« Glycerius, emperor of the West Gnosticism Gordianus, father of Pope Gregory the Great »


Gnosticism. The zeal with which a learner commences the study of ecclesiastical history is not unfrequently damped at an early stage, when he finds that, in order to know the history of religious thought in the 2nd cent., he must make himself acquainted with speculations so wild and so baseless that it is irksome to read them and difficult to believe that time was when acquaintance with them was counted as what alone deserved the name of "knowledge." But it would be a mistake to think too disdainfully of those early heretics who go by the common name of Gnostics. In the first place, it may be said in their excuse that the problems which they undertook to solve were among the most difficult with which the human intellect has ever grappled—namely, to explain the origin of evil, and to make it conceivable how the multiplicity of finite existence can all have been derived from a single absolute unconditioned principle. And besides, these speculators only did what learned theologians have constantly since endeavoured to do—namely, combine the doctrines which they learned from revelation with the results of what they regarded as the best philosophy of their own day, so as to obtain what seemed to them the most satisfactory account and explanation of the facts of the universe. Every union of philosophy and religion is the marriage of a mortal with an immortal: the religion lives; the philosophy grows old and dies. When the philosophic element of a theological system becomes antiquated, its explanations which contented one age become unsatisfactory to the next, and there ensues what is spoken of as a conflict between religion and science; whereas, in reality, it is a conflict between the science of one generation and that of a succeeding one. If the religious speculations of the 2nd cent. appear to us peculiarly unreasonable, it is because the philosophy incorporated with them is completely alien to modern thought. That philosophy gave unlimited licence to the framing of hypotheses, and provided that the results were in tolerable accordance with the facts, no other proof was required that the causes which these hypotheses assumed were really in operation. The Timaeus of Plato is a favourable specimen of the philosophic writings which moulded the Gnostic speculations; and the interval between that and a modern treatise on physics is fully as wide as between Gnosticism and modern scientific theology. So it has happened that modern thought has less sympathy with heretical theories deeply coloured by the philosophy of their own time than with the plain common sense of a church writer such as Irenaeus, which led him to proceed by the positive historical method, and reject what was merely fanciful and speculative. And it may be said that deeply important as were some of the particular questions discussed in the conflict between the church and Gnosticism, an even more important issue of that conflict was the decision of the method by which religious knowledge was to be arrived at. The Gnostics generally held that the Saviour effected redemption by making a revelation of knowledge, yet they but feebly attempted to connect historically their teaching with his; what was derived from Him was buried under elements taken freely from heathen mythologies and philosophies, or springing from the mere fancy of the speculator, so that, if Gnosticism had triumphed, all that is distinctively Christian would have disappeared. In opposition to them, church writers were led to emphasize the principle that that alone is to be accounted true knowledge of things divine which can be shewn by historical tradition, written or oral, to have been derived from the teaching of Christ and His apostles, a principle the philosophic justice of which must be admitted if Christ be owned as having filled the part in the enlightenment of the world which orthodox and Gnostics alike attributed to Him. Thus, by the conflict with Gnosticism reverence in the church was deepened for the authority of revelation as restraining the licence of human speculation, and so the channel was marked out within the bounds of which religious thought continued for centuries to flow.

We deal here with some general aspects of the subject, referring to the articles on the chief Gnostic teachers for details as to the special tenets of the different Gnostic sects.

