Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels (1977) suggests to me that the key points of doctrine separating Roman Catholics and High Church Anglicans from various Evangelical denominations repeats a pattern that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Pagels begins by asking, "If the New Testament accounts could support a range of interpretations, why did orthodox Christians of the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical?" She responds that "paradoxically . . . the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essentially political function: It legitimitizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors to the apostle Peter" (6). The appearance of the resurrected Christ to his disciples itself created indisputed authority, and this claim itself created some fundamental problems because "the gospels of Mark and John both name Mary Magdalene, not Peter, as the first witness to the resurrection" (8), which would have made her the pre-eminent founder of the church. In addition, Paul says Christ appeared to hundreds of people simultaneously. By the second century the so-called orthodox churches "developed the view that only certain resurrection appearances conferred authority on these who received them" (8).

However those who ended up defining — and therefore controlling — Christianity may have ignored obvious rivals to Peter as possessing the spiritual authority as the first resurrection witness, they brillianty solved key political problems:

For this theory — that all authority derives from certain apostle's experiences of the resurrected Christ, an experience now closed forever — bears enormous implications for the political structure of the community. First, as the German scholar Karl Holl has pointed out, it restricts the circle of leadership to a small band of persons whose members stand in a position of incontestable authority. Second, it suggests that only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors. Christians in the second century used Luke's account to set the groundwork for establishing specific, restricted chains of command for all future generations of Christians. [10]

Anyone acquainted with John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and the Oxford Movement recognizes the centrality of this notion that "only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors," since the Tractarians made the succession from Peter the one factor that decided who was a true Christian and who a heretic. As it turns out, the division between the orthodox and those declared heretics of the second centuries has much in common with the nineteenth-century division between various Protestant parties and denominations.

This similarity arises in the crucial fact that the early gnostics, like Victorian and earlier Evangelicals, denied orthodoxy's central combination of theological and political doctrine, though admittedly for rather different reasons; and yet they nonetheless arrived at strikingly similar positions. The gnostics, to return to Pagels once again,

rejected Luke's theory. Some gnostics called the literal view of the resurrection "the faith of fools." The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event in the past: instead it symbolized how Christ's presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was not literal seeing, but spiritual vision. . . . Gnostic writers do not dismiss visions as fantasies of hallucinations. They respect — even revere — such experienced, through which spiritual intuition discloses insight into the nature of reality. [11-12]

Essentially, Evangelicals and gnostic alike leveled the same charges against orthodox churchmen that Augustine directed against Mannicheans — that, in other words, gross materialism blinded them even to the possibility of true spirituality. Of course, late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century evangelicals, like their Puritan forbears, believed in the physical resurrection of Christ, which the gnostics rejected, but they didn't accept it as a founding claim to authority. Rather, like the gnostics, they believed the individual believer's imaginative and even visionary experiences of Christ, not the Church, provides the center of Christian belief. Newman and other High Church argued that subjective religous experiences, particularly those powerfully emotional evangelical conversions, lead only to egotism and resultant schisms. In contrast, Evangelcals, like gnostics, believe that such experiences, which proved the conection of God to every individual believer, protected true religon from the high and dry devotees of church hierarchy and from beneficiaries of ecclestiacal bureaucracy.


Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1977.

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Last modified 27 December 2007