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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [1]

from λνωσις , "knowledge," men of science and wisdom, illuminati; men who, from blending the philosophy of the east, or of Greece, with the doctrines of the Gospel, boasted of deeper knowledge in the Scriptures and theology than others. It was, therefore, not so properly a distinct sect as a generic term, comprehending all who, forsaking the simplicity of the Gospel, pretended to be "wise above what is written," to explain the New Testament by the dogmas of the philosophers, and to derive from the sacred writings mysteries which never were contained in them. The origin of the Gnostic heresy, as it is called, has been variously stated. The principles of this heresy were, however, much older than Christianity; and many of the errors alluded to in the apostolic epistles are doubtless of a character very similar to some branches of the Gnostic system. ( See Cabbala . ) Cerinthus, against whom St. John wrote his Gospel; the Nicolaitans, mentioned in the Revelation, and the Ebionites, (described under that article,) were all early Gnostics, although the system was not then so completely formed as afterward. Dr. Burton, in his Bampton Lectures, has thus sketched the Gnostic system:—In attempting to give an account of these doctrines, I must begin with observing what we shall see more plainly when we trace the causes of Gnosticism, that it was not by any means a new and distinct philosophy, but made up of selections from almost every system. Thus we find in it the Platonic doctrine of ideas, and the notion that every thing in this lower world has a celestial and immaterial archetype. We find in it evident traces of that mystical and cabalistic jargon which, after their return from captivity, deformed the religion of the Jews; and many Gnostics adopted the oriental notion of two independent coeternal principles, the one the author of good, the other of evil. Lastly, we find the Gnostic theology full of ideas and terms which must have been taken from the Gospel; and Jesus Christ, under some form or other, of aeon, emanation, or incorporeal phantom, enters into all their systems, and is the means of communicating to them that knowledge which raised them above all other mortals, and entitled them to their peculiar name. The genius and very soul of Gnosticism was mystery: its end and object was to purify its followers from the corruptions of matter, and to raise them to a higher scale of being, suited only to those who were become perfect by knowledge.

2. We have a key to many parts of their system, when we know that they held matter to be intrinsically evil, of which, consequently, God could not be the author. Hence arose their fundamental tenet, that the creator of the world, or Demiurgus, was not the same with the supreme God, the Author of good, and the Father of Christ. Their system allowed some of them to call the creator God; but the title most usually given to him was Demiurgus. Those who embraced the doctrine of two principles supposed the world to have been produced by the evil principle; and, in most systems, the creator, though not the father of Christ, was looked upon as the God of the Jews, and the author of the Mosaic law. Some, again, believed that angels were employed in creating the world; but all were agreed in maintaining that matter itself was not created, that it was eternal, and remained inactive, till

Dispositam, quisquis fuit ille Deorum, Congeriem secuit, sectamque in membra redegit: OVID.

[Some God, whoever he was, separated and arranged the mass, and reduced it, when separated, into elements.]

