shared from and with BibleTexts.com users
#102 - Christian Science versus Gnosticism
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Do you know the differance between Gnosticism and Christian Science?
To determine the difference between Gnosticism and Christian Science, let's begin with an understanding of what is Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is the name given today to a religious school of thought that began to take shape at the end of the first century A.D. or the beginning of the second century A.D. There is no scholarly agreement on its origin or even its relationship to early Christianity. It may have been an offshoot of Judaism and/or some other contemporary religious philosphy. Pheme Perkins (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition, edited by Everett Ferguson, NY: Garland Publishing 1999, pages 465), in his very comprehensive article on the subject of Gnosticism, writes:
Derived from the Greek for "knowledge," gnosis, the term "Gnosicism" covers a number of religious and quasiphilosophical movements that developed in the religious pluralism of the Hellenistic world and flourished from the second to the fifth centuries A.D. Gnosis in this sense does not refer to understanding of truths about the human and natural world that can be reached through reason. It refers to a "revealed knowledge" available only to those who have received the secret teachings of a heavenly revealer. All other humans are trapped in ignorance of the true divine world and the destiny of the Gnostic soul to its home there. For some Gnostic groups, the return of the soul to the divine was pictured as a reunion with a heavenly counterpart. Ritual enactment of the "marriage" between the soul and her consort seems to have been typical of groups that traced their teachings to Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher active among Christians in Rome in the middle of the second century A.D. Other groups placed more emphasis on freeing the soul from all its attachments to the material world by an ascetic overcoming of the passions. For them, sexuality and femininity were evils that had to be rejected at every turn...
The New Testament includes some opposition to characteristics and verbiage later associated with Gnosticism. The one most pronounced example is where the author of 1 Timothy (not written by Paul) wrote, "Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith." (1Ti 6:20, NRSV). The word commonly translated as "knowledge" is, in the Greek text, gnosis <Strong's Greek #1108>.
Yet Paul mostly uses gnosis ("knowledge") as commendable. (See Rom 11:33; 15:14; 1Co 1:5; 12:8; 14:6; Phi 3:8.) Elsewhere he refers to it not as being bad, but simply as being of lesser value and duration than love (Greek: agape <Strong's Greek #26>). (See Rom 2:20, 1Co 13:2,8.) In one section of 1 Corinthians, Paul describes how gnosis, if used out of pride or self-righteousness, can be harmful. (See 1Co 8:1,7,10,11.)
Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, would wholely concur with the above New Testament passages from Paul and from 1 Timothy regarding gnosis. She also specifically rejected Gnosticism:
From this dazzling, God-crowned summit, the Nazarene [Jesus] stepped suddenly before the people and their schools of philosophy; Gnostic, Epicurean, and Stoic. He must stem these rising angry elements, and walk serenely over their fretted, foaming billows. Here the cross became the emblem of Jesus' history; while the central point of his Messianic mission was peace, good will, love, teaching, and healing. (Miscellaneous Writings, page 162:6-13.)
Robert McL. Wilson explains in his excellent article on "Gnosticism" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993, pages 255-256):
The chief characteristics common to all the developed systems [of Gnosticism] are: (1) radical cosmic dualism that rejects this world and all that belongs to it: the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape; (2) a distinction between the unknown transcendent true God and the creator or Demiurge, commonly identified with the God of the Hebrew Bible; (3) the belief that the human race is essentially akin to the divine, being a spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body; (4) a myth, often narrating a premundane fall, to account for the present human predicament; and (5) the saving knowledge by which deliverance is effected and the gnostic awakened to recognition of his or her true nature and heavenly origin... Some of the characteristics listed can be identified in other systems of thought, but that does not make these gnostic; it is the combination of those ideas into a new synthesis that is gnosticism.
Mrs. Eddy's writings show her consistent correction of all five of these characteristics of Gnosticism.
