Gnostics , (Gr. knowledge), a name given to various heretical sects in the early Christian church. We know them mainly through their opponents, almost nothing remaining of Gnostic writings except the fragmentary quotations found in orthodox authors. Gnosticism was a natural result of the contact of Christianity with oriental and Greek philosophy, and was the earliest attempt to construct a philosophical system of faith. It undertook to answer the most difficult questions, such as that of the origin of evil, and soon became extravagant, and met the opposition of the leading Christian writers. Gnosticism was now generally condemned as heretical, and, after having been most prosperous in the 2d century, declined in the 3d, and in the 6th came, with other heresies, under the ban of the Justinian code. It was a speculative system, and exercised little influence upon the masses of the people. It was also mainly confined to the eastern church, and had little to do with the development of the West. - There are three principal theories of the character of Gnosticism. Baur treats it as a philosophy of religion resulting from the comparison of various religious systems; Neander as a fusion of Christian ideas with oriental theosophy, caused by the prevalence of sensuous ideas within the church: Mohler as an intense and exaggerated Christian zeal, seeking some practical solution of the problems of sin and evil.
All minor theories of the purpose and motives of Gnosticism can be comprehended in one of these; and these three agree in the general definition, that Gnosticism is an attempt to solve the great problems of theology by combining the elements of pagan mysticism with the Jewish and Christian traditions. It is impossible to make an accurate definition of a system of which the speculations are so vague, and the materials for judgment so scattered and fragmentary. Different writers vary widely in their method of classifying the various Gnostic schools. Some classify them by opinions, some by origin, and some by locality. The chief Gnostic ideas may be summed up under seven heads: 1. God is infinitely removed from the actual world, enclosed in the abyss (Gr. with which he is in fact confounded; he is separate from every work of temporal creation, incomprehensible by any mortal, and communicates with the lower world only through the mediation of the aeons (Gr. age or era), whom he sends forth from the depths of his grand solitude. He has infinite development in the forces which he sends, but no personal or special providence. He is the sum of being, yet the extreme of abstraction, and is even called the Not Being 2. Below the abyss, in which God alone dwells, or surrounding this abyss, is the Pleroma (Gr. fulness), that world of light and glory which the aeons inhabit. These 030ns are emanations from God's central fulness, are embodiments of his divine attributes, and fulfil the functions denoted by their several names. Among the higher aeons are Mind, Reason, Power, Truth, and Life. All of these are styled aeons, because they are in some way the representatives of the Eternal Being; but only one of them, Nous or Mind ( or in late authors intellect), proceeds directly from the Deity. The others emanate in descending succession from the first aeon. One Gnostic writer compares the emanation of these aeons from the Supreme Being to the tones of the voice lessening steadily to a faint echo. The number and characteristics of these neons are variously stated; according to Valen-tinus, there were 365 of them; but according to all, only the lowest of them has anything to do with the material world, occupying the point where the spiritual and material worlds touch each other. The office of the higher aeons is to people and take care of the spiritual world. 3. Matter is infinitely separated from God, and the material world is the antithesis of the spiritual world. Hyle ( matter) is either absolute deadness and emptiness or is a positively evil substance. The creator of this material universe is the Demiurge. He is himself a creature of the lowest of the aeons, Achamoth. He not only creates and rules the terrestrial world, but has equal sovereignty over the planets and stars. He fulfils, or as some say usurps, the functions of the infinite God. He appears in Jewish history as Jehovah. Other names by which he is known are those of Archon and Jaldabaoth, the son of Chaos. The immediate work of the Demiurge is evil, and it takes the world of man and matter further away from God and the world of light. 4. Man has a threefold nature, of spirit, of body, and of soul. His soul-nature stands between the other two, and forms their connecting bond. Men are divided into three classes, according to the predominance of one or other of these three natures. The first of these classes enjoy a light from the world of aeons; the second are left wholly to material and hylic influences; while the third are under the direction and influence of the Demiurge, who can save them from utter debasement, but cannot give them spiritual life.
Historically, the Christians constitute the spiritual world; the pagan world forms the carnal class; and the Jews occupy the intermediate place. But in dividing the Christians of their own time, the Gnostics numbered two classes, the select few of their own number who were admitted to the divine secrets, and the large body of common believers, who were not able to rise above the psychical condition. Some of them maintained that though man as connected with matter is by nature sinful, and though the Demiurge wished to create man in his own image, yet unwittingly he reproduced in this work of his breath, not his own image, but a shadow of that divine original which moved before his imagination. Man is better than the intention of his creator. 5. Redemption reaches only the pneumatic and psychic classes; the carnal or hylic class are destined to annihilation when their material life shall close, and with them such of the psychic class as have not accepted the influence from the Pleroma. The instrument of redemption is the aeon Christ. This neon came down from the spirit world, assumed bodily shape without being actually united to any material body, and walked among men in Judea as Jesus of Nazareth, not a real human person, but an optical illusion, the phantasm of a spiritual idea.