The supreme God had dwelt from all eternity in a pleroma of inaccessible light; and beside the name of first Father, or first Principle, they called him also Bythus, as if to denote the unfathomable nature of his perfections. This being, by an operation purely mental, or by acting upon himself, produced two other beings of different sexes, from whom, by a series of descents, more or less numerous according to different schemes, several pairs of beings were formed, who were called aeons, from the periods of their existence before time was, or emanations, from the mode of their production. These successive aeons or emanations appear to have been inferior each to the preceding; and their existence was indispensable to the Gnostic scheme, that they might account for the creation of the world without making God the author of evil. These aeons lived through countless ages with their first father; but the system of emanations seems to have resembled that of concentric circles; and they gradually deteriorated, as they approached nearer and nearer to the extremity of the pleroma. Beyond this pleroma was matter, inert and powerless, though coeternal with the supreme God, and like him without beginning. At length, one of the aeons passed the limits of the pleroma, and, meeting with matter, created the world, after the form and model of an ideal world which existed in the pleroma or in the mind of the supreme God. Here it is that inconsistency is added to absurdity in the Gnostic scheme. For, let the intermediate aeons be as many as the wildest imagination could devise, still God was the remote, if not the proximate, cause of creation. Added to which, we are to suppose that the Demiurgus formed the world without the knowledge of God; and that, having formed it, he rebelled against him. Here, again, we find a strong resemblance to the oriental doctrine of two principles, good and evil, or light and darkness. The two principles were always at enmity with each other. God must have been conceived to be more powerful than matter, or an emanation from God could not have shaped and moulded it into form: yet God was not able to reduce matter into its primeval chaos, nor to destroy the evil which the Demiurgus had produced. What God could not prevent, he was always endeavouring to cure: and here it is that the Gnostics borrowed so largely from the Christian scheme. The names, indeed, of several of their aeons were evidently taken from terms which they found in the Gospel. Thus we meet with Loges, Monogenes, Zoe, Ecclesia, all of them successive emanations from the supreme God, and all dwelling in the pleroma. At length, we meet with Christ and the Holy Ghost, as two of the last aeons which were put forth. Christ was sent into the world to remedy the evil which the creative aeon or Demiurgus had caused. He was to emancipate men from the tyranny of matter, or of the evil principle; and, by revealing to them the true God, who was hitherto unknown, to fit them, by a perfection and sublimity of knowledge, to enter the divine pleroma. To give this knowledge, was the end and object of Christ's coming upon earth; and hence the inventors and believers of the doctrine assumed to themselves the name of Gnostics. In all their notions concerning Christ, we still find them struggling with the same difficulty of reconciling the author of good with the existence of evil. Christ, as being an emanation from God, could have no real connection with matter: yet, the Christ of the Gnostics was held out to be the same with him who was revealed in the Gospel; and it was notorious that he was revealed as the Son of Mary, who appeared in a human form. The methods which they took to extricate themselves from the difficulty, were principally two: they either denied that Christ had a real body at all, and held that he was an unsubstantial phantom; or, granting that there was a man called Jesus, the son of human parents, they believed that one of the aeons, called Christ, quitted the pleroma, and descended upon Jesus at his baptism.

3. We have seen that the God who was the father or progenitor of Christ, was not considered to be the creator of the world. Neither was he the God of the Old Testament, and the giver of the Mosaic law. This notion was supported by the same argument which infidels have often urged, that the God of the Jews is represented as a God of vengeance and of cruelty; but it was also a natural consequence of their fundamental principle, that the author of good cannot in any manner be the author of evil. In accordance with this notion, we find all the Gnostics agreed in rejecting the Jewish Scriptures, or, at least, in treating them with contempt. Since they held that the supreme God was revealed for the first time to mankind by Christ, he could not have been the God who inspired the prophets; and yet, with that strange inconsistency which we have already observed in them, they appealed to these very Scriptures in support of their own doctrines. They believed the prophets to have been inspired by the same creative aeon, or the same principle of evil, which acted originally upon matter; and if their writings had come down to us, we should perhaps find them arguing, that, though the prophets were not inspired by the supreme God, they still could not help giving utterance to truth.

4. Their same abhorrence of matter, and their same notion concerning that purity of knowledge which Christ came upon earth to impart, led them to reject the Christian doctrines of a future resurrection and a general judgment. They seem to have understood the Apostles as preaching literally a resurrection of the body; and it is certain that the fathers insisted upon this very strongly as an article of belief. But to imagine that the body, a mass of created and corruptible matter, could ever enter into heaven, into that pleroma which was the dwelling of the supreme God, was a notion which violated the fundamental principle of the Gnostics. According to their scheme, no resurrection was necessary, much less a final judgment. The Gnostic, the man who had attained to perfect knowledge, was gradually emancipated from the grossness of matter; and, by an imperceptible transition, which none but a Gnostic could comprehend, he was raised to be an inhabitant of the divine pleroma. If we would know the effect which the doctrines of the Gnostics had upon their moral conduct, we shall find that the same principle led to two very opposite results. Though the fathers may have exaggerated the errors of their opponents, it seems undeniable, that many Gnostics led profligate lives, and maintained upon principle that such conduct was not unlawful. Others, again, are represented as practising great austerities, and endeavouring, by every means, to mortify the body and its sensual appetites. Both parties were actuated by the same common notion, that matter is inherently evil. The one thought that the body, which is compounded of matter, ought to be kept in subjection; and hence they inculcated self-denial, and the practice of moral virtue: while others, who had persuaded themselves that knowledge was every thing, despised the distinctions of the moral law, which was given, as they said, not by the supreme God, but by an inferior aeon, or a principle of evil, who had allied himself with matter.

