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THEOLOGICAL inquiry has not as yet mastered the complex and intricate problem of Gnosticism. Our description must therefore confine itself carefully to the few points that have been clearly ascertained, unless it is content to assume an altogether problematical character. With the question of the origin of Gnosticism it is only concerned in a very secondary degree. Can Gnosticism be derived from the same root as Catholicism or not? Was it imported from outside sources, or does it spring out of Christianity itself?

The question can only be answered if Gnosticism itself be present to the reader’s mind in bare outline. For of course it can only be a question of presenting the chief features, that which the different Gnostic sects possessed in common.

The following points are common to at least a great portion of the Gnostic schools and sects.

1. A definite principle of authority. The Spirit 171 is the source and norm of all knowledge which thus claims to be based upon revelation. The sacred writings play a great part—the apocryphal even more than the canonical. But it is the Spirit that decides what is divine in these books and what is not, and that alone understands the revelation contained in the sacred book. As the Old Testament is the canon of all Christians, it is exposed to the sharpest criticism and partially to rejection, or at any rate to an interpretation which is almost tantamount to rejection. In any case it is the Spirit interpreting it that is the highest authority. This holds good with respect to Jesus and the apostles. In their case, too, the Spirit decides as to the acceptation and rejection and the interpretation. Naturally the Spirit does this, not as the individual human spirit, but as a divine revelation within him.

2. A definite belief in God. The God who had hitherto been worshipped both by Jews and Christians, the Jehovah of the Jews, is not the highest God revealed by Jesus. This latter is rather a new, hitherto concealed God who is enthroned high above the world and above all spirits; high, too, above the creator of the world. He is not the God of this world, the author of men’s creation and preservation, and, generally speaking, this world does not belong to Him directly. Practical consequences of this are the destruction of the faith in Providence, and the hostile, or at best indifferent, relation of the Christian to the whole of this world, to nature, to the body, to human ordinances; all of which we ought not only not to ascribe to the highest God, 172 but rather regard as something that has fallen away from Him.

3. A definite eschatology. Man’s chief end is to return to God, who is his home, to the uppermost realm of light out of this prison-house of decadence and of exile. The creature in man, the flesh, is not capable of this return, but only that element, call it spirit or soul, which has had its birth in the celestial light. Immediately after death the soul of man is intended to set out upon its homeward journey, and to make its way upwards through the innumerable hostile spirits which fill the long interval between God and this lower earth.

4. A definite Christology. The Saviour Christ is a spiritual being sent down from the realm of light above to the earth below in order to reveal divine truth to men and to illuminate their minds. As a divine being He was neither born nor did He die; He was only in outward appearance a man such as we are, in that He clothed Himself with a human body. His work consisted essentially in imparting the higher knowledge and the sacraments.

5. A definite Soteriology. Redemption is effected by the liberation of man from the bondage of the lower gods, and by the due preparation for his return to his true home above. This liberation is brought about by the imparting of the superior wisdom, the removal of man’s ignorance regarding his origin, his destiny, the hindrances in the road and the way to overcome them. Thereby the divine element in man, the Spirit, becomes self-conscious. Then the Christian has to prepare himself for his homeward journey, first by the 173 reception of the sacraments and the seals, which will procure him a safe passage through all the hosts of hostile spirits, and next of ascetic practices, by the mortification of the flesh, of all that is the work of the demiurge. Occasionally an unbridled license took the place of this asceticism, both alike springing from the same root—dualism. Such is the course of man’s redemption, at once intellectual, magical and physical.

6. A definite view of the Church. That which the Christians usually call Church is not the Church of God at all. That Church consists of the number of the spiritual, i.e., of those who bring with them from the upper world the seed, the spiritual embryo. For them alone Christ appeared. They alone return after death into the kingdom of light. The aim of the Gnostic propaganda and of their conventicles is to gather them together and to awaken the slumbering divine life within them by imparting the higher mysteries to them. The natural inequality of man is presupposed. Whilst the Catholic Church in vain strives to remove this inequality by sending forth her missionaries, the Gnostic conventicles suffer Church and world to go to ruin, and reserve heaven for themselves.

Such, in the barest outline, is the Gnostic theology. What is its source? According to the theory of the later anti-gnostic Fathers of the Church, Gnosticism arose by a wholesale rejection of Catholic theology. The Catholic Church, it is said, has always remained the same; it has never changed; it is only the heretics that have changed. There is a good deal that is true in this theory. On the whole, Catholicism 174 is in the straight line of development from primitive Christianity. But the hypothesis that the Gnostics fell away from this unchangeable and fully developed Catholicism is altogether mistaken. Both Gnosticism and Catholicism can be traced to a common source—the theology and piety of the apostolic ages, which was neither Gnostic nor Catholic. Catholicism itself is in fact to a great extent only to be accounted for by the opposition to the Gnostic movement. There was a time when the two brothers, who were such deadly enemies later on, still lived at peace side by side, when the later Catholics themselves harboured a number of Gnostic ideas. For from the very first there was in the Church no lack of modes of thought and of feeling which later on spontaneously crystallized into Gnosticism.

Where, now, do we find in primitive Christianity the starting-point, the source of the Gnostic movement?

One thing is clear to begin with. The Jesus of history and the Jesus of Gnosticism have nothing whatever to do with each other. Although Jesus was placed in the centre of the Gnostic systems, He and His worshippers have no connection with each other. Speculation and mysticism are alike foreign to Jesus. His teaching never leaves the domain of the practical and the ethical, the problems of human life. He knows that He is surrounded by a world of spirits, but His curiosity is never directed towards that world. There is one occasional saying, related by St Luke, about the fall of Satan from heaven, and that only served to comfort the disciples.

