Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
There was a heresy in the early church which was so serious, so deadly, and yet so attractive that the church was engaged in a life or death struggle to overcome it.
That heresy was known as Gnosticism.
It was a heresy which had many variations and was taught by many different heretics in the church. It was more like a movement than a departure from the truth on one specific point. It never resulted in a split of any significance in the church, nor were those who held this error of one united party. As a movement it could, perhaps, be compared with the “feminist movement,” which is found in many denominations, which has its own theory about the place of women in society, and which presses its own agenda. But one would never call “feminism” a separate church. So with Gnosticism.
Early forms of its teaching can be found in the apostolic church. It seems as if it was present especially in the churches of western Asia Minor. Paul warns against some early forms of Gnosticism in his epistle to the Colossians; and the apostle John apparently had some early form of Gnosticism in mind in his first epistle.
Its teachings are difficult to understand and do not make much sense to our more modern minds. But the deviltry which it set about doing is easy to understand. Gnosticism was interested in a synthesis religion. That is, Gnosticism vigorously promoted the idea that the one true religion is a religion which takes the best elements out of Christianity, the old Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Oriental mystical religions and puts them all together into one religion which everyone is able to accept.
So, while Gnosticism is a very old heresy, it is also very new. In a book recently published (The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back, by Peter Jones) the New Age Movement of our modern times is compared to the ancient Gnostic movement. In fact, the title of the book indicates this, and the sub-title reads: “An Old Heresy for the New Age.” It is short, but worth reading. And it is only one among many.
Because Gnosticism was a movement and not a heresy promoted by just one man or by a few men who worked together, the heresy also had many different proponents. And they differed widely from each other in their views. Their differences were, in fact, so great that they represented different kinds of Gnosticism. Those, e.g., who emphasized Judaistic ideas were called Jewish Gnostics; those who were more under the influence of pagan and Oriental religions were called Pagan Gnostics; and those who tended to stress the truths of Christianity were called Christian Gnostics.
For this reason it is impossible in this sketch to offer biographies of all the leaders; and, as a matter of fact, not much is known of any of them.
Valentinus was perhaps the best known and most famous of all the Gnostics. But even his birthplace and origin are lost in the murky past. What is known of him is learned from others and cannot, therefore, always be proved. But these facts concerning his life seem to emerge.
He was an Egyptian and had been trained in Alexandria, Egypt’s most important city.
This in itself is significant, for Alexandria was, by virtue of its location, one of the most important trading centers in all the Mediterranean world. It was the place where East and West met and where trading routes from the Orient crossed the trading routes from the distant parts of the Roman Empire. It was a busy, bustling city; noisy with the babble of many languages spoken by its traders; a meeting place of different cultures, religions, and races; and a bubbling cauldron of clashing ideas and philosophies. It was the one place where one would expect a heresy like Gnosticism to emerge.
Among the inhabitants of Alexandria were Jews. In fact, the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) had been prepared there before the birth of Christ. Christians were also present in the city, and the great Athanasius, the defender of the divinity of our Lord, was bishop of the church there some 150 years later.
Valentinus went to Rome around A.D. 140 and may have stayed there till 165. He was in Rome for some time, but went from Rome to Cyprus. Up to this point no one had had any reason to question his orthodoxy, but while in Cyprus he revealed his hatred of the church and became the leader of a heretical sect.
He was a man of great intellectual ability and vast oratorical powers. In fact, one story of an early church father says that his path to heresy was paved by disappointed ambition, for he had hoped to be chosen bishop of the church in Rome, but had been passed over in favor of a confessor.
Nothing more is known of him, and even these scraps are more than is known of most men who assumed leadership in the Gnostic movement.
It is not possible nor is it necessary to give a complete sketch of the teachings of Gnosticism in such a short article. Nor would we be all that interested in these teachings, for they strike our ears as strange, esoteric, hardly credible; and we may very well wonder how it was that such a peculiar conglomeration of ideas could constitute a very real threat to the church.
But such was nevertheless the case.
In general, Gnosticism was “a stealing of some Christian rags to cover the nakedness of the heathen.” It taught that God was the great unknowable One, more like the Mohammedan Allah than the triune God of the Scriptures: cold, impersonal, pure being.
The great question of Gnosticism was how the creation came into existence. This was indeed a puzzling question because Gnosticism taught that the “matter” of which the creation was made was inherently evil, was, in fact, itself evil. To overcome this problem, Gnosticism taught that from God proceeded a long chain of emanating aeons which themselves were divine creatures (sometimes identified with God’s virtues), each proceeding from another, each weaker than its parent.
The church father Iranaeus, who fought fiercely against Gnosticism, says that “the thirtieth and last of the aeons, wisdom, fell from the perfection of the pleroma (God) through an excess of passion, finally giving birth to a shapeless mass. Hence, [creation] had its beginning from [wisdom’s] ignorance and grief, and fear and bewilderment.”
