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"Understanding The New Gnosticism"

© Don Clasen December 2001

I don't know if this holds for you as well, but for my part, one of the greatest challenges to my Christian faith that I have to face on a daily basis is accepting that the discovery and application of God's truth is sometimes very elusive and subtle. 

I honestly wish at times that He had sent down some kind of manual from heaven decisively laying out all His doctrines from A to Z, and His values and priorities in their proper hierarchies of order.  I feel that way He would have at least given us a better chance.

But He didn't do it that way. 

Instead He requires us constantly to discern and balance the two sources of truth He's given us­­--His Word and His Spirit.  The Word relates to that truth which is objective and conceptual, the Spirit to that which is subjective and experiential. 

The first [the written word] consists of a collection of writings, most of them historical, some prophetic, some correspondences, some polemical and didactic, [1] and some allegorical and symbolical known as the Holy Scriptures. 

The second [the Holy Spirit] is the influence of the Spirit who is invisible--Someone we can't see where He's coming from and where He's going (both literally and figuratively--Jn 3:8). 

Furthermore, He comes to reveal an infinite God to our finite minds, a goal that it is not possible ever to fully attain.  And we are left to put these two sources together and figure out the meaning of it all from moment to moment! 

Add to that the constant battle we have with unseen malevolent beings who are very cunning and who have millennia of experience over us.  Then couple it with the fact that we are living at a time in history when knowledge truly has increased (Dan 12:4), when everyone has to be a specialist, and there is so much to learn, and you can understand how incredibly frustrating it can all be at times.

Theodicy

In the last century, there was a branch of popular theology called "theodicy".  It dealt with those doctrines and apologetics that focused on vindicating God before the eyes of men.  As a Christian, my responsibility is to justify God; like Elihu, to ask to be allowed a moment while I ascribe righteousness to My Maker (Job 36:2,3). 

Yet as a human being I know the agonising people have to work through in trying to understand God's truth, in trying to know His will for our lives, in trying to walk in the Spirit, to get His leadings and to get His counsel.  And I don't know why God has made things so hard in this way.  I can't explain centuries of controversies that are to this day unresolved in the Church world and in life in general.  Nevertheless, I must press on.

What these processes all relate to is the paradoxical problem of knowledge in human life.  The gaining and utilization of knowledge is one of the most central and all-encompassing foundational needs in human existence.

And knowledge, according to the Bible, is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand it is so important that it is eternal life.  Jesus at the Last Supper prayed, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (Jn 17:3).  "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (II Cor 46). 

Paul prayed at the end of a life marked by as much knowledge of God as anyone could ask for that he might "know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings..." (Phil 3:10).

Indeed, the end goal of God's redemptive plan is that we might know Him as He is and make Him known to others, that they might have life too.  To miss that mark is such pitiful failure as to be referred to in the Bible as a condition of "not knowing the Lord". 

Of the two sons of Eli who fornicated with the women at the tabernacle and who extorted offerings from the people, the Bible has this curt yet succinct evaluation of them--"Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord" (I Sam 2:12 ff.).  Jesus likewise said to the Jews of His day, "Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also." (Jn 8:19). 

He could have just as easily said that if they really knew the Father like they claimed they did, they would have recognized His marks in Christ as well.  But as it was, they had such a low view of a legalistic and petty God that Christ's behavior and ways went right over their heads.

Growing in Knowledge

But this pursuit of knowledge is not just limited to knowledge of God Himself.  Peter said that having faith was wonderful, but it was no place to stop.  Rather, we are to add to our faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge. 

Knowledge here refers to "getting educated in the things of God."  It means to know the Scriptures which are able to make us wise unto salvation (II Tim 3:15). 

It means to know the will of God as revealed therein (Col 1:9), to "no longer be children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:14).  It means to "be not children in understanding:...but...[to] be men (Rom 16:19), and to be "wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil" (Ro 16:19). 

It means to get off the milk and on to the meat because, "every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe" (Heb 5:13).  It means to at least become as "young men," if not as fathers, "because [they] are strong, and the word of God abideth in [them]" (I Jn 2:14).