Even St Paul’s Christology very seldom came into contact with the historical Jesus. What St 175 Paul said about Jesus was really a myth—a drama to which Jesus gave His name. But then by the side of this St Paul declared the whole practical gospel of Jesus; he is a true disciple of the Lord in all his aims and ideals. Hence the great difference between him and the Gnostics. One point alone both alike confirm, viz., that the deepest speculations about Jesus offer us no kind of guarantee for true Christianity.

Nevertheless points of contact with Gnosticism have been discovered by modern writers even in Jesus. The fact is instructive, for it shows us how deeply rooted Gnostic tendencies were even in the Church itself.

1. Jesus had spoken in parables to the people. Why had He done so? For all Hellenistic Jews ‘parables’ were dark and mysterious sayings. The chief idea suggested by the word was something that needed explanation, problems that awaited solution. Hence the parables of Jesus were necessarily regarded as riddles and mysteries. That is the case throughout the New Testament. According to the Synoptists the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are contained in the parables. The people are not meant to understand them, but even the disciples cannot; they are too difficult. It is only with the ‘solution’ of Jesus that the deeper knowledge of the parables begins. The evangelist Matthew appeals for the Greek word ‘parables’ to Ps. lxxviii. 2, where the parallel passage reads “things hidden from the commencement of the world.” St John goes still further. It is only in parables and riddles that he makes Jesus speak to the disciples as well as to the 176 people. The reason he gives for this is that as long as Jesus lived the understanding of the disciples did not attain to the level of the Master, and Jesus Himself therefore could not declare all as yet. These theories are not meant in a Gnostic sense. Neither St Mark nor St John mean that the parables of Jesus contain mysteries for the majority of Christians which perhaps only a chosen few understand. They only wished to emphasize the difference with which the disciples regarded and understood Jesus after the resurrection. It must be admitted, however, that we have here a point of departure for later Gnostic theories if once it were established that Jesus’ words often or nearly always signified something else in addition to the apparent meaning. In fact, during the whole of the second century, the Church and the heretics completely agree as to the rationale of Jesus' use of parables. The difference between Catholics and Gnostics is entirely relative in this matter. The Gnostics take an earlier and a keener interest in the parables of Jesus, whilst the Catholics, e.g., Barnabas and Justin Martyr, show a preference for the Old Testament parables. Hence Irenaeus, to take one instance out of many, is really defenceless against the Gnostics; his only safety lies in appealing to the creed and in diverting attention from the mysterious to the simple and plain sayings of Jesus.

2. A second point of contact was the difference observable in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. In St Mark’s Gospel, St Peter and the two sons of Zebedee appear in several places as the recipients of especial marks of love and of confidence. They alone, e.g., were eyewitnesses of His mysterious 177 transfiguration, of which they were not to speak till after His resurrection. It was to them and to Andrew alone that Jesus revealed the future. They were Jesus' favoured disciples. What more easy to suppose than that Jesus had revealed to them many mysteries of which the rest of the disciples were ignorant? The transfiguration itself was a proof that He had done so. Here St Mark himself paved the way for Gnosticism by working upon this esoteric theory. He tells a story unknown to the majority of the apostles in Jesus’ lifetime. The need for such secret traditions, based upon the authority of those most intimate with Jesus, must have been felt in an increasing degree in the sub-apostolic age. St John endeavoured to meet this need by the introduction of the great unknown—the disciple whom Jesus loved. The case is a somewhat peculiar one. He receives no special revelation, but merely supports the Fourth Gospel by his authority. Every special revelation is indeed denied by the theory of the Spirit. We see, therefore, that while the evangelist accepts the tendencies of his age he entirely recasts them at the same time. We may therefore conclude that it was the custom amongst many Christians thus to appeal to the highest available authority for secret traditions. Papias indirectly confirms this statement when he speaks of himself as going about from one aged Christian to another and inquiring what Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew said. For the Church, however, the apostolic body as a whole took the place of all single favourites. After all, the difference is merely relative.


3. In the next place a completely isolated and harmless saying of Jesus, the promise of the Spirit after His death, which St Mark is the first to record, came to acquire great importance. What Jesus meant was that His disciples who knew not how to speak should be empowered by a higher power to defend themselves in the law courts. Hence the opinion arose that the disciples should receive in the Spirit a substitute for Jesus and a continuance of His work. This opinion was capable of very different interpretations according to the conception formed of the Spirit. The Spirit was regarded either as the source of prophecy and the talking with tongues, or as the fount of knowledge and of the superior wisdom. If emphasis was laid on the latter, then the inference was that it was only after Jesus’ death that His disciples had received the higher knowledge. Hence nothing was easier now than simply to derive from the Spirit any Christian doctrine for the origin of which no room could be found in the course of the life of Jesus—unless, indeed, another favourite course was followed, that of putting the doctrine into the mouth of the risen Lord. In the Fourth Gospel the Paraclete—so His Spirit is here called as the advocate of the disciples—is the giver of all higher knowledge. In the time of the earthly Jesus we do not meet with him. His existence only dates from a later time. From him, however, may be derived everything that rendered the deep and universal comprehension of Jesus possible. It is true that as “spirit of truth” he receives an orthodox colouring, and this, too, is orthodox that the Spirit is to teach nothing new. He is simply to remind the 179 disciples of Jesus’ teaching, but there is no formal difference between the higher wisdom of St John and that of all Gnostic revelations. Both supplement the history and the gospel of Jesus on the authority of the Spirit.

