Sunday, January 30, 2011

In unexpected places

A Christian might not normally look for inspiration or insight in the Gospel of Philip, one of the non-canonical "lost scripture" type writings of the early church. To me, it does not make sense to think of the "Gospel of Philip" as a lost gospel because when you read the text, it makes no attempt to be a biography of Jesus. Calling it a "lost gospel" is to misclassify it; it is more of a reflection on the sacraments, the Scriptures, and occasionally on Jesus from the early church, from a portion of the church we would find a little ... off the beaten path. It belongs in the "unorthodox patristics" section of the church library, not in the "lost gospels" section.

I have called the writing unorthodox, so I will explain what I mean by that before I mention what good I have found in it. Here is a quote to ground the discussion in the actual text:
The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire.

It is one question whether someone may sympathize with this thought; it is another question whether it reflects a mainstream Christian understanding of the book of Genesis. This reflection on Genesis is fairly far outside of the historical mainstream of reflections on Genesis when it calls this world a mistake. Genesis describes a world that was originally Paradise, very good in every way. Mainstream Christian thought then does not consider the world to be a mistake or a matter of God missing the mark and falling short of attaining his desire. (It's entertaining to me that some people will not allow that this text is Gnostic because it finds some good in the material world where an "orthodox" Gnostic text would not ... but the same writers often have no trouble classifying it as a Christian text even though it is not an "orthodox" Christian text. I think the Gnostic-orthodox purists will eventually have to acknowledge there was such a thing as being unorthodox from the Gnostic point-of-view as well as from the apostolic-orthodox perspective.) But on the main point, when I classify the text as unorthodox, that is meant to describe where it lies in the spectrum of early Christian beliefs: it lies outside the mainstream of what was believed in the early church. That mainstream was formed by those who took their cue from the earliest church, the apostles, and the preceding Jewish thought in the synagogues from which the Christian church originally arose. The Gnostic writings tended to form in cultures where Jewish thought and Jewish understanding was not the starting point when interpreting Scripture. Those cultures may have had a fresh take on Jewish Scripture due to their relative unfamiliarity with it, but the established Hebrew-based camp also considered the non-Hebrew readers to make beginners' mistakes on some basic points. At any rate, that interpretation of Genesis is not valid from outside of the Gnostic perspective, so other perspectives would necessarily find it "unorthodox".

I'm not writing this to criticize the Gospel of Philip even if I do take some time to say why I'm quoting it and what type of writing it seems to be. My point is that the Gospel of Philip does belong in the "unorthodox patristics" section of the church library. It has some useful things to say.

Here is an insight that would be at home in any Christian sermon:
Faith receives, love gives. No one will be able to receive without faith. No one will be able to give without love.
Here the Gnostic writers have reflected on what the New Testament teaches about faith and love. It distills many of the teachings of the New Testament into a memorable saying that is valid from more than just the Gnostic perspective.

Or here again:
An ass which turns a millstone did a hundred miles walking. When it was loosed it found that it was still at the same place. There are men who make many journeys, but make no progress towards any destination.
That's good sermon material there, an illustration which is not limited in appeal to those who share the same dogmatic presuppositions as the Gnostics. The analogy we might use now is a "treadmill", which is the closest we get to the old-style mills with lots of effort but going nowhere. The caution is that we shouldn't mistake movement for progress; apparently it was just as much a problem for Gnostics in the second or third century as it is now.

And here is one last example of something interesting in the Gospel of Philip. The first part looks like an example of the ancients not really understanding genetics, but by the end it has made a useful point despite it all:
The children a woman bears resemble the man who loves her. If her husband loves her, then they resemble her husband. If it is an adulterer, then they resemble the adulterer. Frequently, if a woman sleeps with her husband out of necessity, while her heart is with the adulterer with whom she usually has intercourse, the child she will bear is born resembling the adulterer. Now you who live together with the Son of God, love not the world, but love the Lord, in order that those you will bring forth may not resemble the world, but may resemble the Lord.
I think if we found this passage in any other commentary on Scripture from the second or third centuries, we would bear with it patiently and take it for what it is worth. And that is basically my point with the Gospel of Philip.


Craig said...

Fascinating piece. I have never read the Gospel of Philip but I will check it out now.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Craig

Good to see you again.

Have you ever watched a preview / ad for a movie, and then gone to see the movie and thought, "everything I really wanted to see was already in the preview"? For most Christians, if you read this post as a preview, I think most of the stuff people would be interested in is already here. It has some points for "history of Christian thought" beyond that, though, if you're reading for that kind of purpose.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Craig said...

That helps, Anne. Thanks for being a guide in the lesser explored realms.