Although perhaps not strictly of the nature of the pagan idolatry we have been considering in the last several posts, there was another powerful influence at work at the same time these religions were having their effect in the shaping of the New Testament as we have it today. The influence of which I speak is gnosticism.
There is much evidence of gnosticism’ presence and danger, especially in the writings of Paul and John. From the very first verses of the gospel of John, his effort at combating this philosophy can be seen. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a powerful refutation of what must have been the beginnings of what came to be a much more complete religious system.
Gnosticism was merely the last “incarnation” of a very old belief system, going back at least to the 6th century BCE and probably much further even than that. That belief system was known as Orpheanism, after the Greek hero Orpheus. (Early Christian History).
Many historians do not recognize Gnosticism before the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD because it did not exist in an organized, systematized form before then. And even then it is hard to get a handle on because it resisted systematization. It was always a rather amorphous collections of myths and subjective “truths,” held privately as esoteric (secret) “knowledge.”
Gnosticism was a curious synthesis of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. There are some indications of an early form of first century gnosticism in the NT, but nothing like what developed in the second century. (Early Church History – CH101).
[B]asic Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm. The “demiurge” was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their “evil” physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge. (Early Church History – CH101).
Gnosticism was perhaps the most dangerous heresy that threatened the early church during the first three centuries. Influenced by such philosophers as Plato, Gnosticism is based on two false premises. First, it espouses a dualism regarding spirit and matter. Gnostics assert that matter is inherently evil and spirit is good. As a result of this presupposition, Gnostics believe anything done in the body, even the grossest sin, has no meaning because real life exists in the spirit realm only. (What is Christian Gnosticism?).
This dualism constituted an attack against the very foundational truths of both creation and redemption. To say that the creation was the work of an inferior god and was therefore evil is a denial of the repeatedly emphasized statement by God in Genesis 1 … “It is good!” “It is very good!” It is a denial of what is said about man – that human beings are made in the image of a good God and therefore are by their basic nature good.
That man does not do good and therefore does not reflect the goodness of God is due to the fact that we have of ourselves done evil. That we do evil does not mean that we were created evil, but that we have made and continue to make wrong choices and therefore suffer the consequences of those choices. When we do this so long it becomes the nature we manifest. We become inured – hardened – in sin.
It was to bring us back to God that Jesus came into the world. He was born as a baby, grew and learned as a child, lived as a man, taught as a rabbi, loved his friends and was loved by them. He was every much a human being as you and I.
People who had been affected by the dualistic philosophies such as that of the Greek philosopher Plato denied this truth affirmed over and over in the New Testament. Dualism presents the idea that matter – the earth, the stars, the rocks and trees, you and me – all created things that exist were not created by a good God, but by an evil, inferior “demiurge” and therefore all material things are evil by their very nature. Jesus could not, therefore, have been a flesh and blood human being. He would had to have been only an appearance, an apparition.
Remember that at the time this doctrine began to be taught the disciples of Jesus did not have the completed compilation of 27 books we have today. They had something no less powerful with which to combat this false doctrine. They had the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Listen to one of those disciples …
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
John wrote this at the time the gnostic heresy was beginning to gain traction among believers in the Gentile churches. Both here and in the remainder of the first epistle and in the second he attacks and refutes the doctrine because it was such a threat to the faith of believers.
This was not the first time John had argued against this developing heresy among believers. The first few verses of his gospel are a full salvo against the gnostic doctrine of wisdom (logos) being behind creation. In gnosticism, sophia, (wisdom) was sometimes also characterized as logos or word, and wisdom, through the logos created all things. The gnostics believed that creation was the result, not of the supreme God, but the doing of an emanation, a projection from him. Therefore, Jesus was an inferior God and the creation flawed. But here is what John says to that …
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men”
First he affirms that Jesus – the Word, (Gr, logos) is God. He is not an emanation, he is co-eternal with God. He then states that he was indeed the creator. If he is very God, then the creation he produced could not have been evil, but “good” as is stated repeatedly in Genesis 1. He then declares that the word – logos – became flesh and dwelt among men. He did not appear to be flesh. He was not an apparition – a ghost. He was real just as John says in 1 John 1:1-3.
The proponents of gnosticism claimed to be the knowing or “enlightened” ones. John replied to that claim in both his gospel and his first epistle. (John 1:5; 1 John 1:5-6; 2:8-9,11). It was not those who believe in Jesus who were in darkness, but those who made the claim and did not walk in fellowship with him.
Paul was adamant in his opposition to the doctrines of these proto-gnostics. For instance, the gnostics taught that the pleroma, i.e., the fullness of all that is god is made up of the supreme unknowable god, wisdom (sophia) all the aeons (demiurges) and the archons (angel-like beings). Paul does not hold anything like that view. He declared of Jesus … “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19).
Not only did the pleroma of God dwell in Christ, but the Christian can in a sense have he “fullness of God” dwell in him. Paul prayed that the believers may…
“…know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
How can this be? He explains here. We may be filled with the fullness of God, not by some secret knowledge (gnosis), but by knowing/experiencing the love of Christ in the forgiveness of their sin and in the exercise of that love their have received by reflecting it out to others.
Like John, Paul emphasized the supremacy of Christ.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:15-16).
Then he goes on to declare him of him …
“And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-16).
Contrary to the gnostic heresy, Jesus is creator and sustainer of all things. He is in no way inferior, but in all things is preeminent. He is before all and above all and is the one through whom all things in heaven and earth are to be reconciled. The peace that has been lost between man and God, between man and man and within the hearts of men is to be restored in him.
There is nothing even remotely similar to the gnostic heresies in the things of which Paul assures the Colossian believers. They had been taught the truth concerning Jesus. Their faith rested in him. He cautions them about being deceived by the ascetic demands of these false teachers.
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col. 2:18).
Perhaps the most graphic description of the kind of thing demanded and engaged in by the gnostics is Paul’s words in Col. 3:21-23 …
“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Remember the belief that everything material was evil by its very nature. The kind of religion Paul is warning against is the kind that would avoid polluting one’s self by contact with or use of material things. Paul looks upon such things as being a useless display of a false piety. It didn’t do a thing for the body or the flesh.
We will look further at the things John had to say about the gnostics and the threat they posed to Christians in the latter part of the first century in our next post.