The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back, an Old Heresy for the New Age
By Peter Jones
: Presbyterian and Reformed
Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 216-217
Everett Ferguson, professor emeritus of Bible at Abilene Christian University, has revised this work first published in 1987. He intends it as a textbook that will help the reader grasp the political, social, cultural, religious, and philosophical realities that were present when the Christian Church was born. The main focus of the book is the three centuries from 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. Ferguson relates the thought and movements of these three centuries to the broader context of the Hellenistic-Roman world of 330 B.C. to A.D. 330. He designs this discussion to lay a foundation for the reader's study of the NT and early Church history.
A concise introduction to the political history of the Hellenistic- Roman era begins the text. Particularly valuable in this section are the ten results of the conquests of Alexander the Great (13-14) and the explanation of the administration of the Roman Empire (39-44). Ferguson then devotes 92 pages to a discussion of the social background of the Roman Empire in the first century. Though the discussion of each topic is brief, the broad contour of the Gentile social world emerges in this chapter.
Chapters 3 and 4 contain the central thrust of this volume. In these two chapters, he devotes 235 pages to a discussion of Greco- Roman religion and philosophy, leading the reader through many details in the process. But in the midst of the details, he has two excellent summaries. The first is a succinct statement of the twelve general characteristics of religion in Hellenistic-Roman times (161-165). The second states the general features of Hellenistic-Roman philosophy (300-305). These two are extremely valuable for the beginning student.
Ferguson considers Judaism the principal context of early Christianity, so his 174-page fifth chapter on Judaism is the longest in the book. The discussion of Judaism follows the basic lines of standard NT histories in surveying the history, literature, and religion of Judaism. Though Judaism was the foundation for Christianity, in the NT and early Christian centuries, the church moved from its Jewish roots into the wider Greco-Roman world. Thus this book emphasizes both Judaism which most students know well and the wider Greco- Roman environment about which most students know little. The book concludes with a chapter showing how Christianity fared in the ancient world.
Backgrounds of Early Christianity has become a widely used textbook because of a number of strengths. First, it has an excellent survey of the political, social, literary, and religious background. The author says a little about many subjects that prepare the reader for more specialized works. Second, Ferguson, has intentionally presented the viewpoint of current scholarly consensus in his many discussions. Third, the bibliographies are excellent in pointing the reader to both primary and secondary sources for the topics discussed.
This work fulfills its purpose as an introductory textbook. The student would be well advised to master it before reading the more specialized works on NT history, archaeology, and sociology.
This work is a warning to the church from a Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, CA. He sees a large-scale battle ahead and tries to arm believers for that battle when it arrives (x, 7-8). He furnishes information to give them a grasp of an emerging system of error and encourages a level of commitment necessary to withstand the enemy's onslaught. The current enemy is the New Age movement, which he sees as a largely secretive and worldwide religious network with a coherent agenda (5).
Jones goes about his task in a very straightforward and easily understood manner. He sees the New Age teachings as a reemergence of ancient Gnostic heresy that the orthodox leaders of early Christianity were successful in thwarting (14). He selects six areas for comparing the two systems -cosmology, redemption, Christ, God, sexuality, and spiritual techniques- and concludes that the two resemble each other like "Siamese cats" (44). He first details the teaching of Christian Gnosticism in the six categories (21-34), then does the same with New Age positions (45-71). The degree of concurrence between the two is remarkable and the author does a creditable job of showing this.
One example of this correspondence must suffice: Gnostics taught that the creation was never meant to be and owed its existence to a cosmic "goof" committed by the foolish Creator God (the Demiurge) of the Bible, thereby imprisoning mankind in evil matter (21-22). To New Agers, in comparison, "creation" is the sum of all created things, understood according to syncretistic pantheism. Physical existence is ultimately an illusion and so needs no creator to explain its existence (46-47). New Age proponent Shirley MacLaine holds to the superiority of spirit over matter, making it possible through mental and spiritual powers for her (or anyone) to dominate and escape the limitations of the physical creation and become a creator herself (46). Physical existence is merely an illusion (47). The two systems have similar ways of disposing of the biblical doctrine of God's creation of the world ex nihilo.
One can hardly speak highly enough of Jones' excellent documentation throughout a book of this type. The writing style is popular and readable, but notes at the end of each chapter provide opportunities for those who want to pursue any one of the points in further study. He is particularly conversant with scholarly developments regarding the Gnostic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi and developed through the efforts of James Robinson. He strongly objects to Robinson's attempts to grant these writings equal authority with the NT books (90-91) -attempts that aim at legitimizing teachings which up until now have been considered blatant heresy, such as an androgynous view of Jesus (92).
Jones' book will be a valuable addition to anyone's Christian library, lay person or scholar. It sounds a needed warning, though it perhaps goes a bit too far in concluding that various strands of New Age teaching -such as Earth Summit, homosexuality, feminism, mandated cultural and ethnic diversity- are deeply related aspects of a coherent religious agenda (72). Plenty of heresy is latent in the movement, no doubt, but it appears to be coming from sources that are too varied and displaying too diverse a nature to conclude that it at this stage represents a conspiracy proceeding from a single source.
Nevertheless, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back is a valuable addition to contemporary Christian resources.