4. Lastly, there was the unusually bold assertion that Jesus made in the feeling of His superiority over the Scribes, the official interpreters of God, “No one hath known the Father save the Son.” Jesus appeared here to put forth His revelation as something absolutely new and not to be compared with anything that had gone before. It seemed as though the whole of the Old Testament had been laid aside. In the Gospel of St John Jesus declares to the Jews that their God is not His Father but the devil. The Jewish monotheistic faith must have been held in very low esteem by this author, for he says that only he that honoureth the Son honoureth the Father. It is true that sentences such as these, which originated in the controversy with the Jews, were very far indeed from being intended to bear the Gnostic meaning which they appeared to possess. John fully accepts the Old Testament as a divine revelation, and therefore the connection with Old Testament history. Only his theory is that it is not God the Father but the Son of God, the Logos Christ, who appeared to patriarchs and prophets, and that they were therefore Christians, after all, before Christ. Following on these lines Justin explains the saying of Jesus to mean that the Jews did not recognize either the Father or the Son, because they did not know that He who spoke with Moses was the Son of God and not the Father. This again is 180 far from being Gnostic. But how easy it was, nevertheless, to base the watchword, “the new God and the new revelation,” upon this saying of Jesus. What more natural than to say, “The God of the Jews was known before Jesus, therefore He was not the God whom Jesus alone revealed.” The God of the Old Testament is not the Father of Jesus Christ.

But with the exception of these four points the teaching of Jesus presents no points of contact with Gnosticism whatever. Nor have we here the real starting-point of the Gnostic movement. Our former statement holds good: Jesus and the Gnostics have nothing to do with each other. But when once the current towards Gnosticism had set in, it was possible to find a place for Jesus subsequently in the Gnostic theology as we have shown above. The process began as soon as the Synoptic Gospels had been accepted by the Gentile Churches. Since the common stock of the Synoptists apprehended no danger from Gnostic sources, while the Johannine writings are full of such indications, the decisive turn must have taken place in the two last decades of the first century between the composition of St Mark’s Gospel and that of St John.

The extent to which St Paul paved the way for Gnosticism was altogether different. In his soteriology, his anti-Jewish apologetics, his gnosis, there are numberless points from which the Gnostic movement may have started.

1. The source of the Pauline soteriology is the hypothesis of the entire corruption of the world. The solution that matter itself is the abode of evil 181 is a natural inference from the Pauline theory of the flesh. His theory of the Fall rent God and the present world asunder, and gave the latter a certain independence of its own. His theory of the Spirits enthroned Satan as the god of this world, at any rate spoke of him in a dualistic fashion. St John and Ignatius followed in the same direction; for them, too, the devil is the Prince of this world. And for St John, as for St Paul, the cosmos is something independent, something decadent, that needs salvation and yet is capable of it only to a certain degree: Jesus prays not for this world. Flesh and Spirit are opposed to each other as two hostile worlds. The Incarnation of the Logos did, it is true, make all dualistic inferences in reality impossible, yet these inferences could be drawn, and they were drawn. A further direct result was the distinction of the Creator of the world from the God of Jesus. This in itself crowns the pessimism of this system. Practically, too, Paul prepared for this result by the position which he took up with regard to the question of sex.

St Paul’s Christology contains in the germ all the principal features of the Gnostic development. Jesus is called the Redeemer (Soter). He is a being whose origin is not to be sought in the lower world at all, but in heaven. His nature is heavenly. In heaven He existed before all time, until He suffered Himself to be humbled, and emptied Himself of the Pleroma. Now He became man. Yet His humanity was something foreign and strange, alien to His true nature. Hence the ‘fashion’ or ‘similitude’ of the body of sin, of the man, in which He appeared. How easy, how natural it was to draw the Docetic 182 conclusion! It would have been strange indeed if it had not been drawn. After a short time He ascended again to heaven after He had conquered the demons. His work as Saviour consisted in the revelation of the God of Love and the manifestation of the other world.

St John applies these Pauline theories to the Gospel narrative. Here, too, Jesus is the Soter whose dwelling-place is heaven, who came down from thence and has returned thither. He alone is from above. We all are from below. Yet in St John’s writings the humiliation of Christ is not carried out completely. Even upon earth the Soter manifested all the power of His heavenly glory, and thereby revealed the hidden God. His work is to save men from the cosmos, to reveal the unknown God to them, and to grant them everlasting life. All this presupposes the consistent Pauline pessimism. But how nearly related is the Johannine Christ to Docetism. He needs neither to eat nor to drink. It is His to die or not as He likes. He looks into every human heart. He performs many divine miracles. He is miraculously delivered. Here we have inferences strictly drawn, not from the idea of the Logos, but from the heavenly divine origin of Jesus as a whole. It is evident that for the Christology of St John the Parousia and, generally speaking, the eschatological element, are almost entirely absent. At most there will be one thing left for the Redeemer to do, that He should fetch us home to the world on high. In reality, as a member of the Christian Church, John held very different opinions. In the Gospel he is writing as a learned man.


The Pauline soteriology, in the narrower sense of the word, is already marked by very strong Gnostic tendencies. The Spirit is the agent upon whom everything depends. St Paul makes the Spirit to be the gift of God or of Christ, which only those receive who believe in the Soter.

