Gnosticism is the name given to a category of heretical beliefs in early Christianity and even before. This was not a uniform body of believers with a uniform body of beliefs. In fact, there were Gnostic “Jews” with their sets of beliefs before there were Gnostic “Christians” with their sets of beliefs. And within the Gnostic community were numerous secret sects, all with their own baptism rite, password, sacred meal, even “final instructions to the dying”, etc.[i]
Gnostic comes from the Greek word Gnosis which means knowledge and this word is used in the Bible:
to give knowledge (gnosis) of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, (Luk 1:77 ESV)
Gnosticism refers to a secret knowledge that participants believe that they have been given either in oral traditions or in gospels and epistles as well as sources from numerous ancient religions including philosophies. This secret knowledge made them superior to Christians that did not have them. They considered themselves the elite of the Christian world. Only people of true understanding could obtain this knowledge. This secret knowledge[ii] gave them salvation as well as power.
Gnostics had a skewed view of this life compared to Christians. They believed that humans are spirits trapped in bodies. They considered the spirit as exiled in this physical realm of evil. In fact, the creation of the universe was a colossal error. Even still, because the world was created by a spiritual being, it had to contain the “spark of the divine.”
Basically, the spirits exiled in the physical bodies were really asleep. In order to wake up the spirit a messenger needed to be sent to wake up the spirit. The messenger brings the secret knowledge to do this. In Christian Gnosticism that messenger was Christ.[iii]
Until 1945 all we had were refutations against Gnostics to ascertain what their beliefs were. But in 1945 thirteen ancient books containing over fifty texts were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Now, you can read some of these Gnostic writings for yourself.[iv]
One Gnostic gospel is the gospel of Thomas. Look at this opening line that talks about this very idea of special secret knowledge:
These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
- And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” (Gospel of Thomas, opening, verse 1)[v]
Verse one says that this secret knowledge will save you.
Look at just a few lines of “secrets” in this document:
“This ignorance of the Father brought about terror and fear. And terror became dense like a fog, that no one was able to see. Because of this, error became strong.”[vi]
They are talking about the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ here. God, our Father, is ignorant and brings about terror and fear, according to Thomas. Boy, is that the opposite of Christianity or what?
“That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross…”[vii]
This section talks about how the “perfect” are the enlightened. It also talks about Jesus Christ as a “hidden mystery”. It talks about error as a spiritual power that made Christ powerless and nailed to a Cross. Yet he is the agent of enlightenment.
Gnostics viewed Christ as the messenger to bring the secrets that made them who they were. In contrast, in orthodox Christianity, that the Father was going to send the Messiah is the thread that runs through the law and the prophets. It wasn’t a secret. And Christian salvation is available to all, not just the elite. Christ is the agent of anyone who asks for him to provide salvation, righteousness, justification as well as the wisdom and power of the spirit.
The Gospel of Truth of Valentinus is another Gnostic gospel. Valentinus is credited as the “father” of Gnostic Christianity because of his impact. Amazingly, he was almost selected as bishop of Rome.[viii] Imagine where the Roman Catholic church would have gone had he been named their leader! As a powerful leader Valentinus trained others in this systematic theology to the point that, even though persecuted by the Catholic Church, Gnosticism lasted until the seventh century.
Here are a few lines from the text. This line talks about Christ being the sent one with the knowledge from the thought and mind of the Father:
“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father; he it is who is called ‘the Savior,’”[ix]
The Pleroma in the bible (Col 1:9) means fullness as in the fullness of God’s power and dominion. It is used similarly in Gnosticism, the fullness of all that God is and has created. However, the Gnostic definition uses terms that are Platonic in origin with the concepts of the cosmos and the demiurge, an artisan god who crafted and maintains the universe.
Another significant Gnostic document is The Teachings of Silvanus. This document shows Gnosticism as a systematic theology. It is rational and motivational, offering the listener an opportunity for salvation.
Look at the opening line:
“Abolish every childish time of life, acquire for yourself strength of mind and soul, and intensify the struggle against every folly of the passions of love and base wickedness, and love of praise, and fondness of contention, and tiresome jealousy and wrath, and anger and the desire of avarice. Guard your (pl.) camp and weapons and spears. Arm yourself and all the soldiers, which are the words, and the commanders, which are the counsels, and your mind as a guiding principle.”[x]
It sounds like the start of a good, rousing sermon to me. It sounds like scripture. It has terminology similar to the other churches. It sounds like wise advice and it offers things like:
“And if you do these things, O my son, you will be victorious over all your enemies, and they will not be able to wage war against you, neither will they be able to resist, nor will they be able to get in your way. For if you find these, you will despise them as deniers of truth. They will speak to you, cajoling you and enticing (you), not because they are afraid of you, but because they are afraid of those who dwell within you, namely, the guardians of the divinity and the teaching.”[xi]
It has a mention of the Father God, the divine Son, and all kinds of Christian terminology. But it’s not the faith Jesus came to provide. Look at this Gnostic verse:
“So, there is no other one hidden except God alone. But he is revealed to everyone, and yet he is very hidden. He is revealed because God knows all. And if they do not wish to affirm it, they will be corrected by their heart. Now he is hidden because no one perceives the things of God. For it is incomprehensible and unfathomable to know the counsel of God.”[xii]
This is speaking in riddles. God is hidden but he is revealed. This says it is impossible to perceive the things of God. God is revealed to everyone but the counsel of God is incomprehensible and unfathomable. Compare that to Psalm 73:
Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped…
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psa 73:1-2, 23-24 ESV)
This is an example of simple, direct reasoning in the Old and New Testaments. No secret knowledge is required for God to hold our hand and lead us with his counsel.
Because of the persuasive nature of this heretical cult, believers responded and dealt with it. The second-century believers developed the concept of orthodoxy (right teaching). Christian writers wrote refutations against the heresies. In the process, the simple, direct, more concrete writing of original Christianity slowly changed, and we will deal with that as it develops.
[i] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984 p. 200
[ii] The Story Of Christianity, Volume 1, The Early Church To The Dawn Of The Reformation, Justo L Gonzalez, HarperOne, 2010, p. 70
[iii] The Story Of Christianity, Volume 1, p. 72
[v] The Gospel of Thomas available online at https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/Gospel%20of%20Thomas%20Lambdin.pdf
[viii] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, p. 207
last edited 8/24/2021