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The Gnostic heresy

William Barclay gives us a description of the Gnostic heresy, which is solid enough to stand before the scrutiny of scholars and at the same time edifying and simple to understand as a good morning devotional. The texts below is to be found in "The daily bible study series", comments on 1 Timothy and Colossians.

-Lars Widerberg


1 Timothy 1:3-7

I am writing to you now to reinforce the plea that I already made to you, when I urged you to stay in Ephesus while I went to Macedonia, that you might pass on the order to some of the people there, not to teach erroneous novelties, nor to give their attention to idle tales and endless genealogies, which only succeed in producing empty speculations rather than the effective administration of Godís people, which should be based on faith. The instruction which I gave you is designed to produce love which issues from a pure heart, a good conscience and an undissembling faith. But some of these people of whom I am talking have never even tried to find the right road, and have turned aside out of it to empty and useless discussions, in their claim to become teachers of the law, although they do not know what they are talking about, nor do they realize the real meaning of the things about which they dogmatize.

It is clear that at the back of the Pastoral Epistles there is some heresy which is endangering the Church.  Right at the beginning it will be well to try to see what this heresy is. We will therefore collect the facts about it now. This very passage brings us face to face with two of its great characteristics. It dealt in idle tales and endless genealogies. These two things were not peculiar to this heresy but were deeply engrained in the thought of the ancient world.

First, the idle tales. One of the characteristics of the ancient world was that the poets and even the historians loved to work out romantic and fictitious tales about the foundation of cities and of families. They would tell how some god came to earth and founded the city or took in marriage some mortal maid and founded a family. The ancient world was full of stories like that.

Second, the endless genealogies. The ancient world had a passion for genealogies. We can see that even in the Old Testament with its chapters of names and in the New Testament with the genealogies of Jesus with which Matthew and Luke begin their gospels. A man like Alexander the Great had a completely artificial pedigree constructed in which he traced his lineage back on the one side to Achilles and Andromache and on the other to Perseus and Hercules.

It would be the easiest thing in the world for Christianity to get lost in endless and fabulous stories about origins and in elaborate and imaginary genealogies. That was a danger which was inherent in the situation in which Christian thought was developing.

It was peculiarly threatening from two directions. It was threatening from the Jewish direction. To the Jews there was no book in the world like the Old Testament. Their scholars spent a lifetime studying it and expounding it. In the Old Testament many chapters and many sections are long genealogies; and one of the favourite occupations of the Jewish scholars was to construct an imaginary and edifying biography for every name in the list! A man could go on for ever doing that; and it may be that that was what was partly in Paulís mind. He may be saying, "When you ought to be working at the Christian life, you are working out imaginary biographies and genealogies. You are wasting your time on elegant fripperies, when you should be getting down to life and living." This may be a warning to us never to allow Christian thinking to get lost in speculations which do not matter.


But this danger came with an even greater threat from the Greek side. At this time in history there was developing a Greek line of thought which came to be known as Gnosticism. We find it specially in the background of the Pastoral Epistles, the Letter to the Colossians and the Fourth Gospel.

Gnosticism was entirely, speculative. It began with the problem of the origin of sin and of suffering. If God is altogether good, he could not have created them. How then did they get into the world? The Gnostic answer was that creation was not creation out of nothing; before time began matter existed. They believed that this matter was essentially imperfect, an evil thing; and out of this essentially evil matter the world was created.

No sooner had they got this length than they ran into another difficulty. If matter is essentially evil and God is essentially good, God could not himself have touched this matter. So they began another set of speculations. They said that God put out an emanation, and that this emanation put out another emanation, and the second emanation put out a third emanation and so on and on until there came into being an emanation so distant from God that he could handle matter; and that it was not God but this emanation who created the world.

They went further. They held that each successive emanation knew less about God so that there came a stage in the series of emanations when the emanations were completely ignorant of him and, more, there was a final stage when the emanations were not only ignorant of God but actively hostile to him. So they arrived at the thought that the god who created the world was quite ignorant of and hostile to the true God. Later on they went even further and identified the God of the Old Testament with this creating god, and the God of the New Testament with the true God.