The BibleTexts.com commentary on Joh 8:32 (at http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-joh.htm#8) also provides some insight on Gnosticism:
Verse 32 needs to be understood in the context of verse 31. The condition of practical discipleship in the preceding verse (Joh 8:31) was one of the means that the writer of the Gospel of John used to distinguish Jesus' teachings from the mere intellectualism and infidelity often associated with Gnosticism, which the Gospel of John arguably is purposed to combat. The full sentence reads, "So Jesus said to those who believed in him, 'If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.' (Joh 8:31,32, TEV)
Christian Science is neither intellectualism nor asceticism. It requires practical Christian discipleship as a prerequisite to understanding and demonstrating the power of God. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures [see book review], Mrs. Eddy wrote:
No intellectual proficiency is requisite in the learner, but sound morals are most desirable. (S&H x:30)
Jesus was no ascetic. He did not fast as did the Baptist's disciples; yet there never lived a man so far removed from appetites and passions as the Nazarene. He rebuked sinners pointedly and unflinchingly, because he was their friend; hence the cup he drank. The reputation of Jesus was the very opposite of his character. (S&H 53:3-9)
Christian Science may absorb the attention of sage and philosopher, but the Christian alone can fathom it. It is made known most fully to him who understands best the divine Life. (S&H 556:13-16)
To understand all our Master's sayings as recorded in the New Testament, sayings infinitely important, his followers must grow into that stature of manhood in Christ Jesus which enables them to interpret his spiritual meaning. Then they know how Truth casts out error and heals the sick. His words were the offspring of his deeds, both of which must be understood. Unless the works are comprehended which his words explained, the words are blind. (S&H 350:6. See also S&H 447:32-448:32; S&H 460:14.)
The teachings of genuine Christian Science are a denial of the very foundation of Gnosticism. Christian Science is sometimes mis-practiced as merely intellectual gymnastics or as simply mentally or verbally repeating "truths." That has no relationship to genuine Christian Science, to understanding and demonstrating one's relationship with God.
The chapter "Interlude Symantic" in Robert Peel's book, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority (NY: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, pages 207-220), makes clear Mrs. Eddy's distinction between 'repeating Christian Science' and 'stating Christian Science.' (page 213, before footnote 21) Though not mentioning Gnosticism, that chapter provides explanations that point out the differences between the impractical intellectualism of Gnosticism and the practical, life-rooted, deeply Christian practice of Christian Science. Peel writes (page 218, 1st paragraph, last sentence; page 219, 3rd paragraph, 2nd sentence to the end of the paragraph.):
Never, at her most abstract, could the founder of Christian Science forget the imperative, inescapable demand for Christian regeneration.
An answer which was no more than an exercise in abstract logic, without power to heal or come to the rescue of the human condition, was of little value in Mrs. Eddy's eyes. It simply lacked the Christianity of which she had written in Science and Health: "Science will declare God aright, and Christianity will demonstrate this declaration and its divine Principle, making mankind better physically, morally, and spiritually."
In Peel's footnote to the latter passage, he notes (ibid., page 455):
S&H, p. 466. In an unpublished article (A. A&M 20-10557) she wrote: "Christian Science is not Science unless it be Christian to the highest degree, unless it illustrates and demonstrates the Christianity of Christ beyond all religions. In the language of Scripture this Science is 'God manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.' It is God disciplining and destroying evil, physically, morally, spiritually."
In summary, Gnosticism in its various forms may be described as obscurely repeating Christianity rather than demonstrating Christianity. It may be that many who profess to be Christians today, including some so-called Christian Scientists, may actually be merely repeating Christianity rather than actually demonstrating Christianity. In that sense, there is more Gnosticism in many of today's denominations than we all would like to admit. Though Christian Science has no relationship with Gnosticism or any of philosophies derived from or associated with it, including theosophy, Mrs. Eddy charitably stated:
Those individuals, who adopt theosophy, spiritualism, or hypnotism, may possess natures above some others who eschew their false beliefs. Therefore my contest is not with the individual, but with the false system. I love mankind, and shall continue to labor and to endure. (S&H 99:18)
For additional Bible dictionary definitions of Gnosticism, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/gnosticism.htm.
