Holman Bible Dictionary
(Gnuhss sh shssm) Modern designation for certain religious and philosophical perspectives that existed prior to the establishment of Christianity and for the specific systems of belief, characterized by these ideas, which emerged in the second century and later. The term “gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) because secret knowledge was so crucial a doctrine in gnosticism.
Importance of Gnosticism The significance of gnosticism for students of Christianity has two dimensions: the first is its prominence in the history of the church, and the second is its importance for interpreting certain features of the New Testament. Gnosticism emerged in schools of thought within the church in the early second century and soon established itself as a way of understanding Christianity in all of the church's principal centers. The church was torn by the heated debates over the issues posed by gnosticism. By the end of the second century many of the Gnostics belonged to separate, alternative churches or belief systems viewed by the church as heretical. Gnosticism was thus a major threat to the early church; and the early church leaders, such as Irenaeus (died about 200), Tertullian (died about 220), and Hippolytus (died about 236), wrote voluminously against it. Many of the features of gnosticism were incorporated into the sect of the Manichees in the third century, and Manichaeism endured as an heretical threat to the church into the fourth century.
Gnosticism is also important for interpreting certain features of the New Testament. Irenaeus reported that one of the reasons John wrote his Gospel was to refute the views of Cerinthus, an early Gnostic. Over against the gnostic assertion that the true God would not enter our world, John stressed in his Gospel that Jesus was God's incarnate Son. Other interpreters of the New Testament understand gnosticism to be crucial at many other points in interpreting the New Testament as will be discussed to follow.
Heretical Gnostic Sects The Gnostics who broke away or were expelled from the church claimed to be the true Christians, and the early Christian writers who set themselves to refute their claims are the major source for descriptions of the heretical gnostic sects. Although wide variations existed among the many gnostic sects in the details of systems, certain major features were common to most of them—the separation of the god of creation from the god of redemption; the division of Christians into categories with one group being superior; the stress on secret teachings which only divine persons could comprehend; and the exaltation of knowledge over faith. The church rejected such teachings as heretical, but many people have continued to find attraction in varieties of these ideas.
Gnostics generally distinguished between an inferior god whom they felt was responsible for the creation and the superior god revealed in Jesus as the Redeemer. This was a logical belief for them because they opposed matter to thought in a radical way. Matter was seen as inferior, sin-causing, and always deteriorating; thought or knowledge distinguished persons from matter and animals and was imperishable, capable of revealing god, and the only channel of redemption. The gnostic Marcion thus rejected the Old Testament, pointing out that the lesser or subordinate god revealed in it dealt with matter, insisted on law rather than grace, and was responsible for our decaying, tragedy-filled world. The god who revealed himself in Jesus and through the additional secret teachings was, on the other hand, the absolute god, and was not incarnate in human flesh because the absolute god would not enter evil matter—Christ only seemed or appeared to be a person, but He was not.
Gnostics divided Christians into groups, usually the spiritual and the carnal. The spiritual Christians were in a special or higher class than the ordinary Christians because they had received, as the elect of the good deity, a divine spark or spiritual seed in their beings which allowed them to be redeemed. The spiritual Christians were the true Christians who belonged to the heavenly world which was the true one. This belief that the spiritual Christians did not really belong to this world resulted in some Gnostics seeking to withdraw from the world in asceticism. Other gnostic systems took an opposite turn into antinomianism (belief that moral law is not valid for a person or group). They claimed that the spiritual Christians were not responsible for what they did and could not really sin. Thus they could act in any way they pleased without fear of discipline.
Gnostics placed great stress on secret teachings or traditions. This secret knowledge was not a product of intellectual effort but was given by Jesus, the Redeemer from the true deity, either in a special revelation or through His apostles. The followers of the gnostic Valentinus claimed, for example, that Theodus, a friend of Paul's, had been the means of transmission of the secret data. The secret knowledge was superior to the revelation recorded in the New Testament and was an essential supplement to it because only this secret knowledge could awaken or bring to life the divine spark or seed within the elect. When one received the gnosis or true knowledge, one became aware of one's true identity with a divine inner self, was set free (saved) from the dominion of the inferior creator god, and was enabled to live as a true child of the absolute and superior deity. To be able to attain to one's true destiny as the true deity's child, one had to engage in specific secret rituals and in some instances to memorize the secret data which enabled one to pass through the network of powers of the inferior deity who sought to keep persons imprisoned. Salvation was thus seen by the gnostics in a cosmic rather than a moral context—to be saved was to be enabled to return to the one true deity beyond this world.
