In this two-part series I wish to examine the deadliness and danger of heresies that plagued the early church with the purpose of warning against modern heresies and calling for theological literacy and heightened zeal for the glory of God. I pray we will see that theology matters in order for the church to continue in the truth of God. In part one, I wish to briefly define Gnosticism and discuss the deadliness and danger this heresy presented to the early church.
After the generation of the apostles had passed, the early church was left with the task of contending for the faith (Jude 3). Many heresies were rampant in the early church during the first century. We see the apostles so often in the New Testament combating these false teachings through writing and affirmation of the gospel of Christ. Though Paul, John, Peter, Jude, and the rest of the apostles gone to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8) by the second and third centuries, heresies still took shots at the Christian faith and worldview. Among the early heresies (i.e. Modalism, Manicheanism, Neoplatonism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, Gnosticism, etc.) I would contend that Gnosticism was the most deadly for a number of reasons.
What is Gnosticism?
Firstly, what is Gnosticism? Gnosticism can be succinctly defined as a heresy stemming from Greek philosophy that was at its most deadly prime around the year 150 AD that “differentiated the god of the Old Testament and the god of the New Testament, embraced metaphysical dualism, held a docetic view of Jesus Christ, and claimed to possess a secret gnosis knowledge regarding salvation” (Allison, Historical Theology, 746). This heresy resulted from a desire to develop an adequate theodicy (an explanation of the origin of evil). It contains some Christian elements mixed with Platonic philosophy and some Eastern ideologies. Gnostics believed matter to be evil (Platonic philosophy) and so they understood God as spirit in order to understand him as being separate from evil. In this part of the definition alone it is easy to see Gnosticism’s synthesis of Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy. If the Gnostics had had Christianity their way, Christianity would be nothing more than one among a plethora of philosophical religions.
Three Deadly Errors
There are three major elements of Gnosticism that make it one of the most deadly heresies in the early church. May the error of the Gnostics be a lesson to us all.
1. Gnosticism denies God as Creator. Because Gnosticism seeks to separate God from anything physical or material, Gnostics believed that God could not have created the material world or else he would be evil. The dualism that undergirds Gnosticism leads to this error. This is grievous for obvious reasons. If God is not Creator then he subsequently cannot be the sovereign Lord over the earth. It is because God personally and powerfully created the world that he rightly reigns supremely over it. Instead, the Gnostics wrongly believed that there was a “demiurge” who was more matter than the god of Gnosticism who was solely spirit. This demiurge “had enough of spirit in him to have creative power and enough of matter to create the evil material world” (Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 96). Gnostics believed the demiurge to be the God of the Old Testament, whom they hated (Ibid. 96).
2. Gnosticism denies Jesus Christ’s humanity. So, with this dualism, how did the Gnostics understand Christ, the God-man? They developed a doctrine known as Docetism. Gnosticism denies the clear biblical teaching that Jesus was fully man. Gnosticism’s dualistic philosophy could not reconcile Christ’s spiritual purity with physical corruption and evil. So, they denied it. Gnostics sought to understand God through human wisdom, a problem Paul had to address with the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1-2). Docetism teaches that “Christ came upon the human body of Jesus only for a short time—between the baptism of the man Jesus and the beginning of His suffering on the cross. Then Christ left the man Jesus to die on the cross” (Ibid. 97). The problem with this doctrine is enormous. Christianity stands or falls on the person of Christ. It was a consequent absolute necessity for Christ to die as a God-man once God decided to redeem fallen man. But is understanding Jesus as being fully man really all that necessary? Uh, yes. Here are but a few reasons why:
(1) Man owes God the debt of perfect righteousness. Jesus earned our righteousness in the flesh. In order for man to be with God, he must possess perfect righteousness. As a man, Jesus lived a life without sin, though he was greatly tempted (Heb. 4:13). As a sinless man, and only as a sinless man, could Jesus die on behalf of sinners.
(2) Only God can pay the debt. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). No man can pay the debt of perfect righteousness that is necessary to be right with God. Nor could any man appease the wrath of God by dying to atone for the sins of others, for who would atone for his sins? Only God in the flesh could save humanity from the wrath of God against us in our sin. The appeasement of God’s wrath relied on the work of a perfect and sinless God-man—Christ alone. Gnosticism’s denial of this key Christian tenet made it very poisonous and deadly in the church.
3. Gnosticism taught a self-salvation of the soul (not the body) through a special “gnosis” or knowledge given to only certain kinds of people (the elite). There are numerous problems with this biblically and theologically that deal with both salvation and resurrection. I will address these issues in reverse order. Firstly, Paul is clear that because of our union with Christ, our bodies will one day be resurrected in glory because of his resurrection. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:12)? But even further, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised…For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor. 15:13, 16). Then Paul concludes that faith in Christ is vain and his entire ministry is a waste if Christ was not risen and, by extension, if we one day are not risen bodily. “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). This denial of the bodily resurrection of the dead makes Gnosticism deadly to the Christian faith because of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:15).
Secondly, the fundamental teaching of Gnosticism that a special knowledge is required for salvation in the sense that it helps “man save himself by an intellectual process” directly opposes the humble faith alone in Christ alone required for salvation according to the Scriptures (Eph. 2:8). Salvation in Gnosticism is only open to an aristocratic elite. Salvation according to Christianity is offered to all kinds of people of all mental, physical, and social abilities and statuses. The glory of God’s grace in salvation was at stake with the presence of Gnosticism in the church.
In the end, the second century heresy of Gnosticism presented the early church with a dilemma that was necessary to be addressed. Cairns correctly observes, “A critique of Gnosticism from a scriptural standpoint will soon make it clear that the church was wise to fight this doctrine” (Ibid. 97). And fight they did. In part two we will look at the responses of the early church as we draw lessons from both their zeal and the Gnostics’ errors.