What Is Gnosticism?

From my earlier post titled: Christianity or Christianities? I referenced marginalized heretical groups and documents that started emerging in the second century to challenge the early Church. Most prominent among them was a group, or rather groups, that collectively came to be known as the Gnostics. Now I should say that not all non-canonical documents were heretical — although the vast majority of them were. Likewise, not all heretical documents or texts were Gnostic, although the vast majority of them were (to varying degrees). That said, in this post I will attempt to tackle the very complicated subject of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was a philosophical and religious movement that appears to start in the second century AD. Some have argued the movement has its origins in pre-Christian times, in that it borrows heavily from Greco-Roman philosophy and pagan belief systems. However, while the ideas and philosophy that it draws from for influence are pre-Christian; to date no pre-Christian gnostic texts have been found. Gnosticism as a unique and recognizable belief system is widely considered to be a second century development, in other words Post-Christian.

So what is Gnosticism?

The term is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means “knowledge”. It is pronounced with a silent “G”. Therefore, Gnostic means “secret knowledge”, and the Gnostics claimed to have this secret knowledge about the universe to which the general population was unaware.

Gnosticism consisted of numerous belief systems which mixed or combined elements taken from Babylonian, Syrian, Egyptian and Greek pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity.

That there were many Gnostic groups dating from the 2nd to 5th centuries makes it difficult to describe all the nuances of the various Gnostic doctrines. However, generally speaking despite their many differences, most of them appear to have subscribed to the following four “truths”:

  1. The material world is evil, and made by an evil God.
  2. The spirit world is good, and made by the ultimate unknowable God who reigns over the divine realm.
  3. All (or most) human beings have a spark of the divine spirit within them, but have been blinded by the trappings of this evil material world.
  4. Learning this secret knowledge of the universe, frees ones divine spark (spirit) from the trappings of this evil material world.

For a more in depth analysis of Gnostic Beliefs, below is a summary from various sources on the beliefs of most Gnostic groups on a variety of topics i.e. God, Evil, Salvation and the role of Christ.

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Gnostic Beliefs:

God/Deity: Gnostics were polytheistic i.e. the belief in many gods. They believed the Supreme God of the divine realm was completely remote from human affairs and is unknowable to humans. He/she created a series of supernatural divine beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, who in turn gave birth to a defective and inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. Demiurge means “public craftsman” in Greek. This lower God created the earth and the human race. This is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), a deity who they viewed as fundamentally evil and lacking in compassion.

Duality of spirit and body: For Gnostics the spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human body. But they believed that trapped within all (or some) human beings was the spark of divinity that was supplied to mankind by Sophia.

Evil: Gnostics did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then having degenerated as a result of the sin of mankind. Rather the world was seen as being evil at the time of its creation, having been created by an inferior God.

The Serpent: Some Gnostic sects honored snakes. They did not view the serpent as a symbol of evil who led the first couple into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw him as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In other words, the Creator (God) was evil, but the Serpent (Satan) was good – bringing secret knowledge.

Salvation: Gnostics believed a person attains “salvation” by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual essence: the divine spark or spirit within. Their spirit then has the opportunity to escape from the prison of their bodies at death and be reunited with the ultimate unknowable God.

Role of Christ: The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge’s control and allow them to return to their spiritual home at death.

Nature of Christ: Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a phantom body i.e. Jesus just appeared to be human to his followers. Other Gnostics believed that Christ was human with the divine spark within, and that his “true” resurrection occurred before his death on the cross. They defined the “resurrection” as occurring when his spirit was “liberated” from his body.

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Now after reading this summary; does it make any sense that modern skeptics try and assert that this heretical group should represent an equally legitimate form of early Christianity on par with what we have today? NO!

It is only natural that all of these beliefs were considered heresy by the early Christian Church. At its core, Gnosticism was completely subversive to both Judaism and Christianity i.e. belief in many Gods (not One), that the God of the Old Testament is evil and the serpent was good, that Christ was superficial and did not die for sin, etc. No wonder so many early Christian Fathers, i.e. Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen (just to name a few), spoke out so strongly against them and their writings.  Contrast that now with Christianity, a faith that goes back to the Apostles, and is solidly grounded in a thoroughly monotheistic Jewish background, and embraces the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and views Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of these scriptures. It is absolutely and completely absurd to me that some people actually argue that Gnosticism once represented a form of early Christianity with an equal claim to orthodoxy (right belief). The facts just do not bear that out. NOT EVEN CLOSE!

But enough already, time to wrap this post up. As a person of faith, in light of the deluge of modern radical skepticism, I am often reminded of 1 Peter 5:8, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” That Satan still calls God and the scriptures into question today should not surprise any of us who are people of faith. But sadly for those who may be uninformed or naïve of these issues, they may actually buy into some of this nonsense. Therefore in conclusion, I will close with the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “test them all, but hold on to what is good.”

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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