Marcy asks a pretty simple question: “Who were the Gnostics”?
The answer is another question: “When”? At what point in the history of Gnosticism should we focus? It is a cult that has morphed throughout the centuries, predating Christianity, then sliding into the Church via distortions of the Church’s teaching, dying down only to reappear in various forms throughout the Christian era.
Gnosticism falls into that disturbing category of religious movements that one can safely call diabolical. Like the pagan worship of Moloch and Ba’al, or the widespread slaughters done by the Aztecs in Mexico, there is an essential anti-life aspect to Gnosticism. This follows naturally from the Gnostic understanding of the material world. The main trait of Gnosticism is a degrading, if not abhorrent, view of the material world. Matter is evil, according to a Gnostic. In its earliest forms, the material world was a mistake created by a Supreme Being (alternately called Sophia [Wisdom] or Logos [Word]). Sophia/Logos, however, is not THE ultimate Supreme Being. That is “God,” for lack of a better word, though one should understand that the Gnostic understanding of “God” is not the same as the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim understanding of God. Sophia/Logos is a lesser, non-God, divine spiritual being.
And, according to the Gnostic myth of creation, at some point before all material creation, Sophia/Logos made an error.
Usually this error is described as some estranged attempt to understand the Gnostic “God,” who does not seem to like sharing his inner divine life with other divinities. This prideful error led to “the hypostatization of her (Sophia/Logos) desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge” (Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [July 2005], available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic). This “begotten” Demiurge then decided, out of some strange ignorance (strange because the Demiurge is sort of divine, like its source) to claim he is a god (in fact, he claims he is the one true God) and create the material world. He creates the universe in direct violation of the Supreme Being and Sophia/Logos. Thus the material world is evil.
As mentioned above, Gnosticism predates Christianity, though one can see how it easily slipped into the Faith and corrupted it from within. Gnostics grabbed onto the earliest Christian beliefs, most essentially that the Divine Son became incarnate as a man. The Gnostics twisted this belief, stretching it to fit into their understanding that the material world is evil, created by an evil god, so to speak. The “God” in the Hebrew’s Scriptures, the Gnostic taught, was the Demiurge, and thus the craziness of the Old Testament. This figure Jesus, though, was Logos, who didn’t actually become incarnate (to do so would be to defile himself, since the material world is evil) but rather seemed to have become incarnate (this belief later evolved into the heresy of Docetism, which held that Christ’s human nature was a mirage; this was vehemently condemned at the First Council of Nicea in 325). The Gnostics skirted around the issue that Logos wasn’t God, but was rather a creature below God. Instead, they focused on the belief that Jesus came to save our spiritual souls from the evil creator “god,” who wished to imprison us in evil physical bodies. The death of Jesus, then, was a show, a sort of divine play, more an example of how we should devote ourselves to escaping the prisons of our bodies. Jesus, the Gnostics taught, was our example of how to be saved from our flesh.
The Gnostics also held that their leaders received special, private revelations that supplanted the teaching of the Apostles. This hidden knowledge gave the movement its name; Gnosticism comes from gnosis, which means “knowledge.” The existing Gnostic writings often emphasize secret knowledge, often telling stories about Christ teaching secretly to specific disciples. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Gospel of Judas, wherein Jesus informs Judas that it is part of the secret revelation that Judas would betray Jesus (who appears and disappears from among the disciples like a ghost, without any sort of physical body; this is different than Christ after the Resurrection for even Jesus’ glorified body wasn’t like a ghost’s, as Luke and John emphasize [Luke 24; John 20 – 21]). Judas, in turn, would become great when Christ returns at the end of time, judging the other disciples. It is a classic Gnostic story: the elect receive the secret gnosis, and as a result are blessed. Mix in the idea that Jesus wasn’t material (hence his ability to vanish) and you have a perfectly Gnostic text.
The Gnostics seemed pious, and many followed their beliefs, especially as the first Christian century drew to its close. The horrors of the persecution against Christians, first in Jerusalem under the Jewish leaders there and then in Rome under Emperor Nero, played into this belief, and many Christians were confused. Worse still, Gnostics began twisting the teachings of Christ as taught by the disciples for their own purposes, claiming to have received secret revelations from God or from the Logos, explaining how one should live and shed his or her body. All this, and they seemed so holy, praying for others, avoiding sins, especially sins of the flesh, and urging everyone to embrace eternal life. Then as now, holiness (be it genuine or fictitious) attracts; a disaster brewed in the Early Church.
