The Gnostic threat

A somewhat related threat, Gnosticism, had wide vogue in the first few centuries of Christianity. Foreshadowings of it are recorded in the first century and in the second century it attained major proportions. As we saw earlier, Gnosticism was not a phenomenon which was to be found only in the guise of Christianity, but was widely prevalent in the Mediterranean world into which Christianity was ushered. This pagan Gnosticism was protean, taking many forms and drawing from a wide variety of sources. Into one or another of its varieties entered contributions from Orphic and Platonic dualism, other schools of Greek thought, Syrian conceptions, Persian dualism, the mystery cults, Meso-potamian astrology, and Egyptian religion. It was highly syncretistic. When combined with certain elements from Christianity, Gnosticism proved so attractive that, while no accurate figures are obtainable, the suggestion has been made that for a time the majority of those who regarded themselves as Christians adhered to one or another of its many forms.

The Gnosticism which essayed to knit Christ into its speculations included many different systems. Indeed, it is evidence of the power inherent in the Gospel and the excitement produced by it that it stimulated the formation of these multitudinous expressions.

Among the names that have come down to us as prominent in the creation of Gnosticism is Simon Magus, of whom we hear in The Acts of the Apostles as a magician in Samaria who professed conversion and was denounced by Peter for his attempt to buy the power to confer the Holy Spirit. Tradition, possibly authentic, declares that he was the father of several aberrant variants of Christianity. We also hear much, among others, of Basilides of Alexandria and of Valentinus, an Alexandrian who attained fame as a teacher in Rome and who had many disciples. Some of the Gnostics seem to have been men of better than average intellect and of deep religious feeling. We read of such schools as the Naassenes, who worshipped the serpent as the principle of generation, and their subgroups, the Sethians and the Perates, the latter esteeming the serpent as midway between the Father and unformed matter.

In general the Gnostics believed in a Gnosis, which was not a philosophy which issued from man's striving, but a knowledge that had been revealed and was transmitted to those who were initiated into it. It had the fascination which for so many inheres in a secret disclosed to the privileged few. It professed to be universal, incorporating whatever of truth had been disclosed in any of the faiths to which mankind gave allegiance. It regarded pure spirit as good, but thought of that spirit as having become imprisoned in corrupt matter. Salvation was the freeing of spirit from matter. This salvation was to be attained by the teaching of revealed truth which was presented in the form of mysteries and which by stages was to emancipate the possessor and bring him back to the realm of pure spirit. Justification for the Gnostic beliefs was sought in the Christian and Jewish writings, allegorically interpreted, and in supposed teachings of Jesus which had not been committed to writing, but which had been handed down secretly through oral tradition.

To the modern mind the systems of which these were general characteristics seem complicated and even bizarre. In general they held that there exists a first Principle, the all-Father, unknowable, who is love, and who alone can generate other beings. Since love abhors dwelling alone, this first Principle brought into existence other beings, sons, which together with the first Principle constitute the Pleroma, "Fullness," true Reality. From this world of the spirit the present world appeared. According to one system this was through the work of one of the sons who, moved by pride, wished to do what the all-Father had done, and create something on her own. The present world was ascribed to a subordinate being, the Demiurge, who was identified with the God of the Old Testament.

This present world, the world of matter, so this view held, has in it some traces of the spirit world. Men belong to this present world, and are compounded of spirit and matter, soul and flesh. Some have more of spirit than do others. Salvation, the freeing of spirit from the contamination of matter, is through Christ the redeemer. Many different accounts, conceptions, and interpretations were given of Christ. Some held that Christ was never associated with flesh, but that he merely seemed to be man and was really pure spirit. Another system conceived Christ as an son. This view separated Christ from Jesus, but held the latter also to have been an son in whom something of all the other sons was included. It also taught that another Jesus, sent to be the saviour of men, was born of the Virgin Mary. Not all men are saved, so the Gnostics went on to say, for many have little or nothing of spirit in them and m due time they will be destroyed. Others, having a portion of spirit in them will be saved by being taught the hidden knowledge, or Gnosis, and through faith and works. They will be freed from the contamination of the flesh and mount to the Pleroma.

The Gnostics had no well knit, inclusive organization. They were too divided and too varied to be brought together. Some remained within the existing churches, teaching their doctrines, until they were cast out as heretics. Others formed themselves into separate congregations. These had special rites, distinct from those of the churches which did not hold their views, and some resembled the mystery cults which were widespread in the contemporary Roman Empire. Several were strictly ascetic in their morals. Others, claiming that, being predominantly spiritual by nature, they could not be corrupted, felt free to go to pagan festivals and to gladiatorial contests, and even to have irregular unions with women who had accepted their doctrines. Such at least were the accusations of their critics.

Obviously Gnosticism tended to minimize the historical element in Christianity and to divorce the faith from the life, acts, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It was a group of attempts at a universal religion which would take advantage of contributions from many sources, but which would hold as a basic assumption a sharp distinction between spirit and matter and would give to Christ a central place in achieving man's salvation. It was an effort, perhaps not consciously recognized as such, to acclimatize Christianity in a popular religious trend of the day and to show it to be consistent with it and a fulfilment, of it. In doing so, by omission and interpretation it so badly distorted Jesus as to make him quite different from the Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Had Christianity come to be identified with Gnosticism, presumably it would have disappeared as the contemporary beliefs of non-Christian origin which were the outstanding features of Gnosticism ceased to have currency.

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