Just as Rev. Moon, David Koresh, Christian Science, etc. are heresies that contend against Christianity now, Gnosticism was in Hippolytus' words, "a many-headed hydra" early Christians stuggled against. Today we have a curious situation. Books advocate Gnosticism, but nobody actually believes it. Even people who claim these were early, alternate Christianities do not themselves believe what Gnostics really taught.
What Gnostics Really Taught
Gnosticism was an incongruous amalgam of Greek speculation, anti-Old Testament, and gospel teaching of a phantom Jesus. 30+ different groups shared these errors:
Polytheism: Gnostics generally believed in thirty aeons or gods; a group of 8, a group of 12, and a group of 10.
Creation is intrinsically evil: While Pantheists say everything is God, Gnostics had the opposite error. They taught that this material world was made by an evil god, called the Demiurge. Spiritual beings needed to rescue the spiritual people from the material world.
Anti-Old Testament: The evil being that created this world is the same malevolent god of the Jews and the Old Testament.
Jesus Did not come in the flesh: The highest God sent Jesus to appear and bring salvation. Since Jesus was perfect, he was not really physical, but more of a phantom. He only appeared to be, and he only appeared to physically rise from the dead.
They are the elite, spiritual class who have secret "gnosis" or secret knowledge. Moral rules do not apply the same to them like they do to lesser people.
Two branches of Gnosticism: Libertine Gnostics believed drunkenness, fornication, and an immoral life did not matter to the spiritual elite. Ascetic Gnostics believed the spiritual elite must abstain from physical things in this world. All abstained from marriage and many would not eat animals.
Gnostic "Proof Texts"
Gnostics had unusual ways of proving things. As an example, the Gnostic "proof" of the 8+10+12=30 aeons is the following; Jesus had twelve disciples, and later there were twelve apostles. Jesus went to the Temple when He was twelve. The twelfth disciple (Judas) fell, so the twelfth aeon fell. Jesus was baptized when he was about 30. The woman with the issue of blood was a type of the suffering aeon. Since Jesus was before all ages, and in Greek the work age is aeon, Jesus was before the aeons. By adding up the numbers in various names in the Bible, one gets combinations of 8, 10, 12, and 30.
Looking beyond the absurdity of these proofs, there is a psychological phenomena with Gnostics that is common to many cults. Gnostics had this great desire to be "in-the-know", and what they did not know, their conscience did not keep them from making up. The truth had to be complicated, and only elite intellectuals, knowing their secrets, could know the truth.
The Gnostics were very clever; they must have been to make up such wild fantasies. How intelligent people could accept wild things so uncritically is a mystery of man's sinful nature. It is as if thinking people choose to "turn off" their thinking in particular areas. This strange phenomena is appears in many cults today too.
What Early Christians Thought of Gnostics
The Early Church Fathers wrote books and books against Gnosticism; the following are just a few excerpts.
1 John was written before Marcion and the Gnostics, but it is written against all those who denied Jesus coming in the flesh.
Though Gnosticism proper started with Marcion, cults denying Christ even started in John's time. Irenaeus gave an interesting account of John the Apostle in 3:3. One day John was in the public baths when he heard that the heretic Cerinthus was in. John immediately rushed out telling everyone else to run out before the building collapsed on Cerinthus. John was strongly against cults too.
Once Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, encountered Marcion, and Marcion asked, "Do you know us, Polycarp?" Polycarp answered, I know you, I know the firstborn of Satan." (Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 4:14). Christians never shared communion with those who "mutilated the truth. In his ministry to cults he did not exactly beat around the bush.
Irenaeus visited Rome during the Aurelian persecution (177 A.D.) and was shocked to see so many Gnostic heresies. Even a fellow pupil of his under Polycarp, Frobinius, joined Gnosticism. Irenaeus wrote a Against Heresies (5 volumes), to refute 19 heresies point-by-point.
Irenaeus does not mince words about heretics. "Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says 'minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in the faith,' and by means of the craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained my dear friend to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation." They also overthrow the faith of many,... (Against Heresies 1:1:1)
Irenaeus wrote: "Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself." (Against Heresies 1:1:2)
In 1:8:1 Irenaeus gives a striking analogy of cult teaching. Suppose a skillful artist constructs a beautiful image of a king out of precious jewels. Now suppose somebody else takes this all apart and then rearranges the gems to make a crude picture of a dog or a fox. Could he say this was the beautiful image the craftsman constructed of the king? That is what cults do to the Bible.
Irenaeus emphasized in Against Her. 3:2-3, that there were no hidden mysteries that the apostles imparted to some and hid from others.
Did all the churches believe what Irenaeus believed? Here is what Irenaeus said in 1:10:2 "She (the church) also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul.... For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different nor do those in Spain nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East nor those in Egypt nor those in Libya, nor ..."
