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Meaning, Origin and Character of Gnosticism (P. Schaff)

This is an excerpt from Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmanns Publishing, 1910 and reprinted 1970, p. 445-449.

The Greek word gnosis may denote all schools of philosophical or religious knowledge, in distinction from superficial opinion or blind belief. The New Testament makes a plain distinction between true and false gnosis. The true consists in a deep insight into the essence and structure of the Christian truth, springs from faith, is accompanied by the cardinal virtues of love and humility, serves to edify the church, and belongs among the gifts of grace wrought by the Holy Spirit. (1) In this sense, Clement of Alexandria and Origen aimed at gnosis, and all speculative theologians who endeavor to reconcile reason and revelation, may be called Christian Gnostics. The false gnosis, (2) on the contrary, against which Paul warns Timothy, and which he censures in the Corinthians and Colossians is a morbid pride of wisdom, an arrogant, self-conceited, ambitious knowledge, which puffs up, instead of edifying, (3) runs into idle subtleties and disputes, and verifies in its course the apostle's word: "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." (4)

In this bad sense, the word applies to the error of which we now speak, and which began to show itself at least as early as the days of Paul and John. It is a one-sided intellectualism on a dualistic heathen basis. It rests on an over-valuation of knowledge or gnosis, and a depreciation of faith or pistis. The Gnostics contrasted themselves by this name with the Pistics, or the mass of believing Christians. They regarded Christianity as consisting essentially in a higher knowledge; fancied themselves the sole possessors of an esoteric, philosophical religion, which made them genuine, spiritual men, and looked down with contempt upon the mere men of the soul and of the body. They constituted the intellectual aristocracy, a higher caste in the church. They, moreover, adulterated Christianity with sundry elements entirely foreign, and thus quite obscured the true essence of the gospel. (5)

We may parallelize the true and false, the believing and unbelieving forms of Gnosticism with the two forms of modern Rationalism and modern Agnosticism. There is a Christian Rationalism which represents the doctrines of revelation as being in harmony with reason, though transcending reason in its present capacity; and there is an anti-Christian Rationalism which makes natural reason (ratio) the judge of revelation, rejects the specific doctrines of Christianity, and denies the supernatural and miraculous. And there is an Agnosticism which springs from the sense of the limitations of thought, and recognizes faith as the necessary organ of the supernatural and absolute; (6) while the unbelieving Agnosticism declares the infinite and absolute to be unknown and unknowable and tends to indifferentism and atheism. (7)

We now proceed to trace the origin of Gnosticism.

As to its substance, Gnosticism is chiefly of heathen descent. It is a peculiar translation or transfusion of heathen philosophy and religion into Christianity. This was perceived by the church-fathers in their day. Hippolytus particularly, in his "Philosophumena" endeavors to trace the Gnostic heresies to the various systems of Greek philosophy, making Simon Magus, for example, dependent on Heraclitus, Valentine on Pythagoras and Plato, Basilides on Aristotle, Marcion on Empedocles; and hence he first exhibits the doctrines of the Greek philosophy from Thales down. Of all these systems Platonism had the greatest influence, especially on the Alexandrian Gnostics; though not so much in its original Hellenic form, as in its later orientalized eclectic and mystic cast, of which Neo-Platonism was another fruit. The Platonic speculation yielded the germs of the Gnostic doctrine of aeons, the conceptions of matter, of the antithesis of an ideal and a real world, of all ante-mundane fall of souls from the ideal world, of the origin of sin from matter, and of the needed redemption of the soul from the fetters of the body. We find also in the Gnostics traces of the Pythagorean symbolical use of numbers, the Stoic physics and ethics, and some Aristotelian elements.

But this reference to Hellenic philosophy, with which Massuet was content, is not enough. Since Beausobre and Mosheim the East has been rightly joined with Greece, as the native home of this heresy. This may be inferred from the mystic, fantastic, enigmatic form of the Gnostic speculation, and from the fact, that most of its representatives sprang from Egypt and Syria. The conquests of Alexander, the spread of the Greek language and literature, and the truths of Christianity, produced a mighty agitation in the eastern mind, which reacted on the West. Gnosticism has accordingly been regarded as more or less parallel with the heretical forms of Judaism, with Essenism, Therapeutism, Philo's philosophico-religious system, and with the Cabbala, the origin of which probably dates as far back as the first century. The affinity of Gnosticism also with the Zoroastrian dualism of a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness is unmistakable, especially in the Syrian Gnostics. Its alliance with the pantheistic, docetic, and ascetic elements of Buddhism, which had advanced at the time of Christ to western Asia, is equally plain. Parsic and Indian influence is most evident in Manichaeism, while the Hellenic element there amounts to very little.

