Gnosticism. Some of Its Beliefs, Practices, and its Continued Influence in the World: Part I

To Gnosticism’s separation of soul and body, spirit and flesh, pneumatic and animal existence, Christianity opposed the Incarnation of God. The fact that God became man, indeed flesh, proves that the redemption and resurrection of the entire earthly world is not just a possibility but a reality. Against the Gnostic separation of the old and new covenants, Irenaeus taught the unity of the testaments in Christ: they were different, because they were different stages of the one divine education of the human race. In contrast to Gnosticism’s cold presumption, he proclaimed God’s patience, visible in Christ and His Passion, given to us as redemptive grace in the form of faith, hope and love, by means of which we preserve a patient and humble distance from the eternal God whom we can never exhaustively comprehend. This attitude is the fundamental condition of all redemption; indeed, it is redemption itself.

— Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 9.

Christians have, since the beginning of the Christian tradition, had to beware of doctrines and ideologies which contradict the teachings of their Master, Jesus Christ. Even during the time of the Apostles, the Church dealt with those who claimed direct, divine revelation which opposed the teachings the Apostles had learned directly from him. According to many Church Fathers, Simon Magus was the first heretic. His fame earned him a passage in the Acts of the Apostles, where his attitude towards power and his desire of it for his own personal gain was used to demonstrate how inherently immoral and un-Christian he was:

But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is that power of God which is called Great.” And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Act 8: 9 – 24; RSV).

After being rejected by the Apostles, Simon went off on his own, creating a religious sect which glorified him as a god. He tried to incorporate elements of Christian theology in his new religion, believing it would add to his reputation and increase the number of people he could get to follow him. To justify his teaching, and his claim of divinity,he created a new cosmological myth, one which synthesized elements of Greek, Jewish, Persian and Christian thought, and yet one which claimed to have unique insights that the other religious faiths did not possess. This ingenious method of syncretism would be used and developed by the Gnostics which would follow in his footsteps after his death (scholars suggest proto-Gnostic teachings existed before Christ, but they would only become semi-mainstream in the ancient Roman world after they incorporated aspects of Christian theology into their teachings and traditions).

According to Simon, the world was ruled by rebellious angels, who had trapped Ennoia, a feminine principle which represented the “first thought” of God, in the world. Ennoia was made flesh, and lived many lives upon the earth, trapped in human form, constantly being drawn back down by reincarnation, with the most famous incarnation being Helen of Troy. Simon claimed to be an incarnation of the “Great Power of God,” who had come into the world to free Ennoia from her prison before destroying the world in which she is imprisoned. He had revealed himself in many incarnations during his search for Ennoia, one of which was as Jesus of Nazareth. The parable of the lost sheep was a allegory of himself and his search for Ennoia. However, he was benevolent, and was willing to free those who followed him, taking them to higher, more spiritual realms of existence, freed from their earthly prison; anyone else would be destroyed with the rest of the world.

There is some debate as to how much of these teachings, imputed to Simon, were actually of his own creation, how many of them he borrowed from previous proto-Gnostic sources, and how many of them were later claimed to be his but were not. One thing is clear, Simon was a prominent figure and represented such a threat to the Christian faith that Luke believed he needed to be refuted. It is likely that he held on to some form of these teachings, even if they were not as detailed or sophisticated as later authors would suggest. They represent the kind of ideas which were being spread and discussed and so the kinds of teachings which easily confused early believers as they tried to get to know and understand their new faith. Moreover, they show, in an embryonic form, the kind of Gnostic teachings Christians (and Platonists!) would eventually have to make an all out attack upon, and it is because of their teachings that Christian theology was quickly developed in order to show how the orthodox belief provided for a superior theological model of the world than their Gnostic adversaries.

