Friday, January 04, 2013
Introducing a new series:
The Hermeticist Next Door
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times
some will abandon the faith and
follow deceiving spirits and
things taught by demons.”
(1 Timothy 4:1, NIV)
Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code has created a storm of controversy. Many seem to believe it’s completely true, some dismiss it, and yet others find it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Discernment can be difficult, not only with Dan Brown’s tangled work but with history in general.
What I have to say may seem more like a novel than history, but recorded writings and historical descriptions exist that confirm what I am about to say. It is a historical tale of deception in the Church that is not only stranger than fiction but is actually true.
Proceed at your own risk because facing disguised demonic teachings that pass for Christian—both past and present—can be disturbing, shocking, and nearly unbelievable.
Origen is the Origin
Origen is the origin of this story, which begins around 200 A.D. Some call this famous Greek Church Father a great mystical Christian theologian; others call him a heretic.
Origen was a man of extremes and imbalances, whose father was martyred in a great persecution. As a youth, Origen fervently wanted to join his father in martyrdom, but his mother hid his clothes so he couldn’t throw himself into the clutches of the persecutors. He was extremely brilliant—probably the most educated man of the time—and he wrote many books on the Holy Scriptures and philosophy. But, in his fervency to put Matthew 19:12 literally into practice, he also castrated himself.
Origen ranged far beyond Christian orthodoxy[i], and, as a matter of fact, he was partially educated under a pagan philosopher—a man named Ammonius Saccus (named Saccus because he moved sacks as a laborer). Saccus is considered the Father of Neoplatonism in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the great metropolises of the ancient world that became a center of Christianity. A fellow student of Origen was a pagan named Plotinus, known for propagating Neoplatonism.
Given this background, Origen came up with some rather strange ideas. These included the pre-existence of the soul; the eventual reunification of all creation into a god-figure that was not the Christian Trinity; and that the devil and the fallen angels and animals would all be saved, i.e., incorporated back into the “One.” For this last idea especially, he was condemned as a heretic after he died.
What is Neoplatonism?
Neoplatonism was a new version of the teaching of the Greek philosopher Plato. It was a mixture of Egyptian religion, Platonism, and Greek and other non-Christian and Eastern philosophies. It also included magical practices, with an emphasis on demons. It is truly a doctrine of demons that has endured throughout the centuries and has exerted considerable influence within the Christian Church.
Augustine was a Neoplatonist before his conversion under the influence of the Christian Neoplatonist Ambrose of Milan. After becoming a Christian he became somewhat critical of Neoplatonism, especially about following demons, and the fact that the system didn’t have any place for Christ. However, he continued to hold some Neoplatonist attitudes, though not necessarily consciously. For example, he continued to view marriage as a lower state than celibacy (asceticism).
Neoplatonism was a little different than Gnosticism, mainly in that the Gnostics tended to view the world as evil, whereas the Neoplatonists tended to view it as just very low on the totem pole. But both the Gnostics and the Neoplatonists viewed achieving salvation as going up a spiritual “ladder,” attaining more and more knowledge and holiness until they finally returned to the godhead they supposedly came from. It definitely wasn’t salvation through faith by grace as taught in the Scriptures (see Ephesians 2).
What most people think of as Gnosticism in the early Church is what is called “negative” Gnosticism, but Neoplatonism could be described as a “positive” Gnosticism. Positive gnosis is very much like that view held by Neoplatonists and, in modern times, by people like C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.[ii]
The kinds of teachings that Origen favored have persisted all throughout church history, and they are still influential today. They all fit under the general category of Hermeticism.
Hermeticism, Dan Brown, and Harry Potter
To date, I have written extensively about Romanticism (see previous posts). Due to my continuing research, however, I have come to view Romanticism as the more general movement (or tradition) of an ancient tradition known as Hermeticism.
We can view Neoplatonism as the philosophical arm of Hermeticism, but Hermeticism also includes the practice of magic and alchemy.
Hermeticism was essentially just an umbrella for a wide variety of occult teachings and practices.[iii] It is basically Egyptian mythology and theology, which gathered pagan teachings from many different cultures under the name of a mystical figure: Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice graced”). Hermes was considered a great prophet, a great priest, and a great king. (Sound familiar?—like Christ?)
