Gnosticism

It is notable that almost all of the really major heresies arose in the early centuries of Church history

“Gnosticism may be said to have been the second great heresy faced by the Church. The name comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’, and states the distinguishing tenet of Gnosticism; salvation is for the Gnostic primarily a matter of acquiring and using secret knowledge.”

 

Introduction

When Jude writes in his Epistle, ‘Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3), he expresses a need that has arisen over and again in the history of the Church. False teachers arise seeking to draw away disciples after themselves, and to subvert that faith. The history of Christian thought and teaching is mirrored by the sinister history of heresy. This is because ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). Heresies come fundamentally from man, and reflect the way that the natural man would like God to be, rather than the way God actually is. This is both the source of heresy and the reason for its appeal.

By heresy we mean not merely teaching that departs from the Bible, but teaching that departs from the Bible in such a way as to overthrow the fundamentals of the Faith; teachings that it is impossible for a true Christian to teach. In this way, heresy must be distinguished from error, teaching that is still false, but which can be held by true believers; the evangelical Arminianism of the Wesleys would be an example of error, while Arianism is an example of heresy. Both are wrong, but only the latter, which denies the deity of Christ, is ruinously wrong.

It is a notable fact that almost all of the really major heresies arose in the early centuries of Church history; today they are merely recycled in modified forms and in new combinations. This means that the history of heresy is a profitable study for us, both in helping us to see which errors to avoid, and in helping us to meet challenges that face us today. In this series, therefore, we will consider several of the most important heresies in the history of the Church, primarily from a doctrinal rather than a historical perspective, although history and doctrine cannot be separated.

The Earliest Heresy

The first heresy to face the Church was that of the Judaizers, who taught that ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1). This was the challenge faced by the Church in the Book of Acts, and is dealt with extensively in the New Testament, especially in the Epistle to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Hebrews. By making the entire Ceremonial Law of the Old Testament necessary to salvation, the Judaizers subverted the finished work of Christ, so that Paul wrote, ‘Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing’ (Galatians 5:2). And we should not imagine that this heresy merely belonged to the time of the early Church; not only does it have a counterpart in the teachings of the Church of Rome, but the Seventh-Day Adventists have many affinities with it, and in some offshoots of the modern Messianic Jewish movement, particularly those who go under the umbrella label of the ‘Hebrew Roots Movement’, fall squarely within the Judaizing camp.

Gnosticism

Gnosticism may be said to have been the second great heresy faced by the Church. The name comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’, and states the distinguishing tenet of Gnosticism; salvation is for the Gnostic primarily a matter of acquiring and using secret knowledge. Not only has Gnosticism influenced a number of cults and false teachers in the recent past, but a modern form of full-blown Gnosticism is being actively promoted, not least by the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. During the period of Dan Brown’s novel’s popularity, it was almost impossible to ride on a train in the UK without seeing someone reading it, and although the film of the book did not perform as well as the book itself, its opening sold out at some locations.

The so-called Gnostic gospels, such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas, have been touted by some as authentic sources that correct the Canonical Gospels, and in all a great deal of excitement has been generated by Gnosticism in the world, to the point where there are those who are claiming that the Gnostics were the true Christians. For all these reasons, it is helpful for thoughtful Christians to know what Gnosticism was.

Definition

Defining Gnosticism is not an easy business, because for all that Dan Brown suggests, in fact Gnosticism is an umbrella term, rather like ‘Anabaptist’ in the era of the Reformation, which covers a multitude of sects holding to a variety of teachings, often contradictory to each other. There never was a single ‘Gnostic movement’, instead there were groups known by such names as Sethites, Valentinians, Carpocratians, Cainites and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are three basic teachings that all Gnostics held to, and which therefore form a useful working definition of Gnosticism.

God

The first of these is the teaching that God is transcendent but not immanent; in other words that the true God is so unlike man, so different from us, that he cannot be known by us, and that he cannot be involved with the creation. Of course it is quite true that God is transcendent; he is not a part of the creation, nor is he confused with the creation, but is separate from it. At the same time, he is also immanent; he is present in, and at work in, creation. The error of the Gnostic in this is not in what he affirms, but in what he denies. Almost all heresies are founded in a distortion of truth, where a part of the truth is taken as if it were the whole.

It may surprise readers to learn that the Islamic idea of the nature of Allah was almost certainly derived from Muhammad’s interactions with Gnostics on desert caravans; Islam does not believe that man can know Allah, and indeed the Muslim view of heaven is surprising to a Christian in that the vision of God is completely absent from it. While there is a great deal of evidence that Muhammad had contact with heretical groups, including Gnostics, there is none to speak of that suggests that he knew anything worth mentioning of true Christianity.

The various Gnostic groups all agreed that the true God is not directly involved in the creation, but that he interacts with men by means of angelic intermediaries alone. These intermediaries, known as Aeons, were regarded as proceeding from God, and Christ was regarded by the Gnostics as one of these Aeons. On the other hand there were the evil Archons, the spiritual rulers that some Gnostic teachers span complex tales about, such as The Hypostasis of the Archons.

Dualism

Influenced by various popular philosophies, the various Gnostic groups taught a matter-spirit dualism, in which matter was regarded as evil and spirit as good. It followed from this that the good God could not have created a material universe, but that the material universe must be the work of some other being, lower than God. This being was called a Demiurge, and depending on the Gnostic group, was regarded as either malevolent or merely stupid. Many Gnostic groups regarded the God of the Old Testament as this Demiurge, because of his interest in the creation. Certainly, they reasoned, he could not be the true God. In some versions of Gnosticism, the Demiurge rose to the status of a malevolent lesser ‘second god’, who set himself against the true God. These versions of Gnosticism could very easily come to see the Old Testament as not merely irrelevant and false, but outright wrong, and the Cainite Gnostics taught that the ‘villains’ of the Old Testament, such as Cain and the Sodomites, were in fact the true heroes, turning the Old Testament narratives on their heads.

Gnostics believed that human spirits were in some sense fragments of the divine, though what that meant, and whether all people or only some possessed such spiritual fragments were points on which they disagreed. Some taught that there were two or three types of men, and that (of course!) the Gnostic was of the highest type, which is why he or she responded to the Gnostic teaching.

Matter itself, to the Gnostic, was necessarily and intrinsically evil, it was a bad thing and the source of all evil. Thus the material universe itself was a bad thing, and the Gnostic sought release from it. The idea of death as a ‘release’ from a bodily prison, leading to an eternal spiritual existence is really a Gnostic view, not a Christian one.

From this affirmation of the intrinsic evilness of matter, it also followed that the Incarnation could not possibly have happened; God, or even a good spiritual being, could not have truly taken to himself humanity. How the Gnostics denied the Incarnation varied between the groups; some affirmed a form of Adoptianism, others taught what is known as Docetism.

Adoptianism is the teaching that the man Jesus was ‘adopted’ by God as his Son; that he was not born the Son of God, but became so. In the Gnostic version, which can be found in the so-called Gospel of Judas as well as other Gnostic writings, the Christ-Aeon came upon the man Jesus at his Baptism in Jordan, and left him before the Cross, so that it was basically a discarded tool that was crucified. Some Gnostics taught that the man Jesus was the Demiurge’s Messiah, but was ‘hijacked’ by the Christ-Aeon, who then engineered his destruction to thwart the Demiurge’s plan.

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