GNOSTICISM: Guard Against Falsely Called Knowledge—How Important Is Truth to You?

REASONABLE FAITH FEARLESS-1

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1 Timothy 6:20-21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Guard Your Trust

20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, turning away from the profane, empty speech that violate what is holy and from the contradictions of the falsely calledknowledge,” 21 which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.
Grace be with you.

Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin write,

Timothy was to “turn away from godless chatter” and avoid the pseudointellectual jargon of the heretics. “Godless chatter” (see 2 Tim 2:16 for the same word) characterizes the prating of the heretics as futile nonsense. Paul did not want Timothy to waste time in refuting these erroneous ideas. He was to ignore them. The “knowledge” of the heretics included empty discussions about fables, genealogies, and asceticism. Paul avowed that what the heretics espoused was knowledge, but he named it “false knowledge.” There was such a commodity as genuine knowledge (2 Cor 4:6; Phil 3:8), but these heretics did not possess it.—Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 177.

The Gnostics (Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) maintained they had superior knowledge by way of secret revelation and bragged that they were the “correctors of the apostles.” Gnosticism weaved philosophy, speculation, and pagan mysticism with apostate (false) Christianity.

Gnosticism. Religious thought distinguished by claims to obscure and mystical knowledge, and emphasizing knowledge rather than faith. Until the mid-20th century Gnosticism was regarded as a Christian heresy which developed through the interweaving of Christian experience and thought with Greek philosophy. More recently, many scholars define the Gnostics more broadly as devotees of a religious view which borrowed ideas from many religious traditions. The meanings of these borrowed terms and practices were shaped into mythological expressions of experiential salvation.

Gnosticism as a Heresy. Prior to the 20th century most of the information available concerning the Gnostics came from early Christian writers (heresiologs) who penned treatises against heretics, and in the process described some of their beliefs and practices. These heresiologs, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, viewed the Gnostics as distorters of Christianity. The Gnostics developed many misinterpretations of the Bible, especially of the creation account and the Gospel of John, Indeed, the Gnostic writers Heracleon and Ptolemaeus are the first known commentators on the fourth Gospel. The anger of the Christian apologists is well summarized by Irenaeus when he likens the Gnostic interpreter to one who tears apart a beautiful picture of a king and then restructures it into a picture of a fox.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Apparently, a number of Gnostics continued as members of local churches and some served in high offices. Indeed, there is speculation that Valentinus may have been considered as a possible candidate for bishop at Rome. Moreover, Marcion, the fabled Christian heretic, reinterpreted Paul in such a way that the OT God became the god of evil and Christ became the messenger of the good god of grace. Many Gnostic heretical tendencies have been associated with Marcion, who developed his own censored canon of the NT and thereby forced the Christians to counter by clarifying their own canon. The early Christian historian, Eusebius (d. ad 339), who excerpted some of the early lost works of heresiologs like Hegesippus, also provides insight into the hostility of Christians against various Gnostics like Marcion, Basilides, Tatian, Satornil, Dositheus, and the so-called father of all heresy, Simon the sorcerer.

The wide variety of sects mentioned by heresiologs like the Samaritans, Essenes, and perhaps the Encratities, Nazarenes, Ebionites, and Osseans may suggest the question, Who are the Gnostics? Nevertheless, the view of the heresiologs was so well accepted up to the close of the 19th century that, despite some broadening and generalizing by scholars of the meaning, Adolph von Harnack could still define Gnosticism as the “acute secularizing or hellenizing of Christianity.”

During the first third of the 20th century, however, scholars began the task of translating Mandean materials which appeared to be related to Gnosticism. Even though these documents are late—some as late as the 19th century—a number of speculations were made at that time concerning the pre-Christian nature of Mandean literature, primarily by scholars associated with Bultmann.

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

From this turmoil of “Mandean fever,” Hans Jonas, a student of Bultmann, arose to challenge the heresiolog’s view of Gnosticism. For Jonas, Gnosticism had emerged because of the mixing of Oriental religions (not merely Christianity) with Greek culture. While Greek culture was superior to the cultures of the Orient, the Hellenistic world experienced a failure of nerve. Because of the religious and philosophic upheaval in the Greek culture, at least three religious traditions made an impact on the Hellenistic world: (1) Jewish monotheism, (2) Babylonian astrology with its view of fate, and (3) Iranian dualism with its basis for understanding evil. The ability of the Greek mind to fuse these ideas into mythological expressions which sought to answer the deep problems of mankind provided for Jonas the context of Gnosticism. While this broader understanding is still debated, Jonas has provided a foundation for distinguishing the two basic types of Gnostic systems as well as for categorizing the library of documents recently discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

