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Knowing the Gnostics

Within both Protestant and Catholic Churches there is the notion of an “undivided Church,” a united body (however governed) untroubled by schism from the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry until July 16, 1054. That was the dark day when Cardinal Humbert, emissary of Pope Leo IX, stalked up to the high altar of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to place upon it a notice of excommunication. Patriarch Michael Cerularius thundered back in kind, and the great schism began between what have become known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

Liberal churchmen of all persuasions today exhort their flocks to put aside dogmatic preoccupations; the Church’s divisions, they say, come from men, not God. They urge a return to the halcyon days when Christians were, presumably, untroubled by theological hairsplitting. A “small-group leader” in my college Evangelical days bemoaned Christians’ unconcern for social action. “The early Christians had it in Acts, when they shared possessions in common in chapter two,” he observed. “What do you think happened after that? Too much dogma?” 

My answer was, of course, No. Dogma is the Church’s reason for living. It is the formulation of divinely-revealed truths for our salvation. Saying the Church has too much dogma is like saying that the Church has too much truth. The general distaste among liberals for dogma may be connected to the fact that the record of the Church’s understanding of this truth is not always a peaceful one. As ages pass, doctrines develop; implications of unchanging revealed truths unfold. This development is the fruit of conflict and dissension, as men have disagreed about the nature of the development. The truth is painful a-borning. 

The undivided Church of the first millennium is a naive myth. Divisions have been part of the Church’s life since apostolic times, and both our Lord and Paul find a place for them in the workings of divine providence. Heresies and schisms have certainly produced misunderstanding, bitterness, and possibly even the tragedy beyond all tragedies, the loss of souls. Yet at the same time the fires of dispute have refined the Church’s understanding of apostolic teaching to a crystalline clarity, enriching the spirits of her children with the pure nourishment of the truth. 

The ongoing process of the development of doctrine is the uncovering of heretofore hidden wealth. Often this wealth is found amidst the dross of error and misapprehension, from which it is separated by the Church’s magisterium under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is important and valuable to study the heresies that have occasionally convulsed the Church, for from combat with them come the formulations of our faith that we still use today. 

The earliest challenge to apostolic teaching came from Gnosticism. The name comes from the Greek word for knowledge,  gnosis; Gnostics were knowers, or those who believed that knowledge, not grace, was necessary for salvation. Gnostic teachers elaborated immensely arcane and detailed explanations of the spiritual realm. 

They imagined anthropomorphic beings by the bushel: Word, Grace, Life, and First Beginning took their places alongside others with names like Profundity, Silence, Mingling, Pleasure, Happiness, and even Metrical and Immovable. Irenaeus of Lyons, [ A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (Against Heresies), Alexander Roberts, trans. Book 1 chap. 1. In  The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1985.] With all these they constructed what may have been the “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4) that Paul warned Timothy to reject. Paul seems to have been acquainted with some form of Gnosticism, since he admonishes his protégé to “avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge [ gnosis]” (1 Tim. 6:20). 

The great apostle criticizes “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already” (2 Tim. 2:17-18). James M. Robinson, a scholar of Gnosticism, observes that “this view, that the Christian’s resurrection has already taken place as a spiritual reality, is found in the Treatise on Resurrection, the  Exegesis on the Soul, and the  Gospel of Philip: Gnostic texts all.[ James M. Robinson, ed.,  The Nag Hammadi Library, introduction. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978, 5.]

These and other passages in the New Testament make it certain that Gnosticism existed in some form as early as the apostolic age. Actually, many elements of Gnosticism predate the Incarnation; but throughout its life Gnosticism showed a parasitical tendency to attach itself to other religious systems, reinterpret them in a “mystical” way, and draw away their members to the new “spiritual” form of the system. When it attacked Christianity in this way it proved a formidable opponent for the early Church. 

Beyond the New Testament, anti-Gnostic polemics were penned in the second century by such notable figures as Ignatius of Antioch (in the year 107) and Irenaeus of Lyons (around 180). In succeeding years other Catholics took an occasional stab at Gnostic pretensions, indicating that even then the beast wasn’t dead; indeed, traces of Gnostic teaching might even lurk in the Muslim Koran, a seventh-century product.

Because of its secretive and adaptable nature, Gnosticism is impossible to capture in a single creed or list of doctrines. There were, however, certain beliefs evidently held by all Gnostic schools, or at least by the ones combatted in the New Testament and later Catholic polemicists. These included the idea that the creation of this world was fundamentally an error, the product of wickedness. 

The mistake was precisely its physicality, as explained in the third-century Gnostic Gospel of Philip: “The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. he fell short of attaining his desire.” [The Gospel of Philip, 75, Wesley Isenberg, trans., in  The Nag Hammadi Library. 

