The history of the gnostic heresy is traced in this article.
One of the first heresies to attack the doctrine of Christ was a teaching called Gnosticism. Some have suggested that it existed during the first century and they use Colossians and Johns letters as evidence that the teaching was then in vogue. It is more likely, however, that it was during the end of the first century and into the second century that the teaching crystallized and posed a threat to the purity of the doctrine concerning the Lord Jesus.
What was this teaching? From whence did it arise? How was it defeated? These and other questions have generated no small controversy, even among scholars. The answers given here are not without their challenge by some. They do, however, represent the general consensus of most who have credentials in this arena.
The Leaven Introduced
In actuality, the seed of Gnosticism was planted even before the advent of Christ into the world. It was spawned in the era of Greek philosophy The Greeks placed a great stress on philosophy as a means to attain to truth. It was their teaching which introduced a “dualism” into the minds of men. This dualism urged a sharp disjunction between the spirit part of man (his mind or spirit) and the material world (including a mans body).
It was this mental framework which served as the background against which “Christian” Gnostics developed their teaching. To them, the physical world was evil. Only mans spiritual element was of value. This led to an obvious problem. How could a good God create an “evil” (material), world?
To maneuver themselves out of this paradox, Gnostics postulated a transcendent God who is good and who did not make the material world, and an ignorant “demiurge” or lesser god or aeons. These aeons, creatures of Gods hand, wanted to be like God and therefore felt they had to create something. Instead of spirit beings, it, they, whoever, created our material world.
But humanity supposedly contains within him a small spark of that “spirit” being, but is imprisoned in a body of flesh. Since the body imprisons and hinders the full development of the spirit, it is evil. Our desperate need is to be awakened to our spiritual nature. This has been accomplished through a messenger sent from the “good” God. To most “Christian” Gnostics, this messenger is Christ.
But here again, error at one level requires further error at another. How could Christ partake of a human body since flesh is evil?
Two explanations were given for this:
1. The Cerinthian explanation: Jesus was the material son of Joseph and Mary. “The Christ” the messenger from God, descended on Him at His baptism and left Him prior to the cross. Thus there was a sharp distinction between the Jesus who died and the Christ.
2. The Docetists explanation: The divine Christ would never stoop to touch flesh which is evil. He only seemed (Greek – dokeo) to have a body; He only appeared to die, for God cannot die.
The Light it Professed to Give
Humanity, entrapped in its prison of flesh, needs to be liberated. This is possible by knowledge (Greek – gnosis). This special mystical knowledge is given to only to a few. This knowledge becomes the key to salvation.
Around us are heavenly spheres each controlled by evil powers whose goal is to prevent the liberation of our spirits from their prison. We must break through these barriers to reach “fullness.” This fullness is acquired by the help of many “intermediaries” on the way to God. We must ascend and hopefully reach spiritual fullness.
Pity you if you were not among those able to attain to this “knowledge.” People were divided into three classes: the pneumatic (or elite), the psychic (who had a chance at some measure of knowledge), and the hylic (who never had a chance). You can almost envision one of the “pneumatic” looking down with a condescending compassion upon one of the “hylic” and shaking his head in great grief over the hopeless ignorance of the poor clod.
The Leaders Enumerated
Surprisingly, many who have researched the subject, trace the beginning of gnostic teaching to none other than Simon Magus of Acts 8. Virtually all of the patristic writers call him the origin of Gnosticism. But it was with this difference – he taught that salvation involved knowledge, but it was the knowledge of himself. There appears to have been little change in him despite Peters sharp rebuke.
But the teaching which challenged the purity of doctrine really began in several places and by several men. In Asia minor, Cerinthus taught his brand of Gnosticism. In Antioch, a teacher named Saturninus was the main expositor of this doctrine. But it was for Valentinus, from the land of gnocchi and pasta, to perhaps be the most vocal of its exponents.
The Life it Spawned
Every doctrine can eventually be tested by what kind of live it produces. In 2 Tim 3:15,16 we are reminded that “All Scripture …. that the man of God may be throughly furnished unto all good works.” Does a doctrine lead to holiness and righteous deeds, or does it spawn another level of living?
Strangely, the Gnostic teaching led to two divergent forms of living. On the one hand, there were those who taught that since the flesh was imprisoning and hindering the spirit, the flesh must be controlled, subjugated, and weakened. This fostered an almost monastic type existence. Others, in contrast, saw the flesh as having nothing to do with the spirit life and felt at liberty to indulge its every lust and whim. So that on the one hand Gnosticism led to an ascetic form of life, and on the other to a libertine existence. Neither is the godliness promoted by the Word of God.
The Lessons it Teaches
We are in great danger when we attempt to interpret the Word of God and the doctrines of the Word of God by current philosophical thinking. We are all in danger of this since the thinking of the age silently but skillfully invades and shapes our values and mode of reasoning.
Gnosticism eventually collapsed under the weight of its house of errors that it had constructed. It had to allegorize the plain teaching of Scripture and to appeal to oral, unrecorded (and private) teaching it claimed to have from the Lord Jesus Christ to support its teaching. It sought to make Christianity a universal religion for all by wedding it to the wisdom of the world. The marriage of the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world was doomed before it was made. As someone else has said, Gnosticism was a “stealing of some Christian rags to cover heathen nakedness.” But its claims and doctrines were so foreign and contrary to Scripture, that after an initial appeal to the Hellenistic mind, it soon was defeated by the clear and consistent teaching of the Word of God.
The Legacy it Left
While Gnosticism is, for the most part, gone from our world, some of its effects are still with us. In religions still prevalent in our world today we can find intermediaries who can help us attain to God, asceticism, division of the congregation into an elite class and a lower class who are dependent on them for light. The tragic result of all leaven is that it leaves behind a taste which is often hard to eradicate completely.