Gnosticism and the Emerging Church
Notes on the Apostle John’s Epistles
Taken at a Bible Study Led by Walt Henrichsen
In San Francisco, 10-14 March 2008
I suggest it’s difficult to understand the rationale for John writing his epistles without understanding Gnosticism (諾斯底主義). Gnosticism is the Greek work for ‘know’. Philosophers have debated throughout the centuries ‘how do you know?' René Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher said, “I think, therefore I am.” So understand Gnosticism, we first must understand where it came from.
The two mother religions of the world are Hinduism (印度教) and Judaism (猶太教). The primary distinction is in the way each answers the question, “How do we know?” Hinduism is a religion of reason and observation [and usually polytheism]. Judaism is a religion of revelation [and usually monotheism.]
Hinduism says everything is cyclical. For example, after spring we have summer, then fall then winter, followed by spring. The rain goes up to the clouds, falls back down, goes into the rivers and the sea, evaporates up to the clouds and then comes down again as rain. So based on this observation Hinduism says that after this life we have reincarnation; man dies and is reborn in another form in endless cycles.
From Hinduism came the religions of the orient. Buddha (佛陀) was a Hindu, so Buddhism (佛教) was a reformation movement within Hinduism. Shintoism (日本之神道教) and Taoism (道教) and other related religions came from this. They all answer the question “How do we know?” with observation and by reason. Ancient Greek philosophy (古希臘哲學) was also essentially Hindu in its view. Socrates (蘇格拉底) believed in transmigration of the soul, which is another name for reincarnation (輪迴, 轉世). Gnosticism is a sister religious worldview of ancient Greek thought. [Perhaps all these views originated around 2100B.C. at the time of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, so that some followers went east and some went west.]
[Judaism started around the same time. God called Abraham around 1900 B.C. Abraham was the father of the Jews and Judaism.] The mother religion of Judaism spawned Christianity, Islam and numerous cults. Judaism says that we know by revelation. As a brief review, no other group of people in history has ever even suggested that something like what happened at Mount Sinai around 1460B.C. was possible. One entire nation [of around one to three million people] said they all were at one place and saw the same thing – the giving of the Law of God. This was spectacular! [He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them. Praise the Lord! – Psalm 147:19,20 NKJV] That’s why the Law [and revelation] play such a central role in Judaism.
Judaism and the Gospel began in the Middle East, and although it influenced India, basically its migration was westward. As a result, it spawned the scientific method – which is based on the premise that [natural] laws are inviolable. For example, when the space shuttle Columbia blew up in the air, people didn’t ask why it blew up in space; they asked what laws were violated. So it’s on that basis that we have the scientific method. Just as spiritual law is absolute, so also natural law is absolute. The two came together and produced what some people call modernism (現代主義). [Wikipedia says modernism is “an array of cultural movements rooted in the changes in Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The term covers a series of reforming movements in art, architecture, music, literature and the applied arts, which emerged during this period. It is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology or practical experimentation.”]
[In the 19th century there were philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who began to question traditional philosophies, such as rationalism (理性主義) and empiricism (經驗主義). One result was the emergence of existential thought. Most existentialists refused to belong to any popular school of thought. Although Kierkegaard and a minority of existentialists believed in God, Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead”, so eventually most existentialists embraced atheism.] Existentialism (存在主義) says there is no purpose or rationale of life. If you strip away all the purpose, it becomes nonsense. Every religion is supposed to define purpose (not salvation), why are we here. The existentialist says that’s a question we cannot answer. Nietzsche’s philosophy produced nihilism (虛無主義). [Nihilism says] nothing makes sense – I don’t know why I’m here and where I’m going. All I have is this existential moment, so I’m going to try to glean (點滴搜集) from this whatever significance (意義) I can find. That in turn produced post-modernity.