Author Kirsopp Lake

APOSTOLIC FATHERS APOSTOLIC FATHERS APOSTOLIC FATHERS

The Gnostic Types. (1) The Iranian type of Gnostic myths that arose in Mesopotamia is an adaptation of Zoroastrianism. The myths are constructed with a horizontal dualism in which the opposing powers of good (light) and evil (darkness) are regarded as fairly equal in strength. In the first stage of the myth, a segment of the light is captured by the jealous darkness when the light transcends itself and reaches into the realm occupied by the darkness. The capture of the light had been viewed by some scholars as the Iranian cosmic “fall.” Since the Gnostics themselves are usually identified with the captured light particles, a major task of their myths is to describe the process by which the light particles (encapsulated within the bodies of Gnostics) are released. The body, or flesh in the Greek sense, is merely a worthless covering or tomb, while the spirit—the spark in man linked to the divine—is the part that seeks release and return to the heavenly bliss. In the Iranian system the light forces regroup and make a partially successful counterattack on the forces of darkness. Then, primarily through the work of an alien messenger of strength who has gained a foothold in the world, the good forces are able to challenge the work of the evil captors and supply advice (gnosis) to their devotees. This gnosis leads to salvation or release.

Author J. B. Lightfoot

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot

(2) The Syrian type of Gnostic myth that arose primarily in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, is more complex and involves a vertical dualism. In these systems there is only one ultimate being or group of divinities (not two as in the horizontal systems). Their dualism is usually explained as the result of a flaw, or error, in the good. The error in good, for example, is frequently attributed to the least aeon or member in the good pantheon. The guilty deity is usually designated as Sophia (the Greek term for “wisdom”—which indicates the Gnostic’s low opinion of the Greek philosopher’s quest for wisdom). This Gnostic myth details how, instead of being satisfied with her station in life, Wisdom lusts for the Ultimate Depth. Since this ultimate god cannot tolerate distortion and weakness in the godhead, he must exclude Wisdom’s lust from the heavenly realm. This lust is exiled to a lower heaven, is personalized as the Lower Wisdom (sometimes called the demiurge), and becomes the creator of the world. As lesser deities, the creator and the subordinate gods (often called fates) are unable to perceive the upper heavenly realm and falsely consider themselves to be ultimate. The upper godhead deviously maneuvers the Lower Wisdom to create human beings and give life to them through the process of passing on the breath of life. Unknowingly, in the act of creation the Lower Wisdom not only gives life to human beings, but also passes on the divine light particles. Thus, with the help of a savior—an alien messenger of knowledge sent by the upper godhead and often designated as Jesus—humanity is enabled to perceive even more than the creator and to conquer the spiritual stupor that has come upon him when his spirit was encased by the creator in an earthly body.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

As a result of the split within the deity in this system, the biblical garden of Eden story becomes radically reinterpreted. The creator provides a tree of life which is a misnomer and actually offers humanity bondage instead. The lower god also forbids access to the tree of knowledge (gnosis), which appears in his creation without his authorization, being provided by the upper godhead for the purpose of awakening Gnostics to the state from which they have come.

Because only those people who have light particles are capable of being saved, the process of salvation in most Gnostic myths is very deterministic. Moreover, salvation really occurs at the end of the Gnostic’s life when he seeks to escape from the created world. Concurrent with the escape, the Gnostic strips off the created elements of the body from his spirit and climbs through the fates to the heavenly realm.

With respect to both systems of Gnosticism, recent discoveries have clarified our understanding of the myths. New primary sources for the Iranian type of Gnosticism became available during the first half of this century and include the publication of a Manichean Psalter (1938) and a Manichean book of Homilies (1934). New primary sources for the Syrian type of Gnosticism were made available through the publication of the Berlin manuscript in 1955, but more significantly, our knowledge has recently increased through the discovered codices usually designated as the Nag Hammadi library.

A New Library. In 1947, the area of Jabal al-Tariff (near Chenoboskion and Nag Hammadi in Egypt) gave up a magnificent collection of 12—not 13 as first reported—Coptic codices containing 52 tractates or documents, 6 of which are duplicates. One volume was smuggled out of Egypt and was finally purchased in 1952 by the Jung Institute in Zurich (Gnosticism is important to the study of the psychology of religious experience). After publication the owners agreed to return the pirated manuscript to Egypt, and, together with the remainder of the Nag Hammadi documents, it is now housed in the small but very significant Coptic Museum in Cairo. The documents in the Nag Hammadi library can be divided into several categories.

(1) Gnostic Texts with Christian Orientation. In this category, those which have received considerable attention are: The Gospel of Thomas which is a series of sayings and was thought at first by some scholars to be a sayings-source for the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke; The Gospel of Truth which some scholars have thought came from the pen of the well-known heretic Valentinus; The Gospel of Philip which contains a unique series of logia related to Gnostic sacraments; and the Apocryphon of John which has close affinities to the theories of the Ophites and Sethians as described by the heresiologs and provides a full-scale primary source for the Syrian Gnostic reinterpretation of the garden of Eden story, as outlined above. Some of the other documents in this category which show indisputable signs of Christian influence on Gnosticism are: The Treatise on the Resurrection, the several apocalypses of Peter and James, The Book of Thomas the Contender, and Melchizedek.

