The rise of Gnosticism and Dualism



In 1 Tim 6: 20-21, Paul warns against what is falsely called “knowledge”... through which, some have wandered from the faith’. Paul is warning against an error, which may have later developed in the second century into what is termed as ‘Gnosticism’. The name comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’ (meaning ‘revealed knowledge’), which identifies the character of the heresy. It flourished during the second and third centuries and presented a major challenge to early Orthodox Christianity. 

Gnosticism is a Greek philosophical belief, which encompasses the persuasion that all matter is evil, and in contrast, spirit is good. For example, it taught that the human spirit and soul is imprisoned within the evil material body. Therein departing from the fundamental biblical concept of good and evil. (Isaiah 5:20-21)
This Gnostic belief developed into a doctrinal heresy known as ‘Dualism’.

In the second century Dualism was made up of a blend of Jewish legalism, Christian doctrine and Eastern mysticism, and was found in strong sects opposing the early Church, like Marcionism, and then later in the fifth century with the Nestorians. 

Gnostic, Dualism doctrine is explained as follows:

1. To explain the origin of the material universe, the Gnostics took from Persia a mindset of mythology. The world, because it was matter, was not made by the one good unknowable spirit God, but by a lesser divinity generated by an emanation (or likeness) of the great Spirit God. This emanation (or demi-urge) was considered an evil god, and intent in keeping humanity immersed in ignorance. He was identified as the God of the Old Testament whom Gnostics rejected. It was within this exegesis, they explained the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah etc. 

2. Since all matter was evil, Jesus could not have come in the flesh in human form, but only seemed to appear as such - thus denying the Lord’s humanity. Hence, their doctrine supported the idea that the ‘divine Logos’ came upon Jesus at baptism and departed prior to crucifixion. To substantiate their teachings they wrote the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary. The Nestorians of the 5th century aligned their theology of the incarnation to this error.
The Coptic/Gnostic Gospel of Judas describes Judas as the hero apostle because, according to them, he was the only disciple who apparently possessed the courage to obey Jesus’ command to betray Him, and thereby loosing Jesus’ soul from the body of his own imprisonment. 

3. Salvation was attained by ‘knowing the truth’, or receiving ‘enlightened revelation’, whilst at the same time, and equally as important, avoiding contamination with matter.

On this basis, a sinner was only be accepted by God through disciplined behavior, and gaining sufficient knowledge to be ‘at one’ with the spirit-god. Therefore becoming “one” with him in spirit, also took on another meaning contesting John’s doctrine in John 17:22.
Additionally, Jesus was reclassified as a non-human spiritual teacher. This is ‘Docetic’ heresy.  

4. Some Gnostic sects rejected all the sacraments; others observed only baptism and the Eucharist, interpreting them as signs of the awakening of gnosis.
Spiritism was used in the use of magic formulae and hymns to help achieve a vision of God. Other formulas were recited to ward off demons that might capture the ascending spirit of the believer at death. 

5. Gnostics generally rejected the teachings of the Old Testament, regarding them as part of the evil demi-god. Based upon the belief that their souls were alien to their material body and to the material world, many Gnostics no longer constrained themselves from sins because their sin related only to their material body, and not their spirit.  

Gnostic thinking influenced great writers of the day like Origen, however other great men like Irenaeus were quick to write against, what Paul may have identified as, ‘the gangrenous philosophy’.
Orthodox Christians of the second century found it difficult to combat, and yet, in rising up to cast out this heresy they were forced into clarifying their own theology and doctrines.
The Apostles Creed, written early second Century, was evidence of this, and included terms such as:
God Almighty”-
which identified God as not being a mere demi-urge;
"Jesus Christ.... born of Virgin Mary”- against their claim of Jesus not being of human flesh as a man;
and “ resurrection of the flesh”-
signifying Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. 

Later councils like the Council of Ephesus militated against Nestorius, preacher in Antioch and later, Patriarch of Constantinople, 428AD (picture) who taught a similar claim that Christ’s divinity could not have been resident in a human body prior to baptism. 

Were Gnostics saved?  On the basis of their denial of Christ’s incarnation, the denial of the humanity of Jesus as being fully man when sacrificed on the cross in our place, and their denial of the bodily resurrection; - Gnostic belief remains anti-Christ and opposed to God’s gospel of salvation.

By the end of the third century, Orthodox Christianity had strengthened and Gnosticism as a distinct movement had largely disappeared. Today only one small non-Christian sect, the Mandaeans, exists in Iraq and Iran. Periodically, Dualistic views reappeared throughout Church history in many forms e.g. Manichaeism, that is: inflicting suffering upon the body as a form of penance (Augustine) and later, with the Albigenses in 12th century.  

A modern form of Gnosticism today is found in eastern philosophy, in some forms of Christian Science, and in the writings of Carl Jung. Traces of it have been resurrected in some churches, where teachings supporting “total depravity” doctrines are taken to excess wherein all ‘flesh’ is considered evil


This site was last updated 10/22/08