Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Heaven in a Worldview, p2

"What? Ancient Near East?.... We thought you said Ancient West."

Part 1.

This is a continuation of examining "Heaven in a Worldview." We will begin today by examining the ANE and arguing the Ancient Israelite worldview fit within this conception. Heaven was "up" and Sheol was "down." This was clearly spatial and referred to both as "places."

II. A Spatial Dimensions to Cosmology and Eschatology in the Ancient Near East [ANE], first century Judaism and the Bible.

A. The Ancient Near East

1. It is generally recognized by Old Testament scholars and scholars of the ANE that ancient civilizations had a hierarchical cosmology. There are basically three levels to the earth, although some are more complex. There is the earth’s foundation which holds the earth up by pillars. Under the earth is “sheol” or the grave or some kind of underworld. This is surrounded by ‘the waters’ or ‘the deep’ or ‘lower waters’. Then there is the earth. Above the earth is a “dome” of “firmament” or “expanse” it holds up the waters that are above but also has doors or floodgates which allow, when opened, the rain to pour down. The mountains are generally seen as part of the structure that holds up the sky. Under this dome, the sun and the moon pass across their journey. Above the waters in the sky, on top of it all is heaven or the heavens. Heaven is seen as the dwelling place of the gods and the heavenly council of hosts.[i] From above it all is the throne of the god or gods. Cosmic struggles in heaven often overspill onto earth. Mountains are access points to the gods so that temples and altars are often placed at high points. The structures of ancient temples also mirror this hierarchical structure of the world, as one moves inward it is analogous to moving upward into the heavenly realm.

2. This cosmology is standard to the ANE despite difference in their creation stories. We will not explore the differences here but it is generally recognized the ancient Israelite view of the world participated in this same structure. One notable difference however is that creation in Genesis 1 did not involve chaoskampf, divine struggle with chaos, the deep, the sea, or between the gods.


3. Mesopotamian Cosmology. “In the opening tablet of Atrahasis, the great gods divide the universe between them, with Anu going up to heaven, Enlil (apparently) residing on earth and Enki (later called Ea) going down to the Apsu, the lower waters. A threefold division of the universe between the same three gods is found in Enuma Elish 4.137-146. Here, after forming the heaven and earth out of Tiamat’s body, Marduk settles Anu in heaven with three hundred of the Anunnaki…”[ii] Later Babylonian texts divide heaven into three realms.[iii]


4. Egyptian Cosmology. Egyptians held to three plates, the plate of the sky, above the earth, the plate of the primeval waters below the earth and below this is the underworld.[iv] Egyptians believed that one could ascend upward into heaven. “Now let the ladder of the god be given to me, let the ladder of Seth be given to me, that I may ascend on it to the sky and escort Re as a divine guardian of those who have gone to their doubles.” [Pyramid Texts 1:166] “Hail to you, daughter of Anubis, who is at the windows of the sky, the companion of Thoth, who is at the uprights of the ladder! Open my way that I may pass.” [Pyramid Texts 1:93][v]


B. The Old Testament


1. It is generally recognized by Old Testament scholars that Israelite’s had this same basic structure of the world.


So for example, “The usual Hebrew way of expressing the idea of “the cosmos” is the expression “the heavens and the earth” or its reverse (Gen 2:4). Occasionally a fuller phrase is used, such as “the heavens and the earth…and all their multitude” (Gen. 2:1), or “heaven and the heaven of heavens…the earth with all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). These phrases suggest a structured reality with parts that are separated from, but related to, each other. This would be in accord with the wider ancient Near Eastern worldview that envisaged the cosmos as a series of “layers,” the basic ones being the heavens, the earth and the lower waters. Such a threefold “layering” of the cosmos is found in the commandment against idolatry: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4 NRSV; cf. Deut 5:8).”[vi]


We see this same hierarchical view in Jonah 2 as Jonah goes cries from ‘the depth of Sheol’ and goes ‘into the deep’ with ‘the seas’. The great deep engulfs him (Jonah 2:5). He descends to the roots of the mountains with the earth’s bars (2:6). He fears he will not look upward to the Holy Temple and yet his prayers go into the temple (2:4,7). Given the close association between the Temple on Mt. Zion and the heavenly temple, which we will elaborate below, we do not have to choose between “is Jonah looking to the earthly temple, or towards heaven,” to look towards the former was to look towards the later.


2. In Genesis 1 we see the basic ANE view as God creates the heavens and the earth. The Spirit hovers over 'the deep.' There is an expanse/firmament that is spread. God then enters his rest which is associated with a ‘Temple’ in the ANE and sitting with the divine council in the heavenly.[vii] It is YHWH’s enthronement.[viii] Heaven is YHWH’s throne and the earth his footstool (Isaiah 66:1).[ix] Of course, the heavens do not ever “contain” God (1 Kings 8:27). Eden is created as a sub-temple for where Adam and Eve might rule as vice-regents whereas God rules over all creation (heavens and the earth) from the heavens. Thus, the language of Adam’s creation is kingly and royal grant language but is a microcosm of the God whose image he bears.[x]


“This idea that God built the cosmos to live in is not merely (or at all) an invitation to intimacy. The arrangements in this home indicate that there is appropriate distance between humanity and God.” So for example, the clouds cover and hide God’s throne as well as his appearances on earth (citing Ex. 19:16; 24:15-16; 40:34-35). From heaven YHWH looks down onto earth (Psalm 113:5-6; Genesis 11:5, after they decide to built a mountain to heaven). “’The heavens are heavens for Yhwh, but the earth he gave to human beings’ (Ps 115:16). Yhwh is like a seminary professor who welcomes students to live in her house and gives them the first story to live in as they wish (with implicit constraints), but keeps a room or two for herself on the second story. But the students, like the servants of a great house, always have the freedom and security of looking to the professor in her private rooms when they feel the need to do so (Ps 123:1-2)” [John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Volume 1 Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 86].


3. In Israel, the temple had a structure the mirrored the universe. The temple sanctuary was a microcosm of a larger cosmology. One would progress inward to the heavens (the holy place) and then into the throne of God (the holy of holies) which mirrored the same tiered structure of the universe.[xi]


“Temples in the Ancient Near East also generally exhibited the same three-part structure as found in Israel’s temple, often with the similar symbolic significance: outer court = the visible sea and earth where humans live; an inner court inside a building = the visible heavens (and also garden terrain); and a holy of holies = the dwelling of the god.”[xii] Thus, “Jewish tradition…also reaffirms the truth of Psalm 78 and Exodus 25, that the earthly temple corresponded in some significant manner to the heavens, especially a heavenly temple.”[xiii]


4. Mt. Zion and the temple are intimately connected and it fits perfectly within the view of the ANE.


Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson writes, “The cosmic mountain is a kind of fulcrum for the universe; it is on the line to which all the regions of the universe are referred, and it is somehow available to each of them. The base of the mountain lies in the chaotic underworld, and its head reaches into the heavens. On it, messages can be passed from heaven to earth and vice versa. It is the prime place of communication between the transcendent and mundane reality. Consider, for example, the account of Isaiah’s great vision of God enthroned in Isaiah 6:1-8. The relevant point about this justly famous passage is that it occurs in the Temple, in other words, on the cosmic mountain Zion. Isaiah is privileged actually to see the divine council, YHWH and his attendants, in session. The within the holiest room in the Temple, the sanctum sactorum (dĕbîr), was though to be either the throne or footstool of the deity…The earthly Temple is thus the vehicle that conveys the prophet into the supernal Temple, the real Temple, the Temple of YHWH and his retinue, and not merely the artifacts that suggest them. This Temple is an institution common to the heavenly and terrestrial realms; they share it.”[xiv]


Levenson continues latter with words that sound like they were plucked right out of Hebrews: “In short, what we see in Jerusalem is simply the earthly manifestation of the heavenly Temple, which is beyond localization. The Temple on Zion is the antitype to the cosmic archetype. The real Temple is the one to which it points, the one in “heaven,” which cannot be distinguished sharply from its earthly manifestation. Thus, when Moses is to construct Israel’s first sanctuary, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, he does so on the basis of a glimpse of the “blueprint” or “model” of the heavenly shrine which he was privileged to behold upon Mount Sinai (Exod 25:9, 40). This notion of the revelation of a heavenly model or blueprint (tabnît) to the moral Temple builder has deep Near Eastern roots.”[xv]


5. Other Biblical References:


a. God is described as the God of heaven.