The Egyptian name for Hermes Trismegistus was Thoth (the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic). The Romans called him Mercury, and the Greeks called him Hermes, which gives us the word hermetic, i.e., hidden or sealed.
As we will see, as Hermeticism developed, some of its practitioners were considered Christians. They attempted to integrate it with true Christianity—and even to replace true Christianity with it. A long history of these teachings exists woven into the development of the Christian Church, especially among Roman Catholic and Orthodox monks.
A highly honored manual of Neoplatonism written by someone called ‘Pseudo-Dionysus’[iv] appeared in the 5th or early 6th century. Pseudo-Dionysus “acquired almost apostolic authority” among Christians (see here).[v] (The Pseudo—meaning “false”—comes from the fact that the man who wrote it was not the real Dionysus, who was an associate of St. Paul.)
The book brought this type of teaching into monastic thinking where it continues today, especially within Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. Accepting these teachings as Christian is a harmful fraud; they are actually disguised paganism. One of the evil results of these teachings is the diminishing of the importance of family and the very creation itself, that God made man male and female and created marriage. Asceticism distorts the Word of the Lord and is anti-family. (The Book of Colossians warns about this false mysticism and asceticism.)
This influence has continued up until today and is rapidly growing in the Christian Church. Amazingly, many contemporary Protestants continue this view. It partakes of the double view of paganism that the body is both something to be worshipped, through sex, and something to be rejected. Later blog posts and articles will go into this influence and discuss some of its practitioners in the Church in detail.
Fast-forward now to the Renaissance in the 1400s and to a very influential family in Florence called the Medicis.
Lorenzo de Medici (called “Lorenzo the Magnificent”) was a major Renaissance leader who had two talents: making money and sponsoring art and literature on the model of ancient Greece. Under his influence, a scholar named Facino translated some manuscripts from Greek into Latin (read in Italy at the time by the educated classes). These teachings, a set of books called The Corpus Hermeticum, became well known by scholars in the Renaissance and influenced many of the Church leaders.
During this period, an idea developed about gathering all religions together as one, in a way very similar to what is happening today through the World Council of Churches and other syncretistic[vi] movements. These hermetic teachings were the unifying factor.
Amazingly, at the same time, the teachings of the mystical Jewish books called The Cabbala were enthusiastically incorporated into this scheme. They taught many things similar to Hermeticism, and their promoters even called them “The Christian Cabbala.” This tradition still exists today. (Cabbala is spelled many different ways.) The main difference between Hermeticism and the Cabbala was the Cabbala’s emphasis upon divination through the Hebrew words and letters of the Old Testament. The currently popular book, The Harbinger, is another version of Cabbalism.
A lot of these writings incorporated mythological stories and themes, as well as secret writings, mystical imagery, and symbols. While Hermeticism was becoming popular, it was still treated as a mystery religion, suitable only for the initiated—the wealthy and educated.
Hermeticism in the heart of the Protestant Reformation
One aspect of this strange history that is very difficult for me to cope with is that this strong Hermetic influence was not confined to Roman Catholicism. In fact, there was an explosion of interest in Hermeticism among Protestants. And, the center of this “Christian” Hermeticism ended up actually being in Germany shortly after the Reformation. After the upsurge of so-called “Christian” Hermeticism in Germany, similar upsurges occurred in Great Britain and other European countries.
Following are a few examples.
Sebastian Franck was a former Roman Catholic priest who became a Reform preacher in the 1500s. He was also a major supporter of Hermeticism. The following quote exposes his real teaching:
“Franck derived his image of Hermes, as he acknowledges, largely from Ficino, though he clearly assigns a distinctly earlier date to Hermes: he was a contemporary of Abraham and thus clearly antedated Moses. Franck’s interpretation of Hermeticism was far more radical, however, in that he considered the Hermetic writings to be a pagan replacement for Christianity and for Judeo-Christian revelation. The Pimander contained ‘all that is necessary for a Christian to know.’”[vii] [The Pimander was a name for The Corpus Hermeticum mentioned earlier.]
