Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | April 13, 2008

Lord’s Day Quote: Harold O.J. Brown

It is apparent that not only the early church but the New Testament itself reflects doctrinal tensions.  The Epistle to the Romans, for example, argues at length against works righteousness, and Galatians takes a stand against the influence of legalism in one early congregation.  Colossians and 1 John appear to reflect a struggle against ideas that will later be known as Gnostic and docetic.  Both of these tendencies – to legalism on the one hand, to a kind of gnosis on the other – were definitely present in early Christianity and will recur at intervals throughout the history of the church.  What is important to note is that while legalism and a kind of Gnosticism affected Christianity virtually from the beginning, they were not part of its heritage, but part of the human religious consciousness with which Christianity had to come to terms. 

The tendency to see salvation as resulting from law-keeping, even when one believes in Christ, is called legalism or Judaizing.  Carried to its ultimate conclusion, it suggests that human beings are able to merit salvation, and thus to remove the need for a vicarious or substitutionary atonement.  In a Judaized Christianity, there is no need for a Son to act as Redeemer; hence the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the Trinity become superfluous.  The sixteenth-century Socinians, opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity and to the deity of Christ, proclaimed and practiced a high standard of personal morality, as was also to be the case with early nineteenth-century Unitarians in New England.  The legalistic position, when allowed to develop, thus has serious Christological consequences.

The second fundamental human religious concept, which we call Gnostic, involves an overvaluing of knowledge with respect to faith.  The “naïve” way to understand the Christian Gospel is to see it as a simple message, one that can be simply stated and relatively easily grasped, although it can be believed and accepted only by those who receive the gift of faith.  For some of the more “sophisticated”, the idea of a message that cannot only be grasped but can be preached by the simple is offensive; they feel that a proper religion must offer something more, an intellectual challenge that puts it beyond the reach of the simple.  The Gnostic  position asserts that over and above the simple Gospel, which is all that ordinary spirits can understand, there is a secret, higher knowledge reserved for an elite.  It is natural enough for people to ask more questions than the Gospel answers; the Gnostic movement attempted to give the answers, and it did so by drawing on religious sources alien to Christianity and amalgamating them with elements of the Gospel faith.

Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the history of the Church p. 38-39



  1. I find your correlation to the linked “secret” site interesting in the aspect you’re accusing them of being Gnostic.

    Are you basically stating that all personal religious experience is gnostic?

    I copied this from another site and I believe it states my opinion very well:

    “Gnosticism is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experience results in Gnostic recognitions.” –

    Basically… if one has a personal experience it DOES NOT equal being a gnostic.

    Scripture is LOADED with individuals having personal experiences… Jesus had many personal experiences, Paul, Stephen, and John the Revelator.

    Also, Fathers of the Faith including: Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Charles Finney.

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for stopping in to leave a comment. I did not make this correlation on my own, but tend to agree with those who see elements of Gnosticism in many forms of modern religion. This is especially evident within those who seek direct revelation apart from Scripture.

    The faith has been once delivered to the saints, included in the canon of Scripture, consisting of the mystery of Christ hidden in ages past, but now made known to all nations. This faith or Gospel is sufficient for our salvation and fully published in the New Testament. Those who seek additional direct revelation are not satisfied with this simple message of the Gospel and seek “hidden” or “secret” knowledge primarily about their own personal future. Call it what you want, but this is a form of Gnosticism that is far from Christian.

    Relative to your statement about personal experiences, I agree that there are many examples of individuals in the Scriptures who were granted this. However, this is always a traumatic experience Stephen was being stoned, John passed out and Paul went through numerous traumatic experiences. (Not too mention John and Paul were uniquely called to the apostolic office, which is a lot different from your normal Christian ). The best example of this is in one you omitted, Israel at Mt Sinai, Hebrews 12:18-19 states that they were terrified to the point that they begged that God would speak through a mediator rather than directly to them.

    Today we have a mediator, namely Jesus Christ, and we can only approach God through Him and His infallible witness included in the Scriptures (OT & NT) that testify about Him:

    I think you are underestimating the influence that paganism, specifically Gnosticism, has had on modern forms of Christianity. (Incidently, Finney had a lot to do with pagan influence on Christianity).


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