Genesis 24:7 7 The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me,



b. God calls or blesses people from heaven.

Genesis 21:17 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.

Genesis 22:11 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I."



c. The way God blesses people is associated with this tiered structure of the universe:

Genesis 49:25 25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.



d. Jacob’s seeing the ladder descending and ascending into heaven is standard within the ANE worldview:

Genesis 28:12-13 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.



e. Concerning Sheol, it is clearly “down”:

Genesis 37:35 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father wept for him.


Genesis 42:38 38 But he said, "My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol."


Genesis 44:29-31 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.' 30 "Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy's life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.


Numbers 16:30 30 But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD."


Deuteronomy 32:22 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.



f. God’s activity of assisting the poor and raising them up, or bringing the humble low is associated with the tiered structure of the universe:


1 Samuel 2:6 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.


1 Samuel 2:8 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world.


1 Samuel 2:10 10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed."



g. God is both in heaven and with the humble person:


Isaiah 57:15 15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.



h. Heaven is the throne of God.


1 Kings 8:30 30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.


1 Kings 8:34-36 34 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you gave to their fathers. 35 "When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, 36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.


2 Chronicles 30:27 Then the priests and the Levites arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard, and their prayer came to his holy habitation in heaven.


Psalm 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.


Psalm 11:4 The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD's throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test, the children of man.


Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.


Psalm 123:1 A SONG OF ASCENTS.To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!


Isaiah 63:15 15 Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.


Isaiah 66:1-2 Isaiah 66:1 Thus says the LORD: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? 2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.


(See also Matthew 5:34-35, 23:21-22; Acts 7:49; Rev. 4:9)



i. The Lord is above the heavens, clearly denoting the realm of the sky (see diagram):


Psalm 113:3-6 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! 4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! 5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6 who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?



j. The heights of the heaven often becomes analogy a metaphor. This makes the best sense when understood in light of the tiered structure of the universe.


Psalm 103:11 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;


Isaiah 55:9 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.



k. In summation, “Alongside this conception [the sky and air as ‘heavens’] is the OT belief that heaven is the habitation of God (1 Kings 8:30; Ps 14:2; Is 63:15) and of angels (Gen 28:12; 1 Kings 22:19; cf. Is 6:2-3). Heaven either contains God’s throne (Ps 103:19; 1 Kings 22:19) or functions as the throne itself (Is 66:1). It cannot, however, contain him (1 Kings 8:27). Given this close association, he is referred to as the “God of heaven” (Gen 24:3; 2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2; Neh 1:4) who hears from his lofty abode both to judge the ungodly (Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 8:32) and to help his people (Ps 102:19-20 [MT 102:20-21]; 113:5-9; 1 Kings 8:30-52). Heaven, therefore, is the source of many blessings (Gen. 49:25; Deut 33:13; 1 Kings 8:35). Since God is understood to be “above,” he is sought there in prayer, often with upstretched hands (Ex 9:29; 1 Kings 8:22).”[xvi]


l. While our treatment of verses has certainly not been exhaustive and it in fact a mere random smattering, all these references, along with countless others, can be understood within the ANE culture and affirm the existence of a ‘place’ called heaven where God dwells on high.[xvii] We invite the reader to do a more detailed study of these verses in context, but our treatment here is sufficient to affirm the Ancient Israelite believed in heaven as part of the tiered universe. We trust we have not said anything here that is not commonly recognized by serious Biblical scholars and scholars of the ANE.


6. Conclusion:


a. Rather than denying heaven is a place in favor of only the earthly, the ANE worldview and the Hebrew OT within that worldview affirms that heaven is a place. It is a created place where YHWH has set His temple so that He might rest/rule over all creation. Yet YHWH is a God who continually condescends so that His dwelling place might be with man. We will see this is the hope of redemption as the tabernacle comes down from heaven to fill the New Creation with the new heavens and new earth.


b. Thus, “the Hebrew Bible is capable of affirming God’s heavenly and his earthly presence without the slightest hint of tension between the two: YHWH is in his sacred Temple, YHWH’s throne is in the heavens. (Ps 11:4)” (Levenson, Sinai and Zion, 140). This is the balance between transcendence and immanence. The Bible affirms both without eliminating either or placing the two against each other. Platonism and other forms of thought would have us favor transcendence over immanence, and it seems Doug Pagitt along with many other philosophies would have us affirm immanence over transcendence. Must we choose? Me genoito. The answer to immanence or transcendence is a resounding “Yes”.


c. The belief in ‘heaven’ as a place within the ANE and Ancient Israel should be clear testimony enough that such belief is not “Platonic.”




In our next post, we will continue by examining the evidence from first century Judaism and the New Testament. Part 3



[i] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005) p. 54 has a very clear diagram, clearer and better than the one we will provide below.


[ii] E.C. Lucas “Cosmology” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 133.


[iii] Ibid.


[iv] Ibid., 134.


[v] J. Edward Wright The Early History of Heaven (Oxford, 2002) 22.


[vi] Lucas “Cosmology” 137.


[vii] J.H. Walton “Creation” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 161. G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) 60-66.


[viii] Walton “Creation” 165.


[ix] Walton “Creation” 165.


[x] Beale, The Temple, 81-121.


[xi] R.E. Averbeck, “Tabernacle” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003) 817.


[xii] G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) 54. See the whole chapter for a defense of the cosmic symbolism of temples in the ANE, the OT, first century Judaism and the NT. The book as a whole is a wonderful treatment of ‘temple’ as a theme of Biblical theology and is to be highly recommended for reading.


[xiii] Ibid. 32.


[xiv] Jon D. Levenson Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper Row, 1985) 122-23.


[xv] Ibid., 140.


[xvi] J. Lunde “Heaven and Hell” Dictionary of the Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1992) 307.


[xvii] I’m sure someone will accuse this as proof texting. I would point out that I am not offering an exegesis of these verses, simply establishing veracity that the Ancient Israelites believed in heaven as a place and this was best understood within the ANE context. I would submit that any exegesis that handles these verses and in the end concludes heaven is not described as a place in the Bible is at best reductionistic and at worst blind to the plain evidence of the text itself. I am not attempting here a ‘systematic theology’ of heaven.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heaven in a Worldview, p1


"You heard me, I said you were Platonic."

Right now there is an interview with Doug Pagitt floating around the blog sphere. I first found it here and here. In it Doug Pagitt makes some remarks about conceptions of heaven and hell as 'places' as being 'Platonic'. This fits right along with the comments I've been making about accusations of Gnosticism being directed at Evangelicals because of various beliefs. So I am going to take a series of posts on the issue. I was going to treat it all in one post, but it has already become rather long. So I'm going to break it up.

