Gnosticism and the Loss of Prophecy in the Early Christian Church
In his book The World and the Prophets, Hugh W. Nibley considers the historical role of Gnostics and their influence on the early Christian church. He explains that in the great Gnostic 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 in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that prophecies shall be stopped, tongues shall be made to cease, gnosis shall be done away with. These gifts were not simply to fade away; they were going to be taken away. Paul's use of the word gnosis leaves us in no doubt as to what it conveyed to the early Christians. Nibley points out that for them it was exactly what we would translate as "a testimony of the gospel." The gnosis is the knowledge acquired only by revelation and not in ordinary ways. Paul reminds the Colossians that the gnosis is "hidden away" (2:3) and that not everyone has it who claims to.
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. This shows that there was or had been a real gnosis that those people were imitating.
As long as there were living apostles, Nibley believes, the impostors had been kept in their place by apostolic authority. But 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. Where, then, were the successors of the apostles who should have kept them in their place and continued to wield authority? That authority was not there, and the church found itself in a serious predicament.
The Gnostics had caused an immense sensation and gained a huge and growing following by the electrifying announcement that they had the gnosis. Having made the claim, they were, so to speak, "on the spot." They had to deliver. And so they welcomed any teaching or practice that combined an air of mystery and superior knowledge with a cosmic sweep and scope. 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; 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.
Nibley points out that it all had 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. Quispel writes of the Gnostics that "the proportion of nincompoops and crackpots was greater among them than elsewhere."1 And yet what a lot of stuff introduced by them was preserved by conventional Christianitya most suspicious circumstance!
Nibley concludes that the Gnostic experiment proved that the gifts of the Spirit cannot be faked and also how terribly hungry the Christian world was for the spiritual gifts. Most significant, he continues, it proved that the main church was not able to satisfy the demand for spiritual gifts.
The false gnosis would not 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.2 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 countergnosis, the main church imitated her rival all down the line. They ended up resembling each other exactly. Defenders of orthodoxy could only oppose the Gnostic doctrine with a new doctrine of their own, and the teachings of these defenders differ from those of the Gnostics they refute only in the matter of terminology.
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.Adapted from Hugh Nibley, "Prophets and Gnostics," in The World and the Prophets (1987).