One of the earliest heresies to arise in the Christian church was Gnosticism (nahs-tih-sism). The term “gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) because their central teaching was that they possessed secret knowledge available only to those in their circles. Although little is known about Gnostic origins, it seems clear that the category of beliefs called Gnosticism was a collection of teachings gathered from several sources, including concepts related to Hinduism and Buddhism, elements of Greek philosophy and even teachings similar to Jewish Kabalah.
Perhaps the best way of explaining the basic Gnostic premise is to see it as a response to the problem posed by the existence of evil in a universe presided over by a perfect Deity. The Gnostic answer to this dilemma attempted to show how the Cosmos could be corrupt in a way which excuses the Deity from any responsibility. Their solution was to teach that the original Deity generated lesser deities, called aeons, each a bit less perfect than the one before. The thirtieth in this line made the flawed material universe (according to the Gnostics this was the spiritual meaning of the New Testament’s teaching that Jesus was thirty years old when he began to preach). Gnostics used this basic premise to explain how people can know and desire good things and yet have evil passions and motives.
Until recently most of what was known about Gnosticism was obtained from the quotations of the Church Fathers, but in 1945 the discovery of a Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, provided firsthand evidence of their beliefs. The main ideas in Gnostic thinking include the following:
· A dualistic Cosmos in which two great opposing forces are in constant conflict: spirit versus matter, good versus evil, light versus darkness, knowledge versus ignorance.
· This conflict is driven by two opposing forces: a perfect and pure original Deity and a lesser, imperfect being usually called the Demiurge, who created the material world.
· The original Deity is unknowable and has little or nothing to do with what happens in the Cosmos.
· Although the human body, as a part of the material world is corrupt, a divine spark was placed in at least some humans, which can be awakened and united with the divine.
· Revealers have been sent to show the way back to the divine, one of which was Christ.
· Salvation is attained through knowledge of one’s true self and of the true character of the universe. It is achieved when a person overcomes the barriers of delusion and ignorance and finds union with God.
Like many others, people with Gnostic views were drawn to the Christian message. Some of them sought to reinterpret the gospel using Gnostic concepts. They taught that the doctrines taught by the mainstream churches were not exactly wrong, so much as incomplete. The gospel the Apostles preached to the masses was as close to the truth as common people could ever come. However, for specially gifted people with a more spiritually-oriented nature the Gnostics had the full truth.
One group taught that Christ was one of the semi-divine aeons (perhaps the Demiurge himself) who took over the body of Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism, animated his ministry and then left before His crucifixion and death.
Another group was the Docetists (from the Greek word dokew meaning to seem). They taught that as one of these aeons, Jesus Christ did not really have a physical body, but only “seemed” to have one so he could relate to people. From their belief that the true God and his Messiah were forever separate from anything material, they taught that Jesus was not physically born, was never hungry or tired, and did not really suffer or die, but merely appeared to do these things.
All Gnostics believed that since Christ belonged entirely to the spiritual realm, the point of the gospel message could not be that he experienced a true physical death and resurrection to atone for sins. What saved a person was his secret teaching, veiled in ordinary words spoken to the crowds, but whose coded inner meanings were known to specially initiated followers.
So “Gnostic Christianity” claimed to be Christianity with a distinct advantage. For people desiring to be superior, they promised a superior Christianity. The belief that spiritual people did not really belong to the material world resulted in some Gnostic groups seeking to withdraw into a kind of monastic lifestyle. Others took the opposite approach, believing that moral laws did not apply to them and that spiritual people were not responsible for what they did with their bodies. Thus they could live any way they pleased without fear of discipline or judgment.
Full-blown Gnosticism did not appear until the Second Century AD. However, the basic concepts were already emerging during the First Century and were vigorously opposed by the infant Church. For example, 1 John 4:2 stresses the necessity of acknowledging that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (rather than as merely a being of spirit). Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:20 against what is falsely called knowledge, etc.
Gnostic ideas are still very much a factor in the Twenty-first Century. In our day we also must deal with questions posed by the existence of evil. The fact that many of the errors of Gnosticism are still dangers is seen in the claims of some cultic groups to have secret knowledge or extra scripture revealed only through their leaders. Many groups reject the biblical teaching that Christ was both fully God and fully human. At its core, the appeal of Gnosticism is its ego-centric drive, shown in the Serpent’s tempting words for people to “become like God, knowing good and evil.”