Gnostic sects in the early church

The paganizing heresy of the apostolic and post-apostolic period became known generally as Gnosticism. It was the Rationalism of the ancient church; it pervaded the intellectual atmosphere, and stimulated the development of catholic theology by opposition.

Gnosticism is a heretical philosophy of religion, or, more exactly, a mythological theosophy, which reflects intellectually the peculiar, fermenting state of that remarkable age of transition from the heathen to the Christian order of things.

The common characteristics of nearly all the Gnostic systems are:

1. Dualism - the assumption of an eternal antagonism between God and matter;

2. The demiurgic notion - the separation of the creator of the world or the demiurgos from the proper God

(Demiurge is a derivative from the Greek word meaning “craftsman.” Plato used it for the divine being whose inferior deities form the world.

According to the polemicist Irenaeus, a majority of Gnostic writers taught that angels made the world. The system of Valentinus names the Creator the Demiurge. He probably borrowed Plato’s usage, which through him obtained wide currency.

In Valentinian cosmology Demiurge is born of the mingling of Wisdom, herself a fallen spirit, and Matter. He creates the visible world, orders its course, and is identified with Jehovah, the author of Judaism and the false notions of Christianity.

The notion of the Demiurge militates against a fundamental truth: that of the Triune God as the good Creator of al that exists, who created by His own power and wisdom, without any agency, ex nihilo.)

3. Docetism - the resolution of the humanity of Christ into mere deceptive appearance.

All the Gnostic heretics agree in disparaging the divinely created body, and over-rating the intellect. Beyond this, we perceive among them two opposite tendencies: a gloomy asceticism, and a frivolous antinomianism. Both are grounded in the dualistic principle, which falsely ascribes evil to matter, and traces nature to the devil.

The two extremes frequently met, and the Nicolaitan maxim in regard to the abuse of the flesh was made to serve asceticism first, and then libertinism.

The arbitrary and unbalanced subjectivity of the Gnostic speculation naturally produced a plethora of schools. With reference to its doctrinal character, Gnosticism appears in three forms, distinguished by the preponderance of the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian elements respectively in its syncretism.

Philip Schaff writes: “The ethical point of view, from which the division might as well be made, would give likewise three main branches: the speculative or theosophic Gnostics (Basilides, Valentine), the practical and ascetic (Marcion, Saturninus, Tatian), and the antinomian and libertine (Simonians, Nicolaitans...).”

They are listed below and discussed further.

1. Simon Magus and the Simonians.

Simon is first mentioned in Acts 8. He represented himself as a sort of emanation of the deity, “The Great Power of God.” His followers worshipped him as a redeeming genius.

2. The Nicolaitans.

These are mentioned as a licentious sect in the Revelation (2:6,15), who are supposed to have sprung up from the apostasy of Nicolas, who taught the dangerous principle that the flesh must be abused. They made it a principle that one must make the whole round of sensuality to become a perfect master.

3. Cerinthus.

This false teacher appeared towards the close of the first century in Asia Minor and came in conflict with the aged apostle John. His view is a melee between Judaism and Gnosticism proper. He rejected all the Gospels except a mutilated Matthew, taught the validity of the Mosaic law and the millennial kingdom. In his Christology he is adoptionist.

Proceeding now to the more developed systems of Gnosticism, which belong to the first half of the second century, and continue to flourish till the middle of the third, we mention:

4. Basilides.

His is the first well-developed system of gnosis, but it was too metaphysical and intricate to be popular.

In the world-seed Basilides distinguishes three kinds of sonship, of the same essence with the non-existent God, but growing weaker in the more remote gradations; or three races of children of God, a pneumatic, a psychic, and a hylic.

In his moral teaching Basilides inculcated a moderate asceticism, from which, however, his school soon departed. He accepted only some books of the New Testament.