It is a six part series:
Heaven and Hell as Spatial: Is this “Platonic”? (Part 1); The Ancient Near East and the Old Testament (Part 2); First Century Judaism and the New Testament (Part 3); Dualisms Misunderstood, the heaven/earth duality (Part 4); Heaven and Hell as Spatial in the Orthodox Creeds. (Part 5); The Twenty-First Century Christian and the Embrace of Heaven (Part 6).

I'd invite those unfamilar with the evidence to check out particularly parts 2 and 3. Part 4 examines Pagitt's work more closely, particularly some statements he makes in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches. Part 6 argues that for a Biblical worldview heaven is essential and that any 'emerging' view without heaven sacrifices too much; it also includes a postscript for all who embrace the orthodox creeds. ENJOY. Soli Deo Gloria.


As the song says “heaven is a place on earth.” Or at least that’s what Doug Pagitt would seem to proclaim. He seems to argue that a notion of heaven as separate from this earth is “Platonic.” Since I have recently been addressing accusations of ‘Gnosticism’ in standard Christian theology, I will turn and address this issues.

Doug Pagitt was recently interviewed on Way of the Master radio [mp3], he said some things to say about hell and Christian orthodoxy. You can follow the link and listen to what he says for himself before you make any conclusions about Doug Pagitt. Tons of internet junkies love to trash everybody and everything. Pagitt has his share of vitriol critiques and I do not want to attack the man. I also do not wish to judge or defend Way of the Master Radio and their ministry. Again, I don’t want to comment on the way either men conducted themselves. Rather I wish to provide an introduction to basic sources on the first century to show to think of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ spatially is not Platonic. While I do not consider myself within the streams of the “emerging church” I have sought and will seek “to offer critique only prayerfully and when necessary, with grace, and without judgment, avoiding rash statements, and repenting when harsh statements are made.” [source].

I want to take on Pagitt’s basic contention that the notion of ‘hell’ or ‘heaven’ as a place is Greek and Platonic not Hebraic. This goes along with my all too frequent rebuttals of this notion that evangelicals are Gnostic. I will first summarize the basic contention and offer a notion of ‘spatial’ that denotes heaven and hell as places but not necessarily within our “space-time continuum”. Then I will discuss the Biblical worldview and its Ancient Near East (ANE) and first century context. I will argue the incarnation and the ascension are essential for how we think of heaven. Finally, I will look at the basic creeds as well as Tertullian and Irenaeus to establish that by any normative sense of the word the notion of heaven and hell as a place is orthodox and not “Platonic”. This includes the sinners eternal condemnation to hell. My contention is that Doug Pagitt’s view, while admittedly not thoroughly articulated in the interview, is thoroughly unbiblical, it does not fit within the first-century Jewish worldview and the accusations of ‘Platonism’ towards orthodox Christians are at best a red herring and worst downright untrue.

I. Heaven and Hell as Spatial: Is this “Platonic”?

A. The interview with Pagitt, a summation.
After some phone questions the interview begins. In the interview, Doug Pagitt speaks of the ‘after life’ as the ‘forever more life’. Those who trust Christ before He returns, do experience life and communion with God that goes on ‘forever more,’ or as most refer to it: eternity (not thinking ‘unmoved stasis’). Pagitt says ‘we understand this through the resurrection of Jesus’. Existence in ‘the age to come’ is with a resurrected body.

After being asked about Jude 23 and ‘does he believe there is an eternal damnation.’ Pagitt goes on to describe damnation as parts of life and creation which are counter to life and what God is going. He says these are eliminated, removed and done away with. Pagitt then describes judgment as ‘God remakes the world.’ Then the host gives a standard orthodox definition of hell, lawbreakers damned to a place with weeping and gnashing of teeth, lake of sulfur, the worm never dies, eternal conscious torment (all Biblical images to describe something real). Then Doug Pagitt is asked “Agree or disagree”. Pagitt disagrees. So Todd Friel asks basically “What do you think hell is?” “Disconnection and disintegration with God” is the response. Doug then says ‘those sound like metaphors and not actualities.’ Then Pagitt accuses Friel of stringing passages together. After a question about where do Buddhist go when they die, Pagitt just shuts down. Pagitt says basically this suggests a place. ‘When you say: “Where do I go” your suggesting to me that the reign of God—the place of God, is an individual place that you go.’ And Friel confirms that is what he means. Doug Pagitt asks where is that place. Friel says it is called heaven. Friel affirms “we don’t know where it is exactly” but Pagitt jumps “why would you question where?” Friel responds just because we don’t know where it is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Friel says this is basic Christian questions and Doug Pagitt throws out that this is not a ‘no brainer’ but Freil has made a non sequitur. So the question changes: “what happens to my soul when I die.” Pagitt’s response is you interact with God, just as every other human being. Pagitt affirms you get judged, but God will judge, heal, restore and repair the life of everybody in the same way. ‘There is no difference between the way God interacts with you when you die and the way he interacts with the Muslim when he dies.’ There is a good existence: same experience for all of humanity; the same no matter who you are or what you believe. But then says he cannot tell you how God will interact with particular hypothetical person and to try to do so is “not at all within the bounds of historic Christianity” Friel says that this is exactly what historical Christianity teaches. Pagitt suggests one read Acts 16, 17 and 18. When Friel says condemnation to hell is orthodox, Pagitt accuses him of not being orthodox but ‘stringing together a series of pop phrases that you’ve heard that you’ve heard from the Bible and making up your own conclusions to them.’ Then Pagitt offers comments on how to do theology. Speaking of Friel’s handling of Scripture, he then says ‘this is not how a reasonable person interacts with the Bible.’ There is a back and forth about hermeneutics. Then Pagitt laughs when Friel wants to focus on one verse. So Friel presses: ‘what about judgment verses?’ ‘It is illiminated from what God is doing in the world.’ Judgment is ‘replacing disagreement with God [sin] with agreement. Judgment is when God recreates the world in the way it ought to be. The purpose of judgment is purifying.’ So the purpose of judgment is the recreation of the heavens and the earth. So Friel asks “who will be there”. Recreation is not another place. “Places” is what Pagitt gets hung up on. Recreation of all that exists. So Friel asks: ‘Is it a real thing?’ And Pagitt responds, “I’m starting to worry that what you are articulating is a Platonic understanding of the kosmos…What you are into is some kind of dualistic Platonic understanding of the of the kosmos.” Friel does respond to Pagitt that there is a sense yes and a sense no that God is distant and removed from the earth. Pagitt says “that would be consistent with a Platonic understanding that heaven is this other place.” Friel gets basic and asks with heaven and earth be a real place? Pagitt responds that it’s the “recreated heaven and earth.” Friel asks “whose going to be there”. Again stuck on ‘there,’ Pagitt says “I have a very difficult time working with the dualistic Platonist like yourself because I have to be taken back and remind myself that rather than following the Jesus narrative I have to go into Plato and Socrates’ understanding of the kosmos so I can end up with a heaven in one place and sphere by one set of rules and the other in another sphere…” Friel asks what is heaven and hell. Pagitt states that Friel is creating a concept and asking him to define it. He then tells Friel to go read Plato or Dante. After a question about preaching at a Muslim funeral and what hope we can offer, Pagitt says we can offer everybody, including the dead Muslim the same hope: reconciliation to God that comes through Jesus Christ. Pagitt laughs off Friel’s simple question about understanding that he is outside of orthodox Christianity with his notion of reconciliation for all. He tells Friel what Friel is suggesting is outside of orthodox Christianity “because its riddled with Platonism and riddled with a cosmology that would never be acceptable to Christians through the ages.” After a commercial break, the interview is basically over.

