Greek gnosis, "knowledge"; a second-century heresy that challenged and sought to subvert the early church.

Gnostic Doctrines

Gnostics claimed a secret knowledge to which only a small segment of humanity could attain. Those who did were looked on as pneumatic, or "spiritual" people. These people alone were led back to the light of the Supreme God.

While the pneumatic enjoyed knowledge, a second, inferior class, including the OT prophets, were called psychic, people who could not proceed beyond faith. The remaining majority of humanity were called hylic, those subject to matter. While the psychic were consigned eternally to an inferior destiny than that of the pneumatic, the hylic were considered hopeless and due to be utterly destroyed.

From this it is clear that Gnosticism was far-removed from Christianity. Just how far will be even more evident when we consider its views on the great fundamentals of the faith.

God and Creation. The Gnostics, steeped as they were in the heathen philosophies and theosophies of the East, rejected the monotheism of the Bible. They thought of an absolute, Supreme Being from whom a series of aeons, or emanations (i.e., middle beings or inferior gods) proceeded, each aeon originating the one following. One of the aeons, remote from the Supreme Being, created the world and did so badly. This aeon was identified by the Gnostics as the demiurge* or the God of the OT. Sometimes indeed, the Gnostics spoke of him as being hostile to the Supreme Being.

Good and Evil. Gnosticism rejected the biblical doctrine of sin. Looking on matter as intrinsically evil and creation as the poor product of an inferior god, the Gnostics held that there were germs of a higher life, rays from the pleroma, or fulness of the Supreme God, which were ever struggling to be free—hence the constant struggle between good and evil. Those who had most of this germinal divine life were, of course, the Gnostics.

Christ. Holding that matter was intrinsically evil, the Gnostics repudiated the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. Some held that His body was a phantom. Others held that Jesus was a mere man upon whom the heavenly Christ came at his baptism, leaving him before his crucifixion.

Scripture. We have noted the Gnostics' view of the Old Testament prophets. They also controverted and corrupted the NT Scriptures. Rejecting the twin doctrines of guilt and atonement, as well as the incarnation of the eternal Son, they had to reject the great preponderance of the witness of Scripture.

Gnosticism was a highly speculative heresy attended by mystical rites. For a time, it exerted a fascination for many inquiring minds and posed a serious challenge to the church of Christ during the first 150 years of its history.

Gnostic Divisions

Basilides and Valentinus. Within the general framework of Gnosticism, there were many variations. There were Judaizing and anti-Judaizing factions. Some, like Basilides (circa a.d. 130), held that every development of God and the world was a development upwards from beneath. Others, like Valentinus (circa. a.d. 150), held that the development was (as described above) downward from the Supreme through middle beings.

Cerinthus and Marcion. Cerinthus and Marcion figure largely in any study of Gnosticism. Cerinthus, a contemporary of John in Ephesus, taught that Jesus and Christ must be distinguished, Jesus being merely a man, and Christ being one of the aeons, who came upon Jesus at baptism. John addresses this Cerinthian heresy in 1 John 2:22; 4:2, 3.

Marcion (circa a.d. 139) is often looked upon as the most Christian of the Gnostics, but he held to the notion that the God of the OT was an inferior God. He held that the Christ of the NT was not the Messiah of the OT and that Christ's body was not a real body. Therefore, Christ was not really crucified. Professing to establish his system of belief on Galatians, Marcion rejected all the NT except Luke and ten of Paul's epistles.

In the end, Gnosticism died out as an active religious movement, but many of its esoteric ideas refused to die and came to the surface from time to time. Indeed, much of the philosophy of today's New Age* movement has many features with a decidedly Gnostic flavour.

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