One cannot begin to comprehend the first struggles of Christianity for existence without at the very least a rudimentary understanding of its formative history. Thus, it behooves us to have a brief look at Gnosticism and its challenge to early Christianity.
Christianity’s infancy history comprised an occasion teeming with religious theories; an occasion when religious discussion was a popular occupation among thinkers of each type. So it absolutely was inevitable that in the enthusiastic interchange of religious ideas, truth and error would intermingle and the pure doctrines of Christianity soon became threatened.
Though Christianity faced many and varied forms of opposition since it spread and arrived to experience of other cultural forms, heresy presented a completely different sort of contrariety. And although the conflict subsequently resulted in ameliorated understanding of the meaning of Christ and a more lucid presentation of Christian belief, heresy was undoubtedly probably the most serious menace Christianity had to confront. The challenge was in the arena of thought. In its most sinister form it appeared underneath the title of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is just a term derived from the Greek “gnosis” and translates “knowledge.” It generally applied collectively to the majority of those second century movements which called themselves Christian or borrowed heavily from Christian sources. Gnosticism denotes the teachings of a group of deviationists have been scorned by many orthodox Christians. It claimed to be a sure way to knowledge, hence, the vision of God. It claimed that its rites, ceremonies, prescriptions and its road to God were divinely inspired and transmitted to the elite esoteric by way of a mysterious tradition. Furthermore, and perhaps most offensive to Christianity, it claimed, basically, that its magical formulas offered an infallible means to salvation.
It’s beyond the scope of this short article to go over the origin of Gnosticism. Valentinian Gnosticism Suffice it to express that most theories appear to agree that it was a confluence of many diverse streams of thought emanating from pre-Christian mystery religions.
The fundamental nature of second century Gnosticism was firmly rooted in a dualism between spirit and matter. It held that matter is basically evil. For the Gnostics, God could not be held accountable for the evil constitution of the entire world, and so they differentiated the supreme God from the creator of the world. To account for evil matter, the Gnostics evolved a doctrine of emanations from God. These emanations flowed from God and each further from God until finally there is one so distant from Him that it could touch matter. This emanation was the creator of the world.
Adding insult to injury, there have been some Gnostics who believed that the emanations flowing from God were actual forces and divine persons in whom the Deity unfolded His being. The greatest of these emanations was the figure of Christ who had been given the honor of being set aside from all other emanations.
It’s required to also include here a statement about a group of Gnostics referred to as Docetists. They held the belief that Christ’s body was just a phantom and that the “true” Christ does not have any bodily form. This is an important idea to the Gnostics since if matter was regarded as evil, then Christ could not be burdened with a material body, for then He wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the redemption from matter.
The Gnostic system of belief simultaneously destroyed the divinity and humanness of Jesus, and cast a dark unholy shadow on the doctrine central to the Christian faith. Not merely did Gnostics deny the incarnate Christ, but their ethics were in strict violation of traditional church views.
I cannot begin to impress upon you the apparent power of Gnosticism’s influence. It threatened to undermine the primary foundations of Christianity. These foundations the Church was bound to safeguard if simply to preserve the human historical Jesus. Thus, early Church fathers arose to the defense of the Christian faith.
Contrary to the denial of Christ’s humanity, Fathers of the Church underlined the truth of the incarnation and stressed the importance of the job of Jesus. Contrary to the denial of Old Testament truths, the Fathers maintained the identity of Creator and Savior and developed a theology of salvation history. The Gnostics annulled the unity of the human race by dividing it into spiritual, psychic and material classes. This led the Fathers to extol free will and personal responsibility of every individual.
To a large degree, the development of Christian doctrine was in reaction against Gnosticism. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern when and where the Gnostic movement was halted by the Church. The important thing is that Christianity was successful in its defense of the faith.
Unfortunately, the spirit of Gnosticism lives on even today. The clothing is apparently different, but once disrobed we see the nude body of Gnosticism in quite a few branches of religion.