Thursday, December 16, 2004

The "Gnostic" Vs. the Sophist: Part 1

Some time ago one of the Reformed Catholics (TGE) posted a blog entry titled, “An Excursus on ‘Christian Society’ Relative to Certain Gnostic Distortions of ‘the Gospel’,” written in response to my November 30 blog entry, “Strangers and Aliens on Earth” blog entry. The last time I had taken the time to read something written by TGE was when he came out in support of Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong, praising Armstrong for his “exegesis” and criticizing me for closing the comments section of my blog. It was humorous to watch TGE squirm afterward as Armstrong turned against him and TGE was forced to close the comments section of his own blog! Poetic justice at its best : )

In any case, rather than tackle TGE's comments all at once (he is always long winded), I have decided to respond to his critique in the form of a (probably) four-part series. Below are the substantive(?) points TGE makes, followed by my comments:
pre-Reformation Christians very often talked about "the Gospel"--what it was, what it meant, and how it was to be lived out, and with the exception of isolated, usually extremely heretical sects, they always thought it had to do with the space-and-time phenomenon of "Christian society".
TGE does not say here whether he includes the New Testament church in his category of “pre-Reformation Christians.” I suspect he doesn’t (I’ve noticed that anyone who applies the word “catholic” to himself has a rather odd tendency to exclude the first-century church from this category)—nor do I think he believes them all that important to his thesis. If he did, he would be spending much more time on the things they had to say regarding this issue and much less time on the things 13th-century churchmen and later philosophers had to say.
Or, to transpose "Christian society" into common Reformed parlance, "the Visible Church"--which, contra common Reformed parlance (heavily indebted as it is to the Enlightenment, Revivalism, and Fundamentalism), . . .

Here we go again. Nothing can be understood apart from TGE’s brilliantly informed “I’ve read 1100 pages of secondary works” analysis of how influenced we all are by the Enlightenment. This is really the crux of the disagreement TGE has with the vast majority of Evangelicals, within which body he and his cohorts are nothing but a fringe (he'll deny he is an evangelical, of course, but I will assume it for the time being). His 3 1/2 years of undergraduate study in a fringe school located in the backwoods of Moscow ID has fully prepared him to disregard the rest of the Reformed and Evangelical community as a “cultural disease” to be rooted out by forming a “Christian society” based on ecumenical baptism.

Nevertheless, thanks to a wide variety of authors in many, many books I read over the course of several years before I came to New St. Andrews (but especially during my time here), I increasingly came to see that the Christian religion, the Christian Gospel, is about far more than "saving souls" from a radically "corrupted" order of "mere" space and time. I came to see, gradually and progressively, that the Christian religion and the Christian Gospel are fundamentally about a "societas Christiana"--a new order of society which in every area of human life under the sun--art, science, politics, literature, architecture, recreation, philosophy, history, jurisprudence, etc.--strives to bow its knee to the Sovereign Lord Christ, who sits at the right hand of God until all His enemies are made His footstool.