5. With respect to the origin of this system the same author observes: There is no system of philosophy which has been traced to a greater number of sources than that which we are now discussing; and the variety of opinions seems to have arisen from persons either not observing the very different aspects which Gnosticism assumed, or from wishing to derive it from one exclusive quarter. Thus, some have deduced it from the eastern notion of a good and evil principle, some from the Jewish Cabbala, and others from the doctrines of the later Platonists. Each of these systems is able to support itself by alleging very strong resemblances; and those persons have taken the most natural and probably the truest course, who have concluded that all these opinions contributed to build up the monstrous system which was known by the name of Gnosticism.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [2]

(from knowing, ) ancient heretics, famous from the first rise of Christianity, principally in the east. It appears from several passages of Scripture, particularly  1 John 2:18;  1 Timothy 6:20;  Colossians 2:8; that many persons were infected with the Gnostic heresy in the first century; though the sect did not render itself conspicuous, either for numbers or reputation, before the time of Adrian, when some writers erroneously date its rise. The name was adopted by this sect, on the presumption that they were the only persons who had the true knowledge of Christianity. Accordingly they looked on all other Christians as simple, ignorant, and barbarous persons, who explained and interpreted the sacred writings in a low, literal, and unedifying signification. At first, the Gnostics were the only philosophers and wits of those times, who formed for themselves a peculiar system of theology, agreeable to the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato; to which they accommodated all their interpretations of Scripture. But Gnostics afterwards became a generical name, comprehending divers sects and parties of heretics, who rose in the first centuries; and who, though they differed among themselves as to circumstances, yet all agreed in some common principles. They corrupted the doctrine of the Gospel by a profane mixture of the tenets of the origin of evil and the creation of the world, with its divine truths.

Such were the Valentinians, Simonians, Carpocratians, Nicholaitans, &c. Gnostics sometimes also occurs in a good sense, in the ancient ecclesiastical writers, particularly Clemens Alexandrinus, who, in the person of his Gnostic, describes the characters and qualities of a perfect Christian. This point he labours in the seventh book of his Stromata, where he shows that none but the Gnostic, or learned person, has any true religion. He affirms, that, were it possible for the knowledge of God to be separated from eternal salvation, the Gnostic would make no scruple to choose the knowledge; and that if God would promise him impunity in doing of any thing he has once spoken against, or offer him heaven on those terms, he would never alter a whit of his measures. In this sense the father uses Gnostics, in opposition to the heretics of the same name; affirming, that the true Gnostic is grown old in the study of the holy scripture, and that he preserves the orthodox doctrine of the apostles, and of the church; whereas the false Gnostic abandons all the apostolical traditions, as imagining himself wiser than the apostles. Gnostics was sometimes also more particularly used for the successors of the Nicholaitans and Carpocratians, in the second century, upon their laying aside the names of the first authors.