The Gnostics thought faith was inferior to knowledge. The true sons of the absolute deity were saved through knowledge rather than faith. This was the feature of the various systems that gave the movements its designation: they were the Gnostics, the knowers. Yet what this precise knowledge was is quite vague. It was more a perception of one's own existence that solved life's mysteries for the Gnostic than it was a body of doctrine. The knowledge through which salvation came could be enhanced by participation in rituals or through instruction, but ultimately it was a self-discovery each Gnostic had to experience.
Origins of the Gnostic Concepts Gnosticism would not have been a threat to the early church if it had not been quite persuasive in the first centuries of the Christian era, and the question of where such ideas came from and what human needs they met must be addressed.
The classic answer to the question of why gnosticism arose is that it represents the “radical Hellenizing of Christianity.” In this view, gnosticism resulted from the attempt of early Christian thinkers to make Christianity understandable, acceptable, and respectable in a world almost totally permeated by Greek assumptions about the reality of the World. The expansion of Christianity from Palestine and its Jewish world of thought to the Roman Empire where Greek thought reigned called for an interpretation of Christianity that was more understandable. Common Hellenistic perceptions, such as the fact that matter and spirit were thought to be alien to one another, were incorporated into this re-statement of Christianity with the various gnostic systems as a result.
This classic view of the heretical gnostic sects as distortions of Christianity by Hellenistic thought has much strength because it is easily demonstrated how the Gnostics could use New Testament texts, bending them to their purposes. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 , for example, Paul chides the Corinthian Christians for being “people of the flesh” (NRSV) or carnal when they should be spiritual. This text could with ease be used as the foundation for supporting the Hellenistic idea of the superiority of certain persons in the Christian community. In this and many other instances, terms or expressions in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul and John, could be lifted out of context and used in ways not originally intended by the authors to support gnostic doctrines.
The classic explanation does leave some problems unsolved, however. Little doubt exists that there are ideas, attitudes, and practices incorporated into many of the gnostic heresies that are found outside of Hellenistic thought and much earlier than the second century of the Christian era. In particular, the ultimate goal of the Gnostics—to return to the absolute deity beyond matter and to be in some sense absorbed into the deity—belongs to near eastern pre-Christian mystical thought and not primarily to the Hellenistic world.
The existence of such non-Hellenistic features in the gnostic sects has occasioned studies of the possibility of there being a pre-Christian gnosticism which could be understood in itself rather than as an heretical offshoot of the Christian faith. Some researchers came to the conclusion that there was a full-fledged, organized, pre-Christian gnostic religion with a literature and most crucially—the hope of a redeemer who would be sent from the true deity and ascend back to him after awakening the spiritual persons to their redemption. Some radical scholars even went so far as to maintain that the way the early Christians proclaimed Christ was dependent on and modeled after such gnostic expectation. This view thus came to be almost the exact opposite of the classic view of the gnostic sects as Christian heresies and made Christianity heavily dependent on gnosticism. This quite radical view of gnosticism has been shown to be inadequate because no literary evidence whatsoever exists for a full-blown pre-Christian gnosticism. As for a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer expectation, it is now generally acknowledged that this was a figment of the researcher's imagination without any relevant documentary evidence.
Although the radical conclusions of some scholars regarding a highly developed pre-Christian gnosticism have been discounted, it does seem clear that there were many ideas, assumptions, and perceptions about deity, reality, and the relationships of persons to gods and the world that were incorporated into the gnostic sects from outside Hellenistic sources. Two literary discoveries have both inspired and tended to support this line of research—the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1946 and the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 with many gnostic documents. The value of the study of gnosticism for interpreting the New Testament is greatest from the point of view that there was a pre-Christian gnosticism which was not an organized religion but was more a general attitude among thoughtful persons that although ignorance abounded, one could through knowledge come to understand one's true identity and find union or relationship with the absolute deity. This way of conceiving of a pre-Christian gnosticism supplements the classic view by providing an explanation for the rapid and widespread development of so many diverse gnostic heretical sects so quickly. This view also offers an explanation of why the New Testament could so easily be exploited by gnostic sects. The early Christian preachers and writers, seeking to speak and write to be understood, used terms current in the first century world in the vague context of gnostic religious longings and gave them new meaning in the context of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Harold S. Songer
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