Use of the Word Gnosticism.—In logical order we ought to begin by defining Gnosticism, and so fixing what extension is to be given to the application of the term, a point on which writers are not agreed. Baur, for instance, reckons among Gnostics the sectaries from whom the Clementine writings emanated, although on some of the most fundamental points their doctrines are diametrically opposed to those commonly reckoned as Gnostic. We conform to more ordinary usage in giving to the word a narrower sense, but this is a matter on which controversy would be only verbal, Gnosticism not being a word which has in its own nature a definite meaning. There is no difficulty in naming common characteristics of the sects commonly called Gnostic, though perhaps none of them is distinctive enough to be made the basis of a logical definition. They professed to be able to trace their doctrine to the apostles. Basilides was said to have learned from a companion of St. Peter; gospels were in circulation among them which purported to have been written by Philip, Thomas, and other apostles; and they professed to be able to find their doctrines in the canonical scriptures by methods of allegorical interpretation which, however forced, could easily be paralleled in the procedure of orthodox writers. If we made our definition turn on the claim to the possession of such a Gnosis and to the title of Gnostic, we should have to count Clement of Alexandria among Gnostics and I. Timothy among Gnostic writings; for the church writers refused to 395surrender these titles to the heretics and, claiming to be the true Gnostics, branded the heretical Gnosis as "falsely so called." If we fix our attention on the predominance of the speculative over the practical in Gnosticism, which, as Baur truly remarks, led men to regard Christianity less as a means of salvation than as furnishing the principles of a philosophy of the universe, we must allow that since their time very many orthodox writings have been open to the same criticism. We come very close to a definition if we make the criterion of Gnosticism to be the establishment of a dualism between spirit and matter; and, springing out of this, the doctrine that the world was created by some power different from the supreme God, yet we might not be able to establish that this characteristic belongs to every sect which we count as Gnostic; and if we are asked why we do not count such sects as the Manicheans among the Gnostics, the best answer is that usage confines the word to those sects which arose in the ferment of thought when Christianity first came into contact with heathen philosophy, excluding those which clearly began later. A title of honour claimed by these sectaries for themselves, and at first refused them by their opponents, was afterwards adopted as the most convenient way of designating them.

We have no reason to think that the earliest Gnostics intended to found sects separated from the church and called after their own names. Their disciples were to be Christians, only elevated above the rest as acquainted with deeper mysteries, and called γνωστικοί, because possessed of a Gnosis superior to the simple faith of the multitude. Probably the earliest instance of the use of the word is by Celsus, quoted by Origen, v. 61, where, speaking of the multiplicity of Christian sects, he says that there were some who professed to be Gnostics. Irenaeus (i. xxv. 5, p. 104), speaking of the Carpocratians and in particular of that school of them which Marcellina established at Rome, says that they called themselves Gnostics. It is doubtless on the strength of this passage that Eusebius (H. E. iv. 7), quoting Irenaeus in the same context, calls Carpocrates the father of the sect called that of the Gnostics. In the habitual use of the word by Irenaeus himself it does not occur as limited to Carpocratians. Irenaeus, in his first book, when he has gone through the sects called after the names of heretical teachers, gives in a kind of appendix an account of a number of sects in their general characteristics Ophite, but he does not himself use that name. He calls them "multitudo Gnosticorum," tracing their origin to Simon Magus, and counting them as progenitors of the Valentinians. And constantly we have the expression Basilidians, Valentinians, etc., "et reliqui Gnostici," where, by the latter appellation, the Ophite sects are specially intended. The form of expression does not exclude from the title of Gnostic the sects named after their founders; and the doctrine of the Valentinians is all through the work of Irenaeus a branch of "Gnosis falsely so called"; yet it is usually spoken of less as Gnosticism than as a development of Gnosticism, and the Valentinians are described as more Gnostic than the Gnostics, meaning by the latter word the Ophite sects already mentioned. In the work of Hippolytus against heresies, the name is almost exclusively found in connexion with the sect of the Naassenes or Ophites, and three or four times it is repeated (v. 2, p. 93; 4, p. 94; 11, p. 123) that these people call themselves Gnostics, claiming that they alone "knew the depths." The common source of Epiphanius and Philaster had an article on the Nicolaitanes, tracing the origin of the Gnostics to Nicolas the Deacon (see also Hippolytus, vii. 36, p. 258, and the statement of Irenaeus [II. ii. p. 188] that Nicolaitanism was a branch of Gnosis). Epiphanius divides this article into two, making the Gnostics a separate heresy (Haer. 26). Hence ancient usage leaves a good deal of latitude to modern writers in deciding which of the 2nd-cent. sects they will count as Gnostic.

