One cannot begin to appreciate the first struggles of Christianity for existence without at the very 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 a time teeming with religious theories; a time when religious discussion was a well known 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 kinds of opposition because it spread and came into connection with other cultural forms, heresy presented a many different type of contrariety. And although the conflict subsequently led to ameliorated knowledge of this is of Christ and an even more lucid presentation of Christian belief, heresy was by far probably the most serious menace Christianity had to confront. Valentinian Gnosticism The challenge was in the arena of thought. In its most sinister form it appeared beneath the title of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is 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 who have been scorned by many orthodox Christians. It claimed to be always a sure way to knowledge, hence, the vision of God. It claimed that its rites, ceremonies, prescriptions and its way to God were divinely inspired and transmitted to the elite esoteric through a mysterious tradition. Furthermore, and perhaps most offensive to Christianity, it claimed, in essence, that its magical formulas offered an infallible means to salvation.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go over the origin of Gnosticism. Suffice it to say that a lot of theories seem to agree so it was a confluence of many diverse streams of thought emanating from pre-Christian mystery religions.
The essential 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 planet, and so 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 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 the emanations was the figure of Christ who had been given the honor of being set besides all other emanations.
It is necessary to also include here a record about a group of Gnostics known as Docetists. They held the belief that Christ’s body was only a phantom and that the “true” Christ doesn’t have bodily form. This was an essential idea to the Gnostics since if matter was regarded as evil, then Christ couldn’t be burdened with a material body, for then He would not have already been able to complete the redemption from matter.
The Gnostic system of belief simultaneously destroyed the divinity and humanness of Jesus, and cast a black unholy shadow on the doctrine central to the Christian faith. Not just 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 guard if simply to preserve the human historical Jesus. Thus, early Church fathers arose to the defense of the Christian faith.
From the denial of Christ’s humanity, Fathers of the Church underlined the reality of the incarnation and stressed the significance of the work of Jesus. From 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 is difficult, or even impossible, to clearly discern when and where the Gnostic movement was halted by the Church. The main 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 quite a few branches of religion.