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                   What is Gnosticsim?

It comes from the word “gnosis” meaning to know. Gnosticism was a philosophical system built on Greek philosophy. It added a Christian flavor when Christ impacted the world. Promoters of this ancient view were Simon Magus, Marcion, Saturninus, Cerinthus and Basilides.  The Gnostics are traced to Carpocrates, and were supported by Valentius, Theodotus, and Artemas.

Gnosticism was built on Greek philosophy that taught matter was evil and the Spirit was good. They taught docetism, a dualism which promoted a clear separation between the material and spiritual world. Christian Gnostics said since matter was evil, God could not really incarnate in a human body, He only appeared in human form and only appeared to suffer, it was an illusion. It was stated when Jesus walked on the sand you could know by seeing his footprints that were left. In this Jesus could be a pure spiritual being in an evil world and not be contaminated by it.  

The Gnostics supposedly had knowledge of God that was exclusive. They considered themselves superior to the average Christian. The Gnostics prior to Christianity taught that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit. The body and the soul are man's earthly existence, and were considered evil. Enclosed in mans soul, is the spirit, a divine substance of man. This “spirit” was asleep and ignorant and needed to be awakened. It could only be liberated by this special knowledge, that would be called by the modern term illumination. (This teaching is also found in Caballa.)

Writers of the New Testament (the apostles) condemned the Gnostic teachings. There are numerous epistles that address this ancient heresy that is now having a revival. Paul emphasized a wisdom and knowledge that comes from God and does not concern itself with idle speculations, angelic visitations, fables, and a amoral lifestyle (Col. 2:8-23; 1 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; Titus 1:10-16). Paul addresses the Gnostic influences in portions of Colossians as a direct threat to Christ being our salvation and His being sufficient in all things. To overcome the indulgences of the flesh (the “Colossian Heresy” ) the Gnostics taught a false philosophy, which denied the all-sufficiency and pre-eminence of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:8). When he wrote that “in him dwells All the fullness of the deity bodily” it was a rebuttal against the Gnostics.

Ethical behavior among the Gnostics were on two ends of the spectrum. Some tried to separate themselves from all earthly evil in order to avoid contamination, other Gnostics were libertarians. The exclusive spiritual knowledge meant their having the freedom to participate in all sorts of indulgences. Since they had received divine knowledge and were enlightened, it didn't matter how they lived in the body, because the flesh was evil.

This became a serious issue even after the apostles. We read the refutations of the Gnostics by the early church fathers that were theologians and apologists. Some of the more important ones are Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Hippolytus, Refutations of All Heresies; Epiphanius, Panarion; and Tertullian, Against Marcion. Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200), who had firsthand experience of Gnostic teaching, called those who blaspheme the Creator “agents of Satan” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.26.2). Hippolytus, in a graphic description of certain Gnostics who called themselves the Naasenes (from the Hebrew nahas, “snake”) or Ophites (from the Greek ophis, “snake”), who were worshipers of the serpent. Because they received secret knowledge, as the serpent offered to them what he offered Eve in Genesis. Irenaeus describes the vision of Marcus the magician who sees the Supreme Tetrad descended from invisible, unnameable places in the Pleroma in female form to reveal to him something never before revealed to God or man, who he really was and how he came into being.

Some of the Gnostic documents are Letter to Rheginus, Treatise on the Three Natures, Apocalypse of Adam, the Gospel of Matthias, Acts of Peter, and Acts of Thomas. The Apocryphon of James, The Acts of Peter, the twelve apostles, the treatise on the resurrection, three editions of the Apocryphon of John with the creation story reinterpreted. In the early church there were so-called infancy gospels that were written to fill in the details of the early unrecorded years of the life of Christ. “The Birth of Mary,” a work written in the middle of the second century; “The Protoevangelium of James,” written about the same time; the first “Gospel of Infancy,” composed about A.D. 400; which narrates the birth of Mary to innocents. Theses were stories circulating at the beginning of the second century all the way through the fifth century. These works included stories of Jesus forming clay figures of animals and birds that he made walk, fly, and eat. Another account has a child who runs into Jesus and falls down dead. These examples are representative of the fanciful nature of the accounts. It has been proven that Islam had taken stories from these apocryphal writings.

It was the apostle Paul who warned in Galatians 1 “If we or angel from heaven brings any other gospel, they are accursed. Notice that he includes he himself among the “we” as the apostles, making the point that anyone can find themselves removed from the truth if they do not hold fast to the truth. So even a witness of Christ in the early church can be subject to this. They held themselves to a higher standard.

For more on Christian Gnosticism

The Christian Gnostic teaching is traced by historians to Simon Magus a magician in Samaria. He is said to have written the Gnostic work entitled The Great Revelation in which Simon is the Messiah, not Jesus. Menander was one of Simon's disciples. He preached that those who followed him would not die, and that instead of Jesus being crucified it was Simon Magus.

