Gnosticism: Gnosticism as a Christian Heresy

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The pluralism of early Christianity in regional faith and praxis, as well as the shifting lines of authority within the first and second centuries, make it difficult to draw the sharp boundaries required to exclude a particular opinion or group as heretical. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus says that his predecessors were unable to refute the Gnostics because they had inadequate knowledge of Gnostic systems and because the Gnostics appeared to say the same things as other Christians. Christian Gnostics of the second century claimed to have the esoteric, spiritual interpretation of Christian scriptures, beliefs, and sacraments. Their orthodox opponents sought to prove that such persons were not Christians on the grounds that Gnostic rites were occasions of immoral behavior, that their myths and doctrines were absurd, and that their intentions were destructive to true worship of God. In short, it appears that Gnostics were defined as heretics by their opponents well before they stopped considering themselves to be spiritual members of the larger Christian community.

Three periods characterize the interaction of Gnosticism and Christianity: (1) the late first century and early second century, in which the foundations of Gnostic traditions were laid at the same time that the New Testament was being written; (2) the mid-second century to the early third century, the period of the great Gnostic teachers and systems; and (3) the end of the second century into the fourth century, the period of the heresiological reaction against Gnosticism.

The fluid boundaries of Christianity in the first period make it difficult to speak of Gnosticism at that time as a heresy. Four types of tradition used in the second-century Gnostic systems were developed in this period. First, there was a reinterpretation of Genesis that depicts the Jewish God as jealous and enslaving: freedom means escaping from bondage to that God. Second, there arose a tradition of Jesus' sayings as esoteric wisdom. Third, a soteriology of the soul's ascent to union with the divine from the popular forms of Platonism was adopted. And fourth, possibly, there was a mythical story of the descent of a divine being from the heavenly world to reveal that world as the true home of the soul. Each of the last three types of tradition lies behind conflicts or images in the New Testament writings.

Some scholars have argued that the incorporation of the sayings of Jesus into the gospel narrative of his life served to check the proliferation of sayings of the risen Lord uttered by Christian prophets. The soteriology of the soul's divinization through identification with wisdom has been seen behind the conflicts in 1 Corinthians. Second-century Gnostic writings use the same traditions from Philo that scholars invoke as parallel to 1 Corinthians. The question of a first-century redeemer myth is debated in connection with the Johannine material. While the image of Jesus in the Gospel of John could have been developed out of existing metaphorical traditions and the structure of a gospel life of Jesus, the Johannine letters show that Johannine Christians were split over interpretation of the gospel. Both 1 John and 2 John condemn other Christians as heretics. Heretics deny the death of Jesus and may have held a docetic Christology. Though perhaps not based on the myth of a descending redeemer, the Johannine images contributed to second-century Gnostic developments of that theme as applied to Jesus.

The second century brought fully developed Gnostic systems from teachers who claimed that their systems represented the inner truth revealed by Jesus. During this period, the Greek originals of the Coptic treatises were collected at Nag Hammadi. From the orthodox side, Irenaeus's five books refuting the Gnostics marked a decisive turn in Christian self-consciousness. These were followed by the anti-Gnostic writings of Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Epiphanius. Though Irenaeus may have drawn upon earlier anti-Gnostic writings, such as Justin's lost Suntagma, his work suggests a turn toward the systematic refutation of Gnosticism. Rather than catalog sects and errors, Irenaeus turned to the refutation of Gnostic systems using the rhetorical skills and topoi of philosophical debate. At the same time, he sought to provide a theoretical explication of orthodox Christian belief that would answer arguments advanced by Gnostic teachers. He apparently had considerable information about Valentinian speculation, as well as some of the earlier sources of Valentinian mythology.

Like the other heresiologists, Irenaeus attacked Marcion as well as Gnosticism. Marcion provided an easier target to identify as a "heresy" because he rejected the Old Testament and established a Christian canon consisting of edited versions of Luke and the Pauline letters. Marcion was concerned to set the boundaries between himself and the larger Christian community in a way that the Gnostic teachers who claimed to provide the spiritual interpretation of Christianity were not. Irenaeus provided two guidelines for drawing the boundary that would exclude Gnostic teachers from the Christian community. The first is reflected in the regula fidei of his Against Heresies (1.10.3), which gives topics about which legitimate theological speculation is possible and consequently rules out much of the cosmological speculation of the Gnostic teachers. The second guideline is Irenaeus's rejection of Gnostic allegorization of scripture. He insists that biblical passages must mean what they appear to mean and that they must be interpreted within their contexts. In book five, Irenaeus argues that the Gnostics failed to support their claims for a spiritual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 1:50 because they ignored the eschatological dimensions of the verses that follow.