Some of the Gnostics were willing, indeed, to speak of the human life of Christ; hut all denied that his body was composed of the elements of corrupt and sinful matter; it was an ethereal body of more delicate fabric than the common human body. Hunger would not impel him to eat, nor thirst to drink. Yet this ethereal body was too gross for the Pleroma, and was left in the sun at Christ's ascension. The advent of Christ upon the earth was not the birth of a prophet, or the coining merely of a promised Messiah, but a spiritual apparition to overthrow the work of the evil spirit - "an incarnation of the spirit of the sun." The presence of Christ anywhere made men conscious of this divine nature. They might doubt of the humanity of Christ, but not of his divinity. The process of redemption, in the Gnostic theory, is the communication through the aeon Christ of a divine life to the world of man, the revelation of that life through this mediator. Christ redeems the world as he draws the spiritual in the world toward the heaven of God. His sufferings and death have no influence in the redeeming work, since, in the first place, they were illusory, and in the second place, sufferings do not redeem, but only punish.
The manifestation by his acts and words of the spirit of God made Christ the redeemer. Some expressions in Gnostic writings might be interpreted as teaching views of redemption more in harmony with the church creeds; but nowhere was any doctrine of atonement stated, or any stress laid upon the crucifixion as its central point. Marcion extends the redemption into the world of Hades, and maintains that Christ descended into hell to lead back the virtuous and believing heathen to share salvation with the spiritual Christians. In regard to the means of profiting by the redemption of Christ, the Gnostic teachers were not agreed. Marcion taught a doctrine resembling that of Paul, making faith the means of justification and the ground of reconciliation. But most of the sect held that only "gnosis," the rare superior intelligence and comprehension of divine truth, could enable men to receive the gift of Christ. This spiritual knowledge was the evidence of salvation to believers. The actual manner of union between Christ and his redeemed ones is very vaguely described in the Gnostic writings, and their language in speaking of redemption and its issues is confused. 6. Although the Gnostics were charged with boasting that they had schools rather than churches, yet they held to a church which should have a twofold life, for the mass of believers, and for the initiated : for the first, common exoteric doctrines, and for the second, spiritual esoteric doctrines, revealed to a secret sacred society within the proper circle of the church.
Practically they did little, and many of them were content to theorize about spiritual truth, while submitting to the recognized ecclesiastical order. Baptism was to them the important rite, since Jesus became Christ at his baptism, and through this rite the higher spirit was imparted to the sensuous soul. It was the sign of their emancipation from demiurgic rule. A few objected to baptism as too physical a rite, but most of them celebrated it with great show and solemnity.
The Lord's supper was to them of less importance, being only the sign of a material feast, on the reality of which their views of the nature of Christ threw doubt. Some of them kept the feast days of the church, and the followers of Carpocrates allowed the use of images both of Jesus and the saints. While the idea of the church was to a great extent discarded, much of its ritual and its splendor was retained. 7. In practical morals two tendencies are to be observed in the Gnostic schools. On one side is the ascetic tendency, which seeks a complete emancipation from matter and from bodily passion, as the seat of sin; on the other side the licentious tendency, which plunges into excess, on the plea that sensual passion is most surely overcome by satiety. Many of the charges brought against this latter class of Gnostics are, however, to be taken with large abatement. There is no evidence that their average morality was below that of the orthodox Christians, or that the ascetic tendency was carried to such extremes among them as among the Jewish Es-senes or the later Christian hermits.
Gnosticism, in the 2d century at least, was rather a speculative than a practical heresy, a system of intellectual vagaries rather than of moral corruptions. - In speaking of the principal Gnostic teachers, the geographical division may be adopted as most convenient, if not most philosophical. Of the precursors of Gnosticism before the formation of its principal schools are mentioned: Simon Magus, whose authentic history is related in the Acts, but of whom legends abound, and after whom the sect of the Simonians was named; Menander, said to have been a disciple of Simon; Cerin-thus, who considered Judaism a preparation for Christianity; Nicolaus, of whom nothing is known except that he is reckoned as the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans, noted for their lax morality, and mentioned in the Apocalypse. Of the Syrian school, the chief characteristic of which is dualism, the principal teachers were: 1. Saturninus, a follower of Menander, who lived at Antioch about the year 125, in the reign of Hadrian. He maintained that the lowest aeon was formed from the spirits of the seven planets; that the evil spirit formed a race of hylic men to counteract the race formed by this aeon; and that Christ was the aeon Nous in a visible but not corporeal body.
