SPECIAL TOPIC: GNOSTICISM
I. Some of the basic tenets of the heresy by internal evidence from 1 John.
A. a denial of the incarnation of Jesus Christ
B. a denial of the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation
C. a lack of an appropriate Christian lifestyle
D. an emphasis on knowledge (often secret)
E. a tendency toward exclusivism and elitism
II. The setting of the first century
The Roman world of the first century was a time of eclecticism between the Eastern and Western religions. The gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons were in ill repute. The Mystery religions were very popular because of their emphasis on personal relationship with the deity and secret knowledge. Secular Greek philosophy was popular and was merging with other worldviews. Into this world of eclectic religion came the exclusiveness of the Christian faith (Jesus is the only way to God, cf. John 14:6). Whatever the exact background of the heresy, it was an attempt to make the exclusivism of Christianity (i.e., John 14:6; 1 John 5:12) plausible and intellectually acceptable to a wider Greek-Roman audience.
III. Possible options as to which group of Gnostics the NT is addressing
A. Incipient Gnosticism of the first century
1. The basic teachings of Incipient Gnosticism of the first century seem to have been an emphasis on the ontological (eternal) dualism between spirit and matter. Spirit (high god) was considered good, while matter was inherently evil. This dichotomy resembles (1) Platonism’s ideal versus physical, (2) heavenly versus earthly, (3) invisible versus visible. There was also an overemphasis on the importance of secret knowledge (passwords or secret codes which allow a soul to pass through the angelic spheres [aeons] up to the high god) necessary for salvation.
2. There are two forms of Incipient Gnosticism which apparently could be in the background of 1 John
a. Docetic Gnosticism, which denies the true humanity of Jesus because matter is evil
b. Cerinthian Gnosticism, which identifies the Christ with one of many aeons or angelic levels between the good high god and evil matter. This "Christ Spirit" indwelt the man Jesus at his baptism and left him before his crucifixion.
c. of these two groups some practiced asceticism (if the body wants it, it is evil), the other antinomianism (if the body wants it, give it)
3. There is no written evidence of a developed system of Gnosticism in the first century. It is not until the middle of the second century that documented evidence existed. For further information about "Gnosticism" see
a. The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas, published by Beacon Press
b. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, published by Random House
c. The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible by Andrew Helmbold
B. Ignatius suggests another possible source of the heresy in his writings to the Smyrnaeans iv-v. They denied the incarnation of Jesus and lived antinomian lifestyles.
C. Yet another less likely possibility of the source of the heresy is Meander of Antioch, who is known from the writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies XXIII. He was a follower of Simon the Samaritan and an advocate of secret knowledge.
IV. The Heresy Today
A. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people try to combine Christian truth with other systems of thought.
B. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people emphasize "correct" doctrine to the exclusion of personal relationship and lifestyle faith.
C. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people turn Christianity into an exclusive intellectual eliteness.
D. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when religious people turn to asceticism or antinomianism.
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