Identifying Gnostic tendencies in the writings of Arlen L. Chitwood

Arlen L. Chitwood is a severe critic of modern Christianity, arguing that while churches work hard to get people in the door, they do little to instruct the faithful in the pursuits of righteousness. “The world has never seen a group quite like those comprising Christendom today — a group of individuals who could profess so much but really profess so little” (Run to Win, p. viii — link).[2. In this essay, unless otherwise indicated, the emphasis is Chitwood's.] Chitwood believes the leadership of the Church is withholding the fundamental truths of the gospel, particularly dogmas relating to the post-conversion experience of Christianity. He advances that there is a second work of salvation, subsequent to conversion, called “soul salvation.” Those who fail to attain the knowledge of this second work, he warns, will be excluded from the millennial kingdom. He calls this distinctive teaching “Word of the Kingdom.”[3. In private correspondence, Chitwood explained that his teaching should properly be called "Word of the Kingdom;" however, that expression is common among Christians. For technical purposes, I identify his teaching as Kingdom Exclusion, which proposes that the so-called carnal Christian will be excluded from God in the millennial kingdom. Others who maintain this doctrine are notably Watchman Nee, A. Edwin Wilson and J.D. Faust. "Word of the Kingdom," in quotation marks, is employed when speaking of those teachings which are specific to Chitwood's understanding of exclusion. Chitwood sometimes employs "gospel of the glory of Christ," in distinction to the "gospel of the grace of God" (see http://lampbroadcast.org/plets/phtm4/TheMystery.htm, final paragraph.)]

Chitwood denounces today’s ministers for rejecting the “Word of the Kingdom,” for failing to grasp the “original” meaning of scripture.[1. "False Teachers." See http://lampbroadcast.org/plets/ppdf4/False%20T.pdf] He charges that they have utterly rejected God’s commandments. “Matters … have become so far removed from reality in Christendom today that Christianity, from a Biblical perspective, is hardly recognizable. The Word of the Kingdom is ignored, despised, rejected, etc. Christians have done everything with the message but receive, understand, and proclaim it” (False Teachers - link). This denounciation is startling considering Chitwood’s own deficiences as a theologian.

In the first article of this series, I addressed two heresies Chitwood espouses in Salvation of the Soul: first, that Jesus is a trinity within a trinity, and, second, that after the crucifixion Jesus was separated into three persons. This article identifies aspects of his theology that more closely resemble Gnosticism than Christianity, particularly his assertion that the salvation of the soul is realized through the acquisition of knowledge.

I do not assert that there are direct parallels to Gnosticism, but tendencies stemming from his substituting “soul salvation” for sanctification. He so completely recasts the doctrine of sanctification as to invent something new (or novel). However, the novelty is diminished when one compares “soul salvation” to Gnosticism, an ancient heresy. The parallels are at once striking and alarming.

Principally, there are three issues:

  1. Though focused on the post-conversion experience of Christianity, Chitwood is entirely silent on the doctrine of sanctification, going so far as to substitute “soul salvation” for sanctification.
  2. He emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit as a dispenser of knowledge, not as a giver of holiness.
  3. Chitwood proposes that the post-conversion experience of Christianity is a dualistic struggle between aspects of a person’s being. The “spiritual man” must overcome the “soulical man” or else face bodily judgment in the millennial kingdom, i.e. “suffer the hurt of the lake of fire.”

Sanctification as “soul salvation”

The doctrine of sanctification is fundamental. It is the process by which the Holy Spirit “sets aside” or “makes holy” the saints of the Church. And it is one of the promises of the Bible. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22, ESV). Implicit in the doctrine of sanctification is that humans remain passive (though not inactive). They are recipeants of grace, empowered for righteousness, not encumbered by the world or flesh. Through sanctification, the Holy Spirit purifies the believer (cf. Eph. 5:26).

Any discussion of the post-conversion experience of Christianity must invariably include sanctification. Yet in Chitwood’s writings, there is scant reference to it.

