The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult. By Alastair H. B. Logan
Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, page 313, March 2009
How to Cite
Price, R. M. (2009), The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult. By Alastair H. B. Logan. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 313. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_2.x
- Issue online: 16 FEB 2009
- Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
Pp. xvii, 150 , London/NY , T & T Clark , 2006 , $140.00/$23.00 .
Until recently the notion of ‘Gnostic heresy’ appeared firmly established in early Christian historiography. Generations of theology students have written essays on how the ‘Gnostic threat’, characterized by bleak dualism, strict predestination and a contempt for the ethics and sacraments of the mainstream churches, was providentially defeated. But a number of contemporary scholars have been undermining the whole concept of Gnosticism, pointing out that the term is a modern concoction and that the great mass of teachers and texts subsumed under it have little in common, while that little does not serve to differentiate them clearly from the mainstream Christianity of their time.
Alastair Logan published his Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy in 1996 and has now supplemented it with this new and briefer volume, made up of various essays and papers. He is not as radical as Michael Allen Williams, who in his Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’ (1996) argued that the whole concept of Gnosticism should be jettisoned. Logan wishes to restrict the term, however, to those early Christians who called themselves, or were called, Gnostics or who at least made equal use of the ‘classic’ Gnostic myth summarized in Irenaeus I. 29–30 and shared a common pattern of initiation (the ‘five seals’). This excludes Valentinians as well (less surprisingly) as the Marcionites. Logan argues in addition that Gnostics can be identified according to modern social theory as a ‘cult’, that is, a deviant movement within the main Christian body, rather than a ‘sect’, separatist and exclusive.
In the central chapters of the book he attempts to define the specific features of Gnostics in opposition to mainstream Christians, whom he calls (with some anachronism) ‘Catholics’. He stresses a negative view of the universe as a place to be rescued from, concern with sacraments as the mode of escape, and the protection of the self by an ascetic lifestyle, together with a lack of concern for canon, structures and hierarchy. But do these features really differentiate Gnosticism from many other strands in early Christianity, such as Encratism? And Catholicism, if defined as the opposite, was a slow and gradual growth. Indeed, Logan's study reinforces the arguments of Pétrement and others that Gnosticism was a genuinely Christian movement, not an alien religion that took on some of the trappings of Christianity. It is not surprising that attempts to shunt Gnosticism away to some strange penumbra distort the shape and spirituality of second-century Christianity.