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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Gnosticism

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GNOSTICISM

1. Gnosticism proper . The term, which comes from the Gr. gnôsis , ‘knowledge,’ is now technically used to describe an eclectic philosophy of the 2nd cent. a.d. which was represented by a number of sects or divisions of people. The philosophy was constructed out of Jewish, Pagan, and Christian elements, and was due mainly to the inevitable contact and conflict between these various modes of thought. It was an attempt to Incorporate Christian with Jewish and Pagan ideas in solving the problems of life. The more important of these problems were (1) How to reconcile the creation of the world by a perfectly good God with the presence of evil; (2) how the human spirit came to be imprisoned in matter, and how it was to be emancipated. The first problem was solved by predicating a series of emanations starting from a perfectly good and supreme God, and coming down step by step to an imperfect being who created the world with its evils. Thus there was an essential dualism of good and evil. The second problem was solved by advocating either an ascetic life, wherein everything material was as far as possible avoided, or else a licentious life, in which everything that was material was used without discrimination. Associated with these speculations was a view of Christ which resolved Him into a phantom, denied the reality of His earthly manifestation, and made Him only a temporary non-material emanation of Deity. Gnosticism culminated, as the name suggests, in the glorification of knowledge and in a tendency to set knowledge against faith, regarding the former as superior and as the special possession of a select spiritual few, and associating the latter with the great mass of average people who could not rise to the higher level. Salvation was therefore by knowledge, not by faith. The will was subordinated to the intellect, and everything was made to consist of an esoteric knowledge which was the privilege of an intellectual aristocracy.

2. Gnosticism in relation to the NT . It is obvious that it is only in the slightest and most partial way that we can associate Gnosticism of a fully developed kind with the NT.

There is a constant danger, which has not always been avoided, of reading back into isolated NT expressions the Gnostic ideas of the 2nd century. While we may see in the NT certain germs which afterwards came to maturity in Gnosticism, we must be on our guard lest we read too much into NT phraseology, and there by draw wrong conclusions. One example of this danger may be given. Simon Magus occupies a prominent place in the thoughts of many 2nd and 3rd cent. writers, and by some he is regarded as one of the founders of Gnosticism. This may or may not have been true, but at any rate there is absolutely nothing in Acts 8:1-40 to suggest even the germ of the idea.

It is necessary to consider carefully the main idea of gnosis , ‘knowledge,’ in the NT. ( a ) It is an essential element of true Christianity, and is associated with the knowledge of God in Christ ( 2 Corinthians 2:14 ; 2 Corinthians 4:6 ), with the knowledge of Christ Himself ( Philippians 3:8 , 2 Peter 3:18 ), and with the personal experience of what is involved in the Christian life ( Romans 2:20 ; Rom 15:14 , 1 Corinthians 1:5 ; 1 Corinthians 3:19 , Colossians 2:3 ). In the term epignosis we have the further idea of ‘full knowledge’ which marks the ripe, mature Christian. This word is particularly characteristic of the Pauline Epistles of the First Captivity (Phil., Col., Eph.), and indicates the Apostle’s view of the spiritually-advanced believer. But gnosis and epignosis always imply something more and deeper than intellectual understanding. They refer to a personal experience at once intellectual and spiritual, and include intellectual apprehension and moral perception. As distinct from wisdom, knowledge is spiritual experience considered in itself, while wisdom is knowledge in its practical application and use. In Colossians it is generally thought that the errors combated were associated with certain forms of Gnosticism. Lightfoot, on the one hand, sees in the references in ch. 2 Jewish elements of scrupulousness in the observance of days, and of asceticism in the distinction of meats, together with Greek or other purely Gnostic elements in theosophic speculation, shadowy mysticism, and the interposition of angels between God and man. He thinks the references are to one heresy in which these two separate elements are used, and that St. Paul deals with both aspects at once in Colossians 2:8-23 . With Gnostic intellectual exclusiveness he deals in Colossians 1:18 and Colossians 2:11 , with speculative tendencies in Colossians 1:15-20 , Colossians 2:9-15 , with practical tendencies to asceticism or licence in Colossians 2:16-23 . Hort ( Judaistic Christianity) , on the other hand, sees nothing but Judaistic elements in the Epistle, and will not allow that there are two independent sets of ideas blended. He considers that, apart from the phrase ‘philosophy and vain deceit’ ( Colossians 2:8 ), there is nothing of speculative doctrine in the Epistle. He says that angel-worship was already prevalent quite apart from philosophy, and that there is no need to look beyond Judaism for what is found here. This difference between these two great scholars shows the extreme difficulty of attempting to find anything technically called Gnosticism in Colossians. ( b ) The Pastoral Epistles are usually next put under review. In 1 Timothy 1:4 ; 1 Timothy 4:8 , we are hidden by Lightfoot to see further developments of what had been rife in Colossæ. Hort again differs from this view, and concludes that there is no clear evidence of speculative or Gnosticizing tendencies, but only of a dangerous fondness for Jewish trifling, both of the legendary and casuistical kind. ( c ) In the First Epistle of John ( 1 John 4:1 ; 1 John 4:3 ) we are reminded of later Gnostic tendencies as represented by Cerinthus and others, who regarded our Lord as not really man, but only a phantom and a temporary emanation from the Godhead. The prominence given to ‘knowledge’ as an essential element of true Christian life is very striking in this Epistle, part of whose purpose is that those who possess eternal life in Christ may ‘know’ it ( 1 John 5:13 ). The verb ‘to know’ occurs in the Epistle no less than thirty-five times. ( d ) In Revelation ( Revelation 2:6 ; Revelation 2:15 ; Revelation 2:20 ; Revelation 2:24 ; Revelation 3:14 ; Revelation 3:21 ) it is thought that further tendencies of a Gnostic kind are observable, and Lightfoot sees in the latter passage proof that the heresy of Colossæ was continuing in that district of Asia Minor. The precariousness of this position is, however, evident, when it is realized that the errors referred to are clearly antinomian, and may well have arisen apart from any Gnostic speculations.