5. Valentinus.

Valentinus is the author of the most profound and luxuriant, as well as the most influential and best known of the Gnostic systems, so much so that Irenaeus directed his work chiefly against it.

Valentinus pretended of receiving revelations from the Logos in a vision. His system is an ingenious theogonic and cosmogonic work. He starts from the eternal primal Being whom he calls Bythos. The process of the fall and redemption takes place first in the ideal world of the Pleroma and is then repeated in the lower world.

His Christology distinguished three redeeming beings.

His system became so popular and influential that it divided chiefly into two branches: and Oriental and an Italian.

6. Marcion and his school.

Marcion was the most earnest, the most practical and the most dangerous among the Gnostics. He has a remote connection with modern questions of biblical criticism and the canon. He anticipated the rationalistic opposition to the Old Testament and to the Pastoral Epistles, but in a very arbitrary and unscrupulous way.

He could see only superficial differences in the Bible, not the deeper harmony. He put Christianity into a radical conflict with all previous revelations of God.

Marcion supposed two or three primal forces: the good or gracious God whom Christ first made known; the evil matter, ruled by the Devil, to which heathenism belongs; and the righteous world-ruler, which is the finite, imperfect, angry Jehovah of the Jews.

His system was more critical and rationalistic than mystic and philosophical.

7. The Ophites.

Their origin is unknown; their system is of a purely heathen stamp.

They worshipped the serpent since they ascribed to the serpent special import because it brought gnosis to man (Genesis 3:1). They made use of the serpents on amulets. Far from being the seducer of the race, the serpent was its first schoolmaster and civilizer by teaching it the difference between good and evil.

They thought it a necessary part of “perfect knowledge” to have a complete experience of all sins, including even unnamable vices.

8. Saturninus.

His system is distinguished for its bold dualism between God and Satan, the two antipodes of the universe, and for its ascetic severity.

9. Carpocrates.

Carpocrates placed Christ on a level with heathen philosophers. His system prided itself on its elevation above all the popular religions, and sank into unbridled immorality.

The world was created by angels greatly inferior to the unbegotten Father.

Men may rise to an equality with Jesus by despising the creators of the world, as he did (cf. Mormonism).

Schaff writes: “The Carpocratians, says Irenaeus and Hippolytus, practised also magical arts, incantations, and love-potions, and had recourse to familiar spirits, dream-sending demons, and other abominations, declaring that they possess power to rule over the princes and framers of this world. But they led a licentious life, and abused the name of Christ as a means of hiding their wickedness.”

10. Tatian and the Encratites.

Initially Tatian professed himself a catholic Christian but later strayed into Gnosticism. He resembles Marcion in his anti-Jewish turn and dismal austerity. He was strictly against marriage.

His followers who kept the system alive till the fifth century, were called, from their ascetic life, Encratites, or abstainers. They refrained from using wine at the Lord’s Supper; instead they simply used water. They abstained from flesh, wine, and marriage.

11. Justin the Gnostic.

Justin propagated his doctrine secretly, and bound his disciples to silence by solemn oaths (cf. Freemasonry). His teaching has a Judaizing cast, making use also of Greek mythology.

He claimed that Christ by his crucifixion emancipated from his material body, thus denying the resurrection.

12. Hermogenes.

Hermogenes is remotely connected with Gnosticism by his Platonic dualism and denial of the creation out of nothing. He derived the world, including the soul of man, from the formless, eternal matter.

Other strange doctrines he inculcated was that Christ on his ascension left his body in the sun, and then ascended to the Father.

We today may be surprised at the proliferations of sects from the very beginning of the Christian faith. If the same phenomenon is to be observed today, we may realize how the truth of the gospel never goes unchallenged, even under the garb of its being the truth itself.

Philip Schaff concludes: “Almost every form of immorality and lawlessness seems to have been practices under the sanction of religion by the baser schools of Gnosticism, and the worst errors and organized vices of modern times were anticipated by them.”