Tertullian wrote an entire work: Five Books Against Marcion. He also wrote against Hermogenes.
Clement of Alexandria: A Gnostic originally meant a seeker after knowledge, and in The Stromata, Clement would not allow them the use of that label. He distinguished between them and the "true Gnostics" or Christians, who sought the True Philosophy. Clement was an ex-Greek philosopher, and he used his knowledge to refute those errors.
Origen: Wrote against the Gnostics, and had a Valentinian friend whom he converted to Christianity.
Novatian: Wrote against the Gnostics too.
Hippolytus: Describes and refutes many Gnostics groups.
Gnostic Groups and Scriptures
The Gnostics liked Paul's writings to various degrees, but accepting the gospels was hurtful to most of the groups, so they wrote at least 100 other scriptures.
Tatian and the Encratites, a pupil of Justin Martyr. After Justin's beheading he fell under Gnostic influence and became a heretic and a leader of the Encratite Gnostics, an ascetic group. "Encratite" was their term, which means "masters of themselves". Before Tatian died in 172 A.D. Tatian wrote a harmony of the Gospels called The Diatessaron, meaning "the Four". It leaves out genealogies and many other gospel verses that emphasized Jesus' humanity, but it quotes verbatim all of parts of 79% of all the verses in the gospels. It quotes the least from Mark (409 verses or 59%) and the most from John (855 verses or 97%).
Naaseni Gnostics had at least 44 writings, one of which was the Gospel of Thomas. The earliest copy we have is 200 A.D., but how can we estimate when it was first written? Irenaeus wrote a great deal about the Gnostics, but he had never heard of the Naaseni Gnostics and he died in 202 A.D. However, his pupil Hippolytus, writing about 222-225 A.D., also wrote much on the Gnostics and he mentioned the Naaseni Gnostics at length in the Refutation of all Heresies book 5 chapter 1-3 p.47-53. So they probably did not start. So given that the Naaseni might have been around for a while before other Christians heard of them, some estimate that they might have started about 170 A.D. See the paper on the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas for more info.
Hippolytus is one writer who discusses Gnostic Groups at Length.
Valentinians: Refutation of All Heresies book 4 ch.51 p.45-46 and Book 6 ch.16 p.81-82.
Peretae are discussed in Refutation of All Heresies book 5 ch.7-14 p.58-66. The world has three parts, with one god, one logoi, one mind, and one type of man for each part. The first is perfect good and unbegotten, the second has potentialities and has self-producing good, and the third is formal, which will perish. Christ have a threefold nature, threefold body, and threefold power, and that is why Colossians 1:19 says "It pleased him that in him should dwell all fullness bodily." They were also into male and female astrological signs. Cronos, Japetus, Adam, Eve, Nimrod, Prometheus, Neptune, Osiris, Isis, Cleopatria, and Olympias (mother of Alexander?) are some of the deities prominent in their system.
Sethians are discussed in Refutation of All Heresies book 5 ch.15-19 p.66-69.
Justinius's system is discussed in Refutation of All Heresies book 5 ch.20-23 p.69-73.
Ophites are discussed in Refutation of All Heresies book 6 ch.1 p.74.
Simon Magus was considered an ancestor of the Gnostics. He is discussed in Refutation of All Heresies book 6 ch.2,4-15 p.74,75-81.
Ascetic Gnostics Libertine Gnostics
Cerdo Simon? (in Acts 8:9-11)
Marcion of Pontus Menander Nicolaitans
Saturninus Valentinus Colorbasus
Encratites (Tatian) Ptolemaeus Marcus
Claims on Gnosticism Today
Marcion: Ascetic, pacifist, forbade marriage
Some Mormons, in their search for Mormons in the early church, point to the Gnostics. There are similarities in that Gnostics believed they had secret, hidden knowledge, they were polytheists. However, all Gnostics rejected the God of the Old Testament and believed that Jesus never had a physical body.
"And here I wonder how the dissentients can connect the two Testaments with two different Gods. These words, were there no others, are enough to convict them of their error. For how can John be the beginning of the Gospel if they suppose he belongs to a different God, if he belongs to the demiurge, and, as they hold, is not acquainted with the new deity? Origen's Commentary on John book 1 ch.14 p.305
Mormon teachings of abstaining from alcohol, and doing good works to go to heaven, were totally incompatible with libertine Gnosticism. While no alcohol was compatible with ascetic Gnosticism, ascetic Gnostics believed all marriage was wrong.
Irenaeus' views of the shortcomings of the Roman Church showed he believed it anything but infallible. His view of the Lord's supper however, was similar to the transubstantiation or consubstantiation of the Catholic and Lutheran churches. Unlike Augustine, Irenaeus was rather Arminian in his outlook from 3:37:2 and 4:40-41.
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