I would invite the reader to listen to the interview and see if I have misrepresented either side in any way [mp3]. I tried to recount the interview as objectively as possible. One should draw their own conclusions on the exchange. I would further point out, that we need to be careful not to unduly use the interview to ‘trap’ Doug Pagitt, it was certainly not a complete articulation of his full orbed beliefs. Nevertheless, he makes two basic contentions that are historically untrue and indefensible: (1) if you consider heaven as a place you have succumbed to Platonic dualism. (2) the notion of unrepentant sinners (non-Christians) being condemned to hell is not Christian orthodoxy.[i]

UPDATE: You can find an unofficial transcript here. This looks like the official transcript here.

B. A Couple of Terms:

1. For the interests of brevity, I will refer to Pagitt’s theory as the Platonic-universe theory or critique. This way, I do not have to refer to Pagitt’s theory in some longer sentence such as ‘heaven is a place is the product of Platonic thought.’ I will simply label what Pagitt has asserted as ‘the Platonic-universe’ theory for the sake of simplicity not to unduly stick a label on things. I recognize that Pagitt has more to his theology than this critique but it is just this critique we will address.

2. Defining “spatial”. I will attempt to argue that the heaven as a place was a notion consistent within the first century Jewish worldview. We will begin by discussing the basic tiered structure of the universe in the worldview of the Ancient Near East (ANE), which is clearly not Platonic. It is clear that while heaven is created, it is nevertheless a ‘place’. It is “above” the earth and about the firmament and upper level seas. In later Judaism, heaven is clearly the dwelling place of God even while He is actively inbreaking into His creation (particularly with the dawning age to come).

We can, in light of modern science, certainly acknowledge that heaven is not “up” in a physical or spatial sense. We do not have to deny its existence or be radically skeptical about it like the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who entered space and proclaimed “I don’t see any God up here.” Nevertheless, the true Christian confession maintains that Christ has ascended into heaven and because He goes there as fully incarnated, albeit glorified, it has to be a place. The incarnation is once for all time and continues into the ‘forever more life’. Heaven is created, while God is active in heaven, the locus of His glory dwells in heaven as a thrown over all creation, the presence of Christ there demands that it is a “place.” Thus, I affirm that we don’t have to know “where” it is in reference to our space-time continuum and the ‘earthly realm’ (including outer space and galaxies) is clearly distinct from heaven, yet we affirm heaven as a exists and Christ is there. We will argue that this is not Platonic.

The notion of a throne of God and Christ at God’s right hand is certainly a metaphor yet this does not mean unreal. All of God’s speech to us in condescended to our level so that we might grasp truth that are simply beyond us [Isaiah 55:9]. Thus, metaphors do not describe things that are less than real or less than actualities. Scripture lisps baby-talk so that we might grasp things beyond us. This is true of both heaven and the new creation since we cannot fathom what God has prepared for his people [1 Cor. 2:9].

3. Horizontal and vertical eschatology. I will refer to a horizontal eschatology as what we consider basically “salvation history.” This horizon moves towards a climax known basically as ‘the last days’[ii] or ‘the age to come’. This is standard within first century Judaism (e.g. IV Ezra) of Jesus’ day. It is also clear in the New Testament. For the New Testament eschatology is central to God’s revelation in Christ and the dawn of the kingdom. Yet, the kingdom is only inaugurated in an already not/yet.[iii] Another corollary of this Biblical position is a vertical eschatology. This accounts for the ancient worldview of tiers between sheol, earth and heaven along with the cosmic structures of temples and Mt. Zion in the Old Testament.[iv] This vertical element is sadly often neglected or at least relegated to virtual obscurity by contemporary Biblical scholarship though.[v] In this vertical, the Son is sent from heaven and ascends back into heaven where He reigns over all things with all things under His authority. The Son both sits at the right hand of the Father and stands to make intercession. Nevertheless the Son in heaven, the throne of God.[vi] This vertical element does not preclude God from being presently active in the world as the kingdom expands and God’s people are being transformed into His temple. In fact, the consummation of the horizontal progress is precisely the descent of the vertical and the remaking of all creation so that God’s dwelling is with man (Rev. 21:2). All creation becomes a new garden of Eden/temple for God and the light from the throne of God descended lights up everything (Rev. 22:1-5). Just as the horizontal climaxes so the vertical descends. The two are integrally wedded within a truly Biblical frame work. Yet this recreation does not preclude eternal conscious torment upon some (Rev. 20:15; Isaiah 66:24, et al).[vii]

In the next post we will pick up with an examination of the ANE, Biblical and First Century Jewish sources.

[i] Of course, both sides agree that reconciliation to God is through Jesus Christ, the question is do all people experience that reconciliation or do some not receive reconciliation and are punished in hell. It is possible that when Friel questioned Pagitt about knowing that he was outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, Pagitt thought Friel was only referring the idea of Christ' reconciling us. Friel was clearly referring to the notion that all without distinction are reconciled and restored. Either way, Pagitt seemed to clearly affirm that there is no eternal condemnation but all are restored and purified through the judgment, which is outside of the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy.

[ii] [ii] See Gen 49:1; Num 24:14; Dt 4:30; 31:29; Isa 2:2; Jer 23:5, 20; 31:17; Dan 2:28; 10:14; Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1-3 for 'the last days' and its cognates.

[iii] A standard perusal of relevant literature including George Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament, The Presence of the Future; Geerhardus Vos’s Pauline Eschatology, Biblical Theology, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, The Teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church; Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Paul and Jesus, When the Time had Fully Come, Thy Kingdom Come; Cullmann's Salvation in History, Christ in Time, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Beasley-Murray Jesus and the Kingdom; N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant, The New Testament and the People of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God, Moore, The Kingdom of Christ, and countless other works of Biblical scholarship.

[iv] We hope to expand this more but see G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) and Jon D. Levenson Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Cal.: Harper Row, 1985).

[v] Although see Vos’s Epistle to the Hebrews especially chapter 3. Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament p67, diagram and Murray’s Structural Strands in New Testament Eschatology. It is possible that we most Christians are so familiar with the vertical aspect that it is the horizontal aspect that is alien to us and rightly receives emphasis and attention. At the consummation of things, the vertical dimensions will disappear as God’s dwelling is with man (Rev. 21:2).

[vi] Matthew 5:34; 23:21-22; Isaiah 66:1; et al. John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,

[vii] We trust this is not stringing verses together although articulating a detailed exegesis of each verse within each respective context would turn all already long paper (series of posts) into an major book project. I would simply invite the person to embark on their own study of the verses and consult the relevant commentaries and exegetical treatments of the topic.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Gnosticism 101

Lore: "Of course, I'm better looking and more advanced."
Data: "But you also told me Gnosticism was the original form of Christianity."

Here's a copy from a Sunday School lesson I did a couple of years ago on Gnosticism and the Gnostic Gospels.

I. Who were the Gnositics and what do they generally believe?
A.
It is generally accepted that there is not a single monolithic form of Gnosticism but various gnosticisms or Gnostic sects that arose within Christianity perhaps as early as the late first century or within the second century.

B. The world ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge.

1. The Gnostics were concerned with obtaining heavenly knowledge through direct revelation from Christ.

2. They perverted the teaching of the Bible that associated the knowledge of God with aspects of our salvation.
John 17:3 (NASB95) “ This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Ephesians 1:18 (NASB95) I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,

Colossians 1:9 (NASB95) For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,


3. Gnosticism combined elements of Greek thought, especially Platonic thought, with a few scant elements of Christianity.

