August Issue of The Worldview Bulletin-Pt. 1

Gnosticism | Spiritual Transformation of the Body

Greetings from The Worldview Bulletin team! In this August issue, Paul Copan explains and critiques the Gnostic worldview, which early Christian apologists responded to, but that still persists today in various forms. Gnostics infamously downplayed the importance of the physical body, but Paul Gould suggests four ways that we can use our bodies for God’s glory as we pursue conformity to Christ. David Baggett continues his series exploring Bart Campolo’s deconversion, focusing on Campolo’s view of hell. Melissa Cain Travis examines three mysteries proposed by Sir Roger Penrose that science can’t explain on a naturalistic worldview, but that make good sense on a Christian theistic worldview. We round things out with news of note and some good deals on books and other resources.

For the Kingdom,

Christopher Reese



Part One

  1. A Primer on Gnosticism

    by Paul Copan

  2. The Spiritual Transformation of the Body

    by Paul M. Gould

Please see the second email for Part Two of the newsletter.

A Primer on Gnosticism

By Paul Copan

The biblical faith stands in strong opposition to Gnosticism—from the Greek word gnosis = knowledge). It was a world- and body-denying worldview, and we see opposition to its early forms (proto-Gnosticism) in Colossians (e.g., 2:21), 1 Timothy (e.g., 4:1-5), 1 John (e.g., 4:1-3; 5:5-8), and elsewhere in the New Testament. Gnosticism would become much more full-blown and wide-ranging in the second and third centuries, making its presence known within Hellenistic and Jewish settings, but it also posed a danger to Christian orthodoxy.

Gnosticism and Early Christianity

What is Gnosticism? The historian of theology Jaroslav Pelikan has defined early Gnosticism as “a system which taught the cosmic redemption of the spirit through knowledge.”[1] One famous proto-Gnostic was Marcion (b. 110), who rejected the evil God of the Old Testament who created the physical universe. He accepted Luke’s Gospel (rejecting the other three) and Paul’s writings (expurgating places where Paul quoted the Old Testament). This collection is sometimes referred to as “Marcion’s Canon.” Marcion denied the authority of the Old Testament and rejected the Old Testament God. Instead, he embraced the New Testament God of Jesus, who came to deliver human beings from the control of the Old Testament Creator.[2]

Elaine Pagels, a scholar on early Christianity, wrote a book on Gnosticism, in which she claimed that the Gospel of Thomas—a Gnostic gospel—was one of the texts that was suppressed by those who held to the “official” version of Christianity, even though there was “diversity within the Christian movement.” Pagels questions why this “gospel” should not be accepted as legitimately Christian?  Why accept the “orthodox” version of Christianity when it was the result of the “orthodox” authorities, who called all others “heretics”?[3]

Why indeed! A closer look at the Gospel of Thomas makes clear that this piece of work is, according to John P. Meier, “ahistorical, atemporal, amaterial.” [4]  For those who wonder why this later work (probably around mid-second century or later) was rejected as non-canonical, the reasons were not arbitrary or the result of the “official” Christian leaders out-muscling and out-maneuvering the Gnostics. Here are some verses from Thomas that make plain that we are dealing with a work that stands opposed to the fundamentals of the biblical worldview:

§27 (Denial of material world): “If you do not abstain from the world, you will not find the kingdom.”

§73 (Elitist salvation): Jesus said, “Many are standing at the door, but it is the solitary one [the truly enlightened one] who will enter the bridal chamber [be initiated into Gnostic secrets].” 

§77 (Original oneness with “the All”): Jesus said, “It is I who am the All; it is from me that the All has come, and to me that the All goes . . . .”

§87 (Soul trapped in a material body): Jesus said, “Wretched is the body that is dependent upon a body, and wretched is the soul that is dependent on these two.”

§108 (The pursuit of the original uniting with “the All”): Jesus said, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.  I, too, will become that person.”   

§112 (Inferiority/evil of the body): Jesus said, “Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.”

