Gnosticism and the Gospel of Social Justice: Heresies Old and New

Genesis of a New Heresy

In the course of the past few years I have noticed within my circle of associates, acquaintances, and students, as well as those at a distance, a change in theological orientation. The focus has shifted from heaven to earth, from individual to society, from church to world, from doctrine to ethics, from divine to human action, from conversion to belonging, and from separation to engagement with the world. They’ve not become totally secular. Nor have they adopted one of the historical heresies. They do not deny the incarnation, the resurrection, or the Trinity. They still speak about God and invoke the Spirit; the name of Jesus is ever on their lips. They attend church, quote Scripture, pray, and live good lives.

And yet, in their hands the meanings of traditional Christian words have undergone a subtle change. The words are there: Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, faith, salvation, justice, peace, and love. But the way they are related to each other and appear in the narrative differs dramatically from the biblical order and narrative flow. The priorities, ends, and orienting markers create a very different map of our relationship to God and human beings than that of the New Testament. Some things prominent in the biblical narrative are omitted and others less prominent are given leading roles. God, Christ, Spirit, and other Christian words have been pried loose from their original placement in the Bible and reset in an alien setting. Christian terms are used to legitimate and serve a quite different philosophy, another gospel.

Genesis of an Old Heresy

As I think about how to unravel this tangled web of Christian, pagan, and heretical ideas the work of Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130 – c. 200) to expose the deceptions of the heresy known as Gnosticism comes to mind. Gnostic theologians commandeered Christian language and set it in their philosophical matrix so that Christian words were given Gnostic meanings. In this way they could present their rational, quasi-mythical speculations as “true” Christianity, intellectually superior to the Christianity of the literally minded common people. Irenaeus’s illustration created to describe the Gnostic strategy applies equally well to the philosophy I am considering:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1. 8. 1; ANF, 1: 326).

Progressive Humanism

Irenaeus dealt with Gnosticism. What is the name of the contemporary philosophy with which we must deal? I find it difficult to give it a name because it is so eclectic and incoherent. But perhaps “Progressive Humanism” is the least problematic term. It expects the arc of history to bend toward greater and greater liberation of human beings from oppressive forces. It is in this respect a philosophy of history, a secularized version of the traditional Christian doctrines of providence and eschatology. In so far as it views progress toward perfect liberty as inevitable and achievable, it is a utopian vision unattainable under the conditions of history. Within Progressive Humanism two incompatible visions of liberation vie for dominance. One views human beings primarily as individuals and seeks to liberate individuals from all supposedly normative, preexisting political, social, moral, natural, and theological frameworks so that they may define themselves as they please. The other vision views human beings as having primarily a group identity, as members of a class, race, or gender. The goal of this second form of progressivism is liberation of the oppressed group from entrenched, oppressive political and social structures and interests. Clearly, these visions of liberation are incompatible because an individual may be a member of an “oppressed” race or gender but simultaneously a member of an “oppressor” class. Moreover, an individual of any “oppressed” group may find that group itself oppressive to them as individuals if they fail to conform to its expectations.

Progressive Humanism Baptized

The church-going, scripture-quoting Christians I described in the first paragraph of this essay have been converted to the essential ideals and programs of Progressive Humanism. They’ve not stopped talking about God, Christ, the Spirit, and other Christian ideas, but these Christian words have been made subservient to Progressive Humanism. They are no longer of independent interest and authority. They function as metaphysical legitimations for progressive ideals. Under the rubric of “social justice,” the system of Progressive Humanism is breathlessly proclaimed as the gospel of Jesus. And those who are not thoroughly conversant with the whole Bible may mistake the carefully selected quotes from the scriptures and the constant references to Jesus and the Spirit as the proof of the gospel. As Irenaeus observed, those who have no conception of the beautiful mosaic of the king may be deceived to think “that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.”

To be continued…

7 thoughts on “Gnosticism and the Gospel of Social Justice: Heresies Old and New

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello again Ron,
    Glad you’re back (and well, i hope and pray)!
    Reading you, but rather busy at the moment with other things…
    Wonder if you might briefly look at
    Van Huysteen, “Theology and the Justification of Faith” 1989: pp 180-186 — Theology and tradition, confessionals.
    Just a thought.


  2. Craig Brown

    As always, thank you for your passion, academic skills and devotion to the Gospel of Christ. You’ve always been a consistent model of “faith seeking understanding.” I look forward to hearing more.


  3. Daniel Spencer

    Hello Dr. Highfield,

    I really enjoyed this—thanks! I’m working through Against Heresies myself right now, and thinking especially about the import of that very same passage. Cyril O’Regan first alerted me to this passage (in Gnostic Return in Modernity), but—I think you’re spot on—it works equally well for *any* ‘disfiguration-refiguration’ of the biblical material. (Right now I’m trying to think through the extent of this disfiguration in certain Neoplatonic renditions of Christianity, but inwardly despairing because (a) it’s far too big a project and (b) some of my theological heroes are deeply indebted to the Neoplatonic tradition.)

    But it all raises the important question of a ‘rule of faith’, or at least some fairly explicit hermeneutical principles for our reading of scripture. In your view, how can we be sure—or reasonably confident—a given reading of scripture is the right one? How can we know when, say, Neoplatonism or some tenet of ‘progressive humanism’ is merely informing/supplementing our Christianity or filling in some conceptual gaps, versus exerting a controlling or formational influence? (How can we be sure we’ve got the gems correctly arranged into the image of the king?)


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      First…it’s so good to hear from you! When you have time, email me and give me an update on recent events. Your question is a of course the “next” question we are forced to ask. Perhaps we should first envision the infinite regression implicit in this question: if I ventured an answer, the next question would simply ask me how I know…an so on to infinity. Irenaeus, of course, asserted that the churches in Rome and elsewhere had preserved the “rule of faith” given at the beginning. In the end, however, the answer must work itself out in the course of theological debate…trusting that in the long run “the gates of hell” will not prevail. In the meantime, we will have to venture a judgment about whether Neoplatonism, Enlightenment humanism, Existentialism, or Marxism is being used to illuminate and apply the gospel OR has become the controlling framework. And this judgment, too, will be called into question by some. Let us pray that God will preserve the faith for future generations. With human beings this is impossible but with God all things are possible.

      Liked by 1 person


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