The second of a two-part series.

Until recently, Protestants were more likely than Catholics to succumb to the Gnostic temptation I described in a recent column. In a 2008 article for Modern Reformation, Philip J. Lee described how both Mainline and “born again” Protestants were becoming more Gnostic, although in different ways.

Protestants on both the right and left, he observed, had become focused on private faith rather than public faith, on the invisible Church rather than the Church visible, and on a direct personal relationship with Jesus rather than one mediated through pastors, priests, or a faith community.

Moreover, said Lee, both branches of Protestantism, albeit in different ways, emphasized the acquisition of special knowledge. Thus, they were set apart from non-Christians because, like the Gnostics, they knew things that others didn’t. Like conspiracy theorists, many evangelical Christians became addicted to the latest spiritual revelations circulating on the internet.

It’s not that these “revelations” have no basis in history or Scripture, but that they often have little connection to the basic Christian message — namely, that God became man at a specific time and place in history, went about teaching and healing, founded a Church, was crucified, rose from the tomb, and ascended to the Father.

Jesus Is Too “Meaty.” Can We Have Something Plant-Based Instead?

For Gnostics, however, the basic Christian story was too physical. Many of them insisted that Jesus, being purely spiritual, only appeared to be human. In addition, many denied that Christ died on the cross (that was far too physical!). They taught, instead, that another person had died in His place.

As with the ancient Gnostics, so too with the modern variety. In 2003, a book based in large part on the Gnostic Gospels zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there for a long time afterward. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code attacked traditional Christianity (Catholicism in particular) for having suppressed the truth about the life of Jesus. The truth, according to Gnostic teachings, is that Jesus was not divine, that he married Mary Magdalene, and that he avoided crucifixion, allowing someone else to die in his place.

Because it echoed many feminist themes, The Da Vinci Code was understandably popular with feminists. Ironically, a great many nonfeminist Christians also swallowed Dan Brown’s fake version of Christian history. A National Geographic survey revealed that 32% of Canadians (most of whom, we can assume, were Christians) who read The Da Vinci Code believed its theories were true.

In short, the poll strongly suggests that the Gnostic impulse had reemerged in North America.

Some Believers Push Back

Not that it hasn’t been resisted. In reaction to the Gnostification of Protestantism that Lee wrote about, many Mainline and evangelical Protestants converted either to Catholicism or to Orthodoxy. Part of the attraction was that, unlike Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox paid a great deal of attention to the physical aspect of Christianity.

For example, Peter Gillquist, a prominent evangelical, popular speaker, and editor at Thomas Nelson Publishers, converted to Orthodoxy and explained why in a book aptly titled The Physical Side of Being Spiritual.

Pope Francis Goes New Age

Ironically, as Gillquist and other evangelicals moved away from a purely spiritual form of Christianity, many prominent Catholics were moving in the opposite direction. They weren’t converting to Protestantism; rather, they were working to change the Catholic Church from within into something more adaptable to the spirit of the times.

This “movement” culminated in what might be called the “Spirit-led” papacy of Francis. Francis seemed to believe that the old rules for guiding the Church — Scripture, tradition, councils — were no longer sufficient. Instead, Church leaders had to learn to “listen to the Spirit” and “follow the Spirit.” Consequently, numerous dialogues, conferences, and synods were convened to hash over issues that most Catholics thought had already been settled.

We have Christ’s words in Scripture on topics such as marriage, divorce, gender (there are only two), the true Church (“Mine,” said Jesus), conversion (“make disciples of all nations”), and many other items of belief. His judgments are quite clear. Why then, one might ask, do we need to spend months (four years and counting in the case of the Synod on Synodality) trying to discern what the Holy Spirit wants us to do?

An End-Run Around the Scriptures

Some Protestants may have carried “me and Jesus” a bit too far. There is always a danger that a highly personalized faith can become too private and too subjective. But there were built-in limits on the subjectivism. If a born-again Christian claims that “the Lord told me to found a spouse-swapping commune,” a hundred of his brothers will remind him that the Lord says no such thing in Scripture and that, judging from what He did say, it is highly unlikely that He would ever recommend such a course of action.

Unfortunately, many in the Catholic hierarchy seem to have substituted “me and the Holy Spirit” for “me and Jesus.” For those who are set on changing Church teaching, this approach has a clear advantage. It leaves open a great deal of room for interpretation and speculation. It’s possible to check your notion of what Jesus wants of us against what He actually said as recorded in the Gospels. By contrast, it’s not at all easy to double-check a private revelation from the Spirit. With the possible exception of a few ambiguous passages in the Book of Revelation, the Bible contains no record of any spoken content uttered by the Holy Spirit.

So, if bishop so-and-so claims that the Spirit wants us to develop a more inclusive and LGBT-friendly form of marriage, you can’t gainsay him by pointing to a verse in the Bible where the Spirit expresses His approval of traditional marriage. Indeed, one can wonder if this is not the whole point of the current emphasis on following the Spirit. Does such advice reflect a genuine openness to the promptings of the Spirit, or is it simply a convenient way of following one’s own inclinations while falsely claiming the Spirit’s endorsement? As with the Gnostics of old, it’s a good way of losing touch with the visible, Incarnational Church founded by Jesus.

It’s also a good reminder of our dependence on physical things for the nourishment of our souls. Keep that in mind the next time you pick up that hefty and very solid Bible lying on your desk.

This article originally appeared in the April 16, 2024 edition of The Stream.

Pictured above: Meditation

Photo credit: Pixabay