Gnosticism: Heresy or Paganism?

maxresdefaultIn his book The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc defines a heresy a sort of thing which takes a system of thought and – rather than depart wholesale from the previously established tradition – picks out one part of that system and through either overemphasis or removal leaves the structure marred, yet in-tact enough to still draw adherents of the previous system to it; thus Belloc states that “The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy” but “it is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks… wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain’”.

In this way Arianism denied the divinity of Christ, Docetism denied the humanity of Christ, while the various Trinitarian heresies such as Monarchianism or Sabellianism overemphasized the oneness of God. In approaching early Christian heresies it is necessary to look at them and determine what the major tenets of these systems were, and in turn to determine where they departed from the orthodox tradition.

However, when looking at a system such as that of Gnosticism, there is not merely one (or even two or three) doctrines or pieces of the orthodox system which have been removed or overemphasized. Rather, one finds that the Gnostic system is – for all intents and purposes – a denial of the Christian scheme wholesale. Thus, when one composes a list of the tenets of Gnosticism, one finds that this list in every way departs from Christianity; indeed, it merely borrows Christian language and categories in order to tell an entirely different story.

gnostic-gospelsIn demonstrating this one may look at the Gnostic views of God, man, creation, Christ, salvation, and Scripture, each bearing no resemblance to the orthodox system of which it is said to be a heresy.

View of God:

As with anything dealing with theology, the first place to begin is with God, and from the beginning Gnosticism takes a radical departure from orthodoxy Christianity; indeed, rather than merely overemphasizing one quality of the Christian Trinity (such as His oneness or his threeness), Gnosticism substitutes the Christian God for a plurality of gods, demoting the creator-god of the Genesis narrative to a minor and somewhat malevolent being, and putting in his place a being of pure thought.

From this being of thought the myriad of lesser gods ’emanate’, one of these being the Jewish creator-god who contaminated the previous existence through the creation of the material world. Rather than being a god to be revered, the creator-god of Genesis is looked down upon, and is said to have sinned when he claimed to be the only god. Thus, the Gnostic gods – and especially their interpretation of the god of the Old Testament – are far removed from the God of Christianity, who is upheld not only as the only God, but as a wholly holy God, deserving all honor and worship.

View of Creation:

Just as Gnosticism has a radically different view of God than Christianity, so does it have a radically different view of man.

The Gnostic view of man is made of somewhat disparate elements. In The Secret Book of John man is created through angels and demons working together to construct a natural body , while in The First Thought in Three Forms it is the creator-god of Genesis as a great demon who creates the body of man while his spirit is given by a higher being. In On the Origin of the World man is created “when Sophia let fall a droplet of light” which “flowed onto the water, and immediately a human being appeared…”  Yet, while the origins of mankind vary in the Gnostic mythos, it is generally agreed in some form or another that the soul of man “is a precious thing which came into a worthless body.” Thus the soul of man is held in high regard, while the material body of man is seen as something degenerate; this is quite far from the view of man – body and soul – being made as essentially good and in the image of God their creator.

Just as the creation of fleshly man is seen as a negative thing in Gnosticism, so is the creation of the entire material world. Here again the Gnostic views vary, in most accounts, such as The Gospel of Philip, the material world “came into being through an error,” most often the error of the lesser god of Genesis. In contrast to this The Secret Book of John has the material world being created by various lesser beings. Once again, even though the way in which the material world came into being may vary in the Gnostic system, it is agreed that this creation was not a good thing (ie, an error). Thus, just as the Gnostic view looks down upon the body of man, so it too looks down upon the entirety of the material world – quite dissimilar from everything being counted as ‘good’ in the Genesis narrative.

View of Christ and His Work:

Just as the Gnostic views of God, man, and creation bear no resemblance to the Christian system, so the Gnostic view of Christ is at great odds with the orthodox position, with the primary point of their system being that Christ did not truly come in the flesh, but rather merely possessed the body of a man named Jesus.

This divergence can be seen all throughout the Gnostic writings, such as in The First Thought in Three Forms where it is stated that “As for me, I put on Jesus”, or in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth which states “I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it previously, and I went in”. In keeping with the theme that Christ did not really become incarnate, the Gnostic system hold that he also did not die, such that in “… I died, though not in reality…”. Rather than suffer on the cross, the divine part of Jesus – according to The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter – was “above the cross, glad and laughing” while his human counterpart died. For this reason the Gnostics ridicule the orthodox, claiming that “they will hold fast to the name of a dead man, while thinking that they will become pure” . This view is opposed in the more orthodox writings – such as The Letter of Barnabas – with statements noting that “the Son of God came in the flesh for this reason…” and “this is why he allowed himself to suffer”. This notion is echoed in The Epistle of the Apostles where the author asserts that “he has truly risen in the flesh”.

Because the Gnostics have radically different view of both God and man, and thus of Christ, so they also have a different understanding of why Christ came and what salvation entails.

