Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 16

Confessions of a Lapsed Gnostic

Steve Wilkens

Classical Spiritual Exercises: Habits that Transform

01.  My Life as a Gnostic

When I became a Christian many years ago, I didn’t plan to become a heretic. The motive certainly wasn’t there. To the contrary, my aim was to do this Christian thing right. Doing Christianity right meant that I needed to know as much of God’s truth as I could, which meant getting the right take on Scripture and then using that truth to fix my life. I was pretty zealous about it. Despite all my good intentions, though, I was a heretic right from the beginning.

If there is any consolation for well-intentioned heretics, the particular variation of heterodoxy I selected was a classic, condemned by the Church in its earliest centuries. Nevertheless, it was still a heresy, as I soon learned, and one so common that it had a name: Gnosticism.

I have also come to learn that my Gnostic leanings had a deep effect on how I understood Scripture and spiritual formation. I had a lot of company. My suspicion is that what many Christians understand to be the route to becoming really spiritual people is just a modern version of that old-time Gnosticism.

As a historical phenomenon, Gnosticism did not refer to a specific religion, but to a family of religions with common strands. The foundational characteristic of Gnostic religions, however, was a stark dualism that separated the physical from the spiritual. The physical was, by definition, evil; the realm of the spirit was good. Each of these worlds had a god who ruled it. The evil god, the ruler of the physical domain, was its creator. In contrast, the good god governed the spiritual realm. Our spiritual task, then, was to deny the physical and allow the soul to return to the good god.

Gnosticism gets its name from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The idea is that our salvation is accomplished by attaining a special, mystical type of knowledge that comes to us instantaneously. The thing that separates us from the salvation we crave is the physical realm. Thus, this mystical gnosis is designed to release our souls, the spiritual spark within us, from the gravity of the physical.

It’s not too hard to see how spiritually sensitive Christians fall prey to Gnosticism. Right from the get-go, we read in Scripture that God is not a physical being. Combine this truth with biblical warnings to avoid conformity to “the world,” the dualities of flesh/spirit and earth/heaven, and a push toward eternal life, and you have the raw materials from which Gnosticism can arise.

The catalyst for actualizing a full-blown Gnosticism involves using Greek philosophical categories to interpret these biblical ideas. This is a brief recipe for cooking up a Gnostic soup, but you get the idea. In short, Gnosticism makes it possible to find language in Scripture that interprets the physical realm in a negative light. And I did.

In my Gnostic phase, I treated Scripture as a repository of divine truths that would free me from whatever mundane knowledge I might get from the normal use of my mind. Scriptural truth was set over against all competing (and merely human) truths. I thought once I received real truth, that was static, pure, and eternally valid, totally unlike all human theories that constantly change and mislead. Of course, there was always more truth to find, so the trick was to go back to Scripture, hunt down as many of these enduring truths as I could, add them to the list, and then put the list in the right order so it was neat and systematic.

When one reads Scripture this way, one has to “work” Scripture to tease out this list of truths. They aren’t laid out in a neat, systematic way. But it never occurred to me to ask why, if God had wanted me to come up with an organized list of propositions that would punch my ticket to heaven, he didn’t just give me such a list. I had an unreflective sense that it was a sign of faithful zeal to sort through all the chaff of poetry, genealogies, laments, laws, and weird apocalyptic material to get to the real information, the gnosis.

In my Gnostic-influenced view, literary genre, since it reflected another merely human structure, was an obstacle to be gotten around in the same way that my physical nature was a hurdle between salvation and me. I knew and agreed with the fact that genre recognition was an important part of understanding other writings, but the Bible was not just any writing. It was God’s word.

Gradually, however, I began to recognize that when I read God’s word, and when it used the word Word in a capital-W way, it was not referring to itself. Instead, Scripture most often used the phrase “God’s Word” to designate Jesus Christ. And there was something else a bit troubling when Scripture talked about “the Word.” The Jesus Christ “Word,” who was there “in the beginning” (John 1:1), also “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Now, I had read the prologue to John’s Gospel many times, but somehow, I had missed it. The Word became incarnate, fleshy—God con carne. This created a real tension with my Gnostic impulses because Gnosticism, whatever form it takes, has no categories to accommodate the idea of God who assumes meat, bones, glands, and skin. In fact, the “Jesus” who roamed through the Gnostic writings was Docetic; that is, he only seemed to be physical. He wore a clever disguise to put him behind the lines of the rulers of the physical domain so he could deliver the saving gnosis that lifts us beyond the world made up of stuff from the periodic table of elements.

