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GNOSTICISM (Gnahs’ tih kihsm) Modern designation for certain religious and philosophical perspectives that existed prior to the establishment of Christianity and for the specific systems of belief, characterized by these ideas, which emerged in the second century and later. The term “gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) because secret knowledge was so crucial a doctrine in gnosticism.
Importance of Gnosticism
The significance of gnosticism for students of Christianity has two dimensions: the first is its prominence in the history of the church, and the second is its importance for interpreting certain features of the New Testament. Gnosticism emerged in schools of thought within the church in the early second century and soon established itself as a way of understanding Christianity in all of the church’s principal centers. The church was torn by the heated debates over the issues posed by gnosticism. By the end of the second century many of the Gnostics belonged to separate, alternative churches or belief systems viewed by the church as heretical. Gnosticism was thus a major threat to the early church; and the early church leaders, such as Irenaeus (died about 200), Tertullian (died about 220), and Hippolytus (died about 236), wrote voluminously against it. Many of the features of gnosticism were incorporated into the sect of the Manichees in the third century, and Manichaeism endured as an heretical threat to the church into the fourth century.
Gnosticism is also important for interpreting certain features of the New Testament. Irenaeus reported that one of the reasons John wrote his Gospel was to refute the views of Cerinthus, an early Gnostic. Over against the gnostic assertion that the true God would not enter our world, John stressed in his Gospel that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son. Other interpreters of the New Testament understand gnosticism to be crucial at many other points in interpreting the New Testament as will be discussed to follow.
Heretical Gnostic Sects
The Gnostics who broke away or were expelled from the church claimed to be the true Christians, and the early Christian writers who set themselves to refute their claims are the major source for descriptions of the heretical gnostic sects. Although wide variations existed among the many gnostic sects in the details of systems, certain major features were common to most of them–the separation of the god of creation from the god of redemption; the division of Christians into categories with one group being superior; the stress on secret teachings which only divine persons could comprehend; and the exaltation of knowledge over faith. The church rejected such teachings as heretical, but many people have continued to find attraction in varieties of these ideas.
Gnostics generally distinguished between an inferior god whom they felt was responsible for the creation and the superior god revealed in Jesus as the Redeemer. This was a logical belief for them because they opposed matter to thought in a radical way. Matter was seen as inferior, sin-causing, and always deteriorating; thought or knowledge distinguished persons from matter and animals and was imperishable, capable of revealing god, and the only channel of redemption. The gnostic Marcion thus rejected the Old Testament, pointing out that the lesser or subordinate god revealed in it dealt with matter, insisted on law rather than grace, and was responsible for our decaying, tragedy-filled world. The god who revealed himself in Jesus and through the additional secret teachings was, on the other hand, the absolute god, and was not incarnate in human flesh because the absolute god would not enter evil matter–Christ only seemed or appeared to be a person, but He was not.
Gnostics divided Christians into groups, usually the spiritual and the carnal. The spiritual Christians were in a special or higher class than the ordinary Christians because they had received, as the elect of the good deity, a divine spark or spiritual seed in their beings which allowed them to be redeemed. The spiritual Christians were the true Christians who belonged to the heavenly world which was the true one. This belief that the spiritual Christians did not really belong to this world resulted in some Gnostics seeking to withdraw from the world in asceticism. Other gnostic systems took an opposite turn into antinomianism (belief that moral law is not valid for a person or group). They claimed that the spiritual Christians were not responsible for what they did and could not really sin. Thus they could act in any way they pleased without fear of discipline.