Panentheism: Nexus of One-World (Pagan) Religion

Social Gospel 101 - Panentheism

Panentheism is not new, stemming as it does from Neoplatonism; and not rare, being widespread, in various forms and to various extents amongst the intelligentsia; yet is an unfamiliar term, even to most people who have encountered it in some form.  It is a man-made, philosophical religion which denies the authority of Scripture and brings together many threads of philosophy and speculation, including Neoplatonic Mysticism, speculative philosophy and theology, select elements of Christianity and other religions, speculative science (purporting legitimacy), in particular Evolution, and Environmentalism, with special appeal to Liberal Christians, New Age believers, semi-atheistic intellectuals, Social Gospel practitioners, Social Justice agitators, self-opinionated armchair theologians, “tree-huggers,” narcissistic “do-gooders,” and political Progressives of various other types.

In reality, Panentheism is Humanism in theistic garb, patently not Christianity, appealing to the selfish desire for apotheosis or self-deification, i.e., not to God but to self.  Observing the worldwide apostasy of this Age, and the “signs of the times,” there is good reason to associate Panentheism with the One-World Religion, the Religion of Man, which Bible-believers  anticipate will evolve into the religion of the Beast of John’s Revelation, otherwise known as the Antichrist.

Whether one believes this assertion or not, I encourage the reader to “save” the  basic description, in either text or the graphic form above, and from this time forward examine the theological claims and content of religionists, even one’s own church pastor, in its light, to see how he or she stacks up.


A Linchpin of Liberal One-World Religion

  • Increasingly a favored interpretation of Christianity amongst intellectuals.
  • Not to be confused with Pantheism (“all is God”).
  • Means “all is in God,” which includes evil.  Incorporates evil and redefines Redemption through its principle of Dialectic.
  • Influenced by Neoplatonist Metaphysics and Hegelian philosophy.
  • Related to the Process Theology of Whitehead and the New Theology of Karl Rahner.
  • Emphasizes unity of the Trinity (Perichoresis) in love and relationship.  Sees love, unity, Pacifism, science, and Environmentalism as the evolutionary path to unity with the Trinity and the universe by reflecting attributes of the Trinity (suggesting apotheosis).
  • Portrays God as continuously created and creating, not complete, evolving along with the universe, and influenced by Man.
  • Presumes truth about God discoverable in (theoretical) Quantum Physics.
  • Bypasses the Biblical Gospel and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, who becomes at best ancillary.  Does not require Bible-based Christianity.
  • Influences Liberation Theology such as that of Jurgen Moltmann and Gustavo Gutiérrez.
  • Expressed by John A. T. Robinson in his concept of the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God evolving through love and unity, but foresees no literal Second Coming (Parousia) of Christ.

Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes

See also:


Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Epilogue

Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbaran 1631

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Pagan Infiltration of Christian Theology

In the future, the present writer might choose to trace the influences of Pagan theology more extensively, and in detail, down to the present day.  Additional avenues of pertinent study would be an examination of the psychology behind Mysticism (what inner needs and desires compel practitioners to crave and seek mystical experience, according to the testimony of expert sources, and why Mystics so intractably defend their practice in spite its contradictions of Scripture) as well as the politics behind the sacramental/sacerdotal system.

For now, it is appropriate to close the present study with a selection of examples of the later effects of the intrusion of Pagan philosophy into Christian theology.

John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810–c. 877)

As mentioned earlier, Eriugena (or Erigena) translated the works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, long popular in the East, into Latin, which made them available to the Western Church.  He likewise translated and propagated works by Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor (citation “John Scottus Eriugena” in SEP at  Eriugena “made it his aim to elucidate the vague theories of Dionysius, and to present them as a consistent philosophical system worked out by the help of Aristotle and perhaps Boethius.”  This fueled an exercise in speculation which Inge, himself a Neoplatonist, labels “audacious” (William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 133; see also Mosheim, vol. 2, p. 332).  Eriugena thereafter gives rein to the “most dangerous tendencies” of Dionysius as well as Origen and the Alexandrian Fathers (Inge, CM, p. 137).

In his time, Eriugena enjoyed the patronage and protection of Charles the Bald.  Over the ensuing centuries, many of his works were condemned by bishops’ councils, yet he maintained a strong following, including Hugh of St. Victor, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa; and in the 19th Century, Hegelians (“Eriugena” in SEP).

Bonaventure (1221-1274)

The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209.  Their leader in the middle of the century was Bonaventure, a traditionalist who defended the theology of Augustine and the philosophy of Plato, incorporating only a little of Aristotle in with the more neoplatonist elements.  Following Anselm, Bonaventure supposed that reason can only discover truth when philosophy is illuminated by religious faith (citation “Scholasticism” at

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

The textbooks credit Aquinas with being an Aristotelian, rationalist scholastic, yet Inge calls him “nearer to Plotinus than to the real Aristotle” (Russell, p. 284).  John F. Wippel (Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II, in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 47 [The Catholic University of America Press, 2007]) catalogs a number of instances in which Aquinas’s theology follows Plato (pp. 287, 288), Dionysius (pp. 9, 144, 159, 164, 287, 288), or some other Neoplatonist (pp. 10, 281), as well as Augustine’s Book of Eighty-Three Questions (pp. 287 f.), rather than Aristotle.  Dionysius’ book on divine names was one of Aquinas’s favorites, though in some ways misapprehended (Louth, p. 155).

Aquinas outlines three ways in which God can be known:  reason, revelation, and intuition (Russell, p. 460), the nature of which he does not fully explain, but is comparable to the three “stages” of Gregory of Nyssa, and bears every appearance of a neat Neoplatonic triad.

Following the teaching of Dionysius, “names of pure perfections do signify the divine substance albeit in deficient and imperfect fashion.  Since every agent [cause, form] acts insofar as it is in act (sic.), and therefore produces something like itself [i.e., effect, shadow], the form of any effect must be present in its efficient cause in some way” (Wippel, p. 159), which goes right back to the Proclian/Dionysian concept of names as symbols having sympathy toward their originating forms, i.e., effects that appeal to their receptive causes.

A divine idea, according to Aquinas, “exists in God”; moreover, following Aristotle, “like produces like” (Ibid., p. 164).  “The sacramental event”—now following Neoplatonism—has a “single hidden origin in the ‘being, living and thinking’ of contingent beings”; therefore “sacraments function as events which bring believers into harmony with this origin” (Lieven Boeve, “Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: A Playground for Theological Renewal,” in L. Boeve and L. Leijssen, eds., Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context [Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001], p. 7).  In this “context, sacramental grace is defined according to a causality-scheme” in such a way that it “causes/realises what it signifies,” which is grace “produced” by God (Ibid.).  Since “grace is nothing else than a certain shared similitude to the divine nature” (Aquinas), following the circular reasoning that sacraments are the means of grace that God has provided, then it is the sacraments by which “God produces grace” (Ibid., pp. 7-8).

Today, this Dionysian subtext, bequeathed through Aquinas, is reflected with remarkable exactitude in modern expressions of Catholic doctrine:

According to Catholic theology, a dynamic link exists between these sacramental signs and the realities they signify.  The outward sign is not just a symbol of divine grace, rather sacraments are efficacious signs:  they do not merely represent a sacred reality but themselves cause the reality they represent. …. Accordingly, the outward signs of the sacraments are dynamic signs and instruments of grace, visible and tangible realities dignified through their involvement in the sanctification of humanity (Helena M. Tomko, “Introduction: Sacramental Realism,” Sacramental Realism: Gertrud von le Fort and German Catholic Literature in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich (1924-46), MHRA Texts and Dissertations, vol. 68, Bithell Series of Dissertations, vol. 31 [Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2007], p. 2).

Besides sacramental grace, Aquinas presents a mode, if not a methodology, by which a soul may transcend, albeit temporarily, to Mystical Union with God.  The only means he admits is “by grace,” through having been granted the lumen gloriae, the “light of glory.”  This “vision of God by the blessed in Heaven is not mere vision, but union,” writes A. B. Sharpe.  It does not come by a Plotinian “discursive intellectual process”; rather, “they see God as He is in Himself, not from a distance … but from within” (Alfred Bowyer Sharpe, Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value, 2nd ed. (London: Sands & Company, 1910), pp. 93, 95).  This degree of personal revelation of God, one notes, is certainly a bold claim, if not to say a presumption, one hardly made by the Prophets.  The picture of transcendence which Aquinas presents perhaps describes ecstasy, of the Augustinian type, but goes beyond ecstasy.  It does not seem to go quite so far as “displacement” or “possession” as Philo ascribed to the Prophets, since “self-consciousness” remains; but seems definitely to describe a superimposition of God’s mind on one’s own (see Ibid., pp. 93 f.), which one presumes automatically produces spiritual formationapotheosis, if not theopoiesis.

The experience of the lumen gloriae may presumably be equated with the “changeless light” of Augustine, and the illuminations described in the experiences of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (Ibid., pp. 99 f.). John’s concept of “the dark night of the soul” was strongly influenced by Dionysius, whom he often quotes, as well as by Gregory of Nyssa (Louth, p. 176).

The celestial hierarchy of Dionysius and the benign daemons of Proclus, the powers invoked by Pagan or by Christian theurgy, by Platonist, by Cabbalist, or by saint, alike reward the successful aspirant with supernatural endowments; and so far Apollonius of Tyana and Peter of Alcantara, Asclepigenia and St. Theresa, must occupy as religious magicians the same province.  The error is in either case the same—a divine efficacy is attributed to rites and formulas, sprinklings or fumigations, relics or incantations, of mortal manufacture (Vaughan, p. 46).

Interestingly, John himself warns at some length of the risk of mistaking natural phenomena and experiences of specious origin for the revelation of God (Sharpe, p. 102).  Neither John nor Teresa “address themselves to any consideration of the mode, whether partially natural or wholly supernatural, in which the supernatural effects are produced” (Ibid., pp. 108 f.).

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321)

Dante writes in Paradiso 28:127-135:

Those orders upwards all intensely gaze,
And prevail below, that towards God
All are attracted, whilst they all attract.
And with such mighty longings Denys [Dionysius] sought
To contemplate those Orders, that he names,
And, like myself, described them in detail.
But Gregory thought not afterwards as he;
Whence and so soon as in this heaven his eyes
Were opened, he at his own error smiled.
~David Johnston, trans.,
A Translation of Dante’s Paradiso [Bath, UK: Printed at the Chronicle Office, 1868], p. 171, also quoted in part by Louth, p. 155.

Dante’s divine hierarchy, then, was based on that of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom he seems to regard as a prophet. Pope Gregory the Great, who disagreed somewhat with Dionysius, and with whom Dante had some differences, is seen acknowledging his errors with a smile.

E. R. Dodds points back even further to Plotinus as the theological source and watershed in Christian thinking:  “In [The Enneads] converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from eight hundred years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson and Mr. T. S. Eliot” (“Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus,” The Journal of Roman Studies vol. 50/1-2 [1960], p. 1; also quoted in part from another source by Louth, p. 35).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Kant expressed Platonic ideas when he distinguished, in his Inaugural Dissertation, an intelligible, paradigmatic world from the sensible material world, a view he never relinquished in spite of later criticisms of Plato.  He also appeared to strike a Platonic note later when, inspired by the empirical scientific “revolution” of Copernicus, he suggested that one’s own metaphysical perception of reality might be judged as valid as that discovered by scientific observation (citation “Immanuel Kant” in SEP at

Karl Barth (1886–1968)

Early in his career, Barth was open in his admiration for certain historic figures, such as Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and in particular Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Kant.  Dostoevsky was steeped in the beliefs and superstitions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as widely read in philosophers such as Hegel and Kant.

Partly due to the influence of his philosopher brother, Heinrich, Barth placed Socrates and Plato on a level with Abraham and the Prophets in terms of inspired moral insight.  He featured them alongside Biblical figures in his “Lebensbilder aus der Geshichte der christlichen Religion” lessons to the young girls of the congregation.  Plato and Socrates, according to Barth, shared the ideals of the Prophets.  Since “Jesus is, for us, not lesser but greater when we recognize him everywhere,” these great pre-Christians act as “lights” and “mirrors” to reflect Christ to us.  Kant further represented to Barth a “unique resurrection” of Platonic thinking, and therefore shares the limelight.  Barth maintained these views at least through the authorship of his two Romans commentaries and his First Corinthians 15 commentary, The Resurrection of the Dead.  He wrote, “It does not matter whether what they have and guard is Moses or John the Baptist, Plato or Socialism, or even the simple, daily activity of an inherent moral reason:  it is calling, promise, the potential for a parable in this having and guarding, the offer and the open door of the deepest knowledge” (Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 2012], pp. 32 f., 45, 64 f., 76, 97, 106, 239, 247; Gregg Strawbridge, “Karl Barth’s Rejection of Natural Theology: Or an Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20,” A Paper Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, 1997], posted at

In later years, Barth became more reticent about his enthusiasm for Socrates and Plato, admitting that his earlier works had a “remarkable crust of Kantian and Platonic ideas.”  “But look,” he excused, “at that time I was strongly influenced—always influenced—by platonic philosophy.  And like in the Römerbrief so also in this book on resurrection there are traces of Plato.  And I stopped being a Platonist later on.”  So “then I was under the influence, well, from Plato, from Kant, from Dostojewski, from Kierkegaard and so on” (Oakes, pp. 76 note, 239).

Barth did not seem to be of a mystic bent, did not like using philosophical terms, and was critical of the intrusion of Metaphysics into theology in his day, yet does appear to have picked up a measure of Platonic, even Neoplatonic thinking.  He echoed Plato’s yearning for the Good and the Beautiful, fundamental motivations in Plato’s search for transcendence.  As in Plotinus’ quest for the Fatherland, the Creation has forgotten God and longs to return to the source.  As Kenneth Oakes summarizes, “Jesus Christ is the turning point of time and history, the Tatsache, the actuality, not as a philosopher or as a moral teacher, but because he is that which both Plato and the Old Testament prophets posited as the ideal: a man living in time and yet also living in eternity” (Oakes, pp. 33, 45, 76).  Judging as well from the way his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein, used the term Tatsache, “fact,” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), it appears that Barth is thinking in terms of Christ as Logos, philosophically speaking, and ultimately as Platonic form; while Wittgenstein in parallel thinks in terms of a world created of “facts” made up of “objects,” which in turn build “pictures” of thought.  “The picture,” says his Tractatus 2.12, “is a model of reality”—or as one could well surmise, a form (Luigi Perissinotto, “‘The Socratic Method!'”: Wittgenstein and Plato,” Wittgenstein and Plato: Connections, Comparisons and Contrasts, eds. Luigi Perissinotto and Begoña Ramón Cámara, [Houndmills, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], sec. 3; Robert B. Pippin, “Negation and Not-Being in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Plato’s Sophist,” Kant-Studien 70 [1-4] [1979], p. 180; citation “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in SEP at

Karl Rahner (1904–1984)

A Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner studied Kant and Joseph Maréchal, a transcendental Thomist, extensively, and during his doctoral studies became an especial devotee of existentialist Martin Heidegger, whose lectures he attended faithfully.  One of Heidegger’s peeves was Platonism in church tradition, in the sense of a transcedent spiritual world over the material.  Rahner adopted this bias, and included Heidegger’s as well as Maréchal’s views in his doctoral dissertation, which was subsequently rejected.  Nevertheless, he published the work in 1939 as Geist in Welt, a radical reinterpretation of Thomas Aquinas, which gained Rahner a popular following (Thomas Sheehan, “The Dream of Karl Rahner,” The New York Review of Books 29/1 [February 4, 1982] at; citation “Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia at

Rahner was labeled as heterodox, if not heretical, and was placed under publishing sanctions by Pope Pius XII; but was soon favored by “progressive” Pope John XXIII with an appointment as advisor to the pivotal Vatican II Councils, where he emerged as a popular “star.”  “Rahner’s influence was enormous,” writes a critic.  “He satisfied a modern world, and modern churchmen, whose ears were itching for doctrinal compromises under the pretext of ‘enlightenment.'”  During the Council, Rahner worked alongside another Progressive, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.  It was revealed in 1994 that during the several years of Vatican II, Rahner wrote 758 letters to his longtime, ostensibly “Platonic” love interest, writer Luise Rinser.  A double divorcee with two sons, Rinser professed Catholicism while delving into Buddhism, was a pro-abortion and anti-celibacy activist, ran for German president with the Green Party, and lended her support to dictator Kim Il Sung of North Korea (John Vennari, “Karl Rahner’s Girlfriend,” Catholic Family News [May 2004], now reposted at

Espousing views called the New Theology, Rahner and other advocates pressed to reform or redefine many Catholic dogmas.  Earlier, Father David Greenstock had warned, “The main contention of the partisans of this new movement is that theology, to remain alive, must move with the times.  At the same time, they are very careful to repeat all the fundamental propositions of traditional theology, almost as if there was no intention of any attack against it.  This is very true of such writers as Fathers [Henri] de Lubac, [Jean] Daniélou, Rahner …. All of whom are undoubtedly at the very center of this movement” (“Thomism and the New Theology,” The Thomist 13 (1950), quoted in Ibid.). Rahner’s proposed doctrine of Transfinalization, intended to replace Transubstantiation, was condemned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; citation “Transfinalization” at

While outspoken against Platonic Dualism (Soul/Body), Rahner’s theology includes many Platonic as well as Neoplatonic and other Pagan elements.  He believed in a unity of the soul with the body (Aristotle), and no “afterlife,” as described in Christian revelation, but a “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” (Rahner, quoted in Sheehan), and only comes at death.  So “if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls ‘all-cosmic,’ somehow present to and in communication with all material reality” (Sheehan), i.e., a form of Pantheism.  To Rahner, God’s grace is built into nature, as is the soul itself, “Thus all persons are ‘Christian’—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized” (Sheehan), which of course is Inclusivism or Universalism.  God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, and can apply his Atonement as he wishes, apart from belief in Jesus (“Religious Pluralism” in SEP at

A concept of such “anonymous Christianity” (Rahner’s term) “obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from ‘telling the natives what they don’t yet know’ to ‘showing them what they already are'” (Sheehan).  One recalls that “self-realization” was a necessary step in metaphysical ascent, going back at least as far as Plotinus; as to Plato the doctrine of the fallen entity drawn back to its source.  Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez also speaks in terms of “anonymous” Christians, in essence calling the masses of poor the Church, and therefore the temple of God and a “sacrament of universal salvation” (see Part 2 of this series).  “We and the world are sacraments of God,” writes Mark F. Fischer, and we “make the divine reality actual in our words and deeds” (“Karl Rahner and the Immortality of the Soul,” The Saint Anselm Journal 6.1 [Fall 2008], p. 1).  To Fischer and other Rahnerians, the “sacramental principle” is that the material world is the spiritual world, such that human expression is an expression of God (Ibid.).  In essence, humans are thus the effects of God’s cause in Christ, the shadows of his form, working in theurgic, Proclian, Dionysian sympathy toward the source, God.

“God established a world, not in a one-time act of creation, but in a constant process of divine causality [Proclian terminology], that is, in a relationship that is being ‘continuously constituted’ by God” (Fischer, p. 8).  Christ came “in the flesh” as Logos only insofar as one is referring to “soul”; which Incarnation constitutes in itself “an act of creation” (Ibid., pp. 10 ff.).  Likewise, the Resurrection was not an “historical event” but a divine expression or concretization of God’s identification with humanity (Sheehan).  Thus God “creates the human reality by the very fact that he assumes it as his own” (Rahner, italics his, quoted in Fischer, p. 10).  Rahner’s redefinition of the Trinity, in Sheehan’s opinion, “rehabilitates” it “by relating it to man’s self-transcendence.”  As Sheehan summarizes, “Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history,” which statement is, by the way, a more or less exact reflection of the Platonic Trinity of “the One” (who lives in thick darkness), the Spirit, and the Soul (in that order).

Rahner’s version of transcendence presumes the preexistence of souls (a Platonic concept) by presupposing that all humans have a “latent experience of God” (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; see also Fischer, p. 11).  Integral with Rahner’s theory of transcendence is the concept of “affective connaturality,” a concept which Aquinas rationalized from Dionysius and Aristotle (see Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason, ch. 3, online at  The term describes “intellect” not based on reason, nor from feelings or emotion, but intuitive and affective, by volition.  Aquinas saw a “difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality acquired by mystical experience” (Ibid.), the latter of which in fact implies the Plotinian model of acquisition of divine knowledge through contemplative prayer, as earlier discussed.

