Is Calvinism really any different from Christian Gnosticism?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: I have a question about Christian Gnosticism. Gnostics believe that salvation comes through special “knowledge” — and that God gives this special “gnosis” to some — but while choosing not to give it to others. How is different from a Calvinistic view of election?

I ask because the idea that God predestines some and leaves others behind sounds like a core tenant of Gnosticism, too… I mean… how is God giving “irresistible grace” to some and not to others different from how the Gnostics say he doles out salvation?

Answer: I’ve never thought to compare Calvinism with Gnosticism like this — and your point is well taken! But Calvinism is an orthodox Christian belief whereas Christian Gnosticism is a cult — one where the word “Christian” happens to be in the name — but one where that part of its name does not describe its essence.

You see, Christian Gnostics do not believe in the same Christ we do — the biblically revealed Christ — and I feel about these Gnostics the same way I feel about the Mormons. I see them as a religious group that recognizes Christ on some level… but unfortunately… that level does not include knowing him fully and in truth (1 John 4:6). A Christian should insist that belief in Christ is the only criterion for living a meaningful life… because he alone is the door to salvation (John 10:7).

Jesus was talking to people just like the Gnostics when he gave his teaching on false disciples in Matthew 7:21-23. I consider this passage to be the most terrifying one in the Bible — and it’s easy to see why. There are a lot of people doing things in Jesus’ name… but these are things that neither Jesus nor the Father has any interest in. In fact, they disavow people like the Gnostics… and I find this incredible!

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

This is not categorically true of Calvinists, however… although the standard disclaimers apply: Jesus saves all who come to him in faith (John 3:16). But he saves people (Hebrews 7:25) … not categories of people — and even a Gnostic can change and see the light! But when he does, he will no longer be a Gnostic (John 8:32).

Now, a Calvinist can stick to the most rigid stand on election, predestination and irresistible grace… and still be a congruent Bible-believing Christian. That being said, I am not a Calvinist. But I recognize them as fellow orthodox believers.

As to what I mean by “orthodox,” I mean subscribing to the smallest set of beliefs required to be a Christian. This barebones kind of faith is what CS Lewis had in mind when he entitled one of his more popular books Mere Christianity.

Calvinists belong in the fold because they are very faithful to the Bible. But Christian Gnostics misuse Scripture — and that’s if they bother to use it at all! … and they fail at that so egregiously that their beliefs place them beyond the pale of Christian orthodoxy.

Another way that Christian Gnostics are different from Calvinists is that their “special” knowledge — which is ostensively dispensed by God — is dispensed so arbitrarily that one feels that their god is a pagan god who is just as capricious as we are. But biblical predestination is not at all arbitrary; it’s just the opposite, in fact. Not only was it well thought out… it was well thought out before the foundations of the world! (Ephesians 1:4).

Now, Christians come in many flavors — and some of us are more Calvinistic than others! But I am among those who are at the extreme opposite end from Calvinism… and this affects my answer. I maintain a robust belief in libertarian free will… and I am a Molinist.

Most people understand that God knows the actual future. But Molinists emphasize that he knows every possible future. This is a function of his omniscience — and think about it: if this were not true, then there would be things that God did not know.

Now, God is transcendent. So, when he “elects” someone to be saved, he does so while standing outside of time. This lets him see how every possible life of every possible person would play out under every possible contingency. (William Lane Craig calls this God’s “middle knowledge”). So, God knows which of these freely-lived lives would result in a person’s salvation… and he actualizes the one that will best serve his kingdom.

But note this well: when God actualizes that life, the person — who is not transcendent — lives it in real time… but in a way that his free will is not molested by God — and here’s my point: since God “chose” that particular life from among an endless number of freely-lived lives, the person is said to be elected, predestined and/or foreordained by God. Nevertheless, his human free will (which I see as sacrosanct to God) is preserved.

I simply chafe at notions of non-Molinistic predestination (and double predestination!) because I see them as deterministic. Yet, I understand that how we interpret issues like election is a secondary issue of the faith. So, although I am as far away from my Calvinistic brethren as I can be on issues like God’s-sovereignty-vs-human-free-will (under the Mere Christianity scale), I recognize that they are as much Christians as I am.

But Gnostic Christians? They’re not in the fold because — and for all of the emphasis on special “knowledge” — they simply do not “know” what the Bible says about the Shepherd (John 10:14) … that he was truly human (1 John 4:2) … and that he was truly God (Colossians 2:9) … and that he laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). But Calvinists do know these things.

I pray that you found this information helpful. May God bless you as you continue to walk with him.

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