Abuse of Knowledge

Yet knowledge has its down side as well.  Paul said knowledge has a tendency to "puff up" if it's not mixed with love (I Cor 8:1), or if it's sought for the sake of being known as "Rabbi, Rabbi" (Mt 23:7).  And we all know why this is.  Knowledge is power.  To gain knowledge is to have an edge over others.  It puts us in a special class and ministers to the pride of life. 

This is the main reason people fall into cults or the occult, because those phenomena always appeal to human pride by offering esoteric "secrets" that ordinary mortals are not privy to.  They tell us, "You were part of the lost world of Atlantis in another life", or "You're an old spirit", etc.  

The Gospel in contrast does anything but minister to human pride and curiosity.  Rather it is very deflating, almost demeaning it would seem.  While the self-opinion of the average person in our day is one of their being a "pretty good person", God's opinion of the human condition is far more unsparing, yet very liberating when received as truth (Ro 1:29-32; II Tim 3:2-4; Titus 3:3; Jer 17:9; Eze 33:31,32; Isa 58:2; Psa 39:5, etc., etc.).

Paul said that in the last days there had arisen and would arise men who had a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof.  They would creep into houses and lead away silly women laden down with their own sins, and they had this characteristic--that they were ever learning, but never coming to the knowledge of the truth (II Tim 3:5-7).  This learning can consist of learning true truth but not living it, or it could mean learning a kind of pseudo truth that appears to be real knowledge but isn't. 

Paul spoke of these latter saying that they do not hold onto the Head [Christ] but instead seek for deep visions or esoteric experiences because they have been "vainly puffed up by [their] fleshly mind" (Col 2:18,19), what the NIV calls the "unspiritual mind".  It means a mind given to "vain reasonings" that we are to "war against" with the weapons of the Gospel (II Cor 10:5). [2]   It is a mind that has "the understanding darkened", full of "ignorance," and all because of the blindness [or dishonesty] of their heart" (Eph 4:18).

The Precarious Balance

As one can see, the subject of knowledge is a very big one, with many good and many bad aspects. 

The subject is like that of "judging", or "money", about which the Bible has so much to say - because they are not simplistic matters either.  This is so because knowledge has to do with reality, the reality of a world naturally complex but made much more so by the introduction of sin into its affairs. 

In addition, knowledge is very important because it is the seeking of the truth about this reality.  And truth is important because Jesus said it was His truth that would make men free (Jn 8:32).

Now I know that since I have this teaching motivational gift, it may be that I naturally put more emphasis on the value of truth for its own sake than others might.  But nonetheless, I keep coming to this very conclusion, that so much of the ministry of God is to enlighten His people as to the truth, that they might no longer "walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (Jn 8:12).  Indeed, although knowing God is the ultimate goal, the means to getting there is to discover the truth, to "get wisdom, and with all [our] getting, get understanding" (Prov 4:7). 

And it isn't a mysterious thing to "get".  It is "not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven...Neither is it beyond the sea...But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.." (Deut 30:11-14; Ro 10:6-8).  The problem is that its discovery does not minister to our pride.

Does the End Justify the Means?

In our day, I often hear that the important thing is not the truth itself, but living it out.  Well, I agree with that.  The ultimate goal is not just to learn truth but to live it. 

Yet how can you have one without the other?  It's like saying we're going to build a big building but we don't care what kind of materials we're going to use.  Or we want to get to such and such a city but we're not going to worry about what roads to take to get there.  Yet how can you reach your goal if you use the wrong materials or take the wrong route?

We probably should stop and put a big selah [3] here

Think about this for a moment.  Church people nowadays seem to think that the way of deliverance is one of sheer will power.  But I contend that the problem is, we don't always know what it is God wants of us, we don't always know what to repent of.  We see a lot of energy and interest in having "revival" for instance.  Yet how can you have revival if you don't know what you're doing wrong?  Beyond the obvious sins, this takes discernment, wisdom, understanding, and the knowledge of God and of His will.

Well, just as we have this sort of an argument regarding knowing the truth versus doing it (when there really is no such dichotomy), so likewise, the same sort of argument is heard in the area of knowledge. 

It is often said, the important thing is not knowing things about God, but knowing Him directly.  Well in essence I would agree.  The ultimate goal is to have an experiential walk with the living God, yet how can you know God without knowing things about Him? 