They further provided each one of the emanations with a complete biography. And so they built up an elaborate mythology of gods and emanations, each with his story and his biography and his genealogy. There is no doubt that the ancient world was riddled with that kind of thinking; and that it even entered the Church itself. It made Jesus merely the greatest of the emanations, the one closest to God. It classed him as the highest link in the endless chain between God and man.

This Gnostic line of thought had certain characteristics which appear all through the Pastoral Epistles as the characteristics of those whose heresies were threatening the Church and the purity of the faith.

Gnosticism was obviously highly speculative, and it was therefore intensely intellectual snobbish. It believed that all this intellectual speculation was quite beyond the mental grasp of ordinary people and was for a chosen few, the elite of the Church. So Timothy is warned against "godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge" (1 Timothy 6:20). He is warned against a religion of speculative questions instead of humble faith (1 Timothy 1:4). He is warned against the man who is proud of his intellect but really knows nothing and dotes about questions and strifes of words (1 Timothy 6:4). He is told to shun godless chatter," for they can produce only ungodliness (2 Timothy 2:16). He is told to avoid "stupid, senseless controversies" which in the end can only engender strife (2 Timothy 2: 23). Further, the Pastoral Epistles go out of their way to stress the fact that this idea of an intellectual aristocracy is quite wrong, for Gods love is universal. God wants all men to be saved and all men to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God is the Saviour of all men, especially those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10). The Christian Church would have nothing to do with any kind of faith which was founded on intellectual speculation and set up an arrogant intellectual aristocracy.

Gnosticism was concerned with this long series of emanations. It gave to each of them a biography and a pedigree and an importance in the chain between God and men. These gnostics were concerned with "endless genealogiesí (1 Timothy 1:4). They went in for "godless and silly mythsí about them (1 Timothy 4:7). They turned their ears away  from the truth to myths (2 Timothy 4:4). They dealt in fables like the Jewish myths (Titus 1: 14). Worst of all, they thought in terms of two gods and of Jesus as one of a whole series of mediators between God and man; whereas "there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2: ). There is only one King of ages, immortal, invisible, there is only one God (1 Timothy 1:17). Christianity had to repudiate a religion which took their unique place from God and from Jesus Christ.


The danger of Gnosticism was not only intellectual. It had serious moral and ethical consequences. We must remember that its basic belief was that matter was essentially evil and spirit alone was good. That issued in two opposite results.

If matter is evil, the body is evil; and the body must be despised and held down. Therefore Gnosticism could and did issue in a rigid asceticism. It forbade men to marry, for the instincts of the body were to be suppressed. It laid down strict food laws, for the needs of the body must as far as possible be eliminated. So the Pastorals speak of those who forbid to marry and who command to abstain from meats (1 Timothy 4:3). The answer to these people is that everything which God has created is good and is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). The Gnostic looked on creation as an evil thing, the work of an evil god; the Christian looks on creation as a noble thing, the gift of a good God. The Christian lives in a world where all things are pure; the Gnostic lived in a world where all things were defiled (Titus 1:15).

But Gnosticism could issue in precisely the opposite ethical belief. If the body is evil, it does not matter what a man does with it. Therefore, let him sate his appetites. These things are of no importance, therefore a man can use his body in the most licentious way and it makes no difference. So the Pastorals speak of those who lead away weak women until they are laden with sin and the victims of all kinds of lusts (2 Timothy 3:6). Such men profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds (Titus 1:16). They used their religious beliefs as an excuse for immorality.

Gnosticism had still another consequence. The Christian believes in the resurrection of the body. That is not to say that he ever believed that we are resurrected with this mortal, human body; but he always believed that after resurrection from the dead a man would have a spiritual body, provided by God. Paul discusses this whole question in I Corinthians 15. The Gnostic held that there was no such thing as the resurrection of the body (2 Timothy 2:18). After death a man would be a kind of disembodied spirit. The basic difference is that the Gnostic believed in the bodyís destruction; the Christian believes in its redemption. The Gnostic believed in what he would call soul salvation; the Christian believes in whole salvation.

So behind the Pastoral Epistles there are these dangerous heretics, who gave their lives to intellectual speculations, who saw this as an evil world and the creating god as evil, who put between the world and God an endless series of emanations and lesser gods and spent their time equipping each of them with endless fables and genealogies, who reduced Jesus to the position of a link in a chain and took away his uniqueness, who lived either in a rigorous asceticism or an unbridled licentiousness, who denied the resurrection of the body. It was their heretical beliefs that the Pastorals were written to combat.


