Unholy Shadows: Gnosticism

One cannot begin to appreciate the early struggles of Christianity for existence without at least a rudimentary knowledge of its formative history. Thus, it behooves us to take a brief look at Gnosticism and its challenge to early Christianity.

Christianity's infancy history comprised a time teeming with religious theories; a time when religious discussion was a popular occupation among thinkers of every type. So it was inevitable that in the enthusiastic interchange of religious ideas, truth and error would intermingle and the pure doctrines of Christianity soon became threatened.

Though Christianity faced many and varied forms of opposition as it spread and came into contact with other cultural forms, heresy presented a totally different kind of contrariety. And although the conflict subsequently resulted in ameliorated understanding of the meaning of Christ and a more lucid presentation of Christian belief, heresy was by far the most serious menace Christianity had to confront. The challenge was in the arena of thought. In its most sinister form it appeared under the title of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is a term derived from the Greek "gnosis" and translates "knowledge." It generally applied collectively to the majority of those second century movements which called themselves Christian or borrowed heavily from Christian sources. Gnosticism denotes the teachings of a group of deviationists who were scorned by many orthodox Christians. It claimed to be a sure way to knowledge, hence, the vision of God. It claimed that its rites, ceremonies, prescriptions and its path to God were divinely inspired and transmitted to the elite esoteric through a mysterious tradition. Furthermore, and perhaps most offensive to Christianity, it claimed, in essence, that its magical formulas offered an infallible means to salvation.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the origin of Gnosticism. Suffice it to say that most theories seem to agree that it was a confluence of many diverse streams of thought emanating from pre-Christian mystery religions.

The basic nature of second century Gnosticism was firmly rooted in a dualism between spirit and matter. It held that matter is essentially evil. For the Gnostics, God could not be held responsible for the evil constitution of the world, and so they differentiated the supreme God from the creator of the world. To account for evil matter, the Gnostics evolved a doctrine of emanations from God. These emanations flowed from God and each further from God until finally there was one so distant from Him that it could touch matter. This emanation was the creator of the world.

Adding insult to injury, there were some Gnostics who believed that the emanations flowing from God were actual forces and divine persons in whom the Deity unfolded His being. The greatest of these emanations was the figure of Christ who was given the honor of being set apart from all other emanations.

It is necessary to also include here a statement about a group of Gnostics known as Docetists. They held the belief that Christ's body was only a phantom and that the "true" Christ has no bodily form. This was an important idea to the Gnostics since if matter was regarded as evil, then Christ could not be burdened with a material body, for then He would not have been able to accomplish the redemption from matter.

The Gnostic system of belief simulataneously destroyed the divinity and humanness of Jesus, and cast a dark unholy shadow on the doctrine central to the Christian faith. Not only did Gnostics deny the incarnate Christ, but their ethics were in strict violation of traditional church views.

I cannot begin to impress upon you the apparent power of Gnosticism's influence. It threatened to undermine the essential foundations of Christianity. These foundations the Church was bound to protect if only to preserve the human historical Jesus. Thus, early Church fathers arose to the defense of the Christian faith.

Against the denial of Christ's humanity, Fathers of the Church underlined the reality of the incarnation and stressed the importance of the work of Jesus. Against the denial of Old Testament truths, the Fathers maintained the identity of Creator and Savior and developed a theology of salvation history. The Gnostics annulled the unity of the human race by dividing it into spiritual, psychic and material classes. This led the Fathers to extol free will and personal responsibility of each individual.

To a large degree, the development of Christian doctrine was in reaction against Gnosticism. It is difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern when and where the Gnostic movement was halted by the Church. The important thing is that Christianity was successful in its defense of the faith.

Unfortunately, the spirit of Gnosticism lives on even today. The clothing is apparently different, but once disrobed we see the nude body of Gnosticism in many of our branches of religion.

It is, of course, virtually impossible to adequately describe Gnosticism in its fullest context in the space of a few paragraphs. Certainly one could expound extensively on New Testament writers, particularly John's response to heresy. The subject is complex and speculative. All readers are encouraged to pursue this subject further.

Saundra L. Washington, an ordained clergywoman and social worker, has practiced concurrently in the fields of social work and ministry for almost three decades. She is the Founder of AMEN Ministries, http://www.clergyservices4u.org and the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow, Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances, Homilies that Teach.

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