Perhaps my peevishness with this problem reflects the circles in which I have traveled all my Christian life, which have been Charismatic/ Pentecostal.  Perhaps it would be different if I were of a Baptist background, say.  In presenting their convictions to the Church world, Charismatics and Pentecostals are always taking issue with those churches that are so suspicious of spiritual experiences, and which end up in a dead orthodoxy with none of the life of God moving within them.

But the problem is, Holy Spirit circles can be guilty of exactly the same sort of problem from the other extreme. 

That is, they can be so enamored of subjective experiences that they do not realize they are moving beyond the basic spirit of the Biblical revelation of God and His Kingdom.  As a result, they end up developing an attitude and a walk that can only be described as "super spiritual":

  • They "never do anything but by the 'leading of the Lord'". 
  • They're always seeking for the novel and the flattering. 
  • They don't care much about doctrine, sound or otherwise, because that's all just boring "head knowledge" anyhow.  Yet therein they show a contempt for God's truth, and an unwillingness to really learn from and serve God in patience and humility.
  • They're always pushing the envelope, vying amongst one another to be on the supposed "cutting edge" of "what God is doing" lately, or to come up with some new revelation to impress their peers. 
  • They show little concern for what the Bible condemns as "private interpretations" (II Pet 1:20), and their views of things are often not susceptible to an objective measure. 
  • They're always seeking for some newer and deeper revelation of God and His Kingdom. 
  • They often come up with prophecies or predictions that turn out to be patently false, but it never seems to bother them or their supporters very much. 
  • Very often you find that their ways are unstable and that the path behind them is strewn with the wreckage of erratic and impulsive decisions that were supposedly made by the leading of God but really make little sense to anyone else.  And when you question their judgment, what you get is a "spiritualized" explanation, that in some mysterious way "God was in it all", or whatever.

I call this problem the New Gnosticism of our day.  And though I realize that what I'm talking about is not necessarily the exact same "damnable heresies" (II Pet 2:1) that so plagued the early Church, what I am talking about are several characteristics or principles of ancient Gnosticism that linger to this day and are a trap to spiritually-minded people.

In contrast to all this, God tells us in His Word that our job is to "earnestly contend for the faith which was, (literally), 'once-and-for-all-delivered' to the saints" (Jude 4).  He warns us to be ready to hold ground against the inevitable onslaught of false teachers to come (II Pet 2:1).  In short, we are to understand the value and place of plain old knowing things about God. 

This of course includes things like the place of sound doctrine and the importance of staying within the bounds of the revealed Word, things that Holy Spirit churches generally do not dispute in theory.  The problem is, it's something bigger than that.  It goes to the issue of our general philosophy of Christianity, and our sense of not just what the Bible is saying, but what a proper interpretation of it means.  It has to do with our general sense of what God is like, what He wants from human beings, and what it means to be spiritual.

The Ancient Problem

Gnosticism was, as was said, probably the most prominent heresy mentioned in the New Testament.  Its name comes from the Greek word gnosis which means "knowledge", but what the Gnostics were promoting was not the true knowledge of God as taught by the Apostles, but a sort of esoteric pseudo-knowledge or mysticism derived from personal, direct spiritual experiences which they took to be Divine revelation.

Some of the most prominent characteristics of this ancient heresy that so destabilized so many early Christians included the following:

1. A disdain for and impatience with the orthodox process of presenting God's propositional truth to the believer for him to understand and process with his reason, in favor of direct, intuitive insight gained by experience.   The effect this had was to produce a sort of intellectual anarchy wherein the spectrum of Gnostic belief, though always having certain characteristics, was so broad as to almost defy definition, since its beliefs were determined by individual speculation.

Now to be sure, receiving spiritual insight and revelation directly from the Holy Spirit is very Biblical (if you'll forgive the paradox here!).  We need to remember that the heroes of the faith all got what they did directly from God long before there even were any holy writings.  Moses and Paul for instance, received truth from God this way and what they got became what we now today call the Holy Scriptures.  Abraham likewise was willing to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering based solely on a subjective experience (Gen 22).  If that were you or I, we would probably have said, "I rebuke you Satan in Jesus Name!"

