The Gnosticism of the first century, which gave the apostles and teachers so much trouble, was a religion, not a philosophy. It was grounded in Dualism, a view that the state of man was divided; that only spiritual things were good, and anything of matter is essentially evil. Man, they figured, was a spirit, a mind, the personality, reason, and intellect imprisoned within an evil body. That spirit was a seed, an effluence of God, who is altogether good. So then, the aim of life must be to release this heavenly seed that is held within the evil body. And that could only be done by an elaborate and secret knowledge and ritual and initiation which only true gnostics could apply. According to Schaff-Herzog, "In the sense of the Gnostics, gnosis (Greek word for knowledge) is religion; knowledge is redemption: to know, that is to be redeemed, is only possible for the `spiritual man,' sufficiently elevated by knowledge . . . The surest sign that this gnosis was a matter of religion and not of philosophy was the fact that its advocates made efforts to form associations; although it was not always clear where the school stopped and the church began" (Vol. 4, pp. 498, 499).
William Barclay commented on the gnostic, "Still further, this Gnosticism issued in an attitude towards men . . . the Gnostic aimed . . . at an elaborate, esoteric, and secret knowledge. Clearly, such knowledge was not for every man. Ordinary people were too involved in the everyday work and life of the world ever to have time for the study and training and discipline which were necessary; and, even if they had such time, there were many who were intellectually quite incapable of grasping and understanding the involved and elaborate mysteries of the theosophy. This produced quite an inevitable result: those qualified and those not" (John and Jude's Epistles, p. 13).
Not an Ancient Problem Alone
There is a proper place for education and intellectual effort. In the words of an old college professor of mine, "A man ought to get as much education as he can use." A man aware of the world about him, informed in many areas, and familiar with some of the tools provided by modern education is better equipped to communicate to people in a meaningful way the truth he mines from the Bible. But, there is a sharp line that must be drawn between knowledge as a tool and knowledge as an end.
Several years ago I had dinner with a brilliant young man that was at that time working on his Master's Degree in Biblical History. He was preaching "part-time," actually filling a pulpit, and had expressed his desire to preach. I asked him why did he not just go ahead and preach. Surely he had all the schooling he could stomach by now. He had previously expressed great weariness at the grind of school and how it was prohibiting him from doing what he really wanted to do; preach. His reply at the time was quite humorous. He informed me that the church needed some scholars to write commentaries so that the brethren would not have to go to the commentaries of denominationalists or liberal brethren.
His view was and is not unique. More recently I heard of another young man who moved to work with a church that he might finish his Baccalaureate. Following his graduation, he left that church that he might follow after his Master's and Doctorate. He also had made it his life's ambition to write the "All-American Commentary" and go down in history as the Lord's scholar.
A Life's Dedication?
It is a marvel the degree of self-deception and justification men will arouse to give meaning and purpose to their deeds. Faith demands that we trust God and His methods in accomplishing His will. Commentaries, if they are good, are tools that direct us back to the Word itself. No man can be faulted for wishing to direct men to the Bible, yet in choosing a life's ambition, God's man is an evangelist, pastor, or teacher. There does not seem to be much room left in God's scheme for the deskbound scholar whose only practical contact with others is through intellectualism.
Many young men's view of themselves and their life's work is indicative of the age we live in. It is a product of our time. Our age has produced "credential consciousness." A man's view is not determined by its worth, but his words are judged upon the scholastic, economic, or political endorsement of their speaker. This is the age of "expert knowledge." Since the body's complexity defies total understanding by one man, medical doctors "specialize" and become experts in only one area of medicine or anatomy. The same is true of historians, engineers, chemists, and many other sciences. But, in godly living, the Scriptures declare, "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope . . . and I myself am persuaded of you my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, and filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another" (Romans 15:4, 14). Those Christians who are filled with a knowledge of the Word of God and goodness in its practice are "able (capable) to admonish one another." They are fully equipped, thoroughly furnished, having all things necessary for life and godliness. Their endorsement is divine, from God, and not from man.
With the continual adding of educational degrees, the modern "quest for knowledge" has become our modern form of avarice. The world has substituted, the act of gathering and collating documentation for wisdom. This new system replaces truth with facts, mind for spirit, and knowledge for practice. Reading about how one church set up an "Intensive College-Level Bible Study Program" the writer frankly said, "Some will not be able to "cut it." Do not be discouraged because some drop out. There is that element in every church." How unlike the words of Paul when he instructed the brethren, "Knowledge puffeth up, but love builds up . . . wherefore exhort one another, and build one another up, even as also do ye" (I Corinthians 8:1; I Thessalonians 5:11). Paul always sought to make all men perfect in Christ.
There is a "knowing" which is a thing only of the head (gnostos). And there is a "knowing" which is based on knowledge (ginosko) which is of the heart. Or, as Paul put it, "that rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to apprehend . . . and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge" (Ephesians 2:14-19). A knowledge that goes beyond just knowing?
Wisdom is a divine gift, whose origin is from God and not men. It is first "from above" (James 3:17). It is not exclusively the possession of the specially trained in intellect, rather, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given unto him" (James 1:5). It is honed and developed in practice rather than in a college classroom. "And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve (make a test by practice) things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ" (Philippians 1:9, 10).
The scholar presumes that the quality of life and understanding are a function of intellect, found in special training in language, history, or theology. It has always been a marvel that brethren could place such high trust in men, who with all their scholastic ability, were unable to see the simplest matters of truth as it applied to their lives. "I thank thee Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight" (Matthew 11:25-26). The Lord knows the reasoning of the wise, that they are foolish, "Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours. Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours. And ye are Christ's and Christ's is God's" (I Corinthians 3:18ff).
Paul of Tarsus, raised at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who lived by the strictest discipline of all Judaism (Acts 26:5), and who advanced in intellectual endorsement far beyond any of his own age (Galatians 1:4) had a very low view of the scholars of his day. "But, what things were gain to me, these I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8). "Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this world? Hath God not made foolish the wisdom of this world" (I Corinthians 1:20)? Do not set "dung" as your highest ambition, O man of God. What you sow that shall ye also reap. Indeed, "God taketh the wise in their own craftiness."
God needs more disciples and fewer scholars. More martyrs and fewer talkers. Our God could have chosen any means he desired to accomplish His will. The most efficient, effective, and appealing method he could devise, with all of his infinite wisdom and power was what man called "weakness." He sent His Son in the flesh, made a little lower than the angels, born to a carpenter's family in a stable, raised in a town from which nothing good had ever come, untutored in the scholasticism of his day. He surrounded Himself with unlettered fishermen, publicans, farmers, political radicals, reformed refuse of society, and the poor heard him gladly. His only credentials were divine, in His teaching and works, and they were denied by the world as valid. But, He is my Lord and King, Jesus the Messiah.
I would that His brethren would not be ashamed of Him and His message of good news. We really do not need to see the church and Christianity "redeemed" in the sight of the world from its foolishness, a foolishness God designed it to bear. Deliver us from those who would change the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible men - in changing the simplicity and godly sincerity of our lives in this world into fleshly wisdom to be seen of men.