On the Use of “Gnostic”

I don’t want to always be a schoolmarm, correcting the misuse of this or that term, but there are a few that cry out for attention.  “Gnostic” is one such word.  It has recently come to be a shorthand to describe a variety of concepts, typically those which prioritize the spirit or the mind to the body.  Anyone who believes in the priority of the intellect could be called a “Gnostic” under this usage, as well as anyone who thinks that the soul is on a different plane of being than the body.  “Gnostic” is also employed to critique those who hold to idealism over materialism.  Strangely, not a few of the modern “anti-Gnostics” have gone so far as to deny the soul’s ability to exist apart from the body, thus creating a heresy of their own in the opposite direction.

But according to folks like Kurt Rudolph, we don’t actually know much about the original Gnostics. Continue reading

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Claudius the Critical Thinker

Though fictional, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius does a good job of putting you into the ancient world. In chapter 9 there is a pointed disagreement between Livy and Asinius Pollio on the way history books should be written. The young Claudius says:

“There are two ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the second is yours [Pollio]: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

The response is equally telling:

“Why, boy, you’re an orator,” said Pollio delightedly.

Sulpicius… now summed up: “Yes, Livy will never lack readers. People love being ‘persuaded to ancient virtue’ by a charming writer, particularly when they are told in the same breath that modern civilization has made such virtue impossible of attainment. But mere truthtellers- ‘undertakers who lay out the corpse of history’ (to quote poor Catullus’s epigram on the noble Pollio)- such men can only hold an audience while they ahve a good cook and a cellar of Cyprian wine.”

p 122-123

Pollio’s calling Claudius an “orator” is a pun from an earlier part of the discussion. Pollio had expressed his view that historians ought not to add oration into their history. This was not because oration was bad, but simply because Julius Caesar didn’t give those sorts of speeches on the battlefields. Instead, he told dirty jokes.

At the end of it all, Claudius ends up choosing Pollio’s model.

Christian Classicists

Wilson discusses his views of “antithetical classicism” over and against North’s more straight-laced and scowling Van Tillianism here.  The contrast between these two men is instructive for the overall landscape of Reformed theology’s relationship to history and the rest of the world.

Van Tillianism has always had a tendency to simply lend a rocket booster to fundamentalism.  I think this is why it became so popular.  It met the masses where they were and told them that they had been right all along, but they simply didn’t know how to say that in smart-people language.  Now they can, with three easy steps…

You can see this in a lot of Rushdoony’s work.  I really like Rush, and I owe a good deal in my own theological development to him, but any honest reader will note that he gets about 50% of his facts wrong.  He loves to show that older Christians were really pagans and/or heretics, and if you were in a position of a civil leadership, you were definitely a bad guy.  With a few exceptions, of course, that’s how a Rushdoony view of history works.  Tweak a few things here and there as is appropriate, and that’s how the basic Christian Reconstruction view of everything works.  Mostly bad, until us.  You’re welcome.

Wilson has always been a different flavor of CR though, and this is mostly because he douses the whole project in C. S. Lewis.  Wilson started with Lewis and then moved to Van Til, but he’s always tried to be a kinder, gentler Van Tillian.  If CRs were fundies with rocket boosters, then Wilson is a fundie with a top-hat, pipe, and monocle.

As I’ve begun working at a “Classical Christian High School,” I have noticed myself enriched by the material we cover.  I am reading Lewis, Socrates (via. secondary sources), and studying in some detail figures like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, King Richard I and Saladin.  Basically, I’m being forced out of my little box.  I’m being pushed out of even my “Reformed Van Tillian” box, simply by the facts of history (even interpreted facts!), and this is a profoundly good thing.

Now the CRs wandered out of the box from time to time, but usually this was only to grab something that looked like it could prop-up the box, and then they’d run back to the box in hopes of taking over the world through the box.  The problem, ironically of course, is that they never adequately questioned the presuppositions that formed the box.  They just assumed the box was “Bible Christianity” and that it was obviously so.  In truth, CRs were often classical liberals (ie. libertarians), who truly believed in the early American republic/empire, and wanted to promote this vision through some form of Reaganonomics.  I’m generalizing horribly here, but you get the picture.

Now, the Wilson version is already head and shoulders above this, as his project goes further back in history, seeking to sculpt a “medieval Protestantism” out of the stones of time.  This has the benefit of being pre-Enlightenment, something that Van Til and the CRs never really accomplished (Van Til was indebted to Hegel and Kant.  Bahnsen was indebted to Wittgenstein.), however it runs the same risk of remaking history into its own already much-influenced and culturally-conditioned image if it doesn’t give its classicism an authentic presentation.  If “antithetical classicism” means simply accenting the popular views of the classical and medieval periods with 20th and 21st century Calvinist commentary, then we won’t have made much improvement.

What we need are true classicists who maintain their Reformed Christian principles, but do not allow those principles to hijack their scholarship.  We need flexible classicists who take into account the varied influences of history: religious, political, economic, and military.  We do not need folks looking for the magic “culture.”

We need a Lewis view of creation; namely, that it is good and given by God.  We need a Jim Jordan doctrine of the Holy Spirit working among the Gentiles (or even the non-Christians!).  We need a mature disposition that understands that there are very few uniform movements, and we need to be able to admit that even our favorite heroes, whether they be political or religious, were capable of being scoundrels at any given point in time.  We also have to be willing to accept that scoundrels can give us genuinely good things that we wouldn’t want to do without.