We are living in a time when there are many apparently new heresies and aberrant beliefs. We are also living in a time when the old ones are resurfacing and becoming popular once again. One of the ancient heresies that is very much with us today is Gnosticism. What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism flourished in the second and third centuries A.D., in the world of the New Testament. There were many treatises written by the early church fathers against Gnosticism.
The word “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” Gnosticism rejects the doctrines of original sin, human depravity, and salvation through the substituionary death of Christ. It emphasizes transcendence through inward, intuitive knowledge, i.e., gnosis, of the “divine spark in each individual.”
The orthodox church fathers believed in a personal God and a personal Christ who was literally resurrected from the dead. On the other hand, the Gnostic fathers believed in an absolute principle of deity instead of a personal God.
Are there any references to Gnosticism in the New Testament?
Gnosticism flourished in the second and third centuries A.D. It was having its greatest popularity after the days of the apostles. However, early forms of Gnosticism were creeping into the church in the first century. The Apostle John addressed this early form of Gnosticism, often called “Incipient Gnosticism,” in 1 John 1:1: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.”
John is telling us two important things about the Lord Jesus Christ. First, John is saying that Jesus Christ “was from the beginning.” Gnostics believe in several emanations of deity. They are called aeons, emanations of being from the ultimate unknowable Being, God Himself. Gnostics distinguish between an inferior god whom they felt was responsible for the creation, and the superior deity. They believe that there is the real God, but also several emanations of deity, lower in rank and glory. But according to John, Jesus Christ was from “the beginning.”
John makes the same point, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1–2).
But there is a second thing that John is saying in 1 John 1:1 and that is that Jesus Christ had a physical body. “That which was from the beginning, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” Jesus was no phantom. He was no ghost.
The Apostle Paul also addressed the issue of Incipient Gnosticism. In Colossians 2:9 the apostle writes of Jesus and says, “For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” The word “fullness” is a translation of the word pleroma. Significantly, this is the word that the Gnostics used to describe the highest principle of being, the infinite and unknowable God. But Paul says all of that fullness dwells in Jesus. That is quite a statement. There is no higher being, no greater deity. Jesus is God.
So, yes, Gnosticism is addressed by the New Testament. The early church father Irenaeus, who died around A.D. 200, records that John wrote his Gospel to deal with the heresies of the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus.
Since the Gnostics generally believed matter to be evil, did they withdraw from the world?
Some of them actually did. Some practiced strict asceticism. They withdrew from the world, practiced a life of poverty, and ate the plainest of foods. The apostle seems to address this very issue in 1 Timothy 4:3 where he says that there will be those who forbid to marry, “and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving. … For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving.”
Other Gnostics, however, developed an opposite approach. They believed that since our bodies are evil, created by an inferior deity, we can sin all we want and will not be held accountable.
To what do you credit the growth in Gnosticism and its increasing popularity in the 21st century?
There are several factors involved. For one thing, we are living in days of apostasy. The Bible is no longer being preached, doctrine is being de-emphasized, people are more interested in being entertained and in hearing something new and different. Many evangelicals are not grounded in the Word. They have no concept of truth and are not willing to contend for the faith. They don’t want to be offensive. They are not willing to stand for the truth. As someone once said, “A man who will not stand for something will fall for anything.”
Gnosticism is also becoming popular because it speaks of an inner light and about human fulfillment. The Los Angeles Times Magazine (Oct. 6, 2002) featured an article entitled “Antiquity’s Gnostic Church Is Enjoying a Renaissance.” It was an interview with Bishop Stephan Hoeller, of the Ecclesia Gnostica near Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. In the interview he said this:
The Gnostics have held that there are always messengers of light who come from the inner worlds as archetypes of transformation, though many feel that Jesus was perhaps the latest and the greatest of these. However, you’ll have no difficulty finding experiences resembling gnosis within other religious contexts—the samadhi of the yogis, the nirvana of the Buddhists, satori within Zen Buddhism.
It sounds a lot like the human potential movement. It also ties in yoga and Buddhism. They might even do some chanting. Actually, it sounds a lot like the Emerging Church Movement.
Gnosticism sounds so contemporary, and so appealing. But it is the same old lie that was passed on in the Garden of Eden, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods. …”