Essay / Theology

Gnostic on Purpose (Austin Farrer)

Anglican theologian Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was brilliant and/but/because idiosyncratic. The book A Hawk Among Sparrows: A Biography of Austin Farrer by Philip Curtis (London: SPCK, 1985) documents a volatile early phase of his thinking that is instructively peculiar. During this phase, Farrer played with a few ideas that he never directly published about, so Curtis’ detailed intellectual biography is the only place I’ve seen them (documented from letters and such).

It seems to have been near the end of his time as a student at Baillol College, Oxford (or with the next couple of years), that Farrer began to investigate early Gnosticism, with a particular goal in mind. As Curtis notes, while doing work on the New Testament,

He moved on to the study of Gnosticism, convinced 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.

Farrer expressed interest in using what he called a “Gnostic logic,” that is, whatever underlying pattern of thought it was that made Gnosticism work as a religious movement, to get at the meaning of the sacraments and the incarnation. You can get some sense of what that must have meant for him by the contrast provided: “St. Paul was not a rationalist.” So it seems that, over against a rationalistic account of what it means to participate in the Christian religion, Farrer wanted to describe an atmosphere of mystery.

But why call it Gnostic? I think the word had a different set of connotations in the 1920s, at least in some scholarly quarters. Some of the leading academic New Testament scholars had long been working with a history-of-religions approach that treated the New Testament as one of the artifacts of a wider movement of thought. Rudolf Bultmann, in particular, asserted that there was such a thing as a Gnostic Redeemer Myth that was generally available before the time of Christ, and that the apostles used that myth to express the meaning of Christ. Persian religions, so the story went, had spread in a westerly direction, talking about a heavenly man who came down from the world of light and spread the secret knowledge of that higher world here in this darkened lower world; this secret knowledge gave its initiates the power to be delivered from bondage, to be redeemed. The earliest Christians found this mythological way of talking useful for expressing themselves when they tried to explain who Jesus was and what he had accomplished: He was the actual Gnostic Redeemer, the man who came down from above and told us how to go back up to the light.

For a couple of generations of scholarship, that seemed to explain almost everything. But one of the many problems with it is that it lacked supporting evidence: nobody ever came up with any documentary instances of a gnosticism that pre-dated Christianity, certainly not the kind of plug-and-play mythic structure that Jesus could simply be inserted into to produce the New Testament. While the evidence kept failing to materialize, History-of-Religions critics adopted various temporizing strategies like calling it “early Gnosticism” or “incipient Gnosticism,” finally admitting it was “hypothetical gnosticism” or, more honestly, “diffuse elements which would later come together in the form of Gnosticism several decades after Christianity was already established.” By now, a very wide consensus of critical biblical scholarship regards the  Gnostic Redeemer Myth as a mirage of the early twentieth century. It still appeals to the popular mind in various ways, and even among scholars it continues to exert some subliminal influence: As Clint Arnold points out, its presuppositions have been cooked into some of the standard reference works that continue to be so useful.

But it’s pretty likely that young Austin Farrer may have believed that there was such a thing as pre-Christian gnosticism, and that its basic pattern somehow informed the New Testament. He may have thought that the best way to read Paul, for example, was not as some sort of logical positivist (another element of the intellectual climate of an Oxford undergrad in the early 20th century), but as a Gnostic, as somebody whose words were meant to evoke awareness of the spiritual traffic between a higher and a lower world.

Farrer apparently worked some of these ideas out in a letter to his father, a Congregationalist who had borne his son’s conversion to tractarian Anglicanism cheerfully enough, but wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of Austin moving beyond Anglo-Catholicism to Gnosticism. Patching things up in a letter to his mother, Farrer admitted he was hashing out ideas somewhat carelessly:

I hope father is not annoyed with my controversiality. I am only disputing with everybody possible in the hope of making up my own mind. He need not be afraid that I shall say any of the things I now say in a year’s time. But I will have a connected and rational theology or perish in the attempt.

He went on to question whether he’d picked the right terminology:

I’m afraid I’ve used Gnosticism wrongly for sacramentalism, for a tendency which in Gnosticism reaches a caricature of itself: but if there was not something akin to Philonism in the way of thinking in which Jesus grew up, he is impossible! Was there not Philonism in the Son of Man Christology? Or even more in the idea that one could be an ordinary man and at the same time (in a second sense, as it were) that Heavenly Being? Did not degenerate Platonism in ceasing to be philosophy become the true ‘logic’ of religion, and are we not right in viewing our faith through the eyes of the early gentile Church?

This is clearer, but still has a few too many buried (and dubious) presuppositions about Philonism and the “early gentile church.” But you can see what Farrer is after in the phrase “the true ‘logic’ of religion.” He doesn’t want to turn back the clock to the whole neoplatonic synthesis, but he does want to reach into the New Testament itself and draw out the way of thinking that underlies what its authors wrote. Later, Farrer states this task much more clearly:

So the business of theology 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?

That, finally, is beginning to take on a shape that we might recognize in Farrer’s more developed work. He would later describe his lifetime intellectual project in more Thomist-sounding terms, as “to understand how the first cause works through the secondary causes by using and not overriding the activity proper to their created nature.” But at this early stage he was reaching out for a name to describe how Christian claims work at all: how is Jesus God and man, how does salvation come to us from him? The first word he found for it was “Gnostic,” but he quickly moved on to less delphic ways of talking.

There’s one more link in Farrer’s flirtation with the Gnostic terminology, though, and I think you can see it in the way he consistently brackets incarnation and sacraments as one single phenomenon to be accounted for. Farrer can be immensely nourishing for evangelicals to read, but there is something in his temperament that is profoundly un-evangelical, perhaps even anti-evangelical. Reflecting on his Congregational upbringing, he once wrote, “I had been reared in a personalism which might satisfy the most ardent of Dr. Buber’s disciples. I thought myself as set over against deity as one man faces another across a table.” And he was perplexed that among all the entities we are surrounded by, this one person, God, never appears, says hello, or makes a move that can be picked out from the movements of the other agents. Oddly, it was reading the pantheism of Spinoza (though of course disagreeing with its ultimate metaphysical claims) that shocked him out of that objective sort of personalism. Instead of thinking of God as sitting across the table form him, Farrer said

I would see him as the underlying cause of my thinking, especially those thoughts in which I tried to think of him. I would dare to hope that sometimes my thoughts would become diaphanous, so that there should be some perception of the divine cause shining through the created effect, as a deep pool settling into a clear tranquility permits us to see the spring from which the waters rise.

Farrer found this more satisfying, and could no longer quite understand the more intensely personal way of talking about encounters with God (“this is why, when the Germans set their eyeballs and pronounce the terrific word, ‘He speaks to thee,’ I am sure indeed that they are saying something, but I am still more sure that they are not speaking to my condition”).

But Farrer also knew that God had to be presented to us somehow. It was not enough to relegate God to the ubiquitous background; he had to take the stage sometime, somehow. The answer, for Farrer, was in  that compound notion, incnarnation-and-sacraments. As a friend would later paraphrase Farrer’s understanding of God’s objectivity toward us:

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.

And to describe the logic of that, Farrer temporarily lighted on the word “Gnosticism,” waving his hand toward Philonism and the “early gentile church.”

Farrer had the good judgment not to use this terminology in his more considered writings. Likely he registered the word’s connotations (“a caricature of sacramentalism,” not the real thing), and perhaps he began to see the fraying edges of the theory of a pre-Christian gnosticism. But it seems that he retained his commitment to the notion of the necessity of incarnation-and-sacraments as the nexus of God’s saving, physical availability to creatures.

One interesting usage note, provoked by the fact that Farrer could even temporarily consider “Gnostic” a word worth using for his own views. In recent decades it has become fashionable to wield the word “Gnostic” as a term of abuse for opponents who do not value creation, the body, or concrete, institutional realities adequately –or whose views can be rhetorically extrapolated in that direction for polemical effect. One version of that argument is fairly routinely deployed by combatants with a higher sacramentalism, against those with a lower one. I don’t know when the argument took hold, but for some reason it currently seems to offer great explanatory power to its users: those on the lower end of the sacramental scale are Gnostic. Sometimes it is used as constructive self-criticism, as in “we need to recycle and compost and not be Gnostic.” What seems to be happening there is that one element of Gnosticism has been selected as the key identifier (Gnostics certainly did deny the reality or the goodness of bodies), whereas a very different element was selected by Farrer. He thought of Gnostic logic as the best grounding for his high sacramentalism. It’s an ironic reversal of polarity, though I don’t intend to start calling people with a higher view of sacraments Gnostic. Then again, I’ve never found the charge useful, explanatory, clarifying, or clever when it ran the other direction.


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