Of the five major heresies, Gnosticism is so diverse and so complex that it is notoriously difficult to define, there being countless varieties of Gnosticism which often competed against each other. The modern day equivalent of Gnosticism is the New Age Movement, a very diverse group of often conflicting teachings, bound together by a few common ideas, that tend toward the same end. The word “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis which means “knowledge,” and the central idea of all forms of Gnosticism is that salvation lies in a hidden knowledge outside of the Bible, that God gives people direct revelation extrabiblically, whether through an experience, vision, dream, or some other experiential, subjective mode.
As to the nature of this extrabiblical knowledge, that depends on the particular gnostic (New Ager) to whom you are speaking. Yet, the fundamental flaw of the Gnostic heresy is that truth cannot be found in Scripture but must be extrabiblically revealed through either a dream, vision, teacher, guru, et cetera. In this sense, modern psychology is a kind of neo-gnosticism, teaching that that real key to helping people solve their spiritual and emotional problems lies in an extrabiblical understanding of the human condition to which only trained psychologists or therapists are privy. Therefore, the average Christian, according to modern psychology, is not qualified to counsel people or help them with their problems. A Christian who reads his or her Bible every day is more qualified to counsel than any secularly educated psychologist or therapist.
Although God can use extrabiblical methods such as a dream or vision, he always uses such things to bring a person face-to-face with the Scriptures. Paul was not saved when he saw the vision of the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, nor was Cornelius saved when he saw the vision of the angel; Paul and Cornelius were each saved when Ananias and Peter each preached the gospel to them (Acts 9-10). The apostle Paul would later plainly state to the Romans, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” (Romans 10:14-15). Although Paul begins with a logical syllogism, notice that he proves the validity of the syllogism with the Word of God, saying, “As it is written.” Biblical Christianity does not point to signs and wonders or anecdotal stories, but stands on Scripture, “Thus says the Lord,” “It is written.” Any claim of extrabiblical revelation is Gnostic and any preacher who continually says something like, “The Lord revealed to me,” should be turned off.
Pagan Origins of Gnosticism
As I mentioned on the introductory page for the ancient heresies, Gnosticism was essentially pagan. It did not begin inside the church, the earliest strains preceding Christianity and Gnostic ideas flourished in both Jewish and Pagan thought at the time of Christ. There is no doubt that the Lord himself and the apostles would have confronted at times incipient versions of the Gnostic heresy.
Christian Gnosticism, contrary to what you may hear on the History Channel, was a later development of the second century, an attempt by pagan philosophy to conquer the church through assimilation. This is exactly what postmodernism and the New Age Movement are attempting to do today. Gnosticism, therefore, is not merely a subject of academic interest, but is more alive and flourishing than ever before, wielding more power over churches today than the ancient heresy ever did even at its peak.
The three pillars of Gnosticism which we shall examine hence are: Dualism, Syncretism, and Docetism. First, before I explain these errors, let me define them: Dualism is the concept that everything in the universe is reducible to two fundamental realities; Syncretism is the merging of two different systems of belief; and Docetism is the concept that Christ only appeared to be human.
The first error, Dualism, is the religion of Star Wars in which you have The Force and the Dark Side of the Force, or in Chinese dualism the concept of yin and yang. Gnostic Dualism is in Mind and Matter, Spirit and Matter, or the material world versus the spirit world. The dualist sees these two fundamentally opposite forces as holding each other in an eternal tension, evil and good mere words to describe the two eternal forces, and therefore, evil is just as necessary as good, neither able to do away with the other. The Bible, however, clearly states that evil had a beginning (Ezekiel 28:15) and is a temporary condition in which creation has fallen (Genesis 3), and is a condition from which creation will be redeemed (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
Satan is not the equivalent opposite of God, but is himself a servant under God’s authority, only able to do anything if God ordains it to be done (Job 1:12ff). The devil has a terrible batting average, constantly striking out, and therefore, if something terrible happens to be occurring in the world or in your life (such as the Coronavirus pandemic), it is only because the devil got lucky, God happened to ordain it. For example, do you remember the great pandemic of 1973? Not the one in 1968, but in 1973. No? What about the stock market crash of 1964? Do you remember the Supreme Court decision in 1989 that legalized sodomite marriage? The devil is throwing out schemes constantly and most of the time, he fails to hit the target. For the Christian, this is wonderful comfort because we know that anything that is happening to us in life is Father-filtered (Romans 8:28); Gnostic Dualism offers no such hope.
Biblical Christianity is not dualistic, but is monistic, that from the beginning of all things there is and shall always be only one eternal principle – God (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 3:14). Even the truth of the Trinity does not alter Christianity’s basic monism; God is three persons in One Being which is why Colossians 1:17 says of Christ, “He is before all things by him all things consist.” Christianity is incompatible with any form of dualism and history reveals that every person who has tried to mix Dualism with Christianity has fallen into serious heresy.
