There has been much confusion about what Gnosticism is and who they actually were. Who were the heretics that the Early Church fought against and what exactly were they teaching? Some of this may be shocking, because many of the heresies that were taught then have snuck their way back into the church again. There’s a saying, albeit from a secular writer, rings true today: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” (George Santayanna). That is exactly what has happened to the church. The prophet Isaiah said this would happen: “Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil; who make darkness light, and light darkness; who make bitter sweet, and sweet bitter,” (Isaiah 5:20). This is very true today, because the things that the Early Church taught as the truth, the church would consider heretical, and the things that the church teaches today, the Early Church clearly called heretical.
During the time of the Ante Nicene Fathers, there were other sects that were calling themselves “Christians,” however they were heretics and enemies of the faith. The heretics were preaching Jesus Christ, they were preaching the Gospel, and they were prophesying. That seems to fit the criteria according to today’s standards on what the modern church believes makes you qualified. We often hear “Oh, as long as they’re preaching about Jesus.” However, Paul warns us to be cautious about which Jesus you’re preaching. “For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!” (2 Corinthians 11:4). So, it’s not good enough to say you preach the Gospel or teach about Jesus, because how do you know that you’re not teaching the same Jesus that the heretics taught and not the same one Paul taught? What makes you so sure you preach the same Gospel Paul preached and not preaching the gospel of the heretics?
Well, praise be to Yahuah, our Savior didn’t leave us empty handed concerning this and neither did the Apostle Paul. There were things he has passed down to the disciples of the Apostles to protect them from any other wolf that may come in and try to seduce the church from worshipping another Jesus. In 2 Thessalonians Paul expresses and warns the church that when the great falling away happens (speaking of the vast majority of the church falling away) and the Antichrist is revealed, he says what we need to hold onto are the apostolic traditions. [Click here for more about Apostolic Tradition.]
There were three main leaders for this Gnostic movement, and they were Marcion, Basilides, and Valentinus. They were the biggest enemies of the Christian faith. I can spend so much time just trying to break down into great depth about what they taught and their backgrounds and their teachings, however I will just go over them briefly. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry god and a god of wrath, but the god of the New Testament was a god of love and kindness. Tertullian even wrote an apologetic book against the teachings of Marcion.
“A better god has been discovered, who never takes offence, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good.” 1
This in a sense sounds like most messages coming from the pulpit today, where the Fear of God is not preached, and he’s just a loving God. There are some preachers that actually utter the same message. Marcion taught that Jesus also came to do away with the Torah, which is widely taught in the Western church today.
“But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judaea in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Caesar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judaea, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator.” 2
“For it is certain that the whole aim at which he has strenuously labored even in the drawing up of his Antitheses, centers in this, that he may establish a diversity between the Old and the New Testaments, so that his own Christ may be separate from the Creator, as belonging to this rival god, and as alien from the law and the prophets.” 3
I will now show what the Early Church Fathers have to say about the Torah/law. I will show what Clement of Alexandria had to say about the Torah/law to show the contrast between the heretics and the true Christians.
“’For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; good understanding is to all that do it.’ (Psa_111:10) He calls wisdom a doing, which is the fear of the Lord paving the way for wisdom. But if the law produces fear, the knowledge of the law is the beginning of wisdom; and a man is not wise without law. Therefore, those who reject the law are unwise; and in consequence they are reckoned godless. Now instruction is the beginning of wisdom. ‘But the ungodly despise wisdom and instruction,’ (Pro_1:7) saith the Scripture… How, then, is the law still said to be not good by certain heresies that clamorously appeal to the apostle, who says, ‘For by the law is the knowledge of sin?” (Rom_3:20) To whom we say, the law did not cause, but showed sin.'” 4
These heretics have used Paul’s writings to say that the law was done away with and that the law was the knowledge of sin and done away with. The Early Church Fathers knew that the Torah/law needed to be interpreted spiritually and not by the letter, by doing away with physical circumcision to receive the circumcision of the heart and by transferring over from performing natural priestly services to spiritual sacrifices.
The Fathers referred to these heretics as “so-called Gnostics” for a reason. The reason being is that these men did not really have the knowledge of God. The word “Gnostic” is from the Greek word “gnosis” (G1108), which means: “the deeper more perfect and enlarged knowledge of this religion, such as belongs to the more advanced; especially of things lawful and unlawful for Christians.”5 They clearly did not have the perfect knowledge of God nor did they have the knowledge of what is lawful and unlawful. These “Gnostics” had thrown out the Torah and did not believe in the Fear of God; it was more a message about love and how we can indulge in the things of this earth. Some, not knowing the difference between an Ante Nicene Father and a Gnostic will often confuse the two. Here is what Clement says about the Torah, “the terror which the law begets is merciful and in order to salvation.”6 The way the Early Church understood the Torah isn’t taught today for the most part in the modern church and is contrary to what the Gnostics believed.
The tactics that the Gnostics used twisted the scriptures to suit their benefit and to justify their beliefs and actions:
“‘[…] while others, giving themselves up to pleasures, wrest [twist] Scripture, in accordance with their lusts.’ (2Pe_3:16) And the lover of truth, as I think, needs force of soul. For those who make the greatest attempts must fail in things of the highest importance; unless, receiving from the truth itself the rule of the truth, they cleave to the truth. But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, strictly trained to select what is essential. For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures…Rather, selecting ambiguous expressions, they twist them to suit their own opinions, gathering a few expressions here and there. Instead of looking to the sense, they make use of the mere words.”7
I have presented some examples from these heretics, and there are a variety of examples from the Early Church to show the extensive beliefs of the Gnostics. Due to the vast testimonies against what they taught, I will give a synopsis of what their beliefs were. The Ante Nicene Fathers were the first apologetics, and so many of them valiantly fought against the Gnostics of their day. Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, and Origen are just some of the most distinguishable apologetics in all of Christianity. Some of the beliefs of the Gnostics are close to what the church believed, and some of these heretics were so close to the original that if you didn’t have the apostolic traditions, you were likely to be deceived by them.
Here is a brief catalog of what the Gnostics believed:
Now you may say that you don’t believe everything that these Gnostics believed. You might say you only believe in it just a little bit, or you might believe in one or two things that they taught. As the Messiah said that a little bit of leaven will work through the whole dough. We must have no leaven in our bread/Word, no leaven in our house (we’re the house). Some of these might be a bit shocking to you to think that what you’ve been taught in the church or what you believe are heresies that were taught by the greatest enemies of the faith. I would know, since I had the same shock as I had some of this leaven in my house as well, but once truth is revealed, we’re now accountable to it. If we’re really lovers of the truth, the choice should be easy enough for us to make to renounce these heresies and turn to truth.
1. Tertullian – ANF Volume 3, Against Marcion Book I Ch. XXVII
2. Iranaeus – ANF Volume 1, Against Heresies Book I Ch. XXVII
3. Tertullian – ANF Volume 3, Against Marcion Book V Ch. VI
4. Clement – ANF Volume 2, Stromata Book 2 Ch. VII
5. Thayer Dictionary
6. Clement – ANF Volume 2, Stromata Book 1 Ch. XXVII
7. Clement – ANF Volume 2, Stromata Book 7 Ch. XVI