The Intrusion of the Gnostics
History Shaping Christianity
Christianity did not spend its infancy safely tucked away from the outside world. Luke’s historical account within the book of Acts quickly reveals that Christianity continuously encountered beliefs that were conflicting to what Jesus Christ began to teach in the four gospels. Notably, Judaizing, which is commonly defined as the reintroduction of Mosaic Law back into Christianity, is one of the most widely known and evident examples biblically documented; however, early Christianity was forced to combat several other belief systems as well. The widespread practice of the mystery religions throughout the Roman empire fought for the attention of the spiritually seeking as well, however, of greater significance, following the Judaizers, it was Gnosticism that offered the most dangerous heresy among the early Christians. Just as there are many writings against the Judaizers, such as depicted in Paul’s many epistles, there are those who wrote against the heresy of the Gnostics as well, some of whom will be mentioned throughout this paper. The main thrust of Gnosticism was that it inadvertently forced young Christianity into a stage of growing pains that shaped Christian orthodoxy. The research presented in this paper is twofold: first, a deeper understanding of some of Gnostic’s various claims will reveal how it stood in contrast to the beliefs of early Christianity. This will be accomplished by examining Gnostic roots and its progression alongside Christianity throughout the Roman empire. Second, and more important, is the Christian belief, or orthodoxy that resulted from the great and successful efforts to put the heresy of Gnosticism to rest. Thus, much of the focus will be placed on Irenaeus, a second-century bishop who successfully employed a number of arguments against Gnosticism in his work Against Heresies.
Gnosticism’s etymological roots are found within philosophy. The Greek noun gnōsis means knowledge, especially a kind that deals with perception and insight into something. This is significant because the Gnostics claimed that special information had been exclusively revealed to them from heaven. Conversely, the word gnostic was not originally used specifically to identify them as a unique group of religious believers and there is much scholarly speculation as to how they initially identified themselves. The first confirmed use of the word gnostic as an identifier to a distinct social entity appears in Irenaeus’ writings, Against Heresies, in the late second century. The word, as Irenaeus used it, referred to a school of thought first and then to its adherents. Additionally, Clement of Alexandria also used the word. He claimed that the “true gnostic” was, “a person of wisdom who chose to seek out a life of the mind over the pursuit of bodily desires and pleasures.” Clement’s definition of a “true gnostic” reveals that the word itself may have been attached to a type of person; however, it fails to demonstrate clearly if the word itself was used to define a group of people. Regardless, it is certain that the term gnostic, ever since Irenaeus penned Against Heresies, has been designated to refer to a specific social entity within the first few centuries of Christianity known as the Gnostics. This is how both the words, Gnostic and Gnosticism, will be used henceforward.
The origins of Gnosticism have been debated and there is a significant amount of speculation surrounding its beginnings. The traditional belief was that Gnosticism was a “multiform religious movement that arose sometime in the first two centuries C.E. either as a mutation of Christianity or Judaism or as an independent religion that rapidly became intertwined with Christianity.” From this statement it can be deduced that Gnosticism, as a school of thought, involved a good amount of religious syncretism. Everett Ferguson, a distinguished scholar, confirms this and states that most of the forms of Gnosticism contains a mixture of pagan thought, Judaism, and Christianity. In fact, Gnosticism’s similarities to Middle-Platonism has resulted in some to characterize it as “Platonism run wild.” Others have attempted to tie Gnosticism’s roots to Simon Magus in the book of Acts. However, scholars have shown that Acts presents nothing distinctively Gnostic about Simon. This is not to say that forms of Gnosticism were not evident in the New Testament because it certainly was. Paul’s epistle to Timothy refers to the gnōsis “falsely so-called,” and Johannine literature opposes those who have denied the incarnation, and emphasized knowledge, which are forms of Gnostic teaching. Therefore, the combination of the various religious beliefs and philosophical thought systems that make up Gnosticism has made it rather difficult to pinpoint its origins, which has caused many to conclude that multiple origins are likely.
The Gnostic school of thought allowed diversity within its belief system and for this reason Gnosticism was considered a multiform religion. Despite the various forms, there were several common threads that ran through the Gnostic school of thought. First, at the very core of their ideology, all Gnostics believed that the universe (cosmos) was irredeemable and therefore, must be rejected. In short, this meant that all created matter was evil, including the human body. A watchword phrase in regards to this was soma sema, “the body is a tomb.” The Gnostic response to this dilemma was to provide the believer with a spiritual remedy that delivered the believer back to the soul’s true home. This view was universally accepted as their definition of salvation, that is, ultimate escape from the bondage of material existence. According to Gnostic ideology, salvation was obtained by gnōsis, which put them on a collision course with the Christian teaching that salvation was deliverance from sin. To the Gnostic, then, knowledge was not just a means to salvation, knowledge was salvation. Of course, this gnōsis was acquired exclusively through the Gnostic teachers who were all too willing to spread their seeds among anyone they could attract.
