Avoiding Gnosticism in Calvinism


I was recently reading a book by Bryan Litfin that aims to introduce readers to the church fathers. It’s an excellent analysis of the cultures of ancient times and the figures that helped build and shape the Church amongst them. One of these notable figures is Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born around a century after Jesus’s death and is remembered as one of the Church’s first true theologians. One of Irenaeus’s key opponents during his lifetime were the Gnostics. According to Litfin, “By Irenaeus’s day, the multihued conglomerate of gnostic beliefs had become a potent force that threatened to swamp the orthodox church.” This religious movement known as Gnosticism would go on to become one of Irenaeus’s key targets, as his classic Against Heresies was devoted to their dismantling.

The Gnostics had some interesting beliefs, to say the least. But by and large, there is one belief that stands among the rest. It is the very belief that gives them their name. Gnosis essentially means “understanding of the spiritual.” These folks claimed to have a knowledge and an understanding that is far superior to anyone else, and therefore they were the truly saved, a salvation by knowledge being the basis for their faith.

As I read more about the Gnostics, and what the implications were for such a belief, I was struck not only by how obviously wrong they had it, but also concerned that just maybe that far too many in “my camp” (I write this with a focus on Calvinists and Reformed theology, but it certainly applies to other ‘camps’) are susceptible to the same kind of thinking. Allow me to explain, before I end up like Servetus.

There is room for a laugh when it comes to our different theological positions. The latest Christian satire site is blowing up and making a name for itself with posts like “Local Arminian Loses Salvation In High-Stakes Poker Game.” A huge Facebook group I am a part of spends much time liking and sharing memes and pictures lamenting the shortcomings of other doctrinal camps. These are often hilarious theological jabs, and all meant, of course, to be taken in good fun.

But we have the potential to take it a step further. There is a sneaking spiritual elitism in certain confessionally Reformed circles that brings me pause. It is a Gnostic-like error, a notion that our Calvinism makes us more worthy, and any who disagree unworthy. We parade the truths that others don’t have, browbeating those of another persuasion with our Regulative Principle of Worship and Westminster Confession of Faith. As Calvinists, who I would certainly argue have the most accurate and logical understanding of Christ and the Christian faith, we must be careful not to take our rightness to the level of theological snobbery.

My sinfulness causes me to knee-jerk read 1 Timothy 6:3-5 with a bit of sneering.

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5 ESV)

Paul is describing false teachers here, with a primary focus on those who use religion to make material gain (see v. 9-10). He watched these prosperity preachers distort the definition of “blessings” and “riches,” as we see happening ourselves today. But his discourse is not limited to health-and-wealth preachers; notice that Paul is describing one who “is puffed up with conceit.” Paul’s critique is of what we’ll call “the Conceited Man.”

The Conceited Man, according to Paul, “has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words.” It is not the godliness the Conceited Man strives for, but the thirst to compete in debate and contention. Such an attitude’s fruits are listed: “envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction.” The one that sticks out to me is “constant friction.” The Conceited Man is not content with a simple faith, or a faith that allows for differences in opinion. He must continually fight. He must have it his way. And because of this, he views those who disagree with his gnosis as inferior.

We all see how the Gnostics would fit this description. But do we see ourselves in the Conceited Man? Rebuke has its place, and guarding the good deposit was not a suggestion, but have we become so tight-gripped with always reforming that we are now never long-suffering, never patient, never humble? As I have argued elsewhere, if our goal truly is reformation, it can only be achieved with a love and shepherding for people that is undeserved, patient, and long-suffering.  We must do more than preach grace; it must be displayed and expressed.

Godliness is great. Gospel centrality is essential. But spiritual elitism has no place in the Kingdom. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Paul says that our boast is in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17), and while we are compelled and convicted to Semper Reformanda, let that never deceive us into loving our theology more than our Lord and our neighbor.


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