Gnosticism and its influence on Christianity

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We need to understand the Gnostics and their influence on early Christianity so we can better understand the verses that are written in opposition to Gnosticism.
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Gnosticism and its influence on Christianity

by Lex Meyer

The term “gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”, because secret knowledge was so important to the Gnostics. Gnosticism forced its way into prominence during the first few centuries, and the Apostles and early Christian leaders opposed this heresy. In fact, much of the early Christian writings were focused on addressing the threat of Gnosticism.

It is important for us to understand the Gnostics and their relationship to early Christianity because it will help us to better understand certain New Testament verses that are written in direct opposition to Gnosticism. It is also important to understand this heresy, so that we can identify it’s influence on the modern Church, and so that we can avoid repeating their mistakes.

The Gnostics were a heretical movement based in early Judeo-Christian beliefs, and did not usually refer to themselves as “Gnostics”, but simply thought of themselves as Christians, followers of Jesus, or enlightened ones. Historians and scholars have sought to find its origins but with no consensus. Some suggest Hellenism and Greek thought, while others say it is rooted in Babylonian thought. Jewish gnosticism predates Christianity by hundreds of years, and Judaism was in close contact with Babylonian-Persian and Hellenistic ideas for hundreds of years, which led into Gnostic Jewish beliefs.

The term Gnosticism is used with a variety of meanings and is often used broadly to include Valentinians, Sethians, Marcionites, and followers of Basilides among others. The Early Church father, Irenaeus, who wrote a five volume book on the subject called “Against Heresies”, believed that all heresies were rooted in Gnosticism, and thus any heretic was deemed a Gnostic.

Most Gnostics hold to the belief in two deities, one who is perfectly good and the other who is perfectly evil. They taught that the evil god was the creator of the world and all matter, and was also the god of the Jews. In fact, they viewed the serpent in Eden as a good character who tried to help Adam and Eve find knowledge and escape the created world. These christian gnostics believed in Jesus (Yeshua), but taught that He was the son of the good deity, and he was sent to oppose the evil Creator God of the Old Testament.

The Apostle John wrote against the Gnostics when he spoke about the spirit of the antichrist, saying:

“He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.” (1John 2:22)

The Gnostics rejected the God of the Old Testament, claiming that Jesus was a different and unrelated God from that of creation (denying the Father and Son). In fact, one of the leading Gnostic teachers, Marcion, taught that Jesus came to rescue mankind from the material world so that we could live eternally in heaven.

Marcion was originally a Christian bishop, but around the year 144 AD, he concluded that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of the God in the Old Testament, and developed a dualistic belief system that he used to reconcile the supposed contradictions he saw between the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus and Paul. His beliefs led him to completely reject the Hebrew Scriptures and the God of the Jews, claiming the Creator was a vengeful and violent being. Like many Gnostics, he taught that Jesus did not come in the flesh, but that His incarnation and sufferings were merely appearance only. This was the exact heresy that John was writing about when he said:

“and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” (1John 4:3)

The Gnostics believed that Jesus (Yeshua) was not actually human, and that he did not really die and resurrect. They argued that Jesus was a divine spirit that appeared to men in the shape of a human, but not someone in a true physical body. These Gnostics followed the “spirit of the antichrist” that John was warning about.

John had a disciple named Polycarp who led the Assembly in Smyrna. Polycarp was noted for keeping the true faith, and was regarded as one of the Apostolic Fathers of the second century. According to “the Martyrdom of Polycarp”, he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake. With that in mind, read what Yeshua had to say to His faithful servant, Polycarp, in the book of Revelation:

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write,”These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8-11)

Many have speculated about what the “synagogue of Satan” was in reference to, but I am convinced that it was a statement against the Gnostics who claimed to follow Jesus (Yeshua). The Gnostics were the major heretic threat during the first few centuries, and they thought of themselves as the true Christians, claiming to follow Jesus. However, they were considered false teachers by the apostles.

Irenaeus mentioned an occasion when Marcion said to Polycarp, “Recognize us, Polycarp.” To which Polycarp responded, “Yes indeed, I recognize the firstborn of Satan.” Irenaeus also said that one of the reasons John wrote his Gospel was to refute the views of early Gnostics. John emphasized that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son who came in the flesh, to defend against the Gnostic teaching that the true God would not take on flesh.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

The Gnostics also placed great stress on “secret knowledge” that did not come by intellectual effort, but was given by special revelation from Jesus. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis, and it is because of their heavy emphasis on knowledge that they are called Gnostics.

It is interesting to note that Paul was probably warning Timothy about Gnosticism when he said,

“O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (gnosis), by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:20,21)

Gnosticism can actually be defined as “salvation by knowledge”, because the Gnostics believed the true sons of God were saved through knowledge not faith, and thus believed knowledge to be vastly superior to faith. Which is probably why Paul placed so much emphasis on salvation by faith alone.

Sin was not really an issue for Gnostics, because they saw salvation as the soul being freed from matter. To a Gnostic, the created world is the problem (not sin), and therefore, Gnostics tend to be somewhat Antinomian. Antinomianism is the belief that the moral law is of no use or obligation. Gnostics claimed that Christians were not actually responsible for what they did in the flesh, and could not actually sin. We see echoes of this in the Christian belief that we are merely human and cannot be expected to live according to all of God’s commandments.

