Monday, September 1, 2008

The Pleromic Blood and Gnosticism

Alice C. Linsley

"Perhaps you have noticed that the creeds speak of the birth of Jesus and then of his death. There is no mention of the life of Jesus, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the healing power of Jesus.The heart of the gospel is missing. The creeds are defective and need to be taken out of service. Instead, let us proclaim clearly the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus, "The seed of true humanity is within you. Follow it!" Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) 4:5
The Rev. John Beverley Butcher (Hat tip to Stand Firm.)

John Butcher, an Episcopal priest in Pescadero, California, wants to do away with the historic Creeds of the Christian Faith because they are incompatible with what he regards to be the heart of his religion. That is because his religion isn't Christianity. Butcher is a Gnostic.

It isn’t simply that Gnostics hold convictions and practices that are incompatible with Christianity. They hold different views of justice, language, truth, love, in short, a different view of Reality.

Yet there is but one Reality and Christians should know it better than any. St. Paul writes of this Reality as the pleromic “mystery of Christ” and he identifies this as the heart of the Gospel. It is, in fact, the central message of the Apostle’s writings and the Reality of which the Creeds speak.

The Apostle Paul explains that Jesus Christ is the fullness (“pleroma” in Greek) of all things in heaven and on earth, both invisible and visible. The term “pleroma” was used among the Gnostics to describe the metaphysical unity of all things, but Paul uses the term to speak about how all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in bodily form (Col. 2:9).

Paul’s use of pleroma, as well the appearance of this idea in other New Testament writings, suggests that the term was widely circulating in apostolic times. Against the Gnostics, the biblical writers used it to explain that the mystical Body of Christ fills heaven (glorified Saints and Heroes of Faith) and earth (militant Saints). Reality, then, is the depository of the fullness of all things hidden and revealed in Christ. Paul wants his converts to understand that they are “entrusted with the mysteries of God”, so that they may faithfully proclaim Reality so that hearers “may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (I Cor. 4:1, Eph. 3:9 and Col. 2:2).

There is a significant difference between the Gnostic application of “pleroma” and Paul’s application. For the Gnostics, the pleroma is vague and undifferentiated, but for Paul the pleroma is the manifestation of the benefits of the “blood of Jesus.” Paul never allows the churches he planted to wander far from the Blood of Jesus that brings eternal life to all who receive this spiritual transfusion.

Paul articulated his understanding of the pleroma as early as his second missionary journey when he preached to the Athenians that, “in Him [Jesus Christ] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) However, Paul’s thoughts on this developed further as he continued to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures, prayed and fasted, and received greater illumination by Christ. We find the fullest expression of the pleroma in his latter writings, especially in Romans and in Ephesians:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10)

While not yet fully developed in the Church, the Trinity underlies Paul’s understanding of the pleroma. He speaks of the distinct Persons of the Trinity and of the oneness of the Body of Christ in the language of Shema: “There is one Body, one Spirit, hope Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God and father of all, over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4:4-5).

These words follow Paul’s explanation of the saving work of Jesus Christ. He explained to the Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility… Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father (Eph. 2:13-14).

Paul effectively and convincingly moves the Christian faith toward a Trinitarian comprehensiveness that forever distinguishes it from polytheistic dynamism (Hinduism), henotheistic animism (tribal religions) and the liberal mushiness of post-Christian Episcopalians such as Father Butcher.

The Pleromic Blood as Reality implies that there is but one eternal Kingdom. This is the corrective to the tendency of Christians to think that the Church and the Kingdom are one and the same. The Church is part of the Kingdom of God, but not the sum of the Kingdom. Christian historicism sees separate dispensations before Christ and after Christ. But there is no "before Christ" since He is eternal. This two-dispensations theology causes many to misunderstand Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom. The Pleromic Blood means that there is but one dispensation throughout all time, found in Christ from before the foundation of the world.

Are there two dispensations or one Kingdom? Are there two bodies or one Body? Are the heroes of faith before Christ’s Incarnation one dispensation and those in the Church another? Where is this found in Scripture?

There is only one dispensation, one Reality: The Pleromic Blood, of which St. Paul speaks. One is either in Christ or not in Christ; connected to the Life-giving eternal Reality or not connected. Was Abraham not connected? Was his Faith a symbol of a different dispensation or the Faith into which we are grafted?

All the things of God are realized in Jesus' Blood. All suffering, which many religions attempt to explain apart from Christ, or to avoid through asceticism or philosophy, are made meaningful by His Blood. All worldly striving is shown to be futile by His Blood.