This analysis rests principally on an examination of Run to Win and Salvation of the Soul, a study of several of his pamphlets and recorded sermons, and anlysis of private correspondence, which I maintained with the author between 2007 and 2008. Simply put, he does not discuss the doctrine of sanctification in any meaningful way. A computer analysis of his published writings, most of which are available in PDF format, demonstrates that he never comments on sanctification. Rather, he employs “soul salvation” as a substitute for sanctification. This substitution has unwholesome consequences.

First, the work of the Holy Spirit is uniquely confined to the giving of knowledge, not the purification and glorification of the believer, though those ideas are not entirely absent in his writings. The salvation of the soul is difficult and requires much effort.[4. Chitwood grossly extends the meaning of certain metaphors contained within the New Testament beyond their meanings. In Run to Win, he goes so far as to suggest that the race in Paul's letter to the Phillipians is not a mere sprint, but a marathon (see page 19). Problematically, there is no historical data suggesting that athletes ran marathons in ancient times. The first was apparently ran in 1896, at the first Olympics in commemoration of an event from antiquity. Chitwood does not provide footnotes, so it is impossible to understand why he believes Paul was speaking of a marathon and not a sprint.] “Christians come into a knowledge of Christ through time invested in studying God’s Word, through time invested in studying the written Word, which reveals the living Word” (Run to Win, p. 23). While on the one hand this sounds like encouragement to study ones Bible, the unfortunate consequence is that those who have had little time to study (e.g. new believers) are less equipped to accomplish the things necessary for attaining positions in the future kingdom of God.[5. In private correspondence and with the understanding that I was questioning him for research purposes, Chitwood wrote, "Take some time to study the subject, maybe a year or so at the minimum for what you are trying to do. I've been studying this subject since the late '50s, and I'm just now beginning to get a good handle on the matter." I wrote back, mentioning that I had read Run to Win some two years prior to my publishing a paper critical of his teaching, and he replied, "Maybe you need twenty years study, I don't know. Most can handle it in a year or two, some in less time." I was left wondering how I would get on in the intervening 20 years.] “In Heb. 12:1,2, the Spirit of God has provided Christians with instructions concerning how this race [i.e. living the Christian life] after the revealed fashion can be assured that he will finish the contest in a satisfactory manner” (ibid. p. 15). Chitwood then suggests that “positions [in the kingdom] … are to be earned” (ibid.). Without the knowledge of the Word of the Kingdom, Christians are incapable of serving God faithfully.

Second, whereas sanctification is a gift of grace, as we have seen above, “soul salvation” is a conditional work, based on human effort.

Third, “soul salvation” becomes, ultimately, and end unto itself. It is not enough to have faith and live righteously; one must accept the teaching called the “Word of the Kingdom.” The work of sanctification, if it can be said to exist in Chitwood’s system, is believing in the “Word of the Kingdom.”

A final objection is the consideration that, comprehensively, what Chitwood proposes is never advanced in scripture. While the acquisition of knowledge is vital (and indispensable), knowledge of a set of “instructions”[6. For this expression, see Run to Win, p. 15] does not save or sanctify. Paul makes this point painfully clear in his first letter to the Corinthians. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Paul is not advancing anti-intellectualism, but perspective. It is God who works in us that we might work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not that we work out our salvation that God might work in us (see Philip. 2:12-13).

Sanctification recast as “soul salvation”

There are times when Chitwood seems to embrace the traditional undertanding of sanctification. For example, he does affirm that the Holy Spirit indwells and empowers the believer, but that activity is conditional, dependent upon the outcome of a struggle between the different “persons” of a human’s being. Consider the following excerpt from Salvation of the Soul:

“The spiritual man, unlike the soulical man, controls his emotions, feelings, and desires pertaining to his still-present, man-conscious existence. He brings his unredeemed body under subjection and exerts control over the soulical man. This, of course, is not performed within his own power, but within the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is an experience open to redeemed man alone, to an individual who has been made alive spiritually” (p. 10).

Immediately we are confronted with something new, that the Christian experience is a struggle between two forces: the “soulical man” (in concert with the physical body) and the “spiritual man.” As such, “sanctification” or “soul salvation” is the act of the “spiritual man” exerting control over the “soulical man.” One might hear echoes of Romans 7 in this description, but it should be noted that Chitwood views the “spiritual man” and soulical man” as separate persons. He is not describing the inward struggle of conscience, described in Romans 7, but the the struggle between two men.

