In the late second century, an elder in the Christian church in Lyons, Gaul, wrote five books for the purpose of describing and refuting Gnosticism. The pastor’s name was Irenaeus (A.D. 120 – 202). Other early Christian writers who took up the torch and defended the faith against the Gnostic heresies include Tatian, Tertullian, and Hyppolytus. These works are essential reading for anyone wishing to become acquainted with the earliest doctrines of the church; or to catch a glimpse of Christian faith and practice in the post apostolic age; to understand how heresies threatened the church in its infancy; to learn how to combat error; to gain invaluable skill in dealing with modern day, pseudo-Christian cults; or simply to enjoy the teaching of Christian pastors who lived before Christian thinking had become polluted and diluted by twenty centuries of foreign influence.
For any and all of these purposes, we heartily encourage the reader to begin reading these works. But for our immediate purposes, we will confine ourselves to a summarizing of the deadly doctrines that they sought to confound and refute. The material in this series of articles is primarily based on Against Heresies, Book I by Irenaeus
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge.” Knowledge is a great thing. Solomon wrote, “Wise people store up knowledge…” (Proverbs 10:14) and “The simple inherit folly, But the prudent are crowned with knowledge.” (Proverbs 14:18). But there are two kinds of “knowledge.” The Apostle Paul referred to the heresy of Gnosticism as “knowledge falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20). We must be able to distinguish between true knowledge and false knowledge.
According to Scripture, true knowledge is gained by humbly, and objectively, receiving with meekness the truth as it has been revealed by the Apostles and Prophets. Christians understand this, and therefore, when a Christian wants to know the truth of something, he will go to the Scriptures and humbly and objectively receive its teaching. In contrast, the Gnostic version of knowledge is subjective and intuitive. Whereas Christians seek truth from the outside, revealed objectively by God and recorded in the Scriptures, Gnostics seek truth on the inside, through personal religious experience.
This is not to say that teachers and revelators are unimportant in Gnosticism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gnostics believe that certain persons have a spark of divinity deposited within them that enables them to perceive mystical Gnostic truths. These “truths” are communicated from teacher to pupil in the form of mythical, mystical, esoteric stories. Those pupils who also have the spark of divinity will intuitively recognize these “truths.” Such persons are said to be “awakened.” As we proceed through these articles, the Christian reader will recognize the Gnostic version of “knowledge” is the same lie spoken to Eve in the Garden. This false knowledge comes from the Serpent and is spread by men of corrupt minds who desire to be teachers and follow the imaginations and inclinations of their evil hearts.
Viewed from a slightly different perspective, Gnosticism is essentially paganism wearing a Christian disguise. It is alive and well. That it is thriving today within the church is largely due to our having forgotten that this battle was fought and won 19 centuries ago and also to the fact that the spiritual, moral and intellectual climate of the modern church is fertile ground for the seeds of error to grow. The early Christians recognized the threat presented by Gnosticism and were diligent to make sharp distinctions between what was truly Christian and what was counterfeit. As a result, Gnosticism was soundly defeated in the first two centuries.
However, beginning in the third and forth centuries, many Gnostic ideas slowly began to reemerge in Christian teaching, this time more subtle and more skillfully cloaked in Christian terminology. The result is that some of modern Christian thinking and doctrine has more in common with the church’s ancient archenemy that it does with the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Our challenge to the reader is to read this series of articles in succession, with an open mind, and with a willingness to re-examine his beliefs in light of the Scriptures and the testimony of history. If you are like us, you will almost certainly discover that there are things you believe that are not Biblical and are in fact derived from this unholy legacy. This is not a bad thing. It is an opportunity to be corrected and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This process is ongoing for all of us. Let us remember the words of the wisest man who ever lived, “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge…” (Proverbs 12:1)
by Roger Samsel Copyright © Pristine Faith Restoration Society, March 2008