In part one, we looked at the second century heresy called Gnosticism and its pollution of the early church. We defined it while discussing its deadly features. As we close out this short two-part series on Gnosticism in the early church, here I wish to present some practical implications to take away from that discussion. In other words, I seek to answer here, “Why is it important for us to know about Gnosticism and the early church?” This is where the “us” part of the title comes into play.
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” (Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 97). Despite all of Gnosticism’s obvious negative effects on the church, indirectly its arrival contributed to the development of the church. The church grows substantially under persecution and attack. However, I wonder if the church today would respond to heresies like Gnosticism and contend for the faith in the spirit of Jude. I am often encouraged by leaders such as Al Mohler, Russell Moore, John Piper, David Platt, Mark Dever, John Frame, Ligon Duncan, Wayne Grudem, and many others as they contend for the faith and fight false teachings through sermons, lectures, conferences, books, and blog posts whenever they rear their ugly heads within both the church and culture. However, I also see many examples in the local church of hesitance, ignorance, and silence when heretical and unbiblical thoughts, teachings, and lifestyles persist among believers. I see the local church being content with theological illiteracy. And when the local church refuses to care about her theology, she will fall when the darts of heretics shoot from TV programs and the Internet. I think we can learn a great deal from both the Gnostics and the early Christians who combated them as we seek to keep the Bride of Christ pure through a commitment to sound theology and biblical doctrine as we root out the false teachings of our day.
5 Lessons from the Gnostics
- Marvel at the glory of God’s complexity. We must submit our minds and hearts in humility to the majesty that is God’s wisdom over and against ours. We are finite in all things. God is infinite in all things. When we struggle to come up with an answer to how God is sovereign and we are responsible or how evil persists in a world created by a loving and powerful God, we must submit our minds and hearts to the inerrant truth of Scripture, just like the early church.
- Trust God at his word when we cannot make sense of things in his Word and our lives. He is sovereign. We are not.
- Pride roots out the gospel. The Gnostics were proud of their wisdom and this pride ultimately led to their denial of the personhood of Christ as well as the gospel itself.
- Heresy can creep in through good intentions. By seeking to understand how evil can exist in a world created by a good God, the Gnostics flew to heresy as they fitted Scripture to their philosophical liking. Be careful. Do not allow personal philosophies or finite desires to dictate our theology and interpretation of Scripture.
- Deep theological discussion and study in the local church is of high importance. Heresies are deadly, dangerous, and deceiving. Joel Osteen can sound pretty convincing and the crumbs of truth that he throws out are enough to keep his audience waiting for more. Yet crumbs are all he has as he abandons the Bread of Life through his prosperity “gospel” teachings. The more honest theological discussions and teachings that take place in the local church, the better-equipped believers and whole congregations will be to combat these heresies. Pastors that ignore theology are probably unaware of how many within his own congregation embrace poisonous heresies.
3 Lessons from the Early Church
- Be loud, not silent. Countless pages were written by Irenaeus and others to combat the heresy of Gnosticism. We should imitate these early brothers in their zeal and passion to interact with these false teachings and expose them with the light of the glory of God as he has revealed himself in Christ and in his Word.
- Be courageous, not cowardly. The early church courageously fought Gnosticism. These teachings were rooted out of the early church and as I mentioned earlier, the church blossomed as a result of a renewed commitment to the Word of God as the church’s authority. May we risk jobs, popularity, and comfort for the truth.
- Be aware, not ignorant. As Christians, we must be aware of the many heresies that are afloat in our pluralistic American church culture. Ignoring them does not negate their presence or danger, it only fuels it. Increased interaction through small groups should bring many heresies and adherence to them to light.
Contend for the Faith
If Gnosticism had not been addressed by men like Irenaeus, it would have succeeded and “Christianity would have been simply another philosophical religion of the ancient world” (Ibid. 97). A lot is at stake when it comes to heresies for the local church. Be encouraged by the diligence of the early church to fight heresies in the tradition of the apostles. At the same time, take the example of the Gnostics as a warning against allowing outside or inside philosophies to trump the supremacy of Christ and the sufficiency of Scripture. May it be a mark of the church to fight for the glory of God in all doctrinal matters as we seek to glorify Christ in all biblical truth. And may we ever present a gospel to a world lost and dead in sin that is according to the true, infallible, inerrant, and inspired revelation of God in his Word.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. –Jude 3
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. –1 Timothy 6:12
Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg Allison