Though it is not the subject of this paper, one should note that Chitwood views humans as tripartite creatures, having a body, soul and spirit [cf. 1 Thess. 5:23]. This position is not exceptional — many Christians believe the same, though some contend that humans are dichotomous, i.e. having two aspects (body and spirit, where “spirit” and “soul” are synonymous). Yet Chitwood departs wildly from the traditional view of trichonomy, asserting that the aspects of a person’s being are at war with each other, adopting language such as “soulical man” and “spiritual man” to explain this struggle (Salvation of the Soul, p.8). Chitwood is saying that man is himself a trinity, consisting of three persons. It is difficult to know if this is what he actually means to say, but his language seems to invite this interpretation. Strangely, Chitwood applies 2 Cor. 6:14 to individual believers, suggesting again that Chitwood maintains that individuals are two distinct persons. This issue is noted again a little further down in this paper, but suffice it to say here, the passage is grossly misapplied.

How the Holy Spirit can “indwell and empower” a divided being is unclear, but it seems only the “spirit” aspect of a believer is indwelled and empowered; the “soul” aspect is inexplicably excluded. Further, Chitwood seems to be saying that the believer is indwelled and empowered for the purpose of winning a contest, not for the purpose of sanctification or glorification. In his system, sanctification and glorification are dependent upon the work of the believer. “Soul salvation” as a substitute for sanctification is no guarentee of redemption (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22 & 5:5 and Eph. 1:13-14). This fundementally changes the message of the gospel.

Gnostic tendencies

“Soul salvation” more closely resembles Gnosticism, an ancient heresy that flourished in the first few centuries of the modern age. Gnostics held that the natrual world was celestial accident, resulting from the rebellion of a god or demiurge against the supreme being. Gnostics held that the material world is evil and that people need to be freed from it. Salvation, then, involves attaining “secret” knowledge, a knowledge that can free the divine spark (a person’s spiritual essence) from the material world. This is an extreme form of dualism, i.e. a conflict between oppositional forces (the material world vs. non-material being).

Gnostics “adopted” Jesus as their figurehead. They crafted several apocryphal gospels (some are mentioned in The Da Vinci Code). They charged that Christians possessed truth, but not the “hidden” truth that could truly set them free. In short, “catholic” Christians did not preach the full gospel.

In point of fact, Gnostics went further than simply adding additional information to the story of the gospel. In Gnosticism, Jesus did not really die as he did not have a material body. There is no physical resurrection. Gnostics recognized only a “spiritual” resurection.

Chitwood espouses none of this. He affirms that Jesus possessed a physical body, that he “became flesh,” and that Jesus rose bodily. Further, Chitwood affirms that salvation, at least of the “spiritual man,” is by faith only. The “soulical man” and the body are not saved by grace, but by works. In dividing man, salvation and even Jesus into separate parts, Chitwood introduces, perhaps inadvertantly, a number of heresies reflecting Gnostic sensibilities:

  • Dualism: Salvation is a struggle between the “spiritual man” and his material being (the “soulalic man” and the body).
  • Esoteric knowledge: Salvation of the soul/body is effected through knowledge of the “Word of the Kingdom,” which, according to Chitwood, only a minority have received.
  • The Holy Spirit as a “giver” of knowledge: The Holy Spirit does not sanctify, but imparts the “hidden knowledge” which the believer must be faithful to receive.
  • Multiple deities: Though Chitwood does not say that there are multiple deities, dividing Jesus into three persons, which is the effect of his language (see first article in series), essentially asserts this point.
  • Classism: Gnostics held that there existed different types of Christians: the enlightened and the non-enlighted. This stems largely from the idea of “hidden” knowledge, which is not obvious to all people. Chitwood’s frank assertion is that only a few know the complete gospel. He goes so far as to create two classes of Christians: overcomers, those who are fully enlighted, and non-overcomers, those who are saved, but not fully enlighted. The second class will not reign with Jesus in the millennial kingdom, but suffer the hurt of the lake of fire. In essence, they will not be fully saved.

