An affinity between classic Gnostic Soteriology and Reformed Soteriology?

I have always found that there is a curious similarity between the classical Gnostic myth’s (that is, the basic sketch provided by the heresiologists, including foremost Irenaeus of Lyons, along with the sketch provided in the Apocryphon of John – or anything in between) soteriology and reformed Soteriology insofar as they claim that good works are not ‘necessary’ after one receives the ‘enlightenment’ which provides the absolute assurance of salvation.

Now, we must be careful not to push this similarity beyond what is reasonable – there is no real affiliation here between the traditions. It is simply curious to me how and to what degree these two are similar. I will not rehearse the entire classical Ptolemaic Gnostic myth here, but assume the reader’s knowledge of it (sorry for those who aren’t familiar with it, perhaps I’ll post on it another time, but it is far from simple to explain).

The Classic Gnostic anthropology divides human beings into three Cosmic-Castes.

  1. Humanity can be divided into three groups:
    1. Spiritual (having the divine spark which belongs in the Pleroma)
    2. Psychical (The Animal man who has a divine spark, and possibly can get to Sophia or the 8th heaven, but ultimately is always stuck in the “middle” or “intermediate“)
    3. Material (the Animal man who has no divine spark accidentally passed from the Demiurge)

These “Gnostics” would thus argue that those who were hedonists, or even just the average ignorant human person, did not have the divine spark, and thus could not be saved (was pre-destined to not be saved, in a sense, though by accident rather than by design). The Psychical man, however, was the Christian – the person who was able to recognize something different about the ‘Christ’ (technically for the Gnostics the ‘Savior’ was the second ‘Christos’, but I digress) which was different; they were able to see that, in some confused way, he was calling men to salvation by his revelation in a unique way. The Spirituals, then, were the Gnostics who recognized and were completely aware of the divine spark within themselves and knew that they were destined to return to the Pleroma. Of course, the Gnostics only ever bothered evangelizing to the psychicals (the average Christians) since only the Psychicals had the divine spark and could possibly become Gnostic. If they wished for salvation by lesser means than this divine knowledge, then they would require asceticism and fastings, denial of pleasures, and so forth. In other words, they would need ‘good works’ to be saved. Whereas Gnostics believed that once one recognized the divine spark within oneself and was aware of the whole cosmic myth of origins, one was guaranteed, despite actions, to return to the Pleroma. Their ‘enlightenment’ was the assurance of salvation, and once ‘saved’ always saved.

The Reformed view, which I assume people are also familiar with, basically stipulates that salvation comes by Grace alone through Faith alone (in contrast to the Catholic doctrine which says that salvation comes by Grace alone through Faith and Works). This distinction can perhaps better, though more technically, be summarized as between an imputed righteousness which is unto-salvation or an infused righteousness which is unto-salvation; Catholics believe in infused Grace (so that Christ acting in the Christian is responsible for the good works and also uses those good works to further sanctify the believer making them holier and more-saved) and Protestants typically believe in imputed Grace (where Christ imputes his righteousness to us directly, giving us a new regenerate nature which naturally spills out into works, but works are not themselves salvific in the sense that they ontologically can draw somebody nearer to God or justify them to a greater extent). So, taking this basic reformed view seriously, the implication is that ‘works are not necessary for salvation’ such that once one is saved there is simply no way which that salvation, through coming to ‘Know’ and have a personal relationship with the Risen Christ, can be lost. No sin will cost one one’s salvation, and no good works will add to one’s salvation.

With all this in mind, let us turn to a short passage written by Irenaeus against these Valentinian Gnostics:

[according to the Gnostics]: Animal men, again, are instructed in animal things; such men, namely, as are established by their works, and by a mere faith, while they have not perfect knowledge. We of the Church, they say, are these persons. Wherefore also they maintain that good works are necessary to us, for that otherwise it is impossible we should be saved. But as to themselves, they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature. For, just as it is impossible that material substance should partake of salvation (since, indeed, they maintain that it is incapable of receiving it), so again it is impossible that spiritual substance (by which they mean themselves) should ever come under the power of corruption, whatever the sort of actions in which they indulged. For even as gold, when submersed in filth, loses not on that account its beauty, but retains its own native qualities, the filth having no power to injure the gold, so they affirm that they cannot in any measure suffer hurt, or lose their spiritual substance, whatever the material actions in which they may be involved…

On this account, they tell us that it is necessary for us whom they call animal men, and describe as being of the world, to practise continence and good works, that by this means we may attain at length to the intermediate habitation, but that to them who are called “the spiritual and perfect” such a course of conduct is not at all necessary. For it is not conduct of any kind which leads into the Pleroma, but the seed sent forth thence in a feeble, immature state, and here brought to perfection.
~Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” Book 1: Chap. VI.  Paragraphs_2&4

Now, this is interesting, as Irenaeus goes on to argue that the true orthodox Christian view includes the necessity of good works, and makes this an argument against the Gnostics. This evidences the faith of the early Church by contrast to the Gnostics (and contrasts, I submit, similarly with classically reformed protestantism). However, it has always struck me – as radically different as the soteriologies might be between Reformed Protestantism and Gnosticism – that there is this curious point of convergence.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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2 Responses to An affinity between classic Gnostic Soteriology and Reformed Soteriology?

  1. James says:

    You wrote a good article but you have oversimplified many things, whether intentionally or not I do not know. If you would like a thorough run down regarding what I think of this article, please shoot me an Email with the subject title the same as this article. I would like to bring a few points to your attention.

  2. Of course I have oversimplified many things, not least the Gnostic Soteriology or cosmic myth. Obviously there are more differences which might make such a parallel seem incredulous; for instance typically reformed Soteriology does not imply a tripartite-anthropology. I am well aware that this post also over-simplifies the nuance of the Reformed view. Nevertheless I always thought the parallel was interesting, and I’m not alone in thinking such things. For example, the wild protestant Church historian Adolf von Harnack actually hailed the Gnostics as the first theologians, and welcomed Marcion himself into the halls of the greatest protestants in the history of the Church. Of course, his reasons may differ from mine, but my point remains simply this: there is some curious affinity here, worthy of being pointed out. I would be interested to hear what your reservations, criticisms, observations or comments might be – I also think such things might be of interest to other readers. I will email you – but I invite you to post freely. I don’t bite, and I will seriously consider any points you make.

    ~Christ is Risen!

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