Gnosticism

Kurt Dahlin February 24, 2000

Gnosticism derived its name from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. The name Gnosticism comes from the fact that it promised salvation through a secret knowledge or gnosis possessed only by its devotees. Gnosticism expressed itself in a variety of pagan, Jewish and Christian forms. It was a philosophical and religious movement that influenced the Mediterranean world from the 1st century BC to the 3d century AD. Gnosticism reached its height of influence from about A.D. 135 to 160 and presented an urgent challenge for the church to define the true nature of Jesus Christ.

 

Gnosticism flourished in the second century and was extremely syncretistic. Gnosticism borrowed from Persian dualism, Babylonian astrology, and Hellenistic mythology. A pervasive dualism underlay much of Gnostic thought. Good and evil, light and darkness, truth and falsehood, spirit and matter were opposed to each other in human experience. God and his wife existed as a single eternal principle called the Pleroma from which other divine spirit beings or aeons were created in a descending order. The doctrine of emanations or aeons descending from God in the "Pleroma" was probably of Egyptian origin. The lower aeons or semi-divine spirit beings liaison between the absolute God/Pleroma (monism) and the evil material world.   The dualistic nature of Gnosticism originates from an initial monism. Gnostic teachers drew from many sources that make tracing the origins of Gnosticism ambiguous. Despite the complex diversity of Gnostic groups and their teachings, the basic doctrines of Gnosticism form an identifiable pattern of belief and practice. The created universe resulted from a cosmic tragedy. As a consequence, a radical disjunction occurred between the real spiritual realm and the illusionary physical world. Gnostics taught that sparks of deity became entrapped in the physical world. The spirit is a part of the divine substance and has fallen into this world as a prisoner of matter. The material world is evil. Gnostic soteriology consisted in the liberation of the spirit that was enslaved in the body. Since we are enslaved with matter we are unable to know eternal truth by our own means. It is therefore necessary for a messenger to be sent from the spirit world to bring us revelation. These could be freed only by saving knowledge or gnosis that was revealed to the spiritual elite by a transcendent messenger from the spirit world, variously identified as Seth (one of the sons of Adam), Jesus, or some other figure. This heavenly messenger in Christianized Gnosticism will be Christ. Renunciation of physical desires and strict asceticism, combined with mystical rites of initiation and purification were thought to liberate the immortal souls of believers from the prison of physical existence. Reunion with divine spiritual reality was accomplished after a journey of the soul through intricate systems of hostile powers. The Gnostics also borrowed certain aspects of Christianity most valuable to their system and adapted them for their own purposes. It then became necessary for the church to clearly define Christian doctrine and show the misrepresentation of Gnosticism.

 

Gnosticism was pre-Christian in its origin and found much in Christianity that it could absorb. However, since the material world is evil, Christ could not have had a real incarnation. Jesus would not become a real man. The Gnostics explained his appearance as docetic or merely having the ghostly appearance of a man (Walker 51-53). The god of the Gnostics was not the Creator God of the Old Testament. Their New Testament, Gnostic redeemer had no real incarnation, death or resurrection.

 

 

The Ethics of the Gnostics Divide into Two Opposing Schools

·          The First Form: Gnostics were extremely ascetic. Whatever good there is in us is found in our spirit since the body is evil by nature. Therefore, one is to subject the body to severe and rigorous discipline in order to live an ascetic life, denying all earthly pleasures. 

·          The Second Form were libertine: Gnostics had determined that whatever the body does, by way of indulging earthly pleasures, makes no difference since it cannot damage the purity of the spirit (Gonzalez 126-129). 

 

Gnostics Differed from Christians in Three Important Areas

·          The Universe

Gnosticism saw in the material world, not the work of a good God but the work of a demiurge: an inferior emanation or aeon. The world was created by this inferior and evil or ignorant being.  To the Gnostic, the world was worthless and evil.

The Christian doctrine of creation affirms that all things were made good by a good God who still acts in the history of the world.

·          The Body

Gnosticism viewed salvation as the liberation of the divine spiritual nature from the prison of the evil human body. 

Christian doctrine affirms that salvation included the human body. God's final plan for salvation will not take place without the resurrection of the body.  Jesus' resurrection was bodily. 

·          The Nature of Jesus Christ

Gnosticism determined that Jesus could not have come in human flesh. Matter is evil and a created product of an evil, inferior spirit being. Therefore, the body could not serve as a vehicle for the supreme messenger of God.  So, Jesus did not truly become human. The Gnostics are led to a Christology that is known as Docetism, which is the Greek word: to seem, appear or suppose. Christ came as an apparition or ghostly figure but not as a true man. He only seemed or appeared to have a body. 

Christian doctrine affirms that Jesus of Nazareth is the full revelation of God.  Jesus is the very substance of God, being equal to God. Jesus is not merely a created semi-divine spirit being. Jesus came in bodily form, lived, suffered, died and rose again (Gonzalez 130-131).

 

THE ORIGIN OF GNOSTICISM

 

Associated in legend with Simon Magus, the Samaritan sorcerer mentioned in Acts 8:9‑24, Gnosticism probably originated in the Near East as a synthesis of Oriental and Greek ideas before the advent of Christianity. It comes from very ancient tradition that Simon was the founder of this new syncretistic religion. The patristic accounts unanimously regard Simon Magus (Acts 8) as the founder of Christian Gnosticism. Simon was followed by Menander who taught at Antioch during the first century.  Cerinthus was a contemporary of Polycarp of Smyrna, who lived in Ephesus towards the end of the first century. Cerinthus stated that Christ was the divine being that descended upon Jesus at His baptism. When Christ completed His mission the divine Christ left Jesus on the cross to suffer, die and rise from the dead.  The Apostle John was the opponent of Cerinthus at Ephesus. The first Epistle of John in the New Testament seems to be directed against him and early Gnosticism (Gonzalez 132, 133).

 

Carpocrates lived and taught Gnostic ideas in Alexandria around A.D. 130.  Neoplatonism dominated Alexandria in the early centuries of the Christian era. Other Gnostic teachers include Basilides and his son Isidore, and Epiphanes, all of whom taught in Alexandria. "The most famous Gnostic teacher was Valentinus who also taught in Alexandria and came to Rome about A.D. 140.  He had a number of able disciples including Ptolemy and Heracleon in the west, and Theodotus in the east" (Yamauchi 416).

 

Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 155-220), known as the first Christian scholar, succeeded his teacher Pantanaeus as head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria in A.D. 190.  Clement was engaged in a life-long debate with the Gnostics. They taught that faith was inferior to the esoteric gnosis that they possessed. Clement of Alexandria, however, presented true Christian Gnosticism in contrast to the heretical brands. He maintained that faith was the means by which mankind arrived at true gnosis. Clement believed that Jesus, as the Logos, existed eternally with the Father and was the principle cause of all things. Clement was a vigorous defender of the incarnation. Clement portrayed Christ as the true teacher who gives men the true knowledge leading to freedom from sin, to immortality and to righteousness. Through contemplation of the Logos man is deified (Carey 235).

 

