Two Types of Early Christianity
by Dr. James Goss
At the risk of oversimplification, I will portray two types of Christianity that emerged in the first two centuries of its existence. The first, an extroverted type, finally became dominant in the fourth century and continues to have significant influence up to the present time. The second, an introverted type, enjoyed popularity for four centuries, was eventually declared heretical, but was never completely eliminated. Both types are concerned with the nature of God, the role of Jesus, evil and the dilemma of human existence, and the final hope of salvation. But they developed each of these issues from an entirely different point of view.
Extroverted Christianity: External Forms of Faith
Extroverted Christianity accepted the Genesis account of creation where God speaks and a world separate from God comes into being. God names the various elements of the cosmos, creates male and female humans, and announces that everything is in order and good. Finally, the establishment of the Sabbath ensured the value of a liturgical week honoring God. Yet the world, as lived, seemed to be filled with disorder and evil. How could that happen to God’s good creation?
What became the orthodox solution was to turn to the myth of Adam and Eve and interpret it as an historical narrative. When Eve and Adam ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they disobeyed God. Their insubordination ushered evil and death into existence and disturbed the order of creation. Banishment from Eden, murder, arrogance, and a curse upon both humans and the ground compounded the chaos instilled by human sin. While God gave the Law through Moses to curb human pridefulness, it was only partially successful. Humans were unable to undo the damage they had done to God’s harmonious world. Only God had the wisdom and power to make amends, so a figure from the divine realm was sent down to earth to rescue humans from evil personified by Satan. This divine being, named Logos and Son in John’s gospel, became incarnated into Jesus who is called the Christ.
Jesus then carried out his ministry to form a new community to anticipate the coming Kingdom of God, and to challenge traditional views of those in power, including disrupting the Temple in Jerusalem, which led to his arrest and crucifixion. In order to make sense out of his cruel end, and to explain how it defeated sin and death, this form of Christianity turned to the language of sacrifice, or atonement, employed by the priests at the Temple. Since Jesus was considered innocent and, therefore did not deserve death, his death became a way for God to ransom Jesus from the devil, a rescue that destroyed the power of evil once and for all. Jesus then ascended into space and returned up to God in heaven, where he received great power and honor.
Because of Jesus’ victory, humans may now find reconciliation with God through the act of faith. Faith means accepting the truth of the story of the Fall of humans and the rescue by the Savior Jesus the Christ. It means accepting the authority of the church leaders, whose task it is to ensure the truth of the gospel message, to preach, to instruct new converts, to interpret what were considered approved scriptures, to accurately administer the sacraments, and to remain faithful to the rule of faith passed on by Jesus to his disciples. All of the elements of faith remain external to the believer, who pledges loyalty to the community of saints who are united by the oneness of faith that all share.
In order to ensure the truth and steadfastness of the faith, leaders decided which of all the Christian writings were canonical or orthodox, and which were heretical and dangerous to the faithful. Once the canon was chosen, it became the repository for the original and true message. There were still some issues that were not resolved by scripture alone, so that further interpretations were needed to spell out the implications of scriptural views. One issue was the Trinity, and the other was the relation between God and Jesus–Christology.
The issue of God concerned the biblical statements about God as Father, a Son, and the Holy Spirit. Were these three different Gods or merely three different names for the one God? Since Christians were monotheists, the view that there were three Gods was unacceptable. Nor was the idea that one God was given three different names. God’s oneness was thought to be the unity of a community of separate realities within the divine being. Out of this discussion emerged the doctrine of the Trinity at a council meeting in 325 C. E., where a Greek philosophical word, “homousias”, not found in the scriptures, became the key to expressing God’s unity in one substance while having three manifestations. Once the decision was made by the Council of Nicea, with the support of Emperor Constantine, the doctrine was given the same validity as canonical scripture.
Another century and a quarter after Nicea, a Council met in Chalcedon in 451 C. E. to formulate the way to describe the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son. Did Jesus have a human body and a God mind? That would make him a freak, not fully human. The council argued that if Jesus were not fully human, he could not be like us and, therefore, could not save us. But if Jesus was to be a savior, he must have God’s power, wisdom, and love. The creed of Chalcedon agreed that in Jesus both God and human nature were fully present, so another Greek philosophical phrase, “hypostatic conjunction”, was used to express a unity of the two persons of Jesus. He was declared the God-Man, and this creed also became central to the orthodox understanding of Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of Christianity.
Extroverted religion, the orthodox version of Christianity in the West, portrayed God, scripture and creeds as external to the individual believer and required faith to accept them. But other Christians did not believe this notion of faith is what leads to God. Instead, they advocated a form of faith that is known as “gnosis” in Greek, an experience of the deep truths of God that were hidden within the self.
Introverted Christianity: Internal Forms of Faith
This other view of Christianity that had its roots in the first century and flowered in the second was introverted in nature. For those who wrote and followed the teachings of the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Truth, God was not some Being outside the self, but the deepest part within one’s own life, an awareness called “gnosis.” For the introverted type of Christianity, faith is not the belief in scripture, creeds, or church authority. It is a type of experience in which the whole self is infused with God’s presence. Consequently, their view led to an entirely different view of creation than the orthodox use of Genesis. Instead of making the world as something outside of God’s own reality, all life emanated out of God’s mind, often thought of as a great Abyss. Those emerging out of God were part of God but did not completely understand the vastness and incomprehensibility of God’s wisdom. This opened the door to misunderstanding, forgetfulness, and conflict within the world.
