Gnosticism: Another Christian Sect (Given the Name By Proto-Orthodox Sects)

Posted By Thomas Perez. August 9, 2011 at 8:35pm. Copyright 2011.

I. Gnosticism

Many later doctrinal controversies within the church pertained to the question of Christ’s nature. Some of the later books in the New Testament indicate that even before the end of the First Century false concepts concerning the nature of Christ were beginning to arise. John’s epistles seem to have been especially written to combat growing misconceptions in this area (I Jn. 1:1-3; 2:18,22; 4:2,3).

The second great doctrinal crisis that the church faced was Gnosticism. The origin and nature of Gnosticism are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps one could most accurately describe it as a religious philosophy. Gnosticism was in the world before the church began, but how or where it began is unknown. One thing that makes Gnosticism so difficult to understand is that it is a combination of features from many different systems of thought. Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Jewish elements can be observed in Gnosticism.

It came in a variety of different forms and evolved through the years. Thus, the Gnosticism that the church faced in the Second Century may have been quite different from what it faced in the Third Century. However, Gnosticism arose in the East and presented a real challenge to the church in the Second and Third Centuries. Gnosticism attained the height of its influence in the years 135-160 A.D.

The name, “Gnosticism,” comes from the Greek term “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” However, the knowledge which Gnosticism advocated was not a knowledge that could be obtained through study or observation. Rather, it was a mystical, supernatural wisdom. According to Gnosticism, God is at the head of the spiritual world of light called the “pleroma.” Certain fragments of this world, or seeds of light, fell into the visible world of darkness and evil and were imprisoned. These captive “sparks” of light reside in men and need to be recovered or reintegrated with the realm of light. The means of recovery was the “knowledge” which Christ came to reveal. However, not everyone was capable of receiving this “knowledge” by which one was freed from bondage to the visible world and brought into communion with true spiritual realities.

Thus, Gnostics believed that the visible, physical world was inherently and altogether evil. Only “spirit” was good. Of course, this presented the Gnostics with a problem of how the world was originated. If God is “spirit” and therefore wholly good, how could He have created something evil like the physical world. Gnostics solved this problem by simply denying that the high God, whom Christ revealed, was the One who made the physical world. Gnostics conceived of many ranks of “aeons,” or angels, bridging the gap between God and the physical world. The highest of aeons was nearly entirely free of matter while the rank next to man and his physical world was almost wholly material. Between God and the physical world were many ranks of aeons of various degrees of spirituality or corporeality.

One of these aeons was known as the “Demiurge,” an imperfect and inferior being, who created the world. Gnostics also identified the Demiurge with the God of the Jews and the God of the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament is the high God revealed by Christ.

The Gnostic view of the physical world also led to misconceptions concerning the nature of Christ. Since anything physical is evil, Gnostics concluded that Christ could not have really come in the flesh. This problem was resolved by resorting to Docetism (from the Greek term, “dokeo,” meaning “seem”), the idea that Christ had not really come in the flesh but only “seemed” to be fleshly. Christ was really a phantom, or a ghost-like apparition, according to Gnosticism (Lk. 24:36-43). This explains the emphasis placed upon Jesus’ incarnation in John’s writings (Jn.; I Jn. 1:1-3; 4:2,3; II Jn. 7). Some Gnostics believed that Christ came and dwelt in the man, Jesus, when He was baptized and left Him shortly before His crucifixion (I Jn. 2:18,22).

The views of Gnostics also affected their ethics – oddly, in two extremely different ways. Since the flesh was evil, it should be abused. Gnostics sought to abuse the flesh by asceticism — by extreme self-denial of physical comforts, or even necessities, to the body (I Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:20-23). Other Gnostics felt that since the body and soul were two entirely separate entities, then each should be allowed t6 take their different pathways, for nothing done by one would affect the other. Of course, this led to gross indulgences of the flesh – something which was vigorously attacked by the New Testament writers (II Tim. 3:1-7; II Pet. 2:1,2,12-19; I Jn. 3:4-10; Jude 4,8,16; Rev. 2:14,15,20-24).