His school, never very numerous, was confined to the neighborhood of Antioch, and was hardly known in the succeeding century. 2. Bardesanes, who flourished at Edessa in the latter half of the 2d century. (See Bardesanes.) 3. Tatian, who lived in the 2d century, and is commonly reckoned among the Christian apologists. (See Tatian.) In the Egyptian school, characterized by the emanation theory, the principal teachers were : 1. Basilides, who taught in Alexandria about the year 120, whose followers, the Basilidians, existed as late as the 4th century. (See Basilides.) 2. Valentinus, an Alexandrian Jew, who taught in Rome about the middle of the 2d century, and died in Cyprus about the year 100. His system of aeons is divided into three series of 15 pairs, an ogdoad, a decad, and a dodecad. They are male and female. His "threefold Christ" differs from that of Basilides. His elaboration of Gnostic ideas was more complete and ingenious than that of any other writer, and his influence was longer and wider in its extent.
J. Matter numbers seven distinguished names among the successors of Valentinus, five of whom founded schools; these are Secundus, Ptolemy, Marcus, Colarbasus, Heracleon, The-odotus, and Alexander. 3. The Ophites, or Naasenes, a powerful sect, yet without any distinguished name among their teachers, who traced their doctrine to James, the brother of the Lord, and existed at a later period than the other Gnostic sects. As their name implies, the serpent was for them a sacred emblem. They regarded the fall of man as a progress rather than as a loss, named the Jewish Jehovah "Jaldabaoth," or the God of chaos, preferred Judas to the other disciples, affirming that he betrayed Christ to destroy the kingdom of God's enemy, and denied that the real Christ was ever crucified. The Sethites and Cainites were branches of this sect. The moral character of the Ophites was bad, and the sect came not only under the constant rebuke of the church teachers, but under the imperial ban. Of the Gnostics of Asia Minor, the one eminent name is that of Marcion, an austere moralist and a vigorous reasoner. He taught at Rome about the middle of the 2d century.
His system is characterized by the constant antithesis between Christianity and Judaism, by a rejection of the Old Testament and of all apostolic authority except that of Paul, and by a rigid asceticism. His followers were numerous even to the time of Mohammed. Of the Gnostics not localized, but mostly related by their doctrines to the Gnostics of Egypt, may be mentioned the schools of Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes, the Antitacts, the Bortonians, the Phibionites, the Archon-tics, the Adamites, and the Prodicians. Her-mogenes of Carthage is also by some regarded as a Gnostic teacher. - While the particular sect and schools of the Gnostics had disappeared almost wholly in the 6th century, their opinions survived to a much later age, seriously affecting not only the orthodox faith, but appearing in many of the famous and troublesome heresies. Their earlier influence is to be noticed in the views of the Ebionites and the Do-cetae, in the speculations of the Clementine Homilies, in the radical theories of Montanism, in the fantasies of the New Platonists, and above all in the powerful and wide-spread Manichaean heresy. Some have also endeavored to find traces of Gnosticism in the Sabellian, Arian, and Pelagian heresies.
In the 7th century their doctrines were repeated by the Pauli-cians, in the 9th by the Athinganians or "children of the sun," about the close of the 11th by the Catharists, and in the 12th by the Bogo-miles of Byzantium. Some of the opinions of the knights templars and of the Waldenses seemed to be borrowed from this source, and the reveries of Spanish and German mystics are . not unlike the hymns of Bardesanes. The sources from which our knowledge of Gnosticism is drawn are the single Gnostic work Pis-tis Sophia, translated from Coptic into Latin by M. G. Schwartze (edited by J. II. Peterrnann, Berlin, 1851); Irenaeus's
(edited by Stieren, Leipsic, 1853); fragments from Irenaeus and Hippolytus (edited by Emanuel Miller, Oxford, 1851); and the works of Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Philastrius, Epipha-nius, Theodoret, Augustine, Plotinus, and others. The more important modern works which treat of Gnosticism are: Neander, Genetische Entwickelung der vornehmsten gnostischen Sys-teme (Berlin, 1818); E. A. Lewald, Be Doc-trina Gnostica (Heidelberg, 1818); Mohler, Ursprung des Gnosticismus (Tubingen, 1831); Baur, Die christliche Gnosis, oder die christ-liche Religionsphilosophie in Hirer geschicht-lichen Entwickelung (Tubingen, 1835); Matter, Histoire critique du gnosticisme (2d ed., 3 vols., Paris, 1843-'4); the church histories of Mosheim, Neander, Gieseler, Hase, and Schaff; Beausobre's "History of Manichaeism," Mun-ter's "Ecclesiastical Antiquities," Hitter's "History of Philosophy," Dorner's "Christology," and Bunsen's "Hippolytus and his Age."