Christian History Sampler: History Behind the News
The New Age Movement isn’t really new. In the second century, Irenaeus taught Christians how to confront it.
An insightful poster reads: “There are two important facts about the universe: (1) There is a God; (2) You are not he.” This is Christianity in a nutshell. The Creator God is not confused with creation. Humans are not now, nor will they ever be, divine. God is a personal being, not an impersonal principle, force, or essence.
A New Age version of this poster would read: “There are two important facts about the universe: (1) There is a God; (2) You are it.” Or, in the words of Joseph Campbell (from the television series and book The Power of Myth): “You are God, not in your ego, but in your deepest being, where you are at one with the nondual transcendent.” This is the heart of New Age spirituality: people are divine and must rediscover this potential in order to better the world.
Old Roots of the New Age
G. K. Chesterton, Christian apologist par excellence, observed in 1930 that “We hear much about new religions; many of them based on the very latest novelties of Buddha and Pythagoras.” The perennial war of ideas develops few new weapons systems. In the intellectual combat between the New Age Movement and orthodox Christianity, the points of conflict were recognized by the early church eighteen hundred years before New Age celebrity evangelist Shirley MacLaine spoke to her first disembodied spirit.
Prophets of the New Age such as Joseph Campbell frequently hark back to Gnosticism for spiritual inspiration, saying that people can live out of the sense of Christ in them, as Jesus lived out of the Christhood of his nature. Campbell quotes from the Gnostic text The Gospel of Thomas to the effect that Jesus’ mission was to reveal the deity of all people.
Of course, as New Age leaders imbibe at the well of gnosis, they strain out what offends modernity’s tastes. The harsh Gnostic dualism of dark matter versus pure Spirit is ignored or redefined in psychological terms. The fantastic hierarchic cosmologies of innumerable spiritual beings are likewise winked at or interpreted, in good Jungian form, as manifestations of psychological processes.
Yet the ancient appeal of Gnosticism remains: There is a hidden and secret wisdom (gnosis) that can be directly experienced by turning within. This gnosis is not found in traditional orthodoxy, which is merely exoteric or external, but in the deeper or esoteric meaning. The supreme realization of gnosis is the spark of divinity within. Underneath the illusions of ignorance burns the fire of the unlimited.
Irenaeus, Heresy Fighter
The exact origins of Gnosticism are a matter of scholarly debate, but we find it thriving as an alternative to orthodox Christianity in the second century, and several New Testament writers such as John and Paul may have been responding to Gnostic or proto-Gnostic elements in their letters.
The greatest apologist against the Gnostics was the early church theologian Irenaeus, who wrote Against Heresies in approximately 180 AD. This work illustrates several principles for dealing with the neo-Gnostic or New Age teachings so widespread today.
1. Irenaeus went to great lengths properly to identify and explain the beliefs of the “Gnostics so-called.”Against Heresies presents a careful analysis of the Gnostic system in its different forms. Until the discovery of many primary Gnostic texts near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in the 1940s, Irenaeus and other apologists provided nearly all of scholars’ knowledge of the Gnostics. (Although some have disparaged the church fathers’ treatments, historian Patrick Henry observes in his book New Directions in New Testament Study that they have integrity and “it is still legitimate to use [their] materials to characterize Gnosticism.”) Irenaeus, while opposing Gnosticism as a world view antithetical to Christianity, labored to fairly present its views. No matter how ridiculous or blasphemous Christians find various New Age teachings, caricature is never an appropriate apologetic.
2. Irenaeus recognized and countered the Gnostics’ biblical misinterpretation. Gnostics defended any number of unbiblical doctrines by appealing to Scriptural texts out of context and with no respect for the authors’ intent. Irenaeus realized the Gnostic teachers “gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” while “they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles.” Irenaeus says this eisegesis “disregards the order and connection of the Scriptures.” He likens this to taking apart the individual jewels that make up a skilled artist’s beautiful image of a king and rearranging them so as to make them into a dog or a fox.
When cults twist biblical texts in service of their message, their literary license needs to be unmasked.
3. Irenaeus attacked the irrationality of Gnostic theology. In one memorable passage, he lampoons the common Gnostic claim that the ultimate godhead is absolutely unknowable and unnameable. The apologist finds it odd that the Gnostics speak so much and with such metaphysical gusto about that which, on their own terms, they can neither know anything nor say anything about! Since the Gnostics assign a wide variety of names to spiritual principles that they take to be unnameable, Irenaeus proposes his own cluster of ultimate spiritual entities: Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, Cucumber, and Melon! Irenaeus’ satire spotlights the stupidity of making the absolute reality beyond all words or thoughts.
When, for example, Joseph Campbell asserts in The Power of Myth that “God is beyond names and forms” and even “transcends thingness”—and later goes on to say all sorts of things about the God who cannot be known!—it is wise to remember and demonstrate the rank illogic of such remarks.
4. Irenaeus kept Christology at the center of his work. Irenaeus knew that the Gnostic distortion of the meaning and work of Jesus Christ was its most dangerous aspect. Gnostics, then as now, divide the man Jesus from “the Christ” in various ways.
In one approach, the Christ was viewed as a spirit that temporarily visited Jesus and left him at the cross. Irenaeus realized that this perversion of Jesus leaves people fast in their fallen state because it denies that Christ died for sins.
Another Gnostic view held Jesus as an enlightened man visited by the same Christ that elicits the Christhood in each person. To this Irenaeus responded, “The Gospel … knew of no other man but him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but him who was born it knows as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again.”
New Age teachings offer variations of these ancient errors: Jesus is a man who tapped into a universal Christ consciousness; or he is an example of what a self-realized master can do. Modern-day apologists must imitate Irenaeus, who lifted up the Jesus of biblical revelation in the face of these confusions.
Heresies will remain until the End, but new heresies are hard to find indeed. The Gnostic planks of self-deification, biblical distortion, irrationality, and Christological confusion are mirrored in the neo-Gnostic elements of the New Age Movement. With an eye toward Irenaeus, contemporary Christians can discover principles of confrontation just as applicable today as they were eighteen hundred years ago.
Douglas Groothuis is the author of Unmasking the New Age, Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity, 1986 and 1988), and a forthcoming book on the New Age view of Jesus
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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