Follow-up comment from the writer of the original question above:
Thankyou for your response
to my question re: Gnosticism and Christian Science. In reading the answer I
felt that it was a very narrow, dogmatic and judgmental response. I suggest
you read more about this subject and recommend "The Gnostic Gospels"
by Elaine Pagels. It is very informative and inspirational in its presentation,
and I think it will enlighten you to some of the understanding reached by Mary
Baker Eddy as originating in this particular thought movement just as it has
influenced other 20th century religions. I look forward to seeing a more objective
view of the answer to my question.
Follow-up response from BibleTexts.com:
I read the Gnostic Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) soon after it was first published. A few other relevant books on the subject are the following:
There are a few other germaine books listed from my library at:
After reading the Gnostic Gospels, the other books above, and doing other research and thinking on the subject years ago, I became even more convinced that very early Christianity was not nearly as homogeneous as tradition would have us believe. The differences between Paul and Peter actually make that quite obvious. For a description of the revisionism that took place at least by the beginning of the second century A.D., see:
Early Christians became increasingly theologically and territorially competitive. Paul's warning about divisions (1Co 1:12, 1Co 3:3-7,21-23) were a very real, and such divisions further developed after he and the original apostles were no longer around. It appears that many of the early groups maintained that they were the true orthodoxy. To distinguish themselves from those whom they designated as heretics, they would excise from their own teachings some of the authentic Christian teachings that were taught by the so-called heretics. Gnostic Christians may have preserved some elements of Christianity that were lost within the patristic church, but neither did Gnostics did preserve and represent the whole and unadulterated teachings of Christ Jesus. It did not take many generations for this type of theological squabling to result in a situation where no single group maintained a semblance the entire fabric of Christianity.
Based upon her study of the canonical Bible, Mary Baker Eddy was inspired to bring that genuine fabric of Christianity together as a seamless cloth. It was not Gnosticism that inspired Mrs. Eddy. She had explicitly contrasted Jesus' teachings with Gnosticism, which she described as a 'school of philosophy, a rising angry element, with fretted, foaming billows.' (See Mis 162:6-13.) It was her prayers, her honest exploration of the Bible, her inately Christian humanity and ethics, her God-endowed spirituality, and the Holy Spirit itself that enabled her to receive the Holy Spirit, and to allow her life, her healing work, her teaching and public speaking, and her writings to serve as a voice for that Holy Spirit, the Comforter, which she identified as divine Science. She wrote (S&H 139:15):
The decisions by vote of Church Councils as to what should and should not be considered Holy Writ; the manifest mistakes in the ancient versions; the thirty thousand different readings in the Old Testament, and the three hundred thousand in the New, --these facts show how a mortal and material sense stole into the divine record, with its own hue darkening to some extent the inspired pages. But mistakes could neither wholly obscure the divine Science of the Scriptures seen from Genesis to Revelation, mar the demonstration of Jesus, nor annul the healing by the prophets, who foresaw that "the stone which the builders rejected" would become "the head of the corner."
(For a further exploration of "the Comforter," see http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/comforter.htm.)
It is worthwhile to remember that Paul's writings are the earliest written record of Christianity -- of Christian thinking, doctrine, ethics, theology, and behavior. Paul predated a clearly definable Gnosticism and post-apostolic Christian revisionism. Maybe that is what instinctively lead Mrs. Eddy to instruct The Christian Science Board of Directors in 1904:
If I am not personally with you, the Word of God, and my instructions in the by-laws have led you hitherto and will remain to guide you safely on, and the teachings of St. Paul are as useful to-day as when they were first written. ("Permanency of The Mother Church and Its Manual," page 12. See also a workshop on this topic at http://www.bibletexts.com/workshops/paul-church-teachings.htm.)