Andrew Tallon defines that alternate kind of knowledge, or one might rather say innate formative virtue, as “the normal … way the good person, the saint (… in the ‘state of grace’), exists and acts as an embodied spirit, more highly actualized by virtues (some of them gifts of the Spirit), affectable and affected by God and then responding” (“The Heart in Rahner’s Philosophy of Mysticism,” Theological Studies 53 [1992], p. 711), which one presumes refers to the phenomenon of “spiritual formation.”  Tallon further defines “affective connaturality” as “the essential ‘mechanism’ of … intersubjectivity,” the latter term having to do with the interrelating of two minds (Ibid., p. 709), apparently expressing the theoretial superimposition of God’s mind upon the human mind taught by Aquinas.  Elsewhere, Tallon posits the instrumentality of “the life of the [small-‘s’] spirit” through “prayer and action in reciprocal causation” (Ibid., p. 708), which is perhaps comparable to a cause-and-effect theurgy of sympathy and receptivity.

There are two kinds of prayer, that which is direct and vocative (presumably rational and cognitive), and that imaginatively called “discernment of spirits … consciously and responsibly bringing the rest of life into free relation to the God addressed by prayer.  Love of God and love of neighbor are traditional ways of saying the same thing….  The most perfect ethical action comes from discernment based on mystical attunement.  The continuum of the ethical and mystical is again confirmed when the mystical as prayer becomes practical by flowing ‘backward’ as discernment” (Ibid., p. 708).  Further, “The human soul, when more perfectly actualized by good habits (and, we hope, graced by the virtues that are gifts of the Spirit), approximates asymptotically the intuitive knowing and spontaneous love of the angels” (Ibid., p. 714).

The word asymptotic is a geometry term Tallon chooses, one gathers, to express approximation in the sense of replication that is nearly but not exactly perfect—suggesting “image” or “shadow” as compared to reality or form; and the realm of the angels is, of course, the higher realm of the Platonic forms.  Moreover, Rahner (following Pierre Rousselot) “interprets Aquinas’s hierarchy of spirit as meaning that the more perfectly actualized human soul (lowest in the hierarchy of spirits that includes angels and God) … performs” on the highest level (Ibid., p. 713), a concept lifted directly out of Pseudo-Dionysius, being that of the hierarch, who alone may “contemplate, directly, the intelligible realm … the realm visible and accessible to the angels,” as described earlier.

So being Christian is reduced to arranging one’s mental and behavioral patterns in a kind of semi-cognitive Feng Shui, in order to be attuned to more effectively channel the thinking and activities of the Spirit of God which one cohabits.  The accomplished soul is then the one most imprinted with God’s mind and conformed, through self-realization combined with a spiritual osmosis, in a process of theopoiesis, till achieving apotheosis or demigod status. This is a theology and methodology devoid of particular content and profoundly opposed to the New Testament revelation, wherein virtue is inculcated as it is instituted, through cognitive assent to the propositional truth of the Gospel, by receiving grace through obedience to the Gospel and Christ’s commands, and trust in his provision, and by accepting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit:  by whose continuing grace, in terms of enlightenment, empowerment, and encouragement, the believer can “perform” above mere human levels in order to overcome sin and “bear” righteous “fruit of the Spirit.”

Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

As mentioned earlier, Joseph Ratzinger worked with Karl Rahner at Vatican II.  While conservatively Catholic in many ways, Ratzinger shares many theological perspectives with Rahner, has worked alongside Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, as well, and follows Neoplatonists Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Metaphysicist René Guénon.

“Ratzinger is convinced that the dialogue between Judeo-Christian biblical faith and Hellenistic (neo-Platonic) philosophy has been providential” (Boeve, p. 8).  The true God, as “the ground of all being,” is the same the philosophers sought (Nicholas J. Healy, “Natural Theology and the Christian Contibution to Metaphysics: On Thomas Joseph White’s Wisdom in the Face of Modernity,” Nova et Vetera 10, No. 2 [2012], p. 540).  Indeed, Ratzinger holds that the world emanates from a greater reality and seeks to return to the Source (Boeve, p. 8), a generally Platonic and specifically Proclian-Dionysian idea.  To him, being “called by and to God” culminates in incorporation into the “God-initiated” or “God-permeated” world continuum (“Einfügung in den durchgottete Kosmos“), a world that is “sacramentally structured” such that it directs the creature back to the Creator (Ibid.), again a Proclian/Dionysian concept.

In defending Sacramental Realism, Ratzinger deprecates the “idealist misjudgment of human nature” and the “naïve idea of man’s spiritual autonomy” for which Immanuel Fichte is known, and by which Rudolf Bultmann concluded “that spirit cannot be nourished by matter.”  This “Idealistic heresy,” according to Ratzinger, is relative to Marxist ideas and due to materialist thinking based on human effort―homo faber―”which thinks it knows again that man can only be spirit in the manner of bodilyness” and “want[s] to make man into a pure spirit before God.”  The sacraments, on the other hand, are vital as God’s way of meeting man on a human level, using material means which embody “incarnation,” “historicity,” and the presence of Christ (Joseph Ratzinger, Die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz [Freiburg im Breisgau, DE: Herder Verlag Herder, 2008], translator unknown, excerpted at; see also Healy, pp. 559 f.).

Here Ratzinger falls back, unfortunately, upon a theurgic view of symbols and shadows which appeal to corresponding spiritual realities.  Moreover, Ratzinger’s dichotomy on human nature is a false one since, far from Ficte’s totally man-centered view, the Biblical view is that man is a rational being capable of making choices of what to believe, whether to obey, and whether to “walk in the Spirit” daily, as opposed to “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”  True, man is helpless to save himself, apart from grace; but the activation of grace is by rational choice in response to propositional truth, not dependence upon material sacraments or sacerdotal auspices.  To Ratzinger, in contrast, the soul of man is not autonomous but part of a world-spirit destined to be restored as a body to God.  His view relies more on “natural theology” (see Healey) and historical Church theology than Scripture, which leads him to a view of Inclusiveness that has spawned suspicions of Universalism, as did Rahner’s.

The sacramental view, contends Ratzinger, is proven typologically, not rationally or empirically; by looking forward, not backward.  He who clings to exegesis and the historical study of Scripture is “elitist,” an “analyzer” who is “unspiritual” because he “imagines himself to be the initiate,” presuming to “always know better” and “to be wholly spiritual” (Ratzinger, “On the Meaning of the Sacrament,” trans. Kenneth Baker, in FCS Quarterly [Spring 2011], p. 30).  “Historical reconstruction” fails to see “the unity of typological history” (Ibid., p. 33).  This “narrowly conceived, purely salvation-historical view” fails to apprehend the “mystery.”  Yet the hidden wisdom is “simple,” revealed to “fools,” and “promises … entry into the innermost thinking of God.”  Mystery is effectual for “The one who lives and stays in the simple unity of the universal Church” (Ibid., p. 30).  Meaning “is no longer the meaning of a biblical text” but of an “event, which reaches down to the center of creation and reaches up to the innermost and definitive will of God” (Ibid., p. 31).  One is reminded of the suggestions earlier by Fathers Keefe and Keleher to quit worrying and learn to trust the Church.