This creator and god of the base world, the Demiurge, was no nobler than his handiwork. Gnostics portrayed him as so ignorant that he thought he was the only God; he wasn’t able to perceive the profusion of greater beings from whom he (unfortunately for them) sprang. Some humans, meanwhile, had been given a spark of knowledge of the higher gods. This knowledge would ultimately result in the believer’s being rescued from this lesser and fallen material world and reunited with the higher gods in the purely spiritual realm. 

Christ in Christian-based Gnosticism was an agent of the higher realms come to rescue men from the dreary material world and its stupid tyrant god. Consequently Gnostics in Christian circles tended to reject the Old Testament and claim that it depicted a different God from that of the New; the Creator had to be separated from the Savior. Christ, moreover, was a purely spiritual being who would never deign to assume flesh drawn from the evil earth of the Demiurge. 

Paul takes up this challenge and teaches that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The Greek word for fullness, moreover, is  pleroma, the term the Gnostics used for their party-house of spiritual beings. But Paul insists that Christ was no mere ambassador from the  pleroma; on the contrary, the only real  pleroma was in him. 

Gnostics trying to deny the reality of the Savior’s body had to explain the manifest records of Christ’s walking, eating, and sleeping in the gospels. For that they resorted to the theory that his body was somehow only an apparent one, assumed by Christ only to make himself known to man: the  Gospel of Philip reports, “Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not reveal himself in the manner in which he was, but it was in the manner in which they would be able to see him that he revealed himself.” [The Gospel of Philip, 57.] Another Gnostic work, the Acts of John, goes further: “I will tell you another glory, brethren: sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal . . . as if it did not exist at all.” [Acts of John 93, in Elaine Pagels,  The Gnostic Gospels New York: Vintage, 1981, 88.] 

John counters the allegation of an immaterial Christ in his first Epistle when he insists that “the Word of Life,” that is, Christ, is “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Christ did not take on flesh in appearance only or merely as a vehicle; rather, “the Life was made manifest, and we saw it” (1 John 1:2). John and the other apostles actually saw the Life, Christ himself; they didn’t see a semblance of the Life, or some container that held the Life. The apostle adds an anti-Gnostic test for orthodox Catholics: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). 

Years later, in 107, firsthand memories of the apostles were fading in the young Church, but the Gnosticism that Paul and John had fought had not gone away. Ignatius Theophorus, Bishop of Antioch, who was rumored to have been the little child placed among the apostles by our Lord (Matt. 18 :2), wrote a series of letters to Churches while on his way to Rome. He was going to the imperial capital for his own martyrdom, for which he longed; he knew the truth of Paul’s words that it is “far better” to “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).

To the Church in Tralles, a town in Asia Minor, he wrote: “Stop your ears, therefore, when anyone speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; he was truly crucified, and truly died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead . . . But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that he only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? Why do I long to be exposed to the wild beasts?”[ Ignatius of Antioch,  Epistle to the Trallians, 8-9 in  The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol 1.]

The verdict of the Church was unanimous against the strange doctrines, but Gnosticism held its own. In the second century, probably after Ignatius attained his cherished goal, the heresy seems to have enjoyed its greatest flowering. Gnostic texts proliferated then and in the following century, often ascribed to an apostle to lend them greater weight: the  Book of Thomas the Contender, the Apocryphon of James, the Apocryphon of John, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, the Apocalypse of Paul, and so on. 

These continued to abhor the material world and deny the reality of the Incarnation. Christ did not, in becoming man, raise the dignity of the physical world; on the contrary, he came to free men from its indignity. When Christ came to earth, he “entered into the middle of their prison which is the prison of the body.” [ The Apocryphon of John, 31, Frederick Wisse, trans., in  The Nag Hammadi Library.] 

The Crucifixion lost for Gnostics all significance as a redemptive act. Since matter was evil, and death the crowning indignity of material beings, a redeemer come in the flesh to die for sin was inconceivable. The Crucifixion was explained away as another illusion, or a divine subterfuge in which a substitute stood in for Christ. In a Gnostic text called the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says: “It was another who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I . . . It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over . . . their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.” [The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, 56, Roger Bullard, trans., in  The Nag Hammadi Library. ] The  Apocalypse of Peter expands upon this theme: 

“I saw him seemingly being seized by them. And I said, ‘What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is this one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?’