Salvation consists in the reception and in the growth of the Spirit. But the Spirit is restricted to certain media, as, e.g., the Church and the Sacraments above all others. By means of the Church and the Sacraments the Christian receives a new accession of strength from above, and he himself helps to prepare a fit dwelling-place for the Spirit by a mortification of the passions which is often almost ascetic. Even now the Christian is a new creature, risen from the dead, a member of the body of Christ. It is only St Paul’s eschatological teaching, however, that completes the process: thereby the flesh is entirely subdued and the spirit returns to its home, for flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

St Paul’s successor, St John, holds essentially the same theory as to redemption. The beginning of the new life is the new birth, the birth from above—the passing from death unto life, and the end is the return to the world above. Only St John does not ascribe nearly as much to the agency of the Spirit, while all that man can and ought to do himself is thoroughly emphasized. Here we have already the reaction from the exaggerated theory of the Spirit put forward by the Gnostics. Nevertheless the new life is described, as it was later by Valentinus, as the victory over the world and liberation from its snares. 184 The Christian looks forward with longing to the completion of this victory. Baptism is the means whereby we receive the birth from above; the Lord’s Supper brings us heavenly food and strengthens the new life. Expressions which strongly remind us of the Gnostic writings are to be met with on almost every page: God dwells in Christians and they are in God. God and Christ together come and take up their abode in the soul of a truly pious man. Just as the Gnostics said, “We neither sin now, nor have we sinned,” so St John declares, “He that is born of God, cannot sin; for God’s seed, the Spirit, dwells in him.” The devil dare not touch him at all. We are of God and the whole world lieth in wickedness. However great the vehemence with which St John engages in the struggle against the Gnostics, it must be admitted that the expressions which he employs are often practically indistinguishable from those of his adversaries.

The final development of the Pauline pessimism is the doctrine of the creator of the world who is not identical with the highest God. So, again, the Pauline Christology ends in Docetism, and his teaching that we are saved by the Spirit is a soteriology which is at once physical and magical, while the evolution of his eschatology consists in the denial of the resurrection of the body. These are, of course, developments which St Paul himself would have utterly repudiated, and it is the easiest thing in the world to refute them by means of his epistles. All that is best, all the Christian elements in the Pauline theology, are opposed to Gnosticism. But for all that, the Pauline soteriology contained a powerful 185 Gnostic leaven. The delight in speculation, mysticism, asceticism, even magic, found abundant material therein. The development which the Pauline theology experienced at the hands of St John is a proof how strongly Gnostic tendencies, based upon St Paul’s writings, had influenced the very Christians who were engaged in the struggle against Gnosticism. The difference between the Gnostics and St John is often merely this: that St John had not the courage to draw the logical conclusion from his own statements.

2. St Paul’s anti-Jewish apologetics would also be likely to strike many as incomplete and standing in need of further consistent development. Paul had rejected the Jewish law, and had at the same time declared it to be divinely inspired. Such a position could not be maintained permanently. Did not St Paul himself emphasize the fact—when it suited him—that the law had been given by angels, and was closely related to the elements of the world? In other words, the law is not to be ascribed to the good God. Barnabas—a teacher of the Church—went so far as to refer the literal keeping of the law to a temptation of the devil. At the same time he denied that God had concluded a covenant with the Jews. In St John’s Gospel Jesus always speaks of ‘your,’ i.e., of the Jew's law. All this produced the theory which separated the God of the law and the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ own positive position towards the law pointed, it is true, in another direction. Many indications, however, furnished by the Synoptists caused distinctions to be made in the law itself. At any rate in its literal 186 sense the ceremonial law could not be derived from the highest God.

A practical antinomianism was the result. Everything depends upon Faith and Love and the Spirit. All else is secondary. There is no law for the Christian, and nothing is forbidden. Christians are quite free; all is permitted them. Text after text taken from St Paul’s writings, but without the context, of course, seems to countenance libertinism. And this libertinism could be understood either in a refined or in a coarse sense.

In the course of his controversy with the Jews, St Paul had set up the doctrine of a twofold Predestination, setting up a direct contradiction for thought therein. It was asserted that one and the same God had created vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy. This was incredible. A twofold predestination presupposes a twofold God—the saved imply a God of mercy, the lost a God of wrath.

Now in St Paul’s writings there were frequent references to those that were of the flesh and those that were of the Spirit. The latter class had received their spiritual endowment from the God of the Christians; but who had assigned to the former their evil lot? St Paul gave no answer to that question. What more natural than to suppose a different origin, a different God for the fleshly man? The new thought of predestination is immediately connected with the idea of the two classes of men.

This connection is best seen in St John’s writings. His thoughts are those of a strict predestinarian, but at the same time they have a dualistic colouring. 187 There are children of God and children of the devil. The origin of both is transcendental, from everlasting. The Spirit is the seed, the germ which the child of God brings from the world above. Henceforth there can be no moral freedom. Nevertheless St John champions the cause of freedom and rejects dualism. He claims to be on the side of the apologists and not of the Gnostics. He is unshaken in his belief that there is a transition from death unto life, from the flesh to the Spirit, by means of the miracle of conversion. Thereby he eliminates the aristocratic and deterministic flavour from the theory of the two classes of mankind. He does not think as a Gnostic, even though he sometimes speaks as one.