Enter St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, who had walked with Jesus, spoke with Him, and even laid his head upon the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (John 13:23). Writing in the twilight of the first century A.D., John knew well the attempts to demonize the Creator of the universe while denying the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God. Nowhere is this clearer than the Gospel attributed to this apostle. The Prologue to the Gospel rings of anti-Gnosticism:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1: 1-14, RSV translation)
The whole passage roars against the Gnostics; its wording awkward sounding in English because it stands as testimony against specific Gnostic teachings. The Word (Logos) is God, and He became “flesh,” meaning He became incarnated, became material. This was directly against the Gnostic/Docetist belief that Jesus’ body wasn’t material. Not only that, it affirms the controversial teaching repeated by Christ throughout John’s account: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; 17: 11, 22). Likewise, the incident at the crucifixion where the Roman soldier pierces Christ’s side with a lance disproves Gnostic beliefs concerning Jesus’ body. John is the witness (“He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” [John 19:35]) and he includes the event as if to say “See, he was real.”
John repeats this teaching in two of his three letters included in the New Testament. In his first letter, John warns his spiritual children of the dangers of Gnosticism:
Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. I write this to you about those who would deceive you (1 John 2: 18–26).
In his second letter, John warns against not only listening to heretics, but even associating with them:
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward. Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work (2 John 7–11).
Doctrine is serious stuff, both for John and for the Church, even through today. St. Irenaeus (one of the EarlyChurch’s foremost anti-Gnostics) tells how John encountered a notorious Gnostic in a public bathhouse in Ephesus, and “rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus [the heretic], the enemy of the truth, is within.’” St. John’s disciple St. Polycarp had a similar encounter with the Gnostic Marcion, who saw the saint on the street. One can imagine Polycarp giving Marcion the cold shoulder, perhaps rushing past him. “Do you know me?” Marcion asked Polycarp. Polycarp turned to the heretic, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I do know you; you are the first born of Satan.”
That’s what you call a Patristic BURN!
The Gnostics survived the Apostolic Age (which ended with the death of St. John around AD 100) by going underground. They reappear throughout Church History. Montanists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries followed Montanus, who claimed to receive direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, contradicting the Church’s official teaching. Herein is the descendent of Gnosticism’s special secret knowledge. St. Augustine (died 430) was a member of, and then later wrote against, the Manicheans, which were next generation Gnostics. The Manicheans emphasized a dualism (two gods, one good and one evil) to explain morality: sins were when the bad god controlled you. St. Dominic (d. 1221) dealt with the Cathars (also called the Albigensians), again, another incarnation of the Gnostic beliefs. In these later incarnations of the heresy, especially the Albigensians, sexual immoralities were encouraged and ritualistic suicide became their greatest form of worship. The body became either a dreaded evil, something that must be abandoned at all cost, or nothing of consequence, meaning one could do whatever he or she wanted with it.
Of course, the worst thing one could do was trap another soul in a body. Hence the Albigensian sexual immoralities: anything was permissible, so long as it did not result in babies.
Strains of Gnosticism appear today. Besides the Free Love anti-culture (which endorses neither true love nor true freedom) that dominates society, one sees a rash of suicides as people young and old seek to escape this life. An anti-life mentality plagues society, and people at both ends of their lifespan face death at the hands of others who see their life as worthless; having babies is seen by some as foolish and irresponsible. Several Protestant groups throughout the last 500 years (such as the Quakers and Pentecostals) claim continual revelation from God, a secret gnosis like that of the early Gnostics. Joseph Smith, in 1820s, claimed a secret revelation from God, which would later form the Book of Mormon, and would lead to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In Catholic circles, one sees this same influence today in some branches of the charismatic movement (we’ll deal with the charismatic movement in a later blog post).
What then are we to make of the Gnostics? They are an ancient enemy of the Faith, one of the oldest, and Gnosticism still remains alive today. Few would find the original Gnostic beliefs appealing today, yet this heresy’s lasting impact on the Church shows that its legacy is far from over, and that the believing Christian should expect to face shades of Gnosticism in his or her life. One must be prepared.
For further reading:
Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 2005), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic – Provides a very thorough summary of the basic beliefs of the pre-Christian Gnostics, as well as the incorporation of the Gnostic beliefs into the Christian Gnostic heresy.
John Arendzen, “Gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm. – Though written in the first decade of the 20th century, this article provides a full account of Christian Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch, including a discussion of anti-Gnostic writers, such as St. Irenaeus.
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm – One of the most complete attacks against Gnosticism in the Early Church. Includes much of what we know about the thought of the Gnostics.