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(2) Gnostic Texts with Less Than Clear Christian Orientation. Some scholars have considered that these texts suggest a pre-Christian Gnosticism, but such a conclusion does not seem to be fully substantiated. Eugnostos is the document usually cited in this matter and is frequently viewed as an undeveloped stage of the more Christianized form of the text known for some time as The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Even the so-called pre-Christian Eugnostos, however, seems to bear unmistakable signs of being related to the Alexandrian school of Christian writings and has been found to contain some allusions to the NT. The Paraphrase of Shem is another document frequently assigned to this category. Its references to baptism and the redeemer, however, may be the result of a reinterpretation of Christian views and may reflect the conflict between the church and the Gnostics rather than arising from a totally non-Christian context. Other documents in the library usually assigned to this category and subject to similar doubtful interpretations by those who seek to sustain the theory of the presence of a pre-Christian Gnosticism are: The Apocalypse of Adam, The Three Steles of Seth, and The Thunder.

(3) Non-Gnostic, Christian Documents. There are also in the library several non-Gnostic, Christian documents which include: The Acts of Peter and the Twelve, The Sentences of Sextus, and The Teachings of Silvanus.

(4) Miscellaneous Documents. In addition, there are several documents which are neither Christian nor technically Gnostic but which were probably read with great interest by the Gnostic scribes. Of particular note are the hermetic treatises that are Egyptian in orientation but contain a less radical dualism than is evident in typical Gnostic literature. Hermetic literature has long been known by scholars through the publication of a hermetic library known as the Corpus Hermeticum (Eng. trans. Thrice Greatest Hermes). The first tractate, “Poimandres,” is probably of the greatest interest to biblical students because of its rather positive view of creation and its interesting parallels with some of the theological ideas such as “light” and “life” in the fourth Gospel.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Understanding the Gnostic Purpose. Perhaps one of the greatest problems for the uninitiated readers of Gnosticim is understanding the purpose of the Gnostic myths. The myths often seem so strange that the readers are tempted to scratch their heads and wonder how anyone with any intelligence could believe such wild stories. One must realize, however, that the myth writers were seeking to communicate elements of the unexplained relationships between the human and the divine.

The bondage of evil in the world and its relationship to a good god has stretched the minds of the greatest theologians and philosophers of history. The Gnostics devised their answer to the problem of evil by shifting the blame from this world back to either God himself or to divisions within the divine realm. By compartmentalizing good and evil, it was possible to decide one’s destiny by the alignments one made.

But the role of evil was seen as so strong in this world that the Gnostics, like the Greek philosophers before them, concluded the world was a hopeless context for the victory of the good. Accordingly, they abandoned the world to the evil god and developed a theology that focused on salvation as the process of escape from the world. Their theory also provided a salvation while on earth: Since the Gnostics contained divine light particles, they were in fact immortal, and their spirits, though existing in an evil context, would not ultimately be contaminated. The body and all its lusts and lower animal desires would be shed from the spirit as it rose through the realms of the lower godhead to be reunited with the divine spiritual realm after death. Some Gnostics, indeed, carried the idea of noncontamination to ridiculous lengths and devised systems whereby sexual relations with various persons represented divine-human encounters—the more the better! Others tended to affirm more ascetic tendencies whereby they sought to conform the miserable body to the life-style of the incorruptible spirit.

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

One of the realities the Gnostic interpreters encountered was the fact that not everyone accepted their theories. Accordingly, they devised mythical methods to distinguish between various types of people. Using ideas suggested by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 and Romans 8, the Gnostics developed a highly sophisticated categorization of people. The pneumatic or spiritual (i.e., Gnostic) persons were divine in origin, being from light particles. The sarkic or fleshly persons were formed totally from the substances made by the creator and could never inherit the divine realm. The Christians whom they saw as struggling to be obedient to the biblical message, however, were a kind of mixture. They needed desperately to work out their salvation, and if they were obedient as psychic people they might gain some form of acceptance. This elitism of the Gnostics and their distortion of the Christian message clarifies the hostility of the Christians against the Gnostics.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

The myths were the methodological formulations the Gnostics used to express their theological constructs. To understand them the reader needs the key of gnosis, or knowledge. Interpretation of the myths was in fact an early type of demythologizing, not unlike the process Bultmann employed in interpreting the Bible. The Gnostic writers were among some of the brightest minds of their day. Their creativity is to be admired. Their theology, however, is to be rejected as a distortion of the biblical message.

Gerald L. Borchert

Bibliography. R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Gnosticism and Early Christianity; H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion; E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels; J.M. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library; R.M. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem; E. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism.

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