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42

CHAPTER IV.

THE MORAL TEACHING OF THE GNOSTICS.—ITS MODERN COUNTERPART.

“But we know that the law is good if a man use it lawfully, as knowing this, that law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and unruly, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for man-slayers, for fornicators, for abusers of themselves with men, for men-stealers, for liars, for false swearers, and if there be any other thing contrary to the sound doctrine; according to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust”—1 Tim. i. 8–11.

The speculations of the Gnostics in their attempts to explain the origin of the universe and the origin of evil, were wild and unprofitable enough; and in some respects involved a fundamental contradiction of the plain statements of Scripture. But it was not so much their metaphysical as their moral teaching, which seemed so perilous to St. Paul. Their “endless genealogies” might have been left to fall with their own dead weight, so dull and uninteresting were they. Specimens of them still survive, in what is known to us of the systems of Basilides and Valentinus; and which of us, after having laboriously worked through them, ever wished to read them a second time? But it is impossible to keep one’s philosophy in one compartment in one’s mind, and one’s religion and morality quite separate from it in another. However unpractical 43 metaphysical speculations may appear, it is beyond question that the views which we hold respecting such things may have momentous influence upon our life. It was so with the early Gnostics, whom St. Paul urges Timothy to keep in check. Their doctrine respecting the nature of the material world and its relation to God, led to two opposite forms of ethical teaching, each of them radically opposed to Christianity.

This fact fits in very well with the character of the Pastoral Epistles, all of which deal with this early form of error. They insist upon discipline and morality, more than upon doctrine. These last solemn charges of the great Apostle aim rather at making Christian ministers, and their congregations, lead pure and holy lives, than at constructing any system of theology. Erroneous teaching must be resisted; the plain truths of the Gospel must be upheld; but the main thing is holiness of life. By prayer and thanksgiving, by quiet and grave conduct, by modesty and temperance, by self-denial and benevolence, by reverence for the sanctity of home life, Christians will furnish the best antidote to the intellectual and moral poison which the false teachers are propagating. “The sound doctrine” has its fruit in a healthy, moral life, as surely as the “different doctrine” leads to spiritual pride and lawless sensuality.

The belief that Matter and everything material is inherently evil, involved necessarily a contempt for the human body. This body was a vile thing; and it was a dire calamity to the human mind to be joined to such a mass of evil. From this premise various conclusions, some doctrinal and some ethical, were drawn.

On the doctrinal side it was urged that the resurrection of the body was incredible. It was disastrous 44 enough to the soul that it should be burdened with a body in this world. That this degrading alliance would be continued in the world to come, was a monstrous belief. Equally incredible was the doctrine of the Incarnation. How could the Divine Word consent to be united with so evil a thing as a material frame? Either the Son of Mary was a mere man, or the body which the Christ assumed was not real. It is with these errors that St. John deals, some twelve or fifteen years later, in his Gospel and Epistles.

On the ethical side the tenet that the human body is utterly evil produced two opposite errors,—asceticism and antinomian sensuality. And both of these are aimed at in these Epistles. If the enlightenment of the soul is everything, and the body is utterly worthless, then this vile clog to the movement of the soul must be beaten under and crushed, in order that the higher nature may rise to higher things. The body must be denied all indulgence, in order that it may be starved into submission (iv. 3). On the other hand, if enlightenment is everything and the body is worthless, then every kind of experience, no matter how shameless, is of value, in order to enlarge knowledge. Nothing that a man can do can make his body more vile than it is by nature, and the soul of the enlightened is incapable of pollution. Gold still remains gold, however often it is plunged in the mire.

The words of the three verses taken as a text, look as if St. Paul was aiming at evil of this kind. These Judaizing Gnostics “desired to be teachers of the Law.” They wished to enforce the Mosaic Law, or rather their fantastic interpretations of it, upon Christians. They insisted upon its excellence, and would not allow that it has been in many respects superseded. “We know 45 quite well,” says the Apostle, “and readily admit, that the Mosaic Law is an excellent thing; provided that those who undertake to expound it make a legitimate use of it. They must remember that, just as law in general is not made for those whose own good principles keep them in the right, so also the restrictions of the Mosaic Law are not meant for Christians who obey the Divine will in the free spirit of the Gospel.” Legal restrictions are intended to control those who will not control themselves; in short, for the very men who by their strange doctrines are endeavouring to curtail the liberties of others. What they preach as “the Law” is really a code of their own, “commandments of men who turn away from the truth.... They profess that they know God; but by their works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Tit. i. 14, 16). In rehearsing the various kinds of sinners for whom law exists, and who are to be found (he hints) among these false teachers, he goes roughly through the Decalogue. The four commandments of the First Table are indicated in general and comprehensive terms; the first five commandments of the Second Table are taken one by one, flagrant violators being specified in each case. Thus the stealing of a human being in order to make him a slave, is mentioned as the most outrageous breach of the eighth commandment. The tenth commandment is not distinctly indicated, possibly because the breaches of it are not so easily detected. The overt acts of these men were quite sufficient to convict them of gross immorality, without enquiring as to their secret wishes and desires. In a word, the very persons who in their teaching were endeavouring to burden men with the ceremonial ordinances, which had been done away 46 in Christ, were in their own lives violating the moral laws, to which Christ had given a new sanction. They tried to keep alive, in new and strange forms, what had been provisional and was now obsolete, while they trampled under foot what was eternal and Divine.

