Gnostic Trends in the Local Church

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jude 3-4

Dr. Michael Philliber opens his recent book Gnostic Trends in the Local Church by recounting how the Christian section of his local bookstore recently became bloated with books by pro-Gnostic authors like Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer. Around this same time, Philliber found that he was bumping into people whose idea of mature spirituality echoed the impulses of ancient Gnosticism. For example, it was becoming increasingly common for people to say to him, “I consider myself a very spiritual person, but I’m not into organized religion.”

These experiences prompted Dr. Philliber, who is a PCA minister and a good personal friend, to do a controlled survey on just how pervasive Gnostic trends have become within the contemporary church. He chose three churches in his area that were dissimilar in size, racial makeup and theology, although they all professed to be orthodox. One of the participating churches was his own reformed Presbyterian congregation.

Philliber approached members of all three congregations with survey questions ranging everywhere from what people thought of the bogus history in The Da Vinci Code to whether they considered the body to be the soul’s prison house.

Among Philliber’s primary concerns was to discover how much of a foothold what he calls “anticosmic dualism” had made within the church. “Anticosmic dualism” refers to the Gnostic belief that the material world is a cosmic blunder, and the corollary antithesis between the physical and the spiritual realms.  Although few Christians would agree that the material universe is a cosmic mistake, it is customary to find believers de-emphasizing the physical dimensions of the faith (i.e., history and the sacraments), or to accept an itinerary of salvation that ends, not with resurrection, but with eternal disembodiment.

I am excited to see Gnostic Trends in print since I had the opportunity, not only to read Dr. Philliber’s excellent PhD thesis on which his book is based, but to help connect him with a publisher. But I was also interested in the book since it confirms many of the observations I have been making in my ongoing series of Perspective articles. (See Salvation as Escape from the Body and Resurrection and the Sanctification of Matter and Raised a Spiritual Body: Gnosticism and Evangelicalism.) But whereas my articles have drawn primarily on books I’ve been reading, Philliber actually got his hands dirty talking to hundreds of lay people while conducting his surveys. His work is valuable at analyzing Gnostic trends on ground level.

Reflecting over the survey as a whole, Philliber wrote:

“The outcome showed that whether the church was Anglican, Independent, or Presbyterian, modern aspects of Gnosticism were cropping up in definitely harmful ways… When I began this study, I had conflicted assumptions. On the one hand, it appeared to me that the congregation I pastor was thoroughly unmovable in regard to the Jesus of history who is the Christ of faith. I was also confident that they would be able to intelligently resist any challenges to Jesus’ deity, or to the historical authenticity and authority of the canonical Gospels. Yet, on the other hand, as Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, became increasingly popular, I was sensing areas of doubt or confusion that might disable some folk’s ability to ‘give a defense to everyone who asks [them] a reason for the hope that is in [them].”

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As this study unfolded, and I broadened my research into other churches, it became clear that many Christians do have a solid grip on the essential aspects of the Christian faith and on who Jesus Christ really is. But it also became obvious that there were spots that needed to be strengthened. The most outstanding [deficient] subjects, across denominational and congregational lines, were (1) the singularly significant historical events in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) the uniqueness of the divinity of Jesus, (3) the authenticity of the canonical Gospels, (4) the pro-creation ramifications of Christ’s redemptive vocation, and (5) how to respond successfully to Gnostic opposition to both the uniqueness of ‘our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’ and the genuinely authoritative place of the canonical Gospels.”

What is valuable about Philliber’s Gnostic Trends is that it does not merely identify these Gnostic tendencies, but uses Biblical exegesis to show where they are wanting and how we, as believers, can combat these falsehoods with the truth of scripture.



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