Christians believed that the world was created good by a just creator. While the world was now fallen, this did not destroy its inherent goodness. The world itself continued to be something which was good, and so it could not be outright rejected. The flesh was good, and it has a place in eternity. Jesus truly became flesh,  revealing to us that the flesh itself can be holy and should no be seen as impure. Anyone who denied this, anyone who claimed belief in Jesus but did not believe in the fullness of the incarnation, in the salvation of the world and all that is within it, was actually an opponent of Christ. That is, they were seen as an anti-Christ. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).

Gnosticism was, from its foundation, an opponent of Christianity and of the spirit of “anti-Christ” because of its rejection of the world. Spirits were seen by them as created by some archon or principle of God, but trapped in the flesh by some evil “creator” figure. To be saved, they had to be freed from their fleshy prison. We can already see aspects of this within Simon’s teachings, but they would become more sophisticated as time went on, with rival Gnostic groups creating rival holy texts which claimed to explain the reality of the world, and how and why the Messiah came upon the earth, and how one can become his true follower to achieve final liberation. Thus, we quickly see the development of rival Gnostic traditions, including, but not limited to, the Marcionites, Valentinians, Sethians, Cainites, Mandaeans and, finally, the Manicheans. They all agree with the fact that there is an evil principle which rules over the earth, and that the true God transcends the world in such a way that this true, ultimate God wants to free those trapped in the evil world and take them into some unearthly, spiritual realm where the flesh and all it entails will have been left behind. Many of them believed that Yahweh was either evil or ignorant, and had led the Jews astray. One must transcend and overcome the Jewish conception of God, not because the Jewish conception was incomplete, but because the Jewish God was entirely in the wrong. Marcion rejected the Torah; the Cainites believed that those the Torah represented as good were evil (such as Abel), while those the Torah represented as evil were good (such as Cain). Because of the moral difficulties one can find within the Torah, where one has a difficulty defending what is required by God within it, this simple explanation was an attractive one to many seekers for truth. Of course, the more one explores any theological issue, the more one finds out that the truth is never as simple as we want it to be; yet, even today, when some new theologian or thinker claims to hold some simple explanation for everything, we see how attractive their teaching can be, and how big a following they develop ever so quickly, showing us that this problem continues to be one which is as present today as it was during the time of the Gnostics.

Gnostics justified themselves by seeing themselves as Christians, and they allowed for the existence of the exterior, traditional form, which they said was a true help to the general populace, but was only worthy for the masses, not the elite. Gnostic leaders and their followers were seen as being superior to the normal Christian because they were given greater teachings which the ordinary Christian could not handle, teachings which could and would only be given to those select few who were found worthy of them. Indeed, they were greater than the Apostles because of this special knowledge – this gnosis- which God had given to them, although some of the Apostles also were given them and taught them to those they found were capable of following them. People are often able to be led by the nose by this tactic, today as much as ever, because we want to feel we are special, and this is one way that this desire can be met. Indeed, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We like to feel superior to everyone else, and we think our personal beliefs must likewise be superior. Many people, if questioned about their faith, will not know any specific answers, but will nonetheless feel that this questioning from outsiders is proof positive of  the truth of one’s belief, because they believe it and if others just cannot get themselves to the level where they too can believe, that just shows how inferior they really are. This is so, not just in religious things, but in all areas of knowledge and social interaction, from the sciences to politics, Many people from any side of the any specific debate continue to fall for this unjustified elitism. Like Mulder from the X-files, they have a position they want to believe, and so they believe it, no matter what the actual facts at hand might suggest. Most often, the reason for this belief lies not in any reasoned argument, but for the personal benefit they see and feel from holding to this belief, while ignoring the harm it might have for others – for when things come down to us vs. everyone else, we stand up for “number one” first. Thus the first dualism we hold to is one which places ourselves against everyone else, and it is the hardest dualism to overcome. Indeed, this inherent, egoistic problem can help explain why dualism, while often theologically vanquished, continues to hold such an attractive sway in the history of Christian theology that it is never once and for all overcome.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Thanks, Henry! Outstanding information. I completely missed Simon in my readings. Very interesting.

  • ben

    I too had missed Simon Magus in my scripture readings, until a couple of years ago when my then 12 year old was explaing the origin of the word “simony” to me.