§114 (Inferiority of women): Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females do not deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

No wonder the Gospel of Thomas didn’t make it into the canon! It repudiated many of the key features of canonical Scripture that preceded it.

Gnosticism at a Glance

If we had to boil down Gnosticism to some of its key features, we can lay them out here:

·       A secret, saving knowledge (gnōsis) or illumination is available only to a select “enlightened” few; ignorance, not sin, is the ultimate human problem.

·       The body/matter is evil, and the spirit/soul is good—a belief that tended to produce extreme self-denial (asceticism) or bodily indulgence (since what is done in the body doesn’t matter and spirit is what is of ultimate importance).

·       An eternal dualism exists between a good Being/God and an inferior evil being/god (who created matter)so the creator in Genesis is an inferior intermediary between the ultimate/true God (the Pleroma—“Fullness”and this world. 

·       History is unimportant and insignificant; if Jesus played any part in Gnostic systems, he only appeared or seemed to be human but was really divine; God couldn’t take on an evil human body or suffer on a cross. (This view is known as Docetism, derived from the Greek word dokeō, meaning “appear” or “seem.”)

If we compare Gnosticism to the Christian faith, we notice obvious and radical contrasts—again, contrasts that utterly rule out its tenets as compatible with Christianity.

Rejecting Gnosticism, Embracing True Spirituality

As we have seen, one of the realities of the biblical faith is its affirmation that the physical world—including the human body—is good. Furthermore, throughout history, God has worked in the particularities of this physical world. “The Lord” appeared to embodied human beings by becoming embodied himself—sometimes in periodic manifestations with Abraham and Lot (Genesis 18-19). In the fullness of time, God’s engagement with embodied human beings takes on permanency in Immanuel—God with us—the divine assuming physical human form in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:14). And rather than bringing about salvation for a select, elite few in an ethereal, immaterial heavenly realm (the Gnostic view), Jesus’s physical death on a barbaric Roman cross in Jerusalem in April AD 33 was the event that made possible our redemption. And his bodily resurrection is the first-fruits of our own physical resurrection to immortality but also signals the transformation of the physical creation into an incorruptible new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells—a transformed physicality.

In the meantime, redeemed believers are to conduct themselves not in a realm detached from physical existence in some ascetic, world-denying, body-pummeling manner (one extreme of Gnosticism). Nor are they to indulge bodily passions and desires as though what is done in the body is irrelevant to our spiritual lives (the other extreme of Gnosticism). As the late Dallas Willard reminded us in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, our spiritual formation takes place not only through disciplines of abstinence such as fasting, solitude, and silence, but in disciplines of engagement, which include celebration of God’s good gifts. Ours is a “God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). In that book, Willard spoke clearly about how what we do in our body matters; living before God in the thus-and-so-ness of life is vital to our growing up into salvation.  No wonder Paul admonished Timothy: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).  In his last will and testament, Paul exhorted Timothy: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3), just as Paul himself had to “suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal” (2 Tim. 2:9).

During the worst of the COVID pandemic and despite the best efforts of pastors and other church leaders to help us connect, Christians got a taste of a Gnostic-like existence. Rather than meeting with flesh-and-blood persons, our Sunday morning worship was “streamed,” and we felt detached; we missed prayer and other small-group gatherings because of legal restrictions; we longed for a return to Communion to remember and proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes again; and when we began seeing each other again, we were wearing masks—and how we hated it!  Again, many Christian leaders did the best they could, given these limitations, but we all longed to return to the normalcy of embodied, face-to-face, down-to-earth relationships—even if they can be untidy, challenging, and stretching for us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us—a model for embodied, incarnational life and ministry today. Ours is a calling that attempts to preserve embodied, personal connectedness in a virtual, fragmented world.  


[1] See chapter 2 in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

[2] John Barton, “Marcion Revisited,” in The Canon Debate, eds., Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (2002), 354.

[3] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief (New York: Random House, 2003). 57-8, 32.

[4] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 134.

— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at

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