Postmodernism (後現代主義) in this country [the U.S.A.] began to gain credence (信用, 相信, 歡迎) around the 1960’s during [the time of] the Vietnam War. Academia said our suppositions and presuppositions have to be wrong. It became skeptical of modern thought. It called into question absolutes. [Allan Bloom,] a professor at the University of Chicago wrote “A Closing of the American Mind.” I encourage you to read it. [Published in 1987, it is a critique of contemporary American universities and the influence of pop music on America's youth. Bloom said modern professors of philosophy “simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students.” He argued that commercial pursuits have become more highly valued than the philosophic quest for truth or the civilized pursuits of honor and glory. He also explored music’s power over the human soul and how rock music often leads American youth to embrace short-term, erotic relationships and foolish rebelliousness that actually places them under the control of the men who manage the money of the pop music stars.] Basically, his thesis was that although postmodernism may be right, you’ve got to assume in natural science that all the laws are correct. Otherwise, you’ll destroy the ability to investigate. You’ve got to assume correctly to get involved in the scientific method.
To illustrate that science is a child of Judeo-Christian religion, take gunpowder (火藥) for an example. It was discovered in China, but it wasn’t used to great effect. When westerners examined it, they said it’s not working because of violation of some natural laws of science. They discovered that it didn’t work as well when it was wet as it did when it was dry. So in the west they made bullets, and it worked. They assumed there are natural laws. Assuming that natural law exists is a step of faith, and it goes back to the question, ‘How do you know?’ It was built upon the laws of Judaism. In nature you rely on natural laws. For moral laws you rely on revelation.
Gnosticism is eastern. It says you can’t have absolutes. [However, today, due to globalization and other factors,] the eastern and western cultures [and Hinduism and Judaism and Christianity] are overlapping in our culture, even though they are mutually exclusive ideas. We can talk about them in absolute terms, but their application is always a mixture. We are all influenced by our culture far more than we want to admit. The ethos (社會) in which we grow up has a profound (很深的) influence on us in a way that we ourselves don’t fully understand. So when I talk about these two worldviews, it’s not that they don’t blend, because we are all syncretistic (融合的) in one way or another. One of the most frightening thoughts to me is wondering how much my culture has influenced my view of God. It terrifies me! The problem is I don’t know. If I knew, I’d change it. That is precisely the problem. But with this skepticism (懷疑論) that really started to pick up momentum in our [U.S.A.] culture in the 1960’s it was what we call post-modernity. That is, it was a rejection of the modern way of looking at the world in reality.
Post-modernity now finds its expression in Christianity in what is called the Emerging Church (新興教會) or emergent church. Like Gnosticism itself, this is not an organization. It’s not even a theological construct. It’s just a worldview. It’s how some people perceive reality. So if you talk about what its tenets (信條 – principles, beliefs, doctrines) are, you only talk about them in a general way, and not everybody who agrees with that term necessarily agrees with every one of the tenets. Just like not everyone who calls himself a born again Christian believes that the commandments of the Bible are absolute. So you’ve got mixture of viewpoints coming together.
The emergent church simply says that truth is evolving. It’s emerging (在暴露中). For example, they say, you look at how God dealt with the patriarchs. Everybody offered his own sacrifice, and there were very few rules. Then, when you moved into the Mosaic system, only one family offered sacrifices, and there were lots of rules. Then, you moved into the New Testament, and you saw the elimination of the Mosaic Law, fewer rules and no sacrifices. So they conclude that God is constantly revealing Himself in fresh and new ways. They say that truth is never static (靜止的). It’s always dynamic (一直有活力的). It’s always evolving (一直在逐步形成中). [Thus, proponents of this movement call it a “conversation” (非正式會談) to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature as well as its emphasis on interfaith dialogue rather than verbal evangelism.]
Thus, they conclude that it’s the same today – as God speaks to His people today, it’s as different it’s as different as the Old and New Testament. They say that now God [no longer brings evil or disaster upon people but] is a God of love and [He no longer demands obedience and righteous living but has] tolerance (寬容), [He no longer disciplines or judges His people but is] a God of acceptance (歡迎), so that in the olden days we thought homosexuality was a sin, but now we’ve learned that that’s how God makes people. So [they say], it makes us much more accepting and much more broad-minded (胸開闊).
