Gnosticism: A Concise Exploration of its Primary Systems

Gnosticism - A Concise Exploration of its Primary Systems and the Philosophical Challenge Posed to Ante-Nicene Orthodoxy

by William J Tsamis, M.A.

In those years when the apostolic faith began its march westward through the regions of the Roman Empire, the great Adversary of God arose from his lair in venemous fury and set his legions in bold array against this new religion of Jesus Christ. Descending upon the saints of God like a fire-breathing dragon, the evil one left no stone unturned in his vain attempt to stamp out the Church of God Most High. Strategically, he sought war on two fronts (i.e. the external and the internal), and thus launched a two-fold assault which was designed to crush the Church from the outside (via persecution) and/or contaminate it from within (via heresy). The student of ecclesiastical history, then, cannot fail to notice one phenomenon in particular -- i.e. that the history of the ten Roman imperial persecutions (ca. 64-312 AD) runs virtually parallel with the history of ante-Nicene heretical movements, such as Gnosticism. While Nero, Domitian, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius were issuing edicts of destruction, declaring the Christian faith a "religio ilicita," dangerous "wolves in sheeps' clothing" (e.g. Cerinthus, Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion) were devouring many with their insidious heresies and aberrant teachings.

In this thesis, we will endeavor to examine the religio-philosophical movement(s) of Gnosticism which flourished during the second century AD and posed a serious threat to the pure apostolic teaching. We will explore the major tenets of the Gnostic worldview as expressed by the various schools of thought, and then evaluate the Christian polemical response which not only served an outward purpose by presenting a systematic refutation of gnostic beliefs, but also an inward purpose by clarifying Christian doctrine and defining orthodoxy. Finally, we will examine how the God of gods sovereignly used the threat of Gnosticism for His divine purposes -- i.e. for the ultimate furtherance of the true Christian religion.

Renewed interest in Gnosticism was sparked by the recent discovery of thirteen ancient codices, written in Coptic near the modern Egyptian village of "Nag Hammadi," some 300 miles south of Cairo. In December 1945, while digging for soil to fertilize crops, an Arab peasant accidentally uncovered a red earthenware jar containing the codices, which in sum preserved fifty-two Gnostic texts. Most scholars and antiquarians have determined that these Coptic texts are translations of Greek autographa which were probably composed some time before AD 200.1 Needless to say, the importance of this discovery is monumental for several reasons, the primary reason having a direct bearing on our understanding of ante-Nicene Christianity in its struggle for orthodoxy.

Until "Nag Hammadi," our knowledge of Gnosticism was gleaned primarily from the patristic writings (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian, et al.) which were alleged by some liberal scholars to exhibit a gross bias and misrepresentation of the diverse Gnostic systems. It was said that the Church Fathers were propagandists who sought to "expose the weaknesses of the Gnostic theory and to present the Gnostics themselves in the worst possible light."2 However, comparative studies of the patristic writings with the Nag Hammadi corpus has revealed no essential or substantive disagreement between these two sources of the ancient system(s).3 Nevertheless, as one prominent Gnostic scholar points out, the Nag Hammadi corpus gives us a unique insight into this earliest of Christian heresies -- "Now for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves."4

Although a concise definition of Gnosticism is elusive, Philip Schaff, in his monumental, "History of the Christian Church," summarizes the ancient thought system in the following manner:

"Gnosticism is the grandest and most comprehensive form of speculative religious sycretism known to history. It consists of Oriental mysticism, Greek philosophy, Alexandrian, Philonic, and Cabbalistic Judaism, and Christian ideas of salvation, not merely mechanically compiled, but, as it were, chemically combined."5

As a religio-philosophical movement which was thoroughly syncretistic, then, Gnosticism did not arise in isolation, but rather, it was deeply rooted in the "mighty revolution of ideas induced by the fall of the old religions and the triumph of the new."6 In sum, Gnosticism was the child of the religious pluralism which pervaded the Hellenistic world in the post-Alexander era.