The last aeon, therefore, was one “who, while powerful enough to create, was silly enough not to see that creation was wrong.” This aeon was sometimes called the demiurge, and was identified either with the “logos” of John 1 or the God of the Old Testament. In any case, this demiurge, responsible for creation, was, because of its own foolishness, imprisoned in the creation and needed redemption.
So in the entire creation, but especially in man, was this “spark” of divinity which, if freed, would flow back to God to be eventually absorbed into the divine being.
How was this escape to be accomplished?
The way was through “gnosis”—the Greek word for “knowledge”; hence, the name Gnosticism.
There are three kinds of people in this world: material people who are beyond salvation; psychical people who are capable of being saved, although they lack the true “gnosis”; and spiritual people who are the “inner circle,” the “elite,” those who possess true “gnosis,” and are therefore on the road to the liberation of the divine spark in them which will fly heavenward to be absorbed in the being of God.
What role did Christ play in all this?
Obviously, Christ’s human nature could not be real because that which is material is inherently evil, and Christ was sinless. And so, Christ’s human nature was only an illusion; a ghost-like wraith, it only seemed to be real. Thus, out of Gnosticism rose Docetism, a heresy which denies the reality of our Lord’s human nature, and an error perhaps referred to in I John 1:1-3.
But neither was Christ our redeemer. Most thought of Him in terms of that divine spark which, while having created the world, through some misstep became imprisoned in the world; and which divine spark was to be found in all men and which could and would be liberated through the mystery of “gnosis.”
This whole theory appealed to many people and, in fact, laid its claim on the masses for many years. But it did so with the seductive promise of a mysterious knowledge through which redemption would come, and it made use of ceremonies, rituals, and appeals to be able to open the door to heaven and union with God.
Partly, the secret knowledge which was the key to salvation involved how to free the divine spark in man. This liberation of the divine could come about only by a denial and suppression of the body. But how to suppress the body, that was the question. To that question two answers were given—depending on what form of Gnosticism was adopted. The one way was that of asceticism, i.e., a mortification of the body through denying it food and drink, making it suffer, and thus “crucifying the flesh.” This later was carried over into monasticism in the Romish Church.
The other way, more appealing to many, was the way of giving one’s body over completely and totally to an indulgence of all the lusts and pleasures of the flesh. The more such total licentiousness was practiced, the more the body was denied. And so some branches of Gnosticism became wickedly evil. It was the ultimate expression of “Let us sin that grace may abound.”
If one is at all acquainted with ancient Greek philosophy, one can easily detect the remnants of it preserved and modified in this system. If one knows even a bit about the mysticism from India, China, and other parts of the Orient, one can easily see that such religions influenced Gnostic thinkers. When one recognizes that one of the ways in which the leaders appealed to Christians was by preaching the teachings of Jesus, one can see that Christianity was intended to be a part of the system.
And so Gnosticism wanted a worldwide, eclectic religion to which everyone could agree, and under the umbrella of which everyone could find a congenial religious shelter. Why war over particulars and minute points? Here is a religion which takes the best from every religion and makes one universal religion palatable to all.
How could something like this appeal to so many?
Well, we ought to consider two things.
One: many (if not most) of the members of the church had come from heathenism and paganism, and had not yet been fully taught in the Christian faith. Indeed, this was true even of some of the church fathers who were reluctant to give up everything the philosophers had taught and which they had learned in the schools before their conversion. The inclination was to find good in all these things.
Two: Gnosticism had some things about it which are always appealing to people, even members of the church. It spoke of secret knowledge which one could attain and which would let one in on mysteries, esoteric things known only to a few, “inner circle” secrets. People are attracted to that sort of thing by virtue of its mysterious character.
It also made skillful use of rituals and ceremonies which always appeal to man’s baser instincts because it is spiritually difficult to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” This is the abiding attraction of Rome’s way of worship over against the simplicity advocated by the Reformers.
And it gave credence and support to the idea of tolerance in the area of religion. There is really no need to insist on the unique character of the Christian faith, since truth can be found in all religions and it is possible to “get along” with many others whose faith differs from ours, for all have certain good points. In modern language it is the siren song that, though Arminianism may be defective theologically, it surely has this good which we Calvinists lack: its enthusiasm and emphasis on godliness.
That sort of a thing was so appealing to the early church because it opened the door to the possibility of assuming a more tolerant position over against the culture of the day and in this way offered escape from the persecution which was the lot of the church at that time.
And there may be one more element. The system called Gnosticism, with its doctrine of aeons and its idea of salvation through the release in us of the divine spark, was clearly Pantheistic. That is, it taught that all is God, and we too (at least, the divine in us) are God. Pantheism, in all the ages in which it has been taught, including today’s New Age Movement, is a direct lie of the devil which was first uttered in Paradise and which continues to be the lie by which Satan deceives many: Ye shall be as God. Eve and, a bit later, Adam were deceived. Countless throngs today are deceived in a similar fashion.
