“Gnosticism”— a Rhetorical Term which has Come to Mean “Everything” and “Nothing”

“Gnosticism”— a Rhetorical Term which has Come to Mean “Everything” and “Nothing” October 19, 2019
Too often people use the term “Gnosticism”  in the same way elementary school children use the word “cooties” to describe the personality afflictions possessed by other groups of children with whom they don’t want to associate. 


Many today likewise use the term “Gnosticism” pejoratively to describe other forms of Christian spirituality with which they don’t want to associate. This is a day when many are calling others with whom they disagree a “Gnostic.” This term is being frequently bandied about without full discernment as to what actually is its deepest and most fundamental  dynamic. 


Unfortunately, “Gnosticism” is a term that is frequently hijacked by practitioners of “Deism” to scare people away from seeking, expecting, and experiencing the unmediated presence of God for themselves. Remember, “Deism” is that icy belief system that says God is a remote presence that leaves the world to pretty much run on its own. 


Tragically, Deism’s distant God doesn’t speak directly TO us, intervene directly FOR us, or live vibrantly IN us. The concept of “intimacy with God” vexes these Deists so much that they have pejoratively pigeonholed all who seek such interactions as Gnostic. And that careless misuse of the term “Gnosticism” is bad form, both spiritually and intellectually. 


Here is why.


A famous 1966 conference in Messina gathered scholars and experts seeking to reach a consensus on the definition of Gnosticism, taking into account all the allegedly new discoveries about it from the Nag Hammadi library.  They notoriously failed.


“In the afterward to the second edition to the Nag Hammadi Library in English, Richard Smith has provided a handy survey of some of the [dubious] appropriations of the term ‘Gnosticism’ in modern times, including the poetry of William Blake, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the psychological theory of Carl Jung, the fiction of Herman Hesse, the politics of Eric Voegelin, and several other examples. The late Ioan Culianu once offered a similar survey, though with little sympathy toward what he attacked as the overstretched comparisons now so commonly drawn. Opening with some premonitory sarcasm, Culianu mused: 


‘Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of Late Antiquity. Of course, I was ready to accept the idea of different prolongations of ancient Gnosis and even that of spontaneous generation of views of the world in which, at different times, the distinctive features of Gnosticism occurs again. 


I was to learn soon, however, that I was naive indeed. Not only Gnosis was gnostic, but the catholic authors were gnostic, the Neoplatonic too, the Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Rilke, Proust, Joyce, Musil, Hesse, and Thomas Mann were gnostic. From very authoritative interpreters of Gnosis, I learned further that science is gnostic and superstition is gnostic; power, counter-power, and lack of power are gnostic; left is gnostic and right is gnostic; Hegel is gnostic and Marx is gnostic; Freud is gnostic, and Jung is gnostic; all things and their opposite are equally gnostic.’


The problem, as Culianu observes, is with a word, a ‘sick sign,’ that has come to mean too much, and therefore perhaps very little.”   Michael Williams, RETHINKING “GNOSTICISM”: AN ARGUMENT FOR DISMANTLING A DUBIOUS CATEGORY, by Princeton University Press (1996).


Harvard Professor Karen King agrees in her 2003 book, “WHAT IS GNOSTICISM?” King notes that the new finds at Nag Hammadi varied greatly, in conceptual terms, not only with  each other, but also previous Gnostic-related definitions: “the variety of phenomena classified as ‘Gnostic’ simply will not support a single, monolithic definition, and in fact, none of the primary materials fits the standard typological definition” ( King, 226).


King concludes: “Because none of the texts contains all the listed characteristics, typical phenomenology [or definition by a listing of traits] raises the question of how many elements of the ideal type of any particular case has to evince in order to qualify as an example of Gnosticism” (King, 226).


In other words, don’t misuse the word Gnosticism to pigeonhole experiential Christianity. That usage just couldn’t be further from the truth.


Deism is the real enemy with a real definition. Gnosticism, by contrast, is a phantom menace with an even more formless definition. 


But, does this mean we can draw no meaningful conclusions at all about Gnosticism? No, I believe we can draw a handful of very broad cautionary attributes of Gnosticism. But beyond these broad points, there is little uniformity. Thus, Gnosticism’s devils are NOT in the details, but rather only in the generalizations.