    Great post. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  • Henry Karlson


    You are welcome; I am at work on part II, and right now I am hoping this will end up a three part series (if not four). Since Gnosticism is discussed here a great deal, I thought it worthwhile to write something on the Gnostics, and as I do it, reflect upon it the connection I see between ancient Gnosticism and later developments.

    Of course, by the nature of the blog, this series will not be comprehensive and much of what I say will be very generaljzed. One can give book length expositions on many of the most famous forms of Gnosticism, and I am not going to go into that detail here. Instead, I’ve been trying to give the essential content of Gnosticism and what unifies them under one “title,” while providing some brief examples of how various traditions lived out their teachings/beliefs.

    As for Simon Magus, the legends around him are quite interesting. One suggests that he was seen killing a boy, and he claimed the boy was not real, but a boy he made out of air, so it was not murder. Moreover, he tried to learn how to fly/and seemed to have made some sort of glider to prove his miraclous powers. According to other legends, he challenged Peter and Paul in front of Nero, saying he would prove himself superior to them. When he went out with glider and started flying, Peter and Paul were praying: apparently, he fell from the sky, and died as he crash landed upon the ground.

    Charles Williams used the legends about Simon to make a modern day Simon Magus figure for “All Hallows Eve,” one of my favorite Williams novels.

  • Henry Karlson


    I hope the rest are as informative and interesting. I plan to get the basics of Gnosticism out, but also show, as I said to RCM, where I believe their influence still lies. Balthasar, of course, pulled no punches here — and he showed how he thought modern philosophical history since Descartes had taken a Gnostic turn. I think he is right here, for the most part, but his analysis of Zen Buddhism — while there are some similarities at times — was off because of the fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhism in the West.

  • http://n/a Anonymous

    I’m sure your familiar with the corpus Henry, but see the works fo Cyril Regan, such as “The Heterodox Hegel” and “Gnostic Return in Modernity”. Voegelin went on about “gnosticism” a lot, but towards the end of his life felt he had not sufficiently distinguished between the world-fleeeing anti-Jewish/Christian gnosticism properly so called, and the world affirming Egyptian Hermetic esoteric tradition which played so great a part in Renaissasnce and post-Renaissance scientific and pseudo-scientific endeavours.

  • elena maria vidal

    Fascinating overview! Am looking forward to the next installment!

  • Pauli

    Correct me if I’m wrong in my observations.

    I was told that Freemasons are basically Gnostics. The “G” in their symbol stands for “Gnosis”, the secret knowledge that the others “can’t handle” as you put it.

    It would seem to me also that Mormons are basically Gnostics as well and if so, Mormonism is probably the most successful manitestation of the Gnostic heresy in our day.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Thanks for the posting.

    I tend to see the Gnostic literature as enhancing the understanding of Christ rather than contradicting it. In fact, they seem to shed quite a bit of light on the hidden aspects of the Gospels. It’s not that the Gnostics opposed Christ, but that they opposed the party line about Christ. That can only be a good thing.


    I’ve heard the same thing about the Masonic ‘G’ as well. I’ve also heard that it stands for the standard English name of a divine being. Even more interesting, someone connected it with the name of a German publisher.

    The Mormons have ties to the Masons. Both Joseph Smith and Bringham Young were Masons. The Masonic aspects of their ritual are no coincidence.

    As for the connection between Gnosticism and Masonry, Idries Shah has some interesting evidence that such a connection exists. Masonry appears to be a somewhat degenerate form of the ancient tradition. Masonry suffers from spending too much time ritual and way too little time on spiritual cultivation. But, then, so do most religious organizations.

  • Morning’s Minion

    Good job, Henry. I think it’s very interesting that most of the man-made religions in the US (Mormonism, Scientology) are highly Gnostic in nature. I would also argue that evangelical protestantism is somewhat influenced by Gnosticism, especially through its individualism and the notion that eternal life is a “right”.

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