ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL heresies that plagued the early Church is Gnosticism. As a religious sect, Gnosticism is best described as a syncretistic blend of Judaism, pagan mystery religions, Hellenistic philosophy and Christianity. In it, we also find the influences of Persian dualism and Babylonian astrology.
The origin(s) of Gnosticism has always been a subject of scholarly interest and debate. According to the fathers of the early Church, the origin of Gnosticism can be traced to Simon Magus (Acts 8). But according to Hegesippus, an early Christian historian and Jewish convert, Gnosticism began life as a Jewish sect. Later fathers of the Church such as Irenaeus and Tertullian blamed certain strands of Greek philosophy for inspiring the Gnostic heresy. Be that as it may, Gnosticism became a threat to orthodox Christianity because it offers the most attractive alternative to the Christian account of salvation.
A number of prominent Gnostic teachers appeared in the second century, each promoting their own brand of Gnosticism. Saturninus, who taught in Syria, presented a Gnostic system that was heavily influenced by oriental culture and philosophy. The brands of Gnosticism promoted by Basilides and Valentinus, on the other hand, betrays strong Greek influences. It appears that there were as many versions of Gnosticism as there were teachers!
This diversity, however, does not mean that it is impossible to identify broad characteristics and common tenets among the different expressions of Gnosticism. As theologian Bengt Hägglund rightly observes, “Gnosticism contains certain major concepts held in common by all the schools and systems associated with it, even though the mythology and the cultic vary”.
What, then, are some of these important concepts? The principal idea that governs much of Gnostic thought is metaphysical dualism. Gnosticism portrays a stark contrast between the spiritual and material world, good and evil, and the higher and lower sphere. The absolute God of Gnosticism is pure spiritual essence, who has no real dealings with the created order, and who can only be described in purely abstract concepts.
For the Gnostics, only the spirit is good, while matter is not only inferior and worthless, but also intrinsically evil. The absolute God, being pure spirit, could not possibly have had anything to do with the creation of the material world. The physical world is the work of the demiurge, an inferior deity.
It follows that the Gnostic vision of salvation is radically different from that espoused by the Christian faith. Salvation, for the Gnostic, has to do with the liberation of the divine and immortal soul from the imprisonment of the body. Salvation is attained through a special knowledge (Greek: gnosis), a higher insight.
The Gnostics therefore divided the human race into three categories. The vast majority of humankind belongs to the category called the “materialists”. These people are unable to receive the special knowledge necessary for salvation. Christians are “psychics”, who stand a better chance at enlightenment. And the final group is of course the Gnostics, the privileged few who have attained higher knowledge.
Gnostic theology is unable to admit the incarnation, as it is traditionally understood. How can God, who is spirit, take upon himself human flesh? How can the good God commingle with evil matter? The Gnostics, therefore, were among the first to teach that Christ did not really become a man, but merely appeared in human form. And if Christ only appeared to be human, his death on the cross is therefore not real, and therefore inconsequential to salvation.
Thanks to the tireless and brilliant work of theologians like Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus, the early Church was able to defeat Gnosticism in its ancient form. But the threat of this heresy is ever-present because the Church is always exposed to the seductive lure of the prevailing philosophies, whether it is relativism, pluralism, Marxism, rationalism or scientism.
The Gnostic heresy shows that when Christianity is wedded to alien philosophies, it will result in what the theologian Howard Yoder has provocatively called “bastard faiths”, gross perversions of true religion. The Church in every age therefore would do well to take heed of Paul’s warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.