The emerging church would not argue that truth is relative. They would say it’s absolute, and the community decides what it is. The community defines the absolutes, and the community now says that the moral construct of the Bible is passé (過時的). It’s not that the Bible is wrong. It’s that the Bible is irrelevant. The Bible will afford us the opportunity to see God in action. It’s a narrative, so we read it for narrative purposes. Therefore, you go to church not to learn about God. You go to church to experience God. Now you know God through experience, not through the revealed word of God, which is absolute and infallible. They still say it’s the Bible; that’ the Word of God – of course it is. They say if you want to see a narration of how Gods moves, if you want to see a narration of His movement, the Bible is a great place to go. In this line of thinking, therefore, an insistence in obeying the commandments of God is legalism. As a matter of fact, if I obey them, it’s because I agree with them, not because I’m obligated to keep them. The agenda of the modern man or postmodern man – global warming, AIDS, distribution of food to the common man – these are the absolutes.
I came to Christ about 54 or 55 years ago. When I went to church I went to feel bad about myself. I knew I was a sinner and expected the pastor to reveal the world of God in a way to expose my needs so I could go and work on them. Now, people go to church to feel good about themselves. Therefore, in the postmodern Emerging Church, preaching on sin is out. Helping people connect with God is in. Evangelism is out. Evangelism is chauvinistic (unreasoning devotion to one’s own ideas with contempt for others – 沙文主義的). It’s an unwarranted dogmatism based on assuming you can know.
For instance, I read an article by senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, which used to be a bulwark (wall built as a defense – 壁壘) of conservative thought. The pastor, Mark Labberton, said, “Surely the God who made 500 different kinds of hummingbirds is not the same God who insists that there is only one way to heaven.” And so you don’t go to church to get to know God. Instead, your goal is to experience Him. So essentially, you get a biblically illiterate congregation, and it opens us up to eastern mysticism.
When I met the Navigators we talked a lot about meditation. You meditated on scripture to make it part of your life. Today, meditation is viewed as emptying your head and allowing thoughts to fill you. That’s how you know. That’s a modern expression of Gnosticism.
I would say – [this is] one’s man point of view – it is so prevalent, so pervasive, that the war is over! The battle is done! Increasingly, men like us who sit at this table will be marginalized, not only in society but also in the church. I don't believe that my grandchildren will be able to find Christ in the church.
So we have, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that English law has got to adapt to the other cultures, such as Islam, and that we should allow their people to judge their people based on their religion and we on ours. Even evangelical leaders are saying we worship one God, but we just call Him different names. We enter into dialogue not for the purpose of converting the individual, but for the purpose of mutual edification in the hope that we can blend together religions and thus eliminate war.
So I would suggest that in this country, the most we can hope for is to identify and invest in the overcomers.
If you are at all interested in this, all you have to do is google “Emerging Church” or “Emergent Church” or “post modernism”, and you’ll have a clear picture of what’s going on.
· Walt Henrichsen encourages people to read this book, because he says Carson is very even, very charitable and addresses a lot of questions, but he’s also very strong in his position that you cannot compromise with the Bible.
· The book is very scholarly and starts by examining the strengths of the Emerging Church: it’s good at reading the times and knowing that the presentation of the Gospel must change with the times; it values authenticity (確實性); it recognizes that the Church is within a cultural context and cannot be removed from it; it places high value on evangelism; it looks at tradition and seeks to build a faith that is rooted in the past while still being relevant to the present.
· Referring specifically to McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus, Carson says: “I have to say, as kindly but as forcefully as I can, that to my mind, if words mean anything, both McLaren and Chalke have largely abandoned the gospel. Perhaps their rhetoric and enthusiasm have led them astray and they will prove willing to reconsider their published judgments on these matters and embrace biblical truth more holistically than they have been doing in their most recent works. But if not, I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself.” (p.186-7)
· If you don’t have time to read the whole book, you can also read summaries and reviews on the Internet: Summaries and reviews on Amazon, Short summary and review by Paul Alexander or do your own Google search.