Another common thread that ran through the Gnostic school of thought involved their theology. All Gnostics believed in one god who is wholly transcendent. No doubt, this is where certain aspects of Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity are seemingly parallel but the distinctions beyond this statement are drastic. Gnostic theology claims that the supreme god is not the creator. Recall that Gnosticism’s core belief is that all matter is inherently evil, which means that any god that would think to bring matter into existence was deemed mischievous and evil. Therefore, matter must have surely been the work of an inferior deity such as a demiurge, the God of the Hebrew Old Testament, or Jesus, who they considered to be a lower being but nonetheless still an inferior deity. These, so called, inferior deities were known as emanations and the God of the Old Testament and Jesus were apparently one of those emanations.
There is one final thread that runs through the whole piece of fabric that held the Gnostic community together. Every Gnostic considered themselves to be Christians. This means that they didn’t just teach alongside Christianity rather, the Gnostics put forth great efforts towards infusing their school of thought into Christianity. This, of course, resulted in a need for Christian orthodoxy. Still, it must be remembered that at that particular time in church history there was no formally set canon or creed in place that the universal church could claim as authoritative in order to combat the various teachings within Gnosticism. Thus, the Gnostic school of thought was able to teach a Christology that challenged the Christ that the apostles originally taught in the gospels.
One Christological teaching that managed to gain traction among the followers was Docetism. Docetism is from the Greek word dokeō and means “to appear” or “to seem.” Thus, the flesh and blood that made up the material body of Jesus never really existed, rather he only appeared or seemed to be human. This form of Gnosticism rationalized that the life of Jesus was “a charade in which he pretended to be flesh and blood for his disciples’ sakes.” Ultimately, Docetism denied the incarnation and sufferings of Christ by denigrating His full humanity. This, of course, comes into direct opposition with what Scriptures teach. A good example would be where Jesus told the disciples, “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Additionally, the Gospel of John also points out a flaw in Docetism, “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’” Again, the lack of a formally set canon enabled Gnostic teachers to develop their own teachings, and some, apart from the apostle Paul, went so far as to ignore the teachings of the apostles all together.
Characteristics of Docetism are clearly found within the teachings of Marcion, one of the first notable heretics of the Christian church during the second century. Marcion was influenced by Cerdo, a gnostic teacher who claimed that “the God of the Old Testament was different from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This was already pointed out as being a highly influential Gnostic belief. The distinction was that the God of the Old Testament represented justice, while the New Testament God was loving and full of grace. Therefore, in following his teacher, Marcion completely rejected the teachings of the Old Testament. Furthermore, Marcion developed his own canon of inspired Scriptures, which was free of any hint of Judaism whatsoever. Marcion’s Bible consisted of a mutilated version of the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles. Marcion experienced much success and Marcionite churches began to spring up across Rome, Carthage and other cities. Marcion is strong evidence of two things. First, Gnosticism was a battle to be fought inside Christianity and second, Christianity was in dire need of an official canon that they could depend on in the battle against false teachings. It was, in part, Marcion who inadvertently spurred the church forward in developing an authoritative canon.
Late in the second century, around 170 A.D., the Roman Christian church countered Marcion’s condensed canon by producing a canon of their own, which is known as the Muratorian Canon. Of great significant was its inclusion of all four Gospels, as well as Luke’s unabridged account in the book of Acts. However, Hebrews, James and both the epistles of Peter were not included in the Muratorian canon. In addition, it should also be noted that the Roman Christian church was clear on its position to regard the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures as part of Christian orthodoxy. The Muratorian canon is extremely significant because it was a vital step towards Christian orthodoxy, which was ironically motivated by heretical ideology.
Before crossing over to one of the greatest opponents of Gnosticism there is one more additional teaching that the Gnostics spread across the Christian landscape. Alongside Docetism was a dualistic Christology that attempted to dance around Christ’s humanness. The claim was that “Christ” entered the person of Jesus at baptism and left just before the crucifixion. The implications of this claim would mean that “Christ” never experienced the suffering of the cross, which results in an entirely different gospel than the apostles put forth. It was also an attempt to sidestep the fact that Jesus was in fact human. How? Simply, by causing Jesus to be taken over for a time being, by Christ. Nevertheless, the principle of this teaching centered on the belief that “Christ” inhabited the body of Jesus in order to pass on knowledge by what he said.
