Gnostics, Then and Now

The current issue of Christian History & Biography magazine takes a look at Gnosticism, or what editors rightly label, “The Hunger for Secret Knowledge.” The issue features an article by Fr. John Behr, dean and professor of patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, which describes how the “Great Church” in the apostolic age was able to discern the truth about the Christian faith despite the best efforts of the Gnostics.

Fr. John writes:

This [true] faith, according to Irenaeus, is found in the Scriptures and summarized in the Rule of Faith. The proof that this is the true faith is that the “Great Church” could point to a visible succession of teachers, presbyters, and bishops who taught the same things throughout the world: This is the teaching common to all the apostles and the churches founded by them. The leaders of many of these churches had been taught by the apostles themselves, or disciples of the apostles, and they “neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.”

This was an important defense of orthodox Christianity against the Gnostic teachers. If the apostles were going to entrust the truth about Jesus to anyone, Irenaeus argued, they would have entrusted it to the same people to whom they entrusted the churches. They would not have charged some with caring for their flock and then secretly told hidden mysteries to others. In contrast to the Gnostics’ secret succession, the Great Church had a succession of teaching that was universal and public—and therefore more trustworthy.

In the same issue, author Philip Jenkins looks at the “long shelf life” of Gnosticism in “The Heresy that Wouldn’t Die.” Alas, the Gnostics are still with us. Jenkins notes that, “through a Gnostic lens, Christianity was transformed from a religion rooted in history to a form of inner psychological enlightenment.”

Twentieth-century Gnosticism took many forms, both inside and outside the churches. Overtly Gnostic ideas inspired many esoteric groups and new religious movements, especially those derived from the Theosophical movement. To take one example of a modern esoteric religion, Scientology offers an unabashedly Gnostic mythology of sleep, forgetting, and reawakening. Believers are taught to return to the vastly powerful spiritual state they once enjoyed, but lost when that original being was trapped in the deceptions of MEST (Matter, Energy, Space, Time). No less explicitly Gnostic are the later works of that latter-day prophet Philip K. Dick, in books such as VALIS (1981).

Psychology was also a major vehicle for Gnostic thought. Carl-Gustav Jung, as much a mystic as a therapist, drew extensively on ancient Gnostic thinkers and mythology in works like Seven Sermons to the Dead (1916). Fundamental Gnostic assumptions underlie many forms of contemporary therapy, which lead patients to recognize the Fall through which they became entrapped in the world of illusion and dependency. Patients must above all recover their memories, through which they can overcome the states of sleep, amnesia, and illusion that blight their lives. As for ancient Gnostics, troubled souls are lost in an alien material world, trying to find their way home, to remember their true identity. The Gnostic idea of salvation became the psychologist’s integration or individuation.


  1. Richard Barrett says

    Have any of the heresies ever actually died? There are a couple of Protestant sects which are basically Arian, I think many modern Protestants are at least quasi-Nestorian and/or Monophysite whether they realize what that means or not, and certainly many today are openly and proudly iconoclastic.


  2. Michael Bauman says

    Interesting. Only one comment on a topic that specifically relates to the life of the Church, our salavation and the manner in which the Church approaches all of the issues of life and culture.

    It is after all improper understanding of God, man and the Church that lead to the problems, i.e, heresy

    The fact that so many who call themselves Christians, even Orthodox Christians cannot see how we are infected with heretical belief is a concern.

    The messianic attitude toward Obama by some of his supporters including Orthodox ones is an example. The ongoing phylitism of the Greeks is another.

    All forms of dualism, not just the Gnostic variety, the list goes on and on.

    Richard is correct. The heresies don’t go away. They won’t go away because they are intergral to our falleness, our disobedience and our urge to worship the created thing (mostly ourselves, power and lust) more than the creator.

    So folks, know your heresies, not so that a heretic hunt can be launched, but so that through repentance and the grace of God, they may be rooted out of one’s own heart.

    My own personal rule of thumb: any “…ism” is influence to one degree or another by a profound heretical belief.

    Most thought these days is dualistic in content. It is almost impossible to escape. The choice between good and evil is the fallen choice.

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