Ratzinger does not initially ground his claim of mystery relative to sacrament in the New Testament, in which the connection is conspicuously absent.  He first consults the Old Testament wisdom books and Apocrypha, then late rabbinical commentaries, then sacramental views expressed by the Church Fathers (see Part 7 of this series), which he afterward applies by virtue of the Catholic analogy of faith and with reference to typology to reinterpret New Testament content by what he deems a typological and sacramental “hermeneutic” (Ibid., pp. 29 ff.).  In Ratzinger’s hermeneutic, parabolic speech in Scripture which is literally unintelligible nevertheless represents reality.  Thus to “Rabbi Paul,” the mysteries of the Old Testament and the parables of the New “become visible” in Christ, and “a word of creation” (Ibid., p. 30).  More than that, “Jesus is the meaning of all the words in the Scripture.”  Therefore, “not only the words, but also the realities described by them are mysteries, emblematic references to Christ” (Ibid., p. 31); to the Sacramentalist, Christianity is a mystery expressed in “symbols” which “reveal reality” and by which one may “gain access to reality” (Ibid., p. 28)—all of which suggest theurgy.

All of Scripture, concludes Ratzinger, is a sacrament, both literal words and “events” (Ibid., p. 31).  His typological “understanding of the sacraments,” as a creative hermeneutical gnosis, “presupposes the historical continuity of God’s activity and, as its concrete locus, the living community of the Church, which is the sacrament of sacraments” (Ibid., p. 34), a view of the church entirely amenable to the concerns of John A. T. Robinson and Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Further, “The meaning of creation, which appears in Jesus as the unveiling of the Scriptures, is unity in which the fullness of God shines forth and illumines” (Ibid., p. 31). The sacramental understanding “purifies” and “refashions” creation continually (Ibid., p. 32) until “the Church, in which no longer Israel alone, but all mankind is drawn into the unity of love that leads to an indissoluble merger into one single existence” (Ibid., p. 31).

This “indissoluble merger” (unlöslicher Verschmelzung, “unfathomable fusion,” Séan Corkery, Christological Hermeneutic: Sacrament and Scripture in the Work of Joseph Ratzinger, a paper presented to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Maynooth, Ireland, June 6, 2012, p. 4), describes incorporation of souls not into an eschatological “kingdom-come,” nor an exodus from darkness to light, from hell to heaven, as in the New Testament, but a continuum (“unity”) of God’s work upon the world, in all peoples, at all times and in both Testaments, amounting to a Plotinian ascent in knowledge of God—not however as individuals, but corporately as the Church.  From the Old Testament to the New, one ascends from “the oppressive multiplicity of what is not yet transparent, to the liberating simplicity of what is Christian,” then to rites which Ratzinger reckons to be open, transparent, and rational (Rat. OTM, p. 33)—yet “mysterious” and symbolic?—until the day when God brings all things and all peoples, Catholics, Jews, and others, into him in unity and love, which echoes Robinson’s conception of the Parousia.

Thus one observes Neoplatonism and Theurgy, along with the method called “analogy of faith,”employed at will, eclectically, when convenient to theology and argumentation, and arguably so interwoven into the fabric of sacramental and mystical theology that its use, as well as its origins, may be utterly unconscious on the part of the practitioner.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Return to Part 1

Different Gospel, Different Practice


Ritual and Sacraments Are Incompatible with Pentecostalism

The following statements are a compilation of the author’s comments in recent debates with proponents of bringing Liturgy and Sacramentalism back into Pentecostal worship, particularly in regard to a review of Simon Chan’s book Liturgical TheologyChan is associated with the Assemblies of God of Singapore.

[For starters,] I cannot see [liturgy and sacrament] as other than a human effort to supplement or replace the intended work of the Spirit directly through the individual without further mediatorship; and moreover to suggest a severely limited realization of the person and work of the Paraclete, and the intended unlimited nature of the Pentecostal experience (without relation to sacraments or liturgy), as presented in John 14-16, Acts, etc.  It is a big stretch to suggest that the NT teaches spiritual efficacy through ritual acts or sacraments.

Defining Liturgy and Sacramentalism

Liturgy (Gk. LEITOURGIA) . . . was the word for rendering service to God used in the LXX [Septuagint, Greek OT] for the work of priests and Levites.  [In the NT, it is a synonym of DIAKONIA.]  It is not literally “work of the people” [as was suggested].  Regardless, in the past several centuries it has meant ritualized formal worship in church, conducted by priests and assistants.

Sacramentalism, at its base, is the idea of efficacy of the elements of the Lord’s Supper toward salvation, administered by a priest.  It has over time been spiritualized toward identification with Christ’s sufferings, and lately the notion of metaphysical union with Christ.  A longstanding debate is between supporters of Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation, whether the emblems “become” the body of Christ when eaten/drunk, or Christ’s body “accompanies” the emblems.

No Exegetical Proof of Validity

Of course, none of these dogma or practices can be established exegetically from Scripture.  Yet my objection to them goes beyond that point, noting that Sacramentalism and its natural conclusion, Sacerdotalism (administration by a priesthood), represent “another gospel,” a form and means of salvation and other spiritual efficacy that is foreign to Scripture as well as to Pentecostalism.  Liturgy, on top of that, and far beyond purported “Pentecostal rituals” and traditions, promotes a canned, formalized, and in the end rigid, top-down, priesthood-led worship which is contrary to the Pentecostal message and NT concept of the Spirit being poured out broadly on “all flesh” and true ministry being that of horizontal “edification” (Paul’s ubiquitous term) within the gathered Body — a worship in which anyone on any level can speak spontaneously “as the Spirit gives utterance,” and perform ministry as the Spirit “divides severally as He will.”

Supporters of liturgy cannot demonstrate, among other things, an Apostle in the NT leading a congregation in such formalized top-down worship, nor the Apostles administering the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament.  Instead, what we find is Paul’s concept of Body Ministry that is horizontal, wherein individual congregants receive vertically, directly, from the Spirit; minister encouragement and miraculous deliverance to one another, horizontally; and then direct their worship vertically to the exalted Christ.  It is a direct connection, sans priesthood, sans intermediary, sans ritual or relics, via the Holy Spirit.

Bondage and Error

It is from the bonds of liturgical top-down formalism that Pentecostals had to be freed to practice such gifts and worship.  Words fail me to describe what we will lose if theologians — who somehow deem inadequate the limitless gifts and power and “riches in glory” of the Spirit which indwells us individually and frees us from subservience to higher powers — lure us back into it in the guise of a richer, easier, more pleasing, more heartfelt form of worship.

Personally, I have to think that like the mainstream proponents of Sacramental and Liturgical worship, those theologians have a seriously underdeveloped Pneumatology as well as Christology and Soteriology.

I have no doubt that [the hearts of many proponents are sincere, but] I fear that [they] have been led down a primrose path.

Compared to New Testament Heresies

It is all too easy for us, in our earnestness, to bind ourselves to ritual acts and outward expressions of religiosity, which can take on a life of their own and derail our walk of simple faith and spiritual maturization.  The Galatian heresy that Paul vehemently opposed was the addition of a requirement to be circumcised, and by implication, to keep the Law.  Paul warned them that they could not by these outward acts be justified and, moreover, by trusting them they had “fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4).  The Colossian heresy was giving heed to those who taught performing outward acts in order to achieve a higher spiritual plane and overcome higher powers.