Classification of Gnostic Sects.—Some general principles of philosophic classification may be easily agreed on, but when they come to be applied, it is found that there are some sects to which it is not obvious where to assign a place, and that some sects are separated whose affinities are closer than those of others which are classed together. A very important, though not a complete, division is that made by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iii. 5) into the ascetic and licentious sects: both parties agreeing in holding the essential evil of matter; the one endeavouring by rigorous abstinence to free as much as possible man's soul from the bondage to which it is subjected by union with his material part, and refusing to marry and so enthral new souls in the prisons of bodies; the other abandoning as desperate any attempt to purify the hopelessly corrupt body, and teaching that the instructed soul ought to hold itself unaffected by the deeds of the body. All actions were to it indifferent. The division of Neander is intended to embrace a wider range than that just described. Taking the common doctrine of the Gnostic sects that the world was made by a Being different from the supreme God, he distinguishes whether that Being was held to have acted in subordination to the Supreme, and on the whole to have carried out his intentions, or to have been absolutely hostile to the supreme God. Taking into account the generally acknowledged principle that the Creator of the world was the same as the God worshipped by the Jews, we see that Gnostics of the second class would be absolutely hostile to Judaism, which those of the former class might accept as one of the stages ordained by the Supreme in the enlightenment of the world. Thus Neander's division classifies sects as not unfriendly to Judaism or as hostile to it; the former class taking its origin in those Alexandrian schools where the authority of such teachers as Philo had weight, the latter among Christian converts from Oriental philosophy whose early education had given them no prejudices in favour of Judaism. Gieseler divides into Alexandrian Gnostics, whose teaching was mainly influenced by the Platonic philosophy, and Syrian strongly affected by Parsism. In the former the emanation doctrine was predominant, in the latter dualism. Undoubtedly the most satisfactory classification would 396be if it were possible, as Matter suggested, to have one founded on the history of the generation of the sects, distinguishing the school where Gnosticism had its beginning, and naming the schools which successively in different places altered in different directions the original scheme. But a good classification of this kind is rendered impossible by the scantiness of our materials for the history of Gnosticism. Irenaeus is the first to give any full details, and he may be counted two generations later than Valentinus; for Marcus, the disciple of Valentinus, was resisted by one whom Irenaeus looked up to with respect as belonging to the generation above his own. The interval between Valentinus and the beginning of Gnosticism was, moreover, probably quite as great as that between Valentinus and Irenaeus. The phrase used by Hippolytus in telling us that the Naassenes boasted that they alone "knew the depths" was also a watchword of the false teachers reprobated in the Apocalypse (Rev. ii. 24). We can hardly avoid the inference that these Naassenes inherited a phrase continuously in use among heretical teachers since before the publication of the Revelation. Of the writers who would deny the pastoral epistles to be St. Paul's, a large proportion date the Revelation only 2 or 3 years after St. Paul's death; therefore, whether or not it was St. Paul who wrote of the "falsely called knowledge," it remains probable that heretical pretenders to Gnosis had arisen in his lifetime. If the beginnings of Gnosticism were thus in apostolic times, we need not be surprised that the notices of its origin given by Irenaeus more than a century afterwards are so scanty; and that the teachers to whom its origin has been ascribed, Simon, Menander, Nicolas, Cerinthus, remain shadowy or legendary characters. It follows that conclusions as to the order of succession of the early Gnostic sects and their obligations one to another are very insecure. Still, some general facts in the history of the evolution of Gnosticism may be considered fairly certain; and we are disposed to accept the classification of Lipsius and count three stages in the progress of Gnosticism, even though there may be doubt to what place a particular sect is to be assigned. The birthplace of Gnosticism may be said to be Syria, if we include in that Palestine and Samaria, where church tradition places the activity of those whom it regards as its founders, Simon and Menander. It may also be inferred from the use made of O.T. and of Hebrew words that Gnosticism sprang out of Judaism. The false teaching combated in Colossians, which has several Gnostic features, is also distinctly Jewish, insisting on the observance of Sabbaths and new moons. The Epp. to Timothy and Titus, dealing with a somewhat later development of Gnosticism, describe the false teachers as "of the circumcision," "professing to be teachers of the law" and propounders of "Jewish fables." It is not unlikely that what these epistles characterize as "profane and old wives' fables" may be some of the Jewish Haggadah of which the early stages of Gnosticism are full. The story of Ialdabaoth, e.g., told by Irenaeus (i. 30), we hold to date from the very beginning of Gnosticism, if not in its present shape, at least in some rudimentary form, as fragments of it appear in different Gnostic systems, especially the representation of the work of Creation as performed by an inferior being, who still