3. It was through his Gnosis, however, that St Paul exercised the strongest influence of all on the new tendency which is named after it. We have to take into account here not only the form of this Gnosis, its definition, and the determination of its relation to faith, but also the contents, the angelological and Christological speculations that were the results of the inspired exegesis.

The Pauline Gnosis has been defined as the revealed understanding of revelation. Three characteristic features are to be noted: it counts higher than faith; it is the property of single individuals; its source is in the Spirit. Exactly the same conception of the essential nature of Gnosis is to be found in the ecclesiastical teachers of the sub-apostolic age, e.g., in the writers of the Epistles to the Hebrews and of Clement and Barnabas. It may be objected, indeed, that they emphasize the fact that all Christians 188 ought to possess Gnosis, since all have been endowed with the Spirit. But an examination of these writings proves conclusively that the authors felt themselves in an especial degree to be the representatives of the higher knowledge as compared with their readers who were being educated up to it. The classical passage for the ecclesiastical conception of Gnosis is contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

“Of Melchizedek we have many things to say and hard of interpretation, seeing ye are become dull of hearing. For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that someone teach you the rudiments of the beginning of the word of God, and are become such as have need of milk and not of solid food. For every one that partaketh of milk hath no understanding in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for the perfect, even those who by practice have their senses exercised to discern good and evil. Therefore we will leave the word of the beginning of Christ and press on unto perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God, of the teaching of baptisms and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment.” No mention is here made of the Spirit. The author, who has been trained by Philo, follows a scientific method of exegesis, which almost assumes the place of inspiration for him. The proud exaltation, however, of Gnosis above faith, and of the teacher of perfection above the ignorant multitude, can be traced very plainly. There is no difference between ecclesiastical and Gnostic teachers as regards the 189 essential nature of Gnosis and of the position which it should occupy.

Another point is to be noticed. The ecclesiastical teachers exercised their skill in distinguishing the double meaning of Scripture on the Old Testament. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews does this by contrasting, as Plato would have done, between the idea and its copy in the world of phenomena. For him the whole of the Old Testament order of things has merely the value of such a copy or shadow. The application of this method to the words of Jesus and to the writings of St Paul cannot as yet be traced in ecclesiastical teachers. And yet it existed as a matter of fact when Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is made to speak almost exclusively in parables. The Gnostic teachers therefore introduced no new principle in applying the Platonic methods of the Epistle to the Hebrews to the objects of the Christian faith. In fact, it was only by this means that a certain obscurity in the relation of Gnosis to faith was removed. It is not the same object which is presented to faith as folly and to Gnosis as wisdom. Faith merely sees the copy, the appearance. It is only Gnosis that grasps the original in the world of spirit. That is the later Valentinian method, and the Church was powerless against it, for it had already surrendered on the question of principle. The first germs of the method may possibly be discovered even in St John’s writings. Are not baptism and the Lord’s Supper there considered to be the types of higher truths, the birth from above and the feeding with the Logos? The miracles are not merely signs of 190 the Messiah’s power, but also allegories of spiritual ideas: e.g., the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. The death of Jesus appears to signify the judgment upon Jesus; in truth, it is the judgment upon the devil. The great allegories that we find in Valentinus of the life of Jesus and of the cross of Paul are chiefly developed from these germs. The only difference is that John attaches a certain importance to the verbal signification of the narrative, whereas the later Gnostics reject it altogether.

But the contents of the Pauline Gnosis exercised an important influence on the development of the heresy. The Gnosis was to be the revealed exegesis of the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, it revealed a number of things which had but a very slight connection with the Old Testament. It read out of the Scriptures a great supernatural story of Christ and of the spirits, discovered the mysteries of the fall, of the struggle between the good and evil spirits and their reconciliation, set up Jesus and His cross as the centre, the sun of the world of spirits, formed the conceptions of the fulness (Pleroma) and the emptying (Kenosis) of the Godhead in Christ. The union, too, of Christ and the Church, the pattern of marriage, St Paul discovered in the Old Testament. It can be proved that these angelological and Christological speculations seriously engaged the attention and deeply stirred the imagination of the Church. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Hermas, employ methods which are almost diametrically opposed, but their end is the same—the definition of Christ’s position towards angels and archangels. 191 Both assign to Him the central position in the realm of spirits. Turning to St John, we find a passage of especial importance in the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus. “If I told you earthly things and ye believe me not, how will ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?” The Christian, therefore, has a revealed knowledge—given him either by Christ or the Spirit—of the heavenly world, as a part of which we must certainly reckon the conviction that Satan is the father of the unbelieving Jews and that he has fallen from heaven. A passage in the letter of Ignatius to the Trallians looks exactly like an exposition of these words of St John. The heavenly things are the goal of Christian knowledge. Amongst these we must reckon the rank and order of the angels and the hosts of the Archons, both the visible and invisible, and all in relation to Christ and the Cross. For it is only faith in the blood of Jesus that makes even angels and spirits blessed. The whole of this superior wisdom, however, seems to be too exalted even for an Ignatius, not to speak of the simpleminded in the congregation, upon whom it could not fail to exercise a baneful influence. Here we have a test for the contents of the ecclesiastical Gnosis. It is essentially akin to that of the heretics.