4. Gnostic thought was syncretistic and highly speculative. Several developments within the church may have contributed to Gnostic thought.

a. Marcion was a second century heretic who denied the Old Testament and selectively edited the New Testament books of the Bible. For Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was bad and evil. Jesus was good and so was Jesus’ Father.

b. Doceticism. This was a heresy that denied the true humanity of Jesus. This heresy was most likely already in its earliest stages by the writing of 1 John.

c. Just as one can question which came first “the chicken or the egg”, the rise of Gnosticism(s) is hard to trace in strict linear chronology.

C. General Gnostic tendencies.
1. Earthly creation was inherently evil. ‘Flesh’ stuff is bad!

2. Salvation consisted not in the redemption of the body, but the transcending of the spirit beyond the body.

3. The human predicament is ignorance not sin. Salvation was obtained through the reception of heavenly secret knowledge by entering the sect and following a teacher. These teachers claimed special revelation from the Christ-spirit.

4. There were three classes of human beings:

a. The spiritual. The spiritual were those who had the same divine spirit that Christ had but were simply “trapped” in a human body.
(1) Those “enlightened” shared in the same status (i.e. nature) as Jesus.
(2) In some circles, these were “Sethian” as opposed to those of Cain or Abel.
(3) Salvation is guaranteed for these. They are appointed for good.

b. The psychic (i.e. ‘soulish’). This group does not automatically have the knowledge and revelation that the spiritual have but they may attain to this knowledge through instruction. They are appointed for evil and good.

c. Those of the material, the fleshly. Those who will be destroyed because they have rejected the revelation of the Lord.

d. These categories were most likely determistic and descriptive of inherit properties to that class.

5. A radical cosmology.

a. The highest supreme being is the Pleroma (the Fullness), sometimes called the Father.

b. The fullness creates various sub-beings [archons] who exist in various levels of aeons. These aeons are like levels of heavenly existence that emanate outward from the fullness moving further and further away.

c. In some schemes, Christ is an emanation along the way.

d. The Fullness never comes in contact with the earthly creation that we know. The Gnostic can however work his way up through the various aeons.

e. Finally Sophia (Wisdom), a woman, unwisely makes a son Yaldaboath who makes creation. [Ap. John]

f. Creation was bad, so the ‘god’ who made creation (Yaldaboath in some texts) was evil.
(1) This Yaldaboath in the Apocryphon of John is the one who “arrogantly” says “I am God and there is no other beside me” this shows “he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come” [Ap. John 11,20 ].

(2) Yaldaboath says “I am a jealous God and there is no other God beside me.” [Ap. John, 13,9]

(3) He says “Come let us create a man according to the image of God and according to our likeness, that his image may become a light for us.” [Ap. John 15, 1-4].

g. The interpretations of how this all occurs vary, but the point is that it is wild cosmological speculation.

h. It is easy to see why Irenaeus reacted so strongly against Gnosticism especially at these points.

6. For the some interpretations Genesis 3 is a positive story because man comes to true knowledge. For others, the woman is blamed for her desire and seduction of the man. Some have the problem with womanhood being that Eve left man, still others see Adam, Cain and Abel as trapped and evil until the true heavenly Seth is created.

7. In some circles, true incarnation is denied since flesh is bad. The Spirit-Christ descends, but then leaves upon the suffering of the Jesus-body. The Spirit Christ scoffs from heaven at those who think ‘they got him’.

8. History and Salvation-History are uninteresting and inconsequential for Gnostic thought.

9. Resurrection is interpreted spiritually. Moving from ‘perishable to imperishable’ is interpreted as transitioning the body to the spirit. Thus, it is believed that Gnostics held that the resurrection had occurred at enlightenment and reception of heavenly knowledge.

10. Asceticism. Since the body and desire was evil, sexual relations were probably seen as bad. Although, it is possible (as Irenaeus tells us, Against Heresies I.6.3) that some of these teachers led women astray seducing them into adultery and sexual immorality.

D. Conclusion:
1. Notice how alien Gnosticism is to a Biblical worldview.

a. Humanity as created is essentially bad in a Gnostic view as opposed to fallen.

b. There is a total disregard for the redemption historical nature of God’s activity, which culminates in the incarnation and the work of Jesus Christ.

c. There is little care for the Old Testament.

2. There is a sort of neo-Gnosticism brewing today.

a. This neo-Gnosticism posits the rise of Gnosticism as acceptable within early Christianity so that at best Gnosticism and “orthodoxy” arose as equal strands within the first Christians, at worst Gnosticism is championed as the dominant strand.

b. Ironically, however, this neo-Gnosticism is an utter reworking of Gnosticism itself.
(1) The proponents generally like the idea of direct contact with God through the mystic experience.

(2) The proponents generally disregard the speculative aspects of Gnostic cosmology and ignore the clear sectarian and elitist attitudes within Gnostic works themselves.

3. In today’s culture, we not only need to be evangelists but capable apologists.

4. God has given us the tools we need to defend the faith. The church is the ground and pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

II. What to the Gnostic Gospels teach?

A. Let us be clear that the Gnostic gospels do not explain Gnosticism in its entirety. They are not a “Gnostic systematic theology.” Thus, the points of their belief I outlined above are not all covered in the Gnostic gospels.

B. What are the Gnostic Gospels?

1. The Gnostic Gospels generally consist of five works:
a. The Gospel of Thomas
b. The Gospel of Philip
c. The Gospel to the Egyptians
d. The Gospel of Truth
e. The Gospel of Mary.

2. The first four (Thomas being the most famous) were discovered in the Nag Hammadi scrolls. Although the Gospel of Mary is often published with these same scrolls it was actually discovered in the late nineteenth century, although unpublished until 1955. The work is found in what scholar now label as Codex Berolinensis.

C. At points in the Gnostic Gospels you can see allusions to New Testament phrases or verses but the theology is entirely alien.

1. The Gospel of Philip references the “first Adam” and “second Adam” or the “earthly man” and the “heavenly man” and “perishable/imperishable” natures. All these are clear allusions to 1 Cor. 15.

2. The Gospel of Thomas has some sayings and parables that we can find in the Biblical gospels, although in Thomas there are often slight and not so slight differences.

3. This gives clear evidence that these works were written at a time when the books of the New Testament were in wide circulation within the Christian community.

D. Many of the utterly silly remarks made by Dan Brown can be refuted with even the most cursory reading of the Gnostic gospels.

“The twist is this,” Teabing said, talking faster now. “Because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history.” Teabing paused, eyeing Sophie. “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.”[The Da Vinci Code, p.234]

“Fortunately for historians,” Teabing said, “some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda—to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base.” [The Da Vinci Code, p. 234, emphasis mine.]

1. For example, the Gnostic gospels are unconcerned with recounting the history of Jesus’ earthly life. They are concerned with telling us his secret revelation. Most notably, the Gospel of Thomas is a collection of wisdom saying not a record of the events of Christ.

2. The Gnostic gospels are not concerned with emphasizing the human traits of Christ. They are generally concerned with the revelatory role. Revelation is not experienced through human history or historical events but is “zapped” from heaven. It comes directly from Jesus, particularly in ‘spiritual’ post-death appearances.

a. The Gospel of Thomas does claim to be secret sayings recorded from Jesus’ earthly life yet they echo Gnostic ideas (which were clearly second century).
b. The Gospel of Truth however is highly speculative into ‘The Pleroma’ and how knowledge is revealed for salvation.
c. A large part of what we have left from the Gospel of Mary is Mary recounting to Peter her vision.
d. The Gospel of Philip is clearly anti-orthodox and anti-woman.
e. The Gospel of the Egyptians is by far the most speculative, particularly with respect to its cosmology and soteriology.