So the church had a fierce battle on its hands, and it took over a century before the battle was won.
Why did God so govern in the affairs of men and saints that such an evil as Gnosticism entered the church and threatened her very existence as the church of Christ? What was God’s purpose? How did the church react and finally overcome the threat of Gnosticism?
The first positive fruit of this great and terrible controversy in the church was this: the church was forced to give clear definition to her faith, i.e., to the truth which was her confession.
This had not yet happened. In the early life of the post-apostolic church, by virtue of the circumstances in which the church found herself, all the emphasis of her life fell upon her calling to live a holy and godly life in the corruption of Roman civilization. That is, all the emphasis fell on the need to live antithetically in the world, and all the thinking of the church was absorbed in the question: How does the Christianity which we have now embraced make our lives in every detail different from the wickedness of Roman culture? What is a Christian husband? May we be Roman soldiers after our conversion? How do we treat children? May we attend Roman shows? These and similar questions were on the top of the church’s agenda.
But Gnosticism, while certainly being an ethical system also, was primarily an intellectual system. One had to put on his thinking cap to understand the intricacies of its thought.
If Christianity was to defeat Gnosticism on the battlefield of faith, Christianity had to turn now from ethical and moral questions to more basic questions involving the truth. What is the truth of God’s Word. What is the truth concerning God over against this cold and impersonal God of the Gnostics? Who is Christ in distinction from this Christ of the Gnostics whose human nature is only an illusion?
The Christian faith is exactly that: a faith. And that means that it is a system of doctrine, of doctrinal propositions which have to be believed in order for a man to be saved. Faith is more than a way of life. It is a way of life; but that unique way of life which is “Christian” is the necessary implication of what a Christian believes.
Gnosticism forced the church to begin thinking doctrinally.
And, secondly, in thinking doctrinally, the church came to realize that the only possible defense it had against Gnosticism, and the real claim which the Scriptures were making, was the absolutely unique character of the Christian faith.
Gnosticism said: there is good in all religions. Gnosticism said: every religion is a way to God. Gnosticism said: the greatest religion is that religion which unites all religions in some sort of spiritual hybrid under which all men can find a theological roof. Then the world will also be at peace.
But more and more it dawned on the church fathers who fought against Gnosticism that the Christian religion was not like that. An absolute antithesis existed between the Christian faith and all other religions. Not only was the Christian faith the only true religion, but every other religion was totally false. If one believes the Christian religion, one will be saved, because, so very simply put, he believes the truth. If one believes anything else but the Christian faith, one will go to hell, because, simply put, one believes the lie. Not a mixture of lie and truth—the lie.
The reasons are clear why this vast and unbridgeable chasm exists between the Christian faith and all pagan thought and religion. Every pagan religion and every pagan philosophy is man’s invention. It has its origin in man’s sinful mind. It has in it no elements of truth, because there is no common grace to enlighten the wicked mind. It has no good about it because there is no operation of the Logos (of John 1) or of the Spirit operative in every man. It is flat-out the lie.
And it is the lie, not because wicked men who live far away from the gospel do not know about the truth, and in their ignorance make mistakes. It is the lie because these men, thinking themselves to be wise, and nevertheless becoming fools, change the glory of the incorruptible God into images of their own imagination.
The Christian religion, on the other hand, has its origin in God, in God’s mind and will. It is revealed and cannot be known apart from divine revelation. It is made known sovereignly by the Spirit in the hearts of God’s elect because God hides His truth from the wise and prudent and reveals it unto babes; and this is His good pleasure. That truth, sovereignly made known, is the truth which saves.
The Christian is finally compelled, in faithfulness to God, to stand in the world and say: What I believe is the only truth; what you believe is the lie. What I believe opens the doors of heaven; what you believe is from hell and carries its confessors into that dark place.
That takes a courage which few men have. But it is the courage of faith.
The battle which the church fought against Gnosticism is never over in this life. Today we have the same thing. The main Reformed body in the Netherlands shuts down its mission work to the Jews because Judaism is an acceptable religion. Reformed Ecumenical bodies openly approve of Buddhism, Hinduism, and pagan worship. “Reformed” teachers openly teach that God has provided many ways to Himself, and each is entitled to his own way to God. And, indeed, the way of the fetish worshiper may be better than ours.
The New Age Movement tells all the world exactly what Gnosticism said. That movement creeps into churches, seminaries, and Christian schools; and weak and wishy-washy teachers, often scared half to death by the accusation of being intolerant, openly espouse New Age ideas.
There can be no question about it, that for us to take the stand which the church took against Gnosticism is to invite persecution. But let it be, then. Anything else is the destruction of the church. If you will, the salvation of the church lies in her intolerance—intolerance of all that is contrary to God’s truth in Christ.