The Divergence of Orthodox Christianity from Gnosticism.

by Phillip David


     It’s striking that, in this ecumenical age, Christians in the U.S. know so little about Gnosticism. Granted, Gnostics are not a majority of Christians. But it’s not as though they don’t exist. Certain Gnostic beliefs are embedded in the dogmas of other Christian sects—Mormonism, for example. Gnosticism also shares key characteristics with mystical Judaism, even Buddhism. But try to start a conversation about Gnostic theology in a room full of Christians—even educated ones—and silence is apt to drop like fog on a small backwoods town. Fundamentalist Christians in particular seem to regard it as some sort of disreputable, possibly dangerous or infectious sibling best locked away from polite society.

     Gnosticism is hardly unique among ancestors of orthodox Christianity in having been turned out of the family of Christ’s "true" followers. And yet, like the orthodoxy that succeeded the first sects and ultimately branched into what we know today as mainstream Christianity, Gnosticism looked to Jesus, Paul, and the Bible as sources of understanding about the nature of man, God, Christ, and salvation. How, then, did orthodoxy come to reject a stream of religious thought that flows from the same well as Catholicism and Protestantism?

     Because few nowadays are familiar with even the basic tenets of Gnosticism, misunderstanding attaches freely to the faith. But in the earliest centuries of Christianity it was sectarian animosity rather than ignorance that drove popular misconception, as numerous propagandistic screeds written to discredit the Gnostics and other early Christian groups came to be regarded as truth. Penned by the early Church Fathers—the men who first codified orthodoxy—books like Irenaeus’s five-volume Against Heresies characterized Gnosticism as the refuge of perverts; of insane, depraved, life-hating freaks who held orgies, practiced promiscuity and homosexuality, aborted and devoured fetuses, and refused to bear children. By discrediting the morals of Gnostics, early theologians convinced their followers that the Gnostics’ teachings were absurd and misguided.[1]

     The portrait of Gnostics as dangerous counter-Christians, a portrait painted by power and enshrined as truth, held for sixteen hundred years, until 1945, when an archaeological find known as the Nag Hammadi Library was discovered inside a cave in a mountain in upper Egypt. This remarkable collection of fourth-century Coptic texts, thought to have been copied from material that may date back to as early as the second half of the first century,[2] cast new light upon long-obscured Christian history: a history that revealed no suggestion that Gnostics hated life or favored any of the repulsive behaviors attributed to them, but rather that they advocated individualism in pursuit of their primary goal, the search for enlightenment. What the Nag Hammadi texts also disclosed is that from the very beginning of Christianity, there existed an alternative theology, a competing—and compelling—interpretation of scripture which, had it not been actively suppressed, might have undermined the entire fabric of the early Church.


Part One: The Emanant Spark


     In order to discover why Gnosticism was considered a threat to incipient orthodoxy, it is necessary to understand what the earliest Christians believed. First, a little definition is in order. I use the term Gnostic here to denote not only those groups in the second and third century who called themselves Gnostics, but also to include the oldest Christian sects from 30 to 120 C.E., such as the Simonians, Ophites, Naassenes, Cerinthians, and others. These very early Christians shared a rich, diverse set of doctrines that stand in stark opposition to the doctrines we now know as orthodox Christianity. The early sectarians tended to disagree on many things, but they generally did agree on such central matters as the existence of reincarnation and of a class of evil powers called "archons," the meaning of the resurrection, the process of salvation, the doctrine of "emanations," and the nature of humanity.

     For years, well-known religious historians like Elaine Pagels and Paul Johnson have written candidly about the diversity of early Christianity. Indeed, study of the earliest Christian sects and communities, of the Nag Hammadi texts, and of records of later, nominally Gnostic groups quickly shatters any myth that there was a single "original" Christianity somewhat in the image of modern fundamentalism, where all held to the four Gospels, the concept of Jesus as God, His death for our sins, the resurrection of the body at the Last Day, and so on. Instead, we see a theology centered around two ideas: that a "divine spark" inheres in humanity, and that the process of salvation represents a universal principle that Jesus demonstrated for humanity so that people could follow his example. We learn that the basic dogmas that most modern orthodox Christians assume were there from the beginning—the resurrection, Jesus as God, original sin—were not always there, and in fact, were constructed by several early Church Fathers long after the death of Jesus.

     The notion of original sin, especially, departs from Gnosticism in its assumption that there could be something wrong or ungodly about any kind of knowledge. The Gnostics held just the opposite view. For example, in the Book of Thomas the Contender, one of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi and thought to have been written in the second century, the Saviour tells his disciple Thomas, "He who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of all." In other words, when you become one with ("know") the God within, you will have become one with all that is. The following Gnostic story based on the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, also found at Nag Hammadi, expands on this principle and illustrates several other core beliefs:

"Imagine you are a prince. One day your parents, the King and Queen,  send you on a mission to Egypt. You must find a pearl guarded by a hungry dragon.