In this passage there is a clear picture of the mind of the dangerous heretic. There is a kind of heresy in which a man differs from orthodox belief because he has honestly thought things out and cannot agree with it. He does not take any pride in being different; he is different simply because he has to be. Such a heresy does not spoil a manís character; it may in fact enhance his character, because he has really thought out his faith and is not living on a second-hand orthodoxy. But that is not the heretic whose picture is drawn here. Here are distinguished five characteristics of the dangerous heretic.

He is driven by the desire for novelty. He is like someone who must be in the latest fashion and must undergo the latest craze. He despises old things for no better reason than that they are old, and desires new things for no better reason than that they are new. Christianity has always the problem of presenting old truth in a new way. The truth does not change, but every age must find its own way of presenting it. Every teacher and preacher must talk to men in language which they understand. The old truth and the new presentation go ever hand in hand.

He exalts the mind at the expense of the heart. His conception of religion is speculation and not experience. Christianity has never demanded that a man should stop thinking for himself, but it does demand that his thinking should be dominated by a personal experience of Jesus Christ.

He deals in argument instead of action. He is more interested in abstruse discussion than in the effective administration of the household of the faith. He forgets that the truth is not only something which a man accepts with his mind, but is also something which he translates into action. Long ago the distinction between the Greek and the Jew was drawn. The Greek loved argument for the sake of argument; there was nothing that he liked better than to sit with a group of friends and indulge in a series of mental acrobatics and enjoy "the stimulus of a mental hike." But he was not specially interested in reaching conclusions, and in evolving a principle of action.  The Jew, too, liked argument; but he wished every argument to end in a decision which demanded action. There is always a danger of heresy when we fall in love with words and forget deeds, for deeds are the acid test by which every argument must be tested.

He is moved by arrogance rather than by humility. He looks down with a certain contempt on simple-minded people who cannot follow his flights of intellectual speculation. He regards those who do not reach his own conclusions as ignorant fools. The Christian has somehow to combine an immovable certainty with a gentle humility.

He is guilty of dogmatism without knowledge. He does not really know what he is talking about nor really understand the significance of the things about which he dogmatizes. The strange thing about religious argument is that everyone thinks that he has a right to express a dogmatic opinion. In all other fields we demand that a person should have a certain knowledge before he lays down the law. But there are those who dogmatize about the Bible and its teaching although they have never even tried to find out what the experts in language and history have said. It may well be that the Christian cause has suffered more from ignorant dogmatism than from anything else. When we think of the characteristics of those who were troubling the Church at Ephesus we can see that their descendants are still with us.


As this passage draws the picture of the thinker who disturbs the Church, it also draws the picture of the really Christian thinker. He, too, has five characteristics.

His thinking is based on faith. Faith means taking God at his word; it means believing that he is as Jesus proclaimed him to be. That is to say, the Christian thinker begins from the principle that Jesus Christ has given the full revelation of God.

His thinking is motivated by love. Paulís whole purpose is to produce love. To think in love will always save us from certain things. It will save us from arrogant thinking. It will save us from contemptuous thinking. It will save us from condemning either that with which we do not agree, or that which we do not understand. It will save us from expressing our views in such a way that we hurt other people. Love saves us from destructive thinking and destructive speaking.  To think in love is always to think in sympathy.  The man who argues in love argues not to defeat his opponent, but to win him.

His thinking comes from a pure heart. Here the word used is very significant. It is katharos, which originally simply meant clean as opposed to soiled or dirty. Later it came to have certain most suggestive uses. It was used of corn that has been winnowed and cleansed of all chaff.  It was used of an army which had been purified of all cowardly and undisciplined soldiers until there was nothing left but first-class fighting men. It was used of something which was without any debasing admixture. So, then, a pure heart is a heart whose motives are absolutely pure and absolutely unmixed. In the heart of the Christian thinker there is no desire to "show how clever he is, no desire to win a purely debating victory, no desire to show up the ignorance of his opponent. His only desire is to help and to illumine and to lead nearer to God. The Christian thinker is moved only by love of truth and love for men.