But today we have a "more sure word of prophecy" (II Pet 1:19), the Word of God, and the Word and the Spirit agree.  Therefore whatever we get by revelation must agree with the basic revelation of God as already given in the Scriptures.  And it is here where the Gnostic error manifested, because for whatever reason, they would either take this principle too far or they would just come to the wrong conclusions. 

Whether it was out of vanity, stubbornness, a desire to be different, an honest misunderstanding or whatever, only God knows the motives lurking within the human heart.  But regardless, it must be one of the great ironies of the Scriptures to read the Apostle John telling the believers that they can overcome the subversions of the Gnostics because "ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things" (I Jn 2:20), such an unction in fact that they didn't even need a man--even John himself--to teach them (vs. 27)!

2. A tendency to spiritualize the Scriptures, always looking for deep symbolic and allegorical meanings to everything. [Click HERE for an example of grossly over-allegorised scripture!]

For the same reasons the Gnostics were given to myth and poetry more than to literal meanings and historical accounts of things.  In so doing they were turning on its head the orthodox dictum of, "Be literal where possible, and allegorical when necessary" in favor of, "Be allegorical as much as possible.  It sounds more impressive."

What we have to understand about this factor is the paradoxical nature of so much that we find about Biblical truth.  For instance, First Corinthians 2:10 speaks of "the deep things of God" that the Holy Spirit "searches out", so there is a valid concept involved here.  The works of say, Kevin Connor, who has written much about the types and symbols found in the Bible is an example of the good side of this.

But there is a bad side too, a kind of "deep things" that are so deep and "spiritual", no one can understand what's being talked about!  The Gnostics were given to this sort of thing in such extremes or in ways that were so out of bounds as to take a good concept and turn it into a bitter poison.  In fact, the Gnostics had a phrase for this--"the depths of God".  But their version of such things was so perverse as to prompt Jesus in Revelation 2:24 to sarcastically refer to them as, "the depths of Satan, as they speak."

3.  A penchant for apocryphal sources because such were more mystical.  If they adhered to the true Scriptures they often would reject the Old Testament altogether and accept only the Gospels and a few selected Pauline letters (such as Marcion did).  Many Gnostics had become so deceived that they believed that the God of the Old Testament was not the true Father of the Lord Jesus Christ but a usurping "demiurge".   Thus they believed that Christ either came from the true God Who preceded Jehovah or was a man upon whom the "Christ spirit" came while on the cross.  This latter concept has affinity with modern New Age concepts of Christ being just one of many "masters" or adepts who come on the scene at key points in human history.

The Gnostics also regularly claimed that their teachings did in fact come from the Apostles, but were secretly handed down to them because only the very spiritual could handle such deep things.  I imagine they used Jesus' words to great effect here when He said, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now" (Jn 16:12), as well as similar sentiments (Mt 13:11; 19:11, etc.).

4.  A belief in dualism.  Dualism proposed a radical distinction between the physical and the spiritual worlds, such that the former was evil while the latter was good.  This differs from the Christian concept which says that the physical world may be fallen and under a curse but is not evil per se.  Moreover, the spiritual world has been tainted itself in that demons exist in it as well as God and the good angels.  Nevertheless, the things of the human spirit, the Holy Spirit, the spiritual world and heaven are symbolic of "things above," while the earth, the flesh and the like are symbolic of things more carnal in general.

The Hebrew culture generally understood this precarious balance.  They understood that the things of this world were not unimportant or taboo to the covenant believer, even though they may not be as important as the things of eternity.  But the Greek culture perverted this with the popularity of the dualistic explanation.

The upshot of all this was that Gnostics generally tended then to one of two extremes in dealing with life.  Either they became ascetics, in an attempt to starve the flesh to death so to speak.  Or they became libertines because since the flesh was evil, it is not part of the "real you" which is spiritual because it's been "enlightened" by Gnostic "revelation".  Therefore the flesh is something that can be indulged in all one wants.

An example of this second type is found in Second Peter and Jude, where the apostles are strongly condemning the ways of these false Gnostic teachers who are "turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness", who "walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness", (Jude 47,8,16; II Pet 2:10, 14, 18), etc. etc.  An example of the first can be found in Colossians, where Paul speaks of those who follow practices which have "the appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:23 NKJ).  In other words, here we have another great irony, (something Paul especially loved to savor), in that although these people go to great lengths to deny their physical flesh, they're walking in a kind of "spiritual flesh", that is, a kind of spiritual pride or showboatism.

