International Standard Bible EncyclopediaGNOSTICISM
I. GENERAL DEFINITION
II. SOURCES OF GNOSTICISM
1. Alexandrian Philosophy
III. NATURE OF GNOSTICISM
IV. GNOSTICISM IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
2. 1 Corinthians: "Knowledge" at Corinth
3. Pastoral Epistles
4. 1 John
(1) Gnostic Claims
(2) Its Loveless Nature
(4) The Antichrist
(5) Its Antinomian Side
5. "To Know the Depths," Revelation
V. THE CHRISTIAN ANTITHESIS
1. God and the World
How Did the World Originate?
(1) Christian Doctrine of Sin (2) Sin and the Moral Law
3. Christ and Redemption
4. Asceticism and Antinomianism
VI. HARNACK'S VIEW OF GNOSTICISM
VII. INFLUENCE AND DEVELOPMENT OF GNOSTICISM
1. Not a Heresy of the Humbler Classes
2. Cerinthus: His Teaching
3. The Gospel of John
4. Various Sects
(1) The Ophites
5. Relation to the Old Testament
6. The Christian Verities
7. Influence on Theology
8. Truth Underlying Docetism
VIII. MODERN GNOSTICISM
Gnosticism-except perhaps in 1 Timothy 6:20, where Paul warns Timothy against "the gnosis, which is falsely so called"-is not directly alluded to in the New Testament. Nevertheless its leaven was actually working, as will immediately be seen, and constituted a most serious peril in the apostolic church. "That strange, obscure movement, partly intellectual, partly fanatical. in the 2nd century spread with the swiftness of an epidemic over the church from Syria to Gaul" (Law, The Tests of Life, 26). It is therefore of high importance to gain a right conception of the nature of this potent anti-Christian influence. This is not easy. The difficulty in dealing with Gnosticism is that it was not a homogeneous system of either religion or philosophy, but embraced many widely diversified sects holding opinions drawn from a great variety of sources. "The infinitely varied shapes assumed by the systems render it almost impossible to classify them, or even to give an account of their leading ideas, which shall not be open to objection. We might as well try to classify the products of a tropical jungle, or the shapes and hues of the sunset clouds, which change under our view as we look at them" (Orr, The Progress of Dogma, 58).
I. General Definition.
On the general definition of Gnosticism a few authorities may be cited. "Gnosticism," says Dr. Gwatkin, "may be provisionally described as a number of schools of philosophy, oriental in general character, but taking in the idea of a redemption through Christ, and further modified in different sects by a third element, which may be Judaism, Hellenism, or Christianity. the Gnostics took over only the idea of a redemption through Christ, not the full Christian doctrine, for they made it rather a redemption of the philosophers from matter, than a redemption of mankind from sin" (Early Church History to A.D. 313, II, 20).
Dr. Orr writes, "Gnosticism may be described generally as the fantastic product of the blending of certain Christian ideas-particularly that of redemption through Christ-with speculation and imaginings derived from a medley of sources (Greek, Jewish, Parsic; philosophies; religions, theosophies, mysteries) in a period when the human mind was in a kind of ferment, and when opinions of every sort were jumbled together in an unimaginable welter. It involves, as the name denotes, a claim to `knowledge,' knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which `salvation' in the full sense consisted. This knowledge of which the Gnostic boasted, related to the subjects ordinarily treated of in religious philosophy; Gnosticism was a species of religious philosophy" (The Early Church, 71).
Neander has described Gnosticism as "the first notable attempt to introduce into Christianity the existing elements of mental culture, and to render it more complete on the hitherto rather neglected side of theoretical knowledge; it was an attempt of the mind of the ancient world in its yearning after knowledge, and in its dissatisfaction with the present, to bring within its grasp and to appropriate the treasures of this kind which christianity presented" (Antignostikus, Intro, 199).