The first three points are the subject of this article. That Chitwood divides Jesus in to separate persons is addressed in a previous article (link). That Chitwood espouses classim will be addressed in a subsequent article.

“Hidden” knowledge

Chitwood’s hermenutical method is somewhat complex. He argues that all scripture consists of types and antitypes, that real events and stories in the Bible are also symbolic. For example, the temple consists of three parts; therefore, man has three parts (he also references 1 Thess. 5:23). Whether or not this method is valid is immaterial; it’s his conclusions that are concerning. The practical concern is that several of Chitwood’s teachings contradict fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

By arguing that all events have symbolic meaning, the Christian is expected to discover more than the plain meaning of scripture. That is a type of “hidden” knowledge. Certainly, the Bible contains symbolic language, but not all events are symbolic. Further, symbols and allegories are explained more often than not (cf. the parable of the sower, Matt. ); their meaning is not actually hidden. But Chitwood carries the thought a step further: only those who are willing to receive the “Word of the Kingdom” can understand the hidden meaning of scripture. And the Holy Spirit, as opposed to sanctifying the believer, is merely the giver of that knowledge.

Thus, a follower of Chitwood’s teachings must embrace a particular method of interpretation. But because the church has not followed this particular method of interpretation, “very few Christians have any comprehension of the message at all.” [7. False Teachers, page 6] The knowledge of the “gospel of the glories of Christ” is now hidden. “Anyone can understand facts within revealed Biblical history (saved or unsaved man). This would pertain more to the letter of the matter. But only the saved can go beyond the letter to the spirit (II Cor. 3:6-16). Only the saved can understand the spiritual lessons drawn from history. Only the saved can look within Biblical history and see spiritual content.”[8. Types and Antitypes, http://lampbroadcast.org/TSOS8.html]. Here, Chitwood suggests there is meaning that goes beyond “revealed Biblical history,” which the believer must acquire. To complicate matters, the gospels and letters of the New Testament do speak of “hidden” things, but the hidden things of the New Testament, a published work, are hidden in plain view. Chitwood proposes much more. The “spiritual content” can be hidden even from the believer… “few Christians have any comprehension of the message at all.”

A prominent example is Chitwood’s interpretation of the Christian life, which he envisions as a journey from Egypt to Canaan. According to Chitwood, one should see exact correspondences between the “revealed Biblical history” of the Hebrews departing from Egypt and the Christian life.[8. Run to Win, p. 3] So, as some Israelites failed to reach the promised land, so, too, some Christians will fail to attain the Kingdom of God. Certainly parallels between the Old Testament and New Testament exist, but Chitwood grossly overstates their significance at times. That some Christians will fail to reach the “promised land” (an antitype) or the Kingdom of God (the type) is never contemplated in scripture. There simply is no reference to such an idea, except in Chitwood’s construction. (See also my article this subject).

It is thus proposed that Chitwood diminishes the Holy Spirit, confining the work of the Holy Spirit to the giving of knowledge singularly. Two quotations from Salvation of the Soul illustrate this point:

“One aspect of salvation is past [the redemption of the "spiritual man"]. The individual presently possesses eternal life, and nothing can ever change or nullify this fact. But the individual has been saved for a purpose, which will be brought to pass only within the framework of his realizing present and future aspects of salvation” (p. 12).

“Once the salvation of the spirit has been effected, making it possible for the indwelling Spirit of God to impart spiritual truth into and control an individual’s life through his own spirit, then man’s unredeemed soul occupies the center of attention. The salvation of the soul, unlike the salvation of the spirit, is conditional. The salvation of the soul is dependent on the life one lives after his spirit has been saved. It is dependent on the individual allowing the Spirit of God to impart spiritual truth into and control his life through his own spirit.

An individual allowing the Spirit of God to impart spiritual truth into and control his life through his own spirit progressively grows from immaturity to maturity. He progressively grows into a spiritually mature Christian. Growing in this manner, he exerts control over his emotions, feelings, and desires pertaining to his man-conscious (soulical) existence. And, through this means, he will ultimately come into a realization of the salvation of his soul (life).