Human existence was so caught up in the everydayness of worldly life that it lost its awareness of the inner reality of God. It fell into a drunken slumber from which it could not awake. Such forgetfulness had tragic implications because human ignorance led to immoral behavior, violence and conflict, and the pervasion of evil throughout human life. These second-century assumptions are similar to both modern depth psychology and process theology.
Jungian psychology, for example, indicates that with the formation of the ego comes its struggle to attain acceptability in the world—the formation of the “persona.” In doing so, however, the ego represses experiences that are unacceptable in social life and neglects other parts of the self that do not fit one’s growing self-image. Both the repressed and neglected experiences create a “shadow” that gains power both in the individual and collectively in nations. These repressed elements, when not faced and integrated into consciousness, become manifest in complexes, conflicts, and social and personal evils. The world is created in part out of these types of experiences. God is not the sole creator.
A similar understanding is found in process theism. In this view, everything that exists has power, freedom, and creativity. While God has supreme power, God is not omnipotent and therefore is not the sole agent of creation. What forms the world is the influence of God and the interaction of everything from electrons, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, humans, and whatever else exists in the universe. Creation is a collective process that God influences but cannot coerce. God’s power is often resisted and what occurs in life will fall short of God’s vision of universal harmony. Yet God never ceases to love and experience what occurs within the world each moment. For process theology, the world is in God and God is in the world, but God is not the world and the world is not God. Introverted second century Christians expressed similar views. Now we can ask them: what do humans need?
If humans are ignorant of God, and that is the source of the misery, then what is needed is gnosis, an awakening of a person out of her/his slumber that reveals a person’s true origins in God. But humans do not have the capacity for this deep self-awareness. It requires help. The introverted Christians were certain that a loving God would not leave humans in their wretchedness, so they believed God emanated out of his Being a Logos, an image of the full understanding of God’s truth. The teaching of the Logos was absorbed by Jesus who then became the messenger of God. In the moment Jesus became enlightened, he was resurrected. His new life did not happen after his death, but in the transformation from his ignorance to understanding. According to the Gospel of Philip: “People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not first receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing.”
Jesus is understood to be the archetype of what is possible for any human. His saving acts are not his atoning death or his forgiveness of sin, but his message of gnosis that enables people to come out of darkness into light. From the point of view of depth psychology, the Logos is an image emerging out of the imagination of the unconscious, and for process theology it is the influence of God within each person moment by moment. The saving event is the experience of gnosis, an awakening of the ego to the deeper messages emerging from the abyss of the self, an abyss that is the substantial reality of God. Upon integrating gnosis into oneself, a person discovers that he/she is in Jesus/Logos and Jesus/Logos is in them. Through that process, one knows God and is known by God. This view of Christianity does not need creeds, church authorities, or canonical scriptures: it requires gnosis—the inner spark of the divine.
Valentinus, a second-century theologian, speaks for many in introverted Christianity when he says: “Many of the things written in publicly available books are found in the writings in god’s (sic) church. For this shared matter is the utterances that come from the heart, the law that is written in the heart. This is the people of the beloved, which is beloved and which loves him.” Anything, says Valentinus, may reveal God, since everything is in God. No one text, or group of texts, have a monopoly on truth. Any imaginative image, any loving encounter with another person, any writing may be the occasion for gnosis.
Harold Bloom, the late professor of literary criticism at Harvard, who called himself a Jewish Gnostic, argues that American religion is steeped in gnosis. “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson is Bloom’s foundational text, an essay that influences the poetry of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, and reverberates into the temperament of American culture. Self-reliance was the link between the individual soul and the mind of the universe. Self-Reliance and God-Reliance are the same things for Emerson; it is not a notion of radical individualism. Emerson, in words that could be found in second-century Christianity, says, “my own mind is the direct revelation I have from God.” For Emerson it was a vision that empowered him to find the depths of his imagination: “In the highest moments, we are a vision.” This vision, Emerson’s gnosis, has deep religious overtones:
“It must be that when God speaketh he should communicate, not one thing, but all things; should fill the world with his voice; should scatter forth light, nature, time, souls, from the center of present thought. Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old Things pass away,–means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. All things are made sacred by relation to it,–one as much as another.”
The lively experience of American freedom, its foundational democracy, flourishes from the inner sense of the value of each individual who in her/his life embodies the true meaning of “In God We Trust.” Second century introverted Christians would celebrate this gnosis.
Two types of Christianity vied for followers in the first two centuries. Tragically, as the competition grew intense one, the extroverted orthodoxy, declared the other a heresy and succeeded in reducing its influence by destroying its writings and persecuting its followers. We are living in a time when the introverted view is gaining more adherents, some of its ancient texts have been discovered, and the desire for meaningful experience is in ascendency over dogmas and canonical texts. As an introvert myself, I am jubilant.
Dr. James (Jim) Goss is Professor Emeritus from California State University, Northridge, where he taught for 32 years in the Religious Studies Department. His areas of interest are New Testament (the historical Jesus), religious themes in American fiction, Process Theology, and Jungian psychology. At Davis Community Church, Jim serves as our theologian-in-residence, providing popular classes and essays.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Edward F. Edinger, The Psyche in Antiquity: Gnosticism and Early Christianity. [Jungian studies]
John B. Cobb, Jr. The Process Perspective I and II.
John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition.
Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?
Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief