by Wayne D. Turner
Gnosticism was an early-church distortion of Christian doctrine. Some have argued that it existed prior to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Certainly the distortions to sound doctrine that existed after the resurrection and on into subsequent centuries were seated in extra-scriptural notions pioneered by these "deep-thinking" Gnostics, people who felt a need to supplement commonly established orthodoxy with components of Judaism, oriental mysticism and philosophy. This abstract hybrid doctrine seems to have been used to question foundational principles of orthodoxy rather than to establish a following of adherents. Gnosticism appears to be the first-century equivalent of our progressive-thinking liberal scholars of today who are long on theory and short on absolutes--proponents of diversity of thought rather than faith; that approach always breeds confusion.
The Greek word integrated into "Gnosticism" is "gnosis." That's the word from which our English word "knowledge" is translated in scripture. The word is translated "science" in I Timothy 6:20. Literally, these heretics were so-called scholars who proclaimed to have advanced insight regarding the Christian life. They over thought the simplicity of life in Christ in the name of scholarship.
There is no Biblical method for establishing the exact tenets of gnosticism, nor (as I have suggested) do they exist. For that reason I have taken the following extended passage from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) for those who want to learn more.
The ISBE, under its general heading of "Gnosticism," has the following entry:
On the general definition of Gnosticism a few authorities may be cited. Gnosticism, says Dr. Gwatkin, may be provisionally described as a number of schools of philosophy, oriental in general character, but taking in the idea of a redemption through Christ, and further modified in different sects by a third element, which may be Judaism, Hellenism, or Christianity ... the Gnostics took over only the idea of a redemption through Christ, not the full Christian doctrine, for they made it rather a redemption of the philosophers from matter, than a redemption of mankind from sin (Early Church History to AD 313, II, 20).
Dr. Orr writes, Gnosticism may be described generally as the fantastic product of the blending of certain Christian ideas -- particularly that of redemption through Christ -- with speculation and imaginings derived from a medley of sources (Greek, Jewish, Parsic; philosophies; religions, theosophies, mysteries) in a period when the human mind was in a kind of ferment, and when opinions of every sort were jumbled together in an unimaginable welter. It involves, as the name denotes, a claim to knowledge, knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which salvation in the full sense consisted. This knowledge of which the Gnostic boasted, related to the subjects ordinarily treated of in religious philosophy; Gnosticism was a species of religious philosophy (The Early Church, 71).
Neander has described Gnosticism as the first notable attempt to introduce into Christianity the existing elements of mental culture, and to render it more complete on the hitherto rather neglected side of theoretical knowledge; it was an attempt of the mind of the ancient world in its yearning after knowledge, and in its dissatisfaction with the present, to bring within its grasp and to appropriate the treasures of this kind which christianity presented (Antignostikus, Intro, 199).
Gnosticism accordingly comprehends in itself many previously existing tendencies; it is an amalgam into which quite a number of different elements have been fused. A heretical system of thought, at once subtle, speculative and elaborate, it endeavored to introduce into Christianity a so-called higher knowledge, which was grounded partly on the philosophic creed in which Greeks and Romans had taken refuge consequent on the gradual decay and breaking-up of their own religions, partly, as will be shown, on the philosophies of Plato and of Philo, and still more on the philosophies and theosophies and religions of the East, especially those of Persia and of India.
For a long time the pagan beliefs had ceased to be taken seriously by thoughtful men and had been displaced by various creeds derived from philosophical speculation. These in themselves were abstract and unsatisfying, but had been partly vitalized by union with theosophies of the East. An attempt was made on the part of this philosophical religion to effect an alliance with Christianity. A section of the church was dissatisfied with the simplicity of the gospel, and sought to advance to something higher by adopting the current speculations ... The late books of the NT are all occupied, more or less, with this movement, which was the more dangerous as it threatened the church from within (Professor E. Scott, The Apologetic of the NT, 14).
Gnosticism, though usually regarded as a heresy, was not really such: it was not the perverting of Christian truth; it came, rather, from outside. Having worked its way into the Christian church, it was then heretical. Although it became a corrupting influence within the church, it was an alien by birth. While the church yet sojourned within the pale of Judaism, it enjoyed immunity from this plague; but as soon as it broke through these narrow bounds, it found itself in a world where the decaying religions and philosophies of the West were in acute fermentation under the influence of a new and powerful leaven from the East; while the infusion of Christianity itself into this fermenting mass only added to the bewildering multiplicity of Gnostic sects and systems it brought forth (Law, The Tests of Life, 26).