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.
ERROR AND HERESY
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
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
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.
THE SPECULATIONS OF THE GREEKS
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 ETHICS OF HERESY
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
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.
THE MIND OF THE HERETIC
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
THE MIND OF THE CHRISTIAN THINKER
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
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
THE HERESY AT COLOSSE
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
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
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.
THE GNOSTIC HERESY
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
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.
To Prophet "Un"School