The heresiologist's concern to draw boundaries between orthodox Christianity and Gnostic teachings ran counter to the practice of second-century Gnostics. Several of the Nag Hammadi treatises were apparently composed with the opposite aim. Writings such as the Gospel of Truth and the Tripartite Tractate drew explicit connections between Gnostic teaching and both the teaching practice and the sacramental practice of the larger Christian community. Other Gnostic writings fell within the developing patterns of ascetic Christianity in Syria and Egypt (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, Book of Thomas the Contender, Dialogue of the Savior ). The ascetic tradition tended to reject the common Christian assumption that baptism provides a quality of sinlessness adequate to salvation and to insist that only rigorous separation from the body and its passions will lead to salvation. Such ascetic groups did, of course, draw sharp boundaries between themselves and the larger world of believers, but the preservation of the Nag Hammadi codices among Egyptian monks suggests that the division between ascetic and nonascetic Christians may have been stronger than that between "heretic" and "orthodox," even into the fourth century in some areas.

Other Gnostic writings show that the efforts of heresiologists to draw boundaries against Gnostics resulted in repressive measures from the orthodox side and increasing separation by Gnostics (cf. Apocalypse of Peter, Second Treatise of the Great Seth ). The Testimony of Truth, apparently written in third-century Alexandria, not only contains explicit attacks on the beliefs of orthodox Christians but also attacks other Gnostic sects and teachers like Valentinus, Isidore, and Basilides. The author of this Gnostic work considers other, nonascetic Gnostics as heretics. However, the author still holds to something of the nonpolemical stance that had characterized earlier Gnostic teachers, saying that the true teacher avoids disputes and makes himself equal to everyone. Another example of the effectiveness of the orthodox polemic in defining Gnostics as heretics is found in what appears to be a Gnostic community rule that calls for charity and love among the Gnostic brethren as a sign of the truth of their claims over against the disunity of the orthodox in Interpretation of Knowledge. This call reverses one of Irenaeus's polemical points that the multiplicity and disunity of Gnostic sects condemn their teaching when contrasted with the worldwide unity of the church.

Some scholars think that this third period, in which the Gnostics were effectively isolated as "heretic" by orthodox polemic, led to a significant shift within Gnostic circles. Gnosticism began to become dechristianized, to identify more with the non-Christian, esoteric, and hermetic elements within its traditions. Gnostics became members of an independent esoteric sect, moved toward the more congenial Mandaean or Manichaean circles, existed on the fringes of Alexandrian Neoplatonism in groups that emphasized thaumaturgy, or joined the monks in the Egyptian desert, where they found a kindred spirit in the combination of asceticism and Origenist mysticism. Those associated with Manichaeism or Origenism would continue to find themselves among the ranks of heretical Christians. The rest were no longer within the Christian sphere of influence.

See Also

Clement of Alexandria; Irenaeus; Manichaeism; Marcionism; Neoplatonism; Origen; Philo Judaeus; Tertullian.


Anyone interested in Gnosticism should obtain the English translation of the Nag Hammadi codices edited by James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco, 1977). Another book that studies the structure and the apologetics of the Gnostic dialogues from the Nag Hammadi collection is my The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism (New York, 1980). The only other reliable treatments of the new material and its significance for the interaction of Gnosticism and early Christianity are scholarly writings. Three volumes, containing papers by leading scholars in German, French, and English, provide important treatments of the subject: Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas, edited by Barbara Aland (Göttingen, 1978); The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 1, The School of Valentinus, and vol. 2, Sethian Gnosticism, edited by Bentley Layton (Leiden, 19801981). The best study of the Gnostic polemic against orthodox Christianity is Klaus Koschorke's Die Polemik der Gnostiker gegen das kirchliche Christentum (Leiden, 1978).

Pheme Perkins (1987)