Their philosophical system had a structure of emanations that began with God the supreme self existing Spirit who through epochs of time emanated from Him other beings, called AEons (Gr.pleroma-fulness). Through them He limited His own infinite being manifesting in each, one of His divine attributes. Since matter was evil God could not have created the world directly.  The gap between the spiritual world and the physical world was bridged by a series of emanations.  Then this divine Spirit called AEon united himself to the material body of Jesus. Christ was descended from the heavenly stratosphere and united himself with a person whose body was formed out of psychic substance. So He was not truly God nor human. Cerinthus in the late 100’s taught the Gnostic teaching of the existence of AEons and emanations from the eternal God. Also that Jesus was the natural Son of Joseph and Mary and the Christ came upon Him at His baptism and left him at the crucifixion (like the Ebionites and the New Age teaches today), so only a man was crucified. 

Salvation to the Gnostics came by knowledge and experience. Those who did not have this knowledge (esoteric truth) were associated with ignorance. They received direct revelation from the Spirit which was more important than the word.

They used allegorical interpretations, spiritualizing literal meanings. Other promoters were Basilides and Saturninus in the early second century and Marcion, Valentinus, and Tatian, who was formerly orthodox fell into this view later on in his life.  Iraneaus took the time to research and read their writings and spoke with them and became their greatest opponent debating them. He wrote, “These men falsify the oracles of God and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, They had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein.” (Iranaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1)

From The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology "The Valentinian solution to the problem of evil is that the good god (the ultimate depth) with his consort (silence) initiates the birthing process of (or "emanates") a series of paired deities. The last of the subordinate deities (usually designated as Sophia, wisdom) is unhappy with her consort and desires, instead, a relationship with the ultimate depth. This desire is unacceptable in the godhead and is extracted from Sophia and excluded from the heavenly realm (pleroma). While Sophia is thus rescued from her lust, the godhead has lost a portion of its divine nature. The goal, therefore, is the recovery of the fallen light.

 But the excluded desire (or lower Sophia) is unaware of its fallen nature, and depending on the various accounts, either it or its offspring, the Creator, begins a "demiurgical" or birthing process which partially mirrors the "emanating" process in the pleroma and ultimately results in the creation of the world. The upper godhead (pleroma) by its divine messenger (often called Christ or the Holy Spirit) tricks the Creator Demiurge into breathing into man the breath of life, and thus the light particles are passed to a light-man. The defense strategy of the lower godhead (realm of the Demiurge) is that the lightman is entombed in a body of death which, under the direction of the Demiurge, has been formed by its pseudosubdeities, also known as "the fates" or identified with the realm of the planets.

  The Garden of Eden story is then transformed so that the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil becomes a vehicle of knowledge (gnosis) established by the heavenly or pleromatic realm. But the tree of life becomes a vehicle of bondage and dependence established by the demiurgical realm. The divine messenger from the pleroma encourages man to eat from the tree of knowledge; and in so eating, man discovers that the jealous Creator-Demiurge (often linked with misspelled forms of Yahweh such as Yaldabaoth or Yao) is not in fact the ultimate God but really an enemy of God. Man, as a result of divine help, thus comes to know more than the Creator. In anger the Creator casts man into an earthly body of forgetfulness, and the pleromatic realm is forced to initiate a process of spiritual awakening through the divine messenger.

  The divine messenger is frequently identified with the figure of the Christian's Jesus Christ, but such identification has some very significant alterations. Since the divine realm is basically opposed to the creation of the lower realm, bodies at best are part of the created process and therefore need only to be regarded as vehicles which the divine may use for its own purposes. The divine messenger Christ, for the purpose of modeling the divine perspective, "adopted" the body of Jesus at a point such as the baptism and departed at a point such as just prior to the crucifixion. It is the risen "Jesus" or Christ, devoid of bodily restrictions, that based on the modeling has power to awaken man from his sleep of forgetfulness. This assumption of the body of Jesus by the divine messenger is generally termed as adoptionism" and is related to docetism, wherein Christ merely appears to be a man.

  Gnostics are those set within a world where they are the spiritual persons (pneumatikot) who possess the light particles and need only to be awakened in order to inherit their destinies. In the world there are also said to be psychic persons (psychikoi), who are a grade lower and need to work for whatever salvation they may be able to attain. The Gnostics often identified such psychics with Christians and understandably irritated the Christian heresiologists such as Irenaeus. The third division of this view of humanity is composed of material person likoi or sarkikoi), who have no chance to inherit any form of salvation but are destined for destruction. Accordingly, it should be obvious such a view of anthropology is very deterministic in orientation.   (pp. 445-446 The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology Edited by Walter Elwell)


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