So it is that the Apostle Paul refers to the Blood of Jesus no less than twelve times in his writings. Because God makes peace with us through the Blood of the Cross, he urges “Take every care to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together” (Eph. 4:3). Paul's confession of the saving Blood of Jesus informs his understanding of the Body of Christ. He continues: “There is one Body, one Spirit, just as one hope is the goal of your calling by God. There is one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4:4-5).

Lest we presume that the pleromic understanding of the Blood of Jesus is an invention of St. Paul, we should consider also these words from St. John:

Who can overcome the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? He it is who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with water alone but with water and blood, and it is the Spirit that bears witness, for the Spirit is Truth. So there are three witnesses, the Spirit, water and blood, and the three of them coincide." (I John 5:5-8)

Related reading: Water and Blood; Blood and Binary Distinctions


wnknisely said...

Thank you for this Alice. It's really helpful.

Alice C. Linsley said...

You're welcome. I'm glad this essay is helpful. Thanks for visitng Just Genesis!

Georgia said...

Your article and quotes got me thinking about the fullness and the mysteries of the faith, "Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:27) always pops into my mind. This is a mystery that is not mentioned in the Episcopal (1979) liturgy.
Then these questions: Is this indwelling of Christians by the Holy Spirit another incarnation? Is Pentecost a 'second coming' of Christ? Does the Holy Spirit's presence constitute the presence of the Triune God as I have heard some say? Can the fullness of the Godhead dwell within us? (Ephesians 3:19) If so, does it happen progressively through the process of sanctification, by the Spirit leading us into all truth?

Well, it is possible that questions about mysteries and fullness cannot be answered...yet.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Excellent questions, Georgia! There is much we don't understand and it seems arrogant to think we can grasp the fullness of Christ. Yet that is the hope that is within us: that by God's grace we may attain the fullness of Christ, God's great gift to those who believe the witness of the water, the Spirit, and the Blood.

Anonymous said...

"John Butcher, an Episcopal priest in Pescadero, California, wants to do away with the historic Creeds of the Christian Faith because they are incompatible with what he regards to be the heart of his religion."

That, dear sister in Christ, is wonderful. You can do more with a few words than most can do with a paragraph.

Fr. Rick Lobs

Anonymous said...

"That is because his religion isn't Christianity."

Sorry, Alice, I missed the best line of all in my former post.


Patrick Adams said...

This is THE central mystery of the Christian faith. I still catch myself "compartmentalizing" the work of God through Christ--dividing up the Trinity or dividing time into "dipensations". The pleroma, of course, does away with the error of all such non-christan non-sense. In Christ, "the FULLNESS of God dwells." I think what is difficult for us to grasp is not the complexity of God's self-revelation in Christ, but his utter simplicity.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, Patrick. The "utter simplicity" of which you speak is often discussed in catholic circles. Most Roman Catholics are working off of Aquinas' Aristotelian notion of simplicity, which sometimes moves them toward pre-Christian concepts. St. Paul was adapting pagan concepts to the Messianic Reality. As a citizen of Tarsus, Paul was familiar with Aristotle and Plato. In Paul's hometown there was a famous university that the Greek geographer Strabo considered better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria.

Jeremiah Oharisi said...

Powerful indeed. If I understand u correctly you are implying that the blood of Jesus avails everyone weda they are xtains or not and weda or not dey believe in it's ability for remision of sins?

Alice Linsley said...

Greetings, Jeremiah. I am glad you have found Just Genesis and I hope it will be helpful to you on your spiritual journey to the God and Father of all.

Blood and water are the two elements of life, and by Jesus' Blood life eternal is made possible. We share in His Resurrection through baptism into His death - in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is the ancient path, but as Jesus explained to his disciples, not all will follow this narrow way. The other way leads to hell.

Jean Wilson said...

I have had the Nag Hammadi Scriptures for quite awhile, but hadn't started reading it until 2 days ago. I find it such a great resource in my search of the scriptures for knowledge! The Gnostic texts are so rich, and it's sad that most churches tell us to stick to the Bible ONLY. As I was reading the Gospel of Thomas, I came across the word "Pleroma". The definition is "fullness", but I am never satisfied until I keep digging, and that's when the rewards come. As I kept looking for more information, I KNEW you would have some information, and was rewarded. This word really defines and clarifies Paul's explanation of Jesus Christ. I have no feelings one way or the other on Creed or no Creed, but I do feel Christians are missing so much in their journey of faith by the churches discouraging the gnostic texts. The discovery of a line, or in my case a word can open new depths of information and enrich our faith. Thank you for your work!