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Gnosticism Versus Christianity

Throughout history and beyond the recesses of the human race’s earliest cultures, religion has been a vital and pervasive feature of human life. To understand human history and human life, it is necessary to understand man’s system of religious belief. However, religion is not something tangible. Although temples, ceremonies, and religious art may abound, but their significance can only be understood through the inner experience of those who use these externals. It is imperative that the external and inner meanings of religions are fused together.

Religion is a doubly rich and complex phenomenon. Nonetheless, religious people often find it hard to be objective and dispassionate about the faiths of others different from their own, despite the fact that it has a profound impact on their beliefs and emotions. Various Religions had come up, each claiming to be the ultimate ‘truth. Some of the ‘new’ movement are mere reprisals or a slight revision from ancient religious beliefs. One of which is the Kabbalah, which has attracted attention in the past few years because of the prominent personalities and celebrities that it has garnered.

Such kind of beliefs, like Gnosticism, is one of the many religious teachings, who had come to confront the doctrinal truths of Christ’s church. II. Early Christian Experience It is imperative to establish the essence of Christian tenets in which followers are to anchor their faith. Central, to its teaching was the figure of Jesus. But this was not just the man Jesus: it was the Christ, who had risen in glory, and who headed a new community and guided it through his Spirit. Nor was Paul’s Christ just a Messiah in the older Jewish sense.

He was the Son of God and the Lord of Creation, who sat “at the right hand of the Father”. All this was apparent to Christian teaching and conversion experience concerning the risen Lord and of his realization that a new age had come to pass. The death and resurrection of Christ were the means whereby men could be saved, for by identifying themselves, in this truth and the body of believers, with Him they would be raised up likewise to glory. Christ was the Saviour who could give men the new freedom of the spirit For Christians, the Resurrection was the very proof and the focal point for their belief.

The unforeseen and surprising vindication of the authority of the leader and companion who had inspired them during the time of Christ’s ministry released a force which led them to the experience of Pentecost. The new faith spread with remarkable speed. Within thirty years Christian communities were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. The doctrine of salvation presupposed a view about man’s normal condition. From what did man need to be saved? Men’s moral and intellectual capacities became perverted by sin. Only Christ can liberate man from this state of bondage.

It was not a matter of having committed particular wrongs — particular sins — but in his alienation from God, man’s nature was warped and infected. Christ could restore the true divine image in him. Christ’s death was a self-sacrifice which atoned for the sin of mankind. Through union with Christ’s nature, men could throw off their old sinful self, and rise above the life of the flesh into the life empowered by the Spirit of God. Christ’s resurrection was a visible sign of the triumph over death which the defeat of sin entails.

It is embodied within Christian teaching, the solidarity of mankind — its being a single entity, like a clan, as well as its being composed of individuals. Thus in participating in the life of the flesh, Christ could stand as a representative of mankind. Conversely as all fell through the act of one man, Adam, so all are saved through the act of one man, Jesus. More importantly, Christian community is stressed as being like an organism, with Christ as its head, and in the life of the community as the body, continuing to fulfil the earthy ministry of Jesus.

• Problems of the Early Church The disciple’s and Paul’s work was supplemented by the labours of others — Barnabas, John, Mark, and other early believers who had a great part in the rapid spread of Christianity in the early Testament Period. Many of the “super” apostles were martyred for the profession of their faith. Many were converted through their ministries that had spread far in thirty-five years from its Palestinian home, and the movement carried on. The early church experienced massive spread during its period.

But the fast development of the early church also received much challenged, but not just through persecutions that claimed the lives of many of its leaders and committed followers. The real crisis came toward the end of the first century, when the church had to rely upon new leadership, after the first generations of apostles had passed away. Many false teachings had already crept into the group of believers which had been cited in the Paulinian epistles. III. Gnosticism as Opposed to Christian Teaching The churches found its body, faced with being confronted with a movement known broadly as Gnosticism.

The term itself, “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek term gnosis, or ‘knowledge’. Gnosis meant the mystical or contemplative knowledge of the Divine Being possible for those initiated into the movement. The ideas which were circulating as the correct, but esoteric, interpretation of Christian belief had their origin both in Hellenistic mysticism and in the Jewish Essence sect, and there were also, through these sources, Zoroastrian influences. It has thus been in existence before Jesus’ earthly ministry. Gnosticism was most frequently embraced by those whose roots lay outside the Jewish heritage.