Some Gnostics may dualistic in their thinking, but that’s not what Gnosticism IS.


Some Gnostics may be “matter-relishing” epicureans, but that’s not what Gnosticism IS.


Some Gnostics may be “matter-detesting” ascetics, but that’s not what Gnosticism IS.


Some Gnostics may be Docetic, some Diestic, and some Polytheistic, but none of these things define what Gnosticism IS.


What Gnosticism IS comes to definitional light in the following statement. Gnosticism IS a hyper-intellectual worldview which believes that ONLY the credentialed and initiated intelligentsia of their own chosen “mental culture” are the ones who have accurate “knowledge” of God. 


Gnosticism isn’t so much about WHAT you believe as it is HOW you believe. There is no standard system of Gnostic thought because of the variant sects and diverse emphases. Thus, it’s much more instructive and beneficial to see HOW Gnostics thought rather than WHAT they thought, lest we become bogged down in the swamp of discordant mindsets described below.


Gnosticism is, “That strange, obscure movement, partly intellectual, partly fanatical … in the 2d century spread with the swiftness of an epidemic over the church from Syria to Gaul’ (Law, The Tests of Life, 26.) It is therefore of high importance to gain a right conception of the nature of this potent anti-Christian influence. This is not easy. The difficulty in dealing with Gnosticism is that it was not a homogenous system of either religion or philosophy, but embraced many widely diversified sects holding opinions drawn from a great variety of sources.


The infinitely varied shapes assumed by the systems render it’s almost impossible to classify them, or even to give an account of their leading ideas, which shall not be open to objection. We might as well try to classify the products of a tropical jungle, or the shapes and hues of the sunset clouds, which change under our view as we look at them.” (Orr, James, The Progress of Dogma, 58.)


The differing Gnostic beliefs come from the particular “mental culture” which operates within each respective sect. Dr. Orr writes, “Gnosticism may be described generally as the…the blending of certain Christian ideas — particularly that of redemption through Christ — with speculation and imaginings derived from a medley of sources, (Greek, Jewish, Parsic; philosophies; religions, theosophies, mysteries) in a period when the human mind was in kind of ferment, and when opinions of every sort were jumbled together in an unimaginable welter. It involves, as the name notes, a claim to ‘knowledge,’ knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which ‘salvation’ in the full sense consisted. This knowledge of which the Gnostic boasted, related to the subjects ordinarily treated of in religious philosophy; Gnosticism was a species of religious philosophy” (The Early Church, 71).


My aim here, then, is to focus on the WAY Gnostics thought rather than WHAT Gnostics taught. They ALL sought to redefine and/or replace organic and personal “faith” with the trinity of mind, intellect and knowledge. 


The “mental culture” usurps the “heart culture.” Whereas normative Christian Mysticism rightly esteems the gut, conscience and heart, Gnosticism esteems the mind, intellect, and knowledge.


Under Gnostic belief, the intellect’s obtaining of  knowledge is our raison d’être (reason for being). The result is that only the opinions of the credentialed intelligentsia  (in our particular “mental culture”) matter. 


In other words, one must be initiated into the sect of “the scholar or sage” (of whatever Gnostic system toward which one adheres) to obtain the secret knowledge necessary to form an accurate opinion about divine matters.


Anyone without the heightened knowledge of the initiated scholar should be forbidden to opine about divine truths. These ignorant ones are the mass of the uninitiated, uninformed and the uneducated, and should be ignored or dismissed as errant.


Again, Gnosticism occupies no singular system of thought. Rather it elevates “thought” itself TO divine status. 


Famed German theologian and church historian Johann Neander  has described Gnosticism  as “the first notable attempt to introduce into Christianity the existing elements of ‘MENTAL CULTURE,’ and to render it more complete on the hitherto rather neglected side of THEORETICAL KNOWLEDGE; it was an ATTEMPT OF THE MIND of the ancient world and its yearning after knowledge, and in its dissatisfaction with the present, to bring within its grasp into appropriate the treasures of this kind which Christianity presented” (Antignostikus, Intro, 199).”


“Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, LOVELESS INTELLECTUALISM. This seems to be the explanation of the false teaching against which this epistle (1 John) is directed. The apostle describes the dry head knowledge which left the heart and life untouched by love, and which lead man, while they profess to love God, nevertheless to remain destitute of love to their fellow man.” Dr. James Orr, ISBE, GNOSTICISM.


As I indicated above, although there are sects with differing views, Gnosticism generally believes that Christ’s personal presence wasn’t and isn’t REALLY here on this corrupted earthly and temporal plane, either at His supposed incarnation or even now. This often results in Gnostic Docetism (God is perfect Spirit and cannot inhabit this imperfect material world) or Gnostic Deism (God is remotely located elsewhere in the realm of Spirit and has left this material plane for us to deal in with His absence). 


Thus, some Gnostics tended to be Dualistic, Docetic  and Diestic, which meant they were separatist in their thinking when it came to spirit and matter. This then often resulted in two extremes. Either the sect would be ascetic, deploring this “prison of matter” and seeking to starve out all affection for its pleasures by ascetic discipline, OR, by contrast, the sect would lean toward an antinomian existence grounded in sensual and epicurean enjoyment, for what we do “here” is meaningless because the material world is a “burning ship” which will never reach eternity’s shores. 


Either way, Gnosticism divinizes the human intellect  as the only functioning instrument of deity left here on the broken earth. Our intellect, mental culture, and the scholarly knowledge both reach here then becomes the only divine residue left on this temporal plane. And we must therefore submit ALL things to it. We literally worship the particular “knowledge” of our specific “mental culture.” 


Cold, clinical, and credentialed “knowledge,” which only the initiated intelligentsia can ever obtain, now becomes the measure of all things spiritual. At its root then, Gnosticism is Christianity hijacked by hyper-intellectualism. It a “head knowledge” which “puffs up” egos but deflates the organic heart dynamic described in Galatians 3:2 as “the hearing of faith”(Galatians 3:2).


The words that chill me the most as I have studied this challenging topic are Dr. Orr’s description of Gnosticism as “loveless intellectualism.” Rather than quickly finger-pointing Gnostic accusations at others with whom we experientially and theologically disagree, I think the wiser course of action is to remove any plank of “loveless intellectualism” from our own eye. Our bind-spot comes because we are lured into believing WHAT we think makes us a Gnostic rather than HOW we think. 


“Not all intellectualism is Gnosticism, but Gnosticism, as it is the nec plus ultra of intellectualism, can tell us something about the larger and less specific of the two categories within which it nestles. One must also take care to note that intellectualism is not always given away by its style, although there is a definite type of polysyllabic prose typical of the illuminatus. Sometimes, however, as in the case of the verbally Plain-Jane Vidal, intellectualism takes the form, not of a baroque vocabulary and a convoluted syntax, but rather of a set of characteristic assumptions.” Intellectualism and the Gnostic Debacle: Julian the Apostate in the Modern Literary Imagination, by Thomas F. Bertonneau,  Anthropoetics 10, no. 1 (Spring / Summer 2004).


Simply put, Gnosticism exalts our respective “mental cultures” into Temples built to a God of “knowledge.” What Jesus prefers are “heart cultures” where we move in ALL  the divine promptings: intellect, emotion, intuition, imagination, epiphany and visceral valor. 


Faith, by contrast, is OF the heart. Faith trumps intellect and head knowledge wherever they conflict. Faith can certainly put intelligence to good use, but it doesn’t serve it. Faith does away with the need for “mental popes” whose rings we must kiss because of their credentialed  knowledge. Jesus picked 12 disciples with no “knowledge credentials” at all to build His Kingdom of light and love. Rather, they had the “heart credentials” Jesus was looking for– those with good and honest hearts committed to dialoguing with His divine Spirit by organic faith.


To be anti-Gnostic is simply to be an anti-intellectualist. French theologian Henri De Lubac made a critical distinction between an “anti-intellectual” and an “anti-intellectualist.” The first is against intelligence, while the second is against the tendency to reduce the Christian revelation to a doctrinal system of mere ideas, when it is first and foremost the manifestation of a Person, the Truth of an individuated Person. — Spiritual Exegesis and the Church in the Theology of Henri De Lubac, by Susan k. Wood, Eerdmans (1998). 


