Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Reformers, Modern Day Protestants, and Gnosticism

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, on sinner.

If the Reformation is what restored the Church to its original set of beliefs (as some Protestants claim) then why don’t modern day Protestants believe what the Reformers believed? This is a question that has bothered me for some time. I used to think that I did believe what the Reformers believed. They were, in my mind, the conquerors of Christianity–those who reclaimed doctrinal territory that had long been corrupted. So it came as a surprise when I started reading about the Reformers that they all accepted things that many Protestants today would vehemently reject. This being the case,  I would like to put this same question to you: if you truly believe the Reformation was some reinstatement of proper Christian doctrine, do you believe what the Reformers believed?

Not everyone will find it necessary to believe everything that the Reformers believed–and I am not attempting to convince you that you must. All I wish to do in this post is introduce you to beliefs held by the Reformers that may surprise you. For instance, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley (who lived in the 18th Century), and many others all accepted and defended infant baptism and the perpetual virginity of Mary. The latter is the belief that Mary only gave birth to Jesus; any reference to the brothers of Jesus in the Gospels should not be read to mean a biological family member of Jesus, or half brother, but rather a cousin, relative, or expression.

I was blown away when I read about these beliefs. The reason most modern day Protestants do not accept these same beliefs is that the Protestant Church has been reforming itself ever since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses; this is the very reason we have 30,000+ denominations. The Church after 1517 slowly developed a reductionist worldview: if they don’t understand something, instead of trying to understand it, they cut it out of their theology. The many denominations that exist today is not reminiscent of a victorious restoration of the Church but another heartbreaking division within Christendom–a division that lead to the splintering of Christianity itself. One small bit at a time Christianity has been stripped of it’s physical component and replaced with a gnostic spirituality.

Gnosticism, which comes from the Greek word Gnosis (γνῶσις) meaning knowledge, was a movement in the 2nd century based on the idea that the material universe is bad and the spiritual realm is good. Does this sound familiar? I can remember growing up and hearing people talk about the evils of the world. It is questionable as to whether or not they meant it in a gnostic sense but my young ears absorbed the gnostic concept. As I grew a little older and began to read Plato, my personal beliefs developed into that of a Neoplatonic Dualist (which means I viewed the body as a prison for the soul–and thought heaven would “release” us from this prison). As I researched more, I realized that this was not a biblical concept. (The philosopher in me has to add that Plato did have a lot of good, and truthful, things to say).

The problem is, there are traces of this dualistic tendency within the Protestant Church. Why? Because most Protestant churches have developed a system of theology that has distanced them from the physical world; I know some who have cited Romans 7:24, “Who will save me from this body of death?” as a proof-text for this dualism–though they probably wouldn't call it dualism. But the truth is, our body and soul should not be viewed as two separate parts of our humanness, one being part bad and one part being good, but rather the very nature of what it means to be human. The soul is not suppose to be separated from the body; death is an unnatural thing. God did not create death. Death came into the world when Adam ceased to remain in God (Romans 5:12), who is life (John 15). We recognize this separation as Adam’s sin. The human body and the human soul should be viewed as a unified whole. Also, if the body were bad, then why would we need to take care of it?

The fact of the matter is we are both physical and spiritual beings–and our approach to worship and doctrine should also be a holistic approach. If we divorce our worship and our doctrine from the physical world, and focus exclusively on an intellectual approach to Christianity, we have lost the power of Christianity itself–for did not Christ come into materiality at the point of conception? Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, became a material being in order to reverse the curse of the first Adam. Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected. Literally, physically, bodily, resurrected. And one day, we will be too. As it seems to me, the balance between the Spiritual and the Physical is perfectly present within the Orthodox Church. This balance is one I would like to talk about in future posts.

All in all my soul longs to see the reunification, the reconnecting, of Christendom. But reunification of the Church will never occur unless those who have reduced Christianity to an intellectual formula will seek understanding instead of debate. If we keep stripping the material universe, Christianity, of it’s meaning and importance, then we will end up with watered-down Christianity: a Christianity that reforms itself so much that those that started the movement in the 1500’s would not even recognize it. This kind of Christianity will eventually end up bankrupt. Lord, have mercy. 

I'm not sure if I spoke succinctly or if my thought process was conveyed adequately. If I have not spoken clearly I apologize. I guess what I'm trying to get at is this: the constant change of the Protestant church has led to, in some areas of the Protestant community, a kind of gnosticism. Gnosticism is dangerous because it strips Christianity of it's material aspect. The material aspect of Christianity is hinged on the incarnation of Christ and it is the incarnation which leads to our salvation. That was kind of a sum up I guess. Please leave a comment if you wish for any clarification.

But for now, let us pray that we will seek to understand.

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