This may be my most controversial article to date. I’m not here to tell you that you’re a straight up Gnostic if you’re a Protestant, but I’m here to show how Gnosticism has silently infected (or even was possibly engineered) into Reformed Christianity. The heresy that our beloved church fathers and martyrs defended the truth against is still alive and well today, just in a much more disguised form. I pray this is read with an open mind, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we may not condemn each other (Orthodox to Protestant and Protestant to Orthodox) even if we may disagree. That we only seek the truth in love.
Gnosis Is Salvation
For the Gnostics, gnosis was the goal, a saving enlightenment that occurs in your head. Most Protestant doctrine affirms a similar concept, there is an emphasis on knowing (gnosis) God before salvation can occur. Salvation is not in the waters of Holy Baptism but in their “instantaneous acceptance of Christ.” This is also why most sects of Protestantism reject Infant Baptism because in their view the child has not known God in their own minds. Their salvation is centered on the mind rather than the heart.
The problem with this line of thought is you’re assuming human beings are primarily separated from God for their own known personal sins (which babies are exempt of), not the ancestral sin or curse placed upon humanity through Adam & Eve (which no one is exempt of). It also assumes humans are sinless until they reach a certain age and only when they are of that age of knowing, gnosis, then do they have any type of sin to be saved of. This contradicts what the Bible tells us in Romans 5:12.
The Protestant view that you must have the ability to know right and wrong before baptism directly opposes the Genesis story. For how did Adam & Eve sin if their eyes were only opened to the knowledge of good and evil AFTER they had sinned? Sin is by definition transgression of the law (1 John 3:4) and disobeying God. It simply does not follow. Just as the gnostics do, the protestant doctrine places more emphasis on individualistic knowledge in salvation (at least in this respect) than on God. And according to most protestant doctrine, once you have this salvation it can never be taken away from you.
Once Saved Always Saved (OSAS)
This is the doctrine that once a person becomes a child of God, there is no sin that they can commit to lose their salvation. Many people today find this doctrine to be of great comfort, because it in essence relieves them of all personal responsibility in their relationship with God. We need only to look at Judas to see this does not follow either, and interestingly enough this doctrine was alive and well in the 2nd century in a sect of Gnostics as written by St. Ireneaus:
“But as to themselves, they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature. For, just as it is impossible that material substance should partake of salvation (since, indeed, they maintain that it is incapable of receiving it), so again it is impossible that spiritual substance (by which they mean themselves) should ever come under the power of corruption, whatever the sort of actions in which they indulged.”– St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 1, Chapter 6
The parallel is chilling, both protestants and gnostics believe there is nothing they can do that will cause them to lose their salvation. They both also attest grace overcomes all their sins no matter the individual’s attitude toward sin, even if they willing sinned their whole life and never tried to overcome their passions. These parallels are especially prevalent in regards to Calvinists, whom believe they are the “elect” just as the gnostics believe they are the “elect seed.” Both say being elected absolves them of any negative actions they may commit, just as both proclaim they are saved according to their nature (not their conduct). While they may disagree on this last point on the origin of this nature, the belief is still identical.
Chiliasm is the teaching that Christ will reign for a literal 1,000 years on earth after His Second Coming. This was a heresy condemned by the church (even some early church fathers taught this doctrine in error). The gnostic Cerinthus advocated for this doctrine, as well as the gnostic Sabellianism which said Christ’s kingdom will eventually end. This is why the Nicene Creed includes the words “Whose kingdom shall have no end” to refute this teaching. Is this not exactly what so many protestant fundamentalists believe? That Christ’s kingdom will be 1,000 years? This heretical belief is circulating in churches of well-meaning Christians all across America – unknowingly emulating the gnostic belief system once again.
