Theology‎ > ‎

Gnosticism

by Vicki Davies

Have you heard of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts? These are manuscripts discovered between 1945/6 and 1948 in Egypt. These manuscripts along with those discovered in Medinet Madi in 1930 and in Turkestan between 1902-1914 have enhanced scholars interest and information on the form of religion from late antiquity known as Gnosticism.

Prior to these discoveries, the entire history of Christian and pagan Gnosticism was shrouded in the deepest mystery and obscurity; for while the Gnostics were prolific writers, little of their literature survived because they brought down on themselves the animosity of the early Christian Church. These "Church Fathers" refuted all doctrines which did not agree with the so-called apostolic tradition laid down in a lengthy process in the New Testament, since these doctrines were detrimental to the building up of a strongly organised church, relatively uniform in its leadership. Thus, these "Church Fathers" called adherents to Gnosticism, Heresiologists.

It is said that the Gnostics produced the first Christian theological literature, the extent of which in the second century was evidently much greater than that in the Catholic Church. This holds not only for theological works in the narrower senses, but also for poetry and the literature of simple piety, as is shown by the remains of hymns and the numerous apocryphal stories about Jesus and the apostles. When this institution reached its position of world power, it destroyed all available records of the Gnostic cults.

The name Gnostic is derived from the Greek work Gnosis, meaning "religion of knowledge" or of "insight". Thus Gnostic means wisdom or knowledge. The members of the order claimed to be familiar with the secret doctrines of early Christianity. They interpreted the Christian Mysteries according to pagan symbolism. Their secret information and philosophic tenets they concealed from the profane and taught to a small group only of especially initiated person.

Simon Magus, the magician of New Testament fame, is often supposed to have been the founder of Gnosticism. If this be true, the sect was formed during the century after Christ and is probably the first of the many branches which have sprung from the main trunk of Christianity. Everything with which the enthusiasts of the early Christian Church might not agree they declared to be inspired by the Devil. That Simon Magus had mysterious and supernatural powers is conceded even by his enemies, but they maintained that these powers were lent to him by the infernal spirits and furies which they asserted were his ever present companions. That Simon was a philosopher there is no doubt. The principles of Gnosticism are well described in the following verbatim statement by him, supposed to have been preserved by Hippolytus: "To you, therefore, I say what I say, and write what I write. And the writing is this. Of the universal Aeons (periods, planes, or cycles of creative and created life in substance and space, celestial creatures) there are two shoots, without beginning or end, springing from one Root, which is the power invisible, inapprehensible silence. Of these shoots, one is manifested from above, which is the Great Power, the Universal Mind ordering all things, male, and the other (is manifested) from below, the Great Thought, female, producing all things. Hence, pairing with each other, they unite and manifest the Middle Distance, incomprehensible Air, without beginning or end. In this is the Father Who sustains all things, and nourishes those things which have a beginning and end."

By this we can understand, that manifestation is the result of a positive and a negative principle, one acting upon the other, and it takes place in the middle plane, or point of equilibrium, called the pleroma. This pleroma is a peculiar substance produced out of the blending of the spiritual and material aeons. Out of the pleroma was individualised the Demiurgus, the immortal mortal, to whom we are responsible for our physical existence and the suffering we must go through in connection with it. In the Gnostic system, three pairs of opposites called syzygies, emanated from the Eternal One. These, with Himself, make the total of seven. The six (three pairs) Aeons (living, divine principles) were described by Simon in the philosophumena in the following manner: The first two were Mind (Nous) and Thought (Epinoia). Then came Voice (Phone) and its opposite, Name (Onoma), and lastly, Reason (Logismos) and Reflection (Enthusmesis). From these primordial six, united with the Eternal Flame came forth the Aeons (Angels) who formed the lower worlds through the direction of the Demiurgus.

This first Gnosticism was amplified, and frequently distorted by later adherents to the cult. The school of Gnosticism was divided into two major parts, commonly called the Syrian Cult and the Alexandrian Cult. The Syrian cult was largely Simonian, and the Alexandrian School was the outgrowth of Basilides. Like Simon Magus, he was an emanationist, with Neo-Platonic inclinations. In fact, the entire Gnostic Mystery is based upon the hypothesis of emanations as being the logical connection between the irreconcilable opposites Absolute Spirit and Absolute Substance, which the Gnostics believed to have been coexistent with Eternity.

The Alexandrian Basilides inculcated Egyptian Hermeticism, Oriental occultism, Chaldean astrology, and Persian philosophy in his followers, and in his doctrines sought to unite the schools of early Christianity with the ancient pagan Mysteries.

The Gnostics were divided in their opinions concerning the Demiurgus, or creator of the lower worlds. The Gnostics saw Jesus Christ, not as the unique Son of God, but as an Aeon from heaven to man saving knowledge. According to Gnostic belief, Christ did not come in the flesh. The Gnostics divided humanity into three parts: those who, as savages, worshipped only the visible nature; those who, like the Jews, worshipped the Demiurgus; and lastly, themselves, or others of a similar cult, including certain sects of Christians, who worshiped Nous(Christ) and the true spiritual light of the higher Aeons. After the death of Basilides, Valentinus became the leading inspiration of the Gnostic movement. He still further complicated the system of Gnostic philosophy by adding infinitely to the details. Thus, Gnosticism means the Gnostic systems of the second and third centuries.

All Gnostic teachings are in some form a part of the redeeming knowledge which gathers together the object of knowledge (the divine nature), the means of knowledge (the redeeming gnosis) and the knower himself. The intellectual knowledge of the teaching which is offered as revealed wisdom has here a direct religious significance since it is at the same time understood as other worldly and is the basis for the process of redemption. A man who possesses "gnosis" is for that reason a redeemed man.

Basically, Gnosticism can be defined as a dualistic religion, consisting of several schools and movements which took up a definitely negative attitude towards the world and the society of the time and proclaimed deliverance (redemption) of man precisely from the constraints of earthly existence through "insight" into his essential relationship whether as "soul" or "spirit" - a relationship temporarily obscured - with a supramundane realm of freedom and of rest. Gnosis offered a support to the individual, even a certain nearness to God through the idea of a divine kernel in man. A close relationship to God became possible even for the "man in the street" without priestly mediation, without temple and without cultic practices.

Many of the theories of the ancient Gnostics, especially those concerned with scientific subjects, have been substantiated by modern research. After the third century, the power of Gnosticism waned, and the Gnostics practically vanished from the philosophical world. An effort was made during the Middle Ages to resurrect the principles of Gnosticism, but owing to the destruction of the records the material necessary was unavailable.

Today, because of the afore mentioned discoveries, Gnosticism is undergoing a revival, perhaps to compensate for the rise of Fundamentalism where there is no allowance for a divine potential within the human.