On the other hand, an individual who refuses to allow the Spirit of God to impart spiritual truth into and control his life in the preceding manner can only remain a carnally immature Christian” (p. 13).

What is extraordinary in these examples is that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely to impart knowledge. That the Holy Spirit imparts truth is an accepted biblical truth (cf. 1 John 2:27), but the Holy Spirit also sanctifies (cf. 2 Cor. 3:17-18). Yet Chitwood never mentions sanctification. One notes that he does talk of the Holy Spirit controlling the life of the believer, except he does not call this sanctification, but salvation. Further, “soul salvation” is conditional, “dependent on the life one lives after his spirit has been saved” (p. 13). And further still, it is not the Holy Spirit that saves the “soulical man” but the “spiritual man,” who must “realize” the truth.

There is one other peculiarity to note. Chitwood writes that the salvation of ones soul comes by “allowing the Spirit of God to impart spiritual truth into and control his life through his own spirit.” This sentiment is not particularly supported in the scriptures. Certainly, a believer can walk after the flesh, but that “allowing” the Holy Spirit to work constitutes a rejection of the flesh makes the Holy Spirit a passive recipient of the believer’s choice. The Holy Spirit is not portrayed as a weak force, waiting for the believer to “allow” his work. Rather, the Holy Spirit takes hold of the believer upon his confession, indwells the believer and transforms him. The believer becomes the passive recipient, and once the believer has the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will not depart him.

The Holy Spirit is but a player of a part

Within Chitwood’s system of theology, the salvation of ones soul depends on one realizing the “Word of the Kingdom,” not exclusively one believing in the cross of Christ. Traditional Christianity maintains that salvation, in whatever form, is unconditional. Chitwood contructs faith as a struggle between the “spiritual (saved) man” and the “soulical (unsaved) man,” placing the Holy Spirit as an intermediary between the two. The biblical perspective is that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the whole person (cf. 1 Thess. 5:23), that man is a whole being. Chitwood advances the opposite. In an extraordinary section of Salvation of the Soul, he writes,

Within this unredeemed body lie two opposing entities, each seeking dominion — a redeemed spirit, and an unredeemed soul. The unredeemed soul is housed in an unredeemed body, and the two are mutually compatible. But the redeemed spirit housed alongside an unredeemed soul in an unredeemed body experiences no compatibility with either of the other two at all. Compatibility is not possible, for “what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” (II Cor. 6:14).

This construction is frankly bizarre — 2 Cor. 6:14 is his authority for the disunion of man? — and it is heretical. First, the salvation of the Cross does not, according to Chitwood, redeem the whole person. Instead, the “spiritual man” must subdue the “soulical” man for salvation to be fully realized. Second, the believer is caught in a dualistic struggle between good and evil, and only through knowledge of the “Word of the Kingdom” can the believer overcome the “soulical man.” Third, the “salvation of the soul” ultimately devolves into salvation by works, for righteousness is reckoned according to ones effort.

That none of this resembles orthodox Christianity is the critical point of this essay. Chitwood so completely departs from orthodoxy, that his ideas are native more to Gnosticism than Christianity. Thus, not only is his denunciation of today’s ministers unjustified, it is outlandish. That one should boast that he has committed his entire ministry to the explanation of Christian living (i.e. post-conversion Christianity), and yet never mentions sanctification, is painful.

————————–

Postscript: I would like to comment on my method of investigation. I first encountered the writings of Arlen L. Chitwood in 2005. They had been recommended by several members of the fellowship I attend. I had immediate misgivings, namely that Chitwood seemed to be espousing salvation by works. I also questioned Chitwood’s understanding of the Trinity and hypothesized that the trouble lay in Chitwood’s peculiar understanding of humans, which I suspected he projected to the Trinity. Unfortunately, Chitwood only comments on the Trinity in Salvation of the Soul, and I had, at that time, only read Run to Win and some of his theological pamphlets. Others suggested in e-mail correspondence that Chitwood espoused a form of Modalism, the idea that the members of the Trinity are simply manifestations of one God, not three Persons of the Trinity. Modalism was condemned as heresy in the early centuries of the faith, but it is not a sustainable charge against Chitwood. He does appear to accept that the members of the Godhead are indeed Persons, in the theological sense native to the Trinity. However, his understanding of the Trinity is so confused as to make his commentary on the Trinity unintelligible.