· This book, published by Lighthouse Trails Publishing, aims to expose the dangers of the Emerging Church movement from a Biblical perspective, including its retreat to Roman Catholicism with its ancient rituals and practices, contemplative spirituality and mysticism and its unbiblical view of Hell, the Atonement, missions, evangelism and prophecy. It also identifies some key leaders of the Emerging Church movement
· The book is helpful for normal folks to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, but Walt Henrichsen does not personally feel comfortable with one of Oakland’s ideas that people are guilty by association. He also doesn’t seem to like Oakland’s exposé (逸聞) style.
· Has a large database of articles by conservative authors about developments related to contemplative spirituality, the Emerging Church, the Purpose Drive Movement, New Age, Post-Modernism, etc.
· Provides a free weekly e-mail newsletter; some examples of useful articles are:
· Specifically warns of the following EC leaders: Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, Youth Specialties, Zondervan Publishers, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Ruth Haley Barton
· Understanding the Times – An international missionary outreach founded by Roger Oakland in 1990 and dedicated to evangelizing the lost and equipping the church for discernment (especially to expose the Emerging Church)
· Includes articles and radio interviews with guest speakers on topics relating to current events and Bible prophecy, including information and news about the Emerging Church (usually from Rob Congdon)
· Two 6-minute radio interviews with Dr. Rob Congdon can be downloaded in mp3 format:
· Founded by Roger Oakland in 1990
· Has daily 5-minute radio programs
· Dr. John MacArthur on YouTube
My own personal conviction is that there is nothing that is neutral. Every premise, every assumption has consequences. So you ask me, is science neutral? Technology – is it neutral? I would say that nothing is neutral.
The scientists would not agree with you. When they make observations, they won’t pray to God. They work as if God is not there – practical atheism. The existentialists say they don’t want God to be their judge. No judge, no accountability. [Some young Christians say] there is a judge, but He’s not there in everyday life – when they face problems. What’s your comment?
If I asked these people, “What’s the meaning of life? Why are you here? What is the ultimate objective of your scientific investigation? What is the basis by which you conclude your life is a success or a failure?” If they were honest they’d say, “I have no answer for any of these questions.”
It would be at the very margin of their thoughts. They don’t have these kinds of questions. People today are creating a virtual world. They can move the globe. They plot GDP statistics, health statistics, etc. This is their reality.
That’s the point: reality is defined by experience, and it’s defined by me. It still leaves the question: who decides what is good and what is bad? In the final analysis, you ignore the purpose, but purpose has got to be at the heart of your work. So why are you doing it? To eliminate poverty? Make the Internet available to every one? Create a utopia? If so, who gets to define what utopia looks like?
Do you think that these people today think they have a superior view on the world? They may think they have the right way of understanding the world, because of their way of gathering data, but it wasn’t data-driven in John’s day, was it?
In Gnosticism, data is always the result of investigative experience. We know that in science, investigation and experimentation result in betterment, but when you do this in the moral realm, you produce moral ruin. These people will never accept this idea.
So are you saying that this emergent church phenomenon is so widespread, that our ministry is not to seek out these people but rather seek out other people?
No. Seek out overcomers from this philosophy. I have no idea to what extent this view is present in churches in Asia, Hong Kong, Beijing, etc. I’m simply saying that the battle has already been lost here in the US. I’d never encourage any of you here to engage in the battle [i.e., try to change the institutions.]
So if our spiritual life is always in the process of growing, I can’t expect people have a purely biblical view?
Right. I can’t even have one myself, even though I’ve spent all of my adult life trying to do so. You can’t smell good when you live in a cesspool.
There are two groups of people most susceptible:
1. Amillennialists – they believe that the objective of the Church is to change society. However, this time, instead of trying to legislate morality by trying to help get laws passed, they’re going to get involved in the system to correct the needs – like global warming, etc. They will be involved in a political agenda, but it will not be a political agenda born out of a legalistic reading of this book, but it will be born out of how we define right and wrong today.