St Paul cannot, in fact, be acquitted of the charge of having very greatly furthered the Gnostic movement. Things crept into Christianity through his instrumentality which are nowhere to be found in Jesus’ teaching: there were speculations of the wildest nature, which lightly passed over every obstacle in the spirit-world; mysticism was introduced in the doctrine of the indwelling Christ or 192 Spirit; while celibacy was exalted, the libertine could find phrases which afforded him a handle to justify his excesses, and wisdom was held in high esteem, from a wish to find some compromise with the Greeks. More important than all these details is the general tendency of his system, his dualism which sets church and world, Adam and Christ, flesh and spirit, mind and spirit, will and grace, in absolute opposition to each other, the only link between them being the God who governs the whole drama of the world. At bottom, however, St Paul’s nature was entirely alien to Gnosticism. He was a churchman in the widest and best sense of the word. Unlike the majority of the Gnostics, he did not think that the things of the Spirit were meant to be enjoyed in selfish, aristocratic exclusiveness. They should contribute their meed of service to social progress. High above all speculations and sentiments stood righteousness, love, the spirit of service, and self-control. He regards even the wildest theories as means to further quiet work in the social life of the community. As soon as ever there was a chance of helping the brethren, he forgot his own soul, together with all selfish religious enjoyment. Freedom of the conscience and the glory of knowledge are secondary considerations where weak and anxious souls are in distress. That is the bright reverse of St Paul’s ecclesiastical character. And it was just this sense that he had of the social side of Christianity which enabled him to maintain an altogether different relation to the world than that with which the Gnostics were acquainted. The world is for him the missionary’s field, the soil given by God in which the Church 193 is to be planted. It belongs to God just as much as the Church. It is one and the same God who placed us in this world and redeemed us into the kingdom of His Son. In opposition to the Gnostic heretics at Colossae, St Paul maintains that things visible and in visible, world and church, have their centre in Christ. For this truly catholic broad-mindedness he reaped his reward. In spite of all the boasting of the Gnostics about their Paul, the Church did not waver in her allegiance to her Founder.

But from this we infer that Gnosticism certainly cannot be derived from St Paul in the straight line of descent, however much later Gnostic teachers appealed to him. They made use of the apostle, and appealed to his authority, but he was not their ultimate source. No Gnostics whatever were personal scholars of St Paul. Their relation of dependence upon him only dates from the circulation of the Pauline letters among the Churches—i.e., from about the nineties of the first century. By the reading of his letters they were then confirmed in convictions which they had formed already.

Now if Gnosticism can neither be derived from Jesus, with whom it has nothing in common, nor directly from St Paul, to whom the ecclesiastical and anti-gnostic features are no less prominent than those which furthered Gnosticism, then it can only be explained by the influence of foreign elements upon Christianity. Gnosticism arose through the absorption of Christianity in its earliest days into the great syncretism of all religions. Jewish, Babylonian, Persian, Syrian, Egyptian, Greek influences stormed in upon the Christian faith in its infancy, and produced 194 those curious Gnostic conglomerates which belong rather to the general history of religion than to that of the early days of Christianity.

Of all these influences the Jewish must at first have been the most powerful. The heretical teachers, against whom the author of the Pastoral epistles and Ignatius take up arms, are described by them as Judaizing. Hegesippus tells us that the Gnostics spring from Jewish sects. The great arch-heretic of the later fathers, Simon Magus, was a half Jew, a Samaritan, and the Gnostic sources of the pseudo-Clementines which are directed against him are likewise to be traced to a Jewish-Christian milieu. None of these men, in fact, were strict Jews like those Judaizers, e.g., who intrigued against St Paul. The official, rabbinical Judaism excommunicated such Gnostic Jews just as much as the Christians. They were the representatives of a Jewish faith which had itself succumbed to foreign influences.

It is easily conceivable how Jews, adherents apparently of the most exclusive and firmly established of religions, suffered themselves to be drawn into this universal maëlstrom of religions. The distinctive feature of the Jewish character is something purely practical, the strict retention of the national law. The conception of dogma in the usual sense of the word did not exist here at all. Men were free to believe what they liked, and there were therefore no doctrinal disputes. The most varied phantasmagorias concerning the future life were taken up into the Apocalyptic. It admitted Greek fancies as to hell as readily as Babylonian dragon-myths or Persian ideas as to resurrection. There was 195 nothing to prevent any eschatology whatever from being accepted. So, too, the main portion of the belief in angels was imported from Persia and Babylonia. Actual dualistic statements seemed to pass unnoticed, and the rigid monotheistic belief was modified by theories as to intermediary beings, the word, the metatron, the Schechinah. In many of its writings the New Testament is itself a witness for the disintegration of the Jewish faith. The existence of a monastic order such as that of the Essenes proves to us that such foreign fancies were able in the end to transform everyday life as well, and to compete with the national law. Thus the way was paved for the rise of Gnosticism in the heart of Judaism. Gnosticism was at the door, as soon as the national law began to fall into desuetude through conclusions drawn from foreign speculations, as soon as the foreign element began to oust the national in practice as well as in theory. The sources of the pseudo-Clementines afford us the best insight into this decomposition of Judaism. We can here see what portions of the Old Testament could no longer be accepted by the Jews—the instances of anthropomorphism in the mention made of God, the grievous taints that disfigured the lives of the patriarchs; above all, the ceremonial law involving the shedding of blood for the sacrifices. In this last point they agree with the Essenes, in others they harmonize with the line of development of the Scribes themselves. But by the side of this opposition to the old a need was very soon felt for new objects of worship and a closer fellowship. Through sacred ablutions, unctions and meals, they separate themselves from the rest of the 196 community and form a little circle of the initiated. Here alone the cabala is handed down of prophets and prophetesses who alternately traverse the field of history and deliver oracles, and the cabala of the true prophet, Adam—Christ, who is incarnate under various names and shapes, and who reveals to us what is eternal and good in the Old Testament and what is temporal and not divine. But this new element, this doctrine of the sacraments and the mysteries, is no longer to be derived from Judaism itself, since it destroys the chief characteristic of the Jewish religion, the connection between God and His people.