Derived from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis), the term Gnosticism covers a number of religious and quasi-philosophical movements that began to flourish during the ante-Nicene era.7 Despite this plurality of influences and plethora of philosophical views, however, it is possible to identify the three key pillars of Gnosticism upon which the individual Gnostic sects constructed their own sectarian systems:

1. Cosmological dualism -- i.e. the spirit/matter distinction, or in Schaff's words, "the assumption of an eternal antagonism between God (Spirit) and matter."8 According to this principle, a sharp dualism exists between two worlds -- the "spiritual" world of divine light and the "material" world of darkness.9 In sum, the Gnostics equated "spirit" with "good" (or light), and "matter" with "evil" (or darkness). Thus, as the abode of the principle of evil, the material visible world could not possibly be the handiwork of the Supreme God.10 From this conclusion, then, the Gnostic thinkers derived the whole concept of a "demiurge." (It is interesting that in the Nicene Creed, which in effect is a compilation of earlier rules of faith and assertions of orthodoxy, the Creed opens with a polemic against the idea of a demiurge -- "I believe in one God, Father Almighty, MAKER OF ALL THINGS VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE . . .").

2. The demiurgic notion -- i.e. the God/Demiurge distinction, which is the idea that the material universe was not created by the Supreme God (i.e. the God of the New Testament), but rather, by the Demiurge (Gr. "craftsman"), an inferior deity (in some systems, an evil being) who is identified by Gnostic thinkers with the Old Testament YHWH.11 Although the philosophical idea of a demiurge (divine craftsman) is rooted in the thought of Plato (cf. Timaeus),12 the Gnostic notion is fundamentally different. Whereas in the Platonic system the Demiurge creates wthe world as a reflection of the heavenly Forms (Ideas, Ideal Types)13 -- thus implying some inherent good in the material creation -- the Gnostic system beholds the rabid evil of our decaying world and therefore concludes that such an "evil universe cannot be assigned to a good God."14 Thus, YHWH is perceived as a finite, imperfect God, and is furthermore accused of being an angry and terrible deity. As a patristic scholar once wrote, "YHWH is just but he has passions; he is irate and revengeful; he is the author of all evil, be it physical or moral. For this reason he is the instigator of all wars."15 Obviously, the implications of this Gnostic assertion are quite predictable, especially with regard to the radical Christology which we will now examine as the third pillar of Gnostic relgion.

3. A Docetic Christology -- i.e. the view that Christ was not a "material" entity, but rather, a sort of "phantom" who merely bore the similitude of a man for purposes of "cosmological dualism" and the "demiurgic notion." As Nash points out, "Given the inherent evil of matter, the Gnostics regarded even the possibility of a genuine incarnation as unthinkable."16

Although not all Gnostic systems embraced a Docetic Christology (e.g. Cerinthianism), the prevailing and dominant sects (e.g. Valentinians, Marionites, Manichaeans) were firmly rooted in some form of Docetic doctrine. The typical characteristics of Docetism which were common to most Gnostic systems can be summarized accordingly:

(a) Christ was not the Messiah announced by the Demiurge (i.e. YHWH) in the Old Testament.

(b) Christ was not born of the Virgin Mary.

(c) In the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 29), Christ manifested himself suddenly in the synagogue at Capernaum.

(d) From that point on, until the crucifixion, Christ merely bore the similitude of a man, i.e. he was more akin to a "phantom."

(e) Christ did not suffer death, but rather, "Simon of Cyrene bore the cross in his stead; so that this Simon, being transfigured by Jesus, that Simon might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified through ignorance and error while Jesus himself received the form of Simon and standing by laughed at them" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I. 24, 3-4).17 Interestingly, the reliability of Irenaeus (as discussed earlier) was confirmed here by one of the texts in the Nag Hammadi corpus, "The Second Treatise of the Great Seth." In this pseudepigraphal work, Jesus says, "It was another who drank the gall and vinegar; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all . . . and I was laughing at their ignorance."18

Immediately, it becomes apparent that the Jesus of Gnosticism is "not" the Jesus of orthodox/canonical Christianity. In fact, the two are diametrically opposed. And now, as we shall see, the chasm between the two religions becomes even greater as one examines the lives and teachings of the heresiarchs themselves.

One of the first Gnostic leaders to emerge during the post-apostolic age was Cerinthus (ca. 100). According to uncertain traditions, Cerinthus was an Egyptian Jew who studied at the school of Philo in Alexandria.19 After developing his philosophical system, he moved on to Asia Minor where his teaching typically embraced a dualistic cosmology as well as the demiurgic notion. However, his Christology was somewhat unique in that he synthesized the Docetic and Ebionite views of Christ. (The Ebionite view, of course, denied the incarnation, asserting that Jesus was an ordinary man who received the Holy Spirit at His baptism.)20 In the Cerinthian view, then, the divine presence descended upon Jesus at his baptism and abandoned him at his death.21

Interestingly, Irenaeus records a story which was related by Polycarp (a disciple of the apostle John) about an incident which occurred when the holy apostle accidentally crossed paths with Cerinthus. According to Irenaeus: "John the Lord's disciple, when at Ephesus went to take a bath, but seeing Cerinthus inside rushed out of the building without taking a bath, crying, 'Let us get out of here, for fear the place falls in, now that Cerinthus, the enemy of truth is inside!'"22 Admittedly, the historicity of such an account could be challenged (although the authority of Irenaeus is quite strong). Undisputed, however, is the anti-Cerinthian polemic which is explicity apparent in the Johannine writings, especially in the First Epistle (1:1-3; 2:22; 4:3).