You take off your royal robe and leave the kingdom of your parents.

You journey into Egypt, putting on dirty clothing and disguising   yourself as an Egyptian.

Somehow the Egyptians discover that you are a foreigner. They give you food that makes you forget your royal birth and makes you believe that you are one of them. You sink into a deep sleep.

Your parents see your plight and send you a letter that tells you to awaken. It reminds you of your quest to recover the pearl. You remember who you are, a child of kings. You quickly subdue the dragon, recover the pearl and depart, leaving the dirty clothing behind.

When you return to your native land, you see your royal robe, which reminds you of the splendor you lived in before. The garment speaks to you, telling you that it belongs to the one who is stronger than all human beings. You put on your royal robe once more and return to your father's palace."[3]

     The King and Queen symbolize the Creator and a feminine being the Gnostics called the holy mother Sophia (Wisdom). Their kingdom is a realm of light, a place totally outside matter as we know it. It is spoken of as the "pleroma," or "fullness." Your royal robe represents your true Self, your divine image. The dirty clothing represents your earthly body, which you donned when you entered Egypt, the material world.

When you descended into mortality, you left behind your divine image and became an incomplete person. You "fell asleep" when you forgot your true origin. The message sent by your parents represents the Saviour. He will awaken you and remind you what you must do: recover the pearl (the fallen aspects of your soul), find your way back to the realm of light, and clothe yourself once more in your royal robe; in other words, reintegrate with your divine image. By recovering your soul and reintegrating with the divine, you will have achieved gnosis (knowledge), which is salvation. For the Gnostics, achieving gnosis meant to know oneself as God. But "to know" meant not merely to understand one’s divine origin, but to achieve the classic goal of the mystic: union with God.

     Putting on the royal garment and recovering the pearl were just some of the images Gnostics used to describe achieving gnosis. They also believed God to be a transcendent and infinite, perfect, ultimate, unfathomable, invisible Spirit; and that each person is composed of three parts: a seed, or spark, of the Divine; a body; and a soul. The divine spark—the God within—acts something like a pilot light, sustaining the divine potential of the soul and body until the soul is ready to be ignited, or awakened to gnosis. The awakened soul pursues union with the God within, and this union is salvation.


     The first obvious and profound difference between the ancient Gnostic belief system reflected in the story of the Pearl, and the orthodox beliefs of most other Christians, is the proposition that our souls are of divine origin and existed in a divine state before they "fell" to earth. The idea that our souls are intrinsically divine stands in sharp contrast to orthodox dogmas constructed later, which stressed Jesus's exclusive divinity. As orthodoxy evolved in the first five centuries after Jesus died, St. Augustine’s severe, unmerciful doctrine of original sin was adopted by official Christendom. The doctrine of original sin held that, because Adam and Eve partook of forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, we are all intrinsically sinners and therefore cannot look on Jesus simply as an exemplar, as the earliest Christian communities did, but must rely instead on his exclusive divinity—and that of the Church—for our access to salvation. Gradually, the notion of man’s original divine origin was all but stamped out, surviving only among a few sects and teachers throughout the succeeding centuries.[4]



[1]The chief attacks on the Gnostics were authored by Church Fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius. But their work is seriously flawed and must be seen for what it is: religious polemic rather than history. Irenaeus, known as the First Church father, devoted five volumes to a work, Adversus Haereses, which purported to expose the Gnostics. Scholars have criticized it for its lack of objectivity and muddled thinking.

Tertullian composed numerous works against the Gnostics. He disliked the Gnostics’ philosophical speculations and claimed they were unnecessary. "Since Jesus Christ we have no need of any further investigation," he wrote, "nor of any research since the gospel has already been proclaimed."

The fourth century bishop Epiphanius of Slamis entitled his work Panarion, meaning "medicine chest," because it was intended to ward off influences from Gnostic groups. He portrayed all heretics, including Gnostics, as "vain-glorious," "worthless" and "evilminded." (See Tertullian and Epiphanius, quoted in Randolph’s Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, San Franscisco: Harper and Row, 1987, pp. 15, 19.)

[2] See Elaine Pagels’s comments


"About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them  can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox  Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180, declares that heretics "boast that they  possess more gospels than there really are," and complains that in his  time such writings already have won wide circulation—from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor."

[3] Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, pp. 371-375

[4] The Cathars and certain prominent Christian mystics in and outside the Catholic Church preserved some of this aspect of Gnostic teachings. They include St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and others. All of them taught the intrinsic divinity of man and demonstrated the path to Absolute Oneness with God through initiatic degrees. Some modern Christian denominations have beliefs apparently quite distant from the basic tenets of St. Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. For example, see #2 in both the official Church of Latter Day Saints Articles of Faith website and the official website of the Unity Church.