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An Easy Introduction to Gnosticism.


Below are the notes from a class on
An Introduction to Gnosticism’
Given to church members and friends from Ballymacashon Congregational (Old Reformed) Church in preparation for our forthcoming sermon series on 1st John. It is NOT the full lecture, and some of it won’t make sense without the accompanying lecture and PowerPoint presentation. However, it gives readers an idea of how we use our Monday evening gatherings to explore the underlying themes, emphases and doctrines which we will encounter in our Sunday morning Bible studies. I hope the notes are interesting, and will whet your appetite to go out an buy a church history book and do some further study.

Making opposites by Adding an ‘A’
A person who believes in a ‘god’ is a THEIST (The Greek word for god is Theos). A person who believes there is no ‘god’ is an Atheist.
So, what do we call a person who doesn’t know whether there is a god or not? A person who doesn’t know whether there is a ‘god’ or not is an AGNOSTIC. Agnostic means ‘no knowledge’ or ‘I don’t know!’ The opposite of someone who doesn’t know, is someone who KNOWS Take away the A and you have a GNOSTIC.

Gnosticism? What’s That?
Derived from the Greek: gnosko ‘Knowledge’. These were people who thought that they had a special knowledge that other Christians didn’t have.

Gnosticism is a Pagan Philosophy. Gnostics could attach themselves to any religion or none. There were:
* Pagan (Greek philosophy) Gnostics,
* Jewish Gnostics,
* ’Christian’ Gnostics
All of them believed that they have received some special revelation or knowledge that no-one else in their peer-group or religious group had. They were around before the time of Christ, and appeared in the church near the end of the first Christian century, – by the second century they were making a nuisance of themselves.
Some Gnostic Leaders: Menander, Cerinthus:, Celsus, Marcion, Basileides, Valentinus,
Gnostic ‘scriptures’: Gospel of Thomas, Pistis Sophia, Secret Gospel of Mark, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip. etc.

So… What did the ‘Christian’ Gnostics believe…. Remember that not all Gnostics believed the same ‘doctrines.’ The only unifying factor among them was the notion that they had some special knowledge that others didn’t have…

Loopy Gnostic Beliefs #1- GOD

He does not know about us and does not care about us. He is unfeeling and unconcerned.
2. God did NOT create the world. ‘Matter’ is evil – so how could a transcendent God have anything to do with evil matter?
3. The world was created by ‘an emanation’ from God often called the ‘Demiurge’ – Some Gnostics thought that the God of the OT was the ‘Demiurge’. Often there was a series of ‘Aeons’ between the transcendent God and the Demiurge.
4. The Old Testament God was therefore ‘evil’

Some Gnostics rejected the OT, on the grounds that it tells of the actions and commands of the Demiurge. Some go so far as to say that the serpent who beguiled Eve was doing the right thing by tempting her to reject the evil Demiurge.

Loopy Gnostic Beliefs #2- Mankind

1. MAN IS MATTER & MATTER IS EVIL So all men and women are evil and lost.
2. SOME MEN HAVE A SPARK OF DIVINITY WITHIN THEM. We are of course IGNORANT of this ‘fact’ that some people have a spiritual light encapsulated within our evil bodies.
3. GOD SENDS A REDEEMER TO BRING US SALVATION. Not salvation from SIN, but salvation from our lack of knowledge, one who will reveal to us our true worth and our destiny.
4. PEOPLE WITH THIS SPECIAL KNOWLEDGE escape from the prison of this evil body at death, and travel through the planetary realms, passing safely through places controlled by demons to be at last fully reunited with with the transcendent God.

Loopy Gnostic Beliefs #3- Scripture & Life
Since all matter is evil, and salvation depends upon possessing a knowledge of one’s spiritual nature, some Gnostics indulged in widely licentious behaviour. They celebrated and imitated the lives of the ‘villains’ of the OT, like Cain, (David, on the other hand, was a bloodthirsty villain) and some taught that promiscuity must be God’s will, since the ‘Demiurge’ was opposed to it. – OR –
Other Gnostics went to the opposite extreme. They had an ascetic attitude to sex, believing that humans were originally created ‘unisex’ until the evil Demiurge stepped in and created women, who are the source of evil, since they can give birth to more evil humans, thus multiplying the souls in bondage to the powers of darkness. So some Gnostics never married and never had sexual relations.

