What is it about ‘Gnosticism’?
It just doesn’t seem to go away … or has it? Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ brought it to the attention of millions around the world and it seems to be a trendy (and often exploited) topic within popular culture.
But what is it? Is it a philosophy or religion? Maybe both? Could it actually be a … wait for it … a theosophy?
Do Christians really need to know about “Gnosticism”? Don’t we have enough to do … like deciding if we really need Windows 7?
Gnosticism is really an umbrella term used to describe a varied religious movement or religious thought existing in the ancient world possibly from about 80 A.D. to the middle of the third century. It was composed of a variety of movements, leaders and sects. It was syncretistic – there is much Greek thought, Oriental cosmology, Jewish thought, Oriental mythology as well as orthodox Christian teachings within its borders. So, rather than being a religion, a singular movement (such as today’s Charismatic Movement) or philosophy; it is more accurate to term it a ‘theosophy’ – in the primitive sense of this word, not the modern version.
There are those who dislike the term ‘Gnosticism’ and I think that this is worth noting. Ralph P. Martin prefers the term ‘gnosis’. He writes:
Gnosis is a descriptive title for ATTITUDE TO LIFE and INTERPRETATION OF HUMAN EXISTENCE expressed in certain literary sources in antiquity. By nature and composition, ‘gnosis’ (this word is preferable to “gnosticism”, which may suggest something FORMALIZED and RIGID) is syncretistic… (emphasis mine). (1)
Michael Horton, writing in 2008, draws attention to the ongoing debate about ‘Gnosticism’. In ‘Christless Christianity’ he writes:
Scholars are still debating the exact relationship between the New Testament and Gnosticism. While Gnosticism became a loosely organised movement with various sects only in the second century, incipient forms were already emerging in Jewish and Christian circles in the apostolic era. (2)
It is this ‘apostolic era’ that will concern us in this article.
The word ‘gnosticism’ is probably derived from the Greek word ‘γν?σις’ meaning ‘knowledge’ , (3) but probably finds its original meaning in ‘revelation’ (4) . I do not want to labour further on the definition of gnosticism, important as it is, or devote time to its origins, because it remains clouded in uncertainty and debate. As Johnson has written,
No one has yet succeeded in defining ‘gnosticism’ adequately, or indeed demonstrating whether this movement preceded Christianity or grew from it. (5)
As mentioned before, there were a variety of schools (leaders and sects), but it lacked concrete organisation. Their common link, however, was in their teachings on three major subjects which occupied the thought of the ancient world as it does today. They are existence, evil and salvation.
Their concept of God was completely unorthodox to Christianity. God was a transcendent (never immanent) Supreme Being without attributes and completely unknowable. He was not to be equated with Jehovah of the Bible. God was too perfect for this world because all matter was evil. He was the head of the PLEROMA (spiritual world of light); never directly associated with this world. Some called the Supreme Being ‘Bythos’.
Emanating from him were about thirty gradations of lesser spiritual beings – each becoming less spiritual the further emanation from Bythos. It is because of this that the Gnostics derive their teaching of the origin of evil, and creation. Bythos lived in the world of Aeons and the lowest of the Aeons was the Demi-urge or the ‘creator god’.
He it was who, through some mischance or fall among the higher aeons, was the immediate source of creation and ruled the world, which was therefore imperfect and antagonistic to what was truly spiritual. (6)
He created the world but did it badly because he was on the fringe of light and darkness. It was a pre-cosmic disaster because evil entered the world. (In some expressions of Gnosticism the creation of the material world resulted from the fall of Sophia). The Demi-urge was equated, by many, with Jehovah of the Bible.
Gnosticism, therefore, is dualistic. There is a great gulf between the good spiritual world and matter which is evil. The former – ‘pleroma’ (fullness); latter, ‘emptiness’.
It is now that we turn to the core of Gnosticism and that of the subject of salvation. Secret ‘gnosis’ was essential to salvation; so it must be asked, “What is this secret gnosis?” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states that it is ‘the supposedly revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and destiny of mankind’ (7) . The source of this knowledge was either in the Apostles who gained it in secret by Jesus or the leader of the Gnostic sect who received it via direct revelation. Therefore, this knowledge could be possessed only by some, the spiritual elite. Paul wrote of ‘super apostles’. (Read 1 Tim. 6:4-5).
Within the spiritual elite were sparks of divine ‘pleroma’ which needed restoration. Jesus, allegedly an Aeon, appears with this secret knowledge and apparently suffers. However, His physical nature is perceived as only an illusion because all matter is evil – including the body. Some Gnostics believed all men had these sparks but they still needed this secret knowledge. This elite group were called the ‘pneumatics’ – their salvation being assured. Some expressions of Gnosticism included 3 groups; the other two being ‘psychic’ (their salvation was possible) and ‘carnal’ (these people were always hopelessly in bondage to their sin and Satan).