The God of Dualism
Gnostic dualism led to a very peculiar view of God, believing him to be a supreme being that was totally unknowable – he was so far off he could not be known or even begin to be known. This unknowable God was too lofty to ever begin to create the universe out of matter because matter is essentially evil. Therefore, the absolute God of Gnosticism could not possibly be the Creator, but the absolute God spawned a series of emanations, or beings that spun off of him related to his attributes. One of them was a feminine god-like spirit called Sophia, the goddess of wisdom which modern feminism worships. Some sources say there were as few as thirty emanations while others say as many as 325, that all descended from the absolute, unknowable God. The first spun off the second, the second spun off the third, etc., giving birth to each other, until one comes to a being called the Demiurge, a god-like being so far removed from the absolute God that he was able to create the universe out of matter.
A popular Gnostic view is that Sophia wished to give birth to a creature just like herself, but discovered that her offspring was imperfect and threw it aside. This aborted offspring of Sophia was the Demiurge who created the universe, but because he was imperfect, he erred greatly because he made it out of matter, the essence of evil. Then in the midst of an inherently evil material creation, the Demiurge placed man who retained a spark of the divine. Therefore, in Gnostic cosmology humans are not fallen, and certainly not totally depraved beings; rather, Gnosticism teaches that humans have the capacity for good and are merely products of an evil environment, trapped in physical bodies.
Syncretism is the fusing of two different or even opposite systems of belief, and as mentioned earlier, Gnostic tendency existed prior to the Christian Era. A Jewish philosopher named Philo was born around 20 B.C.E. and lived until about 50 C.E., an exact contemporary of Christ and the apostles. However, he lived in Alexandria, Egypt, so it is unlikely that he had any exposure to Christ or the teachings of the apostles. Philo was what historians call a Hellenistic Jew, having abandoned most of Hebrew culture and having absorbed the Greek way of life. Through his reading and study, Philo eventually found a way to syncretize Greek philosophy with Judaism through an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament which resulted in a completely new religion.
Remember, as far as we know, Philo had no exposure to the Christian teachings and likely died before the New Testament was written. The theology that Philo devised from his blend of Greek wisdom with the Jewish scriptures was that God is a heavenly father who transcends everything and there was another being whom Philo called The Logos (“The Word”) who acted as an intermediary between God and the creation. According to Philo, it was The Logos who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush as well as all the appearances of the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. The Logos, according to Philo, was a subordinate figure that mediated between God and man. Now, from a Christian perspective it is easy to marvel at how much truth there is in Philo’s system; there are even those who claim that Philo’s religion contained all the major doctrines of Christianity, discovered purely from the Old Testament without any knowledge of Christ. Yet, Philo was far from being a Christian, there being enough deadly error in his thinking to make it fatally wrong. Philo’s notion of The Logos actually has more in common with the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge than with Christ. What we see in Philo is that the seeds of Gnostic thinking had already been planted in the time of Christ.
Syncretism is based on the idea that the wisdom of this world is compatible with the revealed truth of Scripture. Therefore, the revealed truth of Scripture cannot act as a corrective to wrong ideas; instead, one must adapt his or her interpretation of Scripture to make it fit with worldly wisdom. There is no better illustration of this than the modern feminism movement which is closely related to Gnosticism. Current worldly wisdom says that there should be no role differences between men and women – men and women should have equal authority. Yet, 1 Timothy 2:12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Feminist Gnosticism insists on reinterpreting that verse and others like it in the Scriptures, explaining it away, in order to make Scripture fit what secular wisdom currently teaches.
That is how syncretism inevitably corrupts Scripture; the worldly ideas ultimately take precedence over the truth of Scripture. Gnosticism was born through exactly that kind of syncretism. Beginning in the first century, there were people in the church who were trying to fit together Christian truth with these Gnostic ideas and they began to teach that the Creator God was the God of the Old Testament, the Demiurge, and he was in opposition to the the supreme, absolute God. The Gnostics taught that Christ came as an emissary of the true unknowable God to reconcile him with humans since humans had a spark of divinity. Therefore, the God of the Old Testament was seen as bad, and therefore, was dispensed with by the Gnostics, along with the Old Testament.
Docetism comes from the Greek word dokeo, meaning, “seem,” “appear,” “think,” or “suppose.” The Gnostics taught Christ only appeared to be manifest in the flesh; he only seemed to be human. Although various Gnostics explained this in different ways, they all all denied the Incarnation. Since the Gnostics were dualistic and believed matter to be inherently evil, they had to explain how Christ who was good could have come in a human body made of matter. Some Gnostics said that his body was a phantom; others said his spirit inhabited the body of another man that housed the Christ-Spirit while remaining a different person.