Hence the ultimate origin of Gnosticism is to be sought beyond Judaism. It is an alien element in Judaism itself, derived partly from Babylon—hence the roll assigned to the Seven, the gods of the constellations in the oldest cosmogonies, partly from Persia—hence the good God, the Saviour of men from the might of the tyrants, the gods of the constellations. First of all, these two religions, the Babylonian and the Persian, met and produced the idea of the enslavement of the soul through the fateful power of the lower tyrants, and of its liberation and its ascent up above all the stars to the good God of light. Then these ideas firmly established themselves in Jewish hands. The God of the Jews, the creator of the world, had to submit to be degraded and Himself to become the first of the tyrants. The fact that the Jewish national God is the demiurge in all Gnostic systems, proves that Gnostic doctrines travelled to Christianity by way of Judaism. Nothing was more natural for Christians, when they heard this esoteric teaching, than to assign the roll of 197 the redeemer to their Lord Jesus. He thus occupied the same central position in these speculations as He had already obtained in the theology of St Paul. It was discovered that the Pauline anti-Jewish soteriology after all expressed pretty much the same truth as the new Gnostic doctrines, though the consequences were not drawn quite so strictly. People like Simon Magus, however, assigned to themselves the principal role in the Gnostic system. For Simon declared that the unknown God appeared amongst the Jews as the Son, amongst the Samaritans as the Father, and amongst the Gentiles as the Holy Ghost, placing himself thereby above Jesus as surely as the Father is higher than the Son.

Finally, these Gnostico-Babylonian-Jewish-Christian ideas made their way to the Greek Christians. It was then that they were purified and clarified by Greek philosophy. The difference is noticeable when the systems of Valentinus and his scholars are compared with the speculations of other Gnostics such as the Ophite sects. Even the highest systems betray their barbaric origin, but yet they approach, and that very nearly, to the tendency prevalent amongst the cultured classes which was making for neoplatonism. It was only through these esoteric Gnostic doctrines that Christianity was rendered accessible to many educated Greeks. Hitherto Christianity had appeared to them to be of purely indigenous Jewish growth. The Jewish anthropomorphic God, Jesus the crucified as Saviour, the grossly material Jewish Apocalyptic, were all mere idle dreams and fancies for intellectual Greeks. They now learnt of a purer higher conception of 198 the divinity, of the death on the cross as apparent merely, of a heavenly world without flesh and blood, painted in purely spiritual colours. The Oriental mythology of the Gnostics proved to be nearer akin to Greek philosophy than the system of ideas of early Christianity which reckoned with the hard facts of history. We know, it is true, that a very strong current had set in towards Hellenism in ecclesiastical Christianity as well. But Gnosticism hastened this process.

But to these three influences—the Jewish, the Babylonian-Persian, the Greek, each of which can clearly be recognized—we must not forget to add a vast importation of superstition and chimeras from every corner of the chaos of peoples inhabiting the then-known world. There was a truly international element in the Gnostic religion. Incantations of all kinds, the love of the mysteries, both old and new, a universal ascetic ideal of saintliness, and side by side with it bestial aberrations, every occult science, every variety of swindling, are all bound up with the esoteric doctrines of Gnosticism, which are not altogether lacking in elevation. The profoundest reflections end in merely childish or abstruse speculations. The first present which the chaos of peoples hastened to give to the new religion was every scrap of religious mystery which could be collected together.

The circumstances of the time were exceedingly favourable to the rise of Gnosticism.

We must picture this earliest age of the Church as one in which men were perfectly free to think and to teach whatever they wished. Only one dogma was necessarily imposed—Jesus is the Lord, 199 or Redeemer. Everything else was left to the inspiration of the individual. The Spirit was richly poured out upon prophets and prophetesses, upon teachers of all kinds. This is the reason why theological conceptions had not as yet crystallized. True, the Old Testament canon was shared with Judaism, but one had not as yet definitely ascertained what belonged to it and what did not, and the rabbinical exegesis which had formed a barrier against the Gnostics was rejected. Jesus Himself had differentiated certain portions of the law—at least such was the universal opinion—and St Paul had declared the law to be annulled. How could the Old Testament, then, possibly continue to be regarded as an authority? Certain practical maxims were, it is true, generally accepted, such, e.g., as were afterwards formulated in the apostles’ decree. Yet even here there were notable exceptions—Paul had not followed the apostolic injunctions in the matter of meat offered to idols. At any rate, in the sphere of dogma there was the same absolute absence of all restriction as prevailed in Judaism. Gnosticism arose at a time when the apostles, prophets and teachers were still the leading personalities in the Church, and every one of these inspired persons exercised a very widely-spread influence. It would seem that in the oldest time the propagators of Gnosticism were almost without exception men of this character. They were workers of magic, performers of miracles, prophets and prophetesses. Hence the amazing rapidity with which their esoteric teaching spread; hence, too, the authority which they exercised, and the defencelessness of many 200 Christians against them. For it was nothing new that they professed to be teaching. They merely claimed to possess the especial understanding of revealed truth like every other Christian teacher. As long as this freedom existed, there was nothing to prevent Christianity being deluged by foreign religions.

