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Tonight for fun (and in preparation for my continuing Sunday school teaching series about the theology of C.S. Lewis) I spent about an hour and fifteen minutes listening to Dr. Elaine Pagel’s lecture at the University of Nebraska from September 15, 2005, entitled “Beyond Disbelief: A Different View of Christianity.” This is included as podcast 2 on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s podcast channel. (In the iTunes podcast directory, search for “University of Nebraska-Lincoln”– I couldn’t find a direct URL link to it to include here.) More info about the E.N Thompson Forum, for which Dr Pagels was the September speaker, is available.
Back in November 2003, I shared a lesson with my Friday morning men’s fellowship group entitled “Gnosticism and Blasphemy: An Analysis of “Beyond Belief: by Elaine Pagels.” I subtitled this, “Gnosticism and Blasphemy: Old Ideas with a New Cover.”
Pagels still appears to be one of the most formally, academically distinguished advocates for the gnostic worldview in the early 21st century. 2 years ago before I shared the above presentation, I had read Pagel’s book “Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas.” I do NOT actually recommend this book to anyone. Instead I would recommend reading the Bible itself, or as a secondary source related to my current Sunday school study, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis.
Why would I, a much less hallowed academic with far fewer credentials than Pagels, offer such advice? Well, let’s take a look at several of the core beliefs of Pagels which come through after reading “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” and are further reinforced after listening to her September lecture in Lincoln, Nebraska:
- Pagels believes there is more than one path to God / ultimate salvation (this is a gnostic and relativistic view)
- Pagels denies the unique deity of Jesus, that Jesus was God (she claims we all are divine / have God within us, again another gnostic tenet)
- In the podcast lecture Pagels admits that both the gospels of Mark and Matthew state the divinity of Jesus, but in her book she claims that the gospel writer John was the only one to make this claim.
- Pagels encourages readers and listeners to her lecture to regard as equally valid the writings included in the Bible as well as the apocryphal writings like the “gospel of Thomas” (as I note below, she “asserts to show how all the the gospels (both those in the NT and the “others” discovered after 1945) were socially constructed by the authors of the gospels after the death of Jesus)
- Pagels comes across agreeing with the author of the gospel of Thomas, that all people can discover/find God within themselves (i.e. no one needs Jesus, he does not play a unique role in connecting us to God or ultimate salvation)
There are 2 more contentions Pagels makes in her book that are included in my presentation from November 2003. I think what I have written here is sufficient to make my initial point, however: Pagels is clearly a heretic from both Christian orthodox and reformed perspectives, because she denies the unique deity of Christ and his pivotal role in the salvation of the human race.
Pagels’ message has doubtless resonance with many in the postmodern, relativistic culture in which we live, because she is the evangelist of the new-gnostics who proclaim there is not “one way” to salvation. The gnostic view is that there are many ways. And who are we to judge? Accept, embrace and love: God is in the rocks and the wood just like he is inside you and me. (She literally says this in her lecture when explaining the gospel of Thomas.) On page 29 of her book “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” Pagels reveals her gnostic belief system and rejection of the idea of “one way to salvation.” I don’t think I have written anything contentious in this post so far in terms of representing what Pagels’ message and actual theological position is: She is a gnostic and a relativist.
A friend of mine who was the youth pastor at our church, Matt Mitchell, is completing his final year of seminary at Princeton, where Pagels is the “Harrington Spear Pain Professor of Religion.” It will be quite interesting to compare notes with Matt (whose theology I would characterize as firmly “reformed” when compared to Pagels) at some point in the not too distant future.
It is sobering to both read and hear (via podcast no less) how vibrantly alive gnostic faith is today in 2005, as we are almost into 2006. This should not be a surprise, however. Gnosticism is quite old, even predating Christianity. Pagels, in her podcast lecture, states how exciting and insightful it is that we can read the gospel of Thomas alongside the Gospel of John, and get an insiders view to an argument between two factions in the early Christian church.
Gnosticism existed in the early church and offered a formidable challenge to the teachings of Christ. No kidding. This is not a surprise or a revelation to anyone who has studied the Bible. Why did the apostle Paul have to write so many letters to the early churches? In large part because many were straying from the GOSPEL, and one of the ways they strayed was by listening to gnostics like the followers of Thomas.
I did find Pagels’ points about how the author of the Gospel of John uniquely made Thomas into a “character” to be interesting, and I did find her point that the Gospel of John was a response to the gnostic teachings embedded within the gospel of Thomas to be fairly convincing. I fail, however, to agree with her position that the gospel of Thomas should be regarded with equal authority to the other gospels of the NT, including the Gospel of John. I actually reject all of Pagels’ seven contentions, which I examined and discussed in my November 2003 presentation.
So why is this relevant today in 2005? Well, the question is a very basic one. Who do you say Jesus was and is? This is a key issue discussed by C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”. Let me quote from pages 40-41 of my copy, at the end of the chapter entitled, “The Shocking Alternative,” which I also quoted in my post from December 5th entitled, “Theology of C.S. Lewis.”
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic– on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg– or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon: or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But lets us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Clearly, Pagels’ view of Jesus Christ is quite different from that of C.S. Lewis and myself. Don’t make the mistake Pagels has apparently made up to this point, along with many other gnostics throughout the millenia. Jesus was not “just another man” with the divine spark inside him, like a rock laying out on your driveway or a stick in your backyard. He was the Son of God.
Here are my notes I typed up listening to Pagels’ podcast lecture tonight. It is certainly interesting to listen to her views and hear about apocryphal “secret writings.” It is even more important, however, to understand the gnostic worldview which Pagels is advancing here– to “unmask” it, if it you will, not as an inconsequential difference of opinions among academics, but rather as a fundamental challenge to the underlying basis of orthodox and reformed Christianity. That is what gnosticism is, and what it has always been. That is why I titled my November 2003 presentation, “Gnosticism and Blasphemy: Old Ideas with a New Cover.”
You shouldn’t believe everything you read and hear, you know– whether it is in a book, on the Internet, or in a podcast!
Pagels contends all the gospels (those included in the NT and the apocryphal ones) were socially constructed by their indeterminate authors after the death of Jesus
says gospels of John and Thomas show “advanced teachings” of Jesus
good news is different in gospel of Mark (the good news is the kingdom of God is coming soon, so repent and believe) versus gospel of John (kingdom of God is also here and now)
she is portraying first of all that the gospels are equivalent
She immediately discredits Ireneus and makes fun of him, basically calling him stupid by indicating he said there were only 4 gospels because there are just 4 directions and 4 winds
Sayings in gospel of Thomas indicate that knowing God is a state of being and knowing who you are, knowing you are children of God and you live in God’s presence
- also says there is not a “coming kingdom of God” / revelation
asserts the equivalence of all the writings from the early Christian period
says that initial publishers of gospel of Thomas in 1959 did not find the heresy that Ireneus contended was there
gospel of Thomas suggests the divine energy of God is within each human and within all objects: wood, rocks, etc.
- you can find the light in Jesus, also in yourself
- the Good news is about Jesus but also about you and me
My thought: the “good news” according to Pagels is that Jesus was not anyone special, you don’t really need Jesus, because the divine light of God is in everything: in us, in rocks, in sticks, etc.
For Pagels: practical question is “how do you find the light”
- John offers a very different answer to this than Thomas, even though there are many similarities between gospels of John and Thomas
- Pagels recommends you read both gospels side by side to listen in on a contentious argument happening between the early followers of Jesus
- these show opposite sides of an argument
- author of John wrote his own gospel to set people straight, he believed the gospel of Thomas was taking people in the wrong direction (to correct people he wrote this gospel)
– John says even though there was divine light in the beginning, he wants to say the light of God never penetrated the deep darkness of the world until Jesus came
– John’s favorite word for Jesus is “God’s only son”
- Gospel of Thomas suggests that both you and I are children of God
in Gospel of John there is not the story of the prodigal son or the sermon on the mount
- what Jesus teaches in the gospel of John are the “I am” sayings
- I am the vine, the door, the good shepherd, the way, etc.
- I am all that you need, the divine in person
- John says you must believe that I am he (“somehow God” in the Words of Pagels)
- John wants to show that Jesus is equal to God: God in human form
- interestingly at the end of the Gospel of John, the person who “gets the point” (that Jesus is God) is Thomas
- Pagels: “the bad news of gospel of John is that the rest of us are not like Jesus”
See minute/second 42:44 of the podcast for Pagel’s big critique of John’s main issue of Jesus’ deity
- in the other gospels, there are not any “episodes” with Thomas
- John turns Thomas into a character, he gets his reputation through only John’s gospel
– Ch 11: story of Jesus hearing story of Lazarus (Thomas doesn’t believe Jesus can raise the dead)
– Ch 14: Thomas says, “we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way” (apparently this is aimed against the teaching of the Thomas following Christians)
– Ch 21: “Jesus comes back from the dead specifically to chastize Thomas”
— Matthew and Luke both say Jesus appeared to the 11 (no Judas)
— major point is to show who receives Jesus’ authority and power, this is a very important point
— John in Ch 21 says the disciples are my apostles/ representatives, he breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit, he gave them his authority
—- the next line is “Thomas was not with them at the meeting”
—– this means Thomas is not authorized, not one of them, not delegated the power
—– John’s story of doubting Thomas is a parody of the focus in the gospel of Thomas on experiential learning
- he is making the point that you are not supposed to seek, you are supposed to believe
The Thomas Christians think there are other ways
“Thomas and John take a common body of teachings….”
50:30 story of declaring “heresy” writings like those of Thomas
Nicene Creed is the eventual result of historical discussions about who Jesus is
- it basically accepts all the writings of John
- these creeds essentially say that “Jesus is the same as God”
- “this strand of Christianity becomes orthodox”
- “with the discovery of these other texts we can see that there were other options which were not taken into this movement and now enormously change the way we see the beginnings of Christianity”
No doubt the gnostics were there in the beginning and they are with us today
- Pagels is one of the gnostics’ primary modern day evangelists
She contends there was not “an early Christian church” but there were many
- implication is that there are many equally valid truths and paths to ultimate salvation
“This goes back to Jewish mystical tradition, Cabal tradition, idea that you find in the Gospel of Thomas: God created us in the divine image and we can find access to God by finding that deep source within us that we may have buried within us, our primordial being, that is what we have to recognize in ourselves and in our universe”
- in accord with mystical tradition
“idea is not that Jesus is not divine, it is that mystical presence is in all of us”
“There are so many possible ways to interpret the gospel of John, which are not at all narrow”
we should read “I am the way, the truth and the life” in a much more inclusive way, as a “contemplative monk” Pagels talked to did
—-end of notes—-
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