Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
(from knowing, ) ancient heretics, famous from the first rise of Christianity, principally in the east. It appears from several passages of Scripture, particularly 1 John 2:18; 1 Timothy 6:20; Colossians 2:8; that many persons were infected with the Gnostic heresy in the first century; though the sect did not render itself conspicuous, either for numbers or reputation, before the time of Adrian, when some writers erroneously date its rise. The name was adopted by this sect, on the presumption that they were the only persons who had the true knowledge of Christianity. Accordingly they looked on all other Christians as simple, ignorant, and barbarous persons, who explained and interpreted the sacred writings in a low, literal, and unedifying signification. At first, the Gnostics were the only philosophers and wits of those times, who formed for themselves a peculiar system of theology, agreeable to the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato; to which they accommodated all their interpretations of Scripture. But Gnostics afterwards became a generical name, comprehending divers sects and parties of heretics, who rose in the first centuries; and who, though they differed among themselves as to circumstances, yet all agreed in some common principles. They corrupted the doctrine of the Gospel by a profane mixture of the tenets of the origin of evil and the creation of the world, with its divine truths.
Such were the Valentinians, Simonians, Carpocratians, Nicholaitans, &c. Gnostics sometimes also occurs in a good sense, in the ancient ecclesiastical writers, particularly Clemens Alexandrinus, who, in the person of his Gnostic, describes the characters and qualities of a perfect Christian. This point he labours in the seventh book of his Stromata, where he shows that none but the Gnostic, or learned person, has any true religion. He affirms, that, were it possible for the knowledge of God to be separated from eternal salvation, the Gnostic would make no scruple to choose the knowledge; and that if God would promise him impunity in doing of any thing he has once spoken against, or offer him heaven on those terms, he would never alter a whit of his measures. In this sense the father uses Gnostics, in opposition to the heretics of the same name; affirming, that the true Gnostic is grown old in the study of the holy scripture, and that he preserves the orthodox doctrine of the apostles, and of the church; whereas the false Gnostic abandons all the apostolical traditions, as imagining himself wiser than the apostles. Gnostics was sometimes also more particularly used for the successors of the Nicholaitans and Carpocratians, in the second century, upon their laying aside the names of the first authors.
Such as would be thoroughly acquainted with all their doctrines reveries, and visions may consult St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and St. Epiphanius; particularly the first of these writers, who relates their sentiments at large, and confutes them. Indeed he dwells more on the Valentinians than any other sect of Gnostics; but he shows the general principles whereon all their mistaken opinions were founded, and the method they followed in explaining Scripture. He accuses them of introducing into religion certain vain and ridiculous genealogies, 1: e. a kind of divine processions or emanations, which had no other foundation but in their own wild imagination. The Gnostics confessed, that these aeons, or emanations, were no where expressly delivered in the sacred writings; but insisted that Jesus Christ had intimated them in parables to such as could understand them. They built their theology not only on the Gospels and the epistles of St. Paul, but also on the law of Moses and the prophets. These last were peculiarly serviceable to them, on account of the allegories and allusions with which they abound, which are capable of different interpretations; though their doctrine concerning the creation of the world by one or more inferior beings of an evil or imperfect nature, led them to deny the divine authority of the books of the Old Testament, which contradicted this idle fiction, and filled them with an abhorrence of Moses and the religion he taught; alleging, that he was actuated by the malignant author of this world, who consulted his own glory and authority, and not the real advantage of men.
Their persuasion that evil resided in matter, as its centre and source, made them treat the body with contempt, discourage marriage, and reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and its re-union with the immortal spirit. Their notion, that malevolent genii presided in nature, and occasioned diseases and calamities, wars and desolations, induced them to apply themselves to the study of magic, in order to weaken the powers, or suspend the influence of these malignant agents. The Gnostics considered Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and inferior to the Father, who came into the world for the rescue and happiness of miserable mortals, oppressed by matter and evil beings; but they rejected our Lord's humanity, on the principle that every thing corporeal is essentially and intrinsically evil; and therefore the greatest part of them denied the reality of his sufferings. They set a great value on the beginning of the gospel of St. John, where they fancied they saw a great deal of their xons, or emanations, under the terms the word, the life, the light, &c. They divided all nature into three kinds of beings, viz. hylic, or material; psychic, or animal; and pneumatic, or spiritual. On the like principle they also distinguished three sorts of men; material, animal, and spiritual. The first, who were material, and incapable of knowledge, inevitably perished, both soul and body; the third, such as the Gnostics themselves pretended to be, were all certainly saved; the psychic, or animal, who were the middle between the other two, were capable either of being saved or damned, according to their good or evil actions. With regard to their moral doctrines and conduct, they were much divided.
The greatest part of this sect adopted very austere rules of life, recommended rigorous abstinence, and prescribed severe bodily mortifications, with a view of purifying and exalting the mind. However, some maintained that there was no moral difference in human actions; and thus confounding right with wrong, they gave a loose rein to all the passions, and asserted the innocence of following blindly all their motions, and of living by their tumultuous dictates. They supported their opinions and practice by various authorities: some referred to fictitious and apocryphal writings of Adam, Abraham, Zoroaster, Christ, and his apostles; others boasted that they had deduced their sentiments from secret doctrines of Christ, concealed from the vulgar; others affirmed that they arrived at superior degrees of wisdom by an innate vigour of mind; and others asserted that they were instructed in these mysterious parts of theological science by Thendas, a disciple of St. Paul, and by Matthias, one of the friends of our Lord. The tenets of the ancient Gnostics were revived in Spain, in the fourth century, by a sect called the Priscillianists. At length the name Gnostic, which originally was glorious, became infamous, by the idle opinions and dissolute lives of the persons who bore it.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Gnostics'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/g/gnostics.html. 1802.