There is an additional factor, however, the consideration of which is essential to a right understanding of the genesis of Christian Gnosticism. Gnosticism did not merely force its way into Christianity from outside; it arose in the midst of the congregations as well. Its origin is to be looked for in connection with the influx of the Pagan masses into the Christian congregations and the reaction that was occasioned thereby, leading to the formation of more restricted circles of people of holy life as a protest against the Christianity of the masses. Even as far back as St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians we have a remarkable picture of the curious composition of an early Christian congregation and the great differences within it. These Christian Corinthians were for the most part the offscourings of the big cities, the most degraded and sunken elements of the population. Nor did this state of things change speedily. The congregations were for a long time to come mostly recruited from the lowest ranks of society. From an intellectual point of view they must be conceived of as exceedingly rude and superstitious, and morally they were far below the ideal of St Paul. The Church had flung her doors wide open for them that were without, and had made the conditions of salvation for the individual very easy at his entrance. We cannot 201 feel surprised, therefore, that this invitation was accepted by very large numbers. Thus from the very earliest times a Christianity of the masses, an average Christianity, was gradually developed, called by St Paul carnal and childish, which was nevertheless to be assured of everlasting life and the future kingdom of God. But now the First Epistle to the Corinthians shows us likewise that from the very first there were a number of strong, educated and enlightened Christians who were raised above the common herd. “We all have knowledge” was their favourite motto. To this group belonged also the followers of Apollos, who looked for wisdom and intellectual perfection in Christianity as though it were one of the mysteries. But these enlightened men could also be ascetics, for it seems that the freedom to eat of meat offered to idols, and the demand for entire continence in marriage, applied to the same group of people at Corinth. Little circles, therefore, of Christians who aimed at a higher ideal of sanctity and of knowledge by the side of the great bulk of the congregations, were a characteristic feature of our religion from the very first. As time went on the chasm between the two widened. The more merely average Christianity made its way into the Church, the greater the need for closer combination felt by those Christians who fancied themselves in possession of a higher or at any rate of a different kind of ideal. The fact that these enlightened Christians would in our estimation often simply be a little less superstitious than the others, does not affect the case. They thought themselves to be of a higher order, even if their only prerogative was the possession of a new charm.


We here come across a curious contradiction. These narrower circles of the initiated and illuminated were the first to succumb to the attacks of an increasing worldliness. Their secret doctrines, as well as their sacraments and their ethics, came from outside sources, from the great chaos of heathen religions. That which they set forth as a higher Christianity and a progress in knowledge is, from our point of view, the decomposition and dissolution of the Gospel into a heathen syncretism—a confused mass of superstitions and philosophies. They themselves, however, usually, if not always, regarded their work, on the contrary, as a reaction. Marcion was not the only one to proclaim the watchword, “Back to Paul; back to all that is original and genuine.” Nearly all the Gnostic schools advanced the claim to a better and purer knowledge of Jesus and Paul than the Church of their day, based as it was on a spirit of legalism and tradition. This Church appeared to them to be too wide, too universal, too much a Church of the world and of sinners. Surely this could not be the Church which claimed to be the body of Christ, the fellowship of the elect, of the saints, of the spiritual. A blind, blunt, traditional faith, worldly ethics, a sensual, Jewish hope for the future world: such appeared to be her characteristics. This Church was the world, the fellowship of the unredeemed, of natural men. In contrast to this Church, the Gnostics form their narrower circles and gather the saints into their conventicles, where they impart to them the higher initiation, and reveal to them the higher knowledge by which alone the Christian truly becomes such. Gnosticism thus regarded—and such it was in its own 203estimation—denotes the first great reaction in the Church, the first Puritan movement directed against the worldly Church.

It is only after taking considerations such as these into account that the relation of Gnostic theology to Paulinism becomes clear. There can be no doubt that St Paul did not originate the Gnostic movement; no single one of his own pupils could become a Gnostic. For St Paul the Catholic Church is the firm ground upon which he stands, the basis of his thoughts and work, the fervent love of his heart, the centre of all his speculations. The whole of his theology is an ecclesiastical dualism which divides the world into two halves—without Christ, with Christ; allotting death to the former, life to the latter, and yet keeping both together through God, the creator and ruler. It was when this standard of the Catholic Church was abandoned in favour of that of a mere sect that the Puritan-Gnostic theology was developed from St Paul’s. And this was the critical moment in the evolution of Gnosticism; not the influx of foreign thoughts and rites, but the transference of the centre of gravity from the Church catholic into the little circle of the spiritual. Thereby the ecclesiastical dualism is transformed into an absolute, metaphysical dualism. God and the world fall altogether asunder, just as the spirit and the flesh, the spirit and reason. The spiritual alone are chosen by God to all eternity; all the rest of mankind, even including other Christians, are the children of the devil or of some inferior deity. Christ is not the redeemer of the world, but of the spiritual, who leads them back to the home from which they have 204 come, the kingdom of light. This Gnosticism would, of course, have arisen even without St Paul; there were very many Gnostic sects which knew nothing whatever about him. But it never would have become such a spiritual power in the Church had it not conquered and adapted to its own purposes the dualistic soteriology of St Paul. Again and again in the later history of the Church a puritan or pietistic theology has arisen according to this same law, by an accentuation of the Pauline dualism and a contraction of the Church into a sect.

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