It is interesting that many of the Gnostic leaders were from Alexandria. It was in Alexandria that Arius arose (A.D. 318) and clashed swords with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria and the champion of orthodox Nicean Christology. The triumph of Alexandrian Christology at Nicea over Arius could have been aided by centuries of theological refinement in the on-going debate with Gnostic leaders. It is also interesting that early Gnostic heretics had believed in a divine Christ and therefore disallowed his humanity. Today, heretics allow his humanity but not his divinity. The fact that Gnostics sought to protect Jesus from taking on a human body should show that the earliest Christians taught the deity of Christ. Gnosticism was only able to integrate a divine Christ into their soteriology because it was common Christian doctrine that Jesus was God. Therefore, to the Gnostics, Jesus could not be truly man since matter or the body was evil. In Gnostic thinking the divine and eternal messenger could not be human. Jesus, as that messenger, could only be divine. Hence, Docetism was the solution. His deity was never in question.  Why bother negating the humanity of Jesus if Jesus was depicted as only human by the early Christians? Gnosticism questioned and denied the incarnation of Jesus because he was divine. The early Christian creeds specifically proclaim the deity of Christ yet was built to protect his true humanity i.e., "born of the virgin Mary." The question remains: How divine is Christ? Is Jesus simply another aeon, semi-divine spirit being or is he true God of true God?

           

Gnosticism was rejected by the universal church as a form of Hellenistic syncretism. The church rejected Gnosticism because the Jesus of the Gnostics was only an aeon or a created semi-divine being. In Gnostic mythology Jesus was less than God and not fully man. The Gnostics erred on both sides of the Christological issue. The earliest Christians taught that Jesus was both fully God and fully man: Lord and Christ.

 Acts 2:36 (NIV)

"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."


So in the struggle with Gnosticism the early apostolic doctrine of both the deity and humanity of Jesus is revealed. The Church Fathers would have had no conflict with the Gnostics unless Jesus was fully God and fully man. To the Gnostics, Jesus was neither fully god nor fully man. In essence, the Gnostic debate was Christological. If apostolic doctrine made Jesus only a created semi-divine spirit being, less than God, there would have been no debate with the Gnostics. If Jesus was taught to be only a mere man by the apostles, there would have been no debate about his deity. The two major orthodox keys to the true identity of Christ i.e., both fully God and fully man were denied or twisted by the Gnostics. Christianity rose up to defend itself against the Gnostic Christology that denied the full deity and humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Gnostics erred on both sides of the Christological issue: Jesus is not fully God nor fully man. They were rejected.

   

If the early Christian leaders wanted to embrace Greek philosophy they would have adopted Gnosticism. The fact that Christianity rejected Gnosticism as a deviation from apostolic tradition shows that Christianity was a separate and complete system. Paul described Christianity as foolishness to the Greeks. In Paul's speech in Athens (Acts 17) we see the impossibility of blending Christian truth and Greek philosophy. The Jehovah’s Witness movement today is a modern attempt to recast a Gnostic Christology. However, Jesus was not a created being, less than God.  He was not simply a demiurge, a divine messenger to create the material world.  Jesus was and is both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This truth was protected by the church against the first anti-trinitarian Gnostic heresy.

 

I.          Gnostics:  Summary

A.        Attempt to get God off the hook for the presence of evil

1.         Education did not solve evil

2.         Wealth does not solve evil

3.         Possessions do not solve evil

4.         Technology does not solve evil

 

B.        Matter is the problem in the world

1.         Therefore, responsibility is shifted away from God and us

a.         We are victims entrapped in evil bodies

 

C.        Neo-platonism and Gnosticism

1.         There are levels of ideals

a.         God as good created aeons, angels, emanations

b.         Other levels of ideals, emanate from these as poor Xerox copies

c.         The worship of angels and the legalism of the Colossian church was a spirit of Gnosticism. Yet was Gnosticism creeping into the church or was the church transforming a Gnostic culture or worldview? As in Africa, ancestral worship does not creep in, it must be weeded out. When I was a new Christian I knew nothing of eschatology or the virgin birth. Cultural mores must be transformed into biblical ones.

d.         Peter rebuked Simon Magus. Simon was a leader and propagator of error. Not a new Christian on a new learning curve (Bruce 247).