Gnosticism accordingly comprehends in itself many previously existing tendencies; it is an amalgam into which quite a number of different elements have been fused. A heretical system of thought, at once subtle, speculative and elaborate, it endeavored to introduce into Christianity a so-called higher knowledge, which was grounded partly on the philosophic creed in which Greeks and Romans had taken refuge consequent on the gradual decay and breaking-up of their own religions, partly, as will be shown, on the philosophies of Plato and of Philo, and still more on the philosophies and theosophies and religions of the East, especially those of Persia and of India.
"For a long time the pagan beliefs had ceased to be taken seriously by thoughtful men and had been displaced by various creeds derived from philosophical speculation. These in themselves were abstract and unsatisfying, but had been partly vitalized by union with theosophies of the East. An attempt was made on the part of this philosophical religion to effect an alliance with Christianity. A section of the church was dissatisfied with the simplicity of the gospel, and sought to advance to something higher by adopting the current speculations... The late books of the New Testament are all occupied, more or less, with this movement, which was the more dangerous as it threatened the church from within" (Professor E. Scott, The Apologetic of the New Testament, 14).
Gnosticism, though usually regarded as a heresy, was not really such: it was not the perverting of Christian truth; it came, rather, from outside. Having worked its way into the Christian church, it was then heretical. "Although it became a corrupting influence within the church, it was an alien by birth. While the church yet sojourned within the pale of Judaism, it enjoyed immunity from this plague; but as soon as it broke through these narrow bounds, it found itself in a world where the decaying religions and philosophies of the West were in acute fermentation under the influence of a new and powerful leaven from the East; while the infusion of Christianity itself into this fermenting mass only added to the bewildering multiplicity of Gnostic sects and systems it brought forth" (Law, The Tests of Life, 26).
II. Sources of Gnosticism.
Mansel (in his work on The Gnostic Heresies, 32) sums up the principal sources of Gnosticism in these three, Platonism, the Persian religion, and the Buddhism of India. To Platonism it owed much of its philosophical form and tendencies. From the Dualism of the Per religion it derived its speculations regarding the origin of evil, and much of what it taught about emanations. To Buddhism, he thinks, it owed the doctrine of the antagonism between matter and spirit, and the unreality of derived existence-the germ of Docetism. Mansel also holds that there is the possibility that Gnosticism derived certain of its features from the Kabbala (qabbalah), or secret teaching of the Jews in the two books, the Cepher yetsirah, or Book of Creation, and the Zohar, or Book of Light. An influence of Buddhism on Gnosticism, however, may safely be doubted, as there is no reason to believe that the knowledge of Buddhist doctrine had so early penetrated into the West. The Jewish works named by Mansel are really products of the Middle Ages (Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, 144-45). The other sources named were really influential. We notice two-the Alexandrian philosophy and the Parsic dualism.
1. Alexandrian Philosophy:
Alexandrian philosophy endeavored to unite Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion. Philo, the great Jewish commentator of Alexandria, had tried to interpret the ancient Jewish Scriptures by the aid of the Greek philosophy, to expound the Old Testament in terms of Plato's thought and to discover allegorical meanings where none were intended. In Philo's teaching there is a sharp line drawn between God and the material world: with him God cannot exert any action upon the world of matter, except through intermediate agency, the Jewish angels and the heathen demons. Philo has much to say in regard to the Logos. His utterances on this subject may be compared with what is said of the attributes of "Wisdom" in chapter 8 of the Book of Prov, and also with the Logos or "Word" of the Gospel of John. With Philo, the Logos is the power of God, or the Divine reason endowed with energy, and embracing within itself all subordinate powers. The Logos is impersonal in its relations to God; and herein is one huge difference between Philo's conception and that in the gospel. Philo teaches that the Logos is the only firstborn of God, the chief of the angels, the viceroy of God, and representative of man.
According to Philo the creation of the universe was a gradual molding out of matter; hence, arises evil. He also teaches the preexistence of the soul, which is now imprisoned in the flesh. The wise man, therefore, will break the thralldom of the flesh, and will rise by a sort of ecstasy to the immediate vision of God. It will be seen how much of this teaching was assimilated by the various Gnostic sects.