There was one sect called the Nicolaitans that existed in Apostolic times who were very antinomian. They believed that since they opposed the God of Creation, they must also oppose His Law (Torah) that was given to the Israelites. This opposition to the God of Creation was a duty, and breaking His Law was considered a solemn obligation. Thomas Aquinas said the Nicolaitans supported either polygamy or the holding of wives in common. Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius mentioned the Nicolaitans, and stated that a deacon named Nicolas was the founder of that heresy.

“The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” —Irenaeus

The Gnostic heresy known as Nicolationism was actually mentioned twice in the book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus is commended for “hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:6) while the church in Pergamos is accused of holding to “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15). It is very clear that Yeshua (Jesus) hates the doctrine and deeds of the Nicolaitans, who rejected the Law of Yahweh.

It is interesting to note the etymology of the word Nicolaitans, which is a combination of the Greek words nīko meaning “victory”, and laos meaning “people”, thus the word may be taken to mean “conquerors of the lay people”. This might be mere coincidence, since the name refers specifically to the followers of Nicolas, however, it may have significance based on the fact that the Gnostics thought of themselves as superior to those who do not have the special knowledge. Either way, it is clear that Gnosticism was considered to be an enemy of the faith, and was opposed by the Apostles and early Church leaders.

 

Gnostic Beliefs in the Church

Anyone who claims to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should want nothing to do with this dangerous heresy, which is why we must now take a closer look into their doctrines and deeds. It might surprise you to know that many dangerous Gnostic heresies have actually found their way into modern Christian thought.

Scripture

The Gnostics did not believe we should take the Scriptures literally, but instead taught that they must be understood allegorically. They were constantly looking for hidden spiritual meaning while mostly ignoring the literal meaning of the text. This secret knowledge led to various different interpretations of the Scriptures. According to the Gnostic Epistle of Barnabas, the law of Moses was never meant to be taken literally.

Their allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament led them to spiritualize everything, and give everything a Christian meaning. We see the same type of allegory and spiritualization being applied today when preachers try to interpret hidden spiritual meaning behind certain verses, claiming things like, “the Church is spiritual Israel”.

Their allegorical interpretations led them to conclude that when Paul spoke about the Jews, he was actually referring to those who have the secret knowledge. Thus according to them, the “Jews” spiritually represented the Gnostic Christians. We see this same type of manipulation happening today in dispensational theology, when dispensationalists claim that “Israel” in the Bible represents the “Church” today. They place heavy emphasis on this type of allegorical interpretation, however, their interpretation requires special revelation or knowledge that not everyone has access to, and this special knowledge is rooted in Gnosticism. Peter warns us against this type of interpretation when he said,

“knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20)

Marcion was the first to suggest that we separate the Old Testament from the New Testament. In fact, he completely rejected the Old Testament and took it upon himself to create his own New Testament canon that included only a modified version of the Gospel of Luke, and Paul’s epistles. Irenaeus made note of this in his book Against Heresies, saying,

“Wherefore also Marcion and his followers have betaken themselves to mutilating the Scriptures, not acknowledging some books at all; and, curtailing the Gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, they assert that these are alone authentic, which they have themselves thus shortened.” – Irenaeus

Marcion’s suggestion lives on today in Bibles that separate the Old Testament from the New, and especially in Bible’s that contain only a New Testament.

Most people are not aware of the fact that some of Marcion’s modifications actually appear in certain modern Bible translations. One such example is the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke. Marcion’s mutilated prayer can be found in the New International Version (and various other modern translations). Let’s compare the NIV and the KJV to see what was changed.

He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'” (NIV)

Now read the true version of the prayer that was preserved in the King James Version.

And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. (KJV)

Did you notice the things that are missing from Marcion’s version?
[OUR] Father [WHICH ART IN HEAVEN] – without this, you could be praying to any “Father”. This could be a prayer to Satan or even to the Pope, because they are both called “father” by their followers. “Father” is a term used by Buddhists, occultists, and even satanists. But there is only one “Father which art in heaven.”

Thy kingdom come. [THY WILL BE DONE, AS IN HEAVEN, SO IN EARTH] – again, this signifies who’s kingdom and who’s will. It is the one who is in Heaven, but when this is left out, we could be praying for Satan’s kingdom to come, or the kingdom of the Antichrist. Also, it is not just a prayer for the kingdom to come, but it includes the important desire for Yahweh’s will to be done on earth.

And lead us not into temptation; [BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL]. – this again signifies who we are praying to, the only one who can deliver us from evil. Satan cannot deliver us from evil, the Pope can’t deliver us from evil, and neither can the Antichrist, but OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN CAN!