Another Gnostic teacher of prominence during this period was Basilides, who taught at Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (117-138). In his youth he studied under the Samaritan, Menander, the infamous pupil of the notorious arch-heretic himself, Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24).23 Basilides developed the first complex and cohesive Gnostic mythosophical system, but as Schaff points out, "it was too metaphysical and intricate to be popular."24 In contrast to other systems of Gnosis, Basilides rejected the notion of cosmological dualism and instead embraced a "monistic" view of reality quite similar to the Hindu Vedantic model (cf. the Upanishads). Essentially, he constructed his philosophy upon a hyper-abstract view of God (cf. Vedantic Monism, Hegel); a view that describes God as "ineffable" and "unnamable," and therefore deduces that He is beyond any possible comprehension.25 According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies, I. 24), Basilides taught that from the womb of God's inexpressible Being, a whole series of principalities, powers, and angelic beings proceeded by virtue of emanation.26 Also formed were 365 heavens, the lowest of which is ruled by an "evil" angelic being (or emanation), YHWH, the God of the Jews.

Another characteristic of the Basilidian view was the Platonic doctrine of the "preexistence of souls" and its implications toward metempsychosis, i.e. reincarnation. In fact, metempsychosis played a critical role in the salvific doctrine of the Basilidians.

Far more important than Basilides, however, was his contemporary, Valentinus (fl. 120-160), who was probably of Egyptian Jewish descent and Alexandrian education. According to Tertullian (Praescriptio Haereticorum), Valentinus was a disciple of Platonism and Pythagoreanism.27 In developing his own system of Gnosis, he borrowed heavily from Oriental, Greek, and Christian concepts, synthesizing these ideas with material he derived from his own "fertile imagination."28 As a teacher in the metropolis of Rome (ca. 150) he was celebrated (even by his detractors) for his brilliance and eloquence.29

Like Basilides, the thought system of Valentinus was mythosophically complex and highly imaginative. He begins with the concept of an eternal primal Being, which he calls "Bythos" or "Abyss." As Schaff explains, "The Bythos is unbegotten, infinite, invisible, incomprehensible, nameless, the absolute agnoston [lit. "unknown"]; yet capable of evolution and development, the universal Father of all beings."30 Moreover, the nature of Bythos is dualistic -- i.e. its ethereal composition consists of both male and female principles. Echoing the words of Hippolytus, Schaff tells us, "Valentinus derived this sexual duality from the essential nature of love, and said: 'God is all love; but love is not love except there is some object of affection.'"31 As Schaff goes on to say, "Valentinus grappled here with a pre-mundane mystery, which the orthodox theology endeavors to solve by the doctrine of the immanent eternal trinity in the divine essence: God is love, therefore God is triune: a loving subject, a beloved object, and a union of the two."32

Although the Valentinians were prolific in their dissemination of pseudepigraphal literature, one writing of particular importance was the so-called "Gospel of Truth," referred to in the polemical writings of Irenaeus. Interestingly, the Gospel of Truth, was among the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Upon scholarly examination, it was revealed that this pseudepigraphal work was permeated with pericopes and terminology from the canonical gospels (although the Gnostic interpretation, of course, was to be understood in an esoteric sense). This discovery is significant for many reasons; one reason being that it sheds incredible light on a passage from Irenaeus's heresiological work, Against Heresies (III. 15, 2). In his polemic, Irenaeus perceived the deceptive power of the Valentinian literary style, writing, "By these words they entrap the more simple and entice them, imitating our phraseology that these dupes may listen to them the oftener; and then these are asked regarding us how it is that, when their whole doctrine is similar to ours, we without cause keep ourselves aloof from their company."33 In this way, then, the Valentianian "wolves" devoured many in the flock of Christ.

