- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 19, 1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195084365
- ISBN-13: 978-0195084368
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #995,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Against the Protestant Gnostics
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From Library Journal
Lee divides his book into three sections: "Gnosticism in Conflict with the Faith," " Gnosticism in Ascendance in North America," and "Results and Reform." He first offers an analysis of the components of gnostic religion and its heretical elements within early Christianity. Then, finding the same elements within North American Protestantism, he offers a prescription for degnosticization by restoring a sense of corporate community, spiritual equality, divine grace, and commitment to a lifelong pilgrimage of faith. Lee's analysis has far-reaching implications for families, for ecumenicism among denominations, for a return to the language and imagery of the Christian tradition, and for the recovery of a sense of God as mystery. Highly recommended for seminary libraries. Carolyn M. Craft, English, Philosophy, & Modern Language Dept., Longwood Coll., Farmville, Va.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Lee asserts the ongoing relevance of the Christian story of man. In doing so, he has made the study of gnosticism crucial to the ongoing debate about the future of American culture."--The Christian Science Monitor
"Lee deserves all praise for seeing clearly what is indeed there to be seen, though concealed in the multiple masks of supposed Protestantism."--Harold Bloom, in The American Religion (1992)
"Lee's description of Gnosticism is not a historical sketch. Rather, it is an attempt to map the tendencies and characteristic forms of the Gnostic mindset. The resulting summary is one of the most readable and insightful treatments of Gnosticism presently available."--The Thomist
"This is a thought-provoking, readable work, argued by means of numerous examples....It will prove valuable especially to those who teach North America's religious history and Protestant theologies."--Horizons
"This is 'must' reading for every member of the cloth."--Virginia Episcopalian
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In this book, Lee compares the early heresy of Gnosticism with some of the common beliefs and practices in churches today. I don't think any group was left alone. He accuses pretty much everyone.
And honestly, he's probably somewhat right. I agree that there are dangerous dualistic, elitist, escapist, and hyper-spiritual tendencies in many Christian circles today. But I'm not sure I'm comfortable accusing everyone of Gnosticism. Just because we have similarities doesn't mean we're Gnostics. I mean, we have many similarities with Muslims, but we're not all Muslims.
The "cure" wasn't so helpful either. He suggested that we preach. And it should be liturgical preaching in line with the creedal traditions of the church. I'm all for preaching, but I don't think preaching is the cure.
All in all, the book is well researched and documented, but the diagnosis and cure both seemed somewhat skewed.
He goes into depth defining Gnosticism; its syncretism, its hatred of creation/nature, its superiority complex, it core emphasis on individual knowledge, and rejection of particularity, that "No thing matters". It is all quite dangerous. He then does a study on Calvin and how close he skirted gnosticism without actually falling into it. Calvin was not gnostic. Then, Philip Lee traces the development of Puritanism in America and how it moved into Gnosticism. Most of the major branches of American Protestantism are Gnostic. Next, he shows the damage caused by this heresy in that this Gnosticism has become America's Civil Religion and therefore a cause for American intervention everywhere causing wars and strife. And finally, he lays out excellent points about de-gnosticizing the Church by preaching from the Bible, expressing the love of the cosmos and its goodness and a return to a corporate church. He teaches that Christianity is a family/community oriented faith, not individualistic. All his points should be well heeded.
Even though he, himself, (one can tell) is a liberal Protestant, his book has got to be the standard bearer of the fight against Gnosticism. It seems to me that his interaction with the Vietnam War, which he quotes here and there in the book, is the motivation behind the writing of this book. He has a lot of kind words for the Catholic Church. And so, the one ultimate piece of advice that he should have seen is that Protestantism needs to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Otherwise, despite these minor twists--the work is an outstanding piece of research, (he even researches Protestant fiction works to discover their gnosticism), excellent advice and healing; it is a necessary read not only for every priest/pastor but for the layman. It is an easy read!
Almost always, Gnostics have these characteristics: 1) a deep sense of metaphysical alienation; 2) a proposed scheme of knowledge to overcome alienation; 3) a world-denying, escapist stance which often disdains material things; 4) an exclusivist, aristocratic elitism, promising real salvation to the enlightened few; 5) a syncretistic compulsion to compound diverse strands of theories and perspectives. Given these identifying marks, much of what follows entails Lee's analysis of how Gnostic notions have flourished, been condemned, or slipped silently into the darker niches of Christendom. As Lee shows, the main tenets of Gnosticism have almost routinely, across the centuries, been condemned by the Church, though nothing seems to prevent its weed-like re-surfacings.
Rooted in the biblical teaching that creation is good, Christians have never rightly tolerated those who would disparage it. Given the inevitable Docetism of most Gnostics, Christians have insisted on the down-to-earth materiality of the Incarnate Christ. Salvation is revealed to Christians primarily through God's historic dealings with His people and thus to the highly visible (if not always highly edifying) believing community. Salvation comes not, as Gnostics assert, through elusive inward workings which bring enlightenment and deliverance for individuals. The typical Gnostic strategies for "self-realization" and personal well being (staples of TV prosperity gospel preaching) has routinely been labeled "sin" by the Church.
Another important distinction involves the sacraments. Whereas Gnostics tend to downgrade, if not dismiss them, the orthodox from the early centuries through the classic Reformers have tenaciously clung to the worth, indeed the soteriological centrality, of at least Baptism and Eucharist. In North America, however, and especially from beachheads within those Puritan communities which focused unduly "on self" and tended to view "humanity from an elitist perspective" (74), Gnosticism wormed its way into the nation's religious life. Those sectarian movements (cultivating what Ernst Troeltsch called an "individualistic Protestantism of active-holiness") which permanently dyed the religious life of America's faithful seemed especially vulnerable to Gnostic notions.
