Prophets and Gnostics
The recent discovery of a complete Gnostic library in Egypt has not so much revived as accelerated the study of the most baffling and portentous episode in church history, the rise of the Gnostics. The latest survey of the whole field, an impressive corroborative work by a number of Dutch scholars, sees in the Gnostic crisis the end of the primitive church and the moment at which "Christianity enters upon a new phase of its history."1 In this great revolution of the second century, the whole orientation of the church changed completely. What brought this about? It was the ceasing of prophetic voices. The continuing demand in the church for the spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, gave rise to an army of quacks and fakirs who, though discredited in time, left their mark permanently and conspicuously on the Christian church. These were the Gnostics, so-called.
Paul had prophesied that "whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away" (1 Corinthians 13:8). Here the so-called original text uses the identical word for the failing of prophecies and the vanishing of knowledge, katargethesontai, "to be taken out of circulation," "to be made inoperative," used both times in the future indicative. There is no sense of contingency here; the whole statement is simple and emphatic: "Such prophecies as there are shall be stopped; such tongues as there are shall be made to cease (pausontai); such gnosis as there is shall be done away with." These gifts were not simply to fade away; they were going to be taken away. They were already weak enough: We have these gifts now only in a limited form, Paul explains in the following verses, and then he makes the significant remark: But for the present time there remain "faith, hope, and love, these three." The colorless "and now" of the King James is not fair to the emphatic nuni de, "but at this time" of the "original," and while the "abideth" of our English Bible emphasizes the quality of lasting and reliable firmness the original menei does not mean "to be firm" at all, but simply to stay behind. The emphatic "these three" that remain is in obvious contrast to the three that are going to be taken away, namely, the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, and the gnosis—the greatest gift of all.
Gnosis means the act of knowing, and in some contexts it can be translated simply as "knowledge." But not when Paul uses it! His frequent use of the word leaves us in no doubt as to what it conveyed to the early Christians. For them it was exactly what we would translate as "a testimony of the gospel." "But I think any price is worth paying for the supreme value of the gnosis of Christ Jesus my Lord," writes Paul to the Philippians (3:8), "for which I have sacrificed everything, counting all but dung in comparison with acquiring Christ as my fortune." How often we have heard such expressions as that—"I would not exchange my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ for all the wealth in the world!" "God . . . hath shined in our hearts, in proportion to the illumination of the gnosis of the glory of God in the face of Christ," he writes to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:6). Our spiritual weapons, he tells them (10:6), "cast down every high thing raised up against the gnosis of God, abolishing logismoi (human calculations) and bringing every noema (argument, reasoning) into conformity with obedience to Jesus Christ." Here we see that gnosis is not the normal fruit of human thought or reason or research—it confounds these logismoi and noemata. "I am an ordinary man," says Paul, "as far as logos (that is education, mental power) is concerned, but I am certainly not such with regard to the gnosis" (2 Corinthians 11:6). "How can I help you," he says again to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:6), "if I don't speak to you in revelation or in gnosis, or in prophecy, or didaché (inspired teaching)?" Here the gnosis is plainly the knowledge acquired only by revelation and not in ordinary ways. Paul reminds the Colossians (2:3) that the gnosis is "hidden away," and that not everyone has it who claims to. This is the famous "science falsely so-called" of 1 Timothy 6:20, where Timothy is really told to avoid arguing with those who claim to have the gnosis but don't have it.
The title of Irenaeus' one and only surviving work is "The Evidence against and Refutation of what is falsely called the Gnosis." The first men to write against the Gnostics are always very careful to designate them as the so-called or self-styled Gnostics and their teachings as the false gnosis.2 This is very important to note because it shows that there was or had been a real gnosis which those people were imitating. "They took utterly false ways," wrote Eusebius, "and announced themselves as the bearers of what they falsely called the gnosis."3 In contrast to them, Origen and Clement of Alexandria describe themselves as true Gnostics. 4
Since the gnosis has given rise to more research and speculation than any other aspect of Christian doctrine, one would expect scholars to be most grateful for the genuine definition of the true gnosis which Eusebius has handed down to us from very early Christian times, and to make it the point of departure for all their studies. Strangely enough, they never mention it. And yet it is the key to the whole business. Eusebius thus quotes Clement: "To James the Just and to John and Peter after the resurrection of the Lord conveyed the gnosis, these handed it on to the rest of the Apostles and in turn to the Seventy."5 So we have a true gnosis, a certain knowledge, entrusted to the general authorities of the church after the resurrection and, as far as we know, to no one else. This was precisely the knowledge which the Gnostics so-called later claimed to have. From the titles and contents of recently found Gnostic writings it is plain that their special boast was to possess "What Christ taught to the Apostles after the Resurrection."6 Eusebius has preserved an account from Hegesippus, one of the earliest Christian writers, describing the emergence of these pretenders.