 

The Law of God
The Gnostics were basically antinomian, which means they were opposed to keeping the Law of God. Some early Gnostic sects were accused of rejecting part of the Mosaic Law, while others (such as Marcion) rejected the entire Old Testament. Their rejection was based on their belief that the Gospel message was in opposition to the Law of God. Marcion did not believe the Jewish Scriptures were false, but he believed Yahweh was not the Father of Jesus. This dual deity concept is put forth in his most influential writing entitled “Antithesis”, which was described by Tertullian as “contrasted statements arranged to prove the incompatibility of the law and the gospel.” He also said that it was,

“a work strained into making such a division between the Law and the Gospel as thereby to make two separate gods, opposite to each other, one belonging to one instrument (or, as it is more usual to say, testament), one to the other, and thus lend its patronage to faith in another gospel, that according to Antithesis.” – Tertullian

Marcion believed the Old Testament God was separate and opposite to the New Testament God, setting them up to be Thesis and Antithesis. Obviously no Christian would admit to believing in two gods, however, many Christians are convinced that Jesus came to set us free from the God of the Old Testament, claiming that “Jesus freed us from the Law.” However, they do not realize that if Jesus is one with the Father, then He is the one who gave the commandments. This is why John chapter 1 is so significant, because Jesus was with God in the beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3,14)

He is the Word of God that spoke everything into existence. Did Yeshua come to free us from Himself? No, that would be ridiculous. In fact, Yeshua had some things to say on this very topic.

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to make full. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)

If we truly believe and take serious the words of Yeshua (Jesus), then we must re-evaluate the popular Christian teachings about the Law being done away with. Heaven and earth are still here, so according to Yeshua, not even a single jot has been removed from the Law.

We cannot allow the lawless teachings of the Gnostics to distort our understanding of the Gospel message. Yeshua came to set us free from sin, and sin is lawlessness. Therefore, if we are free from sin, that means we obey the Law. That is why Paul said,

“Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish [uphold] the law.” (Romans 3:31)

 

The Sabbath Day
Marcion hated the Jews and their God so much that he declared the Sabbath to be a day of fasting, to spite the Creator. He did not want to take any pleasure in the Sabbath, and he did not want to do anything that might resemble Sabbath keeping.

“Marcion for this reason fasted on the Sabbath. For, said he, since the day is the rest of the God of the Jews, who made the world and rested on the Sabbath day, we therefore institute fasting on that day, that we may not seem to do anything in compliance with the rites of the God of the Jews.” – Epiphanius

The practice of fasting on the Sabbath was later adopted by the Catholic Church, and at the council of Laodicea, they issued the command that everyone must work on the Sabbath.

“Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s Day they shall especially honor, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ.” – Catholic Council of Laodicea, Canon 29.

The Catholic church proudly admits to this change in the Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine, which says:

Q. Which is the Sabbath day?
A. Saturday is the Sabbath day.
Q. Why do we observe Sunday instead of Saturday?
A. We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church, in the Council of Laodicea, (AD 336) transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday

Gnosticism’s influence in this area has reached beyond the second century, and has had lasting influence on Christianity even unto today. There are approximately 40,000 Christian denominations in the world, and only about 500 of these denominations keep the Sabbath. Marcion would be proud.

Most Christians say that we should obey the “Ten Commandments”, but the vast majority seem confused about the Sabbath commandment. Some say it was changed to Sunday, while others say it was abolished altogether. Sadly, when someone suggests that we should keep the Sabbath according to the Bible, excuses and accusations begin to surface about how we are “no longer under the law” and “you shouldn’t judge me.” It is not only hypocritical to say we must only keep nine of the ten commandments, but it is also irresponsible with our faith.

“For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” (James 2:10-12)

Death and Resurrection
The Gnostics believed the created world was evil, which led them to conclude that Jesus only had the appearance of a man, but he did not actually become human. They could not believe that their god would take on flesh, therefore they also concluded that Jesus did not really die, and if He didn’t die, then He could not resurrect.

This is the most significant heresy that they taught, because the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) was the most important event in human history, and it is central to the Gospel message! The Gnostics did not understand the significance of the resurrection because they did not value life. Their desire to escape the created world led them to teach that the soul leaves the body at death and lives eternally in heaven. This teaching has no Biblical foundation, and is actually based on Greek philosophy. Tertullian explains it this way,

“For Marcion does not in any wise admit the resurrection of the flesh, and it is only the salvation of the soul which he promises” – Tertullian

The majority of Christians today also hold to the belief that when we die, our soul escapes our body and goes to heaven. It is very troubling to me that this particular Gnostic belief has infiltrated Christian teaching. The Apostles believed, taught, and died for their belief in the resurrection, and sadly, many Christians do not even know about the resurrection of the dead that will take place when Yeshua returns. Listen to the way that Paul emphasizes the importance of the resurrection.

“Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty… But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14,20-23)

For more information about the resurrection of the dead, please see my teachings about Death and Resurrection.

The early Christians opposed heresy, and did their best to turn people away from the lies of the Gnostics. We need to follow their example, by helping others to UNLEARN the lies we have inherited.

 


References:

  • Five Books of S. Irenaeus: Bishop of Lyons, Against Heresies, http://books.google.com/books?id=JAX-yfp1uJ4C, 1872, J. Parker
  • The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book I, Williams, F., http://books.google.com/books?id=IKyxt9kyys8C, 2009, Brill
  • Tertullian, Against Marcion, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972)

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