Thursday, August 02, 2007

Rodney Stark on Gnosticism

April DeConick has blogged on Are Gnostics Fringe Believers? where she writes:

The literature produced by the "other" forms of Christianity looks scant only because the members of the Apostolic Church burnt it. But these other Christians were equally prolific in their writing and instruction. We happened to get lucky with the NH and Tchacos finds, which recovers part of this other literature. From it we can tell that they were very very sophisticated theologically, and were often critical of theologies of the Apostolic Church. And we can see theologies develop within the Apostolic Church that respond to the criticisms of the other Christians. The theology of the Apostolic Church would not have become what it did without the Gnostics and other Christians (and Jews) as dialogue partners.

An interesting counter-point is provided by sociologist Rodney Stark, and I provide below a few quotes from his book Cities of God (see the side bar for more details).

Purely as a matter of faith, one is free to prefer Gnostic interpretations and to avow that they give us access to secret knowledge concerning a more authentic Christianity, as several popular authors have recently done. But one is not free to claim that the early church fathers rejected these writings for nefarious reasons. The conflicts between many of these manuscripts and the New Testament are so monumental that no thinking person could embrace both (p. 142).

Elain Pagels stresses that the Gnostic writers 'did not regard themselves as "heretics"'. Of course note. But the issue of heresy is hardly a matter of self-designation. Let us assume that these writers (including forgers) sincerely believed that they possessed the truth and that the conventional Christians had it all wrong, while the conventional Christians were equally sure that theirs was the true Christianity. Within the confines of faith, the charge of heresy can be resolved objectively only on the basis of which side more accurately transmitted the original teachings of Jesus. That decision must come down to sources (152).

Had the Gnostics prevailed, they presumably would be viewed today rather more in the manner that Pagels and other 'Ivy League' Gnostics would wish, assuming that such a thing as Christianity still existed. But the Gnostics did not prevail, because they did not present nearly so plausible a faith, nor did they seem to understand how to crate sturdy organizations. Instead, most of them did and taught their own 'thing'. To sum up, the Gnostics gospels were rejected for good reason: they constitute idiosyncratic, often lurid personal visions reported by scholarly mystics, ambitious pretenders, and various outsiders who found their life's calling in dissent. Whatever else might be said about them, surely they were heretics. As N.T. Wright put it, they 'represent ... a form of spirituality which, while still claiming the name of Jesus, has left behind th every things that made Jesus who he was, and that made the early Christians what they were' (p. 154).

My comments:

1. I like the word "nefarious" and I intend to use it more in daily conversation.
2. I love the term "Ivy League Gnostics" and if you've ever sat in an SBL seminar with a Harvard or Vanderbilt graduate you'll know precisely what Stark is talking about.
3. If the question of "orthodoxy" is determined by theological continuity with Jesus and the Apostles, then the idea of "heresy" is a real possibility and is not a later imposition by an ecclesial oligarchy. The innovation of the Marcionites, Valentinians, Montanists, and Gnosticis is what sets them apart from the proto-orthodox. Note Irenaus' comment: '[E]very one of them generates soemthing new, day by day, according to his ability, for no one is deemed "perfect" who does not develop among them some mighty fictions' (Adv. Haer. 1.18.1).
4. The proto-orthodox won for a reason, and I think Stark outlines what those reasons were.


Chris Tilling said...

"I like the word "nefarious" and I intend to use it more in daily conversation."

You watch too much Blackadder.

Sean said...

This is great stuff here! Two things: Where is the N.T. Wright quote from? Got a reference for that?

Secondly, has anyone explored the notion that heresy is a deviation from the tradition of Jesus? That sounds like a helpful line of thought...

thanks much, ciao

Geoff Hudson said...

The proto-orthodox who defined their own religion could not have been the same as the earliest christians who came out of Judea.

Well yes Stark in his crowing tone of writing gives one good reason to understand why the proto-orthodox won - he sounds just like the Paul of the Pauline editors, only Stark I presume is real.

Early church fathers not nefarious?

One could find Stark's terms applied to gnostic gospels ('lurid personal visions reported by scholarly mystics', 'ambitious pretenders', and 'various outsiders who found their life's calling in dissent') have at least some application to the New Testament.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I mostly agree with this. I think that it is undeniable that once the early Church had imperial power, it used that to suppress heretics. But I think it is also true that Ivy League Gnostics have used this to avoid the question as to whether or not the suppressed groups really were heretical. (It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with a free market of ideas in early Christianity.)

I tend to support the orthodox line most of the time and to be suspicious of the claims of Neo-Gnostics. But I do wonder whether the Montanists were really heretics or just suppressed because they still supported male/female equality and the leadership of the Spirit. It is hard to say when the only surviving descriptions were written by their foes.

It is my Anabaptist history that puts me in this middle ground. Most Anabaptists were orthodox, but were declared heretical and violently suppressed. If the official lies told about us were so wrong, can we assume that all the other official stories were true?

JD Walters said...

Why assume that Rodney Stark is real? After all, he is writing in support of a fairly orthodox interpretation of Christian origins, so 'his' writings MUST be the product of a long and contentious editorializing process and then an arbitrary name from the legendary past was slapped onto them for good measure.

This is the kind of madness that overtakes those who embrace these pseudonymity theories. With this kind of reasoning, virtually any great writer can be deconstructed due to alleged 'inconsistencies' in their writing and presto, everything from Shakespeare to Ian McEwan turns out to be the product of a shadowy editorializing committee. Please, spare us.