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Critically assess the claim that the response of the Early Church to Gnosticism provided the impetus for its emerging ecclesial identity

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John Burke (2009, p. 93) states that “Gnosticism is the first heresy of any importance that arose in the Christian Church”. Christianity was emerging from Judaism and the Church’s encounter with Gnosticism challenged the Church to explain its own teachings and beliefs from that of Judaism. Gnosticism comes from the word “gnosis” meaning to know, due its essential teaching which was that one becomes free of the body’s confinement and returns to the supreme God only through secret knowledge. This knowledge is reveled only to a select few by messages from the supreme God.

They believed that they were saved and were an elect group. There is no definitive term to describe Gnosticism, Karen L. King (2005, p. 2) states that the reason for this is that “a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity. There was and is no such thing as Gnosticism, if we mean by that some kind of ancient religious entity with a single origin and a distinct set of characteristics. ” James Lindsay (1903) states that “We need not, like Irenaeus, regard it as something only evil, for it not only proved a half-way house for some on the road to Christianity, but compelled to a Christian philosophy of religion”.

Baus (1980, p. 181) believed that Gnosticism was attractive for the Hellenistic man because “Its impetus was derived ultimately from its claim to bring to religious-minded persons a valid interpretation of the world and of themselves – the claim made by Christianity itself. ” Here we see that they were attracted to it because they believed that they would gain this ‘gnosis’ which would mean that they would be saved and become one of the elect. It was also attractive to Hellenistic man because it challenged Church teaching.

Although there were many different types of Gnosticism, often advancing opposing viewpoints, we can isolate several key elements in the general structure of Gnosticism as it existed during the days of the early Church. As Baus states (1980, p. 183) “The basic theme of Gnosticism, giving mankind an interpretation of the universe and of being, cannot in the present state of research be ascribed to any single, clearly comprehensible and generally recognized source”. In order to understand the basic theme of Gnosticism it is important to look at number of different elements.

According to Gerard van Groningen (1967, p. 30) “Gnosticism is dualistic. It posits the material and physical as evil and the spiritual as good. ” They believed that God is good however that the world is evil because as James Lindsay (1903) states “It was with them a fundamental belief that the Creator of the world is not God, the Supreme Being. The creator is either a subordinate agent, or an inferior being. He may be evil. ” Here we see that they believed that there was an ultimate spiritual being who was superior to the physical universe and its creator.

This contradicted the teaching of the Church as the Church believed that God was the Creator and that God was good. They seen the creator as the Demiurge and for this reason they did not believe in the Incarnation which is a vital part of Church teaching. James Lindsay (1903) supports this as he states that “He is the Demiurge, and so not that God sent a Redeemer into the world. And the Redeemer, so sent, was not a real incarnation of the Divine, but One whom they viewed after a Docetic fashion. ”

For this reason then they also separated the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. They seen the God of the Old Testament as Demiurge, according to Baus (1980, p. 184) because “The Creator God of the Old Testament became the Demiurge who did not know the light. ” They seen the God of the New Testament as good, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia because “The Good God revealed himself in Jesus and appeared as man in Judea; to know him, and to become entirely free from the yoke of the World-Creator or God of the Old Testament, is the end of all salvation.

Another prevailing feature of Gnosticism was that of Salvation. According to Everett Ferguson (2003, p. 311) “As a religion of personal salvation it taught that the pneumatic experienced his true condition now and at death went immediately to the pleroma. ” Here we see that they believed that salvation was not due to faith but due to knowledge, they made redemption loose its universality and moral character. They believed that they had the secret knowledge and only they could interpret cosmic events and were capable of achieving a perfect knowledge of God.

They differed from Christian teachings as they said that salvation could not be reached merely by faith and good works, it could only be reached by having this ‘gnosis’. There were a number of principle manifestations of Gnosticism which all had certain opinions in common however in these we see that there was room for variation and contradiction in the movement. Some of the manifestations of Gnosticism were Menander and Satornil who were a Syrian group and Syrian Basilides who originated the Basilidian School.

Valentinus was a dangerous threat to genuine Christianity, he taught in Alexandria and Rome for nearly thirty years. However he returned to Egypt after his Christian opponents according to Baus (1980, p. 188) “reproached him with having borrowed his wisdom largely from Pythagoras and Plato. ” One of the main principle manifestations of Gnosticism which threaten the Church was that of Marcionism. According to Harry Boer (1976, p. 61) “Marcion is a very good example of the danger of Gnosticism to the Church.

At the same time, it is not correct simply to call Marcion a Gnostic. Marcionism grew within the Church itself and it challenged Scriptural basis. Baus (1980, p. 190) suggests that he came into conflict with the leaders of the local Christian community because of different opinions on the interpretation of Pauline doctrine. In 144 Marcion left the Christian Church and Marcionite associations arose governed by bishops who were assisted by Presbyters. Baus (1980, p. 190) states “The strict organization of his establishment distinguished Marcion’s community from other Gnostic groups and gave it a special impetus which made it a serious danger to the Church. ”

John Wand (1943, p. 1) states that “The importance of Marcion may be judged from the fact that he was attacked by most of the Fathers, including Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Epiphanius. ” According to Boer (1976, p. 61) “Marcion’s entire teaching was based on the Old and the New Testaments. Of these two Testaments, however, he had a peculiar view, which arose from his view of God”. He rejected the Old Testament as the Law and Prophets which they spoke of were inspired by the inferior God. Boer (1976, p. 61) goes on to state “For Marcion the New Testament does not present a pure teaching about Christ.