His thinking comes from a good conscience. The Greek word for conscience is suneidesis. It literally means a knowing with. The real meaning of conscience is a knowing with oneself. To have a good conscience is to be able to look in the face the knowledge which one shares with no one but oneself and not be ashamed. Emerson remarked of Seneca that he said the loveliest things, if only he had the right to say them. The Christian thinker is the man whose thoughts and whose deeds give him the right to say what he does - and that is the most acid test of all.'

The Christian thinker is the man of undissembling faith. The phrase literally means the faith in which there is no hypocrisy. That simply means that the great characteristic of the Christian thinker is sincerity. He is sincere both in his desire to find the truth - and in his desire to communicate it.


What the heresy was which was threatening the life of the Church at Colosse no one can tell for sure. "The Colossian Heresy" is one of the great problems of New Testament scholarship. All we can do is to go to the letter itself, list the characteristics we find indicated there and then see if we can find Ď any general heretical tendency to fit the list.

It was clearly a heresy which attacked the total adequacy and the unique supremacy of Christ. No Pauline letter has such a lofty view of Jesus Christ or such insistence on his completeness and finality. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God; in him all fullness dwells (1:15, 19). In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge (2:2). In him dwells the fullness of the Godhead  in bodily form (2:9). Paul goes out of his way to stress the part that Christ played in creation. By him all things were created (1:16); in him all things cohere (1:17). The Son was the Fatherís instrument in the creation of the universe.

At the same time he goes out of his way to stress the real humanity of Christ. It was in the body of his flesh that he did his redeeming work (1:22). The fullness of the Godhead dwells in him somatikos, in bodily form (2:9). For all his deity Jesus Christ was truly human flesh and blood.

There seems to have been an astrological element in this heresy. In 2:8, as the Authorized Version has it, he says that they were walking after the rudiments of this world, and in 2:20 that they ought to be dead to the rudiments of this world. The word translated rudiments is stoicheia, which has two meanings. (a) Its basic meaning is a row of things; it can, for instance, be used for a file of soldiers. But one of its commonest meanings is the A B C, the letters of the alphabet, set out, as it were, in a row. From that it develops the meaning of the elements of any subject, the rudiments. It is in that sense that the Authorized Version takes it; and, if that is the correct sense, Paul means that the Colossians are slipping back to an elementary kind of Christianity when they ought to be going on to maturity. (b) We think that the second meaning is more likely. Stoicheia can mean the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. The ancient world was dominated by thought of the influence of the stars; and even the greatest and the wisest men would not act without consulting them. It believed that all things were in the grip of an iron fatalism settled by the stars; and the science of astrology professed to provide men with the secret knowledge which would rid them of their slavery to the elemental spirits. It is most likely that the Colossian false teachers were teaching that it needed something more than Jesus Christ to rid men of their subsection to these elemental spirits.

The heresy made much of the powers of demonic spirits. There are frequent references to principalities or authorities, which are Paulís names for these spirits (1:16; 2:10; 2:15). The ancient world believed implicitly in demonic powers. The air was full of them. Every natural force - the wind, the thunder, the lightning, the rain - had its demonic superintendent. Every place, every tree, every river, every lake had its spirit. They were in one sense intermediaries to God and in another sense barriers to him, for the vast majority of them were hostile to men. The ancient world lived in a demonhaunted universe. The Colossian false teachers were clearly saying that something more than Jesus Christ was needed to defeat the power of the demons.

There was clearly what we might call a philosophical element in this heresy. The heretics are out to spoil men with philosophy and empty deceit (2:8). Clearly the Colossian heretics were saying that the simplicities of the gospel needed a far more elaborate and recondite knowledge added to them.

There was a tendency in this heresy to insist on the observance of special days and rituals - festivals, new moons and sabbaths (2:16). Clearly there was a would-be ascetic element in this heresy. It laid down laws about food and drink (2:16). Its slogans were: "Touch not; taste not; handle not" (2:21). It was a heresy which was out to limit Christian freedom by insistence on all kinds of legalistic ordinances.

Equally this heresy had at least sometimes an antinomian streak in it. It tended to make men careless of the chastity which the Christian should have and to make him think lightly of the bodily sins (3:5-8). Apparently this heresy gave at least some place to the worship of angels (2:18). Beside the demons it introduced angelic intermediaries between man and God.

