What is Gnosticism?


Gnosticism has many forms and nuisances, however it can be summarized for the most part under four main points:

  • The material or physical world is inherently evil and the spirit world is inherently good. The material world, including one's body, mind, spirit, and soul, is under the control of evil.

  • A divine spark is in some, but not all, humans and is capable of being redeemed.

  • Salvation is through a higher secret knowledge (Greek, gnosis) by which some individuals come to know themselves and their destiny, etc.

  • One Gnostic myth says that a good god cannot create an evil world. Therefore, this world must have been created by a lesser evil god. The good god created beings called Archons that emanated or produced other Archons, until an error by Sophia (or Wisdom) led to the creation of an evil Archon. This evil Archon created this world and hides truth from many humans, but sparks of Sophia in other humans fill them with a divine urge to return to the Pleroma (or divine realm) where they belong.

Against Scripture, which teaches that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 2:11-14; 3:3-7), Gnosticism asserts that salvation is through the acquisition of divine knowledge; salvation by self-knowledge. Gnosticism essentially teaches that salvation is the escape from the bondage of material existence and traveling back to the Pleroma from which their souls have fallen.

Gnosticism teaches that there is a divine knowledge even above Scripture (cf. Deut 4:2; 12:32; Prov 30:6; John 17:17; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 4:12; 2 Pet 1:20-21). Numerous Gnostic documents were found at Nag Hammadi. These Gnostic gospels or "the lost books of the Bible" (the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Barnabas, the gospel of Philip, the apocalypse of Peter, etc.) are pseudepigraphal, meaning "ascribed to a false author." Though the Gnostics attempted to ascribe their works to biblical persons, all of them are falsely-attributed works (Greek pseudo, meaning "false").

Similar to the Docetists, the Gnostics believe that Jesus' physical body was not real, but only "seemed to" (Greek, dokein) be human. They further believe that Jesus' spirit descended upon him at his baptism, but left him just before the crucifixion. So, their philosophical system destroys the humanity of Christ and the atonement itself. See "What is Docetism" below.

Early church writers, including but not limited to, Epiphanius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Hippolytus took issue with the teachings of Gnosticism. It is still very much alive today. The Masonic movement and Scientology are considered as Gnostic and the movie/book The Da Vinci Code uses Gnostic influences to attempt undermine Christianity.

Despite all the heresies in the early church (among them, Adoptionism, Albigenses, Apollinarianism, Arianism, Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Kenosis, Marcionism, Modalism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Patripassionism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Socinianism, Subordinationism, and Tritheism, etc.) the Word of God still abides (1 Pet 1:23). Amidst all these assaults against God and his church by numerous false religions, the church has grown stronger, not weaker. In many ways, the church should be thankful for the gift of opposition!

Related Topics:

Could Jesus Sin?
Christological Heresies?
What is Adoptionism?
What is Albigenses?
What is Apollinarianism?
What is Arianism?
What is Docetism?
What is Ebionism?
What is Kenosis?
What is Marcionism?
What is Modalism?
What is Monarchianism?
What is Monophysitism?
What is Nestorianism?
What is Patripassionism?
What is Pelagianism?
What is Semi-Pelagianism?
What is Socinianism?
What is Subordinationism?
What is Tritheism?
What is Freemasonry?
Brown's Inquest - The Da Vinci Code, Fact or Fiction
Cruising for a Bruising - Scientology's Relatives of Gnosticism and Satanism

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).