Gnosticism gets its name from the Greek word gnosis (γνωσις), which means knowledge. Knowledge in this context refers not to the idea of propositional knowledge but something more akin to the Eastern concept of enlightenment. There are three basic premises of Gnosticism:
1. Dualism of Matter and Soul
Like Christianity, Gnosticism teaches that reality is both material and spiritual. Unlike Christianity, it teaches that spiritual reality is inherently good, while material things are inherently evil. Human souls are holy, but they are trapped inside a corrupt body. Through accessing secret knowledge, one can free oneself from the limitations of matter and bring out one’s own capacity for divinity.
2. A Transcendent God vs. an Ignorant Creator
The Gnostics believed in an unknowable, transcendent God who is the Father of Jesus, but they did not equate Him with the Old Testament Creator. They saw the creator-god of the Old Testament as inept and hateful, and they blamed him for creating a flawed physical universe. The Gospel of Phillip goes so far as to say, "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.” Certainly, this view of God is not just unorthodox, but blasphemous.
3. Christ as Immaterial Teacher
Since the Gnostics rejected the idea that God was knowable and that God could take physical form, their idea of who Jesus was and why He came was very different than that of the first Christians. Rather than being the incarnation of God who came to redeem mankind from sin and make the Father known, they believed He was an apparition who taught mystical secret knowledge to His followers to help them free themselves from ignorance. He did not actually suffer and die, but only appeared to do so. The Gospel of Thomas removes 114 sayings attributed to Jesus from any narrative or space-time context and includes vague, metaphysical statements not recorded in the canonical gospels.
Clearly, the fundamentals of Gnosticism are at odds with the basics of historical Christianity. The Gnostic gospels do not paint an accurate picture of God, Jesus’s nature and purpose, and the meaning of redemption. Next week, we’ll examine the Gnostic gospels themselves: are they gospels at all?
Works consulted/ For more information
Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley