The Deposit of the Faith (Part 3)

The History of Christianity #38

Our Scripture verse today is Colossians 2:3 which reads: “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Our quote today is from Aristides. He said: “Christians are they who, above every people of the Earth, have found the truth, for they acknowledge God, the creator and maker of all things, in the only-begotten Son and in the Holy Spirit.”

Today, we are looking at “The Deposit of the Faith” (Part 3) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Gnosticism (Part 2)

In Christian Gnosticism – one should always remember that there were also non-Christian Gnostics – that messenger is Christ. What Christ has then done is to come to earth in order to remind us of our heavenly origin, and to give us the secret knowledge without which we cannot return to the spiritual mansions.

Since Christ is a heavenly messenger, and since body and matter are evil, most Christian Gnostics rejected the notion that Christ had a body like ours. Some said that his body was an appearance, a sort of ghost that miraculously seemed to be a real body. Many distinguished between the heavenly “Christ” and the earthly “Jesus,” apparently believing that the latter was merely the shell in which Christ appeared. In some cases, this was coupled with the notion that Jesus did have a body, but that this was of a “spiritual matter,” different from ours. Most denied the birth of Jesus, which would have put him under the power of the material world. All these notions are various degrees of what the church at large called Docetism – a name derived from a Greek word meaning “to seem” – for all of them implied, in one way or another, that the body of Jesus appeared to be fully human, but was not.

According to several Gnostic teachers, not all human beings have a spirit. Some are purely carnal, and thus are irreparably condemned to destruction when the physical world comes to an end. On the other hand, the imprisoned sparks of the spirit within those whom the Gnostics call “spiritual” will necessarily be saved and return to the spiritual realm. In order to do this, they must learn the secret knowledge of the truly illumined, that is, the Gnostic teachers.

Meanwhile, how is this life to be lived? At this point, the heresiologists say that the Gnostics gave two divergent answers. Most declared that, since the body is the prison of the spirit, one must control the body and its passion and thus weaken its power over the spirit. But, according to some heresiologists, there were also some who held that, since the spirit is by nature good and cannot be destroyed, what we are to do is to leave the body to its own devices and let it follow the guidance of its own passions. Thus, while some Gnostics were extreme ascetics, others may have been libertines.

It is difficult to reconstruct the social composition or the religious life of Gnostic communities or schools. For one thing, most of them held that their gnosis was secret, and therefore even their own writings leave historians wondering as to their worship and community life. Even their social composition is in question. Most historians agree with Giovanni Filoramo’s assessment that Gnostic societies were “clubs, confined and restricted to intellectuals,” and that they were “the expression of an economically expanding and socially mobile provincial society.” But the very fact that the Nag Hammadi documents are in Coptic would seem to indicate that it had also made significant inroads among the lower class, for Egyptian society in Hellenistic times was highly stratified, with those who spoke Copt at the very bottom of society, and with very little social mobility.

One point is certain: In many Gnostic circles women had a prominence they did not have in society at large. Part of the reason for this was that, since it is the spirit and not the body that is important, the shape of one’s body has little to do with eternal realities. Also, in many of the genealogies of eons with which Gnostics explained the origin of the world, there were female as well as male eons. It is quite possible that it was partly in response to this feature in Gnosticism that orthodox Christianity began restricting the role of women in the church, for it is clear that in first-century Christianity women had roles in the church that the second century began to deny them.

Gnosticism was a serious threat to Christianity throughout the second century. The main leaders of the church tenaciously opposed it, for they saw in it a denial of several crucial Christian doctrines, such as creation, incarnation, the death of Jesus through crucifixion, and resurrection. For that reason, the church at large devised methods to combat it. But before we turn to those methods, we must pause to look at another teacher whose doctrines, similar to Gnosticism yet different from it, were seen as a particular threat.

Next time, we will look at Marcion in The Deposit of the Faith.

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