A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations/Gnostics

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GNOSTICS. This denomination sprang up in the first century, as is supposed among the disciples of Simon Magus, who united the principles of his philosophy, with those of Christianity; and were distinguished by the appellation of Gnostics, from their boasting of being able to restore mankind to the knowledge () of the Supreme Being, which had been lost in the world. This party was not conspicuous for its numbers or reputation before the time of Adrian. It derives its origin from the oriental philosophy.[1] The hypothesis of a soul distinct from the body, which had pre-existed in an angelic state, and was (for some offence committed in that state) degraded and confined to the body as a punishment, had been the great doctrine of the eastern sages from time immemorial. Not being able to conceive how evil in so great an extent could be subservient to good, they supposed that good and evil had different origins. They looked upon matter as the source of all evil, and argued in this manner: There are many evils in this world, and men seem impelled by a natural instinct to the practice of those things which reason condemns; but that eternal mind, from which all spirits derive their existence, must be inaccessible to all kinds of evil, being of a most perfect and beneficent nature. Therefore the origin of those evils with which the universe abounds, must be sought somewhere else than in the Deity. Now there is nothing without or foreign to the Deity but matter: therefore matter is the centre and source of all evil. Having assumed these principles, they proceeded further, and affirmed that matter was eternal, and derived its present form, not from the will of the supreme God, but from the creating power of some inferiour intelligence, to whom the world and its inhabitants owed their existence.

In their system it was generally supposed, that all intelligences had only one source, viz. the Divine Mind. And to help out the doctrine concerning the origin of evil, it was imagined, that though the Divine Being himself was essentially and perfectly good, those intelligences, or spirits, who were derived from him, and especially those who were derived from them, were capable of depravation.

The great boast of the Gnostics, was their doctrine concerning the derivation of various intelligences (called aions} from the Supreme Mind, which they thought to be done by emanation or efflux: and as those were equally capable of producing other intelligences in the same manner, and some of them were male, and others female, there was room for endless combinations of them. For a farther elucidation of the term aions, see the article Basilidians.

The oriental sages expected the arrival of an extraordinary messenger of the Most High, invested with a divine authority, endowed with the most eminent sanctity and wisdom; and peculiarly appointed to enlighten with the knowledge of the Supreme Being, the darkened minds of miserable mortals. When these philosophers afterwards discovered, that Christ and his followers wrought miracles of the most amazing kind, and of the most salutary nature, they were easily induced to connect their fundamental doctrines with those of Christianity, by supposing him the great messenger expected from above, to deliver men from the power of the malignant genii, to whom, according to their doctrine, the world was subjected; and to free their souls from the dominion of corrupt matter. But though they considered him as the son of the Supreme God, sent from the pleroma, or habitation of the everlasting Father, they denied his deity, looking upon him as inferiour to the Father. They also rejected his humanity, upon the supposition that every thing concrete and corporeal is in itself essentially and intrinsically evil. Hence the greater part of the Gnostics denied that Christ was clothed with a real body, or that he really suffered the pains and sorrows of the cross. They maintained, that he came to mortals with no other view than to deprive the aions, or spiritual tyrants of this world, of their influence upon virtuous and heaven-born souls; and, destroying the empire of these wicked spirits, to teach mankind how they might separate the divine mind from the impure body, and render the former worthy of being united to the Father of spirits. It has been supposed that the apostle Paul, when he censures "endless genealogies and old wives' fables," (1 Tim. i. 4.) has reference to the philosophy of the Gnostics.

Their persuasion, that evil resided in matter, rendered them unfavourable to wedlock, and led them to hold the doctrine of the resurrection of the body in great contempt. They considered it as a mere clog to the immortal soul, and supposed that nothing was meant by it, but either a moral change in the minds of men, which took place before they died; or that it signified the ascent of the soul to its proper abode in the superiour regions, when it was disengaged from its earthly incumbrance.

As the Gnostics were philosophic and speculative people, and affected refinement, they did not make much account of public worship, or of positive institutions of any kind: they are said not to have had any order in their churches.

As many of this denomination thought that Christ had not any real body, and therefore had not any proper flesh and blood, it seems, on this ground, when they used to celebrate the eucharist, they did not make any use of wine, which represents the blood of Christ, but of water only.

We have little account of what they thought with respect to baptism; but it seems that some of them at least disused it: and it is said that others abstained from the eucharist and from prayer.

The greatest part of this denomination adopted rules of life, which were full of austerity, recommending a strict and rigorous abstinence; and prescribing the most severe bodily mortifications, from a notion that they had a happy influence in purifying and enlarging the mind, and in disposing it for the contemplation of celestial things.

The Egyptian Gnostics are distinguished from the Asiatic by rejecting the evil principle of the Persians—by making Jesus and Christ two persons, and by less severity of life and manners.[2]

These branches of the Gnostics were subdivided Into various denominations. See Antitactae, Ascodrutes, Bardesanistes, Basilidians, Carpocrations, Cerdonians, Cerinthians, Marcosians, Ophites, Saturnians, Sintonians, and Valentinians.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. See Gaurs, above.
  2. Mosheim, vol. i. p. 69-109. Priestley's Eccles. History, vol. i. p. 51-186 History of early opininos, vol. i. p. 120. Percival's Dissertations.