Gnosticism: The Earliest Travesty of the Gospel


I. INTRODUCTION

The early church history shares the sheer amount of plight of controversies around Jesus and his status equally as a divine and human. Many seemed to have doing theology proper in order to explain God and his relation to Jesus. Division and conflict within the body of Christ had been her own predicament. Some of those big guns of the conflict have genuine motif to seek out the truth. They were dealing with the metaphysical realities. The controversies were their pursuit to explain how God became a man and to what extent of his incarnation affect our understanding of God and his world.

II. OVERVIEW OF THE ISSUE

We read, throughout the Christian church history, God wrought out the church from odds, and He had to be patient with the church while preserving his remnant – wheat and tare, false teachings from the true teachings. In this period of Greco-Roman rule, Jewish and pagan influences were rising, since the doctrine of the person and the work of Jesus Christ was developing. There was a constant attack on the cardinal doctrine of Jesus’ humanity from one end and the other end was trying to hijack the divinity of Jesus.

III. Gnosticism: The Earliest Travesty of the Gospel

A.    The Origin of Gnosticism

It is very hard to tell precisely how Gnosticism has its origin. They acquired their name from Greek word γνῶσις which literally means «knowledge».  It emerged in the 2nd century AD.[1] Gnosticism is the earliest philosophical attempt to explain the person and the work of Jesus from Greek philosophy and Jewish tradition. In this sense, it is admixture of pagan mysticism and Jewish Christian traditions that sought to deal with the theological issues as they saw them as problematic to the Christian belief.[2] They were denying the reality of Jesus and were in pursuit of salvation through mystical gnosis or knowledge. Since they stressed on “the importance of gnosis – direct inner knowledge of God[3], they held belief distinctively not orthodoxy. However, they were the one of the driving forces in the first and the early second century Greco-Roman world.

The early Gnosticism is believed to predate Christianity. Nevertheless, the dating of its origin for scholars is still the matter of debate. One thing for sure we can claim that we have not found any Gnostic writings that predates the New Testament. The early church Fathers were left with these hefty loads of responsibility to counterattack the tenets of Gnosticism through their writings. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Polycarp, and Origen were few of them.

B. The Influence of Greek and Oriental Thought on Gnosticism

The influence of Greek and Oriental thought can be traced easily in their stem. Gnosticism came out of their positive desire to restate and reunite the gospel that is compatible with the oriental and Greek thoughts of their time. As Stephen Hoeller succinctly explains that those Gnostic Christians believed that human beings have access to the direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truth of his own existence, and it must be attained only through the gnosis. [4] The ultimate realization of this knowledge liberates the person from the world. Having said, the fundamental precepts of Gnosticism ought not to be misunderstood as faith or charity. The accentuation of attaining knowledge is more on intellectual and psychological aspects of a person than embracing the belief system without any validity. Gnosis also quashed the necessity of work or do-good concept, as gnosis is the solely responsible agent that can lead any human beings to their destiny.

C. The Complexity of Gnosticism

Gnosticism has also its enough share of forms and sects. A particular form of Gnosticism is connected with a certain Gnostic teacher. The correlation between a promoter and the idea being promoted makes it even more complex.  Some of the prominent teachers who took Gnosticism in the midst of elites were Valentinus, Basilies, and Marcion.[5] The overwhelmingly mystical idea was the chief selling point in the 2nd century AD throughout the Roman Empire. Nothing is much more appealing to people than Gnosticism because of its complexity and mystical obscurity. They were the chief characteristics thus made Gnosticism extremely exciting and attractive.

D. The Gnostic System of Valentinus and Cerinthian in 2nd Century

Both of these Gnostic teachers held ontological dualism, by which means that both matter and spirit are co-eternal and co-existent. Their dualistic stance posits that matter is evil, so it must be the antagonistic to the spirit.[6] As being opposed to the matter, the spirit is God himself, as he is good and pure. Thus, matter and spirit are irreconcilable. Valentinus is regarded as one the greatest Gnostic teachers. Immensely complex form of Gnosticism was championed that was the biggest threat to the Christian church. He blended mythology into his form of Gnosticism and made it even complicated while trying to make it compatible with Christianity.[7] For his attempt to harmonize his version of Gnosticism to mainstream Christian church, he never got tired to introducing himself as a Christian in his writings.