“If there be any other thing contrary to the sound doctrine.” In these words St. Paul sums up all the forms of transgression not specified in his catalogue. The sound, healthy teaching of the Gospel is opposed to the morbid and corrupt teaching of the Gnostics, who are sickly in their speculations (vi. 4), and whose word is like an eating sore (2 Tim. ii. 17). Of course healthy teaching is also health-giving, and corrupt teaching is corrupting; but it is the primary and not the derived quality that is stated here. It is the healthiness of the doctrine in itself, and its freedom from what is diseased or distorted, that is insisted upon. Its wholesome character is a consequence of this.

This word “sound” or “healthy” (ὑγιαίνων, ὑγιής), as applied to doctrine,1717   1 Tim. vi. 3; 2 Tim. i. 13, iv. 3; Tit. i. 9, 13, ii. 1, 2, 8. is one of a group of expressions which are peculiar to the Pastoral Epistles, and which have been condemned as not belonging to St. Paul’s style of language. He never uses “healthy” in his other Epistles; therefore these three Epistles, in which the phrase occurs eight or nine times, are not by him.

This kind of argument has been discussed already, in the first of these expositions. It assumes the manifest untruth, that as life goes on men make little or no change in the stock of words and phrases which they habitually use. With regard to this particular phrase, the source of it has been conjectured with a fair amount of probability. It may have come from “the beloved 47 physician,” who, at the time when St. Paul wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy, was the Apostle’s sole companion. It is worth remarking that the word here used for “sound” (with the exception of one passage in the Third Epistle of St. John) occurs nowhere in the New Testament in the literal sense of being in sound bodily health, except in the Gospel of St. Luke. And it occurs nowhere in a figurative sense, except in the Pastoral Epistles. It is obviously a medical metaphor; a metaphor which any one who had never had anything to do with medicine might easily use, but which is specially likely to be used by a man who had lived much in the society of a physician. Before we call such a phrase un-Pauline we must ask: (1) Is there any passage in the earlier Epistles of St. Paul where he would certainly have used this word “sound,” had he been familiar with it? (2) Is there any word in the earlier Epistles which would have expressed his meaning here equally well? If either of these questions is answered in the negative, then we are going beyond our knowledge in pronouncing the phrase “sound doctrine”1818   The Revisers as a rule render διδασκαλία by “doctrine,” as here, iv. 6, vi. 1, 3; 2 Tim. iv. 3; Tit. i. 9, ii. 1, 7, 10 (but not in iv. 13, 16, v. 17; 2 Tim. iii. 10, 16), while they render διδαχή by “teaching,” as 2 Tim. iv. 2; Tit. i. 9, and frequently in the Gospels. But διδασκαλία, as being closer to διδάσκαλος “a teacher,” is “teaching” rather than “doctrine,” and διδαχή is “doctrine” rather than “teaching.” See p. 238. to be un-Pauline.

“Contrary to the sound doctrine.” It sums up in a comprehensive phrase the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Gnostics. What they taught was unsound and morbid, and as a consequence poisonous and pestilential. While professing to accept and expound the Gospel, they really disintegrated it and explained it 48 away. They destroyed the very basis of the Gospel message; for they denied the reality of sin. And they equally destroyed the contents of the message; for they denied the reality of the Incarnation. Nor were they less revolutionary on the moral side than on the doctrinal. The foundations of morality are sapped when intellectual enlightenment is accounted as the one thing needful, while conduct is treated as a thing of no value. Principles of morality are turned upside down when it is maintained that any act which adds to one’s knowledge is not only allowable, but a duty. It is necessary to remember these fatal characteristics of this early form of error, in order to appreciate the stern language used by St. Paul and St. John respecting it, as also by St. Jude and the author of the Second Epistle of Peter.

St. John in his Epistles deals mainly with the doctrinal side of the heresy,—the denial of the reality of sin and of the reality of the Incarnation:1919   1 John i. 8–10, ii. 22, 23, iii. 4, 8, iv. 2, 3, 15, v. 1, 5, 16, 17; 2 John 7. although the moral results of doctrinal error are also indicated and condemned.2020   ii. 9, 11, iii. 15, 17. In the Apocalypse, as in St. Paul and in the Catholic Epistles, it is mainly the moral side of the false teaching that is denounced, and that in both its opposite phases. The Epistle to the Colossians deals with the ascetic tendencies of early gnosticism.2121   ii. 16, 21, 23. The Apocalypse and the Catholic Epistles deal with its licentious tendencies.2222   Rev. ii. 14, 20–22; 2 Peter ii. 10–22; Jude 8, 10, 13, 16, 18. The Pastoral Epistles treat of both asceticism and licentiousness, but chiefly of the latter, as is seen from the passage before us and from 49 the first part of chapter iii. in the Second Epistle. As we might expect, St. Paul uses stronger language in the Pastoral Epistles than he does in writing to the Colossians; and in St. John and the Catholic Epistles we find stronger language still. Antinomian licentiousness is a far worse evil than misguided asceticism, and in the interval between St. Paul and the other writers the profligacy of the antinomian Gnostics had increased. St. Paul warns the Colossians against delusive “persuasiveness of speech,” against “vain deceit,” “the rudiments of the world,” “the precepts and doctrines of men.” He cautions Timothy and Titus respecting “seducing spirits and doctrines of devils,” “profane and old wives’ fables,” “profane babblings” and teachings that “will eat as doth a gangrene,” “vain talkers and deceivers” whose “mind and conscience is deceived,” and the like. St. John denounces these false teachers as “liars,” “seducers,” “false prophets,” “deceivers,” and “antichrists;” and in Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter we have the profligate lives of these false teachers condemned in equally severe terms.

It should be observed that here again everything falls into its proper place if we assume that the Pastoral Epistles were written some years later than the Epistle to the Colossians and some years earlier than those of St. Jude and St. John. The ascetic tendencies of Gnosticism developed first. And though they still continued in teachers like Tatian and Marcion, yet from the close of the first century the licentious conclusions drawn from the premises that the human body is worthless and that all knowledge is divine, became more and more prevalent; as is seen in the teaching of Carpocrates and Epiphanes, and in the monstrous sect of the Cainites. It was quite natural, therefore, that St. Paul 50 should attack Gnostic asceticism first in writing to the Colossians, and afterwards both it and Gnostic licentiousness in writing to Timothy and Titus. It was equally natural that his language should grow stronger as he saw the second evil developing, and that those who saw this second evil at a more advanced stage should use sterner language still.

The extravagant theories of the Gnostics to account for the origin of the universe and the origin of evil are gone and are past recall. It would be impossible to induce people to believe them, and only a comparatively small number of students ever even read them. But the heresy that knowledge is more important than conduct, that brilliant intellectual gifts render a man superior to the moral law, and that much of the moral law itself is the tyrannical bondage of an obsolete tradition, is as dangerous as ever it was. It is openly preached and frequently acted upon. The great Florentine artist, Benvenuto Cellini, tells us in his autobiography that when Pope Paul III. expressed his willingness to forgive him an outrageous murder committed in the streets of Rome, one of the gentlemen at the Papal Court ventured to remonstrate with the Pope for condoning so heinous a crime. “You do not understand the matter as well as I do,” replied Paul III.: “I would have you to know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, are not bound by the laws.” Cellini is a braggart, and it is possible that in this particular he is romancing. But, even if the story is his invention, he merely attributes to the Pope the sentiments which he cherished himself, and upon which (as experience taught him) other people acted. Over and over again his murderous violence was overlooked by those in authority, because they admired and wished 51 to make use of his genius as an artist. “Ability before honesty” was a common creed in the sixteenth century, and it is abundantly prevalent in our own. The most notorious scandals in a man’s private life are condoned if only he is recognized as having talent. It is the old Gnostic error in a modern and sometimes agnostic form. It is becoming daily more clear that the one thing needful for the regeneration of society, whether upper, middle, or lower, is the creation of a “sound” public opinion. And so long as this is so, God’s ministers and all who have the duty of instructing others will need to lay to heart the warnings which St. Paul gives to his followers Timothy and Titus.


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