Reformed belief systems empty the powers and significance of the sacraments to view them as symbolic memorials or “public professions of faith.” Much of these ideals were perpetuated by Zwingli during the period of the Reformation and continues on in western Christianity today, such as the denial of the real presence in the Eucharist even though John 6 tells us this is not merely symbolic. Martin Luther and Zwingli got into heated debate in regards to the real presence in the Eucharist, Luther actually affirming it. The Reformation period removed most of the sacraments or all of them of their material significance (depending which reformer you’re under), this corresponds with the gnostics in their rejection of the material and focus on the spiritual only. The gnostic threat was not something St. Paul took lightly:
“The most dangerous gnostics were those who had, intellectually, thought their way quite inside Christianity, and then produced a variation which wrecked the system…. Paul fought hard against gnosticism, recognizing that it might cannibalize Christianity and destroy it.”– Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, 7
The Valentinian gnostics along with almost all gnostics have their own sacraments that are close in relation to the sacraments of Christianity, and as you’ve guessed by now, they’re purely symbolic from their outlook (Source: gnosis.org). Because for them all worship is spiritual, the external forms of sacraments are symbolic as they believe all the material world is evil.
The Invisible Church
As mentioned, gnosticism has a disdain for the material/physical world and places a high emphasis on the spiritual. The early Reformers stressed the notion of the invisible church to disprove the Roman Catholic idea that the true church is identified with the church at Rome. John Murray has noted, “there is no clear Biblical warrant for this idea, that is, of the church itself being called “invisible.” The church certainly has an invisible dimension; but in the Bible, there is no such thing as the invisible church. If we believe that there is an invisible church, in fact, we may feel comfortable in presuming that no manifestation of the church in history is worthy of our commitment and support.” (John Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, 1976).
Gnosticism teaches in their catechism a very similar idea, that the church is not bound to any place or time. Of this invisible church I’ll quote, “All Christians can go in soul and spirit to that church…. we teach the secret to consciously exit the body and thus visit any distant land on the Earth. All humans can visit the Gnostic Church during sleep.” (GnosticTeachings.Org – Samael Aun Woer).
This mindset although not identical in practice, has the same common basis throughout many protestant congregations – that the church is not a building but an invisible body of believers. This is not consistent with Christianity, the church is paradoxically both visible and invisible. Just as Christ was both fully God and fully man. The concept of an only invisible church is gnostic (rejecting the material and visible church), and is espousing “the true church is me and those who agree with me.” No apostolic succession or evidence of historical faith to back it up. The true church becomes an afterthought and an unreachable phantom. This false notion held that the only physical/visible sense of the church is in each physical/visible individual.
Today in the west we have a smorgasbord style of Christianity, take what you like, throw out what you don’t, ignore church history and authority, and simply move on to another church if whatever church you’re at fails to cater to you. It’s often found in the phrase “not a religion but a personal relationship.” We have reached what seems like the pinnacle of individualistic and subjective belief culture that has manifested itself fully in protestantism. This is seen most evidently in sola scriptura, the individual determines what the scripture means, how it’s applied, etc. Ironically making themselves their own pope over said scripture, the Protestant will argue the biblical truth is clear and evident with sola scriptura but the fact that this clear interpretation birthed 30,000+ different denominations of Protestantism would disagree with that assertion.
The revulsion for church authority and tradition with one’s own subjective guidance of what one believes to be the Holy Spirit outside of a true and structured theology further leads to this hyper-individualism. Gnosticism also has this individualistic style religion, subjective spirituality that is mimicked in protestantism; with both having a bias towards their own personal experience. Christianity has always been communal, a shared life in the physical church and community, quite the opposite from the “not a religion but a personal relationship” mantra popularly proclaimed. The gnostics stressed saving knowledge over a faithful participation in the church, they also stressed salvation as a personal private matter only. The truth is not individualistic or subjective, the further the dive into individualism and the self, the less of a self we find.
“Gnostics hold that the potential for Gnosis, and thus, of salvation is present in every man and woman, and that salvation is not vicarious but individual.“– The Gnostic Worldview, Gnosis.Org
This individualism of salvation as a private “one singular moment” matter leads to individualism of their own interpretation of scripture too as previously mentioned. Who needs tradition that Paul mentions to hold fast to (2 Thessalonians 2:15) because my private interpretation, experience, etc is the measuring stick for everything? The truth is the exact opposite. Individualism marks an emphasis on pride, collective marks an emphasis on humility. “We are saved together, but damned alone.”