3. The Gnostics are neither feminists nor champions of equality. They are elitist, sectarian, and anti-women.

4. The Gnostic gospels reveal a very speculative theology.

5. Most obviously, no “secret grail story” is told in these so-called gospels. It is not if Brown is exegeting these gospels in his story.

6. Although they bear the term ‘gospel’ in their title, they bear little or no resemblance to the Biblical genre of gospel. The Biblical gospels lay claim to making decidedly historical references and accounts (along with their theology and literary structure).

III. Is Jesus more human in the Gnostic Gospels?
A. There is a lack of an account of Jesus’ life. Although the Gospels of Thomas and Mary claim to contain words from Jesus, these are not rival accounts of Jesus’ life. They are secretive words now revealed.

1. There is no recounting of the events of Jesus’ life.

2. There is no claim to be historical.

3. The Gnositics are not concerned with history and redemptive history.

4. Simply asking if someone has read the Gnostic gospels and the Biblical gospels is important.

B. The more divine, less than human Jesus.

1. There is the tendency in some places towards a docetic Christology. Jesus the human is bad; Christ the spirit is good.

2. There is a denial of the incarnation not to affirm Jesus’ humanity but to protect the divine-spirit-Christ.

3. Jesus reveals himself from heaven not humanly in history.

4. There are references to Christ’s Spirit [divine] and unbegotten Logos.

IV. Conclusion
A.
The existence of the Gnostic Gospels do not pose a looming threat to the orthodox beliefs of Christianity. We can rejoice and marvel at how these ancient documents were discovered and survived.

1. Christians can engage in historical studies without fear.

2. Our faith is not based upon myth or fabrication, as Brown claims.

3. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library does not compel us to “rewrite” the early history of the church; although the important find does shed more light on the development of the early Church.

B. Can the Gnostic Gospels strengthen our faith?

1. In the sense that they add to the truth of Christianity or bring new doctrines to light—NO!

2. Should their existence be treated as a threat? NO.

3. Will people be led astray by the Gnostic texts? Perhaps, but this does not come from simply reading them.

4. What if the existence of and the speculation within the Gnostic gospels help me understand the importance of the Biblical gospels? What if they cause me to appreciate afresh how “down to earth” the Biblical gospels really are?

5. I need to recognize that unbelievers have always opposed the true Gospel. They will always try to find excuses for rejecting the gospel.

C. We need to be aware that the Gnostic Gospels are “out there”. They are becoming more popular in pop-culture as a ‘source’ of ancient belief.

D. Apologetics and the Gnostic Gospels.
1. Challenge people to investigate the claims of Christianity.

2. Ask people to investigate the life of Christ.

3. Realize that no one comes at any book from a “neutral” or “dispassionate” standpoint. There is no “objective” observer.

4. Good historians must seek the oldest and most reliable source material. Gnostic origins are simply not credible.

5. We should not be surprised that people are being led astray. Keep in mind in sin, people will always suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

E. The evidence supports the authenticity of the Biblical gospels as early (easily within the first century) and well circulated together by the early second century (at the latest). However, the evidence is also that the Gnostic gospels are late, often within the second century or later.

F. Sometimes we think the truth of the Gospel rises or falls on our ability to defend the Gospel and have all the evidence of it at our metal command. The reality is that truth is grounded in the being of God. Now in light of the in history death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ—all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge reside in Christ (Col 2:3).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Are Evangelicals Gnostics? (once more)

"You can't be serious... can you? ...Oh wait, you are."

Earlier this month, I had a post entitled Are Evangelicals Soft Gnostics? It seems like this charge of Gnosticism is seriously offered once again, and Frank Turk from Pyromaniacs has posted about it on his blog. The post can be found here.

The comments begin over here by Bob Robinson at Vanguard Church. Again, they seriously maintain that evangelicals and their view of truth is a form of Gnosticism. I don't want to critique Bob Robinson's whole critique of MacArther's Truth War. Here is what Bob Robinson writes:

Statement #3:

“Truth (the simple truth of the gospel, to be specific) is necessary for salvation …(Romans 10:13-14). Scripture is clear about this: there is no hope of salvation apart from hearing and believing the truth about Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:21). That is why nothing is more destructive than false religion. Mere ignorance is devastating enough: ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’ (Hosea 4:6). But gospel-corrupting apostasy is the most sinister of all evils.” (pp. 119-120) {Qtd. from Truth War}

In light of MacArthur’s earlier warning against gnosticism, he had better be careful here. Remember that on page 89 of his book, MacArthur wrote, “Every form of gnosticism starts with the notion that truth is a secret known only by a select few elevated, enlightened minds. (Hence the name, from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge.)”

One signature motif throughout MacArthur’s book is that he continually insists that what saves you is the knowledge of the truth. This, again, is a form of gnosticism: it teaches that Christians have a secret knowledge (gnosis) and that people are saved from this earthly existence by believing the knowledge that we can explain to them.

  • For MacArthur, evangelism is explaining what he knows is the truth to others.
  • For MacArthur, salvation is when someone accepts and knows this truth.
  • Therefore, according to MacArthur, the key to Christian ministry is the proclamation of specific truths, so that people will hear these truths, accept these truths, in order that they too will be “in the know.”
MacArthur is quick to point out that Jesus is truth incarnate, and that we need a personal relationship with Christ in order to be saved. THIS is the gospel. I wish he said this more often in the book. However, the way he elevates “knowledge” as the key to salvation over and over again in this book opens him up to the accusation that he is the one that is hedging toward the apostasy of gnosticism, for it is not a secret knowledge of the truth that saves, it is a relationship with Christ that saves.
However, the way he elevates “knowledge” as the key to salvation over and over again in this book opens him up to the accusation that he is the one that is hedging toward the apostasy of gnosticism, for it is not a secret knowledge of the truth that saves, it is a relationship with Christ that saves.
So Frank Turk responds this way specifically to the charge of Gnosticism:
Now, for critics who want to peck at this dismissal of Robinson's claims, let me offer you this: when it can be said that Dr. MacArthur advances a secret truth which is not available to all men that makes matter evil and the immaterial the only possible good, and that he preaches a Christ who was not a real man whose death was only a symbol or a metaphysical representation, then you can start barking up the tree of Gnosticism and/or Docetism...
What Robinson had better be wary of is a misrepresentation of Dr. MacArthur and the Gospel which he proclaims – because that's what's at issue here: whether the Gospel is proclaimed or if it is hidden. The Gospel is a public event, something (as it is said in the book of Acts) not done in a corner. And it is because of this aspect of the Gospel – the lifting up of Christ that all men may be drawn to Him – that there is –nothing- Gnostic about the Gospel MacArthur preaches.
Responding specifically to the bullet points above (and the paragraph prior to it):
This is a classic error on the part of novice critics of Christianity in general and critics of Baptists in particular. On the one hand, they confuse the categories of "proclamation" or "evangelism" with "apologetics" or "defense". On the other, they are seeking to press the philosophy of "gnosis" into service just because of the Biblical statement that we should "know" Christ. 
"gnosis" is a secret knowledge which one gains by private means, sometimes referred to as an interior light or spark from God. What Dr. MacArthur advances, in the most obvious terms possible, is a knowledge of God obtained by public and special revelation on the part of God through Scripture and ultimately through Christ. 
Only someone with no real understanding of either the Bible or Gnosticism could come to the conclusion that evangelical faith is appealing to a private center – but it would serve one well to compare that to some of the statements coming from guys like McLaren and Bell.
What gets lost within the whole critique of 'evangelicals are Gnositics' is an understanding that Gnosticism developped out of Orthodox Christianity. They took certain conceptions, like truth, and perverted the whole thing. They took things like Paul's flesh/Spirit dichotomy (which is an eschatological contrast) and they corrupted it within Greek notions of flesh/body and spirit/noncorporeal. They took the notion of Christianity having and proclaiming truth, things that must be believed to be saved, and they turned it into private esoteric teachings reserved for a view special elite elect. {Next we'll hear that Calvinism is Gnostic too}. Gnosticism arose within a framework of Christianity, it took 'old words' and 'concepts' that rested on Biblical things and embodied {err...enfleshed =) } them with new meaning. Trying to reflect Biblical language and teaching the necessity of truth or the Christian's need to grow in knowledge and understanding does not make one a Gnostic.

