Christian History Home > Issue 51 > Finding the Truth
Finding the Truth
How the earliest church decided Marcion and the Gnostics, among others, were wrong.
[* A condensed excerpt from “The Story of Christianity” by Justo L. Gonazlez (Harper & Row, 1984). Used with permission.]
Long before the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the church had already been dealing with heresy for some time. Early on teachers arose who said they had special access to Jesus’ “real teachings.” So early on, the church had to come up with methods for discerning truth and rejecting error.
In his The Story of Christianity (Harper & Row, 1984), Justo González, a member of the faculty of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, discusses the two most powerful heresies of the earliest church and how it responded.
Of all the differing interpretations of Christianity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as was Gnosticism. This was a vast and amorphous movement that existed both within and outside the church.
The name Gnosticism derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” According to the Gnostics, they possessed a special, mystical knowledge reserved for those with true understanding. That knowledge was the secret key to salvation.
Salvation was the main concern of the Gnostics. They concluded that all matter is evil, or at best unreal. A human being is in reality an eternal spirit that somehow has been imprisoned in a body. Since the body is a prison to the spirit, and since it misguides us as to our true nature, it is evil. Therefore the Gnostics’ final goal was to escape from the body and this material world in which we are exiled. The world is not our true home but rather an obstacle to the salvation of the spirit.
How, then, is the origin of the world and of the body to be explained? Gnosticism affirmed that originally all reality was spiritual. The supreme being had no intention of creating a material world but only a spiritual one. Thus a number of spiritual beings were generated. Gnostic teachers did not agree as to their exact number, with some systems positing 365 such spiritual beings or “eons.” In any case, one of these eons, far removed from the supreme being, fell into error and thus created the material world. According to one system, for instance, Wisdom, one of the eons, wished to produce something by herself, and the resulting “abortion” was the world. That is what the world is in Gnosticism: an abortion of the spirit and not a divine creation.
But since this world was made by a spiritual being, there are still “sparks” or “bits” of spirit in it. It is these that have been imprisoned in human bodies and must be liberated through gnosis.
In order to achieve that liberation, a spiritual messenger must come to this world to waken us from our “dream.” Our spirits are “asleep” within our bodies, being driven by the impulses and passions of the body, and someone must come from beyond to remind us who we really are and to call us to struggle against our incarceration. This messenger brings the gnosis, the secret knowledge and inspiration necessary for salvation.
Above us are the heavenly spheres, each ruled by an evil power whose aim is to impede our progress to the spiritual realm. In order to reach the spiritual “fullness,” we must break through each of those spheres. The only way to do this is to have the secret knowledge that opens the way—much like a spiritual password. The heavenly messenger has been sent precisely to give us that knowledge, without which there is no salvation.
In Christian Gnosticism, that messenger is Christ. Christ has come to earth to remind us of our heavenly origin and to give us the secret knowledge without which we cannot return to the spiritual mansions.
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