Lastly, there seems to have been in this heresy something which can only be called spiritual and intellectual snobbery. In 1:28 Paul lays down his aim; it is to warn every man; to teach every man in all wisdom; and to present every man mature in Jesus Christ. We see how the phrase every man is reiterated and how the aim is to make him mature in all wisdom. The clear implication is that the heretics limited the gospel to some chosen few and introduced a spiritual and intellectual aristocracy into the wide welcome of the Christian faith.


Was there then any general heretical tendency of thought which would include all this? There was what was called Gnosticism. Gnosticism began with two basic assumptions about matter. First, it believed that spirit alone was good and that matter was essentially evil. Second, it believed that matter was eternal; and that the universe was not created out of nothing - which is orthodox belief - but out of this flawed matter. Now this basic belief had certain inevitable consequences.

It had an effect on the doctrine of creation. If God was spirit, then he wasaltogether good and could not possibly work with this evil matter. Therefore God was not the creator of the world. He put out a series of emanations, each of which was a little more distant from God until at the end of the series there was an emanation so distant that it could handle matter; and it was this emanation which created the world. The Gnostics went further. Since each emanation was more distant from God, it was also more ignorant of him. As the series went on that ignorance turned to hostility.  So the emanations most distant from God were at once ignorant of him and hostile to him. It followed that he who created the world was at once completely ignorant of, and utterly hostile to, the true God. It was tomeet that Gnostic doctrine of creation that Paul insisted that the agent of God in creation was not some ignorant and hostile power, but the Son who perfectly knew and loved the Father.

It had its effect on the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christí If matter was altogether evil and if Jesus was the Son of God, then Jesus could not have had a flesh and blood body so the Gnostic argued. He must have been a kind of spiritual phantom. So the Gnostic romances say that when Jesus walked, he left no footprints on the ground. This, of course, completely removed Jesus from humanity and made it impossible for him to be the Saviour of men. It was to meet this Gnostic doctrine that Paul insisted on the flesh and blood body of Jesus and insisted that Jesus saved men in the body of his flesh.

It had its effect on the ethical approach to life. If matter was evil, then it followed that our bodies were evil. If our bodies were evil, one of two consequences followed. We must starve and beat and deny the body; we must practise a rigid asceticism in which the body was kept under, and in which its every need and desire were refused. It was possible to take precisely the opposite point of views the body was evil, it did not matter what a man did with it; spirit was all that mattered. Therefore a man could sate the bodyís desires and it would make no difference. Gnosticism could, therefore, issue in asceticism, with all kinds of laws and restrictions; or, it could issue in antinomianism, in which any immorality was justified. and we can see precisely both these tendencies at work in the false teachers at Colosse.

One thing followed from all this-Gnosticism was a highly intellectual way of life and thought. There was this long series of emanations between a man and God; man must fight his way up a long ladder to get to God. In order to do that he would need all kinds of secret knowledge and esoteric learning and hidden passwords. If he was to practise a rigid asceticism, he would need to know the rules; and so rigid would his asceticism be that it would be impossible for him to embark on the ordinary activities of life. The Gnostics were, therefore, quite clear that the higher reaches of religion were open only to the chosen few. This conviction of the necessity of belonging to an intellectual religious aristocracy precisely suits the situation at Colosse.

There remains one thing to fit into this picture. It is quite obvious that there was a Jewish element in the false teaching threatening the Church at Colosse. The festivals and the new moons and the sabbaths were characteristically Jewish; the laws about food and drink were essentially Jewish levitical laws. Where then did the Jews come in? It is a strange thing that many Jews were sympathetic to Gnosticism. They knew all about angels and demons and spirits. But, above all, they said, "We know quite well that it takes special knowledge to reach God. We know quite well that Jesus and his gospel are far too simple - and that special knowledge is to be found nowhere else than in the Jewish law. It is our ritual and ceremonial law which is indeed the special knowledge which enables a man to reach God." The result was that there was not infrequently a strange alliance between Gnosticism and Judaism; and it is just such an alliance that we find in Colosse, where, as we have seen, there were many Jews.

It is clear that the false teachers of Colosse were tinged with Gnostic heresy. They were trying to turn Christianity into a philosophy and a  theosophy, and, if they had been successful, the Christian faith would  have been destroyed.

From The European Prophetic College.
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