What is Gnosticism? How did the early Christian leaders respond to its teachings?
THE phenomenal success of Dan Brown’s controversial novel, The Da Vinci Code, and the recent hype surrounding the discovery of the Gospel of Judas have generated public and media interest in Christian Gnosticism.
Scholars have not achieved a consensus on the origin of Gnosticism. Early sources also provide different accounts of its origin. According to the early church historian Eusebius, Hegesippus maintains that Gnosticism began among some Jewish sects. Church Fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, trace its source to Greek philosophy and mystery religions.
Most scholars agree that Gnosticism is a polymorphous religio-philosophical phenomenon which combined various disparate streams of thought drawn from Babylonian religions, mystery cults, Zoroastrianism, and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Zeno.
Our knowledge of Gnosticism comes from two main sources. The first is the significant documentary discovery made at the village of Nag Hammadi, near Luxor, in 1946 of 13 codices and 48 documents in an earthenware jar, all of Gnostic origin.
Among them are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth, both of which are in Coptic translation. Although these manuscripts were dated in the 4th century, many scholars believe that they were translations of the original Greek texts, which were composed much earlier.
The second source is the writings of early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus, which refute the teachings of the Gnostics and present orthodox Christianity. These works also identified a number of prominent leaders of the Gnostic sect in early Christianity.
Saturninus, whose Gnosticism betrays an oriental influence, appeared in Syria in the first half of the 2nd century.
Basilides, who worked in Egypt around the year 125, and Valentinus, who was active in Rome from 135 to 160, espoused a philosophically sophisticated version of Gnosticism. Some Church Fathers maintain that Gnosticism has its roots in Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24), whose teaching was deemed as the prototype of all heresy.
The Gnostics believed reality to be divided into two equal but opposing realms – good and evil, spirit and matter, higher and lower spheres. Because God as Spirit is good, God could not have created the material world, for matter, the Gnostics maintain, is evil. This material world therefore came into being through the work of the Demiurge, a lower, lesser deity, whom Gnostics like Marcion identified as the God of the Old Testament. But since the world, including human beings, are created by a spiritual being, there are still “sparks” or “bits” of spirit in it.
Salvation, then, according to the Gnostics, is the liberation of the spirit from the evil, material world. This is achieved through a special, secret knowledge (Greek: gnosis). The sect is called Gnosticism because of its teaching that salvation is based on a secret knowledge.
The Gnostics teach that Christ is a heavenly messenger who has come to disclose this secret knowledge to an elite group of people who called themselves “spirituals” (Greek: pneumatokoi). But since Christ is a spirit being, the incarnation, as it is traditionally understood, is rejected by the Gnostics, because spirit cannot commingle with matter.
‘The Church believes that it is a recipient of God’s revelation, and therefore, it is always concerned about the truth.’
The Gnostics therefore teach that Christ did not come in the flesh but rather took possession of the mortal Jesus at the latter’s baptism at the river Jordan.
Through the man Jesus, the Christ gathered disciples, taught them the secret knowledge and worked miracles. But the Christ left the man Jesus before the crucifixion (for spirit cannot be touched by death), leaving the latter to die alone on the cross. This is how the Gnostics interpret Jesus’ cry of dereliction at the cross: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Because in the Gnostic view salvation comes through a secret knowledge, the death of Jesus is not emphasised in their literature, and there is hardly any mention of the resurrection.
A group of Christian theologians in the 2nd century, commonly known as the anti- Gnostic fathers, rejected these Gnostic teachings as heretical because they were antithetical to the tradition handed down by the apostles. Chief among them, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, in his refutation of the Gnostic heresy, penned what some scholars considered to be the first systematic presentation of orthodoxy.
Against Gnostic dualism, Irenaeus argued that God is the Creator of the cosmos, and that creation is part of the divine order of salvation. Irenaeus presented the doctrine of the incarnation, arguing that the eternal Son of God took upon Himself human flesh, and became part of this material world in order to redeem it.
Through his concept of “recapitulation”, Irenaeus maintained that Christ has come to restore fallen creation so that it can achieve its proper goal or telos. Thus, against the Gnostic teaching of redemption from the world, Irenaeus presented the biblical vision of the redemption of the world, its future perfection and transfiguration.
Together with Tertullian and Hippolytus who wrote at around the same time, Irenaeus in his famous work, Against Heresies, exposes the Gnostic heresy even as he demonstrates the elegance of the Christian vision.
Two important implications can be drawn from this discussion. Firstly, the view that early Christianity was not a monolithic religion, advanced by modern scholars like Elaine Pagels of Princeton University must therefore be called to question.
While it is true that there were different presentations of the Faith in the early Church, this diversity must always be understood within a greater unity. This unity is established by the Gospel and the apostolic tradition; it is articulated in the Rule of Faith, a statement containing truthclaims which delineates the substance and contours of orthodoxy. Diversity is therefore never endorsed at the expense of truth.
Secondly, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy and heresy are determined only from the 4th century through the councils as authors like Pagels would have us think.
The Church believes that it is a recipient of God’s revelation, and therefore, it is always concerned about the truth. And commitment to the truth, as the great historian of dogma Jaroslav Pelikan has said, is always also a commitment against error and falsehood. It is because truth is no longer esteemed in our day that error is not chastised but celebrated in the name of diversity, difference and tolerance.
Dr Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.