The Zoroastrian or Persian system was based on the assumption that there existed two original and independent powers of good and evil, of light and darkness, Ormuzd (Ahura-Mazda), the wise Lord, and Ahriman (Angra-Mainyu), the wicked spirit. These powers were believed to be equal, and each supreme in his own domain. The earth, which was created by Ormuzd, became the battlefield of the two powers. Ahriman led away the first man and woman from their allegiance to Ormuzd, and so all evils result to mankind.
"In oriental (Persian) dualism," says Professor Bousset, "it is within this material world that the good and the evil powers are at war, and this world beneath the stars is by no means conceived as entirely subject to evil. Gnosticism has combined the two, the Greek opposition between spirit and matter, and the sharp Zoroastrian dualism, which, where the Greek mind conceived of a higher and a lower world, saw instead two hostile worlds standing in contrast to each other like light and darkness. And out of the combination of these two dualisms arose the teaching of Gnosticism with its thoroughgoing pessimism and its fundamental asceticism" ("Gnosticism," in Encyclopedia Brit, 11th edition, XII, 154).
III. Nature of Gnosticism.
"Gnosticism," says Dr. Gwatkin, "is Christianity perverted by learning and speculation" (Early Church History 73). The intellectual pride of the Gnostics refined away the gospel into a philosophy. The clue to the understanding of Gnosticism is given in the word from which it is derived-gnosis, "knowledge." Gnosticism puts knowledge in the place which can only rightly be occupied by Christian faith. To the Gnostic the great question was not the intensely practical one, "What must I do to be saved from sin?" but "What is the origin of evil?" "How is the primitive order of the universe to be restored?" In the knowledge of these and of similar questions, and in the answers given to these questions, there was redemption, as the Gnostic understood it.
"These little Gnostic sects and groups all lived in the conviction that they possessed a secret and mysterious knowledge, in no way accessible to those outside, which was not to be proved or propagated, but believed in by the initiated, and anxiously guarded as a secret. This knowledge of theirs was not based on reflection or scientific inquiry and proof, but on revelation. It was derived directly from the times of primitive Christianity, from the Saviour Himself and His disciples and friends, with whom they claimed to be connected by a secret tradition, or else from later prophets, of whom many sects boasted. It was laid down in wonderful mystic writings, which were in the possession of the various circles.
"In short, Gnosticism in all its various sections, its form and its character, falls under the category of mystic religions, which were so characteristic of the religious life of decadent antiquity. In Gnosticism, as in the other mystic religions, we find the same contrast of the initiated and the uninitiated, the same loose organization, the same kind of petty sectarianism and mystery-mongering. All alike boast a mystic revelation and a deeply veiled wisdom" (Bousset, op. cit., 153).
Chief Points in Gnosticism:
The questions, therefore, with which Gnosticism concerned itself were those of the relation of the finite and the infinite, the origin of the world and of evil, the cause, meaning, purpose and destiny of all things, the reason of the difference in the capacities and in the lot in life of individual men, the method of salvation. The following may be regarded as the chief points in the characteristics of the Gnostic systems:
(1). A claim on the part of the initiated to a special knowledge of the truth, a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith, and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine.
(2) The essential separation of matter and spirit, the former of these being essentially evil, and the source from which all evil has arisen.
(3) An attempt at the solution of the problems of creation and of the origin of evil by the conception of a Demiurge, i.e. a Creator or Artificer of the world as distinct from the Supreme Deity, and also by means of emanations extending between God and the visible universe. It should be observed that this conception merely concealed the difficulties of the problem, and did not solve them.
(4) A denial of the true humanity of Christ, a docetic Christology, (which looked upon the earthly life of Christ and especially on His sufferings on the cross as unreal).
(5) The denial of the personality of the Supreme God, and the denial also of the free will of man.
(6) The teaching, on the one hand, of asceticism as the means of attaining to spiritual communion with God, and, on the other hand, of an indifference which led directly to licentiousness.