But Paul taught that the Law had already been fulfilled in Christ, and the higher powers were already defeated in Christ, such that those who were “in Christ” by faith were subject to neither.  Thus Paul taught no outward acts, no liturgy by modern definition, no outward acts of efficacious suffering or devotion, only simple faith in the pattern of Abraham, and a simple, moral life exemplifying Christ in our lives.  The one who was circumcised should not seek to be uncircumcised, nor the uncircumcised circumcised, no matter how devotional such might seem, no matter what spiritual affections, because the outward act of circumcision means nothing.  The same for other outward acts of religiosity.

True Worship

The Woman at the Well [John 4] asked Jesus regarding true worship.  He replied that God is Spirit (not flesh) and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit (not acts of the flesh) and in Truth (not trusting the outward act to replace true heart devotion).

“The blood of bulls and goats [could not] take away sin” (Heb 10:4), having no efficacy in itself.  It remains Abraham-like faith, which predated circumcision and the Law, that prompts God to impute righteousness and true worship.  Whether outward acts of devotion — rituals — are considered salvific or merely “communion” with God (as [proponents] put it), in them we risk focusing on the acts themselves, which leads to veneration of the acts, which can further lead either to subservience to the acts, or to vaunted pride in them which causes reliance on them and division.

So I conclude that if a ritual leads you closer to the Lord, fine; but I cannot recommend that Christians be taught that such practice is normal Christianity.  Those who are “weak in the faith,” to use Paul’s phraseology, will tend to fall into ritualism, reliance on ritual to be Christian.  As Paul wrote, “Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God” (Rom 14:22).

The Question of ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in Communion

“Real presence” in Communion is not something that can be proven exegetically . . . , patently not following Pentecost.  Rather, that would be a throwback to temporal “shadow” rather than eternal “substance.”  “Real presence” associated with objects, such as the Ark or the Temple, cannot be established in Scripture after the departure of the glory of God from the Temple in Ezekiel, as I recall.  Certainly after Pentecost, the real presence is vested only in the Spirit-filled individual, via the Holy Spirit, not in any object.  [You will recall that Christ “had to go away” in order to send the Paraclete, Jn 16:7, who would be “in us,” Jn 14:17.]  As Peter quoted from Joel, the Spirit is poured out upon “all flesh,” manifested through revelation and powers — a concept never connected with Communion emblems.


I must suspect that people who seek meaning in rituals must . . . be desperately seeking meaning, and moreover have not come to a realization of the Pentecostal experience.  They might not have been taught about it, they might have rejected it (as many reject tongues), perhaps they have not seen its reality in the shallow commitment and experience of elders.  It seems to be the spirit of the age for younger generations to not just question everything but reject out-of-hand everything that is “old” or not of their own conception, just as they reject music of the past in favor of their own.

I find that even most Pentecostal preachers do not have a grasp of the broad meaning of the Exaltation of Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  They do not talk much about “walking in the Spirit.”  Many just think in terms of speaking in tongues, or sanctification, but their knowledge and experience is very narrow.  They just know that you are supposed to do and have those things.  Indeed, the Exaltation and Indwelling are central to NT theology, and should be to Christian experience.  [See book.]  Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, not just rules, human effort, and emotions, comes power to witness and to overcome.  We cannot create our own means and shortcuts to the power, or our own alternatives.

That is what ritual is — a human alternative or shortcut to the real thing, or perhaps a token reflection of the reality.  [As the saying goes, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”]

What about the NT Ordinances?

Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is actually a remembrance or memorial (the literal Greek), not a sacrament or ritual.  I would rather call it a “testimony” or “witness” in which one declares oneself blood-guilty and in need of receiving and identifying with Christ’s sacrifice.  Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 11 that if one takes it lightly, not meaningfully, one testifies against himself unto condemnation.  Likewise, Water Baptism is meant to be a testimony of one’s faith, not a ritual.  It is the faith that saves, not the outward action.

In foot washing [in reply to a question], Jesus actually did not institute an ordinance, certainly not a ritual, but an illustration of the attitude of humble service to brethren He expects.  If some believers wish to act out their true humility by washing others’ feet, good.  But again, if it becomes a ritual that is not heartfelt and expressive of true humility, further manifesting itself in edifying and serving brethren in more substantial ways, then one is hypocritical and testifies against oneself.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

The Gnostic Christ

Gnosticism vs. Christianity

Gnostic Sophia Tree

Gnostic Sophia Tree

by Rev. Paul A. Hughes

By the end of the second century, a religio-philosophical phenomenon on the fringes of Christianity had already been sharply defined by orthodox theologians and severely distanced from orthodox circles. This separation was performed expeditiously and effectively by such great orthodox leaders as Hippolytus, Tertullian, and most notably by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies.

This phenomenon is known today as Gnosticism. It was studied with interest in the twentieth century, especially since the discovery of a ruined Coptic library of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947.

But why did the orthodox Church object so to this religious strain? And why the renewed excitement among modern religion scholars? The answer is the same on both counts:   the thought of the Gnostics represents a variety of interpretation and application of the Christian message that differs from the orthodox view.

The most important point of departure from orthodox teaching is in the Gnostic redefinition of the meaning, purpose, and nature of Christ.

Is the Gnostic interpretation valid? Is it indeed Christian? Some liberal scholars consider it equally valid with the Christian message. The Gnostics, however, appear to be affected by considerable religious and philosophical thought that lies outside the Judeo-Christian orthodox continuum. Perhaps the answer — or part of it — can be discovered by examining the sources of the Gnostic view of Christ, and the construct of Christ’s nature and purpose they derive from those sources.

Definition of Terms

“Gnosticism” is a modern term1 applied to a number of religious groups that placed an emphasis on esoteric knowledge (gnōsis) which is passed along, presumably, through the ages among those whom can be said to have “arrived,” that is, achieved some higher spiritual plane.

One can refer to things “gnostic” in the broad sense or in the narrow sense.2 The broad sense is most appropriately rendered “gnostic,” with a lower-case “g”, in that it refers to the fact of an esoteric knowledge, or to certain traits or tendencies generally associated with known Gnostic religions. In this way, New Testament passages might be, and often are, alleged to be “gnosticizing.” Two examples are: (1) references to the gospel as “saving knowledge”; and (2) the use of terminology — notably by Paul — such as “knowledge,” “all things” (tá pánta, i.e., “the All”), “fullness” (plērōma), etc., which were at times employed as Gnostic technical terms.

Conversely, it is appropriate to refer to traits, practices, elements, etc., as “Gnostic,” with a capital “G”, when applied to what is by definition a specifically Gnostic religion. A working definition of Gnostic religion will follow in the next section.

Two more terms must be contrasted: “pre-Gnostic” and “proto-Gnostic.” According to the definition adopted at the Messina congress on Gnostic origins in 1966, “pre-Gnostic” refers to elements that existed before Christianity and were later incorporated into Gnostic religions. A “proto-Gnostic” element, on the other hand, is one that belongs specifically to the early stages of the formation of a Gnostic religion.3

Finally, one last term may now be defined, that is, “pre-Christian Gnosticism.” In the twentieth century, there was considerable debate whether (1) Gnosticism as a religion preceded and developed in parallel or even in tandem with Christianity; or (2) it developed more or less directly from Christianity and existed as a Christian heresy.

