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Gnostics placed great stress on secret teachings or traditions. This secret knowledge was not a product of intellectual effort but was given by Jesus, the Redeemer from the true deity, either in a special revelation or through His apostles. The followers of the gnostic Valentinus claimed, for example, that Theodus, a friend of Paul’s, had been the means of transmission of the secret data. The secret knowledge was superior to the revelation recorded in the New Testament and was an essential supplement to it because only this secret knowledge could awaken or bring to life the divine spark or seed within the elect. When one received the gnosis or true knowledge, one became aware of one’s true identity with a divine inner self, was set free (saved) from the dominion of the inferior creator god, and was enabled to live as a true child of the absolute and superior deity. To be able to attain to one’s true destiny as the true deity’s child, one had to engage in specific secret rituals and in some instances to memorize the secret data which enabled one to pass through the network of powers of the inferior deity who sought to keep persons imprisoned. Salvation was thus seen by the gnostics in a cosmic rather than a moral context–to be saved was to be enabled to return to the one true deity beyond this world.
The Gnostics thought faith was inferior to knowledge. The true sons of the absolute deity were saved through knowledge rather than faith. This was the feature of the various systems that gave the movements its designation: they were the Gnostics, the knowers. Yet what this precise knowledge was is quite vague. It was more a perception of one’s own existence that solved life’s mysteries for the Gnostic than it was a body of doctrine. The knowledge through which salvation came could be enhanced by participation in rituals or through instruction, but ultimately it was a self-discovery each Gnostic had to experience.
Origins of the Gnostic Concepts
Gnosticism would not have been a threat to the early church if it had not been quite persuasive in the first centuries of the Christian era, and the question of where such ideas came from and what human needs they met must be addressed.
The classic answer to the question of why gnosticism arose is that it represents the “radical Hellenizing of Christianity.” In this view, gnosticism resulted from the attempt of early Christian thinkers to make Christianity understandable, acceptable, and respectable in a world almost totally permeated by Greek assumptions about the reality of the World. The expansion of Christianity from Palestine and its Jewish world of thought to the Roman Empire where Greek thought reigned called for an interpretation of Christianity that was more understandable. Common Hellenistic perceptions, such as the fact that matter and spirit were thought to be alien to one another, were incorporated into this re-statement of Christianity with the various gnostic systems as a result.
This classic view of the heretical gnostic sects as distortions of Christianity by Hellenistic thought has much strength because it is easily demonstrated how the Gnostics could use New Testament texts, bending them to their purposes. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, for example, Paul chides the Corinthian Christians for being “people of the flesh” (NRSV) or carnal when they should be spiritual. This text could with ease be used as the foundation for supporting the Hellenistic idea of the superiority of certain persons in the Christian community. In this and many other instances, terms or expressions in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul and John, could be lifted out of context and used in ways not originally intended by the authors to support gnostic doctrines.