fully believed himself to be the Supreme, saying, "I am God, and there is none beside me," until, after this boast, his ignorance was enlightened. The Jewish Cabbala has been asserted to be the parent of Gnosticism; but the records of Cabbalistic doctrine are quite modern, and any attempt to pick out the really ancient parts must be attended with uncertainty. Lipsius (p. 270, and Grätz, referred to by him) shews that the Cabbala is certainly not older than Gnosticism, its relation to it being not that of a parent, but of a younger brother. If there be direct obligation, the Cabbala is the borrower, but many common features are to be explained by regarding both as branches from the same root, and as alike springing from the contact of Judaism with the religious beliefs of the farther East. Jewish Essenism especially furnished a soil favourable to the growth of Gnosticism, with which it seems to have had in common the doctrine of the essential evil of matter, as appears from the denial by the Essenes of the resurrection of the body and from their inculcation of a disciplining of man's material part by very severe asceticism. (See Lightfoot, Colossians, 119 seq.) Further, the Ebionite sects which sprang out of Essenism, while they professed the strongest attachment to the Mosaic law, not only rejected the authority of the prophetical writings, but dealt in a very arbitrary manner with those parts of the Pentateuch which conflicted with their peculiar doctrines. We have parallels to this in theories of some of the early Gnostic sects which referred the Jewish prophetical books to the inspiration of beings inferior to Him by Whom the law was given, as well as in the arbitrary modes of criticism applied by some of the later sects to the books of Scripture. A form of Gnosticism thus developed from Judaism when the latter was brought into contact with the mystic speculations of the East, whether we suppose Essenism to have been a stage in the process of growth or both to have been independent growths under similar circumstances of development. Lipsius notes as the characteristics of those sects which he counts as belonging to the first stage of Gnosticism that they still move almost or altogether within the circle of the Jewish religious history, and that the chief problem they set themselves is the defining the relation between Christianity and Judaism. The solutions at which they arrive are very various. Those Jewish sects whose Essenism passed into the Ebionitism of the Clementines regarded Christianity as essentially identical with Judaism, either religion being sufficient for salvation. These sects are quite orthodox as to the Creation, their utmost deviation (if it can be called so) from the received belief being the ascription of Creation to the immanent wisdom of God. Other Jewish speculators came to think of the formation of matter as accomplished by a subordinate being, carrying out, it may be, the will of the Supreme, but owing to his finiteness and ignorance doing the work with many 397imperfections. Then came the theory that this subordinate being was the God of the Jews, to which nation he had issued many commandments that were not good, though overruled by the Supreme so as to carry out His ends. Lastly came the theory of the Cainites and other extreme Ophite sects, which represented the God of the Jews as the determined enemy of the Supreme, and as one whose commands it was the duty of every enlightened Gnostic to disobey. With all their variety of results, these sects agreed in the importance attached to the problem of the true relations of Judaism to Christianity. They do make use of certain heathen principles of cosmogony, but these such as already had become familiar to Syriac Judaism, and introduced not so much to effect a reconciliation between Christianity and heathenism as to give an explanation of the service rendered to the world by the publication of Christianity, the absolute religion. This is made mainly to consist in the aid given to the soul in its struggles to escape the bonds of finiteness and darkness, by making known to it the supersensual world and awaking it to the consciousness of its spiritual origin. Regarding this knowledge as the common privilege of Christians, the first speculators would count their own possession of it as differing rather in degree than in kind; and so it is not easy to draw a sharp line of distinction between their doctrine on the subject of Gnosis and that admitted as orthodox. Our Lord had described it as the privilege of His disciples to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; later when His followers learned of a suffering Messiah, and of the fulfilment in Jesus of the types of the Mosaic law, they felt that the veil had been removed for them, and that they enjoyed a knowledge of the meaning of the O.T. Scriptures to which their unconverted brethren were strangers. This feeling pervades the Ep. to the Hebrews, and still more that of Barnabas. Another doctrine which St. Paul describes as a mystery formerly kept secret, but now revealed through his gospel, is the admission of the Gentiles on equal terms with the Jews to the inheritance of the kingdom of Christ. It was no part of orthodox Christian doctrine that all Christians possessed the true Gnosis in equal degree. Some required to be fed with milk, not with strong meat, and had not their senses exercised by reason of use to discern between good and evil. Clement of Alexandria distinguished between faith and knowledge. The difference, therefore, between the Gnostic doctrine and that of the church mainly depends on the character of what was accounted knowledge, much of the Gnostic so-called knowledge consisting in acquaintance with the names of a host of invisible beings and with the formulae which could gain their favour.

