Gnosticism was a belief system that may have originated independently of but most likely at least contemporaneously with Christianity. Although there is no definitively known source of this platonic teaching system and a lack of original supremely authoritative Gnostic manuscripts, Gnosticism's presence and basic tenets were captured by the New Testament and many of the early church fathers, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. While the latter two wrote less polemically against the Gnostics, the Christian testimony against Gnostic false teachings and leaders is consistent, as most of its diverse teachings are clearly unbiblical.
The Teaching Summarized
The word "gnosticism" comes from the Greek word, gnosis, which means "knowledge." The Gnostics taught of a salvation through knowledge. While there may never have been a central leader or text the Gnostics used, it is known that the Gnostics taught a dualism, where God was seen as so transcendent over creation that a second "evil" God (a demiurge) created the world after the fall of Wisdom (Sophia, who wanted to know the transcendent God). The resulting view of the world taught by the Gnostics was that all material things were inherently evil (which resulted in a fixation on the spiritual over the material). Furthermore, the Gnostics taught from this basis that humans, being spiritual entities (as actual emanations from God), have some "sparks" of deity in them even though they are innately ignorant of their spiritual / heavenly origins. Salvation in Gnosticism, then, becomes knowledge (often esoteric in nature) provided by a redeemer. However, the redeemer of Gnosticism is docetic in nature and is denied as having a true body or to have truly suffered. And, the salvation provided by gnosticism does not include a resurrected physical body.
Some practical implications that the above teaching led to within the movement itself were:
While there is no single moment in church history where gnosticism is officially rejected or condemned by the Church corporately, the Church has always denied the many problematic teachings that result from gnosticism2. Not only are the writings of the church fathers consistent with this fact, but the New Testament itself is opposed to Gnostic doctrine as it affirms a God that really interacts with man and was incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, a creation that was not originally evil, and salvation from real sin by faith alone.
1See Xristian.org's article, "Is the God of the OT More Wrathful Than the God of the NT? Less Loving?" for a refutation of two different God's of the Old and New Testament, based on degree of lovingness.
2In fact, the condemnation of docetism at Chalcedon is an example where the church ecumenically rejected a Gnostic heresy that had challenged the church in its understanding of the true Humanity of Christ.
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