“Matter is evil!” was the cry of the Gnostics (1st and 2nd Centuries). This idea was borrowed from certain Greek philosophers. It stood against Catholic (the universal Church) teaching, not only because it contradicts Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”) and other scriptures, but because it denies the Incarnation. If matter is evil, then Jesus Christ could not be true God and true man, for Christ is in no way evil. Thus many Gnostics denied the Incarnation, claiming that Christ only appeared to be a man. Some Gnostics, recognizing that the Old Testament taught that God created matter, claimed that the God of the Jews was an evil deity who was distinct from the New Testament God of Jesus Christ. They also proposed belief in many divine beings, known as “aeons,” who mediated between man and the ultimate, unreachable God. The lowest of these aeons, the one who had contact with men, was supposed to be Jesus Christ.1
The common characteristics of nearly all the Gnostic systems are:
(1) Dualism: the assumption of an eternal antagonism between God and matter.
(2) The demiurgic notion: the separation of the creator of the world or the demiurgos from the proper God.
(3) Docetism: the resolution of the human element in the person of the Redeemer into mere deceptive appearance.
The flourishing period of the Gnostic schools was the second century. In the sixth century, only faint traces of them remained; yet some Gnostic and especially Manichaean (a gnostic sect) ideas continue to appear in several heretical sects of the middle ages.
As to its substance, Gnosticism is chiefly of heathen descent. It is a peculiar translation or transfusion of heathen philosophy and religion into Christianity. This was perceived by the church-fathers in their day. Hippolytus particularly, in his “Philosophumena” (Refutation of All Heresies) endeavors to trace the Gnostic heresies to the various systems of Greek philosophy, making Simon Magus, for example, dependent on Heraclitus, Valentine on Pythagoras and Plato, Basilides on Aristotle, and Marcion on Empedocles; … Of all these systems Platonism had the greatest influence, especially on the Alexandrian Gnostics; though not so much in its original Hellenic form … of which Neo-Platonism was another fruit.
Gnosticism is the grandest and most comprehensive form of speculative religious syncretism known to history. It consists of Oriental mysticism, Greek philosophy, Alexandrian, Philonic, Cabbalistic Judaism, and Christian ideas of salvation, not merely mechanically compiled, but, as it were, “chemically” combined… It is an attempt to solve some of the deepest metaphysical and theological problems. It deals with the great antitheses of God and world, spirit and matter, idea and phenomenon; and endeavors to unlock the mystery of the creation; the question of the rise, development, and end of the world; and of the origin of evil.
The highest source of knowledge, with these heretics was a secret tradition, in contrast with the open, popular tradition of the Catholic (Universal) church. … They appealed also to apocryphal documents, which arose in the second century in great numbers, under eminent names of apostolic or pre-Christian times. Epiphanius, in his 26th Heresy, counts the apocrypha of the Gnostics by thousands, and Irenaeus found among the Valentinians alone a countless multitude of such writings. (W)hen it suited their purpose, the Gnostics employed single portions of the Bible, without being able to agree either as to the extent or the interpretation of the same.
The Old Testament they generally rejected, either entirely, as in the case of the Marcionites and the Manichaeans, or at least in great part; and in the New Testament they preferred certain books or portions, such as the Gospel of John, with its profound spiritual intuitions, and either rejected the other books, or wrested them to suit their ideas. Marcion, for example, thus mutilated the Gospel of Luke, and received in addition to it only ten of Paul’s Epistles, thus substituting an arbitrary canon of eleven books for the catholic Testament of twenty-seven.
Valentinus (Valentine) (§125 of Schaff): The author of the most profound and luxuriant, as well as the most influential and best known of the Gnostic systems. Irenaeus directed his work chiefly against it … Valentinus founded a large school, and spread his doctrines in the West. He claimed to have derived them from Theodas (Theudas), a pupil of St. Paul. He also pretended to have received revelations from the Logos in a vision. Hippolytus calls him a Platonist and Pythagorean rather than a Christian. … Tertullian reports, perhaps from his own conjecture, that he broke with the orthodox church from disappointed ambition, not being made a bishop.
