Apostolic Gospel versus Gnosis

A fight the Church had to win between the Bible and Now

Stuart Lange

 

In the second century the Church had a major fight on its hands. It was a fight to retain the true apostolic faith in the face of a massive challenge from a wave of religious teachings called gnosticism. Nowadays, hardly anyone has heard of gnosticism. But in the second century, gnostic teachings were popular in society generally, and they threatened to swamp the Church and sink its Gospel.

The word 'gnosticism' comes from Greek word 'gnosis', meaning 'knowledge'. In its cultic sense, 'gnosis' meant the secret mystical knowledge that was allegedly possessed by a small spiritual elite. This esoteric gnosis was said to be the only true basis of spiritual enlightenment and salvation.

There are hints in the New Testament that gnostic speculation was beginning to be a problem. 1 Tim.6:20 warns of "the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge [gnosis]".

Gnosticism was not an organised religion or a coherent, fixed set of beliefs. Rather, it was a complex mass of inter-related religious ideas, a tumbling mix of Hellenism with Babylonian myths and astrology, with mystery religions such as Isis and Cybele, with speculative Judaism and a deviant Christianity.

There were pagan gnostics, Jewish gnostics, and pseudo-Christian gnostics. Some peddled their new gospel within the Church, or lured Christians away to join their own rival church. Prominent gnostic teachers included Valentinus, Basileides, Heracleon, Menander, Satornilus, Cerinthus, and - in certain respects - Marcion.

Among the Gnostics, few specific beliefs were held in common. Gnosticism had a myriad of rival teachers, all contradicting one another. Gnosticism was about as coherent as the New Age, or post-modernism. Nevertheless, certain key ideas kept recurring (in describing them, I concentrate on beliefs held by those gnostics associated in some way with Christianity).

 

Gnosticism was polytheistic and dualistic. It claimed there was a large (and often bizarre) hierarchy of divine beings, descending from the highest - and totally unknowable - God down to an inferior being who had created the world.

Behind such schemes lay the dualistic presupposition that there must be a clear separation between matter (which is evil) and spirit (which is good). It was inconceivable that the high God could be involved in such a shameful act as creation. Rather, creation was the evil by-product of some primeval spiritual disorder.

Gnosticism sidelined the historic Gospel. It could not accept the incarnation, or the suffering of God in the Cross. In any case, the Gospel proclaimed by the Church - they said - was not the inside story: Jesus, it was argued, had imparted to a few of the apostles a 'secret' revelation of salvation for the spiritual 'elect', now preserved in the gnostic teachings.

Several gnostics even wrote their own 'gospels', allegedly containing the true record of Jesus. They also read the canonical Scriptures through gnostic eyes, re-interpreting them at will. They often claimed that this or that Scripture was allegorical, containing veiled gnostic teaching.

Salvation, according to the gnostics, was only for the spiritual elite, the 'pneumatikoi': those who had implanted within them the divine spark or seed. That divine deposit was now imprisoned in flesh. The spirit of the gnostics was also said to be 'pearl' embedded in 'mud'.

But the gnostics' spirits could be released through gnosis. Their spirits would soar through the heavenlies to God. Ordinary Christians were not saved, and never could be. Only the spiritually elect could be saved. Those who rejected gnosticism were obviously unspiritual!

It is not difficult to see how such teachings, which were being actively promoted among Christians, were an absolute nightmare for Church leaders. The Gnostic teaching subverted almost every major Christian truth. Imagine having such a group in your congregation!

It is also not hard to see parallels with a number of ideas at large in today's world, which similarly challenge biblical truth on such matters as the oneness of God and the Trinity, the full divinity of Jesus, the reality of the incarnation, cross and resurrection, the authority of the apostolic testimony, the grace of God and the invitation to salvation through faith in Jesus.

The underlying issue is one of authority, or truth. On what basis do we accept the biblical Gospel as true? On what basis do we reject the gnostic gospels? On what basis do we reject the revelations claimed by the cults? On what basis do we critique a diminished 'christian' gospel that has sold out to culture, or to western consumerism, or to rationalistic unbelief, or to pluralism with regard to truth, or to a this-world-only social agenda, or to a vague New Age spirituality?

