We would like to think that all that false system of religious teaching Paul and John so diligently fought against died out never to be heard from again – but that simply did not happen. Without going into detail on all the references to gnostic-like doctrines in which Paul and John deal with it, I want to show what this false teaching has led to and that it is very much with us to this day.
There are actually a few gnostic “Christian” churches in this country today, but the influence of that ancient fallacy has spread far more widely than that. To establish the background for that, I want to notice that the influences the apostles were dealing with by no means died out. One very successful gnostic group to come along in the years after the apostolic age was the Manichaens in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. That group finally did fade out but its influence lingers on.
“Manichaeism … is a dualistic, gnostic, faith based on the teachings of the third century Parthian prophet Mani (the “Apostle of Light”). Manichaeism, which holds that there is a struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, shows influences of other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Redemption is possible through an ascetic life” (Manichaeism).
The Manichaean’s chief aim was to become entirely unworldly, as in Buddhism. To renounce and destroy all longing for pleasure, especially all pleasures of the flesh, and, eventually, to set a pure inner soul free from all the trappings of matter. It seems without question that these ideals later developed into the monasticism of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. (How Augustine Became the Father of Not Only Roman Catholicism but also … Evangelicalism).
Now combine that religion with the writings of one of the most prominent thinkers, writers, philosophers to come along following the early centuries of the church – Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. His writings have had a profound impact on the Christian religion from his day down to the present.
Augustine spent nine or ten years in the Manichaean religion as a “hearer” or “auditor” after which he converted to Catholic Christianity. But as can be seen from the following quote, just how thorough his conversion was is very much in question.
“One of the decisive developments in the western philosophical tradition was the eventually widespread merging of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions. Augustine is one of the main figures through and by whom this merging was accomplished. He is, as well, one of the towering figures of medieval philosophy whose authority and thought came to exert a pervasive and enduring influence well into the modern period … and even up to the present day, especially among those sympathetic to the religious tradition which he helped to shape.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Notice in particular that last statement. Augustine became one of the most potent influences in the history of the church, generally speaking. His influence has been felt in Roman Catholicism and through the Protestant Reformation even to this day. There is hardly a traditional Christian group that has not in some way been affected by his philosophy. Augustine became a major source of both Catholic and later Protestant doctrines and practices.
“Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin looked to Augustine for inspiration. Many modern Reformed theologians still look to him as a key source for their own writings. Much of Reformed doctrine, especially in relation to predestination, original sin, the bondage of the will, and efficacious grace, has been attributed to the work of Augustine” (Article: “Who was Saint Augustine in church history?”).
Paradoxically, Roman Catholicism has also gleaned much from Augustine’s writings, so much so that he is sometimes called “the Father of Roman Catholicism.” His contributions to Catholic doctrine include the necessity of infant baptism, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist … He is considered the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, and those with sore eyes. (Article: “Who was Saint Augustine in church history?”).
The earliest reformation leaders, Martin Luther and John Calvin, borrowed heavily from Augustine’s writings. While Augustine never formulated them into a system of doctrine, the five cardinal points of Calvin’s doctrine are straight out of Augustinian thought.
- “Total depravity,” also called “total inability,” asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person is enslaved to sin … This doctrine is derived from Augustine’s explanation of Original Sin.
- “Unconditional election” asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy alone.
- “Limited atonement,” also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement”, asserts that Jesus’s substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its purpose and in what it accomplished … that the atonement is limited in the sense that it is intended for some and not all.
- “Irresistible grace,” also called “efficacious grace”, asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith.
- “Perseverance of the saints” (or preservation) of the saints (… all who are set apart by God), asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end. (Wikipedia/Calvinism).
How much of the Christian world has been affected by these doctrines, all of which were formulated in the mind of Augustine as a result of his Manichean/Gnostic/Neo-Platonist background? Most of the Reformed and Evangelical churches trace back to Calvin as well as to Martin Luther who was also influenced to a very great degree by Augustine.
Not only did the doctrine of Calvin come straight out of Augustine’s Gnostic/Neo-Platonist background, so also did the commonly accepted Catholic and Protestant belief about heaven. One blogger writes;
Augustine “was attracted to the spiritual interpretation of the kingdom.” For Augustine, “the kingdom of God consists in eternal life with God in heaven.” Michael Vlach adds that “it was Augustine’s spiritual view of the kingdom that also contributed to his belief that the church is the fulfillment of the thousands year reign of Christ. It was his spiritualized view which became the accepted Roman Catholic view, which remains the dominant view within the Catholic Church today, as well a popular view within the protestant church at large, and general Western secular thought. Thus the origin of Christianity’s unbiblical view of heaven can be found in the church’s adoption of key concepts from Plato. (Christianity’s Platonic Heaven).
“This philosophy [by which Augustine was influenced, mr] was highly spiritual and other-worldly, centered on the one [ultimate being, mr] and the eternal, treating the material and the historically contingent as inferior stages in the ascent of the soul to union with the one.” (Platonism’s Influence On Christian Eschatology).
Thus the concept of the state of beings in heaven being that of a non-corporeal spirit being is derived from the Greek philosophy and not from the Bible. Augustine read these philosophers and through his and other of the prominent writers of that era have influenced the thinking and belief of many generations of not only Catholics, but Reformationists and other religious groups as well.
There has come out of this influence via Augustine a view that the kingdom is an inner spiritual experience – that the kingdom exists only in and can only be experienced inwardly or spiritually.
“Historically this model (spiritualized as in Augustine, mr) has often been tainted with a sort of Platonic disdain for things material, perhaps seeing the body or matter as evil or at least imperfect and imperfectible. It is thus dualistic, viewing the ‘higher’ spiritual world as essentially separate from the material world.” (Models of the Kingdom, Howard A. Snyder via Platonism’s Influence On Christian Eschatology).
Out of this thinking comes an indifference to or even a disdain for the material creation that affects the thinking of millions of people today in very many religious organizations. This view says essentially that the material creation is going to be destroyed and our spirits are going to fly off to that eternal spiritual place to be with God forever. The inference is that since the material creation is “disposable” there is no need to care and tend it – to steward what God called “good” as God from the beginning intended for us to do.
Between the influence of this “Christianized” Platonic dualism channeled to us through thinkers such as Augustine et.al., and the consequent lack of influence of the church along with the materialism of atheistic thinking the current world political and economic systems are allowed to pillage the earth and exploit, impoverish and ignore the poorest peoples and nations.
Evangelical churches whose almost entire emphasis is on getting the “souls” of people saved so they can go to an ethereal, spiritual heaven is one the most devastating consequence of this ancient, erroneous view of the eternal fate of man and the creation.
This view does not take into consideration that there is a possible alternative future for man and for creation – the Biblical view that creation will be renewed and heaven will descend as the New Jerusalem and we shall “forever be with the Lord.” This Biblical view calls for us through God’s power to create an alternative, visible, active society here and now – the kingdom of God – that mirrors the ultimate reality of that eternal kingdom when all things are made new. Such a call is strange to the ears of most Christians in most churches today where the call is to build the church but leave the creation to go to eternal destruction!