2. Charismatics – they say that reality is through experience.
Both would say that truth is not defined by dogmatism. It’s defined by experience. For example, if we visited a slum in Calcutta, we’d agree it’s wrong and we should do something about it. That becomes our basis for relating with each other – a definition of right and wrong by which God leads the community.
Another example is the golden rule [Mt. 7:12]. Everybody agrees with the golden rule. The violating of the golden rule is how we define hypocrisy. Most of the commandments in the Bible are not affirmed by reason or conscience. Jesus said God is against divorce. The religious leaders said, “Wait a minute! Moses gave us bills of divorcement – from God!” Jesus said it wasn’t that way from the beginning. So divorce is not affirmed by reason. Suppose a guy leaves his wife and 6 kids. Most people would say this is bad. However, if a younger couple is constantly arguing, many people would say it’s OK to divorce. It seems reasonable. I suggest that most of the commandments are like that. Therefore the emergent church says if we are going to satisfy our conscience, why bother using the Bible? They think it’s archaic (古式的).
Conscience or reason do not tell you that you can’t take a brother to litigation, nor do they tell you that your wife should not speak in church.
They accept some of the 10 commandments, but not most. For example, “Honor your parents.” They’d say you only have to honor your parents if they are honorable. Covetousness appears reasonable, and as Paul said in Romans 7:7, it is not identified by the conscience. So certain kinds of stealing may be wrong, but not all. For example, they say, “If my family is starving, why call it wrong if I steal your bread?”
2 Tim 3:5 says to turn away from these people. Do we treat people in the emerging church this way?
Because it’s not a unified thing, that’s something we have to decide on our own. But we are best served by at least understanding it.
The churches in which people go away feeling good about themselves usually grow in numbers, but the churches that preach the truth are the churches that at shrinking. Institutional Christianity is no different from any other institution in life in that numbers are very important.
Is it the emerging church concept an active thing in which the Church said, ‘we want to adapt to the culture’, or was it a passive thing in which they were in the cesspool and they were deceived?
The former, very much the former.
Our whole society seems to revolve more and more around entertainment. I wonder if that’s crept in and caused us to focus on ourselves and not on others. Is that mixed in?
Very much so – I think it’s a key component. When I was a kid, if I wasn’t learning, it was my fault. Today, if my grandkids are not learning, it’s the teacher’s fault. When I was a kid, there was a very sharp distinction between learning and entertainment. Today, that distinction is blurred. Entertainment has as its focus experience.
One of the most insidious [harmful but enticing (陰險的)] parts of the Emerging Church is that it is reasonable. It’s awfully appealing. It’s hard to argue against reason.
Yes, and I would say amen and amen to that, but at the same time, you have increasingly an illiterate body of Christ – Biblically illiterate, that is.
Reason’s first job spiritually is interpreting the Bible. You can’t interpret the Bible without reason. I’m not depreciating [devaluing] reason.
But that reasoning is not based on experiential knowledge.
It doesn’t eliminate that. It’s not antithetical [opposite] to experience, it’s just got to fit a certain priority. That is, the clear teaching of scripture trumps [i.e., is always higher priority than] my experience. It’s the Supreme Court.
But experience does have its own role in our lives, such as giving us a feeling of assurance.
Yes. Yes. Good illustration.
Infiltration of the Emerging Church in Denominations
If we were to map the infiltration of the emerging church worldview, is it not only a collecting [or merging] of views, but also an infiltrating of denominations with their ideas? Like Anglicans accepting homosexuality?
Yes. A pastor in my denomination, Robert Schuller, in Orange County [by Los Angeles] – he was one of the leaders in the mega-church movement – it’s called the Crystal Cathedral [home of The Hour of Power (權能時間)] – they recently had a conference called Rethink. The purpose of it was to re-orient ourselves to this kind of thinking.