"Up until those times [says Hegesippus] the church had remained a pure and uncorrupted virgin, while any that were inclined to pervert the sound doctrine of the saving Gospel were still sulking as it were in dark corners. But when the holy quorum (choros) of the Apostles had ended their lives in various ways, and that generation passed away of those who had heard the divine wisdom with their own ears, at that moment the conspiracy (systasis) of godless error took its rise through the deception of false teachers who, as soon as the last Apostle had departed [or, 'since there were no longer any Apostles left'], first came out openly and hence-forward undertook to match the teaching of the truth with what they falsely styled Gnosis."7 Note it well: as long as there were living Apostles these impostors had been kept in their place by apostolic authority. As long as people were still alive who had actually heard the preaching of the Lord, these deceivers could not claim to have it but lurked in dark corners biding their time. And that time came! As soon as the apostolic generation passed away the barriers of apostolic authority were removed; the deceivers had nothing to fear; and overnight the church swarmed with them, says Eusebius elsewhere; they sprang up like mushrooms, says Irenaeus, and operated with complete impunity and immunity.8 Where, then, were the successors of the Apostles who should have kept them in their place and continued to wield the authority which had so long overawed them? That authority was not there, and the church found itself in a serious predicament, a predicament fully set forth by Irenaeus in his work on the Gnostics.
"Many," he says in his introduction, "are bringing in false doctrines, making convincing noises . . . taking liberties with the logia [that is, the written sayings] of the Lord, having become bad interpreters of the good and correct word. And they turn many aside, persuading them that they have the Gnosis from Him who planned all things and ordered them, and so are able to teach higher and greater things of God who made the heavens, the earth and all that in them is. They argue very convincingly because of their training with words, . . . making truth and falsehood indistinguishable." He describes them as working inside the church as regular members, wolves all but indistinguishable from the sheep, "making what they say appear truer than truth itself." From this it is evident that the Gnostic teaching was not particularly strange and exotic; that it was so Christian as to fool the most orthodox; that it dealt with the mysteries of the universe; and that it purported to come from Christ himself.
Nearly all studies of Gnosticism in the past have sought the key to its origin and nature in the original sources of various Gnostic doctrines. Thus some scholars have maintained that Gnosticism is simply the adoption by the church of Greek philosophy; others say it is a typically Jewish production; others have claimed to find its origin in Egypt, Asia Minor, Babylon, Samaria, Persia, and India. Opinions differ as widely today as ever.9 It is as if various parties called upon to describe the nature of a bucket were to submit careful chemical analyses of all substances carried in buckets: there would be a milk school, a water school, a bran school, etc., each defining buckets in terms of a particular content. The important thing about the Gnostics is not that they adopted doctrines and practices from Iran or from Alexandria, but that they showed a desperate eagerness to latch on to anything that looked promising no matter where it came from. Irenaeus' survey of those practices and doctrines easily explains this urgency: the Gnostics had caused an immense sensation and gained a huge and growing following by the electrifying announcement that they had the gnosis, revealed knowledge, the wonderful things that the Lord taught to Peter, James, and John after the resurrection. Having made the claim, they were, so to speak, "on the spot." They had to deliver—they had to come through with something wonderful, supernatural, which at the same time would correspond in some degree to widespread rumors and traditions in the church as to what the gnosis really was.
And so they welcomed any teaching or practice that combined an air of mystery and superior knowledge with a cosmic sweep and scope. For them, God was something beyond the grasp of ordinary Christians; they gave secret lessons and charged money for them; they built up elaborate philosophical systems based on abstract and personified concepts; they practiced ordinary magic and specialized in trick miracles such as changing wine into blood (all this according to Irenaeus); they tried to produce supernatural experiences by the use of drugs and stimulants; they cultivated a large vocabulary of fancy technical words to impress the public; they made a big thing of numerology; they brought forth libraries of faked apocryphal writings to cause a sensation; they parodied celestial marriage and baptism, while teaching that water baptism was not necessary since the spirit is everything; they said it was impossible for the body, since it is made of earth, to participate in salvation; they condemned marriage; they practiced extreme unction; they taught transmigration of souls; they venerated holy images, in particular a portrait of Christ.
These are a few of the things charged against them by Irenaeus. What a hodgepodge! But it all has one obvious purpose—to give the impression that the powers and gifts and knowledge of the ancient Apostles were still on the earth, for that is what they claimed to have, but did not have. "This much is known for sure about the Gnosis," writes Quispel, the present-day leader of Gnostic studies, "that we may say with confidence, that the proportion of nincompoops and crackpots [stoethaspels en warhoofden] was greater among them than elsewhere."10 And yet what a lot of stuff introduced by them was preserved by conventional Christianity—a most suspicious circumstance!