“The Savior said to me, ‘He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are caving the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness. And look at him, and me!'” [ The Apocalypse of Peter, 81, Roger Bullard, trans., in The Nag Hammadi Library. ] 

During the second century there probably appeared the most important work of Gnostic literature, the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas is striking for its evidently very ancient forms of some of the sayings found in the canonical Gospels; at least parts of it probably date from the first century. In it Jesus utters cryptic Gnostic-flavored sayings, such as “he who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” 

Alongside these Christ tells the parables of the sower and of the mustard seed; he says, “whoever has ears, let him hear” “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” and “blessed are those who have heard the word of the Father and truly kept it.” [ The Gospel of Thomas, 108, 9, 20, 62, 79. Thomas O. Lambdin, trans., in  The Nag Hammadi Library. ] Helmut Koester maintains, along with many other scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity, that the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are just as old or even older than the canonical Gospels.[ Helmut Koester, The Gospel of Thomas, introduction. In The Nag Hammadi Library, 117. ]

For that reason, modern-day scholars love the Gospel of Thomas. It seems to support the modern myth, a staple of New Age bookstores, that the original teaching of Jesus was wickedly suppressed by power-hungry Church leaders who substituted the farragoes known as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. [The fiction that the canon of Scripture was settled in what is characterized as either an acrimonious debate or a furtive, clandestine meeting crops up in New Age and secular organs. In fact early ecumenical councils show no concern about the canon at all. It seems to have been settled peacefully, amid virtual unanimity. A council of Rome lists the books matter-of-factly in 382. Aside from some uncertainty of Jerome regarding the deuterocanonical books, it was not a matter of contention until the Protestant Reformation.] Thomas is like them and yet so full of Gnostic elements that it has become for scholars of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels, author of the popular study The Gnostic Gospels, a stick with which to beat the Church. In many circles, the vaunted and hitherto fruitless “search for the historic Jesus” ends with the Gospel of Thomas. Since Thomas contains no actions, but only words of Jesus, they identify it as the “Q” source of sayings. “Q” is a scholarly fiction invented to explain the sayings of Jesus that are reported by Matthew and Luke but are absent from Mark. 

Pagels and her ilk may overstate their case, but there is no denying that the Gospel of Thomas has a good claim to being just as ancient as the biblical gospels. Therefore it presents Protestants with a problem: why deny it a place in the canon? On the grounds of antiquity? No. Lack of apostolic authorship? No, for even if it doesn’t come in its present form from Thomas the apostle, it could have come from him in some way, as the Gospel of Luke originated with Paul and the Gospel of Mark with Peter. Non-orthodoxy? Yes! Here is the key every Protestant will reach for, since Paul and John fight Gnosticism in the New Testament. 

But this  sola scriptura-based argument is circular:  Thomas is rejected because it conflicts with New Testament orthodoxy, yet New Testament orthodoxy is defined by a canon that excludes  Thomas. Why should the views of Paul and John take precedence over those of Thomas, who was just as much an apostle as they were? 

There is no way out of this argument except to appeal to tradition. Only in tradition lies the key to why the Gospel of Thomas isn’t placed in hotel rooms. It wasn’t suppressed by Church leaders, who didn’t have the resources amidst ongoing persecutions to pull off such a large-scale operation. More likely, second-century Church figures simply didn’t know about it. The earliest extant post-New Testament document, the late first-century Epistle of Pope Clement I to the Corinthians, quotes extensively from the canonical Gospels, but shows no trace of Thomas. It seems likewise unknown to Ignatius of Antioch, as well as other second-century writers such as Saints Polycarp and Justin Martyr.

Irenaeus is unsparing of the idea that the apostles-any apostle-had secret teachings at all. For proof he appealed to the bishops of his own day: 

“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves.” [Irenaeus, book III, chapter iii.]

Since the Bishops would be taking the places of the apostles, they would be the first to hear the “secret teachings.” After all, it would be primarily their duty to guard and impart these precious secrets even more zealously than the open (orthodox) teachings, which for the Gnostics were an inconsequential collection of platitudes designed to pacify the simple and uninitiated: the opium of the masses. 

But Irenaeus finds no trace of Gnosticism in anything presented as Gospel teaching by the Bishops of Rome, whom he lists from Peter to Pope Eleutherius, the Pontiff reigning in Irenaeus’ time. Nor does he find any other Bishop in the Gnostic camp. Thus Gnostic pretensions about a secret apostolic corpus were exploded,  Gospel of Thomas and all. 

Ah, but that’s just the point, say the Gnostic revivalist scholars. Early writers ignore  Thomas because they are members of the Paul/John anti-Gnostic faction, set against the secret apostolic tradition represented by Gnostic writings. Second-century Gnostics supposedly built upon this secret apostolic tradition until their work was given the  coup de grâce by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, in the latter part of the second century. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who had sat at the feet of John the apostle; he squared off against Gnosticism in the monumental work which he called  A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, but which has come down through the ages as  Against Heresies. 