Gnosticism, with its syncretistic tendency, is no isolated fact. It struck its roots deep in the mighty revolution of ideas induced by the fall of the old religions and the triumph of the new. Philo, of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Christ, but wholly ignorant of him, endeavored to combine the Jewish religion, by allegorical exposition, or rather imposition, with Platonic philosophy; and this system, according as it might be prosecuted under the Christian or the heathen influence, would prepare the way either for the speculative theology of the Alexandrian church fathers, or for the heretical Gnosis. Still more nearly akin to Gnosticism is Neo-Platonism, which arose a little later than Philo's system, but ignored Judaism, and derived its ideas exclusively from eastern and western heathenism. The Gnostic syncretism, however, differs materially from both the Philonic and the Neo-Platonic by taking up Christianity, which the Neo-Platonists directly or indirectly opposed. This the Gnostics regarded as the highest stage of the development of religion, though they so corrupted it by the admixture of foreign matter, as to destroy its identity.

Gnosticism is, therefore, the grandest and most comprehensive form of speculative religious syncretism known to history. It consists of Oriental mysticism, Greek philosophy, Alexandrian, Philonic, and Cabbalistic Judaism, and Christian ideas of salvation, not merely mechanically compiled, but, as it were, chemically combined. At least, in its fairly developed form in the Valentinian system, it is, in its way, a wonderful structure of speculative or rather imaginative thought, and at the same time all artistic work of the creative fancy, a Christian mythological epic. The old world here rallied all its energies, to make out of its diverse elements some new thing, and to oppose to the real, substantial universalism of the catholic church an ideal, shadowy universalism of speculation. But this fusion of all systems served in the end only to hasten the dissolution of eastern and western heathenism, while the Christian element came forth purified and strengthened from the crucible.

The Gnostic speculation, like most speculative religions, failed to establish a safe basis for practical morals. On the one side, a spiritual pride obscured the sense of sin, and engendered a frivolous antinomianism, which often ended in sensuality and debaucheries. On the other side, an over-strained sense of sin often led the Gnostics, in gIaring contrast with the pagan deification of nature, to ascribe nature to the devil, to abhor the body as the seat of evil, and to practice extreme austerities upon themselves.

This ascetic feature is made prominent by Möhler, the Roman Catholic divine. But he goes quite too far, when he derives the whole phenomenon of Gnosticism (which he wrongly views as a forerunner of Protestantism) directly and immediately from Christianity. He represents it as a hyper-Christianity, an exaggerated contempt for the world, (8) which, when seeking for itself a speculative basis, gathered from older philosophemes, theosophies, and mythologies, all that it could use for its purpose.

The number of the Gnostics it is impossible to ascertain. We find them in almost all portions of the ancient church; chiefly where Christianity came into close contact with Judaism and heathenism, as in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor; then in Rome, the rendezvous of all forms of truth and falsehood; in Gaul, where they were opposed by Irenaeus; and in Africa, where they were attacked by Tertullian, and afterwards by Augustin, who was himself a Manichaean for several years. They found most favor with the educated, and threatened to lead astray the teachers of the church. But they could gain no foothold among the people; indeed, as esoterics, they stood aloof from the masses; and their philosophical societies were, no doubt, rarely as large as the catholic congregations.

The flourishing period of the Gnostic schools was the second century. In the sixth century, only faint traces of them remained; yet some Gnostic and especially Manichaean ideas continue to appear in several heretical sects of the middle ages, such as the Priscillianists, the Paulicians, the Bogomiles, and the Catharists; and even the history of modern theological and philosophical speculation shows kindred tendencies.


1. Ʌóyης yνώσεως, λόyος σᴒΦίας, 1 Cor 12:8; comp. 1 Cor 13:2, 12; Jno 17:3.

2. ψεʋζώvʋμoς yvώσις, 1 Tim 6:20

3. 1 Cor 8:1

4. Rom 1:22

5. Baur takes too comprehensive a view of Gnosticism, and includes in it all systems of Christian philosophy of religion doe to Schelling and Hegel.

6. Sir William Hamilton and Dean Mansel.

7. Hume, Spencer, Comte. As to Kant, he started from Hume, but checked the skepticism of the theoretical reason by the categorical imperative of the practical reason. See Calderwood's article "Agnosticism" in Schaff's "Rel. Encyl." Vol. I.