The view of Gnosticism as a Christian heresy prevailed until at least 1909, when Robert Law proposed Hellenistic-Oriental Gnostic origins.4 Later, Rudolf Bultmann became a major figure in a school of thought (following Richard Reitzenstein’s hypothesis) that saw Gnosticism as both preceding and affecting Christianity,5 and Gnosticism as equally valid from a religionsgeschicte point-of-view. To call Gnosticism “pre-Christian” implies a view similar to Bultmann’s.

In recent years, the pendulum has largely swung back to a more medial position. Bultmann’s proposed Iranian origin of Gnosticism is today almost universally rejected.6 Many scholars recognize pre-Christian elements having been incorporated into Gnosticism, but are critical of theories of a pre-Christian Gnostic religion such as that which Bultmann constructed from post-Christian sources.

Delineation of Gnostic Religion

Because of the extensive variety of Gnostic and gnosticizing groups, it is necessary to provide a basic definition of Gnostic religion. In a 1967 article, T. P. van Baaren suggested in sixteen points the characteristics of Gnostic religion.7 His points, however, are complex and sometimes overlap, and in some cases apply specific characteristics too broadly.8 About the same time, H. Goedicke listed just four points,9 which yet do not seem sufficiently in-depth. A more practical delineation of Gnostic religion is as follows:

  1. A transcendent and impersonal God rules the heavens.
  2. The material world is evil (i.e., cosmological dualism).
  3. Man has fallen from a pure pneumatic (i.e., spiritual) state into the evil material realm.
  4. God and the material realm are separated by a spiritual realm (the plērōma), filled with intermediate beings (aeons, “emanations,” or “hypostases”).
  5. The material world is ruled by an evil archōn or archōns (“rulers”) or Demiurge.
  6. God at times sends redeemers to man to reveal a saving gnōsis.
  7. Through the esoteric gnōsis, man is able to save himself, regain his spiritual (pneumatic) nature, and in the end ascend to his place in the plērōma.
  8. This salvation is available to a limited number of “elect” pneumatics.

This formulation should now provide a workable definition from which to continue this study.

Origins of the Gnostic Redeemer Figure

Most Gnostic redemption myths begin with the fall of Sophia (“Wisdom”) to the earthly realm. This personified Wisdom figure might have been drawn directly from Old Testament and Apocryphal sources,10 or from even more ancient Hebrew-Canaanite traditions.11

Sophia persuades the Demiurge, the evil creator of the material world, to give life to Adam,12 — to the Naassene and Barbelo sects the “Primal Man.”13 This Primal Man is identified by Bultmann as originating with the Iranian Primal Man/Redeemer myth.14 Bultmann has considered Mandaean texts to contain skeletal remnants of a more ancient Iranian prototype.15 However, he commits a fundamental error in constructing a pre-Christian myth from post-Christian sources alone — no extant Gnostic text can reasonably be dated earlier than the second century.17

Similarly, E. F. Scott postulates the origin of the Gnostic Primal Man in “some primitive myth, the meaning of which can now only be conjectured, and which possibly underlies the imagery of Daniel and the Book of Enoch.”18 Here two hypotheses are yet to be established: (1) that Daniel and Enoch indeed utilized a more ancient myth; and (2) that the later Gnostic myth in turn descended from that of Daniel and Enoch.

Depending upon the specific variety of Gnosticism, either Sophia or the Primal Man exist in a fallen state19 and require redemption. Until their redemption, the spiritual and material worlds co-exist in tension, in an imperfect and unacceptable state of admixture. At the prayer of Sophia (or “on his own initiative” in the Naassene material)20 a Redeemer (“an Aeon of supreme rank — the Soter or Christus”)21 descends into the material world to rescue the fallen one. There are in fact numerous redeemer figures identified in gnostic and related literature.22 From Judaism, directly or indirectly, come the figures of “the Great Seth” or “Illuminator”;23 Melchizedek/Seth;24 the descensus angelorum (allegorized by Philo);25 the “Light” or “Man” of Ezekiel;26 the “Son of Man” of Daniel;27 and certainly the figures of Jewish messianism and apocalyptic.28 The “Teacher of Righteousness” of the Qumran sect (ostensibly Essene) has also been cited — but the Qumranians were essentially apocalyptists rather than Gnostics.

From Mesopotamia come many redeemer figures, notably Marduk and Mithra; and from Egypt, Osiris.29

Various Hellenistic sources are postulated. In Plato is found the Ideal Man, though the redemptive idea is absent. 30 It is alleged that in some Middle Platonic sources that “the translator of Ezekiel [1:26] in the Septuagint identifies the figure of divine Man with the Platonic idea.”31 The Hermetic Poimandres (Hellenistic Jewish) posits an androgynous Phos/Zoe figure who descends and spawns mankind; Philo identifies the Divine Man or “Man of God” with the Logos.32 However, only certain Gnostic systems coupled the Logos figure with the redeemer function. In other systems, Logos remained an entirely separate entity. 33

The foregoing redeemer figures, with the exception of Philo and the Hermetic writings, do indeed represent pre-Christian elements alleged to later affect Gnosticism; yet none truly exhibits evidence of a Gnostic religion preceding Christianity, i.e., “pre-Christian Gnosticism.”

Redeemers more specific to Gnosticism are identified in Gnostic writings. “In the system of Simon Magus, Simon himself is the redeemer and appears in one form as Jesus.”34 Pistis Sophia, 369, refers to “Zorokothora-Meljisedek,” according to F. C. Burkitt a corrupted coupling of the names Zoroaster and Melchizedek — but not in fact having anything to do with the historical characters. Only their names have been borrowed.35

John Dart describes two Gnostic redeemers which he considers to be in no way patterned after Jesus Christ. Derdekeas, in The Paraphrase of Shem, is touted as a “divine warrior” after the model of the Canaanite Ba’al or the Hebrew Yahweh.36 In Dart’s description, he seems to be nothing more than a fallen aeon, but does at times take on some function as Redeemer (or “Revealer”).37 The Apocalypse of Adam presents one called the Illuminator as a redeemer.38 This figure does indeed (against Dart) appear to be based on a re-staging of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. The Gnostic writings appear to adapt redeemer figures after either of two patterns: (1) ancient historical/mythological/philosophical/legendary figures; or (2) the Christian presentation of Jesus Christ.

Gnostic Ascension

Gnostic Ascension

The Nature of Gnostic Redemption

Redemption in Gnosticism is not legal, ethical, or apocalyptic, as it appears variously in Judaism and Christianity. Gnosticism appears to be based on Persian physical dualism (i.e., light versus darkness), but modified into a cosmological dualism of spiritual versus material.39 The Gnostics hoped to transfer from this world to the spiritual realm, and ultimately into the plērōma, by the receipt of an esoteric gnōsis, i.e., “spiritual enlightenment.”40 This gnōsis was brought, directly or indirectly, by a redeemer who acted as “revealer” to a select few of the “elect.”