Justin Martyr, in his lost “Syntagma against all Heresies,” which he mentions in his “First Apology” (140), combated the Valentinians among other heretics before A.D. 140. At that time Rome had become the centre of the church and the gathering place of all sects. … Valentine was one of the first Gnostics who taught in Rome, about the same time with Cerdo and Marcion; but though he made a considerable impression by his genius and eloquence, the orthodoxy of the church and the episcopal authority were too firmly settled to allow of any great success for his vagaries. He was excommunicated, and went to Cyprus, where he died about A.D. 160.
Marcion (§127 of Schaff): Marcion was the most earnest, the most practical, and the most dangerous among the Gnostics, full of energy and zeal for reforming, but restless rough and eccentric. He has a remote connection with modern questions of biblical criticism and the canon. He anticipated the rationalistic opposition to the Old Testament and to the Pastoral Epistles, but in a very arbitrary and unscrupulous way. He could see only superficial differences in the Bible, not the deeper harmony. He rejected the heathen mythology of the other Gnostics, and adhered to Christianity as the only true religion; he was less speculative, and gave a higher place to faith. But he was utterly destitute of historical sense, and put Christianity into a radical conflict with all previous revelations of God; as if God had neglected the world for thousands of years until he suddenly appeared in Christ. He represents an extreme anti-Jewish and pseudo-Pauline tendency … which, in fanatical zeal for a pure primitive Christianity, nullifies all history, and turns the gospel into an abrupt, unnatural, phantomlike appearance.
Marcion was the son of a bishop of Sinope in Pontus, and gave in his first fervor his property to the church, but was excommunicated by his own father, probably on account of his heretical opinions and contempt of authority…. Justin Martyr regarded him as the most formidable heretic of his day. The abhorrence of the Catholics for him is expressed in the report of Irenaeus, that Polycarp of Smyrna, meeting with Marcion in Rome, and being asked by him: “Dost thou know me?” answered: “I know the first-born of Satan.”
His system was more critical and rationalistic than mystic and philosophical. He was chiefly zealous for the consistent practical enforcement of the irreconcilable dualism which he established between the gospel and the law, Christianity and Judaism, goodness and righteousness. He drew out this contrast at large in a special work, entitled “Antitheses.” The God of the Old Testament is harsh, severe and unmerciful as his law; he commands, “Love thy neighbor, but hate thine enemy,” and returns “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;” but the God of the New Testament commands, “Love thine enemy.” The one is only just, the other is good.
Marcion rejected all the books of the Old Testament, and wrested Christ’s word in Matt. 5:17 into the very opposite declaration: “I am come not to fulfill the law and the prophets, but to destroy them.” In his view, Christianity has no connection whatever with the past, whether of the Jewish or the heathen world… Christ, too, was not born at all, but suddenly descended into the city of Capernaum in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, and appeared as the revealer of the good God, who sent him. He has no connection with the Messiah, announced by the Demiurge in the Old Testament; though he called himself the Messiah by way of accommodation. His body was a mere appearance, and his death an illusion, though they had a real meaning. He cast the Demiurge into Hades, secured the redemption of the soul (not the body), and called the apostle Paul to preach it. The other apostles are Judaizing corrupters of pure Christianity, and their writings are to be rejected, together with the catholic tradition. In over-straining the difference between Paul and the other apostles, he was a crude forerunner of the Tübingen school of critics.
Marcion formed a canon of his own, which consisted of only 11 books, an abridged and mutilated Gospel of Luke, and 10 of Paul’s epistles. He put Galatians first in order, and called Ephesians the Epistle to the Laodicaeans. He rejected the pastoral epistles, in which the forerunners of Gnosticism are condemned, the Epistle to the Hebrews, Matthew, Mark, John, the Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse … Ambrosius, a friend of Origen, was a Marcionite before his conversion. These heretics were dangerous to the church because of their severe morality and the number of their martyrs. They abstained from marriage, flesh and wine, and did not escape from persecution, like some other Gnostics.2
- The above material comes from Philip Schaff, History Of The Christian Church, Vol. 2, Chapter 11, §§115 – 127 (Tinyurl.com/PSgnostics)