(7) A syncretistic tendency which combined certain more or less misunderstood Christian doctrines, various elements from oriental and Jewish and other sources.
(8) The Scriptures of the Old Testament were ascribed to the Demiurge or inferior Creator of the world, who was the God of the Jews, but not the true God. Some of these characteristic ideas are more obvious in one, and some of them in others of the Gnostic systems. The relation of these ideas to Christian facts and doctrines is dealt with more particularly below.
IV. Gnosticism in the Christian Church.
In the New Testament and the Apostolic Age.
The germ of Gnosticism in the Christian church made its appearance in the apostolic age, and is referred to by Paul in several of his epistles, notably in that to the Colossians and in the Pastoral Epistles. It is also referred to by the apostles Peter and Jude; references to it are found, besides, in the Apocalypse, the First Epistle of John and the Gospel of John.
In col a great deal is said regarding a false teaching, an insidious theosophist doctrine, the teachers of which were alienating the Christians in Colosse from the gospel, and were disseminating their speculations, which led to the worship of angels in contrast to the worship of Christ, to esoteric exclusiveness wholly opposed to the universality of the gospel, and to an asceticism injurious to Christian freedom, and derogatory to the human body as indwelt by the Holy Ghost. These tenets are identical with the more fully developed Gnosticism of the generation succeeding that of the apostles; and at the root of the Colossian false teaching there lay the same error which the Gnostic mind had no way of meeting, namely, that there could be no connection between the highest spiritual agency, that is God, and gross corporeal matter.
From this theoretical basis arose another error-that as sin is inherent in the material substance of the body, therefore the only way by which perfection can be reached is to punish the body by asceticism, so that through the infliction of pain and the mortification of the flesh the region of pure spirit may be reached, and thus man may be etherealized and become like God. This ascetic tendency is wonderfully widespread; it reappears century after century, and shows itself in many forms of religion, not merely in distorted forms of Christianity, but in the Hindu religions, in Buddhism and elsewhere. In the Epistle to the Colossians, accordingly, there are definite references to ascetic practices which were inculcated by the false teachers at Colosse. The very terms which they employed have been preserved, "Touch not," "Taste not," "Handle not." It was in this way that these teachers had "at their own hand" invented a worship different from that of the Christian faith, which endeavored to attain the deliverance of the soul by "the neglecting of the body" (Colossians 2:21, 23 the King James Version). These Gnostic teachers showed these tendencies still more boldly when Paul wrote his First Epistle to Timothy (see below), for he describes them as "forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats" (1 Timothy 4:3). These ascetic practices were afterward taught by various Gnostic sects, the Encratites, the followers of Saturninus, and others.
These tendencies in the Colossian church Paul set himself to correct in his epistle. The method which he adopts is not so much to demolish error, as to establish the contrary truth, setting before the Colossians the person and work of Christ, Christ the Creator, Christ in whom there dwells not merely some or even much of the fullness of God, but all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; Christ the God of providence, the Upholder of all things, in whom matter and all creatures and all events "consist" and have their being; Christ the Reconciler who has reconciled us unto God through the blood of the cross. In view of truths like these, Colossian error and all other forms of Gnosticism crumble into decay and vanish.
SeeCOLOSSIANS, EPISTLE TO THE.
2. 1 Corinthians: "Knowledge" at Corinth:
The Epistle to the Colossians is the first of the Pauline Epistles in which distinctively Gnostic teaching is found in its attack upon the Christian faith. But from incidental notices in epistles of Paul written at an earlier period, it can be seen how congenial was the soil into which Gnostic teaching was about to fall. For even in Corinth when Paul wrote his First Epistle to the church there, there had been a claim on the part of some that they possessed "knowledge," as if others were destitute of it, a claim which the apostle refuses to admit, and meets with stern resistance. They thought themselves "wise," they were given to disputing, they professed that they "all had knowledge" (1 Corinthians 8:1), nay, they could "know all mysteries and all knowledge" (1 Corinthians 13:2); but this knowledge did not edify them, did not build them up, it only puffed them up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it did not make them sympathetic or tender-hearted toward the weak (1 Corinthians 8:7-11).