The Bible does speak about coming to "a full assurance of understanding resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself" (Col. 2:2). So a Gnostic could take this and use the word's knowledge and mystery and teach something completely different. Paul prays that we might give believers "a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened" (Eph. 1:17-18). Col. 1:10 also speaks of 'growing in the knowledge of God,' and Phil. 1:9, 'that we might grow in knowledge and discernment.' Colossians 3:10 "and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

The goal of the church is to grow until "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood," Eph. 4:13 (more buzzwords Gnostics could have used). Of course we are to know Christ's love that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19).

Paul's apostleship is so that believers might grow in their knowledge of truth "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness," (Titus 1:1). In 2 Timothy 3:7 it is the ungodly who are "always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth." The pastor must be one who can be "correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth," (2 Tim. 2:25). Repentance before God does bring one into deeper 'knowing of the truth.' 1 Timothy 2:4, salvation and the knowledge of the truth are synonymous "who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." [This of course does not mean exhausitive knowledge of all things, but we do know the truth, that much is certain.]

Or in Peter: "or if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, " [2 Peter2:20]. Two elements here: defilement of the world, and knowledge of Jesus, would have been fuel to the Gnostic fire. 2 Peter 1:3 "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence," Check out 2 Peter 1:2, 5,6,8 and 3:18. Or Hebrews 10:26.

Or in 1 John, countering perhaps a proto-Gnosticism, we 'have knowledge' (1 John 2:20).
Luke 1:76-77 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,

Jesus Himself speaks this way:
Luke 11:52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."

He also speaks of the need to have the gospel revealed to us, which became more key words that Gnostics false gospel used to latch on to:
Matthew 11:25-27 25 At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. [see parallel Luke 10:21-22].

Matthew 16:17 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

"Through this, the gospel of the one who is searched for, which was revealed to those who are perfect through the mercies of the Father, the hidden mystery, Jesus, the Christ, enlightened those who were in darkness through oblivion. He enlightened them; he showed them a way; and the way is truth which he taught them." Gospel of Truth, 18.14-21.

"Then, if one has knowledge, he [the Father] recieves what are his own and draws them to himself. For he who is ignorant is in need, and what he lack is great, since he lacks hat which will make him perfect. Since the perfection of the totality is in the Father and it is neccessary for the totality to ascend to him and for each one to recieve what are his own, he enrolled them in advance, having prepared them to give to those who came forth from him." Gospel of Truth, 21:11-25.

Notice the overlap of language but not concepts. "Revelation" "perfect" "mercies," "mystery," "enlightened," "were in darkness," "showed them a way" and "truth...he taught them."
"There is a light within a man of light, he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness." Gospel of Thomas, 24.

"I took my place in the midst of the world, and I apeared to them in flesh. I found all of them intoxicated; I found none of them thirsty. And my soul became afflicated for the sons of men, because they are blind in their hearts and do not have sight...when they shake off their wine, then they will repent." Gospel of Thomas, 28.

"When will you become revealed to us and when shall we see you?" Gospel of Thomas, 37. vs. Luke 17:30 "so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed."

Gnostics held that the body of flesh was evil and the noncorporeal was good. They did not have a doctrine of 'total depravity' because in some people their was a natural spark of inner goodness and light that could receive truth. The Biblical notion is that the whole person is corrupted and depraved by sin. Historic evangelicalism does not recieve belief to those who have an inherent inner light. Rather God's light must penetrate and bring to life the dead heart. The Spirit does this where He wills according to the giving of the Father. This Biblical doctrine is hardly Gnostic elitist conceptions of 'revelation.' The gospel does shine light into us (2 Cor. 4:6). We come to see and understand the truth.

Confronting Gnosticism Irenaeus says "For the Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God; to whom also did the Lord declare: "He that heareth you; heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and Him that sent Me" [Against Heresies, Book 3, preface.] Thus, true believers can speak of a 'knowledge of truth' without being Gnostics. There is a clear distinction.
Here is another:
It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another God as the Father. And for this reason Paul exclaimed, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth:” not that he meant to inveigh against a true knowledge of God, for in that case he would have accused himself; but, because he knew that some, puffed up by the pretence of knowledge, fall away from the love of God, and imagine that they themselves are perfect, for this reason that they set forth an imperfect Creator, with the view of putting an end to the pride which they feel on account of knowledge of this kind, he says, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth.” Now there can be no greater conceit than this, that any one should imagine he is better and more perfect than He who made and fashioned him, and imparted to him the breath of life, and commanded this very thing into existence. It is therefore better, as I have said, that one should have no knowledge whatever of any one reason why a single thing in creation has been made, but should believe in God, and continue in His love, that, puffed up through knowledge of this kind, he should fall away from that love which is the life of man; and that he should search after no other knowledge except [the knowledge of] Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was crucified for us, than that by subtle questions and hair-splitting expressions he should fall into impiety. {Against Heresies, Book 2, XXVI.1}
It should go without saying, but it almost cannot, that knowledge is not mere intellectual assent in the Biblical passages. It is not mere recitation of 'facts'. Knowledge most likely has a covenantal conception and aspect to it. Yet 'knowledge of God' is not less than knowledge about God, but it is certainly more. Faith does invovles: notitia (knowledge), assensus (belief), and fiducia (whole hearted trust). Faith is directed at the person. Yet I cannot ever know a person if I don't know things about the person. So for example, my wife would question how well I "know" here if I never remember things about her, what she likes, who she is, who is her family, where she grew up, etc.

To say "knowledge of the truth saves" is not to say "a secret knowledge of the truth that saves." To say "knowledge of the truth saves" is not to radically dichotomize salvation outside of a 'relationship to Jesus.' The Gnostics could have just as easily claimed "their relationship to Jesus saved them" had they been prone to such contemporary expressions. For example, "the kindom is inside of you and it is outside of you" (Gospel of Thomas, 3); "He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him" (Gospel of Thomas, 108); "For the Son of Man is within you" (Gospel of Mary 8.19-20); and "He gave them the means of knowing the knowledge of theFather and the revelation of His Son. For, when they had seen him and had heard him, he granted them to taste him and to smell him and to touch the beloved Son" (Gospel of Truth, 30.24-32)

Knowing God is eternal life. It is not a means to eternal life; it is eternal life:
John 17:3 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

A simple perusal of John's Gospel shows us that knowledge of truth and belief in that truth is essential to salvation. Truth is more than just the embodiment of a person, although it is not less than the incarnate Son. Truth is found in God's Word and is to be believed and recieved by the disciple of Christ:

John 5:37-40 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

John 5:46-47 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"

John 7:16-18 16 So Jesus answered them, "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17 If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18 The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.

John 8:31-32 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

John 8:44-46 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?

John 14:6 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:17 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 16:13 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

John 18:37-38 37 Then Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world- to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." 38 Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, "I find no guilt in him.

John 19:35 35 He who saw it has borne witness- his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth- that you also may believe.