The most dangerous heresiarch of all, however, was none other than Marcion of Pontus, who gained notoriety as a teacher in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161). The son of a Christian bishop, he was excommunicated from the Church by his own father, probably on account of his heretical ideas and contempt for authority.34 Whereas his contemporaries (Basilides and Valentinus) constructed their thought systems upon extreme metaphysical speculations, Marcion adhered to a more practical and rationalistic ideology.35 It was probably for this reason that the ante-Nicene fathers regarded him as the most infamous and dangerous of the Gnostic "wolves." Irenaeus, for instance, related a story that "Polycarp himself on one occasion came face to face with Marcion, and when Marcion said, 'Don't you recognize me?', he replied: 'I do indeed; I recognize the firstborn of Satan!"36

Typcially, Marcion embraced the three pillars of Gnosticism (i.e. cosmological dualism, the demiurgic notion, and a Docetic Christology) and furthermore asserted a sharp dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, he preached an extreme asceticism, which he followed rigorously. But the most salient feature of Marcion's career was his redaction of the New Testament into his own canon. Convinced that the Jews had falsified the original gospel by introducing Jewish elements,37 he rejected the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, and "repudiated all the so-called Jewish interpolations in the Gospel of Luke, which he believed contained substantially the true gospel of Christ."38 Ultimately, then, the canon of Marcion consisted of eleven books -- i.e. a mutilated version of Luke (omitting the nativity stories because of his Docetic Christology), and ten of the Pauline letters. (He rejected the pastoral epistles because of their anti-Gnostic polemical content (1 Tim 4:3; 6:20; 2 Tim 2:18), as well as the Book of Acts, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the General Epistles, and the Apocalypse).39 In his hyper-critical methodology he unwittingly anticipated the "higher critical" schools of the nineteenth century.

Despite the fact that post-Constantinian Christendom vigorously suppressed Marcionism, the movement continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries. Indeed, some Marcionite communities were still in existence as late as the Middle Ages (tenth century).

Thus far, we have examined the religio-philosophical movement(s) of Gnosticism which flourished during the second century AD, and we have explored the major tenets of the Gnostic worldview as expressed by the various schools of thought. Let us now briefly consider the Christian polemical response as articulated in the Pauline, Johannine, and ante-Nicene literature, and in so doing, examine God's providential purpose in allowing Gnosticism to threaten the apostolic Church.

There were two reasons, primarily, for God's permitting of the Gnostic threat -- (1) For the "defense of orthodoxy" (i.e. the repudiation of false doctrine), and (2) For the "definition of orthodoxy" (i.e. the clarification of Christian doctrine, the development of rules of faith and creedal formulas, and the establishment of the New Testament canon). In this brief analysis, then, let us begin with the first aspect of God's providential purpose, the "defense of orthodoxy."

In the book of Isaiah, God tells his people, "When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Lord shall raise up a standard against him" (59:19). The relevance of this prophetic text to our discussion is at once realized when we understand the severity of the Gnostic threat to the early Church. Like raging flood-waters, Gnosticism was a powerful force with tremendous potential for destruction. And many who were caught in its path were swept away by its mighty current. However, God raised up men of great intellectual stature to confront the opposing system(s) of thought and to defend the apostolic faith against all philosophical and worldly onslaughts. Men such as the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria were among some positioned by the Most High to "contend earnestly for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

Within the polemical writings of these apostolic and patristic fathers one can certainly detect a commonality of purpose aimed at the refutation of Gnosticism, or as Paul described it -- "the knowledge (gnosis) falsely so-called"(1 Tim 6:20). A close examination of several Pauline and Johannine texts, for instance, reveals that the "three pillars of Gnosticism" (cosmological dualism, the demiurgic notion, and a Docetic Christology) were alive in embryonic form during the apostolic era. Thus, an authoritative repudiation of such concepts was absolutely necessary. And indeed, this is precisely what we find when we examine certain passages from Colossians (1:16-17; 2:9) and from the Fourth Gospel (1:1-3, 14) where the primary thrust of each text serves to demolish such heretical notions as cosmological dualism and the demiurgic notion. Similarly, the Docetic Christology, so important to the Gnostic worldview, is refuted in the Fourth Gospel (1:14; 6:51), as well as in First Timothy (3:16), and again in First John (1:1-3; 4:1-3).

Building upon the foundation of Pauline and Johannine polemical theology, the second century fathers continued to carry the torch of orthodoxy into the post-apostolic age. During the course of their polemical careers some powerful refutations of the Gnostic religion were composed. As Eusebius relates, "Truth again put forward many to do battle for her, and they, not only with spoken arguments but also with written demonstrations, took the field against the godless heresies."40 Some of these "written demonstrations" included: Irenaeus's "Against Heresies: The Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So-Called," Tertullian's "Praescriptio Haereticorum," and Clement of Alexandria's "Stromata." Thus, in this way the defense of orthodoxy was accomplished and the providential will of God was fulfilled.