Gnostics did not call themselves by that name and there were many variations of what we now call Gnosticism. While some forms were completely unrelated to Christianity, others considered themselves a higher type of Christian. But although Gnostic beliefs varied a good deal, we can sum up a few essential points on which all agreed:

1. The material world is bad, the spirit world is good. The material world is under the control of evil, ignorance or nothingness.
2. A divine spark is somehow trapped in some (but not all) humans and it alone, of all that exists in this material world, is capable of redemption.
3. Salvation is through a secret knowledge by which individuals come to know themselves, their origin and destiny.
4. Since a good God could not have created an evil world, it must have been created by an inferior, ignorant or evil god. Usually the explanation given is that the true, good God created or emanated beings (Archons) who either emanated other Archons or conjugated to produce them until a mishap by Sophia (Wisdom) led to the creation of the evil Archon who created our world and pretends to be God. He hides truth from humans, but sparks of Sophia in some humans fill them with an urge to return to the Pleroma (divine realm) where they belong.

These ideas had implications that could not be squared with either the Old Testament or apostolic writings, which is why early Christians rejected them.

II. Marcion

Marcion came from Asia Minor to Rome in 139 where he fell under Gnostic influences and was finally excommunicated in 144. Marcion’s Gnosticism was heavily anti-Judaistic in flavor. The God of the Old Testament was weak and harsh. Christ revealed the good God of mercy. Paul was supposedly the only apostle who faithfully understood the gospel. All the others fell into Judaism. The Old Testament, and its God, are therefore to be entirely rejected. The ascetic life is the proper one to follow. Marcion gathered his followers into a separate sect and compiled a canon of sacred books for their use. They included ten epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke and had been expurgated of all passages which indicated that the God of the Old Testament was the Father of Christ. Marcion’s followers survived into the Fifth Century.

III. Montanism

Montanism was not actually a form of Gnosticism, but it did have some things in common with it. Not long after the time of Marcion, one by the name of Montanus from Asia Minor began a reform movement in the church. The expectation of a speedy return of Christ had gradually dimmed and worldliness was very much on the increase in the church. Consequently, Montanus arose in 156 and proclaimed that he was an instrument of the Holy Spirit, laying claim to the promise of Christ that He was to send the Holy Spirit upon His disciples (Jn. 15:26). With prophetic vigor Montanus rose up and proclaimed the approaching end of the world, the dawning of the age of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly Jerusalem was about to be set up in Phrygia, and that asceticism ought to be practiced in preparation for this time. The bishops of Asia Minor convened some synods and condemned Montanism, but it attracted those who observed too much worldliness in the church, and the movement continued for years after Montanus.

What Were Some Implications of Gnosticism?

Since Gnostics held matter to be corrupt, they considered the body to be corrupt, too. The trend of some Gnostics was to teach that there is no harm in indulging fleshly desires since the body is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption anyhow. Other Gnostics, perhaps the majority, held that the body must be kept in check by strict asceticism. Whether one chooses plan A or plan B, the underlying doctrine makes it impossible to understand how God could become a true man with a fleshly body in Christ Jesus.

If matter is corrupt, Christ’s body also was corrupt. Since the “Christian” Gnostics accepted Christ as in some sense the savior, they were prone to a belief called docetism, which taught that Christ only appeared to have a man’s body. Those Gnostics who avoided docetism and allowed Christ a real material body taught that the Christ spirit entered into the Jesus body at some point and was later withdrawn. Even on this point Gnostic writings differ. Some say that the Christ spirit abandoned the man Jesus and left him to die alone on the cross, others that someone other than Jesus was executed. In Gnostic writings, the resurrection was either ignored or viewed as a spiritual, rather than a physical, event. There was no settled Gnostic position on these points. Each Gnostic worked out a solution as he or she pleased or as they were inspired, freely  to his or her own satisfaction until they felt at peace with their questions and beliefs, sometimes borrowing at will from the thoughts of predecessors. But this borrowing was no different than what became known as traditional proto-orthodox Christianity.

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