5.  The belief that every man has a spark of the Divine within him.  The Gnostics believed that the human spirit was a part of the uncreated God and that it needed to be awakened out of its dormancy into a state of raised consciousness or gnosis of this fact.  They believed that to become thus enlightened to this "knowledge" was man's salvation.  True Christianity in contrast said that such a belief was a false knowledge anyhow (e.g., I Tim 6:20), and that even recognition of any true knowledge was not man's salvation by itself.  Unless and until he acted on it as well, by appropriating the cross to his account, and by submitting to the sanctification process of God thereafter, it still remained unefficacious, it remained "head knowledge" as it's popularly called.

The Example of John

These last two characteristics form the central doctrinal foundation of the ever-evolving and ever-individualistic Gnostic dogma, and you'd be amazed at how much of the New Testament is directed at correcting Gnostic ideas.  But it's like listening to a phone conversation.  You only hear one person talking and you have to speculate or ask for more information before you can find out what the other party was saying.

The writings of John for example, were much given to dealing with this error.  John did not write until toward the end of the first century, by which time the Gnostic influence was tearing apart the churches of the empire.  In his Gospel for instance, when he said that Jesus is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world," (Jn 1:9), he was making a concession to the Gnostics about that last characteristic.  He was stating that, in essence, there was a half truth involved here, that the Holy Spirit can bear witness to every man's human spirit to bring that Light Who is Christ Jesus into a person's heart.  But the thrust of his words is that Jesus is that uncreated God; not the human soul.

Likewise, the First Epistle of John is almost totally devoted to helping people deal with the seductive Gnostic error in their midst (I Jn 2:26).  When John writes, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1:8), he is actually addressing that Gnostic lie that there is no sin, only ignorance.  In other words, what the second "we" in the verse is referring to is not "we Christians", but "we, the human race".  I don't know how many times Bible teachers have used this verse to excuse sin in Christians, but they are always hard pressed to explain then John's obvious contradiction in 3:6-9 where he says among other things, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed [i.e., the believer] remaineth in him; and he cannot sin [in good conscience, at least], because he is born of God."

Then in chapter 2 verse 2 John addresses another Gnostic error.  Like the Calvinists years later, Gnostics taught that Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect (i.e., those who come into this wonderful "knowledge").  But John says here that, "He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."  In other places, John accuses the Gnostics among them of professing much love, but in reality "hating" the believers because they are trying to seduce them away from the true faith into a pseudo knowledge of God .  He calls them "murderers" for this (3:15), following in the example of Cain who brought an offering that God did not accept (3:12).  Yet their apparent superior "knowledge" was causing the believers to feel very inferior and condemned (3:20).  John says these Gnostics were operating under the influence of deceiving spirits (4:1), and that they denied Christ was God in the flesh, but rather an enlightened adept who learned the gnosis way and upon whom the "Christ spirit" came while He was on the cross (4:2).

Gnosticism Today

To be sure, the early Gnostic heresies were serious errors, serious enough to damn the soul according to the Apostles (II Pet 2:3,12,17; I Jn 2:22,23; II Jn 9, etc.).  If any of these doctrines are still around today, they're found in outright cults and New Age circles.  But what I am alarmed at are the tendencies of similar principles to be found within orthodox Charismatic and Pentecostal circles today.  And these principles follow the sorts of patterns outlined in the first two characteristics mentioned above.

When applied to one's walk with the Holy Spirit, they have to do with the abuse of the direct revelation process, and the tendency to misinterpret life's spiritual experiences.  When it comes to dealing with the Word of God, they have to do with a tendency to excessively spiritualize it, and a desire to find deep allegorical and symbolic meanings when they should be taken literally, and at face value.

Why some people are this way must be locked up within the secret counsels and omniscience of God somehow, for only He knows what the hidden motives of men's hearts really are (I Cor 4:3-5).  To even dismiss it with something like, "They just take things too far" is too simplistic, because people should be able to have spiritual experiences all day long without it leading them into error or self-delusion.  It may be the problem is somewhat akin to what I see in people who feel called to be prophets,  Many seem to think that being a prophet means to be constantly hearing from God.  I don't know if you've run into people like this.  A lot of them have major pulpit ministries, and they act like God is running off at the mouth 24 hours a day and that it's their duty to blab all they hear (especially when they're "told" to take up an offering!)