As I expanded my research, I began to sense that Chitwood espoused a teaching resembling, in many ways, Gnosticism. I was not alone in this suspicion, but I believe I am the first to document it. I hope that I have been careful not to say that Chitwood is a Gnostic: he is not. However, his views reflect Gnosticism more than they reflect orthodox Christianity. I do not understand what drives an apparently devout Christian to set aside plain meanings for esoteric meanings, but I believe there is a spiritual principle involved. Chitwood’s condemnation of “Christendom” — pretty much anyone who does not subscribe to his views — further concerns me. My hope, my prayer, is that my essays will stimulate serious conversation on the matter. I welcome comments and criticism both here at Agabus.com and by e-mail.

© 2009, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Identifying Gnostic tendencies in the writings of Arlen L. Chitwood”

  1. I have never read Mr. Chitwood, and yet from my own study of scripture have seen some of his conclusions concerning the walk of the believer. What is distasteful to most believers is the idea of distinction and differences among the household of God that will be recognized after the judgment seat of Christ. Under the umbrella of salvation by grace, most believers believe that we all will be together as one big happy family in eternity.

    One thing that makes this idea susceptible is what scripture closes with in the form of a warning to the churches. John writes that “if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.: Rev.22:18 This is already a truth of scripture that comes out of Prov.30:6 “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”

    Why is this to the church? Because in the next verse, vs 19, comes a solemn warning as it pertains to eternity. Taking away from the words of the book of this prophecy, brings exclusion by God “out of the book of life”, ones “part” out of the holy city and “the things which are written in this book.”

    Since salvation is by grace, and saves us from a devils hell for all eternity, the meaning of these last verses must be applied to the believer. That means, the way we walk and think will have an impact on what we will experience throughout eternity with the Lord. Paul wrote, “knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the [ reward of the inheritance ] for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.” Col.3:24-25

    Col.3:24-25 has eternity in view, with the judgment seat of Christ as the determining event for things which shall be hereafter for the believer. There is an edge to Mr. Chitwoods teaching that should provoke one to study. From what I read in your comments, there is assumption on your part as to the intent and meaning of Mr. Chitwoods teachings.

    The believer has been created in Christ Jesus “unto good works”, that God hath before ordained that we [ should ] walk in them. Eph.2:10 The question is, what if we don’t walk in them? The usual come back on this is that if someone doesn’t walk in them, they should question if they are truly saved. Instead, where are the bible teachers who address the walk of a believer. Paul did this often. 1 Cor.5:9-10, 1 Cor.3:15

    Sincerely,

    In Christ, Terry Price.

  2. Strange that you should quote Ephesians, and yet be compelled to “add to them.” Here, Paul states clearly that we were made to walk in good works, yet he is not compelled to say that if you don’t, you will lose the salvation of your soul. If Paul meant to say as much, he would have said so.

    You write, “The question is, what if we don’t walk in them?” Only a carnal mind contemplates such a question. The spiritual man does not acknowledge such a question. He hears God’s word and replies, “Amen.” The carnal man is a judge; he is one who thinks he rightly judges his own actions and his neighbor’s.

    In Christianity, there is no middle way. There are two ways: one of life, one of death. Chitwood creates a third way. He imagines a punishment that is absent in scripture (no mention of Christians having a part in the lake of fire — I don’t know how he says that with a straight face), and he imagines a type of Christianity that makes living in the flesh a possibility (compare this against Paul’s words in Rom. 6).

    I would advise you to read Chitwood’s writings before coming to his defense. Or, am I to conclude that you also believe that salvation is conditional?

    Answer this one question: is the soul EVER saved UNCONDITIONALLY by GRACE through FAITH?

    I say, “YES!”

    What do you say?

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