Because Christ the Redeemer has redeemed the ‘pneumatics’ they are, therefore, liberated from their bodies. Upon death they travel the planetary spheres of hostile demons to be re-united with the transcendent God, not the ignorant Demi-urge. There are variations of this belief in relation to salvation among Gnostics (who, incidentally, often hated one another) but this, overall, captures the basis of Gnostic thought.
Because matter was evil, some practised a very rigorous form of asceticism abstaining even from many innocent pleasures. Some, in time, degenerated into rigorous forms of sin. Some indulged in intentional sin from the outset because matter was irrelevant to salvation. It was the secret knowledge that was vital. To them, God was uninterested in sin. Their interest lay in the secret knowledge and the redeemer. However, not all viewed Christ as the redeemer. For example, among the Samaritans, Simon Margus (Acts 8) was the redeemer, if we include him as a Gnostic teacher (this is debated). Some do not because he really claimed that salvation involved knowledge in himself rather than secret knowledge from elsewhere.
Other famous Gnostic teachers were Menander; another Samaritan who taught at Antioch. He taught that Christ was not the redeemer and denied eternal life to his followers. Saturninus, who taught that Christ was the redeemer, also taught at Antioch. Cerinthus taught in Asia Minor, Marcion at Rome. Alexandria boasted Basilides and his son; and Carpocrates and his son. It was Basilides, Valentinus and Marcion who were the most powerful Gnostic teachers and they boasted of having many followers.
Many authors emphasise the dangers of Gnosticism. ‘This was a heresy far more subtle and dangerous than any which hitherto appeared’ (Renwick); ‘insidious enemy’ (Prof. Jackson); ‘the greatest of the philosophical threats’ (Cairns) are just 3 authors who paint a picture of a fierce enemy.
There is much debate, still, as to whether the infant church fought Gnosticism. Some see evidence of anti-Gnostic teaching in Paul’s letters to Corinth, Galatia and Colossae. However, the debate continues with many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. I merely mention it. There is a stronger case for John’s first epistle. Some even venture to suggest that John’s Gospel was written to counter early Gnostic teaching. Maybe so; maybe not. It has been mainly R. Bultmann and his followers who ‘believe they can detect both direct and indirect references to Gnosticism in the NT, especially in the writings of John and Paul.’ (8)
However, there is no doubt that the post-apostolic church did face this grave danger. The evidence for this is found in the survived writings of Ireneaus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. It is through orthodox Christian doctrine that the church fought this attack.
Irenaeus (pictured) used the four gospels and other apostolic writings. His most famous work is “The Refutation and Repudiation of False Gnosis” (also known as “Against Heresies”). He exposed Gnostic heresy, laid the basis of Christian doctrine in Scripture and explained a great deal of Biblical theology (e.g., the resurrection). He taught from Scripture of what the Church believed. (9)
The Gnostic attack forced the church to define its theology in light of Scripture and tradition; and to organise itself. These strategies were employed to overcome the danger. Creeds were written and government became features of the re-organised church (e.g., the Rule of Faith).
Therefore, these theologians remain true 'heroes' of the faith.
Irenaeus questioned the historicity of the Gnostic traditions and exposed their faulty ‘hermeneutics’ and faulty ‘exegesis’. The Gnostics failed to measure up to the Rule of the Faith.
Tertullian, however, employed different methods. He denied them recourse to Scripture; used scorn and sarcasm and demeaned “philosophy”. He regarded the Rule of Faith as separate from the Bible but saw it derived from Scripture. He wrote ‘De Praescriptione’ against Gnostics and other heretics.
Clement accommodated, what he saw, as valid Gnostic teaching within his framework.
Origen, one of the most brilliant writers to belong to the church fought Gnosticism doctrinally and effectively.
The developments made by the Church have had lasting significances to the church. God met graciously in time of real need as His people relied on His Word.
However, “Gnosticism” has never really been eradicated completely.
May we be as vigilant as our spiritual forefathers against all the different forms of “gnosticism” that exist today – sometimes, within the church.
1. Ralph P. Martin, The New Testament Foundations. Vol. 2., p. 320.
2. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, pp. 180 - 181
3. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church., p. 573.
4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, p. 452.
5. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, p. 45.
6. (O.D.C.C.) op. cit., p. 573
7. ibid., p. 573
8. Dictionary of the Christian Church., p. 417.
9. A New Eusebius., pp. 93, 94, 96.
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Typed by ERIN; many thanks!.