But a prophet to me is someone who first and foremost operates out of a certain state of mind. That is, they don't just have a prophetic gift, but they are willing to deal with something called facts as well.  That is, they know God well enough from the Scriptures, and pay enough attention to current events happening around them as to be able to not just hear God, but discern what's from God and what's not.  They don't just try to pull words out of thin air from some amorphous sea of notions devoid of any context.  That almost invariably gets people into trouble because there are so many voices out there and a lot of them sound just like the Holy Spirit at times.

So although I cannot judge men's hearts, I can perhaps offer some theological understanding that may clear up some of the misconceptions people have as to why they think this "way" is so spiritual in the first place.  Specifically, it would seem to me that much of this mentality owes its origins to a certain teaching about the Garden of Eden that serves as a fountainhead for spiritualizing the rest of the Bible.  This has to do with the meaning of the two trees in the Garden--the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:9, 17).

Keswick

This teaching, which first surfaced amongst the Keswicks and other "deeper life" groups, goes something like this.  The knowledge of good and evil is itself evil, because it sets man up as the judge of what's right and wrong, good and evil, true and false.  It's much better to choose the Tree of Life, meaning Jesus Himself, and "only do those things that He tells us to do" by the Spirit.  To try to "figure it out" all the time leads to "reasoning", to thinking and other kinds of soulish functions.  The spiritual way is to hear from God directly and only do what He says.  To do it the wrong way is to get stuck in the law, in moralizing, in dead and dry theology, in "stinking thinking", and suspicion of spiritual experience.

Now, as is so often the case with error, people often have a valid principle in mind, but when they misinterpret the Scriptures in their attempt to validate it, they distort truth and invariably push people into extremes.  In this case here, it is true that some people do need to learn to walk by faith through the subjective leading of the Holy Spirit.  But this teaching's interpretation of what's happening here in the Garden is all wrong, and it sets them up into an extreme frame of mind.

First of all, we need to fix the meaning of the phrase, "the knowledge of good and evil".  As we said in the beginning, there are two sources for knowledge in life, one subjective, the other objective.  Subjective knowledge is that which is gained from personal experience.  Objective knowledge has to do with abstract concepts or ideas which exist apart from our experience or opinion of them.  They are discovered by intuition, and we compare them to other concepts through the intellectual or reasoning process.  And obviously, for the Christian, it is God Who establishes these truths and obligates us to discover them.

Now as we move into this, we need to understand that we are treading on the ground of ancient debates which deal with the mysteries of human consciousness, a place where we cannot speak without some degree of speculation.   But I think it accurate to say that when babies are born into this world, they, generally speaking, have next to no conceptual knowledge.  Everything they get is by experience.  Now they may also have some very primitive intuition, even as early as the womb. [4]   But they can't do much with it because their little minds have not developed sufficiently to be able to grasp abstract ideas and compare them one against another. 

But what they do get with time is a growing catalog of experiences of the world around them--things that are hot, cold, soft, hard, etc.  Only as they grow do they start to think abstractly and develop language skills.  In time they will experience, say, a lot of different kinds of dogs, maybe some varying as much as a Chihuahua does from a Great Dane.  But eventually the idea of "dog" as an abstraction hits them, and they are able to identify dogs thereafter that they may have never encountered before.

As children grows older, they come into what we call, the "age of accountability" (Ro 7:9), some mysterious point, (determined by God on an individual basis) where they not only know what's expected of them morally, but why.  That is, they start to understand the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, grace and law, mercy and justice, love and hate and the other abstract concepts through which God communicates His will to human beings.

Now with Adam and Eve, we have a most unusual case.  For whereas everyone else has gone through this long process of growth into adulthood, taking experiences and transforming them into conceptual knowledge or understanding, Adam and Eve are the only two people in history who came into this world fully grown. 

Yet what they lacked in experience they made up for in intuition.  That is, Adam and Eve were undoubtedly magnificent human specimens.  They probably had 100% use of their brain power, whereas we nowadays, because of the effects of the death process on the human body, only use about 15% now.  Thus God could take Adam to the animals and he could name them all, remember their names, and probably do it all through some sort of an intuitive understanding of each one's unique nature.

