Church History: A Biblical View
Part II The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 7 - Gnostic Heresies
Many later doctrinal controversies within the church pertained to the question of Christ's nature. Some of the later books in the New Testament indicate that even before the end of the First Century false concepts concerning the nature of Christ were beginning to arise. John's epistles seem to have been especially written to combat growing misconceptions in this area (I Jn. 1:1-3; 2:18,22; 4:2,3).
The second great doctrinal crisis that the church faced was Gnosticism. The origin and nature of Gnosticism are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps one could most accurately describe it as a religious philosophy. Gnosticism was in the world before the church began, but how or where it began is unknown. One thing that makes Gnosticism so difficult to understand is that it is a combination of features from many different systems of thought. Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Jewish elements can be observed
in Gnosticism. It came in a variety of different forms and evolved through the years. Thus, the Gnosticism that the church faced in the Second Century may have been quite different from what it faced in the Third Century. However, Gnosticism arose in the East and presented a real challenge to the church in the Second and Third Centuries. Gnosticism attained the height of its influence in the years 135-160 A.D.
The name, "Gnosticism," comes from the Greek term "gnosis," meaning "knowledge." However, the knowledge which Gnosticism advocated was not a knowledge that could be obtained through study or observation. Rather, it was a mystical, supernatural wisdom. According to Gnosticism, God is at the head of the spiritual world of light called the "pleroma." Certain fragments of this world, or seeds of light, fell into the visible world of darkness and evil and were imprisoned. These captive "sparks" of light reside in men and need to be recovered or reintegrated with the realm of light. The means of recovery was the "knowledge" which Christ came to reveal. However, not everyone was capable of receiving this "knowledge" by which one was freed from bondage to the visible world and brought into communion with true spiritual realities.
Thus, Gnostics believed that the visible, physical world was inherently and altogether evil. Only "spirit" was good. Of course, this presented the Gnostics with a problem of how the world was originated. If God is "spirit" and therefore wholly good, how could He have created something evil like the physical world. Gnostics solved this problem by simply denying that the high God, whom Christ revealed, was the One who made the physical world. Gnostics conceived of many ranks of "aeons," or angels, bridging the gap between God and the physical world. The highest of aeons was nearly entirely free of matter while the rank next to man and his physical world was almost wholly material. Between God and the physical world were many ranks of aeons of various degrees of
spirituality or corporeality. One of these aeons was known as the "Demiurge," an imperfect and inferior being, who created the world. Gnostics also identified the Demiurge with the God of the Jews and the God of the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament is the high God revealed by Christ.
The Gnostic view of the physical world also led to misconceptions concerning the nature of Christ. Since anything physical is evil, Gnostics concluded that Christ could not have really come in the flesh. This problem was resolved by resorting to Docetism (from the Greek term, "dokeo," meaning "seem"), the idea that Christ had not really come in the flesh but only "seemed" to be fleshly. Christ was really a phantom, or a ghost-like apparition, according to Gnosticism (Lk. 24:36-43). This explains the emphasis placed upon Jesus' incarnation in John's writings (Jn.; I Jn. 1:1-3; 4:2,3; II Jn. 7). Some Gnostics believed that Christ came and dwelt in the man, Jesus, when He was baptized and left Him shortly before His crucifixion (I Jn. 2:18,22).
The views of Gnostics also affected their ethics — oddly, in two extremely different ways. Since the flesh was evil, it should be abused. Gnostics sought to abuse the flesh by asceticism — by extreme self-denial of physical comforts, or even necessities, to the body (I Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:20-23). Other Gnostics felt that since the body and soul were two entirely separate entities, then each should be allowed t6 take their different pathways, for nothing done by one would affect the other. Of course, this led to gross indulgences of the flesh - something which was vigorously attacked by the New Testament writers (II Tim. 3:1-7; II Pet. 2:1,2,12-19; I Jn. 3:4-10; Jude 4,8,16; Rev. 2:14,15,20-24).
Marcion came from Asia Minor to Rome in 139 where he fell under Gnostic influences and was finally excommunicated in 144. Marcion's Gnosticism was heavily anti-Judaistic in flavor. The God of the Old Testament was weak and harsh. Christ revealed the good God of mercy. Paul was supposedly the only apostle who faithfully understood the gospel. All the others fell into Judaism. The Old Testament, and its God, are therefore to be entirely rejected. The ascetic life is the proper one to follow. Marcion gathered his followers into a separate sect and compiled a canon of sacred books for their use. They included ten epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke and had been expurgated of all passages which indicated that the God of the Old Testament was the Father of Christ. Marcion's followers survived into the Fifth Century.
Montanism was not actually a form of Gnosticism, but it did have some things in common with it. Not long after the time of Marcion, one by the name of Montanus from Asia Minor began a reform movement in the church. The expectation of a speedy return of Christ had gradually dimmed and worldliness was very much on the increase in the church. Consequently, Montanus arose in 156 and proclaimed that he was an instrument of the Holy Spirit, laying claim to the promise of Christ that He was to send the Holy Spirit upon His disciples (Jn. 15:26). With prophetic vigor Montanus rose up and proclaimed the approaching end of the world, the dawning of the age of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly Jerusalem was about to be set up in Phrygia, and that asceticism ought to be practiced in preparation for this time. The bishops of Asia Minor convened some synods and condemned Montanism, but it attracted those who observed too much worldliness in the church, and the movement continued for years after Montanus.
IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Gnosticism was the second great doctrinal crisis faced by the church and attained the height of its influence 135-160 A.D.
(2) (T or F) Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit was fulfilled before the time of Montanus.
(3) What was the Gnostic concept of the physical world?
(4) How did the Gnostics' views of the physical world affect their concepts of God?
(5) What was distinctive about Marcion's Gnosticism?
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