Its Not About You!

In Against the Protestant Gnostics, Lee contends that for gnostics of all historical types, salvation is about knowledge of the self for the sake of the self, as opposed to knowledge of the mighty acts of God:

As far as the gnostics were concerned, the “many” were overly fascinated by historical happenings, even by the historical events in the life of Christ. Elaine Pagels, writing on the ahistorical views of Heracleon, reports that he claimed: that those who insist that Jesus, a man who lived in the flesh, is Christ fail to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. . . . Heracleon goes on to say that those who take the events concerning Jesus “literally”—as if the events themselves were revelation—have fallen into flesh and error. Concern about the mighty acts of God in both the Old and New Covenants was from a gnostic perspective a lower stage in the development of an authentic Christian understanding. To know Christ was not in any sense to have knowledge about the “historical man of flesh and blood” but rather to be personally related to the mythical heavenly being who liberates humanity from historical concerns…

…The reason for this totally different concern of the gnostics is their conviction that the root problem of humankind is ignorance. Judaism and Christianity in their orthodox expressions would understand the basic source of all our misery to be sin, humanity’s failure to meet God’s expectations or its own potential; gnosticism would see the human predicament as resulting from a profound blindness concerning the human situation. “Ignorance of the Father,” states the Gospel of Truth, “brought about anguish and terror. And the anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see.



What Breeds Gnosticism?

Before delineating the various aspects of the gnostic type, it should be understood that the one primary ingredient for the birth of gnosticism is a particular mood. The mood is one of despair. The gnostic solution can be satisfying only to those who have no tangible or rational hope. Because a certain number of people at every stage of history are caught up in despair, gnosticism of one sort or other always has a following. Throughout Christian history, certain individuals and small groups have been drawn toward the gnostic way. That historical reality is not terribly alarming; every great religion has variations on the theme. When, however, we come to a period like that of the first four centuries of the Church, when the gnostic way almost prevailed, how can we speak of a mood? Can an entire culture be in despair? And if so, why?

-Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics

Saving Knowledge?

Philip Lee summarizes a basic gnostic approach to salvation in his Against the Protestant Gnostics as follows: 

What the gnostics knew was saving knowledge, a saving technique concerning the self. Probably the most often quoted gnostic formula sums it up: “What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.” If the Gospels were written “that you might know the reliability of the words concerning which you were instructed,” 7 then perhaps it could be said that the gnostic texts were written so that the gnostikoi could know the truth, not concerning words, but concerning their own salvation. In gnosticism, there was not that extra step of going to a sacred literature which existed quite apart from the self and finding in it, as a fringe benefit, a truth that could be applied to the self. In gnosticism, the Scripture was sacred only insofar as it saved the self. Again, what was known in gnostic circles was personal. If it was not personal, it was not gnostic.