So, someone who merely OPPOSES the Gnostic idea that we can’t REALLY hear God’s inner voice, sense Christ’s interior presence, or be guided by the Spirit’s personal promptings, is NOT being “anti-intellectual.” However, this person may certainly be an “anti-intellectualist,” and thus anti-Gnostic. We live by faith, not by Gnostic knowledge.


“Still further, this Gnosticism issued in an attitude towards men . . . the Gnostic aimed . . . at an elaborate, esoteric, and secret knowledge. Clearly such a knowledge was not for every man. Ordinary people were too involved in the everyday work and life of the world ever to have time for the study and training and discipline which were necessary; and, even if they had such time, there were many who were intellectually quite incapable of grasping and understanding the involved and elaborate mysteries of the theosophy. This produced quite an inevitable result: those qualified and those not” (William Barclay, John and Jude’s Epistles, p. 13).


The Gnostics of Irenaeus’ day declared “that the consummation of all things will take place when all that is spiritual has been formed and perfected by gnosis (knowledge). By this they mean spiritual men who have ATTAINED to the perfect knowledge of God … They represent themselves to be these persons.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, (Against Heresies I:5:6 – I:6:3) 183-186 AD.


Thus, whatever else may be broadly said about the dense cloud of Gnosticism, it’s most reprehensibly salient feature is that it denies the common believer access to the knowledge of God. Only those who are highly educated, deeply initiated, and formally credentialed into the Gnostic “mental culture” in question may obtain true, competent, and saving knowledge of God. This “laity conquering” hardly comports with the awe-inspiring truth of Hebrews 8:11. “And  they shall  not  teach  every man  his neighbour , and  every man  his  brother , saying , Know  the Lord : for  all  shall know  me , from  the least   to the greatest.”

About Richard Murray
Richard K. Murray is a practicing criminal-defense attorney from Dalton, Georgia where he lives with his wife Rita and their seven children: Sloan, Caleb, Micah, Abraham, Sarah, Ben and Annie. Richard has a B.B.A. and J.D. from the University of Georgia and a M.A. from Regent University School of Divinity. He has written several books, including: THE SPIRITUAL EYE OF THE TIGER THE POWER: Discovering the Real "Secret" of Life LIFT UP YOUR JAWBONE: Developing Samson-like Strength by Daily Confession THE JESUS MOOD: Discovering the Treasure of Imperative Faith GOD VERSUS EVIL: Sculpting an Epic Theology of God's Heroic Goodness You can read more about the author here.

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  • Pat Carrithers

    Any theological treatise is going to get the grain of salt treatment from me when it contains the phrase “the real enemy is…” The we/they, falsehood/truth construction is detrimental and dangerous.

  • Zeigler John

    We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength. Methinks this article puts too fine a point on what may turn out to be a false dichotomy, after all.

  • Richard Aahs

    Gnosis is a noun naming a state of being, ‘to know’. So then a common noun usage of gnostic is ‘one who
    Your usage of the proper noun Gnosticism, names a codified, static, stated Belief System, and really has nothing to do with gnosis, It is possible to participate in such a belief system and not achieve gnosis.

    I quote:
    “Thus, whatever else may be broadly said about the dense cloud of Gnosticism, (Christianity, or any other Religious Belief System), it’s most reprehensibly salient feature is that it denies the common believer access to the knowledge of God. Only those who are highly educated, deeply initiated, and formally credentialed into the Gnostic “mental culture” (the culture of the Belief System)question may obtain true, competent, and saving knowledge of God. This “laity conquering” hardly comports with the awe-inspiring truth.”

    Which is that all persons may find God, for God is within.
    Prescribed Beliefs of Religions may help one in a faith journey, or it may hinder, in that some put their faith into their Religious Beliefs rather than having faith in the Spirit which is within.

  • Richard Murray

    Paul coined the term epignosis to describe the inner knowledge to which you refer. That’s the pearl of great value for sure.