 

D.        Gnosticism took an overwhelming variety of forms impacting New Testament writings.

1.         Demiurge: was not the supreme god but a lower god, creator of this material realm, identified with the God/Israel by Marcion (Bruce 247).

a.         Docetists and Gnostics believed the Pleroma or divine fullness was distributed throughout a hierarchy of planetary and other mediaries between the supreme good god and the lesser evil world of men.

b.         Paul wrote that the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus and through him salvation was attained to counter early Gnostic tendencies.

c.         Jesus has defeated all intermediary cosmic rulers.

 

2.         Col. 2:21 "Touch not, taste not, handle not," this asceticism marked the usual Gnostic practice.

a.         There was also a liberal form that indulged the bodily desires.

b.         The error of 1 John is very similar to general Gnostic tendencies.  (List the errors of 1 John and compare these with Gnosticism).

c.         The early church fought proto-Gnosticism or incipient Gnosticism (Bruce 249).

 

3.         Col. 2:9 - The pleroma or the fullness of God dwelt in Christ in bodily form

a.         This further proves the full deity Christ in a body

b.         1 John 1:1-3 we saw him, touched him, heard him, this we proclaim

c.         The use of body defeats Gnosticism.  Body was evil.  However, body was not evil, sinful nature was evil.

 

d.         Jesus became sarx but was not ruled by sarx

 

II.         Marcion (A.D. 140) went to Rome and was influential in the Roman church

A.        Influenced by Docetic and Gnostic ideas

1.         Material order is evil

 

2.         A demiurge (not the supreme god) made the world

 

3.         He refused marriage for himself and followers

4.         The Old Testament had no authority over Christians (Bruce 251)

 

5.         He accepted portions of Paul's corpus (10 letters)

a.         Marcion excluded the nativity narratives, all mention of John the Baptist, and the genealogy Luke 3:23-38.

               b.         He combined Luke 3:1 with 4:31

c.         Jesus comes to Capernaum...out of nowhere (Cairns 99)

 

6.         The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different and distinct.

a.         The God of the Old Testament, Jehovah of Israel, was the demiurge or Creator of the evil world and therefore inferior to the God of the New Testament.

b.         The God of the New Testament is a kind, good, redeemer God known as the Father of Jesus (Bruce 252).

 

7.         Docetism:  Jesus had no body, a phantom, spirit only

 

8.         Much of Marcion’s cosmology is Gnostic but not so broad

 

 

B.        Refuted by Irenaeus, Against Heresies I, 10:1 around A.D. 180

1.         Marcion could say, "I believe in God the Father" meaning The Father proclaimed by Jesus (Cairns 99)

 

2.         But Marcion could not say, "Maker of heaven and earth," because this makes the God of the New Testament the same as the God of the Old Testament.

 

3.         Irenaeus' baptismal creed of the church makes it plain that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also the creator of the world...and Christianity follows in the flow of the Old Testament history.

 

4.         Since Judaism was evil, Marcion constructed his own canon.

 

III.       Marcion:  Positive effects

A.        A clear enunciation of doctrine by the church and renunciation of Gnosticism.

 

B.        Baptismal creeds expanded to include, "maker of heaven and earth": rejection of Gnosticism.  And, "Born of Mary": absolute rejection of Docetism.

 

C.        Strengthened the power of the bishops

 

D.        Formation of the New Testament Canon

 

E.         Secured the Old Testament as a part of the Christian canon

 

F.         It showed that the church judged "new revelation" by apostolic doctrine guarded in the Scripture

1.         Made the church shy around "new" revelation

 

2.         The Didache had guidelines for prophecy

 

IV.       Gnosticism is like the T.V. game show Jeopardy

 

A.        They use knowledge to gain personal benefits without any change of heart

 

V.        The Nag Hammadi Papyri are a group of Gnostic documents that constitute the only significant body of Gnostic works known to modern scholars.

A.        In 1945 - Discovered in a jar in a field near Chenoboskion, Egypt, around 60 miles north of Luxor in central Egypt.

 

B.        The treatises are bound in 13 leather volumes and have been variously dated between the 3d and 5th centuries AD. All but one is in the Coptic Museum in Cairo; the other is in the Jung Institute, Zurich.

