This is an attempt to revisit the terms of a contemporary theological cliché.

I don’t know who invented the argument that anybody lower than you on the sacramental realism scale is supposed to be called gnostic, but it’s an argument that has caught on. Any defection from high sacramentalism is gleefully identified as matter-hating, body-denying, salvation-by-cognition, capital G, gnosticism.

Once people glimpse the connection, they tend to be hooked. They see ironies everywhere in low-church observances. The charge of gnosticism has never made much sense to me, because it explains too much and seems to offer a glimpse into the secret motivations of the opponent. Plenty of people claim their opponents are gnostic, but nobody ever claims for themselves the badge or category of gnosticism.

Except Farrer.

The great, quirky, brilliant, and flawed Anglican theologian Austin Farrer set out to be gnostic, and on his own terms, he succeeded. But his terms were the opposite of the gnosticism we hear noised abroad in our day.

Farrer (1904-1968) was an Anglican priest who served as Fellow and Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford from 1935-1960, then as Warden of Keble College from 1960 until his death in 1968. He was a close friend of C.S. Lewis (one of the witnesses to Lewis’ marriage to Joy, and the officiant at her burial).

It was about 1927, when Farrer was just a 22-year-old Oxford student (Baillol College), that he indulged in a binge of reading about the gnostic socio-cultural milieu from which early Christianity emerged. He wrote a series of wild letters to his Baptist father and some friends, in which he speculated that “the atmosphere in which the early Church grew up was indeed one of mystery, that St. Paul was not a rationalist, and that the original meaning of the sacraments and the incarnation should be considered in the light of Gnostic logic.” (Most of these quotes are from the Farrer biography A Hawk Among Sparrows).

What is “Gnostic logic?” Farrer said:

Gnosticism has a logic in which A can be B and not-B at the same time, and this should be considered by those who are treating the original meaning of the sacraments, or the Incarnation. One must go further, and see how infinitely more plausible are the Catholic than Protestant theses….And what’s more, it looks to me as though the Christian Religion lifted out of this mental atmosphere becomes a fish out of water, and rationalistic arguments used against the sacraments and ministry, just as destructive of the Incarnation, in the hands, that is, of a man who would consent to be consistent. And is not this what is happening to ‘enlightened’ Protestantism?

Farrer dreaded the rationalism of liberal Christianity, and he thought that recourse to the original thought-forms of the early church could deliver moderns from the crush of liberal rationalism. “So the business of theology,” he later argued, “appears to me to be with these questions.

1. What categories of thought did the apostles use?
2. Which are essential to the apprehension of the saving fact?
3. How can they be cleared up, modernized?
4. What is their general philosophical type and what is its justification?

If this is opaque, it’s because Farrer is framing his ideas and connecting them with leaps of logic (he later apologized to his father for saying various alarming and inflammatory things in these letters).

But the basic idea is this: The early apostolic church, as soon as it stopped simply quoting the Old Testament and using its Hebrew categories whole, did all its fresh thinking in Greek categories, which meant Gnostic categories, which meant categories that used the physical to be simultaneously, mind-blowingly, identical and non-identical with the spiritual.

For the young Farrer, the idea that God himself could be experienced in physical churchly ordinances was not just about salvation, it was the principle by which God was knowable, or known to be personal or even objective at all:

If God is to be more than just the power which energizes in his creatures, if he is to be so over-against them that he can have reciprocal dealings with them, there must be events in the world’s history which stand out as being God’s action towards us, i.e. not just his universal action in creating and sustaining, but his subsequent action in opening up contacts with us. But that can only mean something like an incarnation and a sacramental system. Thus the acknowledgement of Christ incarnate is the only way we can make sense of a God who is effectively personal in his relation to us.

The only hope for a personal God, for Farrer, was “something like an incarnation and a sacramental system.” And that high view of the metaphysical necessity of the sacraments was a development of Farrer’s avowed intention to recover the gnostic framework of early Christianity. It was what connected made God encounterable, knowable.

In other words, he preferred Anglo-Catholicism to the somewhat liberal Baptist faith of his family precisely because it was more gnostic. And the more gnostic a presentation of Christianity was, the more in touch with reality it was.

I think I see holes in Farrer’s argument at the historical level (the pervasive gnosticism that, in Farrer’s generation was thought to predate the New Testament, has rather evaporated upon closer analysis), at the philosophical level (that A and non-A stuff should be a warning sign to anybody), and at the dogmatic level (sacraments directly tied to an abstract principle of enfleshment rather than to the death and resurrection of Christ; sacraments as Christmas presents rather than Easter events). And the mature Farrer would move away from this way of putting things, and into his lifetime project of explaining how the first cause could work through secondary causes without obliterating their reality.

But what continues to interest me is the now-unfashionable way in which he sought to be gnostic, and moved from Baptist to Anglo-Catholic in his quest.

Articles by Fred Sanders


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