So how had I developed this sense that if Jesus’ skin were pulled back, one would see a pale blue glow rather than muscles, veins, and tendons? Where had I misplaced the real, true, carbon-based humanity of Jesus of Nazareth? In hindsight, it wasn’t all that hard for me to think myself into a belief system that could verbally confess “fully human, fully divine” while simultaneously acting as if the humanity of Jesus were an illusion. After all, we are surrounded by human beings who, even at their best, are nowhere close to meeting the qualifications for Savior, Lord, God’s holy Word, etc. This, then, would seem to indicate that the “active ingredient” in Jesus was his divinity, and the humanity stuff is just the inert filler needed to fill up the container, or in this case, provide the container.

But the Bible wouldn’t let me treat Jesus’ humanity as filler material. In fact, it describes Christ as “the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the same label affixed to the first humans (Genesis 1:26–27) and still used to describe us in the post-Fall state (Genesis 9:6). This seemed to indicate that what Jesus is in his humanity reflects God’s intention for all of us. Christ is not perfect because his humanity is obliterated, but because humanity is fulfilled in him. In Christ, the material doesn’t drag down the divine. Instead, the divine elevates the created and physical. This picture of salvation is very different from the one I found in Gnostic systems.

When I took off my Gnostic lens and put on some Incarnation bifocals, the Bible started to look a lot different. Instead of a warehouse of truths to be systematized into foolproof answers, Scripture read more like of series of fool-redeeming stories in which God invites the most unlikely candidates to become his people. The Truth I found was not so much an object to be collected and ordered as it was a Person—the kind of Truth that, when we know him, knows us right back.

Instead of reading the Bible as a way of pulling myself out of this world to get to God, I kept meeting God on his way into my history, my experience, and my humanity. Salvation was not transportation out of this world, but transformation within the world. Those human elements in Scripture I once tried to filter out to get to the “real truth” started to function as reminders that God is capable of redeeming the imperfect for use in his Kingdom. This incarnational reading created such a powerful resonance with my own experience that I soon became a lapsed Gnostic.

02.  Okay, So Get to the Point

I know I’m supposed to be talking about Scripture and spiritual formation, and this rather extended introductory confession hovers a bit above the nitty-gritty specifics of these topics. Cut me a bit of slack, though: I’m a philosopher. Hovering is what philosophers do best, even if it’s not always helpful. And if you define helpful in terms of things like “Twelve Principles for Applying Scripture to Spiritual Formation,” what follows is going to be a big disappointment. I could produce such a list when I was a Gnostic because I could ignore everyday experience. But since I’m a lapsed Gnostic who now believes that God gets involved in our world, things like spirituality get too messy to be reduced to lists. Given this, I will offer seven areas that look different when I read Scripture with the God-Man at the fulcrum. My intention is to be more evocative than informative. You folks who are the experts in spiritual transformation can figure out how to use them.

03.  Comparing Gnostic and Incarnational Approaches to Theology

Note: A chart comparing the Gnostic and Incarnation approaches to Theology has been provided at the end of this article.


  1. God knows me from the inside. 

    The Incarnation tells me that God knows me, not from some ethereal Archimedean point, as in Gnosticism, but from inside the humanity that God gave to both Jesus and me. The real me likes coffee, baseball, sex, and large slabs of beef, though not necessarily in that order. All these things are questionable for a Gnostic, so I always felt some degree of compulsion to apologize for these likes when I was with Jesus and “really spiritual” (i.e., Gnostic) people.Now, however, I’ve come to believe that a truly human Jesus would also have certain preferences for various earthly pleasures. And I’m willing to bet that he might shock the “really spiritual” folks by the fact that he was able to find reason to praise God while enjoying them. It seems that the message for spiritual formation is that God’s intent is to save the real me. Since finding certain earthly activities pleasurable is part of the human package, his goal is not to save me from these pleasures, but to bring my pleasures under the umbrella of his Kingdom.


  1. The Incarnation makes sense of ritual.

    I find it increasingly distressing that so many Christians feel compelled to qualify the word ritual with the adjective empty, although these non-ritualistic Christians simply create their own new rituals, which can become just as empty, and I’m pretty sure Gnosticism has something to do with that. Gnosticism sees the common and mundane realities of this world as something to escape. In contrast, Jesus seems to be up to something very different in two of the rituals—call them sacraments, ordinances, or whatever you want, but they are still rituals—he established during his time on this planet: the Lord’s Supper and baptism.Perhaps no food is more basic to diets the world over than bread. Even though it can take an almost unlimited number of forms, bread is simple, ordinary stuff. Most of what we consume is baked in industrial-sized ovens and stuffed into cellophane bags. Yet it is the same bread we use in the Eucharist, the holiest meal in which a Christian can participate.

