Against the Protestant Gnostics
Philip Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), plus notes, bibliography, index.

I am frequently asked why it is that so many Christians and churches miss out on the peace message of Jesus. As an aficionado of the work of Rene Girard I want to say that it is because we humans are tendentiously violent, but for some, that is too easy and evasive an answer. Truth be told, there is a far more pernicious reason Christianity has rejected the peace paradigm of the New Testament: modern Christianity is fundamentally Gnostic. Gnostics believed that salvation was through knowledge, that the material world was created by a lesser (or evil) God, that spirit/mind has nothing to do with flesh/matter, they were dualistic through and through. Gnostic Christianity has no need to make peace in the world, it simply vacated the world, and rejected the reality of real brokenness in human relationships.

If one were to explore New Testament studies today, one would find an appreciation for ancient Gnosticism with its emphases on self, an escapist flight from history and an orientation toward the enlightened few. Some scholars seem quite pleased to champion a Gnostic heterodoxy over against the emerging orthodoxy of the early church, a triumph seen as the revisioning of Christianity.

Philip Lee has exposed the challenge of Gnosticism to Christian claims of orthodox revelation and has demonstrated that Gnostic tentacles reach deep and wide within modern American Protestantism. Against The Protestant Gnostics first published in 1987 by Oxford University Press details with critical acumen and extensive evidence that whether fundamentalist or liberal, Protestantism in America is no different than Gnostic Christianity of the first centuries of the church.

Lee begins with an analysis of Gnostic religion and the elitism that it spawned (little wonder that it is popular among academics). He is able to show that Gnostic infiltration of Christianity never really ended but has continued on down through the history of the church and has been reborn in American religion. Tracing the roots of this Gnosticism through Puritan Calvinism and how it spread by splitting into conservativism and liberalism, Lee is able to demonstrate why it is that modern Evangelicalism “developed its own distinctive character, a chief ingredient of which was an abiding sense of alienation.”

What are the results of a Gnosticized Protestantism? Lee suggests rejection of the good earth, a disdain for the ecology of the planet and a concomitant acceptance of the Bomb, our willingness to destroy physical reality with militant technology; the triumphal vision of the autonomous self and its private revelations; the separation of the sacred and the secular and the consequence of escape from any social ethic; the worship of the Individual and equality for the few.

But Lee is not without hope and in the last chapter offers some significant ways to ground ourselves once again in the gospel of grace (partially recovered by the Reformers). Lee says that ‘the sense of primal alienation experienced by every human generation has been unrelieved in our day by the contrary voice, by the quiet nevertheless of the gospel, assuring the faithful ‘Nevertheless I am continually with thee, thou dost hold my right hand.’” By affirming the grace of God’s enfleshdness (incarnation) in Jesus we may also affirm our own humanity because we ‘are included in the beloved.’

Lee, in rejecting the dualism of Gnosticism, also points the way to affirm ‘ordinary Christianity’ which does not shy away from body, sex and family or the real things of human life but has made peace with the these realities and experiences them all in the sphere of God’s grace. The true Christian knows that sin has been and will be forgiven, the Gnostic needs no forgiveness (sin belongs to the lower physical order), just enlightenment. By rejecting Gnosticism and affirming the forgiveness of God in Jesus we also affirm that we have turned away from ourselves and extended ourselves toward others as God in Christ has done for us.

Finally in what will be a crucial discussion for historic peace churches, Lee pleads for a non-Gnostic understanding of the liturgy, reaffirming ritual, both baptism and eucharist, but a ritual bound by a theology of the cross. There really is something of the nature of ‘blood and guts’ going on in the sacraments.

Christians that reject peace do so not because they like violence but because they don’t take violence seriously, they have demythologized it. It is the soul or the spirit that lives on that counts, earthly realities like sickness, poverty and war are not worthy of our concern, so we can call them illusions or we can ignore them but they are not real. Peace in a Gnostic trajectory will always be at the end of a gun or a rope or a sword, or a bomb. When current Christian political observers refer to the Manichean policies of the Bush administration they reinforce Lee’s argument (Mani was a third century dualist who influenced Augustine). And what goes around seems to come back around again and again.

This is one of those books I would put into the hands of every pastor and lay person who really sought to understand the deep presuppositions of our current fascination with violence and our deep complicity in human suffering. If you are looking to understand the tragic roots of the ‘fall of Christianity’ look no further. We can keep trimming the false theological tree of its dead branches but until we get at its roots it will continue to grow back and poison us. Buy this book and read it, it will change the way you understand American civil religion and it will give you the tools to call Christianity back to the roots of the gospel in the peace, grace and love of Jesus Christ.