Perhaps the primary way in which the Gnostic idea of salvation differs from the Christian view is that while the Christian view deals with bringing man back into right relationship with God through the covering of his sins (and thus revolves in a large degree around morality), the Gnostic view of salvation is primarily epistemological. Thus, mankind does not need saved from their sins, they need saved from their ignorance. This theme is fairly consistent in the Gnostic writings: in The Gospel of Truth it is stated that “He has brought back many from error” and “knowledge to those who have committed sin in their error”; in The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter it is said of certain people that “they have become ignorant and have not been saved”; in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth that “they did not know the Gnosis of the Greatness”; in The Gospel of Philip that “Folks do not know the right meaning”; and finally in The Secret Book of John one is made perfect when they are “liberated from the forgetfulness and acquires knowledge”. The common theme her is that there is no real moral or sinful quality to speak of, but the focus is instead on a lack of knowledge, an ignorance of the truth. Certainly Christianity too speaks of having true knowledge, but this is not the central focus of its soteriology. The Letter of Barnabas responds to this error as well, stating that “he renewed us through the forgiveness of our sins.”

View of Scripture:

Just as the Gnostics differ from the orthodox view on every other position, so they also hold the Scriptures in a different manner, which is likely a large contributing factor to the other errors; because they have an inadequate view of Scripture they therefore have a faulty view of everything on which Scripture speaks.

When one reads the early church writers in the more orthodox position, one is struck with the high view of the Biblical Scriptures that they had. Thus, when they reference the Old Testament texts, they do so in order to use them as proof-texts, using the sources of the Old Testament to build their theologies. In sharp contrast to this, the Gnostic texts may quite often be seen ridiculing the Old Testament characters and directly stating that they are departing from the traditionally understood narrative (which, in turn, demonstrates that there must have been a traditional narrative already in place to depart from). In this way they refer to a large number of the great figures in the Old Testament as “laughingstocks.” stating that the law of Moses has been misunderstood, attacking authority and leaders as such, and criticizing the orthodox for “proclaiming the doctrine of a dead man and falsehoods to resemble the freedom and purity of the perfect assembly.”

This departure is particularly noted when the Gnostic texts use such statements as “in our view”, which assumes they are disagreeing with some pre-established view. That the more orthodox writers held in much higher esteem the writings which are now referred to as the canonical Scripture can be seen not only in their use of the Old Testament texts as reference material, but also in the way they stress the keeping of tradition. Thus in The Didache it is stated that “if the teacher should himself turn away and teach something different, undermining these things, do not listen to him”, or in The Third Letter to the Corinthians that “anyone who remains in the rule received through the blessed prophets and the holy Gospel will receive a reward”. When the more orthodox writers turn to critiquing the Gnostic writings, the most often attack them on the grounds that they are written “very recently, in our times”, that is, the sources that the Gnostics did use were of a later date than that of the more orthodox and therefore did not hold the same authority as those writings which were contemporary to the apostles.

Through looking at each of these areas of doctrine it can be seen that Eusebius was quite right when he claimed that “they are as different as possible from truly orthodox works”.

Indeed, the Gnostic narrative possesses only the barest similarity to that of Christianity. Each of these departures is in itself as a particular problem with the Gnostic system, yet on the more general level the Gnostic system faces a grander problem. This problem is the aforemenionted way in which the Gnostic texts disagree with each other, presenting often conflicting narratives. One group writer that the world was made in error by a Demon, another by a host of demons; one writer claims that man was made by that same demon, another from a droplet of light, another through angels and demons working together. There is a common element of material creation (and therefore the creator god) being bad, of ignorance being the problem, and of Christ not truly coming in the flesh; it is these overarching themes which give some coherance to the Gnostic system, while the individual details vary depending on whoever might be telling the story. Apart from this the Gnostic system also presents writings which are much more mythical than that of traditional Christianity, generally without any practical value, and once again they self-consciously depart from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

On the whole, it seems that the Gnostic system can be called a Christian heresy in a loose sense, for it is in fact a completely different religious system, as different as possible from the Christian tradition. In the words of Belloc, it is a denial of the scheme wholesale; it is simply a complete departure from the systems of either Judaism or Christianity, albiet one which still uses some language of Christianity and feigns some reliance upon the Judeo-Christian texts (even if only to refute them). Gnosticism has a different view of God, of man, of creation, of Christ, of salvation, and of Scripture; thus unless one is judging by some standard other than Christianty, it must be asserted that the entirety of Gnosticism is itself a problem.



Ordained PCA | MDiv

May or may not be a Time Lord


4 thoughts on “Gnosticism: Heresy or Paganism?

  1. The problem here iks you are assuming it to be one thing – which it never was.Although the word gnosis comes up over and over again there was no concept of being a Gnostic. In reality there were wholly divergent strands and feeders – Valentinianism, Eastern religions feeding in from Persia, Hermetic traditions from Alexandria, Sethism, totally conflicting protologies which turn Genesis on its head etc.

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  2. Thanks for the comment.

    It is a fair point that Gnosticism was never monolithic, and likely a fair point that they never considered themselves under that umbrella. At the same time, is it too great of an injustice to recognize that they shared enough commonalities of thought (primarily in the base realms of theology and philosophy) that they can be seen as being various expression of the same patterns-of-thought?

    Based on your understanding, would you contest the thesis that these various thinkers – either as stand-alone figures or as a group with commonalities – present a system (or systems) too radically different from orthodox Christianity to consider it a subvarient of it (in the frame provided by Belloc at the beginning)? ie, that they represent something wholly other from Christianity rather than merely a dissenting or noncomformist group within?

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