It would not be church in the sense of an organization that you join. It’s a worldview you embrace. I pout the words emergent church in Google, and one of the sites that came up was the Emergent Village, which is their organ of communication. So if you want to know what they are thinking you can go there. At the bottom I found the sponsors include Intervarsity, Zondervan, World Vision just to name a few.
I’m not an authority on this. It’s just that it’s so obvious from 1 John and 2 John that this is the same fundamental problem. There are important differences, but the same basic mindset.
They’re trying to reach the post-modern audience by making things more relevant. You could even say there’s an evangelistic endeavor trying to do so, right?
Yes. That’s what makes it insidious [harmful but enticing (陰險的)]. There’s a lot of truth in it. If you wanted to counterfeit money, you wouldn’t make a $39 orange bill.
A lot of these people are very loving, very fellowship-oriented.
Yes. Agreed … I wanted to give a backdrop to 1 John. Gnosticism has been alive in well throughout church history, and it is certainly alive and well today.
I think with very few exceptions, they’ve capitulated [surrendered on agreed conditions (投降)].
Harvey Cox, a theologian at Harvard Divinity School said, “Never underestimate the Church’s ability to adapt to culture. It is highly market conscious.”
[An American brother who graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary said] his peer group who graduated from DTS about 25 years ago is all getting moved out of their churches. One pastor started with a church in Pennsylvania of 380 and grew it to 2300. He had 17 pastors working for him. Three of those pastors led a revolt with the elder board and completely blind-sided him. They told him he was out of the church. I talked to him personally. He had sacrificed for the church. He had been in that church 26 years, and they want him out. Another guy, a Biblical expositor of scripture in Massachusetts, just got moved out of his church. Three or four elders moved him out. He was a Navigator. He used to travel with Leroy Eims. Another guy San Francisco has been encouraged to go teach in seminary for a sabbatical, but there’s an undercurrent that he can’t retain the young ABC professionals at his church. Another guy in Dallas is getting moved on by the church he founded. I asked these guys, and they said maybe it’s because our health insurance going up. We’re getting older [joke]. But I think it’s the envy of the emerging churches who are sucking out all the people, so they have to get a new kind of pastor who is with it [adapting to the post-modern culture], not a pastor who will preach the Bible expositionally, but a post-modern pastor, because it’s market conscious, and the sons are leaving to go to these big churches. That’s happening to my classmates. It’s amazing! It’s all across the country. Another guy I don’t know – he was told he was done, and he was just stunned. So he said, “I guess I’ll just have to change my message this Sunday and make it a goodbye message,” and they said, “No. You don’t understand. You are done today! You are not speaking this Sunday.”
There are some ministries worldwide planting lots of churches worldwide. There is a report of 75,000 new churches planted just in the last eight years, so God is moving incredibly outside the US.
My sense is that Christianity started in the Middle East, and its primary influence moved west. The United States is probably 10 or 15 years behind Europe, but your part of the world [Asia] is where the Holy Spirit is most active today.
[Hong Kong brother:] I think it’s just a matter of time [before the Emerging Church spreads here too]. The key issue is focusing on serving in love and whether you focus on the temporal or eternal. That will define what is success. Any church or seminary or organization that wants to succeed in terms of membership, income or influence will embrace those [Emerging Church] ideas, because [they think] it will bring them success. So [Biblically faithful] people are running out of places to go. People are fooling themselves when they want to minister to the glory of God and want to be successful by world’s definition. As Jesus said, it’s going to be a narrow door, and those who get in are few (Mt. 7:13,14), and you will be persecuted and rejected, but we want to be successful, we want to be influential and we want to be loved by everybody. It’s a real battle if we talk about the number of people who call themselves Christians. Any organization that wants to succeed will follow that route [seek to increase attendance numbers].
I hope so! I hope and pray every day that we are watching the formation of the whore of Babylon!
[See Rev. 17 and Pr. 7, and contrast that with the virgin bride of Christ in Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 19:7-9.]