‘Classes’ of People: A Relationship Between Gnostic and classical Calvinist/Arminian Understanding of Election? Appropriated from J. Kameron Carter

This won’t be a popular post among some, but I think it hits upon something that needs to be addressed in regard to how the doctrine irenaeus1of election and reprobation (double predestination) has taken shape; as far as its conceptual antecedents.

Greek metaphysics are never far from the development of Christian theology; many of the most notable church Fathers (and Mothers) were Greek (not all of course, we have Latin theologians of the era too, most prominent being Augustine); the trick of course is to reify or repurpose metaphysics in a way where said metaphysics get evangelized with the Gospel, such that their meaning is given determination by God in Christ himself instead of the other way around. I would like to suggest (emphasis upon suggest – since this is merely a blog post written under time constraints) that the classical conception of double predestination, of the kind that we find in classical Calvinism (and Arminianism for that matter) has more to do with a Greek metaphysic that remains more Greek and less Christian. Why would I assert such a thing? Because, there appears to be some analogous relation between the conclusions of classical Gnostic understandings of ‘classes’ of people and classical Calvinist understandings of classes of people (i.e. ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’)[ I have written about this before in a very reflective state]. And I don’t think this is mistake; I think it comes from a common (but nuanced differently) understanding of God that comes from a philosophical basis rather than a revelational one (of the kind that we find provided by God’s Self revelation and interpretation in Jesus Christ); common that is between Greek Gnostic understanding and classical Calvinist understanding in regard to an socio-anthropological fleshing out of humanity (which is of course also a theological reality).

Like I asserted above this is all at the level of suggestion, but I don’t think unfounded. To help illustrate this let me quote something from theologian J. Kameron Carter as he sketches out church Father, Irenaeus’ understanding of the Ptolemaic Gnosticism that he was engaged with in his day. I hope, at least, that you will get a lineament of what I am talking about in regard to a parallel between Gnostic understanding of election (back in the day), and classical Calvinist and Arminian understanding of the same theological locus (‘election’ and how that gets cashed out anthropologically/sociologically/theologically). Carter writes of Irenaeus’ understanding of Gnosticism in this way:

… As far as Achamoth (or Desire herself), who is of a pneumatic constitution, and for the pneumatic race of humans, they will enter the Pleroma. Desire will be restored to Wisdom (Sophia), and the pneumatics will also enter the pleromatic heavens. Such is their eschatological destiny. And finally, those psychics (who give in to their passions, thus remaining trapped in material existence and weighed down by the body) and the hylics (who have no hope of transcending themselves and aspiring toward supramaterial existence) will go the way of all matter: they will undergo the fires of apocalyptic destruction (AH I.7.5). The material Cosmos will perish, and they along with it. Such is Irenaeus’s account of the Gnostic myth, which when all is said and done is deeply concerned as he interprets their mythology with anthropology and the justification of the superior “race” inside the discourse of Christian theology….[1]

I wonder if this hasn’t confused you more than enlightened you? Basically, Gnostics believed in a dualism; the idea that the material world was evil, and the spiritual world was pure. In general they believed that certain people had the ‘spark’ of divine within them, albeit trapped in this physical material body, and that the only way out was to achieve a special kind of Gnosis or ‘knowledge’ that would finally allow them to escape and return to their divine source or the ‘pleroma’ (which means ‘fullness’ or ‘plenitude’ in classical and Koine Greek). As Carter describes Ireanaeus’ understanding of the Gnostic’s view, he is highlighting how there was a particular class among humanity who indeed had access to this divine spark within themselves in a special way, a ‘spiritual’ way that set them apart from two other classes of people who had no chance whatsoever to overcome their materiality or physicality; unfortunately for these latter two (reprobate) classes they had no determined end other than eternal destruction (something like a concept of ‘hell’).[2]

I wish I could get deeper into this; I have quite a bit more material that I would like to cover, especially to draw out how these kinds of correlations between Greek Gnosticism and their conception of a ‘elite’ class of people fit curiously well with how classical Calvinism (and Arminianism) understands there to be an ‘elect’ class of ‘spiritual’ people who are sensitive to the things of the true God (thus bringing salvation) versus a class of ‘reprobate’ people who are slaves of their ‘fleshy’ physical live realities. [Maybe I am simply engaging in the ‘guilt by association’ fallacy … I don’t really think so]

I would argue that the similarities between these two very different trajectories of thought are a result of a shared theory of revelation, and a commitment to a type of natural theology that implicates, at a methodological level, the way that people can ostensibly ‘know’ metaphysical things. I will have to leave this assertion pretty vague, but if you are read up on such things you’ll understand what I am intimating.

More later.

[1] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, Kindle loc. 548.

[2] See J.N.D. Kelly for further definition of what Gnosticism entails in his book: J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 26.

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7 thoughts on “‘Classes’ of People: A Relationship Between Gnostic and classical Calvinist/Arminian Understanding of Election? Appropriated from J. Kameron Carter

  1. So, this has been bothering me for a while now but I just put my finger on it; it seems that your blog is largely an exercise in anti-classical calvinism. It seems like the majority of what you post is aimed at taking on classical calvinism and even when you post constructive pieces you feel the need to get a dig on classical calvinism in. Why is that? I certainly don’t see say Lutheranism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism getting the same treatment which makes me wonder; why the antipathy? Seriously, the only blog I follow which spends as much energy attacking double predestination as this one is Roger Olson’s blog. Perhaps part of the reason Evangelical Calvinism hasn’t taken off is that other people also get the impression that it’s merely anti-classical calvinism. I think it can be more but that is the impression I often get from this blog.

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  2. This post really resonates with me and helps me verbalize one of the main sources of dissonance I’ve felt as I wrestle with Calvinism. But what’s the alternative? If the assumption is the different classes view is wrong, I don’t have the categories for what might be right.

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  3. Nathanael, you dont even know. You havent really been reading me long enough to know how much I have mellowed out over the years! But yes, I truly believe classical double predestination is deleterious to the soul.

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  4. Nathanael, I think I have written a lot more about positive offerings that EC provides than getting into negative things I am against; at least in the recent past. But yeah, in the end EC does depart in very deep ways from Federal Calvinism. And typically insofar as that is grasped most people have received EC with open arms; of course folks who are comitted to Federal Calv dont like EC at all.

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