  • Richard Murray

    And I take with a grain of salt any dismissive critique that lazily leaps over fourty-four substantive paragraphs in an article to wrench out one rhetorical phrase, a phrase addressing concepts which are inimical by their very definition—experiential versus non-experiential Spirituality within a Christian context. From your smarmy tone, I suspect you’re offended because experiential Christianity offends you. If you don’t want experiential Christianity discussed, move on to other blogs. “Cherry picking” one two-word term in the middle of an essay while ignoring dozens upon dozens of other substantive issues reflects the worst form of pseudo-criticism. And by the way, whether we set inimical concepts by use of the term “the real enemy is” or “I take everything you say with a grain of salt because you dare use a term of contrast I don’t like” , then you are hypocritically engaging in the very form of truth/falsehood duality you are imperiously denouncing. You’re just substituting terms —“grain of [conceptual] salt” for “the real [conceptual] enemy”. You’re far too brittle, legalistic, myopic, with your terminology.

  • Richard Murray

    The article never insinuates otherwise. Loving the Lord with all our minds prompts us to make meaningful differentiations. Methinks you have missed that dynamic.

  • Zeigler John

    Tis a tempest in a teapot, my friend.

  • Zeigler John

    Or perhaps you are, Richard. I have been acquainted with self-righteous believers who use their definitions to exclude, rather than include other sinners, and I, too, am very wary of true believers.

  • Pat Carrithers

    Gee, you are able to do a whole theological, psychological, and academic analysis of me based on a one sentence comment. What powers of discernment you must have. If your original article didn’t tell me all I need to know about you, this response does.

  • Richard Murray

    I think what you’re really wary of is reading, at least with any quality effort. I didn’t exclude anybody in my article. I kept it in the realm of concepts, not people. You didn’t discuss one substantive point I made, not one. I defy you to find one “sinner” I excluded from the love and light of God in my article. But then you would actually have to read it. You won’t find any such reference if you do. Surely you have better things to do than to troll articles you aren’t willing to qualitatively read and substantively discuss, but only to criticize with a irrelevant sound byte which has absolutely nothing with the article’s topic. Why not fess up that you did nothing more than skim it, if that. And your smarmy and hypocritical response shows it. It’s perfectly fine for you to “exclude” my article and me from consideration because you accuse me of being what you pejoratively “self-righteous… one of the [self-proclaimed] true believers… who exclude other sinners… and of whom you are wary.” So when you exclude it’s you being wise. But when you slander me of doing the same thing, it becomes fodder for your ad hominem hostility. First, as I said above, your accusation is a lie as I exclude no sinner from the love and light of God. You are fabricating that entirely. And you should admit it. You and Pat have the same technique of dismissively criticizing without EVER substantively reading or discussing the article in question. Neither of you ask clarifying questions, not one, nor provided any examples from the article where I excluded any sinners from God’s light or love. Clarifying questions I would be happy to answer. Dismissive mendacity merits blowback. You have accused of things I never came close to saying.

  • Richard Murray

    ”What powers of discernment you must have.” Physician heal your self. Check the log in your eye. Based on three words you wrench out of context 14 paragraphs into an article which addressed concepts, NOT PEOPLE, you imperiously call my article “dangerous and detrimental” (without asking one clarifying question or discussing one substantive point) — and for that reason you proclaim you take the entire article with a grain of salt. Do an honest self check and read your first comment. Does your comment not sound incredibly arrogant? It is a hackneyed sound-byte which misrepresents my article entirely. To use your phase “What powers of discernment you must have.” And now you claim to know my character because I dare to call you to task for your unfounded accusation. Reasoned and laid out critiques with clarifying questions and specific citations I can take and respond to with equanimity all the day long. But slanderous and smarmy sound-bytes lacking ANY substantive citation or discussion of the article should expect blowback. The article was about the history and meaning of Gnosticism. Not one comment you have made is in the same conceptual area code as the article. I have to wonder if you just go about trolling and scanning for for your peeve phrases in blogs so that you can, without having to engage in substantive reading and comprehension, hit and run with your sound-byte accusation of duality. You should really avoid the appearance of a self-proclaimed guru coming down from the mountain to comment and correct others with sound-byte dismissives. As for character, I don’t pretend to know yours— you may be wonderful dad and husband, friend, and worker. But as a blog critic, you need some self examination.

  • Richard Murray

    God save us from guru-speak.

