How Gnostics spawned Theosophists, Freemasons, Luciferians, Moslems, Hyper-Calvinists, Roman Catholics, and Critical-ScholarshipPosted: May 22, 2017
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Colossians 2:8
The gnostics basically taught that the Jew’s Old Testament Creator was bad: He imposed petty rules on man and wanted to keep him oppressed, stupid, and afraid of death in the garden; but the serpent – the “god” Lucifer – was good: he illuminated to Eve the path within to knowledge, godhood, and immortality. They taught that only a class of special people can embrace gnostic teachings, they are the ones who awaken within ancient sparks of divine nature which others lack. Only the inner divine nature matters, not the polluted realm of flesh. Gnostics took this to mean either (a) become a celibate and an ascetic to disregard the physical life; or (b) engage in debauchery because the physical life doesn’t affect one’s potential for divinity. The gnostics considered the Jew’s Bible a corrupted version of the “true” story that can only be found in gnostic teachings, therefore they felt freely entitled to bolster gnosticism by inventing spurious new books and mutilated scripture versions.
Professor Henry Chadwick gives an interesting discussion about the gnostic phenomenon in the early church period which lead to a crisis over the Final Authority of the scriptures.
Some of the early church fathers who debated against the gnostics attacked the spurious nature of their fake scriptures by explaining that new versions of the scriptures can not suddenly appear from a gnostic’s library; the authentic Bible has already been held in common for many years among the “authentic” churches founded by the first century apostles – and they proceeded to name the chain of successive bishops back to the apostles.
This argument refuted the gnostics and affirmed the common canon of scripture, but later Roman Catholics misconstrued the argument to claim that mere “apostolic succession” validates a church, and that only such a church validates the Bible’s authority, rather than the other way around. With that the Catholics then proceeded to introduce the apocrypha and usurp the Bible’s authority with their own oral traditions – ironically the very thing the early church father’s original argument of succession was designed to prevent the gnostics from doing.
The term Gnosticism is derived from the ordinary Greek word for knowledge (gnosis). The second century sects claimed to possess a special ‘knowledge’ which transcended the ‘I simple faith of the Church. But in fact their knowledge was not of a philosophical or intellectualist character, but rather a knowledge of the nature and destiny of man, especially Gnostic man, based on a grandiose revelation about the origin of the world which explained how evil had come into being and how one should act in order to gain deliverance from it. What they claimed to ‘know’ consisted of a myth about the creation of the world as the result of a pre-cosmic disaster which accounted for the present misery of man’s lot, and about the way in which the elect few may be redeemed. In the elect, they believed, there was a divine spark that had become imprisoned in matter and had lost its memory of its true, heavenly home. The content of the Gnostic gospel was an attempt to rouse the soul from its sleep-walking condition and to make it aware of the high destiny to which it is called. The present material world the Gnostics regarded as utterly alien to the supreme God and to goodness, and as therefore the creation of inferior powers, either incompetent or malevolent. The natural order of things reflected nothing at all of the divine glory and of the matchless heavenly beauty, and towards it the Gnostic initiate was taught to acknowledge no responsibility. His ethic was to be one of complete freedom from any constraint or any obligation towards society and government regarding which he entertained the most pessimistic opinions. The world was in the iron control of evil powers whose home was in the seven planets, and after death the elect soul would be faced by a perilous journey through the planetary spheres back to its heavenly home. Much time was therefore devoted to learning the correct magic passwords and the most potent amulets, which would enable the delivered soul to force the monstrous powers barring the ascent to open their doors and allow him to pass onward and upward to the realm of light. The rival sects, which hated one another as much as they hated orthodoxy, used to offer different sets of names and passwords to be learnt, each group claiming to possess the authentic forms, with which alone the soul’s ascent could be successful. The details of the myths of the various sects were widely divergent. But the basic pattern can be seen to be constant. The Gnostic ethic, however, could take one of two forms, both based on the estimate of the natural order as wholly alien from God. The majority of the sects demanded an ascetic life with rules for the mortification of the flesh and a special prohibition on marriage (or at least on procreation), so that the divine soul might be liberated from the bonds of sense and bodily appetite and assisted to turn itself towards higher things. But some groups drew the opposite conclusion from the basic premise, and became notorious for their orgies of immorality. (In the New Testament the epistle of Jude warns against some Gnostic group which was exploiting the agape or love-feast and turning it into riotous licence.) The latter type liked to appeal to St Paul’s doctrine that the Christian is free from the law and lives under grace as a son of the kingdom, and (so far were they from being uneducated crudities) subtly justified their eroticism by appeals to the Symposium of Plato as teaching that love is a mystical communion with God.