During the second century A. D. it reached, from the point of view of orthodox Christianity, alarming proportions. As might be expected, there was often an anti-Jewish and anti-Old Testament flavour suffusing Gnostic teachings. On the other hand there was a Gnostic strand running through early Christianity. A main feature of the varied strands of Gnostic teaching (which ranged from beliefs which were elaborated in philosophical terms to others which incorporated astrology and a complex mythology) was that this world, the material world which man inhabited, was evil, and was antagonistic toward the higher good.

However, among some men there existed a divine spark. Such “spiritual” men, by turning from the evil world of matter, could ascend to the divine Source from which they ultimately had their being. Others were trapped in the bonds of matter — those were the “fleshly” men. Thus the faith of Gnosticism tended to be obscure, confined to the few. In order to explain the evil nature of the world, and at the same time to account for the difference between Gnosticism and the teachings of the Old Testament, the Gnostics commonly made a distinction between the Divine Being and a lower Creator, the Demiurge, who emanated from the former.

The Demiurge was implicated in a cosmic fall, and so the world he created referred to as Yahweh. For many Gnostics, the God of the Old Testament was cruel and capricious, very much similar to the Greek gods and goddesses who often displayed very human-like emotions and actions, often vindictive and manipulative. This should not be identified with the Abba, the loving Father, whom Jesus spoke of.

In order that spiritual men should be enabled to turn back to the divine Source, Jesus was sent as a Redeemer, though it was commonly held that the man Jesus was just an appearance projected onto the stage of human history, and not a fleshly incarnation of the Divine Being. Generally speaking the way to gnosis, to the supernatural knowledge and union with the Divine Being, was through ascetism and withdrawal from the material world. But some Gnostic groups turned in the opposite direction, believing that the supernatural man rises “beyond good and evil”.

These groups instituted orgiastic cults through which the adherents gave expression to their superiority to the moral law. The ascetic side of Gnosticism pointed clearly to the mystical and contemplative nature of the experience at which these people aimed, but their mysticism was never properly integrated either with belief in Jesus or with the worship of a personal Creator. The Creator was demoted to the status of an evil Demiurge, and thereby the insights of prophetic monotheism were submerged: also, Jesus played an unreal role in the cosmic drama.

It has rejected the very death of Jesus, through its teaching that He had instead, returned to its original abode without crucified on the cross as God’s only means by all men will be saved. For these reasons, Gnosticism cut at the roots of Christian belief. IV. Varying Expression • Marcion Claimed to be a Christian but expressed a viewpoint that threatened the integrity of Christian belief though he considered his interpretation as the true interpretation of Christianity. Unlike the Gnostics, he was not much concerned with mysticism but taught that Jesus’ death on the cross was not factual, but a mere product of man’s hallucination.

• Kabbalah The Kabbalist mystics sought to evolve a pattern of life centred on interior experience and contemplation. Although it does not adhere to the different terminologies used by Gnosticism, many of its themes are similar in character. They too are speculative, but their speculations were of a very different order from those of the philosophers. Written in a strange and symbolic language, the Kabbalist literature gave a new and esoteric account of the relations between God and his creation. The chief expression of the Kabbalah is a work known as the Zohar or “Splendor” which was written as a commentary on the Pentateuch.

They aim to express the relationship between mystical experience and the traditional religion of Israel. On the moral plane, the Kabbalists strongly stressed the importance of meekness and love, and they glorified poverty. Thus the movement preached a moderate ascetism, as part of the training through which the soul could reach back to the divine spark that illuminated it from the depth of the person’s being. V. Conclusion Erroneous teachings create a serious threat in the integrity of the faith.

The Gnostics, Kabbalists, and Marcionite position made nonsense of an important aspect of Jesus’ life — his claim to “fulfil” the Law and the Prophets. By destroying this monotheistic basis of the Christian faith such doctrines allowed entry to all kinds of extraneous mythological ideas. Since Gnostics had denied the authenticity of some of the Gospels and other accepted writings, and since the Gnostics appealed to an esoteric and secret tradition which, they alleged, had been handed down privately from the apostles, it is important that the Church continue to stand up against such heretical teachings.

Bibliography: 1. Ehrman, Bart. Lost Christianities. USA: Oxford University Press, 2003. 2. Smart, Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984 3. “Religion and Ethics: Christianity”, December 20, 2008, http://www. bbc. co. uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/basics_1. shtml (Accessed December 20, 2008) 4. “Marcion”, Online Encyclopaedia Britannic, http://encyclopedia. jrank. org/MAL_MAR/MARCION. htmlhttp://encyclopedia. jrank. org/MAL_MAR/MARCION. html (Accessed December 20, 2008)

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