[5] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE): Gnosticism

Because there is so much reading involved, I gathered the highlights into another outline. Still a lot to read, but a lot more focused. I would really encourage you all to get a solid understanding of what Gnosticism is, because that is precisely what we battle here. It is all derived from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia under the heading “Gnosticism”. Can you see the parallels and Gnostic tendencies resurface in cannabis prohibition?

Footnote 4 Highlights- Gnosticism

I.General Definition
-The Gnostics took over only the idea of a redemption through Christ, not the full Christian doctrine, for they made it rather a redemption of the philosophers from matter, than a redemption of mankind from sin
-Gnosticism may be described generally as the fantastic product of the blending of certain Christian ideas–particularly that of redemption through Christ–with speculation and imaginings derived from a medley of sources (Greek, Jewish, Parsic; philosophies; religions, theosophies, mysteries)
-Gnosticism, though usually regarded as a heresy, was not really such: it was not the perverting of Christian truth; it came, rather, from outside. Having worked its way into the Christian church, it was then heretical. “Although it became a corrupting influence within the church, it was an alien by birth.

II. Sources of Gnosticism.
1. Alexandrian Philosophy- In Philo’s teaching there is a sharp line drawn between God and the material world: with him God cannot exert any action upon the world of matter, except through intermediate agency, the Jewish angels and the heathen demons.
-According to Philo the creation of the universe was a gradual molding out of matter; hence, arises evil. He also teaches the preexistence of the soul, which is now imprisoned in the flesh. The wise man, therefore, will break the thralldom of the flesh, and will rise by a sort of ecstasy to the immediate vision of God.
2. Zoroastrianism- The Zoroastrian or Persian system was based on the assumption that there existed two original and independent powers of good and evil, of light and darkness, the wise Lord, and the wicked spirit. These powers were believed to be equal, and each supreme in his own domain.
-In oriental (Persian) dualism, it is within this material world that the good and the evil powers are at war, and this world beneath the stars is by no means conceived as entirely subject to evil. Gnosticism has combined the two, the Greek opposition between spirit and matter, and the sharp Zoroastrian dualism And out of the combination of these two dualisms arose the teaching of Gnosticism with its thorough going pessimism and its fundamental asceticism”

III. Nature of Gnosticism.
-“Gnosticism,” says Dr. Gwatkin, “is Christianity perverted by learning and speculation”
-Gnosticism puts knowledge in the place which can only rightly be occupied by Christian faith.
-This knowledge of theirs was not based on reflection or scientific inquiry and proof, but on revelation
-Gnosticism in all its various sections, its form and its character, falls under the category of mystic religions, which were so characteristic of the religious life of decadent antiquity

IV. Chief Points in Gnosticism:
-The questions, therefore, with which Gnosticism concerned itself were those of the relation of the finite and the infinite, the origin of the world and of evil, the cause, meaning, purpose and destiny of all things, the reason of the difference in the capacities and in the lot in life of individual men, the method of salvation. The following may be regarded as the chief points in the characteristics of the Gnostic systems:
(1). A claim on the part of the initiated to a special knowledge of the truth, a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith, and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine.
(2) The essential separation of matter and spirit, the former of these being essentially evil, and the source from which all evil has arisen.
(3) An attempt at the solution of the problems of creation and of the origin of evil by the conception of a Demiurge, i.e. a Creator or Artificer of the world as distinct from the Supreme Deity, and also by means of emanations extending between God and the visible universe. It should be observed that this conception merely concealed the difficulties of the problem, and did not solve them.
(4) A denial of the true humanity of Christ, a docetic Christology, (which looked upon the earthly life of Christ and especially on His sufferings on the cross as unreal.
(5) The denial of the personality of the Supreme God, and the denial also of the free will of man.
(6) The teaching, on the one hand, of asceticism as the means of attaining to spiritual communion with God, and, on the other hand, of an indifference which led directly to licentiousness.
(7) A syncretistic tendency which combined certain more or less misunderstood Christian doctrines, various elements from oriental and Jewish and other sources.
(8) The Scriptures of the Old Testament were ascribed to the Demiurge or inferior Creator of the world, who was the God of the Jews, but not the true God.
-Some of these characteristic ideas are more obvious in one, and some of them in others of the Gnostic systems. The relation of these ideas to Christian facts and doctrines is dealt with more particularly below.