To the Gnostic myth the cosmogony of Plato’s Timaeus and the first chapters of Genesis contributed in almost equal proportions. But the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve exercised a deep fascination over the Gnostic imagination. The Fall of Eve was taken to symbolize a pre-cosmic catastrophe in which a female power, the ‘Mother’, went astray from the divinely intended path. Or the story might suggest exciting speculations about the role of the serpent: the Ophites (i. e. serpent worshippers) argued that since through the serpent Adam and Eve had come to have knowledge of good and evil, he was a good power, the Leviathan encircling the cosmos with his tail in his mouth to symbolize eternity, who had out-manoeuvred the inferior creator and his son Jesus (whom the Ophites solemnly cursed in their liturgy). Apart from the book of Genesis the main ingredient which Gnosticism derived from Judaism was a transmuted apocalyptic. Jewish apocalyptic painted a dark picture of the present world as the bone of contention between rival angelic armies, good and evil, and as the expected stage of a dramatic divine intervention redeeming God’s elect. The Gnostics eliminated any historical or literalist element from this notion and reinterpreted the apocalyptic world picture of Armageddon as a myth either about the origins of the world or about inward psychological experience.
The principal ingredient which Gnosticism derived from Christianity was the central idea of redemption. But not all the second-century sects included Jesus as the redeemer. Among the Samaritans a popular form of Gnosticism made Simon Magus the redeemer. In another system the Greek hero Heracles appears as the chief bringer of salvation, and Jesus plays a very subordinate role indeed. Even in those sects which stood closest to orthodox Christianity, such as the groups founded by the Egyptian Basilides and by the Platonist Valentinus of Rome, the Gnostic attitude to matter as alien to the supreme God required the rejection of any genuine incarnation. The divine Christ (they held) might have appeared to blinded worldlings as if he were tangible flesh and blood, but those with higher insight perceived that he was pure spirit and that the physical appearance was an optical illusion and mere semblance (dokesis, whence this doctrine is labelled Docetism). It was inconceivable that the divine Christ could have come ‘in the flesh’ in any ultimately true sense. What people would have seen if they had been there at the time would have differed according to their spiritual capacity.
It was the intense stress on the absolute necessity of a redeemer from the divine realm which led the Gnostics to place the natural order at so vast a distance in moral value from the supreme God. The influence of fatalistic ideas drawn from popular astrology and magic became fused with notions derived from Pauline language about predestination to produce a rigidly deterministic scheme. Redemption was from destiny, not from the consequences of responsible action, mid was granted to a pre-determined elect in whom alone was the divine spark. Valentinus modified the division of humanity into light and darkness by allowing the existence of some grey twilight in between the two extremes. He took a lead from St Paul’s phrase (i Thess. v, 23) that man consists of spirit, soul, and body, and applied the threefold division both to humanity and to the entire cosmos. The Gnostic initiates were the men of the spirit, the elect, whose salvation was certain and indefectible. Ordinary church members, with faith but not ‘knowledge’, were men of psyche, while the heathen were merely earthy clods without even the dimmest ray of light or the faintest hope of salvation.
Valentinus allowed his followers to entertain hopes that some moderate degree of twilight happiness hereafter might be granted to the men of psyche. But the classes of men were determined from eternity. The natural man was constitutionally incapable of discerning the higher things of the spirit.