According to this latter view, Jesus was the man upon whom the Christ-Spirit descended and some Gnostics taught that Christ did not enter the body of Jesus until his baptism and then departed before the crucifixion. Some of the more bizarre forms of Gnosticism even taught that before the crucifixion, Jesus and Judas traded places. The one common thread of all the Gnostic views, though, was a flat denial of the Incarnation, antithetical to the apostolic message that Christ came in the flesh and overt attacks on the person of Christ. The prevalence of Gnosticism in the early church is the reason why the controversies that absorbed the early fathers all had to do with the person of Christ – his nature, his deity, his Incarnation, these were the ideas that Gnosticism attacked. Gnosticism turned Christ into a phantom, something unreal, something inhuman.
Refutation of Gnosticism
Throughout the New Testament there are numerous passages that were written explicitly to refute the fundamental Gnostic ideas. For example, Colossians 2:8-9 is a clear warning against Gnostic tendencies and is a refutation of docetism: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Paul first warns against syncretism with worldly ideas, he warns against a docetism view of Christ, and against a dualistic view of the world.
The best short refutation of Gnosticism, however, is found in First John. It is obvious from the arguments that John uses in this letter that he was confronting an incipient form of Gnosticism among the people to whom he was writing, the earliest appearance of Gnostic heresies in the church. Remember that the Gnostics taught that the God of the Old Testament was a lesser god, the Demiurge, a mischievous creator who was the offspring of the real God. John refutes this in the first verse of his letter, saying of Jesus, “That which was from the beginning,” emphasizing the eternal deity of Christ (1 John 1:1). He was not simply an emanation from the real God or the aborted offspring of Sophia; he was “that which was from the beginning.” This is same way John begins his Gospel, with an affirmation that Christ is not a newcomer to the scene, but he is the one who was with God and is God (John 1:1). It is also important to note how John debunks docetism, continuing to say in verse 1, “which we we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1b-2). John is saying he was an eyewitness to Christ and that he handled him; he was no phantom.
What about the Gnostic teaching that salvation lies in a hidden knowledge outside of the Bible? John continues in the next verses, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you:” (1 John 1:3-5, emphases added). John is underscoring the fact that there is no secrecy; there is nothing hidden about the message, but is put down in writing and declared. If you recall, the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge was that the Creator was virtually a bad guy, tainted to a degree, and that he fashioned the universe out of what was evil. Look now at what John says in verse 5 is central to this declared message: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
The Gnostic dualism between flesh and spirit often led people to a bizarre form of antinomianism. After all, if the flesh was evil and the spirit was good then it did not matter what we did in the flesh. Many Gnostics claimed that they could sin freely in the flesh and still have spiritual fellowship with God. In the book of Revelation, John calls these early Gnostics, Nicolaitanes, a group within the church who were telling the church that it was okay to engage in and accept the secular teaching of Balaam regarding sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15). Irenaeus, writing in the second century, said that the Nicolaitanes “led lives of unrestrained indulgence. … teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery…” (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 352). John debunks this Gnostic antinomianism in 1:6 of his first letter, saying, “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” 1 John 2:6 also says, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
Answering the idea that matter is inherently evil, John says, “For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). That is, the basic realities of evil are all immaterial realities, just the opposite of Gnosticism. Finally, as for the Gnostic doctrine that true enlightenment is something that can only be conferred on initiates by special teachers, he says in 1 John 2:20, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” There is not any secret truth left to be taught, but as believer’s they had access to all the truth through the pages of Scripture. John is not saying that we do not need to listen to teachers or that Christians cannot learn from other people. John was dealing with people who claimed that there was a higher truth that could only be learned from a teacher.
John also deals with the Gnostic idea that a being called “Christ” merely inhabited the body of Jesus. 1 John 2:22 says, “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son. 1 John 3:5 also debunks the idea that a physical body is sinful in itself, saying, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” 1 John 4:2-3 then hit Gnosticism head-on, saying, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every Spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” Jesus was neither a phantom nor a man who was possessed by a “Christ-Spirit.” Anyone who denies the Incarnation is antichrist.
The letter of First John is utterly incompatible with New Age doctrine and there is no doubt that incipient Gnosticism is the heresy that John wrote the letter to confront. Of course, Gnosticism grew in the second- and third-centuries into something even bigger, but this was the beginnings of it. Gnosticism, though, is alive today as well, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, ranging from the New Age movement to aspects of third-wave feminism to aspects of secular psychology. Postmodernism and the denial of objective truth is also a kind of Gnosticism.
Voddie Baucham, a pastor and a dean at African Christian University, has also, in the current “social justice” climate, recently coined the phrase “Ethnic Gnosticism” to describe the phenomenon that somehow because of one’s ethnicity, one is able to know when something or someone is racist. Further, no one can tell them otherwise. If the person did not mean it in a racist way, whether a particular look, gesture, mannerism, etc., it does not matter; that is just his or her privilege speaking. The concept of white privilege is that whites do not know what they do not know.
Gnostic and New Age ideas will only get stronger in the kind of intellectual climate in which we live. I suggest you familiarize yourself with this article and the Gnostic ideas I have brought out; that will help you better identify whether something you hear is Gnostic, semi-Gnostic, or orthodox Christianity.