Truth is to be believed. It involves putting our trust in a person, but alas it is more. We believe His Word, the Bible. Salvation involves believe the truth and accepting the truth, the person and the Written Word testifying to the person and work. There are certain truths we must believe in order to be saved (e.g. 1 John 2:22, 4:1-3; 2 John 1:7). These truths must be believed and confessed. In John 8:24, on the "I AM" statements we are told that if we do not believe that Jesus is God we will die. Truth is the be believed in order to be saved. We must know the truth, affirm that it is true and trust the truth. This is directed both and the person and the things about the person, that He is God and He came in the flesh.

Finally, Gnostics were spiritual elitist. They 'knoweldge of truth' was reserved for a few. It was not openly proclaimed but shared secretly. The Church both ancient and into today's evangelical world holds that while truth is essential to salvation it is not reserved or only privately passed on to those who merit it. It is openly and publically proclaimed. There is a free offer of the gospel to all. In this respect, evangelicalism in its best and purest expressions lacks the elitism of Gnosticism even though it proclaims Biblical Christianity alone, Christ alone, is the truth. It certainly is elitistism and is evil when people hold that truth can only be passed on to a people of a certain race, class, econmic group, culture or certain meritorial status (either externally or by internal 'natural' light). This evil should not cause us to reverse from the Biblical notions of Christians recieving and believing truth and the inward work of the Spirit by His own will to 'reveal' (John 3:5-8; Matthew 11:25-27; 16:17; 2 Cor. 4:6; 1 John 2:20; et al). I am unaware of anyone, MacArthur or otherwise, who is solidly and historically evangelical who proclaims that there is a "secret knowledge of truth" that saves and this is distinct and different from what is commonly expressed as a "relationship to Jesus Christ."

If heresy is taking the truth and twisting it so that pendulum swings far off center, we do not respond to it by swining too far off center the other direction. In the same manner, we do not take those who are seeking to be 'on center' and accuse them of heresy because they may use the same words or their concepts might superficially look and sound 'too close for comfort.' We confront heresy by standing on the Word of God and seeking as best a humanly possible to proclaim the original intent. This is not to suggest anyone is perfect in these matters. Lack of perfection does not excuse us from trying nor should it make us the target of a new breed of 'heresy hunters.'

Here are a couple conclusions:

AXIOM #1: The use of the words like 'gnosis' do not a Gnositic make.

AXIOM #2: The Bible teaches belief in the truth is essential for salvation.

AXIOM #3: Gospel proclamation is the pronouncement of truth so that believing the truth [namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus], we might be saved.

AXIOM #4: The Bible teaches that Christians do believe the truth. They place faith and trust in a person and key things about Jesus' person and work.

AXIOM #5: A close association between truth, belief and salvation does not make one a Gnostic.

AXIOM #6: Emphasis on one aspect of salvation (such as knowledge of truth) in a particular context, particularly for a point of argument or polemics, does not automatically entail a reduction of salvation to that concept alone or a denial of other essential aspects. [umm...Galatians anyone].

AXIOM #7: We cannot radically dichotomize 'knoweldge of the truth' from 'relationship with Jesus Christ'.

To accuse someone of a Gnostic heresy, or 'hedging towards it,' it will not do to say they use words and phrases that sound similar to Gnosticism. It was the nature of the Gnostic heresy to intentionally use words that already sounded similar. For example, words and phrases like revelation, perfect, mercies, mystery, enlightenment, 'were in darkness,' 'showed them a way,' and 'truth he taught them'. Or concepts like 'truth for salvation' and 'knowledge of salvation' and other permeatations. We can find both Biblical and Gnostic uses of such words, phrases and conceptions and to the extent that we can even identify areas of apparent overlapping conceptual usages. Once we delve deeper they are pointing to wholly different paradigms, something we can argue for the present day evangelical and Gnosticism. Here's the point: Heresy uses "borrowed capital" and balances it within a worldview that is unbiblical, that is after all the nature of unbelief.

It will not do to define someone as a Gnostic because "evangelism is explaining what he knows is the truth to others"--John's Gospel tells us as much, not to mention a plethora of other Biblical passages. Futhermore, one is not a gnostic because "salvation is when someone accepts and knows this truth"--the Bible makes a case that this is essential to salvation. John MacArthur and evangelicals have never argued that this is all that is involved in salvation or the fruit of salvation. Finally, to argue for gnosticism because "the key to Christian ministry is the proclamation of specific truths, so that people will hear these truths, accept these truths, in order that they too will be 'in the know.'" is hardly a substantive charge. Ministry is more than this of course, and yet Paul tells us: "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ" [Col 1:28] and "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" [2 Cor. 4:5]. Christian ministry in the whole body is more than proclamation. But consider this: in Acts 6 the Word was so central that other men were tasked with the ministry of food needs and such so that the leaders would not neglect the ministry and proclamation of the Word.

This new charge from some, particularly those favorable to or within the emerging crowd, that the evangelical word is 'Gnostic' is blown way out of wack. It fails to wrestle seriously with the essentials for engagement: (1) the nature of Gnosticism and it perversion of Christian terms; (2) the commands in the Word of God using the same terms and similar concepts and (3) the whole orbed aspect of various ministries such as John MacArthur's but also those prevalent within larger evangelicalism as a whole.

It is ironic that this charge continues to be leveled. This is particular disturbing and frustrating when one expression claims that emerging desires "To seek peace among followers of Christ, and to offer critique only prayerfully and when necessary, with grace, and without judgment, avoiding rash statements, and repenting when harsh statements are made. " [source]. Of course, we recognize no Christian perflectly follows their principles and we do not expect moral perfection short of glory. Nevertheless, rather than spinning and respinning, telling and retelling the charge and even trumping it up for pizzazz, why not listen to those who respond to it and move on? There will continue to be areas of disagreement between various forms of emerging and various forms of evangelicalism, but let's at least be fair and understand how both positions articulate themselves on their own terms. Some may find Truth War to be an unfair attack on their beliefs, but what justifies a response in kind?


ADDENDUM: Later in the comments thread on CenturiOns blog Bob Robinson ended with the following: "I will be writing a rejoinder at Vanguard Church, for you have correctly pointed out that I overstated my case about MacArthur's gnostic views...MacArthur is too strident and too sweeping in his critiques of the emerging church, and in my zeal to point that out, I was guilty of the same." So we'll see what happens. He then posted his reply here.

Excerpts: "In my last post on John MacArthur's book critiquing of the Emerging Church (MacArthur Fits His Own Criteria for an Apostate), I ended up doing to MacArthur what he does to the Emerging Church.... I was not clear that MacArthur's brand of dispensationalism is more developed and nuanced than Chafer's, and thus is not gnostic. Therefore, my point was lost. I apologize for accusing MacArthur of something that is not true." He maintains overall point about MacArthur's hasty judgment about 'apostasy' of some. I have not nor do I have any intention to address that here. All's well that ends well.

In this age of high techno-phalotonology things are over as quickly as they began. Will anyone learn anything substantive out of this or is it one rant, followed by a series of rants, followed by a rejoinder?
FYI, I think I can agree with this Mark Noll quote: "The supernaturalism of dispensationalism... lacked a sufficient place for the natural realm and tended toward a kind of gnosticism in its communication of truth." (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. p.132). I think I can say this because very strict classic dispensationalism lacks some of the elments that I noted protect Christians from Gnosticism. Noll's key words are "tended toward...", Dispensationalist never hold that matter is evil or deny the resurrection of the body. Noll's larger point is the intellectual disaster of fundamentalism which I agree with so far as I understand its history.
"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...