In order to fully understand the complex form of Gnosticism, we have to know their basic tenets on God, gnosis, and fullness of Godhead. Their understanding of matter being evil and the spirit being good and pure has its root in the creation story. Reading the early Gnostic works helps us to dig deep water down there to get the better picture of their reason for rejecting bodily resurrection of Jesus, the future bodily resurrection of believers, along with rejecting God of the Old Testament. The mythical cosmology clearly shows why the early church condemned them as heresy and we must reject any notion of Gnosticism in our reading of the Gospels.

Much of the work of Valentinus is either lost or destroyed. What we have in our day are just a fragments or quotation here and there in the writings of the early church Fathers and Nag Hammadi text, the Gospel of Truth. Due to the lack of autographs by Valentinus or primary sources on his writings, we can at most surmise his best-developed form of Gnosticism. Drawing texts from those two early sources, we bump into the same idea that was floating around in the 2nd century AD that we have ability to attain gnosis. The spark of divine is within the person and only gnosis can lead the way to salvation.

Valentinian Conception of God

Valentinus outsmarts his contemporaries by bringing together Greek and Oriental ideas with Christian concept. In this manner, he makes it comprehensive and appealing to people. The cosmology of Valentinian Gnosticism begins with positing that there is a God known as the Unknown Father. He, in the beginning, existed by himself yet said to have a female counterpart known as, “Silence”.[8] Hence, he is not in the state of solitary. The pre-existent God of Gnosticism is believed to be living in the Pleroma – the fullness of Godhead – very undisturbed tranquility and in the absolute, pure, and formless state from where he would manifest himself later. Since he is pre-existent, he has no end; thence he is eternal. He is great and established himself as unchangeable. He is beyond natural order. His identity cannot be reduced to anything or altered. Without his will, nothing can be deducted from his existence. No force can change his will, because he is unalterable, immutable one who is also known as “without a beginning” and “without an end” because he is unbegotten and immortal.[9] Obviously, these traits of the Unknown Father set him aside and above everything. There is no one to match him and his virtues. For this reason, he is singled out, because there is no one like before him or after him or yet to come. Therefore, he is god, the Father.

The Unknown Father desires to have more companions thus produce two Aeons, which are the diving beings, named respectively: Mind and Truth, in their male and female form. From them emanates another duo – World-Life and Man-Church. Ultimately, they form the Pleroma with the Unknown Father– the fullness of Godhead or the divine being.[10] The process of serial emanation of Aeons continues from the former resulting total thirty Aeons. For the adding up numbers to thirty, World-Life generated ten other Aeons while Man-Church produced twelve Aeons.

The sum of thirty Aeons is the main reason behind the apostasy of some early Christians to Gnosticism. Gnostic interpretation of the parable of Vineyard in the New Testament was impressive and very appealing to many. When we count all the numbers mentioned in the parable, for example, first hour, third hour, six, ninth, and eleventh hours, they sum to thirty. Jesus began his earthly ministry at the age of thirty.[11] The playful and creative allegorical interpretation of the scripture made sense to make people. For some, it still does.

Martin lays out even detailed account on those Aeons. They who reflected the Unknown God are said to be Dyadic (a father-mother).

The most important are the first four pairs, Bythos (‘primal depth’ the male principle) and Ennoia (‘thought’, also called Charis, meaning ‘grace’ and Sige, meaning ‘silence’, who is feminine); Nous (‘understanding’, male) and Aletheia (‘truth’, female); then Logos (‘the Word’, male) and Zoë (‘life’, female); and finally Anthropos (‘man’, male) and Ekklesia (‘church’, female). The emanations continue, right down to the last who, as in other systems, is Sophia (‘wisdom’, female). At the border of the Pleroma is Horos (‘the Limit’), within which the aeons happily resided until the creation of the Kenoma (‘Lower World’, also known as the Deficiency).[12]

All these Aeons have distinctive characteristics. All among these Aeons, Sofia (wisdom), however, yearns to know her creator, the Unknown Father. Sofia is left with distress as she learns that her intense longing to identify her creator, as Gnosticism teaches, is unknowable. She produces her offspring very abnormally without the help of her male counterpart as a result of distress. This abnormal emanation of Aeon is named Achamoth, meaning Uncertain.[13] Aeons only from natural generation can join the Pleroma. This negates the possibility of Achamoth joining Pleroma. That is to say, she was ostracized from joining other Aeons in Pleroma.