1.         They contained 49 Gnostic treaties, of which 5 are duplicates, mostly translated from Greek originals into a Coptic dialect.

 

2.         The Gospel of Truth from the school of Valentinus and maybe written by him around 150 A.D. (Bruce 249).

 

C.        Around 1,000 pages of documents exist

1.               Separation of spirit and material worlds: dualism

 

2.               Spirit was good; matter was evil, therefore God could not have created the world.

 

3.               Gospel of Thomas: Psuedo gospel - 2nd century Gnostic; around A.D. 140. Contains 120 words of Jesus - some parallel to the synoptic gospels

 

VI.       Cairns (98-99) on Gnostics

A.        The gap between God and the world of matter was bridged by a demiurge

1.         A demiurge was one of a series of emanations (aeons) from the good, high god.

a.         Each demiurge, Aeon or emanation was progressively more material/matter and less spirit.

b.         The demiurge had some power to create matter and             therefore the evil material world.

 

2.         Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament was the demiurge that created the world.

 

B.        Christ did not come in a material body - because matter was evil

1.         Jesus was absolute good therefore semi-divine (one of many)

a.         The Christ Spirit came upon Jesus for a short time from his baptism to the cross

b.         Jesus was a phantom with only the appearance of a body docetism (dokeo:  in appearance)

c.         Hypostatic union was used to combat Gnosticism

1.         Both God and Man = 2 natures in one hypostasis (the person of Jesus)

d.         Three phases or types of people in the Gnostic view

1.         Body:  (soma) = hylics:  would never get to heaven

2.         Soul:  (psyche) = psychic:  have faith but no gnosis could get to heaven

3.         Spirit (pneuma) = pneumatics:  Those possessing the esoteric gnosis

e.         Salvation was only for the spirit part of man

1.         Begins with faith

 

2.         A special gnosis is imparted by Christ to the elite

a.         Asceticism:  keep the body under strict control

b.         Libertinism:  the body does not matter therefore indulge and sin

3.         No place for bodily resurrection (Cairns 98-99)

 

VII.      1 John 4:2,3 - The test was for Gnostics' doctrine.  No Gnostic would agree that Jesus had come in the flesh.

A.        Every Spirit that does not confess that Jesus came in the flesh was not of God.

1.         However, some Spirits had already confessed that Jesus (this man in the flesh) was the Son of God

 

B.        Gnosticism, therefore, is a doctrine of demons.  A spirit that is not a Gnostic spirit can and will confess "That Jesus has come in the flesh"

1.         This was an old lie - still around today however, but now the lie being perpetrated today as a national lie

 

2.         Evil spirits can confess that Jesus came in the flesh (Mk. 1: 24,25)

a.         Acts 16:17 The Pythonic spirit spoke through the slave girl that Paul and Silas were men of God and proclaimers of salvation

 

C.        1 Tim 4:1-6

1.         Similar to Gnostic tendencies - could be radical Judaism

 

2.         It is however, doctrines of demons and deceiving spirits

 

3.         This spiritual doctrine makes its way into human doctrine and was noted by a denial of the incarnation of Jesus

WORKS CITED

Bruce, F.F.  The Spreading Flame.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing       Company.

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through The Centuries.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan             Publishing       House, 1981.

Carey, G.L.  "Clement of Alexandria,"  The New International Dictionary of the   Christian Church.           Ed. J.D. Douglas.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan                Publishing House, 1974.

Gonzalez, Justo L.  A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 1. Nashville, TN:  Abingdon             Press, 1970.

Walker, Williston.  A History of the Christian Church.  New York, NY:  Scribner's             Sons, 1970.

Yamauchi, Edwin M.  "Gnosticism," The New International Dictionary of the      Christian Church. Ed.     J.D. Douglas.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan            Publishing House, 1974.