IV. Gnosticism in the Christian Church In the New Testament and the Apostolic Age.
-The germ of Gnosticism in the Christian church made its appearance in the apostolic age, and is referred to by Paul in several of his epistles, notably in that to the Colossians and in the Pastoral Epistles. It is also referred to by the apostles Peter and Jude; references to it are found, besides, in the Apocalypse, the First Epistle of John and the Gospel of John.

1. Colossians: -In col a great deal is said regarding a false teaching, an insidious theosophist doctrine, the teachers of which were alienating the Christians in Colosse from the gospel, and were disseminating their speculations, which led to the worship of angels in contrast to the worship of Christ, to esoteric exclusiveness wholly opposed to the universality of the gospel, and to an asceticism injurious to Christian freedom, and derogatory to the human body as indwelt by the Holy Ghost. These tenets are identical with the more fully developed Gnosticism of the generation succeeding that of the apostles; and at the root of the Colossian false teaching there lay the same error which the Gnostic mind had no way of meeting, namely, that there could be no connection between the highest spiritual agency, that is God, and gross corporeal matter.
This ascetic tendency is wonderfully widespread; it reappears century after century, and shows itself in many forms of religion, not merely in distorted forms of Christianity
-In the Epistle to the Colossians, accordingly, there are definite references to ascetic practices which were inculcated by the false teachers at Colosse. The very terms which they employed have been preserved, “Touch not,” “Taste not,” “Handle not.” It was in this way that these teachers had “at their own hand” invented a worship different from that of the Christian faith, which endeavored to attain the deliverance of the soul by “the neglecting of the body” (Col 2:21,23 the King James Version). These Gnostic teachers showed these tendencies still more boldly when Paul wrote his First Epistle to Timothy (see below), for he describes them as “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats”
-These tendencies in the Colossian church Paul set himself to correct in his epistle. The method which he adopts is not so much to demolish error, as to establish the contrary truth,
-In view of truths like these, Colossian error and all other forms of Gnosticism crumble into decay and vanish.

2. Pastoral Epistles:
-In 1 Tim 6:20,21 Paul speaks of the “knowledge (the gnosis) which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith.” In other places in that epistle reference is made to tenets which are exactly those of Gnosticism.
-In 4:3, as already noted, Paul describes ascetic practices which were regarded by their votaries as most meritorious. To abstain from marriage and from various kinds of food was the teaching of the Essenes and also of the Gnostics. This ascetic teaching was unnatural, as contrary to the constitution of the world, as that has been arranged by a holy and wise Creator, and it is also subversive of Christian liberty. Nothing can be esteemed common or unclean without throwing a reproach upon the Creator.

a. Antinomian Development. -But another and contrary result also followed from the principles of the sinfulness of matter and of redemption as deliverance from the flesh, namely, that there was an easier way of relief, by treating the soul and the body as separate entities which have nothing in common. Let the soul go its way on the wings of spiritual thought, while the body may indulge its fleshly desires. For, so it was held, as body and soul are entirely distinct in their nature, the spiritual cannot be defiled by anything, however carnal and gross, that the body can do. This was the antinomian development of Gnosticism.

3. 1 John: In the First Epistle of John there is a distinct polemical purpose. There is no book of the New Testament which is more purposeful in its attack of error. There is “the spirit of error” (1 Jn 4:6), opposing the Spirit of truth. “Many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1), and this from the church itself, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 Jn 2:19); and these false prophets are distinctly named “the antichrist” (1 Jn 2:22) and “the liar” (same place), and “the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn 1:7). This peril, against which the apostle writes, and from which he seeks to defend the church, was Gnosticism, as is proved by what is said again and again in the epistle of the characteristics of this insidious and deadly teaching.
a. Its Loveless Nature. -Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, loveless intellectualism. The system was loveless to the core
b. Docetism. -Now, when the attempt was made to amalgamate these Gnostic ideas with the Christian faith, the inevitable result was Docetism. Just because God cannot have any immediate contact with matter, therefore the incarnation of Almighty God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ is inconceivable. From this position it is, of course, only a step to deny that the incarnation and the true human life of Christ ever took place at all.

c. The Antichrist. –The Antichrist of the First Epistle of John is docetic Gnosticism

d. Its Antinomian Side. -The antinomian side of Gnosticism is not so directly referred to in the First Epistle of John as Docetism is; but evidences are manifest that the apostle had it clearly before him.

The Nicolaitans.
-In the Epistles to the Seven Churches in the Apocalypse there are other references to Gnosticism. Who the Nicolaitans were (Rev 2:6,15) is not absolutely certain; but it is not unlikely that they were so called because of their having assumed the name of “Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5). The first step to the reception of Gentile believers into the Christian church on an equal footing with the Jews may have been the appointment of Nicolaus as one of the first deacons, for the facts that he was a native of Antioch and a proselyte, show that he had been a heathen by birth. And it is noteworthy to find such a person appointed to office in the church at so very early a period, even before the conversion of the apostle Paul. The Nicolaitans therefore may have distorted in an antinomian sense the doctrine taught by Nicolaus, who in all probability proclaimed the liberty of the gospel, as his fellow-deacon, Stephen, did (Acts 7 throughout). But the liberty claimed by the Nicolaitans was liberty to sin. They are mentioned in the Epistle to Ephesus, and their deeds are characterized as deeds which Christ hates (Rev 2:6). Their name occurs again in the Epistle to Pergamum, and there also their doctrine is described as a doctrine which the Lord hates (Rev 2:15). Their teaching was one of licentiousness–eating things sacrifical to idols, and committing fornication (Rev 2:14). Again in the Epistle to Thyatira, the Gnostics are spoken of as practicing the same evil courses, and as holding a doctrine of “the depths of Satan” (Rev 2:20,21,24 the King James Version)–see above. The persons mentioned in the Epistle to Philadelphia were also evidently Gnostics. They are described as being “of the synagogue of Satan” (Rev 3:9).
-In the language of Jude, as in that of Peter, which it closely imitates, we may clearly discern a reference to the Gnostic sect of the Nicolaitans mentioned by name in Revelation. The comparison in all these passages, of the error condemned with that of Balaam, is decisive as to the identity of the persons intended. The other characteristics noted by Peter are also repeated by Jude–their denial of the Lord, their profligate lives, their contempt of government, and evil speaking of dignities and of things that they know not, their pollution of the feasts of charity, their great swelling words. The antinomian, no less than the ascetic side of Gnosticism, seems by this time to have fully manifested itself” (Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies, 71).

Asecticism and Antinomianism: The necessary consequence of the Gnostic theory in an ascetic morality which passed over by sure steps into antinomian license has likewise been fully illustrated in the foregoing, and need not be further enlarged on. The whole has its root in a false intellectualism, to which the gospel in its inculcation of humility, faith and dependence upon God’s Spirit for guidance into truth is, in its inmost principle, opposed.

V. Harnack’s View of Gnosticism
-Gnosticism was an acute Hellenizing of Christianity

VI. Modern Gnosticism.
-Gnosticism in its ancient form has passed away, but it is interesting to observe how its spirit reappears from time to time in modern days. Gnosticism, as already seen, is not one aspect of thought alone, but many. And in one form or another it is seen again and again
-Phases of Gnostic teaching are reproduced in modern pantheistic philosophies and other forms of religious doctrine
-It is easily seen how teaching of this sort strikes at the root of all religion and morality. The personality of God, the personality and free will of man, the existence of moral evil, the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the redemption which He accomplished for the world, His resurrection, the whole significance of His person and His work–all is denied. This is the spirit and the meaning of Gnosticism.
-Dr. Gwatkin sums up the matter thus: “Gnosticism undermined Christian monotheism by its distinction of the Creator from the Supreme, Christian morals by its opposition of the philosopher to the unlearned, Christian practice by its separation of knowledge from action; and it cut away the very basis of the gospel whenever it explained away its history. In every case it had got hold of truth on one side–the reality of evil in the world, the function of knowledge in religion, the difference between the letter and the spirit; but fragments of truth are not enough for a gospel, which is false if all truth is not summed up in Christ. Therefore, there could be no peace between the Gnostic illuminati and the Christian churches” (Early Church History, II, 68).

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3 Responses to [5] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE): Gnosticism

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