Such as would be thoroughly acquainted with all their doctrines reveries, and visions may consult St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and St. Epiphanius; particularly the first of these writers, who relates their sentiments at large, and confutes them. Indeed he dwells more on the Valentinians than any other sect of Gnostics; but he shows the general principles whereon all their mistaken opinions were founded, and the method they followed in explaining Scripture. He accuses them of introducing into religion certain vain and ridiculous genealogies, 1: e. a kind of divine processions or emanations, which had no other foundation but in their own wild imagination. The Gnostics confessed, that these aeons, or emanations, were no where expressly delivered in the sacred writings; but insisted that Jesus Christ had intimated them in parables to such as could understand them. They built their theology not only on the Gospels and the epistles of St. Paul, but also on the law of Moses and the prophets. These last were peculiarly serviceable to them, on account of the allegories and allusions with which they abound, which are capable of different interpretations; though their doctrine concerning the creation of the world by one or more inferior beings of an evil or imperfect nature, led them to deny the divine authority of the books of the Old Testament, which contradicted this idle fiction, and filled them with an abhorrence of Moses and the religion he taught; alleging, that he was actuated by the malignant author of this world, who consulted his own glory and authority, and not the real advantage of men.

Their persuasion that evil resided in matter, as its centre and source, made them treat the body with contempt, discourage marriage, and reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and its re-union with the immortal spirit. Their notion, that malevolent genii presided in nature, and occasioned diseases and calamities, wars and desolations, induced them to apply themselves to the study of magic, in order to weaken the powers, or suspend the influence of these malignant agents. The Gnostics considered Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and inferior to the Father, who came into the world for the rescue and happiness of miserable mortals, oppressed by matter and evil beings; but they rejected our Lord's humanity, on the principle that every thing corporeal is essentially and intrinsically evil; and therefore the greatest part of them denied the reality of his sufferings. They set a great value on the beginning of the gospel of St. John, where they fancied they saw a great deal of their xons, or emanations, under the terms the word, the life, the light, &c. They divided all nature into three kinds of beings, viz. hylic, or material; psychic, or animal; and pneumatic, or spiritual. On the like principle they also distinguished three sorts of men; material, animal, and spiritual. The first, who were material, and incapable of knowledge, inevitably perished, both soul and body; the third, such as the Gnostics themselves pretended to be, were all certainly saved; the psychic, or animal, who were the middle between the other two, were capable either of being saved or damned, according to their good or evil actions. With regard to their moral doctrines and conduct, they were much divided.

The greatest part of this sect adopted very austere rules of life, recommended rigorous abstinence, and prescribed severe bodily mortifications, with a view of purifying and exalting the mind. However, some maintained that there was no moral difference in human actions; and thus confounding right with wrong, they gave a loose rein to all the passions, and asserted the innocence of following blindly all their motions, and of living by their tumultuous dictates. They supported their opinions and practice by various authorities: some referred to fictitious and apocryphal writings of Adam, Abraham, Zoroaster, Christ, and his apostles; others boasted that they had deduced their sentiments from secret doctrines of Christ, concealed from the vulgar; others affirmed that they arrived at superior degrees of wisdom by an innate vigour of mind; and others asserted that they were instructed in these mysterious parts of theological science by Thendas, a disciple of St. Paul, and by Matthias, one of the friends of our Lord. The tenets of the ancient Gnostics were revived in Spain, in the fourth century, by a sect called the Priscillianists. At length the name Gnostic, which originally was glorious, became infamous, by the idle opinions and dissolute lives of the persons who bore it.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [3]

Heretics, consisting of various sects that arose in the Apostolic age of Christianity, and that sought, agreeably to the philosophic opinions which they had severally embraced, to extract an esoteric meaning out of the letter of Scripture and the facts especially of the Gospel history, such as only those of superior speculative insight could appreciate; they set a higher value on Knowledge ( gnosis , whence their name) than Faith; thus their understanding of Christianity was speculative, not spiritual, and their knowledge of it the result of thinking, not of life; like the Jews they denied the possibility of the Word becoming flesh and of a realisation of the infinite in the finite; indeed, Gnosticism was at once a speculative and a practical denial that Christ was God manifest in the flesh, and that participation in Christianity was, as He presented it (John vi. 53), participation in His flesh. See Christianity .