 

The response of the early church leaders to gnosticism is instructive. Their key response was to insist on 'the authority of the apostolic testimony' - as recorded in Scripture, and as taught by the apostles' chosen and trusted successors. The authority of apostolic truth was buttressed in a number of ways.

A foundational strategy was to insist that to be authentic, teaching must also be consistent with the Scriptures. Revelation cannot be tampered with. The apostolic teaching is faithfully preserved in the inspired Scriptures, and their authority is beyond question. This understanding of Scripture as the touchstone of all doctrinal truth was re-emphasised by the Reformers, and later by Evangelicals.

But in a situation where many apocryphal and gnostic 'scriptures' were circulating, it was increasingly necessary for the Church to declare which were genuinely apostolic, and which were spurious. The criterion used was either a clear link with an apostle (such as Luke and Acts, through Paul) or general recognition by the church on the basis of self-evident inspiration.

By the second century there was already a large measure of agreement, and the core of the New Testament looked the same as now. But there were hesitations in some quarters about certain books (eg. Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Revelation), and complete formal agreement was still a couple of centuries off.

Another strategy was the increased use of creeds: authoritative summaries of the faith that could be recited and learned by heart. Creeds and confessions of faith are often neglected by today's Church. But they are useful for teaching and protecting orthodox Christian faith, especially in a society where there is a lot of religious confusion.

A further tactic was to expose the gnostic teachings, by describing and then rebutting them. Lots of Christian writers attacked gnosticism, but the early Church's gnostic-buster par excellence was Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon. He wrote the five volume Against Heresies: The Unmasking and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So-called. Because of the absurdity of the Gnostic beliefs, he wrote, "merely to describe such doctrines is to refute them".

He wanted, he said, "to compel the animal to break cover . . . to inflict wounds from every side . . . [and] finally slay the brute". He was not doing so just to be aggressive - at stake was the truth of the authentic Gospel. Irenaeus also pointed out the inconsistency of the gnostic teachers: "you hardly find two or three that agree on anything: they all contradict each other, both in . . . terminology and substance".

A further response to gnostic error was to emphasise the teaching authority of the Church's leaders, and to insist that they alone are the legitimate heirs of the apostles, they alone are trustees of the authentic Gospel. Irenaeus stressed the continuity of teaching between the apostles and their trusted successors, the bishops. He pointed to his own link with the apostle John, through Polycarp.

For Irenaeus, it was sheer nonsense and fabrication to suggest that the apostles passed on two traditions - one public but false, and the other secret but true. "We can list those who were by the apostles appointed bishops in the churches and their successors down to our own time. They neither taught nor knew anything like what these heretics rave about. Suppose the apostles had known hidden mysteries . . . surely they would have handed them down especially to those to whom they were also entrusting the churches themselves".

 

While an emphasis on the teaching authority of the bishops and of the Church was helpful at that time, it does have its obvious dangers. What would happen when the institutional church itself began to drift away from the biblical Gospel and to assimilate sub-biblical doctrines and practices?

Then, as now, strong authority and leadership in the Church must always be linked with - and subject to - the authority of Scripture. The only sure anchor to the Church's teaching is the Scripture - understood soberly, and without interpretative peculiarity.

An answer to one situation may have unintended results in another. The emphasis on the apostolic authority of the bishops was later used to support a developed sacramental understanding of ordination, and Irenaenus' commendation of the apostolic teaching authority (and orthodoxy) of the bishop of Rome was later used to support medieval notions of the papacy.

Irenaeus argued that the 'catholicity' (ie. universality and uniformity) of Christian teaching is a guarantee of its authenticity. "All who wish to see the truth can clearly contemplate, in every church, the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world", and: "The church, though scattered throughout the whole world to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God . . . one Christ . . . and in the Holy Spirit".

Secret traditions or doctrinal idiosyncrasies are always false teaching. As has been well said, Christian orthodoxy is "what has always been believed by all Christians everywhere" (Lerins). Such an understanding allows for shades of interpretation and emphasis, and different cultural expression and application - but it rules out any major deviation from apostolic teaching.

There was much else going on in the second century. But the fight against gnosis was one that the Church simply had to win. In the providence of God, the Gospel prevailed. In the process, the Church was helpfully stimulated to clarify and defend its core beliefs, to define its authorities, and to sharpen up its teaching ministries.


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