This summer, my church is taking a break from its usual approach to adult Bible classes and going back to a more traditional approach — each class has a different subject. I thought I’d teach some new material on the Restoration Movement, tracing its roots all the way back to the First Century. I have no interest in trying to prove the continuity of the Churches of Christ back to Pentecost. That’s not the point of the series at all. Rather, the idea is to show through history how we became the people that we are.
And when I speak of being the people that we are, I don’t mean in contrast to the Baptists. I mean in contrast to what God meant for us to be. The goal is to help us see how various patterns of thinking have crept into Christianity (in the broadest sense) and how we in the Churches have sometimes rejected those errors while sometimes buying into other errors. Why reject some and not others?
We’ll see how it goes.
The first lesson is on Gnosticism, but I’d be better off, I think, to call it Platonism. It’s just that it’s gotten to be customary to speak in terms of the Gnostics.
Plato was, of course, a Greek philosopher who wrote centuries before Jesus. His works had become the centerpiece of Hellenistic thought in the First Century. After Alexander the Great had conquered the “world,” that is, the eastern Mediterranean areas east through Babylon and Persia, Greek thought had come to dominate the thinking of that part of the world — including Palestine. Indeed, Alexander’s successors worked diligently to convert the Jews to Hellenistic thinking and had some success. The Saduccees we read about in the Gospels were Hellenistic — and they included most of the priestly class.
Hellenistic thought had many features, but the one we want to focus on is Plato’s understanding of the spiritual world. He taught a radical contrast between the material and the spiritual. The spiritual is good and pure; the material is base and wrong. Thus, a “Platonic relationship” is love without sex — love being holy and pure but sex being base and wrong. This led to some Greeks honoring homosexual sex above heterosexual sex because homosexual sex had not prospect of creating children. It was seen as somehow purer.
Judaism, of course, took a radically different view of things. God’s first command to the married was–
(Gen 1:28a) God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
God could hardly have more clearly said that sex is good — a gift from God — and that bearing children honors the Father of us all.
Platonic thought also demeaned the Creation. This world is a poor imitation of the real thing in heaven. As Plato expresses it through the voice of Socrates,
Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other people up, they find themselves objects of scorn and ridicule.
According to Socrates, physical objects and physical events are “shadows” of their ideal or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by physical objects, physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances.
Thus, in Platonic thought, the physical world is a mere shadow, and not the real thing.
In Judaism, however, the physical world is made by God himself.
(Gen 1:31) God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.
When Christianity arose out of Judaism and expanded into the Hellenistic Gentile world, the two points of view quickly came into conflict. The most immediate problem was the difficulty the Greeks had with imagining God become incarnate: God in the flesh was a contradiction in terms to the Greek thinker.
(1 Cor 1:22-25) Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Another difficulty arose from one strain of Platonic thought: asceticism. The idea was that we can escape the evil of this material world by rejecting its pleasures. If we refuse all fleshly pleasures and instead focus on the purely “spiritual,” we come closer to God.
(Col 2:20-23) Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
(1 Tim 4:1-5) The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
The opposite approach also arose — antinomianism. The idea was that because the flesh is inherently corrupt there is no reason to even try to escape our fleshly natures.
(1 Cor 6:12-20) “Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”–but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
Some in Corinth argued, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” — surely meaning “Sex for the sex organs and sex organs for sex” — that is, that we were made to enjoy sex and therefore should do so — even with temple prostitutes. Paul argues against this on several grounds, one of which is —
19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
In other words, there’s an essential connection between our spiritual and fleshly natures. It’s not that the flesh is so far removed from the spiritual that we can’t control it. Rather, the flesh is so holy that God is willing to live within our bodies through his Spirit.
Now, while this kind of thinking was a serious problem in New Testament times, it became much worse later in a movement called Gnosticism. Gnosticism takes its name from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism took several forms, but became a substantial heresy within Christianity, producing volumes of writings that have been found and give insight into the peculiarities of this approach to Christianity.