    Similarly, what is more fundamental to life than water? It is so ordinary that we wash dirty feet in it. (But who would ever think of turning something like that into a ritual?) At the same time, when Scripture speaks of God bringing sinners into the realm of salvation, it is in terms of the water of baptism.

    Christians may disagree about how God is present in the bread of the Lord’s Supper or the water of baptism. But what unites Christians is the belief that God connects with us through things as mundane as bread and water.

    For those of us who seek to mature spiritually and to lend assistance to those on the same journey, ritual points the way. Perhaps there is no greater, more tangible sign that God expects to elevate the most ordinary parts of our lives to acts of worship than the rituals that reveal God taking up residence in the bread and the water.


  1. My heroes look different through the lens of the Incarnation. 

    For a Gnostic, salvation means escaping the gravity that chains us to earth, so Gnostic heroes will soar like eagles. That’s not exactly the case with Scripture’s heroes, however. A look at the individuals whom Hebrews 11 (the so-called “Hall of Faith”) identifies as heroes reveals a bunch of screwed-up people. Among this crew, we find a couple of murderers, a swindler, an adulterer, a fellow who put his wife’s life at risk to save his own skin, a hooker, and a man who celebrates God’s miraculous deliverance from a worldwide flood by getting drunk and naked. Keep in mind that these are not the “before salvation” snapshots of these heroes, but the “during” pictures.In Gnosticism, salvation is an instantaneous thing. You get the magical key of knowledge and put it in heaven’s door; the tumblers fall into place, and you’re in. Christians are susceptible to Gnosticism because we keep getting ideas like justification, adoption, and new birth confused with salvation. There is, Scripture attests, a temporal point at which we enter God’s kingdom. No argument about that, but when we call this event “getting saved,” we are setting ourselves up for a problem. In Scripture “getting saved,” in its richest sense, is a process that starts with repentance, proceeds through new birth and sanctification, and culminates in glorification. The entire concept of spiritual transformation assumes that process, and the Bible’s portrayal of its heroes reminds us how ambiguous and messy this process can be. If nothing else, Scripture’s brutal honesty about God’s people and their flaws shines a bright light on our own dishonesty about how our real lives as spiritual pilgrims look.


  1. The Incarnation explains why I don’t want to die. 

    My guess is that most readers of this article work in professions where a desire to die is treated as a condition that demands therapy and adjustment. At the same time, we often move in circles where a desire to leave this life is seen as a sign of deep spirituality. The second view makes sense if I’m a Gnostic, because my biology is not part of the “real me.” Therefore, “I” don’t really and truly die. I just shed a burdensome physical container.The second view doesn’t make sense, however, if I believe what the Bible says about resurrection of the body. First, things that aren’t dead don’t have to be resurrected, so Scripture affirms that death is a reality when it speaks of resurrection. Second, Scripture tells us this reality has a sting (1 Corinthians 15:55–56). Finally, Scripture tells us that what is resurrected is the body, the soma, which refers to the whole person, body and all.

    The incarnate Jesus did not welcome death as a friend, and neither should his followers. Death is the denial of all the good God intends for life here and now. It is an enemy, a sign that something has gone seriously wrong, and all the life-preserving instincts God has given us confirm this. All life, whether on this side of death or in the uninterrupted presence of God on the other side (which I do not in any way doubt), is a gift from God. I don’t think it is too much to say that a key sign of spiritual maturity is the depth of our hatred toward death in any of the forms it takes in our world. God’s own hatred of death is the only thing that explains resurrection for me. Thus, if God wraps himself around a thumping heart in Jesus, he tells me something about the life-giving nature of our business here on earth.


  1. Jesus’ humanity explains his earthly ministry. 

    Just back from his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus gives an inaugural sermon that outlines his ministry. Among other things, he announces that God has anointed him “to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18, NRSVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.; see also Isaiah 61:1–2). Gnostics have to “spiritualize” what Jesus meant when he talks about the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, but I think he meant exactly what he said. When he goes on to live out this mission statement, Gnostics see his healing miracles as only nifty parlor tricks that show how much unlike us he is. What they miss in this interpretation is that the content of his miracles announces God’s ultimate intent to set right things that have gone wrong, one leper, one blind man, and one dead little girl at a time. To the extent that we work in any life-enhancing way for God’s glory, we are in a ministry Jesus endorses. His incarnation removes all barriers between jobs and ministries.When we are told we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), this command cuts across the grain of the Gnostic, disintegrating tendencies that tell us only certain aspects of our existence qualify as spiritual. God’s love has a claim on every facet of human life, and the integration of every human capacity in our loving echo has to be at the core of any type of spiritual formation worthy of the name Christian.


  1. The Incarnation gets us beyond yardstick spirituality. 

    Scripture’s call to an integrated life modifies our attempt to gauge spirituality in ways that can be measured by yardsticks or time clocks. For example, the stock Gnostic formula for inducing spiritual growth is to spend more time praying and reading the Bible. It all seems to be about quantity. However, what I get from Scripture speaks more about quality. Instead of hearing calls in Scripture to pray more often, I am told to pray without ceasing, an idea I take to mean that every aspect of this life, each horizontal relationship occurring on the earthly plane, must be brought into conversation on the vertical axis where I encounter God. In other words, ceaseless prayer indicates that I don’t necessarily need to stop doing the mundane and earthly things before I engage in prayer, although that is also quite legitimate at times. The key to an integrated spiritual life is to bring the everyday to God in the midst of life. If the basic paradigm is the Incarnation, we notice that God doesn’t stop the world when he enters it.


  1. We now read the Fall through the Incarnation. 

    In Gnostic systems, the Fall is a fall into creation. The aftermath is that good souls are trapped in an evil world. In Christianity, the Fall is the fall of creation—the whole thing—a creation God originally declared “very good.” Souls and spirits don’t get any special exemption here. They get as grimy as any other part of our humanity. That’s the bad news. The good news is that anything that started out very good is potentially redeemable by God.This is why I have problems with the common tendency to describe human beings as inherently sinful. As my dictionary defines the term, inherent means “existing in someone or something as a natural and inseparable quality, characteristic, or right.” If sin is “a natural or inseparable quality” in me, either redemption is impossible, or I am sinful in my completely restored condition.

    Don’t misunderstand me here. I fully embrace the idea that human beings are really and universally under the spell of sin and evil. In fact, this is the basic assumption of redemption. What hasn’t been ruined doesn’t need to be redeemed. The main idea for spiritual formation here is that the Fall spoiled not a sinful humanity, but a good humanity. The task in which we join God is his restoration of our humanity toward his original intention.

04.  It’s All About

We intuitively recognize the absurdity of the infamous Vietnam-era statement, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Yet in Christian circles, we have often come close to granting canonical status to the nonsensical notion that God destroys creation in order to save it. In a Gnostic context, in which the physical is positively evil, such destruction makes sense. This notion, however, should leave Christians cold because Scripture bookends its story of salvation between the affirmation that everything God created is very good and Revelation’s affirmation that creation will be restored. Between the bookends, we find a Story comprising a lot of stories. In them, humanity is present in all its victories, warts, emotions, entanglements, and needs. What keeps the Story from descending into darkest tragedy is the Incarnation because in it we find that God, though most often hidden, has joined us.

My guess is that these ideas are old news for most of you in the spiritual formation business. They have now become familiar to me also. However, I’ve appreciated the chance to revisit them intentionally again because I hear so many Christian voices around me defining the spiritual journey as a one-way ticket out of this world, out of creation, and out of humanity, that I often fear this lapsed Gnostic might relapse into Gnoticism. In bleak moments when I survey the death, poverty, ugliness, and downright stupidity that surround me, I share the Gnostic desire to be done with all this and be home with God. Then I remember the message of the Incarnation—God has been here in Jesus. Of course, that story is incomplete without the message of Pentecost—that God is still here—and a consummation in which God’s presence is eternally evident to all. But that is all a part of the bigger Story of God’s invasion of time and space. I can’t think of a better Story to tell people who want to develop their relationship with God.

05.  Comparison of the Gnostic and Incarnation Approaches to Theology

Gnostic ApproachIncarnational Approach
Knowledge of GodOrdered collections of timeless truthsMutual personal knowledge
Scripture’s ContentStorehouse of eternal truthsA story of creation, fall, and restoration
Scripture’s ConstructionPurely divine truths are partially concealed by apparently human elements.The divine is fully present in words that are also fully human.
God’s WordScriptureJesus Christ, about whom Scripture stands as witness
CreationA problem to be overcomeVery Good
FallGood souls are trapped in an evil world (Fall into creation).God’s “very good” is distorted by human rebellion (fall of creation).
IncarnationJesus is fully God; his humanity is an illusion or spiritually insignificant.Jesus is fully God and fully human (“What he has not assumed, he cannot save”).
SalvationThe soul’s escape from the physical world through knowledgeGod’s redemption and ultimate resurrection of the entire person through relationship
The Spiritual LifeNurture of the soul, denial of the physicalFull humanity restored and enjoyed
DeathOur soul’s ticket home to GodAn enemy that will be destroyed
The EschatonDestruction of creation after saved souls departGod’s restoration of creation


STEVE WILKENS lives in Monrovia, California, with his wife and two children and teaches philosophy at Azusa Pacific University. His most recent book is Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2004).