A further consequence of the Gnostic devaluation of the created order was the depreciation of the Old Testament. This was greatly accentuated by a thorough exploitation of the Pauline antithesis of law and gospel. The Gnostics liked to contrast the God of the Old Testament as the God of justice, whose principle was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, with the loving Father proclaimed by Jesus. This antithesis was especially worked out by Marcion, a figure who stands quite apart from the main stream of Gnosticism in that his system of thought did not include speculations about cosmogony or the names of the angels, but who in this one respect was the most radical and to the church the most formidable of heretics. Marcion came from Asia Minor to Rome, where the church excommunicated him in 144. He wrote a book entitled Antitheses (to which i Tim. vi, 20 could conceivably be an allusion) in which be listed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments to prove that the God of the Jews, the creator of this miserable world, was quite different from the God and Father of Jesus of whose existence the world had no inkling until the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar when Jesus suddenly appeared preaching the Gospel. It was inconceivable that the divine redeemer could ever have been born of a woman, and Marcion rejected the story of the birth and childhood of Christ as a falsification imposed on the authentic story.
Marcion’s attack on the status of the Old Testament depended on two axioms: the rejection of allegorical interpretation and the assertion that the first generation of Jewish Christians had misunderstood and misinterpreted the mind of Jesus. If allegory was disallowed, there was much in the Old Testament which appeared distressing. The God of the Jews, Marcion argued, was vacillating: after forbidding the making of images, he told Moses to set up a brazen serpent. He was ignorant: he had to ask Adam where he was and descended to Sodom and Gomorrah to discover what was going on. Moreover, as the creator of Adam he was responsible for the entrance of evil into the world. In one text of the Old Testament God himself confesses ‘I create evil’. It was congruous, thought Marcion, that he should so favour that bloodthirsty and licentious bandit, King David. Moreover, it was this creator who devised the humiliating method of sexual reproduction, the discomforts of pregnancy, and the pains of childbirth, the mere contemplation of which filled Marcion with nausea. The Marcionite community was accordingly strict in its rejection of marriage as helping the inferior creator in his repulsive business. Marcion’s rejection of allegory destroyed any invocation of the argument from the fulfilment of prophecy, for the Old Testament prophets were not inspired by the kindly Father of Jesus. They expected a Jewish national Messiah, and their God was so limited in vision as to have a special favour for the Jewish people. In Marcion’s evaluation of the Old Testament there lurks a constant overtone of anti-Semitism.
The assertion that the first Christians had misinterpreted their Master was necessary to Marcion because it was clear that the New Testament writings presupposed continuity between the Old and the New covenants. Marcion concluded that the documents had been considerably corrupted by the Judaisers of whose insidious methods St Paul complained in the epistle to the Galatians. He therefore set about the task of restoring the true text. St Paul was his hero, but the Pauline epistles he found interpolated and altered by Judaising interests anxious to make the apostle say that the Old Testament contained divine revelation. Even there cuts and restorations had to be made. In the case of the Gospels Marcion could take a shorter way. He took it for granted that only one could be authoritative, and decided that it must be St Luke’s. But in its existing form St Luke’s text showed every sign of acknowledging the validity of the Old Testament revelation and of assuming the continuity of the Gospel with the word spoken in time past to Moses and the prophets. This text also, therefore, had been corrupted by Judaisers. Moreover, the original text, Marcion believed, was the work of Paul himself, and he therefore undertook to establish the authentic text of Paul’s Gospel as it was before his uncomprehending friends and disciples had altered it. Marcion thus became the first person to draw up an exclusive canonical list of Biblical books, which excluded all the Old Testament and large parts of the New, grounded on the basic assumption that the twelve apostles had not possessed the insight to comprehend the true meaning of Jesus.
Valentinus dealt with the Bible very differently. He did not reject allegory, which to his Platonist mind was profoundly congenial. Some Valentinians distinguished in the Old Testament between those parts inspired by God, certain sections inserted by Moses by way of concession to the hardness of men’s hearts, and a third group of inferior passages that had been inserted by the Jewish elders and possessed no authority. But the Valentinians had no special interest in depreciating the Old Testament. Nor did they utter any breath of disparagement against the original apostles of Jesus. The Valentinian mythology, it was claimed, had been secretly taught by Jesus to the disciples, and from them had been passed down by an esoteric oral tradition side by side with the public teaching of the church.
Excerpt taken from: “The Pelican History of the Early Church” (1967) Henry Chadwick, Penguin Books.