No wonder the orthodox church opposed them vigorously and proved them to be a corruption of biblical Christianity.

Gnostic problems in the Colossian church?

In Colossians Paul emphasised that Christ is sufficient for the total Christian life from beginning to end. Only He is worthy of worship and obedience. The worship of angels, seeking their intercession (prevalent in Romanism) is seen to be of Gnostic origin, seeking to replace Christ with a whole series of mediators.

But the fullness of God is in Christ and in Him alone (1:15-20). Believers needs no other source of understanding and knowledge: in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:2). This is asserted in direct opposition to Gnostic teachings.

The worship of the principalities and powers is both evil and foolish, for Christ is supreme in His authority over all of them (1:16). The unity and growth of the church depended on its faithful relationship to Christ, who is its head. We are meant to hold fast to Him and not seek others alongside Him (2:19), again as we find it done within Romanism, with its encouragements to venerate patron saints and address prayer to them.

We know from Paul’s letters that he was able to tolerate a great diversity of opinion and beliefs in the Christian body (cf. Romans 14). But he resisted fiercely any ideas that denied to Christ His unique and pre-eminent place as the only Saviour and Lord of the church.

In chapter two some of the false teachings infiltrating the Colossian church, which troubled Paul, may be identified. Contrary to all the notions with which they had been bombarded, Christ (having been received by faith) was all the brethren needed to develop and grow to maturity as God’s children. They are to live totally “in Christ” - that is, in relationship to Him. He furnishes the motivation, the pattern, and the energy needed to live pleasing to the Father. Being rooted in Him, the saints do not need another source of life and nourishment. Christ is all-sufficient. Gnosticism made Christ one of many mediators.

The elemental spirits, the rudiments of this world which Paul mentions, referred to the astral deities, the heavenly powers that supposedly controlled human life and destiny. This is probably a reference to the central teaching of the heresy in Colossae. According to the heretics, there were elemental spirits besides Christ that needed to be worshipped and, perhaps, placated.

The teachers of this type of incipient Gnosticism probably made bold claims for it. They called it a “philosophy.” They said that it came from God. They held that their position was the source of genuine knowledge and wisdom. The apostle retorted by affirming that it was empty, deceitful, and from human rather than heavenly sources. Anything “not according to Christ” was to be rejected without question.

There is no need for believers to seek anything outside Christ because they have everything in Him. This is the basic proposition and theme of the whole epistle. It is given lucid expression in 2:9,10. The “fulness of deity” dwells in Christ,” and to combat the heresy that denied the incarnation, Paul said that it dwelt in Christ “bodily.”

God’s power and wisdom, then, are not distributed among various angelic beings, of whom Christ is only one. God in His fulness was revealed to humanity in the incarnate Christ. All spiritual blessings are granted in Christ.

Gnosticism, as it appeared to poison the Colossian church, also gave great importance to dietary laws. Certain foods and drink were forbidden. But for the Christian there is no food that is clean or unclean in itself, in the sense that it is contaminated spiritually. As Jesus said, we are defiled not by what goes into the body but by what comes out of our hearts (Mark 7:18-20).

The heresy also emphasised holy days - another factor that now characterises Romanism. Paul did not believe in holy days. He believed that all of life is holy. All our time is to be offered up in the service of God. The reality and substance of the Christian life is not determined by what we eat or what festivals we observe. The reality is Christ.

The Gnostics who influenced the Colossian church also delighted in self-abasement, apparently they inflicted pain on themselves, being of an ascetical frame of mind. Again, this mind-set is popular within Romanism, in the self-flagellation of monks and ascetics, thinking that thereby they become holier, whereas the fact of the matter is that our holiness and acceptance with God is through Christ alone.

Coming back to the basic problem: the false teachers were not “holding fast to the Head.” By promoting angel worship the Gnostics were disqualifying themselves and revealing themselves as phoneys. The church is held together and continue to live through Christ the Head.