The term gnostic, from the Greek word γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning “knowledge,” was first used by the second-century church father Irenaeus as a general name for various groups which were at odds with orthodox beliefs and practices that were otherwise widely accepted in the early church. [1] The term Gnosticism wasn’t coined until the 17th century, first being used by Henry More [2] to refer to a specific vein of religious-philosophical beliefs that directly impacted the development of early church beliefs and practices. [3]

There is much debate regarding the origin of Gnostic beliefs. While it has been traditionally accepted that Gnosticism arose from Christianity, modern scholarship has shown that Gnosticism may have been in existence before the time of Christ and eventually came into contact with Christianity in the late first and early second century. [4]

Regarding creation, the Gnostics believed that the material world was, according to The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary,

…the product of a foolish creator (demiurge) who set to work without the permission of the highest and therefore “Unknown” God. This foolish creator was assisted in the creation process by a lower angel or planetary being. In order to put an end to the monstrous process of physical (nonspiritual) creation, the highest God had only one choice: to avail himself of cunning countermoves which he initiated among human beings, understood to be the apex of the physical creation. Without the knowledge or consent of the foolish creator, the highest God provided humankind with an otherworldly, divine substance variously called “spirit,” “soul,” and “spark.” This substance enabled humanity (called the ideal Adam) to see through the monstrous physical work of the lower creator and to perceive as the true goal of humanity a return to the spiritual realm of the highest God, which was often depicted as the “Kingdom of Light.” [5]

The “foolish creator,” or “demiurge,” who created the material world was believed to be the product of a series of spiritual emanations (called “aeons”) from a pure spirit God. Each aeon was said to have the ability to emanate other aeons. “With each descending level of creation, the aeons became less and less like the pure God until . . . the ‘demiurge’ was so far removed from the wisdom of God that it created matter.” [6]

The gnostics often saw Jesus Christ as the first aeon who was later sent to reveal truth to humanity, [7] a view with heretical implications. First, since aeons were emanations of the highest God and each level of aeon would be less like the pure God, it logically follows that Christ is, in their view, something less than God. Second, due to their extreme dualistic views (discussed below) of the immaterial and material worlds, they believed Christ existed merely as a spiritual being and did not come in the flesh but merely “appeared” to be human, thus denying the incarnation, which likewise denies the efficacy of the atonement. Like many others such as Justin Martyr, Hegesippus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius of Salamis, [8] Irenaeus viewed these particular individuals as heretics and often critiqued their views in writing. [9] This heretical teaching denying the incarnation is known today as docetism, from the Greek verb δοκέω (dokeō), meaning “to appear.”

This denial of the incarnation of Christ was influenced by their radical form of dualism, the system of thought that sees the world in terms of “two irreducible and conflicting elements.” [10] Dualism was “a prime factor in the Gnostic conceptual framework.” [11] Gnostics argued that everything in the universe fell into one of two categories: the immaterial (or spiritual) or the material (or physical). The spiritual realm was considered good while the physical realm was seen as inherently evil. Because of this, Gnostics believed that each person contained both good and evil natures. They argued that “the true human self or soul is naturally divine, belonging to the same realm as , but is trapped and imprisoned by the material world. They viewed the physical body as a prison which malevolently trapped the ‘divine spark’ within humanity . . . Because of this imprisonment, Gnosticism incorporates an active hatred of the physical body . . . This dualistic split between the body and the soul means that the divine spark of the human soul must be freed from the material constraints of the world in order to attain salvation and unity with .” [12]

According to the Gnostics, one could only “be freed from the material constraints of the world” by obtaining a special, secret knowledge (or gnōsis), mediated to “the knowers” (the Gnostics) through special revelation, made available either from messengers sent by the highest God or the transmission of myth, which would recount “the events which occurred in the primitive period when the mistake of the physical creation first took place, events which were understood to be the ultimate causes for the problematic present state of humanity.” [13] This gnōsis frees the “divine spark,” allowing it to return to the Kingdom of Light. When gnōsis has been restored to all of the elect Gnostics, this will usher in the destruction of the physical world, and all the chosen will return to their initial, divine state. [14] Thus salvation isn’t by grace through faith but by this special revelatory knowledge.

Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24) is seen by many apologists as the first Gnostic. In 1 Timothy, Hymenaeus and Philetus have traditionally been viewed as Gnostic teachers, as first noted in Ancient Heresies by Irenaeus, and the urging of Paul to “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ (gnōsis)” (1 Timothy 6:20) is often seen as a connection back to the introduction in which Paul states that he has handed Hymenaeus and Philetus to Satan so “that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20), among other references of “deceitful spirits” and “silly myths” in 1 Timothy 4. [15] Though debate exists on whether the Johannine Letters (1-3 John) contain references to early Gnostics and their influence in the church, the contrast between the Gnostic special knowledge and John’s references to the true knowledge of God (which is experimental rather than intellectual and speculative) spoken of in his letters and his gospel (John) is worth considering.

For further consideration on how the ancient heresy of Gnosticism can be seen in the modern-day issue of modern identity, see the article entitled The Ancient Heresy Driving Modern Identity by The Gospel Coalition Australia.


For More Info:

[1] Zachary G. Smith, “Gnosticism,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
[2] Smith, “Gnosticism.”
[3] Kurt Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
[4] Smith, “Gnosticism.”
[5] Rudolph, “Gnosticism.”
[6] Nathan P. Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).
[7] Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary.
[8] Smith, “Gnosticism.”
[9] Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary.
[10] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).
[11] Rudolph, “Gnosticism.”
[12] Smith, “Gnosticism.”
[13] Rudolph, “Gnosticism.”
[14] Smith, “Gnosticism.”
[15] Smith, “Gnosticism.”

References

Feldmeth, Nathan P. Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined. The IVP Pocket Reference Series. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.
Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
Rudolph, Kurt. “Gnosticism.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Smith, Zachary G. “Gnosticism.” Edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

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