One cannot begin to understand the early struggles of Christianity for existence without at least a rudimentary familiarity with its formative history. Thus, it behooves us to take 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 favorite occupation among thinkers of each and every type. So it 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 because it spread and came into experience of other cultural forms, heresy presented a totally different sort of contrariety. And although the conflict subsequently led to ameliorated knowledge of the meaning of Christ and an even more lucid presentation of Christian belief, heresy was definitely probably the most serious menace Christianity had to confront. The task was in the arena of thought. In its most sinister form it appeared under the title of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is really a term based on the Greek “gnosis” and translates “knowledge.” It generally applied collectively to many those second century movements which called themselves Christian or borrowed heavily from Christian sources. Valentinian Gnosticism denotes the teachings of several deviationists have been scorned by many orthodox Christians. It claimed to become a sure solution to knowledge, hence, the vision of God. It claimed that its rites, ceremonies, prescriptions and its path 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 information to discuss the origin of Gnosticism. Suffice it to say that most theories seem to agree so it was a confluence of many diverse streams of thought emanating from pre-Christian mystery religions.
The basic nature of second century Gnosticism was firmly rooted in a dualism between spirit and matter. It held that matter is actually evil. For the Gnostics, God couldn’t be held responsible for the evil constitution of the world, and so that they differentiated the supreme God from the creator of the world. To account fully 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 was one so distant from Him so it could touch matter. This emanation was the creator of the world.
Adding insult to injury, there were some Gnostics who thought that the emanations flowing from God were actual forces and divine persons in whom the Deity unfolded His being. The best of these emanations was the figure of Christ who was given the honor of being set besides all other emanations.
It’s essential to also include here a statement about several Gnostics referred to as Docetists. They held the belief that Christ’s body was just a phantom and that the “true” Christ doesn’t have bodily form. This was a significant idea to the Gnostics since if matter was regarded as evil, then Christ couldn’t be burdened with a product body, for then He would not have now been able to perform 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 only did Gnostics deny the incarnate Christ, but their ethics were in strict violation of traditional church views.
I cannot commence to impress upon you the apparent power of Gnosticism’s influence. It threatened to undermine the essential foundations of Christianity. These foundations the Church was bound to safeguard if only 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 significance of the work 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 each individual.
To a sizable degree, the development of Christian doctrine was in reaction against Gnosticism. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to clearly discern when and where in actuality 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 start to see the nude body of Gnosticism in many of our branches of religion.