Gnosticism, in its first stage, did not proceed far outside the limits of Syria. What Lipsius counts as the second stage dates from the migration of Gnostic systems to Alexandria, where the myths of Syriac Gnosis came to be united to principles of Grecian philosophy. Different Gnostic systems resulted according as the principles of this or that Grecian school were adopted. Thus, in the system of Valentinus, the Pythagorean Platonic philosophy predominates, the Stoic in that of the Basilidians as presented by Hippolytus. In these systems, tinged with Hellenism, the Jewish religion is not so much controverted or disparaged as ignored. The mythological personages among whom in the older Gnosis the work of creation was distributed are in these Hellenic systems replaced by a kind of abstract beings (of whom the Valentinian aeons are an example) which personify the different stages of the process by which the One Infinite Spirit communicates and reveals itself to derived existences. The distinction between faith and knowledge becomes sharpened, the persons to whom faith and knowledge respectively are to serve as guides being represented as essentially different in nature. The most obvious division of men is into a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. The need of a third class may have first made itself felt from the necessity of finding a place for members of the Jewish religion, who stood so far above heathenism, so far below Christianity. The Platonic trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit afforded a principle of threefold classification, and men are divided into earthly (ὑλικοί or χοϊκοί), animal (ψυχικοί), and spiritual (πνευματικοί). In these Hellenic Gnostic systems the second class represents not Jews but ordinary Christians, and the distinction between them and the Gnostics themselves (who are the spiritual) rests on an assumed difference of nature which leaves little room for human free will. Salvation by faith and corresponding works is disparaged as suitable only for the psychical, the better sort of whom may, by this means, be brought to as high a position in the order of the universe as their nature is capable of; but the really spiritual need not these lower methods of salvation. It suffices for them to have the knowledge of their true nature revealed for them to become certain of shaking off all imprisoning bonds and soaring to the highest region of all. Thus ordinary historical Christianity runs the risk of meeting the same fate in the later Gnostic systems that befell Judaism in the earlier. The doctrines and facts of the religion are only valued so far as they can be made subservient to the peculiar notions of Gnosticism; and the method of allegorical interpretation was so freely applied to both Testaments that all the solid parts of the religion were in danger of being volatilized away.