There are too many Jewish ideas and influences in it. Therefore he made his own New Testament Cannon. ” His New Testament Cannon consisted of Luke’s Gospel and the epistles of Paul, he choose these books to distinguish between the inferior God who created the world and gave the law and the God who is Father of Jesus Christ. According to Boer (1976, p. 62) “These two God’s are completely separated in Marcion’s teaching, and they are at no point related to each other.

Nor does Marcion try to establish any relationship between them. ” Here we see a dualistic approach and according to Baus (1980, p. 91) this “was a direct attack on the Christian concept of God, which did not permit of a division between a strict, merely just Creator and a God of love unknown till the coming of Christ. ” Marcionism’s Christology also caused the Christian writers to include Marcion among the Gnostic teachers. Boer (1976, p. 62) states that “He came to reveal the God who until then had been the Unknown Father; his body was not material but appeared to be so; he came directly from heaven and had no life, the Creator-God caused him to be crucified. Since his body was not in fact material, he did not suffer”.

In other words the Creator-God broke his own Old Testament law in crucifying the just Christ and Christ purchased their salvation. Baus (1980, p. 192) states that “The Christian adversaries of Marcion, who pointed out that the doctrine of the apparent birth of Christ led to the conclusion that his death on the cross was also apparent and that therefore the redemption was ineffective, were difficult to refute, even though Marcion tried to maintain the reality of the crucifixion. ” Marcion also retained the Christian Sacraments but with a difference, the married being excluded from Baptism and water taking the place of wine in the Eucharist.

This eventually placed him in the Gnostic camp in the eyes of his opponents. Marcionism played a major role in the Church’s response, Baus (1980, p. 192) states that “Marcion compelled the Church to consider and to reconsider her own attitude to Scripture and criteria of faith, to overhaul her organization and to deploy her whole inner strength in face of such a menace. ” In response to Gnosticism the early Christian writers had to explain the origin of evil, human destiny, God and Jesus and God and Creation.

There were two responses in the Church to Gnosticism; the first of these was that the leaders of individual congregations immediately took practical steps against those Gnostics who tried to win over its members. The second of these responses were the theological writers attacking the Gnostic movements demonstrating the irreconcilability of its doctrine with Christian revelations and the truths of Christianity.

Gnostic groups became separated from the Christian congregation and this was according to Baus (1980, p. 93) “accompanied by sermons explaining the insidious nature of false doctrines, and Christians were warned by their pastors of the danger of the true faith”. In response to Gnosticism Cyprian emphasised the authority of the Bishop, New Testament Cannon and Rule of Faith. The situation which Christianity found itself placed with regards to Gnosticism made the bishops more aware of their duties, and the increased activity of the heads of the congregations made the faithful more conscious of the monarchical episcopate and of its significance for the future.

Among the Bishops there was the focus of unity to interpret Scriptures. The theological writers who wrote against Gnosticism created according to Baus (1980, p. 194) “An extensive body of literature from the Catholic side supported the Church authorities and provided a theological basis for the counter-attack. ” Many of these writings were aimed at Marcion showing how much importance was attached to his work. Irenaeus used his own knowledge of Scripture and Tradition, with the true doctrine of the Church to oppose the Gnostics.

Hippolytus wrote to show that the opinions of the Gnostics were not taken from Holy Scripture but from Greek philosophers, showing that they were from a non-Christian source. Tertullian engaged in the controversy with Gnosticism and wrote two treatises which prove positively from scripture that the Gnostic thesis of their doctrine of Christ’s apparent body and their rejection of the resurrection of the body were invalid. Within the Cannon of Scripture many criteria were employed such as the question of Apostolicity, the status of the community from which the text emerged, conformity to the ‘Rule of Faith’ and Liturgical usage.

Baus (1980, p. 196) states that “In general one may say that the Church’s theologians though out anew and established on a firmer foundation those points of Christian revelation which were particularly attacked and threatened by Gnostic teachings. ” In order to refute the claim that heretics were the sole possessors of revelation the Christian theologians set to work to prevent the collapse by bringing forward the concepts of apostolic tradition and succession and confirming what constituted Scripture.

The books of the New Testament were placed on the same level as the books of the Old Testament and unlike Marcion accepted the Old Testament as sacred Scripture and incorporated the books rejected by Marcion into the New Testament. According to Baus (1980, p. 197) “In deciding which individual writings were to be included, the Church had to be able to invoke an undisputed, objective principle. ” Apostolic succession was used to assure the place of tradition as an essential part of the Church’s faith and theology.

The Church also created the Cannon of Truth which was given to the faithful at baptism. This Cannon of Truth expanded to affirm the reality of the human birth and the passion and death of Christ. Guy (2004, p. 256) states that “the rule was a short statement of the central apostolic teachings, a rule against which the faithful could assess other teachings. The rule provided a lens through which to read Scripture and rebut error. ”

Buas (1980, p. 98) states that “For the Church the rise of the Gnostic heresy was nevertheless a very efficient stimulus to reconsider the truths she possessed, to formulate some of them more clearly and to emphasize them more decidedly. ” It is clear that it was the rise and success of Gnosticism, especially Marcionism that encouraged the Church to make a response by developing its dogmas and to establish its own identity from that of Judaism. Gnosticism had the potential to crush Christianity however the response of the Church in developing its ecclesial identity in turn strengthened the Church.

The question is raised if Christianity would have developed in the same way had it not been for Gnosticism, it is likely that yes it would have developed in the same way however at a later stage. James Lindsay (1903) states that “Gnosticism impelled the Church to set forth a true Gnosticism over against that which it considered false, and this while maintaining the positive historical character of Christianity. Thus from the contents of simple and practical Christian belief, a Christian theology eventually resulted. ”

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