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Noah and Gnosticism

The recent film “Noah” has garnered attention and criticism. I have especially followed with interest the secondary conversation between the promoters and critics of the movie. For instance, in a recent movie review, Dr. Brian Mattson describes “Noah” as a Gnostic recasting of the biblical story. This follows in the line of what some have seen as Hollywood’s trend of pushing Gnostic ideology (e.g., “The Da Vinci Code”), as well as the current scholarly focus on the Gnostic Gospels.

I would like to provide some commentary on a revival of Gnosticism in the broader culture and among scholars. In particular, I want to focus upon the appeals of Gnosticism, recognizing the movie “Noah” as both an obstacle and an opportunity.

Gnosticism has been around since the period in which the New Testament was written. It was a movement that mixed Eastern forms of mysticism with other religions, such as Christianity. Gnosticism as a Christian-related heresy included the teachings of such heresiarchs as Valentinus, who offered a special gnosis, knowledge, which purportedly allowed one to make his or her way to the divine fullness. This gnosis is reserved only for the truly “spiritual.” Marcion, who truncated the Bible in order to excise the God of wrath from it, was also often considered a Gnostic.

The Gnostic Revival

While Gnosticism as a particular religion is today small in size, there is little doubt that Gnosticism as an attitude, a way of theological reflection, is making something of a comeback in the West. There are at least three sources for this trend.

  • First, the Gnostic-like outlook appeals to the vague spirituality that has ballooned recently in Western culture, especially among those that have been identified as “spiritual, but not religious.” According to Robert Fuller, a substantial minority of Americans are “associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches” (OUP, 2001). The director and actors themselves have displayed some of these attitudes in their promotions of the movie.
  • Second, there are other scholars, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, who have made a whole industry out of introducing and examining the Gnostic Gospels. Ehrman, a former evangelical, has become of late a sort of analyst-evangelist for early Gnosticism as an alternative to biblical orthodoxy. Early Gnosticism, which certain New Testament texts seem to have been written to refute directly, was a secretive form of syncretism (religious mixing) between Eastern Mysticism and Christianity.
  • Third, these scholarly trends have symbiotically recognized and encouraged the large number of people who want to have some knowledge about God or things ethereal without committing to any particular belief system. The movie “Noah” as a marketing strategy may be intentionally crafted to appeal to “spirituals” and to others interested in a character recognized the world over in one form or another.

Is Gnosticism a Current Problem Facing Christians?

Yes, Gnosticism as a religion or as a religious attitude makes two distinct problematic appeals: it has a Syncretistic appeal and a Secretive appeal.

Addressing the Syncretistic Appeal

With regard to the Syncretistic appeal, I would encourage Christians to exercise both evangelism and discernment. We must evangelize the lost, and they will have questions about Noah and the God behind Noah. Use the opportunity of the movie to tell them about God and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, but do so while exercising discernment. Be sure to correct misconceptions about Noah, and especially misconceptions about God. Use the opportunity of the movie, but use it wisely.

Addressing the Secretive Appeal

With regard to the Secretive appeal of Gnosticism, I would argue that any group—whether it be based in an academy, or a conference, or a movie studio—that claims it has knowledge about God or spiritual things must be treated with skepticism. Any claim for knowledge about God that goes beyond the texts of the canon of Scripture taps into the Secretive urge of the Gnostic outlook. In response, we note that God the Holy Spirit inspired and preserved for us a publicly available text, which we call the Holy Bible, and it has included therein all that we need to know about God, much less Noah. Yet again, the critical issue is about Scripture and about how we really need to know and speak God’s Word. We must again and again go back to the Bible.

For more on Noah’s Gnostic appeal, read “‘Noah’ recasts ancient heresy, experts say” on Baptist Press.

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Malcolm Yarnell

Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Oxford Study Program, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Chair of the Systematic Theology Department

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