From the Magi to St. Paul
In chapter 13, Paul really drives the message home in words that have astonished men and women for nearly two millennia: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge [gnosis]; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.”
All spiritual gifts--including gnosis--exist to serve the cause of love. But at the end, a knowledge never envisioned shall embrace all: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12; my emphasis). The ultimate gnosis awaits those who have transcended the limitations of the natural man, whose pride has been conquered by love.
Whatever else might be grasped from Paul’s words, it is clear that he regards gnosis--spiritual knowledge--as a bona fide gift of the Spirit. As we might expect, scholars continue to join battle over the nature of the gnosis present in Corinth. It has been asked whether Corinth saw the first outbreak of this “heresy.” The problem with this line of thinking is that, first, Paul does not have any direct dealings with the idea of heresy, and second, he does not see gnosis as being a problem for the Christian assembly. He regards it as a gift among other gifts. It is clear from the tone and context of the letter that Paul takes gnosis in its plain meaning, the gift of spiritual knowledge. He also sees absolute spiritual knowledge (intimate cognitive awareness of God) as the goal of the spiritual life. He likewise makes it plain that what we can know in our earthly state--however exalted this might be--is nothing when compared to the ultimate state of spiritual persons following their resurrection: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
Gnosis of God is central to Paul’s understanding of salvation. He is also aware that this gift is not available to all--and that in its fullness it is not available to himself, even though he says he knows many mysteries that the Corinthians are not ready to hear. This caveat explains to some extent why Paul was such a hero to Christian Gnostics. It can hardly be denied that Paul sanctioned the gift, while doubting that religious speculation could alone lead to the ultimate knowledge. Of course, by setting so much store by the gnosis of God, he undoubtedly whetted the appetites of those naturally--or supernaturally--born with the gift of religious speculation and spiritual knowledge. Indeed, his surviving works are full of intimations of a flexible spiritual system conducive to the full flowering of what scholars call Gnosticism in the century after his death . . . .
The decisive difference between Paul’s understanding of gnosis and that of those who called themselves Gnostics in the second century lies in this: The Gnostics saw the possession of a salvific knowledge as not only the primary but also the sole mode of release from the grip of the spiritual darkness that they believed was inherent in the fabric of the natural cosmos. For them, Jesus was responsible for bringing an exclusive gnosis into the world of men and women, and this gnosis had a quite specific content, such that it could itself be presented as the gospel, or “good news,” for those who could appropriate it.
The attraction of this view is obvious. Christianity becomes more than a story of a suffering and resurrected messiah, through which the Christian enters by the mystery of baptism and sacrament; it becomes a complete and absolute system of knowledge--and this knowledge becomes itself the key to spiritual liberty. The idea of a spiritual elite follows naturally--and it was perhaps some prescience of this that drove Paul to stress that gnosis is one of a range of spiritual gifts with no exclusive rights to primacy in the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, Paul gave the Gnostic movement a certain amount of ideological ammunition, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Belief in the distinction between the natural human and the spiritual human.
2. Belief that Christ had shattered the powers of nature’s spiritual governors (Colossians 2:15, 20).
3. Belief that the flesh belongs to Satan and cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 5:5).
4. Belief that the redeemed spiritual person or “saint” is superior not only to the natural order but even to the angels (1 Cor. 6:3).
5. Belief that the power of the Jewish Law held no control over Gentile converts.
6. Belief that prophecy was a continual gift of God.
7. Belief that gifted Christians had access to the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).
8. Belief that gnosis was a genuine gift of the Spirit.
9. Belief that the climax of the spiritual journey could be expressed in terms of knowledge.
Paul did not invent these ideas. Indeed, much of what seems to have constituted the kinds of gnosis with which he was familiar, as well as the accompanying mysteries of that gnosis, had been the subjects of speculation by religious sages and their initiated followers for some five centuries. It may be that only the paucity of written material from before that time prevents us from regarding spiritual speculation as being of even more ancient provenance.