Up to this point, everything presented reveals the fact that the teachings within Gnosticism could not agree on a unified explanation for the person of Christ. Their efforts to escape from the dilemma of a human Savior left them suffocating in a world of contradictory ideologies. At the end of the day, Jesus was a person who had a body, which is an inescapable truth. There was no way of getting around this truth without entertaining absurdity, which some, like Irenaeus, set out to reveal. One Gnostic group even went so far as to claim that Jesus didn’t have a body at all, rather it was just a hallucination. Unfortunately, many bought into the Gnostic school of thought. Fortunately, for every falsity that attempted to mask itself in Christianity there were those who “took up the sword of the Spirit” in order to combat this heretical school of thought.
One of the most significant defenders of the faith against Gnosticism was Irenaeus, a second century theologian who settled in Lyons, in Southern Gaul. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp of Smyrna. His connection to Polycarp is extremely significant because Polycarp was an apostolic father who had known the beloved apostle John. This link back to Jesus’s disciple gave weight and authority to Irenaeus’ writings, which he may not have had otherwise. Irenaeus recognized that there were many teachings within Gnosticism and rather than address each teaching individually, he rationalized that it was best to refute the one with the most influence – Valentinian Gnosticism.
Valentinus taught that attaining gnōsis not only liberates oneself, but it also helps to restore the material world to the unblemished state of the pleroma (state of fullness). This gnōsis, according to Valentinus, was attainable by anyone. Furthermore, Valentinus promoted Docetism. Irenaeus’s strategy in bringing down Gnosticism was quite simplistic: by revealing the absurdities within the most influential teaching, Irenaeus determined that the others would be revealed as well, thus causing a collapse in their system.
Irenaeus put forth many arguments against Gnosticism; however, there are three main arguments that must be mentioned. First, the theologian described, in detail the different Gnostic systems and in doing so, he was exposing the absurdity of many of their beliefs. Irenaeus states, “merely to describe such doctrines is to refute them.” Secondly, Irenaeus challenged the Gnostic’s false claims of secret apostolic traditions. Again, this is where his link back to the apostle John proved to be extremely vital. Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies III.3.1, “Had the Apostles known any secret mysteries, which they taught privately and sub rosa to the perfect, they would surely have entrusted this teaching to the men in whose charge they placed the Churches. For they wished them to be without blame and reproach to whom they handed over their own position of authority.” This point proved to be very powerful because the Gnostics couldn’t verify their claim to apostolic tradition.
Thirdly, Irenaeus appealed to Scripture. Recall, once more, that the church had no canon at that time, which makes his appeal peculiar. However, this doesn’t mean that the church couldn’t appeal to Scripture. They certainly did, and Irenaeus was among the first to talk of the New Testament Scripture alongside the Old Testament. This was significant because the Gnostics denied the Old Testament Scriptures, for reasons already stated. Additionally, in Irenaeus, “New Testament books find equal expression with the Old Testament and are employed authoritatively, unlike his predecessors.” This is exemplified where he writes, “Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them.” By appealing to Scripture, Irenaeus set the Church on a clearer path and those who ventured down it began to see the authority of the New Testament documents in a way unknown prior to his time.
Irenaeus was not the first, nor was he the last, to take a stand against Gnosticism. To name a few are Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and later on – Tertullian fought against the heresy. However, scholars agree that Irenaeus fought Gnosticism on an entirely different plane than the others. Gnosticism claimed to be a part of Christianity and because of this it needed to be seen for what it really was; a heretical and absurd school of thought pretending to be what it wasn’t. Irenaeus writes, “For before Valentinus there were none of his way of thinking, and before Marcion there were none of his. For Valentinus came to Rome in the days of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and lived until Anicetus.” In other words, Gnosticism was made up ideology that unrightfully borrowed from Christianity. Lastly, while Irenaeus was exposing Gnosticism, he also developed a Christian interpretation of redemption that had tremendous influence on the trajectory of Christian theology. Perhaps this can be discussed in a separate paper; however, the main point should be clear now. Gnosticism inadvertently forced young Christianity into a stage of growing pains that shaped Christian orthodoxy and it was God working through people like Irenaeus that helped lead Christianity down the path toward orthodoxy. Thus, by exposing what is heresy, orthodoxy is seen with more clarity. In light of all of this, then, it is entirely appropriate to close with the words of Jesus, who is the Christ, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
The Ancient bridge that connects the then with the now has been crossed, thus, allowing the school of Gnostic heresy to find new breeding ground in the context of the post-modern world. At its very core, Gnosticism catered specifically to an audience that was on a quest to spiritually elevate themselves to a higher plain, thus eventually and permanently ridding themselves from material existence upon death, which brought them into a state of pleroma. A contemporary phrase that comes to mind is, “a state of bliss.” Many Christians then were attracted to Gnosticism because it claimed to be a special form of Christian truth that was superior to what was currently being taught by the bishops to the innocent and ignorant masses. Furthermore, its adherents certainly found the secrecy of Gnosticism to be quite intriguing.