3. Pastoral Epistles:
In 1 Timothy 6:20, 21 Paul speaks of the "knowledge (the gnosis) which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith." In other places in that epistle reference is made to tenets which are exactly those of Gnosticism. In 1:4 the apostle speaks of "fables and endless genealogies, which minister questionings, rather than a dispensation of God which is in faith." Philo had given a great impetus to an allegorizing interpretation of the Old Testament. His writings were well known and were popular in many of the Jewish schools. These fanciful interpretations would hinder the growth of the Christian church; and this allegorizing of Scripture, joined to the teaching of the genealogies of the eons, would leave no place for a Redeemer. In 4:3, as already noted, Paul describes ascetic practices which were regarded by their votaries as most meritorious. To abstain from marriage and from various kinds of food was the teaching of the Essenes and also of the Gnostics. This ascetic teaching was unnatural, as contrary to the constitution of the world, as that has been arranged by a holy and wise Creator, and it is also subversive of Christian liberty. Nothing can be esteemed common or unclean without throwing a reproach upon the Creator.
But another and contrary result also followed from the principles of the sinfulness of matter and of redemption as deliverance from the flesh, namely, that there was an easier way of relief, by treating the soul and the body as separate entities which have nothing in common. Let the soul go its way on the wings of spiritual thought, while the body may indulge its fleshly desires. For, so it was held, as body and soul are entirely distinct in their nature, the spiritual cannot be defiled by anything, however carnal and gross, that the body can do. This was the antinomian development of Gnosticism. Many traces of this are apparent in the Pastoral Epistles and in 2 Peter and Jude. The Gnostics, against whom Paul warns Timothy, were "lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, rollers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, implacable, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, puffed-up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof" (2 Timothy 3:2, 3, 4). Such, too, is the testimony borne regarding them by Ignatius (Law, The Tests of Life, 30):("They give no heed to love, caring not for the widow, the orphan or the afflicted, neither for those who are in bonds, nor for those who are released from bonds, neither for the hungry nor the thirsty." Such persons professed that they knew God, but by their works they denied Him; they were "abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate" (Titus 1:16). They enticed others into sins of impurity (2 Timothy 3:5, 6). They allured others through the lusts of the flesh; and the means by which they succeeded in doing this was that they spoke great swelling words of vanity, and the end was that in their destroying of others they themselves also were surely destroyed (2 Peter 2:12, 18). They were ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ; they gave themselves up to the sins of the flesh, and ran riotously after error in hope of a gain in money; they were sensual men, not having the Spirit (Jude 1:4, 8, 11, 19) The entire Epistle of Jude is directed against this antinomian and licentious development of Gnosticism, and against its terrible permission of an unholy life (see below on the Book of Revelation).
4. 1 John:
In the First Epistle of John there is a distinct polemical purpose. There is no book of the New Testament which is more purposeful in its attack of error. There is "the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6), opposing the Spirit of truth. "Many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1), and this from the church itself, "They went out from us, but they were not of us" (1 John 2:19); and these false prophets are distinctly named "the antichrist" (1 John 2:22) and "the liar" (same place), and "the deceiver and the antichrist" (2 John 1:7). This peril, against which the apostle writes, and from which he seeks to defend the church, was Gnosticism, as is proved by what is said again and again in the epistle of the characteristics of this insidious and deadly teaching.
(1) Gnostic Claims.
The Gnostic claim to knowledge throws light upon many passages in this epistle. John refers to his opponents' using such phrases as "I know God," "I abide in Christ," "I am in the light." These lofty claims were made by persons who did not love their brethren on earth, who did not walk in Christ's footsteps, and who were destitute of love. The apostle therefore describes these lofty claims as false, because those who made them possessed neither love nor obedience.
