brown

"One of these things is not like the other...."

What doesn't fit into Dan Brown's conspiracy plot is the fact that the canonization of New Testament Scripture and establishment of creedal statements was initially borne out of the dilemma faced by second century leaders such as Irenaeus, who believed it of critical importance to forge a unified church. Irenaeus' mentor, Polycarp, himself a disciple of the apostle John, had been burned alive by the Romans in 167. How was the church to survive that kind of pressure if it couldn't even agree on whether Jesus was laughing or suffering on the cross?

Elaine Pagels says that the issue really came to a head when "The Three" -- Montanus, Maximilla and Priscilla -- began traveling around the churches of Asia Minor "claiming to communicate directly with the holy spirit." The Three were having all sorts of visions and revelations. Priscilla, writes Pagels, "claimed that Christ had appeared to her in female form." Furthermore, they taught others to fast and pray so they too could receive direct visions and revelations, their own personal gnosis.

Gnostics, such as "The Three," made a distinction between Common Christians and Spiritual Christians -- they, of course, being the latter. They were Christians "in the know." But the Book of Acts tells us that the first edition of the church held everything in common (Acts 2:44). They were all in the same boat. Irenaeus cannot be blamed for being concerned that a two-tier system was evolving with Christians "in the know" holding themselves superior to the others.

There are Christians today who, because of some spiritual experience, practically disdain other believers who have not experienced what they have. We see still what Irenaeus was talking about, when he said, in effect, you can always tell a Gnostic, "strutting around with a superior expression on his face, with all the pomposity of a rooster."

How was the church ever going to sing out of the same hymnal if there were 80 gospels floating around and anybody and everybody could claim to be communicating directly with the Holy Spirit, their gnosis making them more spiritual than other believers?

It was Irenaeus himself who came up with the four-gospel solution. The bishop noted that Ezekiel had envisioned God's throne "borne up by four living creatures;" likewise, the church would be borne up by four pillars: the "full formed gospels" of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These had been accepted for generations; Irenaeus wisely saw no need to add to them.

Then, in the second decade of the next century, Constantine himself was converted. Dan Brown portrays the emperor as a master manipulator, using Christianity to his own political purpose. I don't know that his accusation is entirely justified. Legend says that Constantine had seen a vision of the cross in the sky with the words "In this sign conquer." Having committed himself to Christianity, it was perhaps understandable that Constantine would want to konw what he was supposed to believe. Thus, it was he who called church leaders from across the empire to gather in Nicaea, June of 325, asking them to come up with a clear statement of belief. The result is remembered as the Nicene Creed.

Are you still with me?