Today, Gnosticism has a global presence and just like Gnosticism in the ancient world, it claims that it is a higher form of Christianity. Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939 – 2009), through her teachings of the Ascended Masters of East and West has influenced many spiritually seeking people through her array of over seventy-five books, which are promoted by the Summit Lighthouse. In Gnostic fashion, Prophet’s fundamental principle is that “all sons and daughters of God have a divine spark that is their potential to realize the universal Christ within and ascend to God as Jesus did.” Prophet is just one sampling of contemporary Gnosticism. A quick search on the internet will reveal that Gnosticism is practiced on a global scale. The question is, what is the Christian response?
Christians today have several advantages over the early Christians. For one, Christians today have an authoritative canon in place that anyone can refer to. If anyone is teaching a Jesus Christ that stands apart from the Jesus Christ of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then that should be a clear caution sign of false teaching. In addition, if anyone is found promoting a type of dualism, such that the body is inherently evil, then that should be another caution sign. God created all things and all things were good, including the body which is a temple for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Another advantage is that Christians today can significantly benefit from those who have come before. Notably, as this paper has hopefully pointed out, is Irenaeus, who was a determining factor of Gnosticism’s early demise. There are others that are equally important in the development of orthodoxy. Both unbelievers and believers would benefit to understand that Christianity contains a history between the closing of the first century and now. They would benefit to realize that history, or better yet, God’s history shaped Christianity as many know it today. One may wonder, then, how is God currently shaping history for tomorrow?
. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1999), 36.
. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., ©2003), 300.
. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 58.
. Ferguson, 301.
. Olson, 88.
. Ferguson, 301.
. David Brakke, The Gnostics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, ©2010), ix.
. Ferguson, 307.
. Ibid., 312.
. 1 Timothy 6:20
. Ferguson, 312.
. Ibid., 10.
. Olson, 36.
. Larry Hart, Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005), 322.
. Olson, 36.
. Ibid., 37.
. Ferguson, 310.
. Hart, 322.
. Shelley, 55.
. Olson, 37.
. Ibid., 124-5.
. Ibid., 38.
. Olson, 38.
. Hart, 321.
. Luke 24:39 (English Standard Version)
. John 20:27 (English Standard Version)
. Shelley, 69.
. Olson, 133.
. Shelley, 69.
. Olson, 133.
. Olson, 38.
. Shelley, 56.
. Ibid., 57.
. Ephesians 6:17 (English Standard Version)
. Olson, 68-9.
. A N S. Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, completely rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2006), 12.
. Olson, 69.
. Ibid., 71
. Sean Martin, “The Gnostics, The First Christian Heretics.” (Pocket Essentials eBook Collection, EBSCOhost, 2006), 51. (Accessed November 22,2016).
. Olson, 71.
. Lane, 12.
. Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, second ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1990), 34-5.
. Lane, 13.
. John McRay, “Scripture and tradition in Irenaeus.” (Restoration Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1967 1967): 1-11. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2016).
. Kerr, 35.
. Olson, 69.
. Luke 8:17 (New International Version)
. Olson, 29.
. Genesis 1:31; 1 Corinthians 3:16
Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 31, 2016).
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., ©2003.
Hart, Larry. Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005.
“Home – The Summit Lighthouse.” The Summit Lighthouse. Accessed December 05, 2016. http://www.summitlighthouse.org/.
Kerr, Hugh T., ed. Readings in Christian Thought. second ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Lane, A N S. A Concise History of Christian Thought. completely rev. and expanded ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2006.
Martin, Sean. The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2016). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=179787&site=eds-live&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_51
McRay, John. “Scripture and tradition in Irenaeus.” Restoration Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1967 1967): 1-11. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2016). http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001589839&site=eds-live
Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1999.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 4th ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013.