From the above review, together with the differences between great scholars, it is evident that the attempt to connect the NT with the later Gnosticism of the 2nd cent. must remain at best but partially successful. All that we can properly say is that in the NT there are signs of certain tendencies which were afterwards seen in the 2nd cent. Gnosticism, but whether there was any real connexion between the 1st cent. germs and the 2nd cent. developments is another question. In the clash of Judaistic, Hellenic, and Christian thought, it would not be surprising if already there were attempts at eclecticism, but the precise links of connexion between the germs of the NT and the developments of the 2nd cent. are yet to seek.

One thing we must keep clearly before us: gnosis in the NT is a truly honourable and important term, and stands for an essential part of the Christian life. Of course there is always the liability to the danger of mere speculation, and the consequent need of emphasizing love as contrasted with mere knowledge ( 1 Corinthians 8:1 ; 1 Corinthians 13:2 ), but when gnosis is regarded as both intellectual and moral, we see at once how necessary it is to a true, growing Christian life. The stress laid upon epignosis in later books of the NT, Pauline and Petrine, and the marked prominence given to the cognate terms in 1 John, clearly indicate the importance placed on the idea by Apostolic writers as a safeguard of the Christian life. While it is the essential feature of the young Christian to have (forgiveness); and of the growing Christian to be (strong); it is that of the ripe Christian to know ( 1 John 2:12-14 ). Knowledge and faith are never contrasted in the NT. It is a false and impossible antithesis. ‘Through faith we understand’ ( Hebrews 11:3 ). Faith and sight, not faith and reason, are antithetical. We know in order to believe, credence leading to confidence; and then we believe in order to know more. Knowledge and trust act and react on each other. Truth and trust are correlatives, not contradictories. It is only mere speculative knowledge that is ‘falsely so called’ ( 1 Timothy 6:20 ), because it does not take its rise and find its life and sustenance in God’s revelation in Christ; but Christian gnosis received into the heart, mind, conscience and will, is that by which we are enabled to see the true as opposed to the false ‘to distinguish things that differ’ ( Philippians 1:10 ), and to adhere closely to the way of truth and life. The Apostle describes the natural earth-bound man as lacking this spiritual discernment; he has no such faculty ( 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 ). The spiritual man ( 1 Corinthians 2:15 ; 1 Corinthians 3:1 ), or the perfect or ripe man ( 1 Corinthians 2:8 ), is the man who knows ; and this knowledge which is at once intellectual, moral and spiritual, is one of the greatest safeguards against every form of error, and one of the choicest secrets of the enjoyment of the revelation of God in Christ.

W. H. Griffith Thomas.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Gnosticism'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/g/gnosticism.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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