Ancient Gnosticism is still in the church. Just as the canon deeply divided ancient Gnosticism from biblical orthodoxy, in the same way it also divides modern forms of Gnosticism from contemporary biblical orthodoxy.
Gnosticism claimed that salvation could only be gained through esoteric, mystical knowledge, or gnosis. In this mysticism there was no place for a canon. For liberalism the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi library discovered in 1945 promised a new day for a deconstruction of orthodoxy. Harvey Cox, in 2009, stated that much of early Christianity was Gnostic and he wondered what would happen when “the cat is completely out of the bag,” when everyone learns the true Gnostic nature of early Christianity, and that from now on we will no longer need creeds and canons.
In spite of the Gnostic Gospels’ superficial “Christian” elements, the early Christian fathers knew that Gnosticism was merely a variant of ancient paganism. Hippolytus, in the second-century documented that the Gnostics of his day sought “the wisdom of the pagans,” in particular by attending Isis-worshiping ceremonies, in order to understand “the universal mystery.” Think contemporary interfaith worship services.
Gnosticism was and still is a Western version of Hindu paganism—to which, ironically, so many “Christian” liberals now flock to discover that same “universal mystery” namely the rejection of the flesh as an illusion and seek absorption into the spirit.
If ever we needed a canon, it is now, both in its broader and narrower sense. If the Gnostics, as Elaine Pagels states, “have nothing to do with belief” and everything to do with “experience and religious imagination,” then Gnosticism has no canonical worldview. Each Gnostic believer is a canon unto himself, which eventually produces utter chaos, which is what we are beginning to see today. This is the very opposite of canon in Christian orthodoxy.
Irenaeus (A.D. 125–202), bishop of Lyon, clearly understood that there was an objective revelation of truth, beginning with Jesus, who claimed to be the truth, a truth that was passed on from generation to generation by faithful teachers and had to be guarded and preserved (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). Irenaeus called what had been handed down from the apostles the “rule” (Latin, regula) or “canon” (Greek, kanon) of the faith, made up of what had been preserved orally as well as the written texts from the apostles known to him, since there was no definitive list of apostolic books.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3–8: Paul presents himself “Last Apostle.” Verses 3–5 give every reason to believe that we have in our hands the very first “creed” or canon of the early church. Paul treats this text as a fundamental statement of the gospel that he received from the earliest Jerusalem apostles. This gospel, says Paul, is the one gospel that the original church, both Jewish and Gentile, believed and the one that all the apostles preached. “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor 15:11).
With this ancient text, 1 Corinthians 15:3–5, doubtless the earliest written text in the New Testament, and the original nuclear canon, the cat is “completely out of the bag.” It shows that Gnosticism was clearly a later apostasy, always and consistently rejected by biblical canonical orthodoxy from the very beginning.
Note: A longer text on this subject, published in the journal (Peter Jones, “The Pauline Canon and Gnosticism,” Unio cum Christo 2.1 [April 2016]: 27–37), is now available on the website.