by Justin Holcomb
Gnosticism is not a specific heretical movement in church history, but rather a broad umbrella term categorizing a loose collection of false beliefs.
Questions concerning the origins of Gnosticism are still unsolved. Some think Gnosticism originated as a heresy that diverted from orthodox Christian teaching, while others see the movement as an independent, non-Christian movement stemming from paganism.
What does it mean?
Everett Ferguson breaks down the diverse teachings of Gnosticism into eight categories:
- A preoccupation with the problem of evil
- A sense of alienation from the world
- A desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe
- A psychological (body and soul) and ethical (good and evil) dualism
- A cosmology wherein all beings are derivative from the first, originating principle
- A hierarchical anthropology of different classes of human beings with fixed destinies
- A radically realized eschatology that denied the resurrection of the dead
- A variety of ethical implications ranging from libertinism and asceticism
The Gnostic teaching on salvation was not based on Christ. Instead, “The content of the Gnostic gospel was an attempt to rouse the soul from its sleep-walking condition and to make it aware of the high destiny to which it is called.”
“The body is meaningless”
Some New Testament books contain corrective teachings to the Gnosticism that challenged Christianity. For instance, the spiritual elite at Corinth seemed to pride themselves on a special spiritual knowledge or mystical experience. They also questioned the resurrection and believed the body to be meaningless (which had profound moral consequences—such as promiscuous sexual behavior).
At Colossae, believers observed special ascetic practices by keeping ceremonies from the Jewish calendar and worshipped intermediate angelic powers. These proclivities illustrate two of the main tenets of Gnostic thought.
Jesus is above all
The Apostle Paul challenged the Gnostic heresies with a robust Christology. His solution to the false views of the body, the resurrection, and morality was to point them to the supremacy of Christ in his incarnation, life, death, and victorious resurrection.
“The Gnostic teaching on salvation was not based on Christ.”
Gnosticism was composed of such a broad variety of beliefs and teachings that it was challenged by many of the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and others.
The broad teachings of the Gnostic movement comprise a surprising similarity with much of the New Age Movement today. But the best reason to be acquainted with Gnosticism is the popularity of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, in which much information from the Gnostic gospels is appealed to as factual truth. Some Christians, upon reading Brown’s book, find their faith shaken by the stories that oppose the teachings of Christianity. Those who find their faith weakened can look both to Scripture and church history for a refutation of the false teachings of Gnosticism.