church history 100 events

How Gnosticism Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

Introduction

One of the earliest wayward teachings within Christian circles is the heresy now known as Gnosticism. From gnosis, which means “knowledge,” this term refers to a broad collection of teachings that lasted until the 4th century CE.

Gnosticism held to a dualistic view of the cosmos, with a negative—even evil—view of the physical and a positive view of the spiritual. God is impersonal and unknowable. The physical world was not made by God, but rather by a demiurge1 as part of the Fall. Mankind is viewed as a spiritual being—a divine spark—trapped in a physical body. Salvation from the physical world is attainable through secret knowledge (gnosis).

Importance

The Christian form of Gnosticism likely developed in the early 2nd century CE.2 Early Gnostic teachers include Basilides, Marcion, and Valentinus.3

To combat these false teachings, the early Church Fathers wrote extensively on the subject. Justin Martyr wrote a treatise—now lost to history—on early heretics, in which he condemns early Gnostic teachings. The historian Eusebius wrote about Gnosticism in Ecclesiastical History. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen all wrote against Gnosticism.

False teachings like Gnosticism helped the Church Fathers think through what Christ & Scripture taught; these challenges helped the church determine what they believe and why they believe it.

Impact

While the Gnostic movement died out in the 4th century, the influence of Gnosticism can be felt in some strains of Christianity even today. The concepts of dualism, inner spark, and secret knowledge are found in popular self-help spirituality. Even the Matrix trilogy relied on Gnostic teachings.

More importantly, the writings of the Church Fathers to combat Gnosticism and other heresies helped strengthen the orthodox views on the nature of the Trinity, man, and salvation. By facing these false teachings, the Church reaffirmed what they believed and why they believe it.

For Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]


  1. A lesser spiritual being. 

  2. There is no direct New Testament teaching against Gnosticism, though some think certain NT passages contain anti-Gnostic teachings. They include Paul’s command to Timothy to “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:20–21). 

  3. The early Church Fathers viewed Simon Magus—mentioned in Acts 8—as a Gnostic, but that is not supported in the New Testament. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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