Some Kind Of A Tree

Well, what is the meaning of this mysterious phrase, "the knowledge of good and evil"?  According to "deeper life" neo-gnosticism, it refers to conceptual knowledge of good and evil which in itself supposedly makes us independent of God. But I believe what it's talking about is experiential knowledge of good and evil in the sense of "good and evil consequences."

In other words, this was a tree of testing.  As long as they obeyed the commandment they would continue to "know good" (i.e., no death, an idyllic paradise, the glorious presence of God, no hardships, etc.).  But the day they disobeyed, they would "know evil" (in the sense of death, the loss of the presence of God, expulsion from the Garden, curses on them and on the earth, etc.)

H. C. Leupold in his Exposition of Genesis has the right interpretation I believe when he says, "The second tree is called, 'the tree of the knowing of good and evil.'  We have used 'knowing" instead of 'knowledge' because the infinitive da'ath functions chiefly as a verb and takes a double object." [5]   The New Bible Commentary sheds further light on it by putting it this way:

These trees need not be regarded as mysterious or as possessing any physical or material power of conveying life and knowledge.  Their place here is as symbols of man's loyalty and obedience to the will of his Maker.  The meaning may simply be that the presence of this prohibited tree made man aware of the distinction between good and evil.  But there would seem to be something more in it than this, especially in the light of iii.22.  It may therefore be that, by the ethical test imposed through this forbidden tree, man has to grow into moral maturity: he would acquire an experiential knowledge of good or evil according as he was steadfast in obedience or fell away into disobedience. [6]

In the light of this interpretation, it is interesting to note that the very argument that the devil made to Eve was the exact opposite idea.  That is, the Devil, having transformed himself into a snake, claimed that by eating of this tree she could gain a special knowledge, a conceptual knowledge of good and evil that she supposedly did not already have.  Look at it:

"And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."  (Gen 3:4,5)

Do you see the Devil's tactics through this?  First of all he flatly contradicts God's warning, saying they shall not surely die.  Then he attacks God's motives in giving the prohibition--"For God doth know...your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods..." 

In other words, according to the serpent, God knew this tree would make them wise and make them divine, with the implication being that that would be competition to Him.  So He wanted to leave them naive, ignorant and very human, and that's why He gave the commandment!

As far fetched as this sort of a character assassination was--(the word "Devil" means "slanderer", one of Satan's main tactics)--it nonetheless worked.  It confused Eve, it "beguiled" her.  Yet Paul says that Adam, who was "with her" there (Gen 3:6) was not beguiled.  That is, he was "not deceived", but saw right through the argument, yet still went ahead and ate too!  Perhaps he did it out of sympathy and loyalty towards his wife, being willing to commit spiritual suicide lest she be left alone in her misery.  But regardless, this made him more culpable than her, even though the woman was "in the transgression" too (I Tim 2:14).

Nevertheless, the point is that what the Devil was holding out to them was a conceptual knowledge that he convinced the woman she did not already have.  But it's obvious she must have had some sort of an idea of good and evil already or else she would not have understood the significance of God's commandment.  (The fact that the couple was said before this to be "innocent" means innocent in a judicial sense, not in a sense of naiveté.)  And what the Devil was offering here is something he has been subverting people with ever since--the hope of eating from a forbidden tree that claims to offer esoteric, mysterious "knowledge" or gnosis that really is no knowledge at all, but a lie and an illusion; a "wisdom" that will not make one wise at all, but a fool (Ro 1:22).  Yet the promise is that "ye shall be as gods," and it is a promise that every cultic or occultic group has offered ever since.

Can you see the irony in all this?  The Devil here is telling Eve she's naive when she isn't, ignorant when she's actually very informed, lacking revelation when she already had it.  But it was one of those, "Slap-your-forehead-with-the-palm-of-your-hand / I-already-knew-that" kinds of revelation.  It wasn't the kind that puffs you up but humbles you!  And yet here is this teaching on the two trees which is itself an example of a "deeper", esoteric knowledge such as the snake was tempting Eve with! 