This is just an example of how highly regarded Hermeticism was, even in the heart of the Protestant Reformation. The young Luther tended to look favorably upon some of these Hermetic and mystical writings, but later in his life he called Hermeticism fanaticism.
Hermeticism in the Service of Promoting Tolerance
Christian apologetics had used Hermeticism to demonstrate that the Christian religion was consistent with the philosophy and theology of the ancient world. By the sixteenth century, however, circumstances had changed, and Christianity had become the cultural matrix, but, even then, Hermeticism served to indicate the compatibility of various cultures and religions. Indeed, once again Hermeticism served Christian apologetics.” (Same article, Kindle location: 1763, my bolding]
[Note: This same practice occurs in the 20th century in the apologetic works of C. S. Lewis and his fellow “Inkling,” Charles Williams.]
Jacob Bohme. Bohme was a strange man—a sixteenth century shoemaker who started having visions. He represents a turning point of the influence of Hermetic philosophy because he tried to make it an acceptable aspect of Lutheranism.
“Bohme is a turning point in the history of Hermetic philosophy. Hermeticism and Christianity had always been strange bedfellows, and as we have seen, much of Hermetic thought—such as its conception of the divine or semi-divine status of man—is heretical by Christian standards. [Giordano] Bruno [a Dominican priest] even went so far as to advocate the abandonment of Christianity and the return to a Hermetic, ‘Egyptian’ religion. Bohme, in effect, acted to prevent the self-destruction of Hermetic philosophy in the face of its clear conflict with the dominant, orthodox faith. David walsh writes that ‘For the new occult philosophy to work, the old Christian philosophy must be redirected. The individual with the theoretical genius to effect their reconciliation and, thereby, become the transmitter of the new symbolism to the modern world was Jakob Bohme.’”[viii]
Bohme used Christian terminology but changed the real meanings. For instance, he used the word trinity, but definitely not in a Biblical sense. His influence extended even to England where he was quite popular. The English mystic William Law promoted his writings, which even influenced John and Charles Wesley for a while. Fortunately, they later turned away from Law’s influence.
Contemporary Examples of Hermeticism
Some obvious examples of contemporary Hermeticism in English literature can be seen in Dan Brown’s books, especially The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, as well as the immense popularity of imaginative, magical literature. This genre includes Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as his lesser-known Silmarillion, along with the fiction of C. S. Lewis. More recently, there is the popularity of the Harry Potter series and Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which includes The Golden Compass.
In summary, the above facts give but a taste of the pervasive, corrupting influence of Hermetic thought and practice upon the Christian Church historically. Unfortunately, this influence has never died away, and today it is expanding with great speed within the Church. In coming posts, we will see that it is alive and spreading unconsciously through the teachings of many well-known Christian leaders.
[i] I’ve encountered confusion about the term orthodoxy. One pastor I knew actually said orthodoxy means when a pastor wears a suit, but in reality it’s the solid core of biblical theology, included in the main Christian creeds and in the teachings of the Apostles: the Virgin birth, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming; and including justification by faith in Christ alone through grace alone.
[ii] This concept of positive and negative gnosis is described in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 22.
[iii] Also known as the Western Esoteric Tradition. It basically views humanity as on a spiritual path to return to unity with the Divine.
[iv] Although Wikipedia states that the works of Pseudo-Dionysus were “mystical and show strong Neo-Platonist influence,” it still calls him a “Christian theologian and philosopher.” You can see the confusion I mentioned above.
[v] “Since Pseudo-Dionysius represented himself as St. Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian member of the judicial council, the Areopagus, who was converted instantly by St. Paul, his work, strictly speaking, might be regarded as a successful ‘forgery’, providing him with impeccable Christian credentials that conveniently antedated Plotinus by over two hundred years. So successful was this stratagem that Dionysius acquired almost apostolic authority, giving his writings enormous influence in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance…” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[vi] Syncretism is the uniting of religious ideas that conflict with one another.
[vii] The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times by Florian Ebeling. Cornell University Press, November 11, 2011. Kindle Edition. Location: 1735.
[viii] Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition by Glenn Alexander Magee. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2001. The quote at the end of the quote comes from footnote 60: David Walsh, “A Mythology of Reason,” 151.