Irenaeus’s argument does not rest simply on the idea that the apostles would have, and manifestly did not, pass on secret Gnostic doctrines to their successors. It is also an argument from authority. About the Church of Rome he says, “for it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority.” [Ibid.] And this Church of Rome, with which all Churches must agree, is anti-Gnostic. 

Catholic dogma holds that the “preeminent authority” of Rome stems from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That being so, there can be no question that  Thomas and other Gnostic writings ascribed to the clear anti-Gnostics Paul and John (not that there is a shred of evidence that any Gnosticism comes from the real Thomas) are rightly excluded from the canon. God protected his Church and made sure that they would be excluded. 

But if the Spirit does not continue to teach the truth through the successors of the apostles, then there is no way to justify reading the preferring Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to  Thomas. It’s even unclear how one may reject the  Gospel of Truth, a product of one of Irenaeus’s chief foils, the prominent Gnostic Valentinus. Valentinus was one of the most industrious of all the Gnostics in populating the heavens with hordes of imaginary dreadful beings. 

Valentinus, moreover, complicates matters further by finding justifications for his absurd systems in “mystical” readings of the four canonical Gospels. According to Irenaeus, Valentinus pointed to the “thirty years during which they say the Savior performed no public act” as revelatory (in a manner known only to the initiated, of course) of the thirty “Aeons,” the beings that made up a quorum in the pleroma. In the same way, the Valentinians pointed to Paul’s saying that “last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:8) as indicating an appearance of the Savior to one of their beings, Achamoth, the mother of the monstrous Demiurge, after she had been expelled from the pleroma (“untimely born”). Here again, the only appeal against this sort of exegesis is to tradition. 

Certainly the Church has read the Scripture in an allegorical manner for centuries, but with an orthodox perspective: The man robbed on the Jericho road in the Good Samaritan parable stands for man beset by sin, the Samaritan himself is our Lord, and so on. Thus the Protestant is defenseless before Valentinus when he uses Scripture this way, since the clever heretic doesn’t contradict the open meaning of the text. The Catholic can say that the magisterium has ruled out such interpretations; he can stand with Irenaeus and say that such wild imaginings are contrary to the apostolic tradition. 

Gnosticism sputtered on after Irenaeus, but he had dealt it a death blow. Even so, secret teachings don’t die out very easily. Some Gnostics may have been in Arabia in the early seventh century, in time to tell the Prophet of the new religion of Islam that the Christians were wrong about Jesus, for the Koran says, “they slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them.” [ The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, Surah 4:157, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, trans. Chicago: Mentor [n.d.].] 

Gnostic traces appear in European esoterica up to the present day. Irenaeus’s nineteenth-century translators could dismiss Gnostic ideas witheringly: “Nothing more absurd than these has probably ever been imagined by rational beings.”[ Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, “Introductory Note to Irenaeus Against Heresies” in  The Ante-Nicene Library, 1:309.] Yet in the twentieth century a certain appetite for silliness seems to have revived. 

Currently the New Age movement wades in some Gnostic currents. Books like  The Celestine Prophecy become bestsellers, promising that initiates will be able to “connect to God’s energy in such a way that we will eventually become beings of light, and walk straight into heaven.” [Alan Atkisson,  New Age Journal, August, 1994.] Shades of the  Gospel of Thomas: “He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he.” And I was stunned about ten years ago when, driving through a depressed area of Queens in New York City, I saw a storefront labeled Iglesia Gnostica-Spanish for “Gnostic Church.” 

While I doubt that the Queens initiates were conversant with the complicated air castles of Valentinus or his co-religionists, I know that secret knowledge is always a temptation. After all, the serpent enticed Eve with promises that if she ate the fruit she would be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Catholics may accordingly thank God that some of the earliest divisions within the Church bore good fruit, by God’s grace. The conflict with the Gnostics brought the Church to clarify and insist upon the unity of the Creator with the Savior and the physical reality of the Incarnation. 

The affirmation of the goodness of creation gives the lie to everyone who charges that Christianity is a dry, life-denying creed. By rejecting the notion that secret knowledge was necessary for salvation, the Church Fathers rejected a new offer of fruit from the serpent. “Knowledge [ gnosis again] puffs up, but love builds up,” says Paul (1 Cor. 8:1). One “puffed up” may repeat the words the Church has always attributed to the devil: “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high” (Is. 14:13). Gnosticism is indeed silly, but the Fathers were saving us from more than just silliness. 

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