The natural consequence of this weakening of the historic side of Christianity was the removal of all sufficient barrier against the intrusion of heathen elements into the systems; while their moral teaching was injuriously affected by the doctrine that the spiritual were secure of salvation by necessity of their nature and irrespectively of their conduct. Gnosticism, in its third stage, struggles in various ways to avoid these faults, and so again draws nearer to the teaching of the Catholic church. Thus the DOCETAE of Hippolytus allow of immense variety of classes, corresponding to the diversity of ideas derived from the world of aeons, which each has received; while again they deny to none a share in our Lord's redemption, but 398own that members of different sects are entitled, each in his degree, to claim kinship with Jesus and to obtain forgiveness of sins through Him. So again in one of the latest of the Gnostic systems, that of PISTIS SOPHIA, there is no assertion of an essential diversity of nature among men, but the immense development of ranks and degrees in the spiritual world, which that work professes to reveal, is used so as to provide for every man a place according to his works. In the system of Marcion, too, the theory of essentially different classes is abandoned; the great boast of Christianity is its universality; and the redemption of the Gospel is represented, not as the mere rousing of the pneumatic soul to consciousness of privileges all along possessed, but as the introduction of a real principle of moral life through the revelation of a God of love forgiving sins through Christ.

We add brief notes on a few main points of the Gnostic systems.

Creation and Cosmogony.—Philo (de Op. Mund.) had inferred from the expression, "Let us make man," of Genesis that God had used other beings as assistants in the creation of man, and he explains in this way why man is capable of vice as well as virtue, ascribing the origin of the latter to God, of the former to His helpers in the work of creation. The earliest Gnostic sects ascribe the work of creation to angels, some of them using the same passage in Genesis (Justin. Dial. cum Tryph. c. 67).

Doctrine with respect to Judaism.—The doctrine that the Creator of the world is not the supreme God leads at once to the question, What then is to be thought of the God of the Jews, who certainly claimed to have created the world? This question is most distinctly answered in the doctrine of the Ophite system (Iren. i. 30). According to it he who claimed to be a jealous God, acknowledging none other, was led by sheer ignorance to make a false pretension. He was in truth none other than the chief of the creative angels, holding but a subordinate place in the constitution of the universe. It was he who forbad to Adam and Eve that knowledge by which they might be informed that he had superiors, and who on their disobedience cast them out of Paradise.

Doctrine concerning the Nature of Man.—With the myth, told by Saturninus, of the animation of a previously lifeless man by a spark of light from above, he connected the doctrine, in which he was followed by almost all Gnostic sects, that there would be no resurrection of the body, the spark of light being taken back on death to the place whence it had come, and man's material part being resolved into its elements. Saturninus is said to have taught the doctrine, antagonistic to that of man's free will, that there were classes of men by nature essentially different, and of these he counted two—the good and the wicked. The doctrine became common to many Gnostic systems that the human frame contained a heavenly element struggling to return to its native place.

Redemption and Christology.—The Gnostic systems generally represent man's spirit as imprisoned in matter, and needing release. The majority recognize the coming of Christ as a turning-point in human affairs, but almost all reduce the Redeemer's work to the impartation of knowledge and the disclosure of mysteries. With regard to the nature of Christ, the lowest view is held by Justinus, who describes Jesus but as a shepherd boy commissioned by an angel to be the bearer of a divine revelation, and who attributes to Him at no time any higher character. Carpocrates makes Jesus a man like others, only of more than ordinary steadfastness and purity of soul, possessing no prerogatives which other men may not attain in the same or even higher degree if they follow, or surpass, His example. Besides furnishing an example, He was also supposed to have made a revelation of truth, to secret traditions of which the followers of Carpocrates appealed. At the opposite pole from those who see in the Saviour a mere man are those who deny His humanity altogether. We know from St. John's epistle that the doctrine that our Lord had not really come in the flesh was one which at an early time troubled the church.

Authorities.—The great work of Irenaeus against heresies is the chief storehouse whence writers, both ancient and modern, have drawn their accounts of the Gnostic sects. It was primarily directed against the then most popular form of the heresy of Valentinus, and hence this form of Gnosticism has thrown all others into the shade, and many modern writers when professing to describe Gnosticism really describe Valentinianism. Irenaeus was largely copied by Tertullian, who, however, was an independent authority on Marcionism; by Hippolytus, who in his work against heresies adds, however, large extracts from his independent reading of Gnostic works; and by Epiphanius, who also gives a few valuable additions from other sources. The Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria, though provokingly desultory and unsystematic, furnish much valuable information about Gnosticism, which was still a living foe of the church. The writings of Origen also yield much important information. The matter, not borrowed from Irenaeus, to be gleaned from later heresiologists is scanty and of doubtful value.

Modern works which have made valuable contributions to the knowledge of Gnosticism include Neander, Genetische Entwickelung (1818), and Church Hist. vol. ii. (1825 and 2nd ed. 1843, trans. in Clarke's series); Burton, Bampton Lectures (1829); Baur, Christliche Gnosis (1835); Die christliche Kirche der drei ersten Jahrhunderte (1853, 2nd ed. 1860); and Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies (1875).


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