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Gnosticism is a heresy which is made up of a diverse set of beliefs. It is the teaching based on the idea of gnosis (a Koine Greek word meaning "secret knowledge"), or knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of internal, intuitive means. While Gnosticism thus relies on personal religious experience as its primary authority, early "Christian" Gnostics did adopt their own versions of authoritative Scriptures, such as those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.
What we know about Gnosticism comes from Irenaeus who studied twenty of the most influential Gnostic writers and defined and criticized their beliefs. Other early church fathers, such as Tertullian and Origen also provide information regarding Gnostic beliefs. Lastly, many Gnostic writings were discovered at the Nag Hammadi Library. Nag Hammadi is a town in Upper Egypt near ancient Chenoboskion and 13 codices were discovered about 1945.
The following information is taken from Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, p. 37.
Matter or materiality
Gnostics believed that matter, whether it be the physical universe or the humanly body, is evil. It is obvious that there is a great tension between spirit and matter. This effects many of their beliefs and especially the way they perceive(d) the world and God's interactions with it.
Modern 'neo-gnostics' see the material universe as ignorant of its divine origin, but not necessarily evil. Gnosis leads to less ignorance and more 'experiential knowledge' of this divinity within each person. The mechanism of Gnosis is through the work of Love, granted us by the Holy Spirit. Modern neo-Gnostics see their knowledge as being experiential and not 'secretive'.
God is wholly transcendent, that is, he is far removed from his creation. He did not create the material universe because it was instead created by an evil or lesser God, sometimes called a "demiurge". God is thus too perfect and pure to have much to do with the evilness of the material universe.
Modern 'Neo-Gnostics' see no duality between Divinity and the material universe, subscribing to a type of 'panentheism' where gnosis leads to knowledge of the divine within each person. The early Gnostic 'Demiurge cosmology' described here is seen as a mythological template rather than as literal.
Gnostics believed that human beings were "sparks" or "droplets" of the very same spiritual substance (or essence) that God is. Somehow we we became trapped in our physical bodies from which we are to escape.
Again, modern neo-gnostics see this as neither a trap nor evil, but ignorant of our true origins.
All Gnostics agreed that The Fall was identical to the fall into matter. In other words, creation and The Fall coincide. "As long as spirits are trapped in physical bodies and materiality, they will be subject to sin, which is caused by ignorance of their true nature and home."
Modern neo-Gnostics see the Fall as a separation of us through ignorance from our Divine being. Thus, sin is seen as 'missing the mark' or harmatia (the original word for sin) or separation from God, rather than as a moral value judgement imposed by also-imperfect Church hierarchies.
Gnosticism commonly held that "salvation is to escape from the bondage of the material existence and travel back to the home from which souls/spirits have fallen." God initiates salvation because he wants to draw back the stray bits and pieces of himself, and so he sends forth an emanation of himself - "a spiritual redeemer" - who comes down from heaven and gives an attempt to teach some of the "divine sparks of Spirit" what their true identity is and where their real home lies. Once they are awakened by this redeemer they can then begin their journey back home. "Salvation is by knowledge - self-knowledge."
Modern neo Gnostics see this self knowledge as being knowledge of their true nature, which is of one nature with God. Mystical Christianity often shares this viewpoint from within mainstream Christianity.
Lastly, as far as most scholars know, Gnostics considered themselves Christians and saw Jesus as a heavenly messenger. However, they rejected the idea of God becoming incarnate (God becoming a man), dying and rising bodily. "These beliefs were considered unspiritual and against true wisdom because they entangled spirit with matter." Most Gnostics believe that whoever entered Jesus at his baptism left him before he died on the cross.
Modern Neo Gnostics see the Jesus story as telling of the rebirth of mankind from ignorance through knowledge. Love, represented by the Christ and available to us now through the action of the Holy Spirit is where we can experience this Gnosis/knowledge of God.
Gnosticism's present existence
This view is still in existence today, both in various secretive cults and in Gnostic churches with legitimate Apostolic Succession, seminaries, and regular Services.
The Masonic movement has been incorrectly referred to as a Gnostic movement. (Masonry has no method of salvation but teaches morality while encouraging members to practice the Faith of their choice). The popular book The Da Vinci Code (2003, Doubleday) by Dan Brown promotes Gnostic ideas as it attempts to provide a more heart-centred alternative to orthodox Christianity.
The description as 'heretical' can only be applied in relation to 'mainstream' Christianity much as the term 'pagan' only relates to mainstream Christianity and cannot be taken as a valuative term. Modern Gnosticism is a valid spirituality that centres on personal experience of divinity without requirement for churches and hierarchical power structures such as churches.
- Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. (IVP, 1999) ISBN 0830815058
- Gnosticism from Elwell Evangelical Dictionary
- The Heresy that Wouldn't Die, by Philip Jenkins (Christian History & Biography)
- Directory of Online Gnostic Studies Resources
- The Gnostic Society Library
- Gnosticism (newadvent.org)
- Gnosticism (The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in recent debate, by Edwin M. Yamauchi