The second reason for God's permitting of the Gnostic threat was for the definition of orthodoxy -- i.e. the clarification of Christian doctrine, the development of rules of faith and creedal formulas, and the establishment of the New Testament canon. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, there was a clear and ominous danger that the universality of the faith would be lost, and that the Christian religion would become a loose conglomeration of divergent systems. In order to preserve catholicity, then, the Church Fathers, would have to define orthodoxy and remove ambiguity from Christian doctrine. Ultimately, it would be the threat of Gnosticism which would serve as the catalytic antithesis that would force the early fathers to articulate the cardinal tenets of apostolic Christianity in the form of a "Rule of Faith" (or Creed).

Indeed, the first writer to clearly set forth an identifiable Rule of Faith was the anti-Gnostic polemicist, Irenaeus. As we relate the text of his Rule, take notice of the polemical content:

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, who made heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven; in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race."41 Eventually, this Rule of Faith would be refined and expanded, realizing its greatest expression in the form of the Nicene Creed, or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (i.e. the Nicene Creed as finalized at the First Council of Constantinople in 381).

Concurrent with the development of the Rule of Faith was the recognition that the canon of the New Testament must be firmly established. Again, this sentiment was set in motion by the rise of Gnosticism. For not only did Marcion announce his canon list in AD 140, but the entire second century experienced a great proliferation of Gnostic pseudepigraphal works. Therefore, it was vital for the orthodox church to define which books were considered normative for faith and practice.42 In this way, then, the definition of orthodoxy was accomplished, and the universal church was held together by one indissoluble bond.

In conclusion, we can clearly see that the religion of Gnosticism, though obviously a design of the Adversary, was ultimately used by God according to his sovereign will for the furtherance of Christianity. For even as the imperial persecutions served to cleanse the Church of those who were less than fully committed to the faith (thereby protecting the early church from nominalism), the threat of Gnosticism forced the Church to defend and define the orthodox doctrines of the apostolic faith and thereby take a stand against all heresy and error. In this historic clash between the two worldviews, then, orthodox Christianity emerged in triumph and victory. Indeed, Christ had "built his church, and the gates of hell could not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18).

Works Cited

1. Trent C. Butler, "Gnosticism" in Holman Bible Dictionary. Nashville:Holman, 1991, p. 1001.
2. R. McL. Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968, p. 84.
3. Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, p. 56.
4. Douglas Groothuis, "Gnosticism and the New Testament Jesus" in Christian Research Journal. Fall 1990, p. 9 (a quote from Elaine Pagels).
5. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Ante-Nicene Christianity. Vol. 2 of 9.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910, p. 448.
6. Ibid., 447.
7. Everett Ferguson, "Gnosticism" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianty.
London: Garland, 1990, p. 371.
8. Schaff, p. 452.
9. Ibid., 452.
10. Ibid., 454.
11. Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy: Augustine to Scotus. Vol. 2 of 9.
New York: Doubleday, 1962, p. 167.
12. Ibid., 21.
13. Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Vol. 1 of 9.
Doubleday: New York, 1962, p. 167.
14. Jack Finegan, Myth and Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the
Biblical World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989 p. 256.
15. Johannes Quasten, Patrology: Vol. 1, Westminster: Christian Classics, 1950. p. 270.
16. Ronald Nash, Christianity in the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1984, p. 222.
17. Quasten, p. 258 (a quote from Irenaeus).
18. Groothuis, p. 11.
19. Schaff, p. 465.
20. Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p. 206.
21. Ferguson, p. 190.
22. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History. Trans. by G. A. Williamson. Penguin: London, 1965, IV, 14, p. 116
23. Quasten, pp. 255-56.
24. Schaff, p. 467.
25. Ibid., p. 468.
26. Finegan, p. 223.
27. Ibid., p. 227.
28. Schaff, p. 473.
29. Ferguson, p. 923.
30. Schaff, p. 474.
31. Ibid., p. 474.
32. Ibid., p. 474.
33. Quasten, p. 260.
34. Schaff, p. 484.
35. Ibid., p. 484.
36. Eusebius, IV. 14, p. 117.
37. Quasten, p. 271.
38. Ibid., p. 271.
39. Schaff, p. 486.
40. Eusebius, IV. 8, p. 110.
41. Tim Dowley, Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p. 113.
42. Ibid., p. 105.