We can see how the harmony of Pleroma is affected by this event. Sofia is reported to have divided into two – higher self (Wisdom) and lower self, (Wisdom) resulting to disharmony in Pleroma because of her ignorance. The higher self stops at Horos (Limit) and goes back to join other Aeons in Pleroma, while the lower self is broken only to be trapped in matter.[14] Sofia of the higher self, once again, was left to grieve for Achamoth while realizing her misdeed and stricken even more from guilt now. She is by herself to mourn for her ignorance. But her grievance certainly does not go unnoticed to her fellow Aeons. They also grieve with Sofia and show corporate support.

As far as Gnostic teachings claim, Truth and Mind come forward to help Sofia come out of this guilt. They emanate two other Aeons, named Christ and Holy Spirit.[15] In this manner, Sofia is liberated from her ignorance, and Pleroma, once again, is full of harmony amongst Aeons. The narration of Aeons’ emanation does not end up here. It even goes further to tell the readers how grateful they were to one another. Their way of showing gratitude turns to be another chance to produce a whole new Aeon named Jesus.[16] Now, Jesus also joins the pantheons of all-time great Aeons, and he is reduced merely to an aeon but of the highest rank.

E. Proper Creator and Creation, Evil, Redemption, and Role of Wisdom

The story of Achamoth tries to justify the Gnostic teaching on matter being evil. Gnostics heralded Achamoth as the mother of all matter. When the lower self of Sofia was trapped in the matter, she was contaminated by it. From her comes Demiurge, meaning “Workman” in Greek. Although Achamoth is the mother of all matter, her offspring Demiurge is the maker of the world, the creator god[17] in a proper sense. He is the craftsman that envisages form of matter and provides shape to them. The Unknown Father is immutable and eternal but Demiurge is credited as a creator god of men. Human souls come out from him. This concept is coherent with Gnostic belief. Only Demiurge could have given human soul, as he came out of the mother of matter. One pure and good god, if logically followed, cannot make anything from matter, because it is closely tied to Achamoth’s very existence. She came to exist as a result of illegitimate action of Sofia.

That being the case, she is a byproduct of an ignorance and uncertainty that cost her place in Pleroma. Had her origin been of nobility and not of inferiority, she would not have been ousted from the Pleroma. For that very reason, matter is evil. It cannot originate from good and pure God. It would make God as the author of evil. Impure must proceed from the same rank. Just as the matter is antagonistic to soul, evil is to God.

The pivotal role of Wisdom is elevated as she influences the work of Demiurge. The sole purpose set aside for Demiurge is to create humans beings. He creates man and gives form and shape in his own image. Wisdom, on the other hand, is the one who is pulling the strings without letting Demiurge know when he produces man. Humans owe Sofia for the good spiritual elements in them. Moreover, she is an influential causative agent for the virgin birth of Aeon Jesus.[18] Under her control and supervision, such an unnatural event of virgin birth happens in the human history. She possesses the gnosis that liberates the soul (spirit) from human body (matter).

