When discussing theology, I've come to realize that not only is personal study of doctrine a necessary component to faith, but it is something that shouldn't be kept to oneself. I want to share my journey, both past and ongoing, into the realm of theology. Through this, I hope that you will gain insight into the Christian faith as a whole. Before reading anything else, I suggest you read the introduction and definitions (found in the pages tabs above) so you may better understand where I am coming from in everything I write. Because many of my posts are on heresies, there is also a page above with a family tree of heresies and links to all the posts I have so far on the topic.

29 October, 2012

Heresy of the Week: Gnosticism

This week's heresy, Gnosticism, is actually a branch of heresy, not generally thought of as a heresy itself.  There are many, many Gnostic heresies (I've found about 50 distinct branches), which we shall cover in later weeks.  I wanted to set the stage for it now, however.

Gnosticism (meaning “learned”, from the Greek for “knowledge”) is an early church heresy that actually predates Christianity (dating all the way back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion), but became a coherent movement in Christianity during the second century. There are several key ideas in Gnosticism, predominantly a dualistic theology (good creator God who rules the spiritual world and evil god, usually Satan and/or the God of the Old Testament, who rules the material world). Gnosticism runs the gauntlet as far as its dualistic theology goes: Manichaeism (a “radical dualist” movement) and Mandaeism are two common derivatives of Gnosticism, classic Gnosticism, such as Sethianism is considered to be “mitigated dualism”, whereas Valentinianism teaches qualified monism. Mitigated dualism teaches that there are two principal forces, one of whom is inferior to the other. In the case of classical Gnosticism, the material world was created by a lesser being than the spiritual world. Their goal, through obtaining higher or “secret” knowledge to throw off the constraints of the physical world and ascend to a spiritual plane. Nearly all Gnostic believed in Docetism (known as Gnostic-Docets), that there was no incarnation of Christ and denied He existed as a human.

All forms of Gnosticism share the following beliefs (although they are often manifested very differently):
  • Dualistic theology (god of good vs. god of evil)
  • Layers or multiple heavens/spiritual planes of existence
  • Seeking of "secret" knowledge
  • Material world = evil; spiritual world = good
  • Because the material is bad, Christ could never be a human, though some teach that he "appeared" to be human (like a ghost or spirit)
  • In almost all, some form of reincarnation is present
  • Bondage of the spirit (good) to the material/body (evil), which can only be overcome through "secret" knowledge
Interestingly, there's a pretty even split on those who are absolute Ascetics (deny all physical pleasures) and those who are absolute heathens (to throw off the physical, one must experience it all--the sooner, the better, especially if it can be in one lifetime).

These groups are from where many of the non-canonical books (most famously, the Gnostic Gospels) come.  As we get into specific Gnostic heresies, we'll talk about the books connected with that sect (if any).

Gnosticism, used sometimes interchangeably with Mysticism in many circles (not identical, but similar enough that it often works), has had heavy influence on many religions throughout history, including several Christian sects today.  Luther calls the Mohammedans (Islam) mystics in the Book of Concord.  Many include Mormonism in this as well, along with folks like the Christian Scientists.  There are even Jewish Mystics, and most Eastern religions were heavily influenced by Mysticism.  Most of the "Christian" Gnostic sects don't deal with those outside religions, but some have had impacts on demonomations today, which will be discussed when we cover individual Gnostic heresies later.

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