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By Mark Mayberry
By the end of the first century, the church of Jesus Christ faced serious challenges from without and within. The Roman Empire began persecuting Christians. Suffering and oppression were the common fate of believers. False teachers threatened to destroy God’s people. The Judaizers were quickly followed by the Gnostics.
Gnosticism, which developed into a full-blown heresy in the second century, menaced the church for several hundred years. “By the beginning of the third century nearly all the more intellectual Christian congregations in the Roman Empire were markedly affected by it.” [Renwick #1].
Gnosticism was a unique blending of Jewish legalism, Greek philosophical speculation and Oriental mysticism. It refers to “the thought and practice especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis” [Webster].
“Gnosticism,” stated Gwatkin, “is Christianity perverted by learning and speculation” (II, 73). The intellectual pride of the Gnostics changed the gospel into a philosophy. The clue to the understanding of Gnosticism is found in the Greek word from which its name is derived — gnōsis, “knowledge.” The Gnostics claimed to be the elite, the wise, the philosophers, to whom was revealed a secret knowledge which the overwhelming mass of mankind could never know. [Renwick #2].
Until the middle of the twentieth century, most information concerning Gnosticism came from the church fathers who opposed it. However, in 1945 a collection of Gnostic scrolls were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt which shed more light on this teaching. This discovery confirmed the accuracy of the church fathers in addressing this subject.
The Greek word gnōsis occurs 29x in the NT (
According to Thomas, it is derived from the verb ginōskō [to come to know, recognize, perceive], and is defined as “a knowing, knowledge” .
BDAG say it describes “(1) comprehension or intellectual
grasp of something, knowledge as possessed by God and humans; (2) the content of
what is known, knowledge, what is known; (3) a dissident variety of knowledge,
knowledge … the oppositions of so-called knowledge (
Knowledge comes from God the Father (
John the Baptist (
Dangers are also present with knowledge: rebellion (
Gnostics believed that matter is wholly evil, and the
physical body completely corrupt. However, this position denies repeated
declarations of Scripture. The creation account repeatedly says, “God saw it was
Gnostics taught that the true God is unknowable and unapproachable, infinitely removed from the physical universe. How could One who is pure and perfect create a material world so corrupt and alien to the divine nature? “He did not,” they answer. Gnosticism affirms the fullness of deity is separated from the world by a series of emanations, aeons, or angels, “all of which are necessarily imperfect, the highest of them being more spiritual than the grade immediately below. Of these aeons there is a gradation so numerous that at length the lowest of them is almost wholly corporeal, the spiritual element having been gradually diminished or eliminated until at last the world of mankind and of matter is reached, the abode of evil. In this way the gulf is bridged between God and mankind. The highest aeons approximate closely to the divine nature, so spiritual are they and so free from matter. These form the highest hierarchy of angels, and these with many other grades of angelic hosts are to be worshiped.” [A. M. Renwick, ISBE, Revised].
When one of these aeons was sufficiently remote from the Supreme God, and was on the borderland of light and darkness, he created the world, and did so badly. This was the Demiurge, i.e., the God of the Old Testament. Actively hostile to Supreme God, he created the evil material world. Therefore, according to Gnostic philosophy, Jehovah/Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Creator of the world, is not the ultimate Supreme Being. He is neither unique, good or competent.
A more blasphemous doctrine cannot be imagined. Holy
Scripture affirms that God is singular, (
Gnostics believed that Jesus was only one of many
intermediaries between God and man. However, New Testament Epistles affirms that
Christ holds a unique and supreme position (
Gnostics denied the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Assuming
the physical body is inherently wicked, they argued that God could not have come
in the flesh. Therefore, Jesus was not fully human, but only appeared to be
flesh and blood. Lacking a real body, he was a phantom, spirit, or ghost.
However, Scripture declares “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God, and the Word was God.” Moreover, “the Word became flesh, and dwelt
among us” (
Prideful of their privileged class, Gnostics claimed to
possess secret knowledge inaccessible to the mass of humanity. Accordingly, the
hope of salvation was not by grace through faith, but in esoteric understanding,
mastering secret passwords and formulas, etc. However, the Bible says we must
guard against human philosophy and speculation (
Gnosticism led to two extreme, opposite moral views:
asceticism and licentiousness. Since the material realm is evil, one should
withdraw from the world and abuse the physical body. Since the flesh is carnal,
one may sin in the body, while serving God in the spirit. However, God’s Word
condemns both asceticism (
Gnostics made drastic changes to the Bible. One Gnostic
sect worshipped the serpent. One school turned the Scripture upside down and
taught that Pharaoh and Ahab were saints while Moses and Elijah were sinners. In
the Gospel of Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus is the hero of the plot rather
than a villain. In contrast with such faithlessness, let us stand with the
Psalmist, who said, “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your
righteous ordinances is everlasting” (
In historical terms, Gnosticism was an active religious
movement during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In comparative
terms, it survives in the smorgasbord approach many today take toward religion.
Recognizing the folly of trusting in human wisdom, let us be content with simple
New Testament Christianity (
BDAG = Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Renwick #1 = Alexander M. Renwick, “Gnosticism,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 237-238.
Renwick #2 = H. M. Gwatkin, Early Church History (2nd ed 1909), quoted by A. M. Renwick, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, G. W. Bromiley, ed., (Logos Library System; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988, 2002), s.v. “Gnosticism,” Vol. 2, Page 484.
Thomas = Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition, (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998, 1981).
Webster = Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 10th Edition, (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, c1993, 1996).
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