The Gnostics and their Scriptures (1 John 4)

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Gnosticism was one of the earliest Christian heresies. Gnostic writings are many and varied, frequently drawing upon Platonic concepts, imagery from the New Testament and pagan myth. A number of Gnostic texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. Many were pseudo-apostolic – falsely ascribed to apostles. Examples include the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of James and the Letter of Peter to Philip. Certain broad observations can be made of Gnostic literature:

  • From the Greek word “gnosis“, meaning “knowledge”, Gnosticism was a movement that claimed to provide secret knowledge about God. Its adherents considered the Biblical God, the Creator of the world, to be an inferior god. In Gnostic teaching the material world was innately evil and thus its Creator a lesser deity.
  • The Gnostic Saviour, rather than providing atonement for sin, brought the knowledge of humanity’s “true” divine origins, thus freeing people from their ignorance and enslavement to the material world.
  • Some Gnostics believed that “the Christ” (a kind of spiritual anointing or presence) came upon the man Jesus at His baptism and departed before His crucifixion – thus, that there was no lasting union of divine and human natures in Jesus. In their view, the true Christ had no physical body.
  • One particular brand of Gnostics, called “Docetists”, believed that Jesus was actually a divine spirit who only appeared to be physical: His body, they argued, was not truly flesh but was only an illusion. 1 John 4:2 (“Every spirit that acknowledged that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God“) refutes this teaching. Possibly those whom John countered were forerunners of the groups that later wrote the Gnostic texts.

John’s warning indicate that heresy can come in many forms, often in the guise of apostolic teaching. Those who deny the humanity of Christ are equally as heretical as those who deny His deity. In addition, any doctrine that understands the created, material world to be intrinsically evil is dangerous and misguided.


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