More Examples & Fringe Groups
Iconoclasm is another example of the gnostic-influenced rejection of the material, and placing all emphasis on the spiritual. Gnosticism and Protestantism also share another common trait in that they have numerous sects with wide-ranging belief systems making it their doctrines sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The rejection of the body and viewing it as evil is another similarity depending on the denomination, we aren’t to escape our body we are to spiritualize it.
Fringe groups which most Protestants vilify themselves have expressed outright heresies already condemned in the early church. I’d like to make this a separate and last section for I know the majority of Protestants do not agree with these next examples, but they still fall under the umbrella of Protestantism also ultimately all tracing their roots back to the Reformation.
Jehovah’s Witness express outright Arianism by identifying Jesus Christ as a creation of God and not God Himself. They even teach Jesus Christ is also the same person as the archangel Michael (yes, I’m serious), and that hell does not exist in the sense that the wicked will be annihilated forever after Armageddon. This is another heresy titled “Apokatastasis” or universalism that arose in the 2nd century that taught all people will eventually be saved. Jehovah Witness also reject the use of crosses, they see it as a pagan symbol and have their own idiosyncratic version of the Bible that they’ve edited to fit their doctrines titled the “New World Translation.” The biggest emphasis being they are modern-day Arians.
Mormons believe in the trinity, but they hold that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods who are united in purpose. This is a modern day form of the anti-Trinitarian heresy called Tritheism – which believes the same thing. Mormons also border closely but not exactly on Sabellianism, a gnostic heresy from the 3rd century. Additionally, they believe Jesus was born by sexual reproduction, that God the Father had sex with the Virgin Mary. This is blasphemous and utterly ridiculous.
Pentecostals are a revival of the 2nd century heresy known as Montanism, which claimed to receive revelations directly from God by overly emotional and dramatic “spiritual” experiences primarily speaking in tongues and visions/prophecies. This is well documented in the church historian Eusebius:
“In his lust for leadership, he became obsessed and would suddenly fall into frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and speak and talk strangely, and prophesied contrary to that which was the custom from the beginning of the church. Those who heard him were convinced that he was possessed. They rebuked him and forbade him to speak, remembering the warning of the Lord Jesus to be watchful because false prophets would come.”– Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.1
Christian Science, a religious denomination founded in 1879, believes all is spiritual and that matter doesn’t exist making it modern day Docetism. Docetism was a major part of Gnosticism, it denied the involvement of physical matter in our salvation and in our lives – ultimately leading them to falsely attest Jesus only “appeared to be man.” Christian Science believes Jesus is divine but not God, and that all materiality is an illusion but this denomination also falls into Nestorianism with it’s disjunction between Jesus and Christ and Modalism which denied the trinity.
Gnosticism is alive and well in it’s ability to adapt into Western Christianity, hiding in the very thing it opposes. It is dangerously formless and able to manifest in subtle ways to reappear in order to deceive, especially to those that don’t even know it exists. Especially to those who are doomed to repeat history. We must stand against the false ideals with ultimate zeal and at the same time standing to help the person holding these beliefs in error with the ultimate love. Bishop Theophan The Recluse gives us insight into the latter times with the following quote that is all so relevant today:
“Although the name of Christian will be heard everywhere, and everywhere there will be churches and church services, all this will be only an appearance, while within there will be a true apostasy.”– Theophan The Recluse
Again, I don’t believe every single Protestant is an outright gnostic but these examples cannot be ignored for how gnosticism has become reborn in much of these teachings. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9. Just as we hold the same faith as our church fathers and martyrs, we have the same deception to face just in modern forms. The saints before us light our path, by the power of divine zeal may we defend with as much grace and unrelenting will as them.
If you made it through this as a protestant and feel a conviction from it, come home to Orthodoxy. Message me on Instagram (link is on the homepage) and I will help you.
(Sources – St. Ireneaus, Against Heresies. Eusebius, History of the Church. Kevin Cauley, Ancient Doctrine of OSAS. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy. JP Kirsch, Catholic Encyclopedia).