Here you have it. TGE's thinking on this has admittedly not been formed by Scripture, but by certain “books” he happens to have read. Who denies that everything a Christian does—indeed everything anyone does—must be done to the glory of Jesus Christ? Acknowledging that fact does not make a “Christian society” in which dwells unbelievers and enemies of the gospel, nor does it even imply it.
Now to the point of this entry. For some time it's been terribly interesting to me that many critics of this site and the work it contains like to harp on the very organizing theme of my work, "Christian society", by opining such things as that (1) there can be no such thing as a "Christian society" apart from "agreement on the Gospel" ("the Gospel" to them being abstractions about the relative roles of "faith" and "works" in justification), or (2) that Christians are just flat not called to create a "Christian society" in the first place (but rather to superficially string together a list of prooftexts which supposedly teach a "Real Clear Theology" of gnostic-like escape from matter and institutions and cultures, because all such things are irredeemably
When I posted the blog entry referenced above I highly suspected TGE would respond to it and reveal the true unbiblical character of his position. I was confident he would respond, and he has indeed responded—and in the process he has shown how little he understands (or regards—or both) the scriptural teaching on these things. He calls my blog entry “prooftexting.” We shall see whether this is a case of prooftexting on my part, or whether it is rather the case of a woeful lack of biblical thinking on TGE’s part.
These two objections are subsets of the same basic anti-incarnational outlook on the Christian life, and I find it interesting that its advocates are also utterly obsessed with rooting out other people's heresies while being seemingly entirely blind to their own--most egregiously their embodied denial of what they mentally affirm: the incarnation of the Word and what that mere fact alone says about how God Himself views matter and its transmission over time (as, e.g., by culture). As I said, these two criticisms are subsets of the same basic viewpoint, which I think owes more to ancient gnosticism--and one of its philosophical cousins, Platonism--than to anything found in the Holy Scriptures.
This is pure sophist nonsense; it reveals an anti-biblical mindset, and it reveals how little men like TGE understand about Scripture, or indeed Gnosticism. People like TGE are completely given to philosophical speculations. That is their entire world. They, along with some of their Roman Catholic bedmates, are sophists (for an insightful encyclopedia article on the characteristics of sophists, go to LINK). Sophists won’t engage you on the level of truth (in this case, Scripture); instead, they will look for ways to argue their point “by means of strange or flowery metaphors, by unusual figures of speech, by epigrams and paradoxes, and in general by being clever and smart, rather than earnest and truthful” (how many of us have concluded something very similar after engaging TGE in written dialogue?). The goal of the sophist is “to persuade the multitude of whatever they wish them to believe. The search for truth [in this case, what saith the Scripture] is not top priority.” Rather, the sophist sets out “to provide a stock of arguments on any subject, or to prove any position.” And they do this by weaving together complex and involved arguments that not only nullify the word of God, but would drive Ockham to use his razor on his own wrists.
I have argued repeatedly on this blog that the first criticism is inherently an anti-social phenomenon, based as it is in a gnostic-like reduction of reality to concepts floating around in and beamed back and forth between minds which are considered to be radically dichotomized from bodies (both literally as human physicality per se and metaphorically as cultures).
Yes, and unfortunately we been subjected to the same pointless arguments over and over again, and have in return pointed out again and again that repeating an assertion does not make that assertion any truer. As many times as TGE has argued this point, we have corrected him on it. He irresponsibly throws around words like “gnostic” as though he has a clue what Gnostics actually believed. Since when has “anti-social” behavior (not that I am for one minute conceding the legitimacy of that characterization) been a defining attribute of Gnosticism? And since when has Gnosticism been defined as belief in a “reduction of reality to concepts floating around in and beamed back and forth between minds”? The only part he has even partially right is the dichotomy between “spirit” (not “mind”) and “flesh” (not “bodies”). But then he has to engage in a metaphor to make his (already faulty) point apply to those dreaded “babtists.” For those of you unfamiliar with the “flowery metaphors” of sophists, “bodies” are in reality “cultures,” you see.
I have also argued repeatedly that this strictly mental understanding of "society" is one which is composed entirely of isolated, private individuals who can never be sure" (on their Enlightenment concept of "certainty") that anyone else really believes "the Gospel" like they themselves, the isolated, private individuals, alone with an "objective" (unmediated) set of "timeless truths", believe it. The final result of this truncated anti-worldview is like the old Scots-Presbyterian minister telling his wife, "There's no one left but me and thee, and I have my suspicions about thee!”
Cute and clever—and utterly removed from reality. Completely misrepresent your opponent’s position; that way it’s sure to look unreasonable. It is not I who is so obsessed with “certainty” that he has to posit looking back at his baptism for comfort that he truly is a Christian. For some reason, TGE can’t tell whether he’s a Christian merely by believing those “gnostic” promises of God (they are much too “propositional,” you see), by being led by the Spirit of God (Rom 8:14), and by being consoled by the internal witness that “bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16; 1 John 3:24, 4:13, 5:10)—there’s that “gnostic” influence of the NT writers again! Who is it that can never be sure? Not I. Who is it that can't be assured my brother is really my brother? Not I. But it certainly seems as though TGE has trouble with the biblical tests for Christian legitimacy, so he is forced to invent ceremonial ones that somehow ease his tortured soul. That way he can renounce objectivity in arriving at “unmediated” truth while somehow simultaneously arriving at “mediated” truth objectively. The final result, as we’ve all seen time and again, is “no one can know objective truth because there ain’t no such thing—and I can objectively know that because my great undergraduate reading has allowed me to rise above the thinking level of all those 'babtist' idiots and escape the Enlightenment paradigm to which everyone is enslaved except me and those who are enlightened by me.” Who’s the Gnostic again?