For some people, this knowledge is revealed. Valentinus categorizes humans into three different groups: the ‘spiritual’ (πνευματικοί), the ‘fleshly’ or ‘material’ (σαρκικοί or ὑλικοί), and the ‘psychic’ (ψυχικοί).[19] The spiritual humans have a spark of divine substance, for they are the chosen one. They were dividing humanity into elitism. The people group associated with this group will be the dominating element. Gnosis illuminates them of their spiritual state, so they are spiritually aware people. The ‘fleshy’ or ‘material’ people are in the state of indulgence.  They care about worldly pleasure and their own concerns. The ‘psychic’ as the term suggests tend to think and feel things. They do not care so much about their personal concerns or indulgence.[20] The only reason for categorizing human into three groups is to demonstrate how and why certain people respond to the message of Jesus in a way they do. Their argument is that only Gnostics are ‘pneumatics’, that is to say that they are the spiritual beings who can fully grasp the message of Jesus. The capability of Gnostics to receive the gnosis from Jesus will lead them back to Pleroma.

What becomes clearer in this sect of Gnosticism is that they have borrowed the Platonic idea of form and Ideal realm. They held the view the soul is imprisoned in human body, and the only Aeon who is highest among others can set free soul from the imprisonment of the body.[21] Evidently, Jesus, the highest Aeon who cannot ever be harmed, pierced, or stricken nor be killed or died on the cross but rather he abandoned the human body (matter) during the crucifixion. The other form of Gnosticism claims that Jesus could not have incarnated into human flesh only to be contaminated by the matter. Contact with the matter shall contaminate Jesus.[22] It would be absurd to claim that Jesus is the highest Aeon and at the same time to say that Jesus has had a human body will be against the essence of Gnosticism.

At this point, we can say safely that Gnosticism rejects the incarnation of Jesus, his humanity, his death on the cross, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.Gnostic denial of the Son of Man brackets Jesus into “The Highest Aeon” which fundamentally leaves Jesus beyond recognition.

Once we get away with these fundamental doctrines of the New Testament, we will have nothing to base our faith on. Definitely, there is not going to be empty tomb to talk about. What we will have is teachings that will present the historical Jesus beyond recognition. Christian cardinal doctrine of atonement is nowhere to be seen. Christ death on the cross is of no meaning. All of human fallen nature is lessened merely to evil environment. Thus, hijacking Jesus’ humanity in order to defend his divinity ends up in absurdity and counterfeit spiritual commotion.

 

Bibliography:

  1. Boer, Harry R., A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976).
  2. Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  3. Hoeller, Stephen A., The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead (Wheaton, III., 1982).
  4. Martin, Sean, The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics  (Chilton, Spain: Avocet Typeset, 2006).
  5. Robinson, James M., Leiden: E. J. Brill, and Richard Smith, Ed. “NHC I 5, 51:7-52:40.” The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 4th ed. 1996.
  6. Sell, Henry Thorne, Studies in Early Church History (Willow Grove, PA: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998).


[1] F. L. Cross, and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 687.

[2] Henry Thorne Sell, Studies in Early Church History (Willow Grove, PA: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998).  For more details, see the Article, Study 8, The Church in Controversy: Doctrine and Philosophical Controversies. Logos Bible Software, ver. 5. (accessed date: 12/04/2012)

[3] Sean Martin, The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics  (Chilton, Spain: Avocet Typeset, 2006), 15.

[4] Stephen A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead (Wheaton, III., 1982), 11.

[5] Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 687.

[6] Sell, Studies in the Early Church History: Study 8.

[7] Martin, The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics , 14. From Tertullian’s writing, we know that Valentinus, at one point, almost became a Pope of Rome around 140 AD, but he lost to Pius I, who later became a pontiff. From the early church fathers’ writings, it is known to us that he is also highly respected in the church. After seeing him defeated by Pius I, he then developed the complex form of Gnosticism, which has direct merits from Greek, Oriental, and Christian ideas that shaped the form of Gnosticism that is today known as “orthodoxy” within Gnosticism.

[8] Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976), 57.

[9] “NHC I 5, 51:7-52:40.” The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Ed. James M. Robinson and Richard Smith. 4th ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. N. pag. Print.

[10] Boer, 57.

[11] Ibid, 56.

[12]  Martin, 49.

[13] Boer, 47.

[14] Martin, 50.

[15] Boer, 57.

[16] Ibid, 58.

[17] Ibid, 58.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 687.

[20] Martin, 51.

[21] Sell, Study 8. Logos Bible Software, ver. 5.

[22] Ibid.

 

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