To the Gnostics, being awakened from their sleep and perceiving the knowledge, “gnosis,” of their beginnings and destiny was “redeeming” for them. In other words, obtaining mystical knowledge of this kind was thought to be their salvation, and in that sense a revealer-figure was also a redeemer.41

The Gnostic Christ

Not all Gnostics cared to associate themselves with the figure of Jesus Christ. The Mandaeans are a sect that venerated John the Baptist, but rejected Jesus as a false prophet.42

Still, overall the Gnostics freely and readily adopted the Christ-image as their Redeemer, or the latest in a series of redeemers. “The grand characteristic of Christian Gnosticism is the identification of the mythical Redeemer with Christ, with whose history the pagan traditions are interwoven.”43 Jesus became to them a mystical figure: one who, according to the Valentinians, clothed himself with the esoteric “Name of the Lord.”44

Jesus did not, say the Gnostics, come to bear the sins of men, that whoever believes in his atoning death may gain eternal life. “The real purpose of Jesus, or rather of the Soter [‘Savior’] who used Him as his instrument, was to communicate the hidden gnōsis.”45

Most scholars consider the general Gnostic view of the Incarnation to be docetic (from Gk. dokein, “to seem”). This term, however, is usually applied to the early heretical position that Jesus was never actually present in the flesh, but only “seemed” to be human. He was, in this view, entirely spiritual and his human appearance an illusion. Thus Elaine Pagels is probably right in objecting to the docetic label.46

Instead, the Gnostic Christ had two natures: the pneumatic (spiritual) and the psychic (physiological). The Gnostics variously held that the Savior/Redeemer indwelt the earthly Jesus at birth (the Naassenes and the Pistis Sophia), at the age of twelve (the Justinians), or at his baptism by John (most sects).47 The Valentinians believed that at his baptism Jesus received the “Name of the Lord.”48 The divine Savior departed from Jesus’ body at the time of the trial before Pilate,49 later while on the cross, or somewhere in-between. Basilides taught that Simon of Cyrene was transformed to look like Jesus and crucified in his place.50 Such separation of Christ from the material world was evidently requisite in order to comply with Gnostic dualistic conceptions.

Thus the true (Gnostic) Christ escaped suffering and death.51 Christ’s death was not a redemptive act: it was merely due to an outburst of wrath from the evil Demiurge.52 The wholly spiritual Christ — according to Basilides, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and The Apocalypse of Peter — now laughed at the folly of his would-be executors.53 They thought they could rid themselves of the divine Redeemer!

He whom you see above the tree, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But the one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute . . . one made in his likeness.54

This “laughing” of Christ was possibly drawn from Psalm 2, concerning those who conspired “against the Lord and his
Anointed,” so that “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.”55


The Redeemer figure is one variously assembled from ancient myths and traditions. Then the figure of Jesus Christ was adapted and fitted into the Gnostic scheme as yet another redeemer. Just as Gnostic teachers appropriated Paul’s terminology to their purposes, they also appropriated the figure of Christ.

The evidence adduced here does not suggest a Gnostic religion preceding Christianity — not as defined. There might have existed gnosticizing traits in some pre-Christian religious sects. There might be elements and terminology in primitive Christianity itself that can be called Gnostic. Yet Gnosticism as we know it from Nag Hammadi and related texts cannot be demonstrated before Christianity was well established.

Gnosticism is by nature syncretistic.56 The Gnostic Jesus presented here is the natural byproduct of this syncretism, wherein elements pre-Christian and post-Christian; elements Egyptian, Iranian, Hellenistic, philosophical, etc.; and elements derived from specious exegesis and active imaginations have melded to produce a radically different Christ from that of orthodox Christianity — and one that is just as naturally labeled heretical by its opponents.


1See Casey (JTS XXXVI [1938], 60), cited by R. McLaglan Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” Vigiliae Christianae 9 (1955):195, see also 193.

2See Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 16 f.

3Ibid., 18.

4Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 194.

5See Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions, ed. R. van den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 469-477.

6See Wilson, “Gnostic Origins, “ 194, 207; Gilles Quispel, “Gnosticism from Its Origins to the Middle Ages,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, ed. Mircea Eliade (NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), 568; and G. Quispel, “Gnosticism and the New Testament,,” Vigiliae Christianae 19 (1965):73.

7T. P. van Baaren, “Toward a Definition of Gnosticism,” in U. Bianchi, ed., Le Origini dello Gnosticismo (1967), 178-180, quoted in Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 14 f.

8Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 14 f.

9 Ibid.,15.

10See Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 489-90.

11See Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 568.

12Ibid., 570.

13E. F. Scott, “Gnosticism,” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 6, ed. James Hastings (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 236.

14Henry A. Green, “Gnosis and Gnosticism: A Study in Methodology,” Numen 24 (August 1977):117.

15Ibid., 116.

16Ibid., 116 f., 123.

17See C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 98, paraphrased in Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 205; Dodd is followed here against Wilson’s own (unjustified) dating of Christian Gnostic origins to the mid-first century.

18Scott, 236.

19The Apocryphon of John even “combines the Anthropos [‘Man’] model and the Sophia model,” Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 570.

20Scott, 237.


22See Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 168.

23Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology, Nag Hammadi Studies, vol. 24, ed. Martin Krause, James M. Robinson, and Frederik Wisse (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), 110.

24Ibid., 111; see also Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 488.

25Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 203.

26Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 567.


28G. van Groningen, First Century Gnosticism: Its Origin and Motifs (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 70-72.

29Scott, 237.

30Cf. Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 567 f.; see also Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 494; and Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London: A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1958), 221, 226.

31Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 568.


33Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 480.

34Wilson, Gnostic Problem, 226.

35F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 69.

36John Dart, The Laughing Savior (NY: Harper and Row, 1976), 97-101.

37Ibid., 100 f.

38Ibid., 101-103.

39Scott, 234.


41Dart, 101.

42Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 469, 471.

43Scott, 237.

44Quispel, “New Testament,” 80, see also 82.

45Scott, 237.

46EIaine H. Pagels, “Gnostic and Orthodox views of Christ’s Passion: Paradigms for the Christian’s Response to Persecution?” in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 1, ed. Bentley Layton, Studies in the History of Religions, vol. 41, ed. M. H. van Voss, E. J. Sharpe, and R. J. Z. Werblowsky (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980), 264.

47Scott, 237

48Quispel, “New Testament,” 80.

49Pagels, 265.

50Dart, 108-109.

51See Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.16.6; according to Pagels, however, the Valentinians affirmed the Passion of Christ, Pagels, 262-88; but the spiritual part of Christ still did not suffer, only the psychic (266).

52Scott, 237.

53Dart, 109.

54From The Apocalypse of Peter, quoted in Dart, 107.


56See Dodd, Fourth Gospel, 97 f., quoted in Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 197.

© 1987, 2007 Paul A. Hughes, previously published in Christ in Us: The Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2007), also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google Book Preview.

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