Now that we’ve gotten the misrepresentations out of the way, the question remains, Can we know whether someone else believes the “real" gospel (as though there isn’t such a thing)? The answer is, well of course! And that certainty is based on a number considerations, including right belief, right conduct, and right love. John spends the entire five chapters of his first letter convincing his readers that they should be applying tests to those who claim to be Christians, and he uses just the three tests I mentioned above (something TGE would know if he gave as much attention to understanding Scripture that he does to understanding Plato)–and, not surprisingly, not one of those tests is whether the person in question has been baptized! And since the Gnostics against whom John writes were once considered “of us” before they “went out from us” (1 John 2:19), it is of course assumed they had been baptized the way the Reformed Catholics require to be included in the covenant.

Paul responds similarly to the Judaizer heresy of his own day—again, never once making an issue of whether or not the heretics had been baptized (their baptism is everywhere assumed)—but focusing solely on the “gospel” they profess! Is there any question, then, that the views of men like TGE should be treated with anything other than contempt? TGE is at once introducing heresy into the church and condemning those of us who take a pass and say, “I’ll take the Scriptures, thank you.”
Ultimately this objection--that there can be no "Christian society" apart from [intellectual] agreement on "the [intellectual] Gospel"--says that there can be no "Christian society" because there are only an endless number of radically isolated Christian individuals.
What church consists of “radically isolated” Christians? Once again we have nothing but the sophist ramblings of a man who is both biblically inept and disconnected from reality. His arguments work only in theory; only in a vacuum; only in a closed system that doesn’t exist in reality. No one I know believes Christians are "radically isolated." No one I know believes that the church is a meaningless and powerless entity. No one I know thinks the way TGE thinks we think. Frenzied ramblings; but, unfortunately, nothing more.
All of these individuals, left to their own philosophical and hermeneutical resources (the only things they can really trust!), must decide things entirely for themselves and never allow any sort of authority external to what their own minds perceive as "clear" to regulate their public expressions of belief and their public practice of the Christian religion.
Again, nothing but incomprehensible ramblings that have no basis in reality. No one I know believes we must decide things in a vacuum and never allow any sort of external authority to guide and influence us. On the contrary, my works are filled with interaction from other sources, and my conclusions are the result of assimilating the various views. TGE, on the other hand, can’t be bothered by any “insight” he might gain from the Evangelicalism he “hates” (his word). He won’t be corrected or swayed by any churchman or denomination—including his own—unless he can ascertain upfront that (1) they have expressed an a priori affinity to his own foregone conclusions, or (2) they are centered in Moscow, ID and have acknowledged its holy status as the “New Jerusalem”—nay, that’s much too biblical a term; how about “New Constantinople?
This path is the path of the radical sectarian and it leads not to the Promised Land of a pure visible Church, but only to a sterile culture of those who, to borrow from Andrew Sandlin, want purity so much that they've helped to purify the culture of Christianity itself.
Witty words to be sure, but entirely devoid of truth or meaning, so off the mark is this characterization. But more to the point, it is completely uninformed by the mindset of the early church. Here are just a few of the “culturally sterile” instructions of the New Testament writers to the church:

"Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

"And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh" (Jude 22-23).

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).

"I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal 1:6-7).

"They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19).

"But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one" (1 Cor 5:11).

"Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? r what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, 'I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord. 'And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,' Says the Lord Almighty" (2 Cor 6:14-18).

"Do not be deceived: 'Bad company corrupts good morals.' Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame" (1 Cor 15:33-34).

I'll have more to say on this tomorrow in part 2 of the series.