I think the best thing about Fred Sanders’ review of the fake book on the Trinity is that his target exhibits what Gnosticism was. Gnosticism is still known to be bad, and so people like to use it to brand something by way of a warning. Robert George does that in the December issue of First Things. There is a popular understanding of Gnosticism as a heresy that viewed the body as evil, and this is true enough. But I think what Sanders exposes is closer to what the danger of Gnosticism represented in the Early Church: an attitude, one which was countered by robust theology. Gnosticism threatened Christianity with a howling incoherence of creative irresponsibility, and that’s what Sanders exposes.
I’m not sure it is how Gnosticism is generally understood, and it raises a few problems. For example, we use Gnosticism to react against asceticism. I do not say it because I’m an ascetic, but because there is no way you can read about those defending the Church against Gnosticism and come away thinking that these are people who were against rigor to the point of asceticism. Tertullian? Clement? Origen? Irenaeus? Extreme discipline, or discipline that to us would seem extreme characterized them, and I think they would be uncomfortable with what we sometimes do with Gnosticism. Gnosticism was not on the whole about an excess of discipline, it was resisted by discipline and if anything, that excess probably lay with the Church (John Chrysostom, in a later age after the Gnostic threat, ruined his digestive system by his self-denial). We are not living in an age in which the Church is characterized by an excess of rigor and discipline. Quite the contrary, I think. My sense is that R.R. Reno’s indictment of the therapeutic religion of non-judgementalism reaches deep into conservative churches.
Another thing is that we like to associate Gnosticism with Platonism, as if Gnosticism were the logical outcome of mixing Christianity with Greek philosophy. I react a bit more personally here as a Christian Platonist. But I think I have good grounds because I am a Christian Platonist. Origen and Irenaeus were Platonists, and these were the champions to which the Church in that age looked to debate and deal with Gnosticism. So was Clement for that matter, though he was also somewhat of a Stoic, of which Tertullian was more than somewhat. Nevertheless, they do not represent Gnosticism. Quite the contrary; it was thanks to the repudiation these men made that the threat was overcome. Gnosticism appropriated Platonism as it did Christianity, we might say. In both cases, it did that so badly it offended the real adherents of both. Plotinus, whose Platonist credentials are impeccable, repudiated Gnosticism in a scathing treatise, much as Christianity did. One of the things we Christians frequently get wrong is our real contempt of genuine philosophy. The price of turning against careful thinking, however, is to harbor careless thinking. Theology needs good philosophy, but if we turn against all philosophy we are unlikely to be able to evaluate or employ philosophy correctly at all, and our theology will exhibit what American theology at present does. For that you can consult James Dolezal and Stefan Linblad.
We are so flaccid in our day that much of what passes for Christianity is vulnerable to the teaching Sanders so easily dismisses. I say that in connection to the debate on the Trinity because we all know a review like Sanders’ could not be made of someone securely lodged within the Gospel Coalition, and the very suggestion would be outrageous. That is still a strength: is anybody of the TGC tribe going to decry Fred Sanders for his tone and the fact that he did not publish his review in an academic journal? I actually think his tone is exactly right, and I also think his tone is probably what saved his review from being doomed to obscurity in a theological journal. Congratulations to him and to them.
What else, however, is the attitude toward doctrinal formulation that Ware and Grudem exhibit, and what shall we say of their enablers? Is the difference more than a difference of degree? Distractions and prevarications to gloss over the chaos of private interpretation and maladaptive, innovative appropriations of Christian teaching strike me as the wrong approach and of the same substance as what Sanders exposes. So are we dealing with Christian leadership or Gnostic? At least this time Plato is not being desecrated, though as a Christian Platonist I can honestly say that I’d rather it were Plato than Christian Theology. Richard Weaver observed that “all metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another.” Overcoming Gnosticism of old preserved and strengthened a vulnerable metaphysical community by overcoming equivocation in theological discourse.