Having seen and experienced the great need for -- and Mrs. Eddy's expectation of -- genuine primitive Christianity in The Church of Christ, Scientist, I spent seven years in the study and practice of Christian Science nursing. My work as a Christian Science minister at a refugee camp, as a prison chaplain, and in many other capacities also have provided valuable insights on addressing the church's need for a more genuine Christianity. I continue to see that need in myself and in the entire Christian church.
As is clearly documented in an article on "Love in action" at http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/love-in-action.htm, Mrs. Eddy expected far more commitment to practical Christian caring than has been generally realized. Even in the beginning of the chapter "Christian Science Practice" in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mrs. Eddy makes Christian compassion a prerequisite for Christian healing.
Mrs. Eddy clearly differentiated Christ's Christianity and Christian Science from Gnosticism. As indicated above, in the first few centuries Christians who were labeled Gnostics may have preserved elements of earliest Christian teachings that were excised by leaders of the post-apostolic patristic church, who went to great lengths to establish their orthodoxy and others' heresies.
Richard Nenneman, his very insightful section on "The Gnostics as an Example of the Road Not Taken" (The New Birth of Christianity: Why Religion Persists in a Scientific Age, SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, pages 71-72) writes:
What is abundantly clear is that the gnostics rejected the world of material appearance. Whether this led them to ignore the material world or to try to transform it through their individual faith is less clear.
Rejecting the world of material appearances does not actually tell us anything unless we know what action followed from this rejection. Pagel's suggests that the gnostics might have carried on the Christian tradition of healing better or longer than did the more orthodox Christians, but the available evidence to this effect is somewhat ambiguous...
The gnostic scriptures themselves contain a variety of texts. Some are pre-Christian in origin, and not all of them written after the time of Jesus take his life or words as their starting point. It would be difficult to gain from them alone a sense of where a gnostic stood. There is, however, enough uniformity in them to suggest that the gnostics believed that God in the sense Christians approach God -- an almighty, perfect power -- could not have created the material universe, with its manifest evil and changeability. They explained matter, however, as coming at the end of a chain of "emanations" from God. A hierarchy of creative powers was positions, as it were, between God and the material universe, which finally resulted in a lesser power that could create the material universe. The gnostic myths about material creation seem, to one first reading them, even more complicated than the stories accompanying Greek and Roman mythology, although this impression is undoutedly heightened by their unfamiliarity. On the face of it, the gnostic's position would seem to confirm the material universe, although not of God's creation. Such a position does not lead to the kind of dominion over material conditions, that characterized Jesus' healings of disease, his muliplication of food, and his walking on the water or stilling the tempest.
Of the origins of Gnosticism, Everett Ferguson (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993, pages 288) writes:
The questions of when and from what source Gnosticism arose have been hotly debated. Did Gnosticism originate as a Christian heresy, or did it originate as a non-Christian movement, whether pagan or Jewish? The Nag Hammadi documents give new evidence, but each position still has adherents. The new Gnostic texts do not help solve the chronology of Gnosticism -- none is demonstrably earlier than the New Testament. On the other hand, the collection witnesses to non-Christian expressions of Gnosticism and so reopens the question of the possibilitiy that Christians in the formative period drew on external Gnostic concepts, imagery, and terminology to express their faith, even though at a later stage they found it necessary to combat extreme developments of Gnostic thinking.
Today aspiring Christian Scientists are safe in their pursuits who heed the Church Manual's requirement for church members:
The BIBLE, together with SCIENCE AND HEALTH and other works by Mrs. Eddy, shall be his only textbooks for self-instruction in Christian Science, and for teaching and practising metaphysical healing.
And a deeply researched study of the Bible is particularly valuable, as Mary Baker Eddy points out in the textbook of Christian Science:
Acquaintance with the original texts, and willingness to give up human beliefs (established by hierarchies, and instigated sometimes by the worst passions of men), open the way for Christian Science to be understood, and make the Bible the chart of life, where the buoys and healing currents of Truth are pointed out. (S&H 24:4)
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer