We are living in an ever more pagan world. A world that not only ignores the church but has outright animus to it. As the church loses it’s influence and the world and the world becomes more pagan, there will be a rise in heresies. Studying popular heresies should be fruitful in preparation for their emergence.
The heresy concerned in this post is probably the most popular in history and is still very much alive and well today: Gnosticism.
How To Understand Gnosticism
It’s hard to find a good definition of Gnosticism. Mostly because Gnosticism is a category of heresy and a specific type of heresy. This leads to a lot of confusion. The definition can be overly specific is applied to a particular type of Gnosticism. Or it can be too general a definition, which makes it have almost no value.
The definition of Gnosticism is a little fuzzy. But here are some telltale signs of Gnosticism:
- Radical Dualism – The material is the source of all evil, and the spirit is the source of all good/divine. Often this is construed as there being two gods in conflict with one another, a good and evil one. But not always, sometimes it’s just God vs the world.
- Applied to Man – Gnostics believe man is made of matter and spirit, sometimes referred to as body and soul. Because of this man has access to the divine through the spiritual or through knowledge. Furthermore, man is part evil because he has a body.
- Salvation – Salvation is obtained by gaining or achieving the right knowledge(gnosis) or enlightenment. This knowledge is enlightening that allows one to transcend from the material world into the spiritual world. Eventually reaching the point of being in communion with God.
- Gurus/Redeemers – There will be people who claim to have such knowledge, and can pass that knowledge to you. And therefore save you. Usually for a price.
It should be pointed out that not all dualism is Gnostic. But all Gnosticism is dualistic.
Also, it’s very easy to mistakenly think of Christianity as gnostic. For example, Satan and God are in conflict. God teaches us to not be of this world, therefore the material is evil and the product of satan. The only way to be saved is by truly knowing God. This is very false and but you can see how someone with an immature understanding of Christianity could come to believe something like this.
With this framework of Gnosticism, it’s startling to realize how much of our current world is gnostic. Pretty much every major cult movement is gnostic or has gnostic elements. The New Age movement has gnostic elements.
Star Wars is probably the most famous gnostic work. The light-side of the force vs the dark side of the force. The Jedi masters who help young Jedi’s understand the force. The dark side of the force emphasizes material power, while the light-side practices asceticism. Yoda may be the most influential Gnostic in history.
Gnosticism is everywhere. It’s a powerful heresy.
Why It’s a Heresy
Gnosticism is a heresy on many levels.
First, matter or the material is not evil. It is true that the Bible focuses on the sins of the flesh and not be concerned with the problems of this world. However, God did give us a body and it is a temple. Often an over-emphasis on asceticism can lead to gnostic thinking.
Second, there is one God and he is all-powerful. He is not in conflict with evil or fighting evil. He allows evil to exist.
Third, salvation is not determined by knowledge or a certain level of enlightenment. The doctrine of faith and works contradicts Gnosticism. If knowledge were the key to salvation then there would be no need to do works of charity.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[a] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Fourth, We already have Jesus. Anyone claiming to have the knowledge of salvation that is in conflict with Jesus as a gnostic would be is a false profit. A good tree does not bear bad fruit. Judge these gurus by their fruit.
There are many more reasons. Most are specific to the brand of Gnosticism, but these four reasons should get you started in understanding why it is a heresy.
Gnosticism Is An Old Heresy
While it seems like Gnosticism or elements of Gnosticism are everywhere in modern society, Gnosticism actually is one of the oldest if not the oldest heresy. There are several references to Gnosticism in the new testament:
20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid profane babbling and the absurdities of so-called knowledge. 21 By professing it, some people have deviated from the faith.
(1 Timothy 6:20-21)
There is even some evidence to suggest that Gnosticism started as a Jewish heresy and that it pre-dates Jesus.
Manichaeism – St. Augustine
Perhaps the most famous form of Gnosticism is Manichaeism. Manichaeism started in Persia in the 3rd century AD. It quickly spread all the way from China to the Roman Empire.
The most famous Manichaeist was none other than The Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo. He writes extensively about his time as a Manichaeist and his eventual conversion to Christianity.
There’s a lot to be said about Manichaeism. The Wikipedia page entry on it is enormous. Perhaps a deeper dive into Manichaeism will be a later blog post. For now, I just wanted to introduce Manichaeism since it was such a popular version of Gnosticism.
For more information on Gnosticism, I recommend Bishop Baron’s podcast on Gnosticism.