In an attempt to avoid self-will, this teaching promotes a kind of mindless "know nothingism" through a (if you'll forgive the term) reasoning that misinterprets what this story is actually teaching. 

It misleads its advocates into thinking that gaining a greater knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong itself have to conflict with being led by the Holy Spirit in a personal way.  Yet growing up and not remaining children in understanding or discernment is part of the deepest desire of God's heart for us.  This involves a very real walk with the living God, an experiential walk with Him, it is true. 

But it is also one that is a constant interaction between His Spirit's leading and His expecting us to both use our heads and develop our understanding as well (Eph 4:17,18; Prov 4:7, etc.).  You can't have one without the other.

It's interesting to note that after Adam and Eve ate of the tree, the first thing they noticed was that they were naked and they hid themselves.  The implication is that until then they had the glory of God clothing them, the very presence of God.  That removal of Himself from them was when they spiritually died, as it ruptured their walk with Him. 

But it also had another consequence.  They now were stuck with an undue self-consciousness, a consciousness of their own selves.  Before this, they were conscious of themselves but the presence of God was an even stronger consciousness.  And to this day, people partake of an endless quest to "get back to the Garden".  They will take drugs, meditate, dance, chant--do lots of repetitious things, in order to enter into an "altered state of consciousness". 

Why?  Because they want relief from the tyranny of self-consciousness for a while.  Perhaps it's because we instinctively know we're unworthy, and that there's Someone or something out there worth plugging into.

Ironically, people who adhere to this teaching understand this cry of the human heart, and they understand the importance of a real experiential walk with God.  The problem is that in their zeal to find this in the Scriptures they find it in a most seminal story, and their misinterpretation of what was going on with the trees sets up all the strange excesses listed near the beginning.

Making Application

Trying to sum up the effect of this sort of a spiritual influence in the midst of a church is really hard to do.  Every group and individual has different callings, backgrounds, giftings, personalities, character, distinctives, and understanding of what the Bible is saying.  But several things about my own generation bother me. 

For one, these deeper life teachings on the soul and spirit have led to a general dislike for and impatience with things intellectual, conceptual, doctrinal or rational.  Apparently, people taken up with this neo-gnostic attitude do not like to deal with facts so much.  Such things are just not that esoteric enough for them I suppose.  But those are the very sorts of things our faith is built upon, and good judgment is dependent upon.

The practical effect of this has been to insulate many Christians in a world of "church culture".  People with this sort of mindset spend a lot of time seeking deep things to impress their friends.  Meanwhile they neglect or discount the discipline it takes to develop a sound Biblical and theological understanding of the Christian faith.  They can end up with less and less of an ability to relate to the real world, or a disregard for current events and an inability to recognize the fulfillment in these events of specific Bible prophecies.  They put little effort for instance, in seeking to understand the nature of the New World Order and thus have little ability to discern what's going on around them.

The result of this in turn is that evangelism suffers because, for the most part, the people of our world are very hardened today towards the Church.  They think we are very backwards people already, but weird Christians just make it all the worse.  And here we are, sitting on the truth of the ages!  

But if we can develop our ability to grow in the true knowledge of God, of understanding of the Word and discernment of the Spirit's leading, of eschatological awareness, and pursuing an intelligent, wise approach to life, one day when their New Age dream is falling apart around them, they will think to themselves, "You know, these people seem to understand more of the nature of our times than we thought.  Maybe this Jesus is coming back soon." 

At least I hope and pray that may be the outcome!                    
Notes:

[1] Argumentative and instructive

[2] This term the "fleshly mind" does not refer to the human mind in general, as if were somehow inherently defective and unable to discern truth. If this were true, why is it that some sinners are so close to the Gospel when they get saved because they've been more honest, while others are (or have been) eminently dishonest?  It refers to a misused or dishonest or deceived mind.

[3] A Hebrew term used in the Psalms meaning, "stop and think on this for a moment."

[4] An example would be sensing danger, feeling secure, feeling loved, etc.

[5] H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), Vol I, p. 120.

[6] F. Davison, Ed., The New Bible Commentary, (London:Inter-Varsity, 1953), pp. 78-9.  Emphases added.

 


© 1995-2013 Tricia Tillin of Banner Ministries. All rights reserved. Cross+Word Website: http://www.banner.org.uk/  This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information. One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.