Church History Study Helps:
     Characteristic Features of Gnosticism

Characteristic Features of Gnosticism

There were many teachers in the Hellenistic world, each in his own way combining religious, mythological, and philosophical ideas. Christianity added a new ingredient to a ferment already at work. Most of the earlier Hellenistic teachers are not known, but each gave his own twist to current ideas in the interest of originality.apart from continuing school traditions in philosophy. If Christianity had not been involved the names of the second.century Gnostic teachers and their ideas would have been left in a similar obscurity. Each Gnostic teacher supplied his own constructions and variations with the result that Gnosticism is now a general term that covers an almost bewildering variety of individual constructions.

There is no single, uniform Gnostic system. Yet there are sufficient similarities to justify a general char.acterization, if one remembers that not every system included all of the elements in this composite picture. The most attractive system, and one of the better known, was that of Valentinus, who flourished in the mid. second century. Gnosticism was concerned with the origin of evil and with "knowl.edge" (gnosis, a revealed insight into the nature of things) as the means of salvation. It adopted an "anticosmic" stance, with a thoroughly negative evaluation of the material world. The Gnostic myths postulated a "fall" in the divine world (pliröma), as a result of which matter came into existence and a Demiurge (an inferior heavenly being) created the world. However, some of the pure spiritual nature, a spark of the divine, was planted in some souls. A redeemer came from the divine world to reveal the way of escape out of the material world for the divine spark. The saved soul must pass through the realms of the world rulers (archons) in order to return to its proper spiritual home, but if it is among the elect it is easily able to do so.

Among the common ideas are the following:

1. Preoccupation with the Problem of evil. Gnosticism "kicked the problem upstairs" by locating it ultimately in the divine rather than in human beings, and associated it with the material world.

2. Sense of alienation from the world. This was a part of the general despair over the world that characterized the early centuries of our era.

3. Desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe. The Gnostic salvation was from ignorance and not from sin. Knowledge was not just the means to salvation, it was the salvation. The knowledge was a knowledge of one's true self, one's home in the pleroma, and one's return there.

4. Dualism. There are different kinds of dualism: e.g., ethical dualism (good and evil.from Judaism, esp. Qumran, and with cosmic associations from Persian thought), eschatological or supernatural dualism (this age and the age to come.from Jewish apocalyptic and Qumran), psychological dualism (body and soul.from Platonism). Gnosticism is an amalgam of psy.chological and ethical dualism with a cosmic.lic dualism of this material world and the supercelestial spiritual world. Corresponding to this is the distinction between the Hidden God and the Creator God.

5. Cosmology. The pleroma or divine world contains gradations of being that are emanations or devolutions from the first principle. These were arranged in masculine.feminine pairs in Valentinlanism. The archons (inter.mediate beings) nile this world by fate.

6. Anthropology. Human beings fall into different classes according to their nature, which is fixed and cannot be changed. Valentinianism offered three classes: the pneumatics or spirituals who had the divine spark in them.selves and were destined for salvation, the psychics who could be saved by the ministrations of the church and good works, and the hylics who belonged to the material world and were hopelessly lost.

7. Radically realized eschatology. Gnosticism did not emphasize a fu.turistic eschatology of a cosmic or corporate nature; the kingdom of God was an interior kingdom. As a religion of personal salvation It taught that the pneumatic experienced his true condition now and at death went im.mediately to the pleroma.

8. Ethical implications. As the pneumatic was free from fate, so he was free from the moral law. For some Gnostics this meant libertinism: through intentional violation of the moral codes the design of the archons was thwarted. A more characteristic deduction, however, was asceticism. One sought to frustrate the flesh by denying lt. The Nag Hammadi documents reflect the ascetic option.

The Christian Gnosticism of the second century showed greater interest in leadership roles for women and less interest in a structured hierarchy than did their opponents.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

  • home quodlibet journal theo blog sermons theology e-texts church history forum home