Loopy Gnostic Beliefs #4- JESUS
1. DECETICISM – Menander & Marcion – Jesus wasn’t really human – he just ‘looked human’ his body may have been composed of a star-like substance.
2. ADOPTIONISM – Cerinthus – Jesus was fully human, just an ordinary man, upon whom the Holy Spirit
descended as a dove at his Baptism. Because God cannot have any contact with evil, the Spirit left Jesus before the crucifixion. (This is also the Islamic view – the Koran teaches, ‘They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them’).
3. CHRIST’S MISSION ON EARTH. Was to redeem us – not from our sins, for we cannot be free from this sinful body until death, but from our lack of knowledge.


St. John V’s Cerinthus

John lived to old age and dwelt at Ephesus, where he was the local church leader. One of the early church writer, Irenaeus of Lyon, records an incident that occurred at the public baths at Ephesus, where Cerinthus was performing his ablutions. Cerinthus had arrived at Ephesus, and met St. John in the public baths. The Apostle, hearing who was there, fled from the place as if for life, crying to those about him:

“Let us flee, lest the bath fall in while Cerinthus,
the enemy of the truth, is there.”

Whether that is literally true or not, it illustrates the contempt that John had for teachers of perverse doctrine.

1st John and Early Gnosticism
There are some passages in 1 John that indicate that John is writing in part to correct the very earliest forms of Gnosticism. (Other errors too, but we’ll deal with them later). Some people seemed to be saying that Jesus had not actually come in the flesh, but that he only appeared to be human, so there was no real incarnation, and thus no divine Saviour who was able to die for sinners.

John replied:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:2-3

What are some of the modern parallels to Gnosticism?

Analyse this earlier post from my blog:-

I think I may have heard my very first postmodern/emergent style ‘sermon’. I have to confess that I didn’t elect to hear one, in other words I didn’t go to a emergent conference or meeting, or whatever passes for a meeting in those circles. I was at a family occasion of sorts, and someone had invited a ‘church leader’ along to speak. Let me explain a little about the actual sermon, and someone can perhaps tell me if what I was listening too was truly ‘emergent’.

Two scriptures were read, both from Paul’s epistles, and both on the subject of love. They weren’t read by the speaker, but by someone else. When the readings were over, the speaker made his way to a microphone, and began to address the gathering, in a fairly conversational style, – no rhetoric or ‘preachiness’, or outward enthusiasm, but with a good measure of humour.

He didn’t make any attempt whatsoever to exegete the texts that had been read, In fact he largely ignored them. Instead he began to tell us about his ‘faith journey‘ – which, he declared would be totally different from everyone else’s faith journey. It seemed to fall into three general ‘points’ –

He remembered his college days, when he had thought that there might be a God, somewhere. But he had only vague knowledge of whatever God was. He illustrated this, by telling a fictitious story about a man of whom we had heard only snippets of information, and on that basis had formed an opinion of him. This was, he said, how he thought about God.

He remembered reading, under the guidance of a friend, some passages from Romans, from which he learned that the reason he knew so little about God, was that we are estranged from him, by our own ‘lack of understanding.’

He finally realised that God wanted to have a ‘love relationship’ with him. This excited him and he began his walk with God.

At that point the reader returned to read another portion from Romans, which again was not further commented on. He finished with a prayer. At no point in the ‘sermon’ which lasted around twenty minutes, (a lot of that time was filled with various gulps, ums, ahhs, and sips of water.) did he mention sin, Jesus, the cross, atonement, repentance or forgiveness. Basically he spent the time speaking about himself, and his somewhat nebulous ‘experience of God’.

Are there any similarities to Gnosticism?

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