The Gnostic experiment proved a number of important things. First, that the gifts of the Spirit cannot be faked. The Gnostics made desperate and determined efforts to display the powers that the Apostles had once enjoyed, but after the passing of the talented and enthusiastic first generation—the school of Simon Magus (who, you will recall, once tried to buy the power of the priesthood from Peter)—they fell back on the safe and conventional supports of philosophy and mysticism which were deep and recondite enough to satisfy the church. Eusebius has preserved from a number of sources the pathetic attempt of Montanists to keep alive the gift of prophecy, a project which was finally given up in despair after the death of the Lady Maximilla.11
In the second place, the Gnostic affair of the second century showed how terribly hungry the Christian world was for the spiritual gifts. They yearned for prophecies, tongues, and the marvelous gnosis, and they never stopped yearning even after the Gnostics had been reabsorbed into the main church. A number of recent studies have shown the tendency of Gnosticism to pop up in every century, only to be discredited when the claims put forward were found to be unsubstantiated,12 for the third and most significant point proved by the Gnostic experience was that the main church was not able to satisfy the demand for spiritual gifts. Irenaeus himself can make fun of all the silly pretentions of the Gnostics, but he is every bit as pitiful and frustrated a figure as they when he tries to come forward with a positive program.
The false gnosis wouldn't have stood a chance against the true one, which was conspicuously not there to set up against it. As Neander pointed out long ago, to meet the gnosis-so-called, the church had to invent another gnosis, which it then claimed to be the ancient one.13 But it was much too late to regain or claim ancient gifts that one had already denied, and it is not surprising that in setting up its counter-gnosis, the main church imitated her rival all down the line. They end up resembling each other exactly. "It is by no means a paradox," says Harnack in concluding his study of the subject, "when one maintains that in Catholicism Gnosticism . . . won half a victory." 14 The only trouble with Gnosticism, Harnack explains, is that it was ahead of its time, and the problem of the Gnostics was solved when the rest of the church finally caught up with them and adopted their way of thinking.15
Certainly it is a remarkable thing that there never was a formal condemnation of Gnosticism, as in the case of other heresies and as there certainly would have been if any Apostle or the equivalent in authority had been alive. There was no general council held to consider this greatest and most dangerous of all heresies—because there was nobody to call one. Self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy, such as Irenaeus describes himself to be,16 could only oppose the Gnostic doctrine with a new doctrine of their own, and the teachings of Irenaeus himself differ from those of the Gnostics he refutes only in the matter of terminology. Their Propator is his God by another name; their Pleroma is his Cosmos; what they call the Logos of God, he says, is Jesus Christ, no more nor less—so he falls in with nearly all their arguments, beliefs, and concepts, and the only real argument is about words.
The rise, prosperity, and absorption of the Gnostics is one of the most significant commentaries on the loss to the church and to the world of the gift of prophecy.
1. Willem Cornelis van Unnik, Jan Waszink and C. De Beus, Het oudste Christendom en de antieke Cultuur (Haarlem: Tjeenk, Willink & Zoon, 1951), 2:84. The subtitle of vol. 2 is "Life and Thought of the Early Christian Church up to Irenaeus."
2. Eugene de Faye, Gnostiques et Gnosticisme (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1913), 431.
3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History I, 1, in PG 20:48.
4. Kirsopp and Silva Lake, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper, 1937), 149.
5. Eusebius, II, 1, 4, in PG 20:136.
6. Thus, the so-called Testament in Galilee, the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of the XII Apostles, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Testamentum Domini Nostri (Testament of Our Lord), etc.
7. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 32, 7, in PG 20:283.
8. Ibid., IV, 7, in PG 20:315; Irenaeus, Contra Haereses I, 29, 1, in PG 7:691.
9. Walther Völker, Der wahre Gnostiker nach Clemens Alexandrinus (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1952), 439—40.
10. Gilles Quispel, in Het oudste Christendom en de antieke Cultuur (Haarlem: Tjeenk, Willink & Zoon, 1951), 1:152.
11. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V, 16, in PG 20:464—72.
12. Paul Alphandery, "Le gnosticisme dans les sectes médiévales latines," Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses 7 (1927): 395—411.
13. August Neander, Antignostikus, Geist des Tertullianus (Berlin: Dümmler, 1849), 5—6; R. A. Lipsius, Der Gnosticismus, sein Wesen, Ursprung und Entwickelungsgang (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1860), 66.
14. Adolf Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 3rd ed. (Freiburg: Mohr, 1894), 1:241.
15. Ibid., 241—43.
16. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses 2, preface, in PG 7:707-9.