In contrast to these Gnostic claims-for those who made them were no other than the early Gnostics-John shows how the Christ of history is the Christ of experience: for those to whom he is writing know Christ, who is from the beginning, and they know the Father. "We know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20). This knowledge of God and communion with Him are attained, not by Gnostic speculation, but by the obedience of faith, the outcome of which is brotherly love and a life in which the Christian walks even as Christ did (1 John 2:6). And thus also obedience and brotherly love are the test of the profession which any man may make that he knows God. "Every one also that doeth righteousness is begotten of him," (1 John 2:29); "Whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother" (1 John 3:10).
(2) Its Loveless Nature.
Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, loveless intellectualism. This seems to be the explanation of the false teaching against which this epistle is directed. The apostle describes the dry head-knowledge which left the heart and life untouched by love, and which led men, while they professed to love God, nevertheless to remain destitute of love to their fellow-men. They did not fold their human brethren to their hearts, they were dead to the fact that where pity dwells, the love of God dwells also. In Gnosticism knowledge was in itself the supreme end and purpose of life, the sum of highest good to which a man could attain, the crown of life. The system was loveless to the core.
Now, when the attempt was made to amalgamate these Gnostic ideas with the Christian faith, the inevitable result was Docetism. Just because God cannot have any immediate contact with matter, therefore the incarnation of Almighty God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ is inconceivable. From this position it is, of course, only a step to deny that the incarnation and the true human life of Christ ever took place at all.
(4) The Antichrist.
The Antichrist of the First Epistle of John is docetic Gnosticism. The soul of the apostle rushes onward, with glowing zeal for the honor of his Master whom Gnosticism dishonored, to identify personally the historical Jesus with the Divine Being, "the Son of God," "the Word of Life," "the Christ." "Who is the liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, even he that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that confesseth the Son hath the Father also" (1 John 2:22, 23). It should be noted that the last clause in 1 John 2:23, which is printed in italics in the King James Version, is restored in the Revised Version (British and American) to its rightful position in the original text. "Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already" (1 John 4:2, 3).
(5) Its Antinomian Side.
The antinomian side of Gnosticism is not so directly referred to in the First Epistle of John as Docetism is; but evidences are manifest that the apostle had it clearly before him. "Little children," he writes, "let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous: he that doeth sin is of the devil" (1 John 3:7, 8). And these were the methods by which those deceivers endeavored to lead the members of the church astray. They alleged that sin was a thing indifferent in itself. It made no difference to the spiritual man whether he sinned with his body or not. It is for this reason that the apostle, in opposing those teachers, insists that "sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4); "All unrighteousness is sin" (1 John 5:17); "Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin" (1 John 3:9); "In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother" (1 John 3:10). The whole passage presupposes, as familiar to its readers, a doctrine of moral indifferentism, according to which the status of the `spiritual' man is not to be tested by the commonplace facts of moral conduct" (The Tests of Life, 34).
SeeJOHN, THE EPISTLES OF.
5. "To Know the Depths": Revelation:
As time advanced, and the later books of the New Testament were written, Gnosticism assumed more of its distinctive peculiarities. "Those who had knowledge" regarded themselves as a superior order of believers. One of their phrases was "to know the depths" (Revelation 2:24 the King James Version), and this was valued far more highly than love and obedience. "From this language, we may, I think, infer the existence of an Ophite sect, boasting of its peculiar gnosis, before the date of the Apocalypse" (Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies, 105). The claim of the Ophites was that they alone knew "the depths." "Yes," is the apostle's reply to claims of this kind, "yes, the depths, but not of God, the depths of Satan"; for such is a just description of a teaching which ascribed the origin and the working of evil to God. It is in the light of Gnostic teaching of this sort that the meaning can be seen of the same apostle's language in his First Epistle, "And this is the message which we have heard from him and announce unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).
In the Epistles to the Seven Churches in the Apocalypse there are other references to Gnosticism.
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Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
) The system of philosophy taught by the Gnostics.