  • Tom Hanson

    Thank you for clarity in troubled waters. I have been interested in ancient gnosticism ever since I picked up a paperback translation of the great Franz Cumont as a classics undergrad in the 1960s. Cumont wrote well before the Nag Hammadi bibliotrove was even found, much less translated into a sort of English, edited and put into a usable form (1st edition) by Robinson. One of my first reactions to that new “library” was that Irenaeus was honest and mostly right about the various systems he knew about. To my thinking that holds true. I don’t know whether or not you know about or are interested in possible archaeological finds that, if continuing digs don’t find otherwise, sort of back you, as well as conservative scholars, and Irenaeus. If you pay attention reading W.H.C. Frend’s history of ancient Christianity, in his section on gnosticism, (his sometimes large footnotes really pay off) he deals with ancient cemeteries in the Middle East. In a footnote nutshell it is found that all graves which show gnostic Christian decoration also show decorative pagan god images. All of them. What we would call orthodox Christian graves do not include images of pagan or gnostic religions. What this seems to mean is that, first, there were a lot of religious seekers out there looking for some religious something, and second that a lot of gnostic Christians continued to seek among other pagan religions as well. I am sorry I can’t give you a page number, because my wife and I are now newly living in Italy, and my library is we hope on a ship churning towards us. We are told that about this time in December our stuff will come in. A couple of weeks of pandemonium, and if you are interested let me know here and I will be happy to find the footnote.

  • Tom Hanson

    I am confused here by pretty much everything you are saying except your last two sentences, which I can agree upon wholeheartedly. For instance the quote, which begins as Mr. Murray’s but quickly gets your words entered into it. If I understand you correctly you accuse Christianity AS A RELIGION with precisely the same gnostic problem about the laity. That theologians and Church higher-ups do actually sometimes think along those terms doesn’t mean that that is Christianity itself. That the higher-ups who have that attitude exist and probably always will is a given and it is sinful in Christianity. Everybody and anybody can become a Christian, and when they have, they can know God. If that were not a truth, then Baptism of babies would not happen for most Christians.

  • Richard Aahs

    I chuckle as I sit here to contemplate a response. Thank you for your thoughts and the question
    behind them.
    There are some nouns in printed English that should not be used as proper nouns. My pet peeve perhaps. But a first rule in common nouns is only capitalize them at the beginnings of the sentences, otherwise don’t do it.

    Common nouns can name action. Making a common noun into a proper noun takes away the action.
    Hence when we speak of religion/Religion, the distinction is important to convey one’s intent.
    So religion is a way of being, fluid and subjective whereas Religion on the other hand is static. Static, Religion is a name which brings into question, which one?.

    The same happens with gnostic. As a common noun it is subjective. When one knows something, one knows. When used as a proper noun it becomes codified and static. Described and defined it becomes a Belief System. It is similar for christian and Christian.
    Mr. Murray points out that knowledge is the “pearl of great value”. I would add ‘assurance’ here from my experience. As I was raised in the Christian Religion, I claimed the Belief of the atonement and thus could claim to be a Christian. It was another 40 years before I would ‘know’ beyond any doubt that I was not separated from the Divine, and never had been. The truth that sets one free.. The pearl of great value.

    Yes it is easy to become a Christian, even a Gnostic Christian. All that is required is to Believe the teachings as are named and defined by others. Thus one can be gnostic of a Belief System but not ‘gnostic’ of the truth. So a Gnostic Christian is distinction in a Belief System from a Catholic Christian Belief, or a Baptist Belief.

    Not all persons that hold to a Belief, find God. On the other hand God can be found by believing it is possible. The distinction between Religion and religion.

    Sorry to be so long winded. Hope it helps.

  • Thank you, Dearest Richard.

    Perfect timing for me. Thank you with all my heart again.

  • Tom Hanson

    It is not at all long-winded. I think then that I would differ on the Gnostic/gnostic usage because Mr Murray was dealing with various ancient religion(s)and I believe nouns change over time, especially in English, causing ambiguity. Augustine dabbled in Manichaeanism (probably a form of Gnosticism) and found them wanting and cold and turned to Ambrose and Christianity and delighted in dealing with the ignorant laity.

  • Richard Aahs

    Ignorant laity. LOL. I could fit in that group.