Gnosticism traces its roots back just after the beginning of the Christian Church. Some researchers state that evidence of its existence even predates Christianity. Whichever the case, the error of Gnosticism had affected the culture and church of the time and possibly even earned a mention in 1 John 4.
The word, "gnosticism," comes from the Greek word, "gnosis," which means "knowledge." There were many groups that were Gnostic, and it isn't possible to easily describe the nuances of each variant of Gnostic doctrines. However, generally speaking, Gnosticism taught that salvation is achieved through special knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge usually dealt with the individual's relationship to the transcendent Being.
A more detailed Gnostic theology is as follows. The unknowable God was far too pure and perfect to have anything to do with the material universe which was considered evil. Therefore, God generated lesser divinities or emenations. One of these emanations, Wisdom, desired to know the unknowable God. Out of this erring desire the demiurge, an evil god, was formed, and it was this evil god that created the universe. He along with archons kept the mortals in bondage in material matter and tried to prevent the pure spirit souls from ascending back to god after the death of the physical bodies. Since, according to the Gnostics, matter is evil, deliverance from material form was attainable only through special knowledge revealed by special Gnostic teachers. Christ was the divine redeemer who descended from the spiritual realm to reveal the knowledge necessary for this redemption. In conclusion, Gnosticism is dualistic. That is, it teaches there is a good and evil, spirit and matter, light and dark, etc., dualism in the universe.
What we know about Gnosticism is gained from the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and some later manuscripts discovered in the eighteenth century such as the "Codex Askew, Codex Bruce, the Berlin Gnostic Codes and, most recently, the Nag Hammadi collection."1 Nag Hammadi is a town in Upper Egypt near ancient Chenoboskion and 13 codices discovered were discovered about 1945.
The danger of Gnosticism is easily apparent. It denies the incarnation of God as the Son. In so doing, it denies the true efficacy of the atonement since, if Jesus is not God, He could not atone for all of mankind, and we would still be lost in our sins.
There is debate whether or not this is a Christian heresy or simply an independent development. The evidence seems to point to the later. Nevertheless, the Gnostics laid claim to Jesus as a great teacher of theirs and as such requires some attention. It is possible that 1 John was written against some of the errors that Gnosticism promoted.
- 1. Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.