Consequently, Lee titles the second part of his study "Gnosticism in Ascendance in North America." The ancient Gnostic traits typify many churches, especially those rooted in the Calvinist tradition. Unwilling to celebrate the full range of biblical revelation, North American Protestants, Evangelicals included, have embraced Marcion's notion that the only religious truth worth proclaiming is that of the Redeemer-God, who in Christ saves us. Alienated from creation, lacking roots in the historic faith-community, there's little to celebrate but a here-and-now of forgiveness with the added expectation of by-and-by personal bliss.
Too often, North American Protestants have replaced remembrance of the "holy events" celebrated in Scripture with "private illumination," what Jonathan Edwards described as "a Divine and Supernatural Light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God" (103). This nicely suited the emergent Enlightenment ethos of the 18th century and led, Lee thinks, to an "inversion of Calvinism" (p.104). Thus, in our time, as Charles Glock and Robert Bellah observe: "Immediate experience rather than doctrinal belief continues to be central along all the religious movements, including the Jesus movements, and in the human-potential movement as well. Knowledge in the sense of direct first-hand encounter has so much higher standing than abstract argument based on logic that one could almost speak of anti-intellectualism in many groups" (p.113).
Evangelicals emphasizing the need to be "born again," Lee argues, frequently fall into various forms of escapism, yet another Gnostic trait. We would like to reach a spiritual peak which frees us from nature--from the body and its sexuality, from time, history and politics. Seeking such still obsesses many evangelicals, Lee thinks. "The history of American revivalism has often featured vigorous attacks against the flesh, flesh interpreted as body. Dancing, theater, the plastic arts were all forbidden or discouraged because they were correctly perceived as making a connection between the human spirit and the human body" (p.132). In a chapter entitled "Narcissism: From the Sacred Community to the Inner Self," Lee links the ancient Gnostic fixation on self-realization with modern religious self-help movements. Such a tendency surfaced in the First Great Awakening, when a follower of Jonathan Edwards, Ebenezer Frothingham, could say: "If we rightly consider the Nature of Practice in Religion, or Obedience to God, we shall see an absolute Necessity for every Person to act singly, as in the sight of God only; . . . to bring the Saints all to worship God sociably, and yet have no dependence upon another" (p.145).
Two centuries later, this narcissistic individualism would hallmark the self-adoration disguised with slogans such as "self-expression" and "self-fulfillment." Such are now elevated to unquestioned "rights" by millions of Americans, and churchly concerns--the ancient Christian notion that one is saved within the Church, Calvin's teaching that apart from the Church there is no truth--virtually disappeared. Especially within American Methodism, H. Richard Niebuhr insisted, there appeared "that great revolutionary movement of the eighteenth century that placed the individual at the center of things and so profoundly modified all existing institutions" (p.156). (Here let me argue a bit with Niebuhr and Lee: both illustrate a condescending distaste for America's typically democratic, people-shaped denominations. Historians rooted in European churches, and Easterners displeased with the populism of America's frontier, often treat Methodists et al. unfairly!)
Back to Lee! The fourth Gnostic trait, he lists, elitism, also characterizes some modern North American Protestants. New England Puritans self-consciously cultivated an elite corps of truly righteous believers. In Jonathan Edwards one finds a pastor who allowed only visible saints membership in visible congregations. Revivalists and revivalistic churches have often sought to clearly paint black and white differences between the "saved" and the "lost."
The fifth and final Gnostic trait Lee discerns in American religion is syncretism. Especially in the mainline, liberal churches, there has developed a genial, tolerant, eclectic spirit which often refuses to even restrict itself to clearly Christian sources and doctrines. Almost anything goes under the rubric of "faith" so long as it is sufficiently nebulous. By definition, syncretism has "an aversion to the particular. Within American Protestantism that aversion has been felt especially toward the particularity of Church and sacraments" (p.182). Consequently, the noted Church historian Winthrop S. Hudson, summing up his study of American Protestantism, found little but "the form of surviving memories and a lingering identification with the resources of historic Christianity" (p.185).
On the basis of his analysis, Lee concludes that much of American Protestantism has become gnosticized. Wallowing in anarchic individualism, anti-institutionalism and anti-sacramentalism, waffling with a spineless doctrinal pliability, it desperately needs to recover authentic Christian roots and routines. What he proposes is a "renewal of hope" through "the degnosticizing of Protestantism."
Unfortunately, whereas Lee's critical analyses frequently hit the mark, his proposals for reform, while suggestive, prove less satisfactory. Among other things, he calls for: 1) more liturgical worship services (returning the sacraments to their rightful centrality); 2) less concern for quick-fix pragmatic success criteria (certain that slow growth may be more enduring than over-night sprouts); 3) stronger discipline within the Church; 4) better biblical preaching (written in the pastor's study rather than the so-called "office"); and, 5) the displacement of the self as the center of God's saving work through the proper understanding of the Church, not the individual, as the Body of Christ.
Against the Protestant Gnostics prods one to think! It may not always accurately assess the situation. Those of us in the revivalistic wing of Evangelicalism may rightly deflect some of Lee's barbs, which at times are off the mark, Certainly he seems to propose less than satisfactory solutions to the problems he raises. But the book focuses on an important theme. And it shows, I think conclusively, why today's American churches seem so unlike the Ante-Nicene Church or that espoused by classical Protestant reformers such as Calvin.