8. He calls Gnosticism a "Verteufelung der Natur."


1. Gnostic (of the Valentinian school in the wider sense): PISTIS SOPITIA; Opus gnosticum e codice Coptico descriptum lat. vertit M. G Schwartze, ed. J. H. Petermann. Berl. 1851. Of the middle of the third century. An account of the fall and repentance of Sophia and the mystery of redemption. Comp. the article of Köstlin in the "Tüb. Theol. Jahrbücher," 1854.—The Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Apocalypses are to a large extent of Gnostic origin, e.g. the Acts of St. Thomas (a favorite apostle of the Gnostics), John, Peter, Paul, Philip, Matthew, Andrew, Paul and Thecla. Some of them have been worked over by Catholic authors, and furnished much material to the legendary lore of the church. They and the stories of monks were the religious novels of the early church. See the collections of the apocryphal literature of the N. T. by Fabricius, Thilo, Tischendorf, Max Bonnet, D. William Wright, G. Phillips, S. C. Malan, Zahn, and especially Lipsius: Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostelligenden (Braunschweig, 1883, 2 vols.) Comp. the Lit. quoted in vol. I. 90 sq.; 188 sq., and in Lipsius, I. 34 sqq.

2. MASSUET (R.C.): Dissert. de Gnosticorum rebus, prefixed to his edition of Irenaeus; also in Stieren's edition of Iren. vol. II. pp. 54–180.

3. MOSHEIM: Comment. de rebus ante Const. M. pp. 333 sqq.

4. NEANDER: Genet. Entwicktlung der gnost. Systeme Berl. 1818. Comp. the more mature exposition in his Ch. Hist. He first opened a calm philosophical treatment of Gnosticism.

5. JAQUES MATTER.: Histoire critique du Gnosticisme et de son influence sur les sectes religieuses el philosophiques des six premiers siècles Par. 1828; second ed. much enlarged. Strasb. and Par. 1844, in 3 vols.

6. BURTON: Bampton Lectures on the Heresies of the Apost. Age. Oxf. 1830.

7. MÖHLER (R.C.): Der Ursprung des Gnosticismus. Tüb. 1831 (in his "Vermischte Schriften." I. pp. 403 sqq.).

8. BAUR: Die christliche Gnosis in ihrer geschichtl. Entwicklung. Tüb. 1835. A masterly philosophical analysis, which includes also the systems of Jacob Böhme, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. Comp. his Kirchengesch. vol. I. 175–234.

9. NORTON: History of the Gnostics. Boston, 1845.

10. H. ROSSEL: Gesch. der Untersuch. ueber den Gnostic.; in his "Theol. Nachlass." published by Neander. Berl. 1847, vol. 2nd, p. 179 sqq.

11. THIERSCH: Kritik der N. Tlichen Schriften. Erl. 1845 (chap. 5, pp. 231 sqq. and 268 sqq.).

12. R. A. LIPSIUS: Der Gnosticismus, sein Wesen, Ursprung und Entwicklungsgang. Leipz. 1860 (from Ersch and Gruber's "Allgem. Encycl." 1. Sect. vol. 71). Comp. his critical work on the sources of Gn. quoted above.

13. E. WILH. MÖLLER: Geschirhte des, Kosmologie in der griechischen Kirche bis auf Origenes. Mit specialuntersuchungen ueber die gnostischen Systeme. Halle, 1860 (pp. 189–473).

14. C. W. KING: The Gnostics and their Remains (with illustrations of Gnostic symbols and works of art). Lond., 1864.

15. HENRY L. MANSEL (Dean of St. Paul's, d. 1871): The Gnostic Heresies, ed. by J. B. Lightfoot. London, 1875.

16. J. B. LIGHTFOOT: The Colossian Heresy, Excursus in his Com. on Colossians and Philemon. London, 187, 5, pp. 73–113. This is the best account of Gnosticism, written by an Englishman, but confined to the apostolic age.

17. RENAN: L' église chrétienne (Paris, 1879), Chap. IX. and X. p. 140–185, and XVIII. p. 350–363.

18. J. L. JACOBI: Gnosis, in the new ed. of Herzog, vol. V. (1879), 204–247, condensed in Schaff's "Rel. Encycl." 1882, vol. I. 877 sqq.

19. G. SALMON, in Smith and Wace, II. 678–687.

20. G. KOFFMANE: Die Gnosis nach ihrer Tendenz und Organisation. Breslau, 1881. (Theses, 33 pages).

21. AD. HILGENFELD: Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristenthums. Liepzig, 1884 (162 sqq.). A number of monographs on the individual Gnostics, see below.

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