This is often what it’s like to write about Gnosticism. I have a sporadic series about the interactions between Christian orthodoxy (of the little-o sort) and Gnosticism. “Orthodox” isn’t that hard to define–simply put, it describes Christians who accept, explicitly or sometimes implicitly, the definitions of the historic Creeds: Apostles’, Nicene, and (to a lesser extent) Athanasian. Details beyond these may be debated, but the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and many Protestant churches would fit this criterion. Though the Coptic Church and those in communion with it (historically called “Monophysite” or sometimes “Miaphysite”) and the Assyrian Church of the East (historically called “Nestorian”) were originally considered heretical for other reasons (they all accepted the first Council of Nicea, but not the later Council of Chalcedon), negotiations with the Catholic (and to a lesser extent, Orthodox) Church have resolved the Christological issues between these and the Chalcedonian Churches. Therefore, for the purposes here, I’m going to classify them as little-o “orthodox” too. Thus, “orthodox” is not hard to define.
“Gnostic”, however, is a vexed term. Ever since Eric Voegelin, there has been a bad tendency for people to use the term “Gnostic” as a term of opprobrium applied to whatever they don’t like (or in some cases, a term of praise for anything they like). Thus, it turns into an alternate way of saying “bad!” or “good!”; which makes it pretty much useless. If I’m going to write about Gnosticism, I’d better have an idea of what I mean by the term; which is what this post is about.
There has been much debate over the usefulness of the terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” over the last few years, and some have even argued that it’s a useless term that ought to be dropped. I disagree with this, though I recognize how problematic the term is. None of the schools that we call “Gnostic” ever, as far as we know, used the term of themselves. The term was used by orthodox heresy-hunters. There is a bit of irony in this, as the term “Christian” itself was not originally a Christian self-designation, but a term of (probable) opprobrium given them by pagans. In any case, not only did the Gnostics not call themselves “Gnostic”, but their beliefs covered a wide range, with the beliefs of different schools in conflict with each other.
Gnostic beliefs are also present in some non-Gnostic contexts: Kabbalistic Judaism, Hermeticism, and even some of the ideas of Plato bear similarities to aspects of Gnostic thought. Despite this, these systems are not considered Gnostic; the Neoplatonist Plotinus actually opposed Gnosticsm. Manichaeism is, of course, always a topic of discussion in relation to Gnosticism. However, there is a tendency to reserve the latter term for derivatives of Judaism and Christianity, and to consider Manichaeism a related, but separate, religion.
There is also a spectrum of Gnostic ideas in any given source. Some, such as The Secret Book of John, are highly and indisputably Gnostic. Others, such as some of the Valentinian scriptures, are more conciliatory to orthodoxy and have much less cosmological speculation. Marcion of Sinope taught the characteristic two-gods theory of Gnosticism, but his system lacks much found in Valentiniansim and Sethianism, and scholars debate whether he should be classified as a Gnostic, properly so-called. The Gospel of Thomas is typically described as “Gnostic’, but this is disputed, and while it certainly contains a lot of Gnostic-sounding material, it contains perfectly orthodox sayings, as well, and does not seem highly developed in either direction. Finally, anyone who knows about Gnosticism and who reads carefully can’t read the Gospel of John or parts of Paul’s letters–all certainly canonical–without catching a distinct whiff of Gnosticism at times.
Finally, there has been a rather vigorous contemporary debate in the neo-Gnostic (or Gnostic revivalist) community as to the use of the term. One side would tend to see Gnosticism as being very similar to many New Age ideas, especially those descending from the so-called Gnostic Revival of the 19th Century, in which Theosophy played a large part, and which was based on a much smaller knowledge of actual Gnostic scriptures. The other side would see this as an illegitimate conflation or syncretization of unrelated systems, and would limit Gnosticism (or Gnostic thought) properly so-called to the systems of belief and theology of the Nag Hammadi tests and related texts.
The complexities mount, but for the purposes of what I’m talking about both in this series and on this blog in general, I’ll define what I am talking about when I use “Gnostic” and related terms here. First, I do believe that “Gnostic” is a valid and useful, if not unproblematic term. Second, I agree that the term should be restricted to the ancient religions called by that and to those revivalists who hew, as closely as possible, to the revival of the ancient forms, though I would say the boundary between classical Gnosticism and some of the 19th Century interpretations of it is a little blurrier around the edges than some of them would allow. Third, as I’ve touched on in a different context, the boundaries between orthodoxy and Gnosticism are also a bit blurry around the edges, and you can find Gnostic ideas smack in the middle of the most orthodox writings, and vice versa.
That said, here’s are the characteristics of what I’m calling “Gnosticism”:
1. Metaphysical and ethical dualism.
Comment: This, in my mind, is the most important distinguishing trait, though it also appears, in a muted form, in orthodoxy. It’s important to note that this dualism is both metaphysical and ethical. Metaphysical in that it posits two opposite modes of being, or fundamental substances–matter vs. spirit. Ethical in that it posits a duality between good and evil. These are combined in the view that matter is evil and spirit is good. As I said, orthodoxy flirts with dualism, sometimes strongly; but it never condemns matter as unequivocally bad, as Gnostic systems generally do.
2. What one might call mitigated ditheism.
Comment: There are two beings that might be called “gods”. The true god, or Alien God, is associated purely with spirit and is thus good. The creator of the material world is at best deluded and ignorant and at worst evil. Generally the “evil god” (usually called the Demiurge) is seen as being indirectly derived from the True God, though its origin is less central (Manichaeism and apparently Marcionism posit the second god to be completely unrelated to the True God). I say “mitigated” because the Alien God, the True God of spirit is the only god worshipped; and though the Aeons and other beings are honored, that’s not really different in kind from what Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity do in honoring the saints and angels. Gnostic systems might be called metaphysically ditheistic in that they posit two gods or godlike beings in play in the cosmos, and religiously monotheistic (or perhaps henotheistic) in that only one of them is worthy of worship.
3. An emphasis on saving knowledge–gnosis–as opposed to faith.
Comment: The orthodox is saved by faith–the trust he puts in God. The Gnosic is saved by mystic and intuitive knowledge of who he really is–a spark of the Divine.
4. Finally, I’d associate Gnosticism most strongly with the doctrines of the aforementioned Valentinians and Sethians, without limiting the term to them alone.
Comment: A “Thomasine” school of Gnosticism is often posited, especially in neo-Gnostic circles, but that’s a more problematic category than “Valentinian” or “Sethian”, and to be honest I don’t have enough knowledge of the issues involved to have an opinion on it. Therefore I’m agnostic as to the validity of this category and will leave it alone for now.
Other issues, such as whether Gnosticism implies sacraments, or Docetism, or how far back in Church history it goes, or how “legitimate” is is, or whether or not it predates Christianity, while not unimportant, are not my main focus here. The four points above are sufficient for what I want to talk about here, and other issues, if I discuss them, will be dealt with separately.
Thus, in future posts when I speak of “Gnostic” this or “Gnosticism” that, this post is a guide to what I’ll be talking about.
Part of the series Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy.