This post is going to be dedicated to resolving a misconception that’s come up several times in multiple groups and churches I’ve been a part of/attended. It’s going to deal with Church History, an area that’s often not taught or mistaught because frankly, it’s not of interest or even relevant to most people. And that’s perfectly fine, but it interests me and if you’re reading my blog it must interest you or you’re very bored and have nothing better to do. Now, let’s look at the issue at hand.
Multiple times now, from multiple groups, individuals, and churches, I’ve heard people claims the Johannes letters (1, 2, 3 John in the New Testament) are in condemnation of Gnosticism “running rampant” in the early church. A couple of times (though not nearly as often) I’ve heard this said about a few of the Pauline Epistles as well. This bothers me because not only does it reflect a lack of accurate knowledge of Church History it also shows a misunderstanding of what Gnosticism is in and of itself. Here’s why:
- Gnosticism did not even exist at the time this letters were written: That’s right, Gnosticism truly didn’t exist until the early third century one to two hundred years after these letters were written. You could argue that the individuals/groups being criticized held “proto-gnosticist” beliefs, but that’s an entirely different thing and difficult if not impossible to prove.
- Gnosticism initially coexisted with other Christian beliefs: Gnostic Christians and other Christian groups did not conflict until the end of the 4th century, when the proto-orthodox church began to determine orthodox and heterodox. The early Christian church did not have cohesive beliefs, and many of the more predominant at the time “orthodox” beliefs are not held by most (especially western) Christians today.
- Paul himself was a Proto-Gnosticist: Paul was (and to a few today is) held as the “father of gnosticism”. Now, this really is entirely accurate (as I’ll explain in the next bullet) but he definitely held proto-gnosticist beliefs. He advocated asceticism, was (at least for the time) radically feminist, and even went so far as to testify before an early Christian court that his Christian knowledge was superior to others because Jesus came to him in a vision (aka “secret knowledge”) and he was opposed to legalism and traditional Jewish customs/regulations. All of these (and I’m sure there’s others) were hallmark beliefs of proto-Gnosticism, and the early Gnostic Christians held Paul’s letters in high regard. Now, this is not to say Paul was a Gnostic (he would have probably been sharply opposed to later-on Gnosticism) but it is unlikely in his letters when he rebuked false teachers and doctrine (which is ironic considering some of that comes from forged letters) he was addressing proto-gnosticists.
- Gnosticism isn’t inherently Christian and doesn’t represent a single belief set: While the early development of Gnosticism is closely associated with Christianity, the two are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact mainstream Gnosticism shares more in common with Judaism and also stems from dozens of other religions and philosophies. In addition Gnosticism is not a single religion, it’s like calling Hinduism a religion, it’s extremely misleading. Gnosticism represented a range of beliefs, some branches of which had no connection with Christianity at all. Back when Gnosticism was even really a thing (though I am aware there are a few Gnostics today) they didn’t call themselves Gnostics, just as the early Christians didn’t initially call themselves “Christians”.
Hopefully I’ve shed light on this issue, even if it doesn’t really bother most people (which is fine), but it bothered me so I decided to write a short rant on it. Yes, the Pauline and Johannine epistles did feature rebukes of teachings viewed as false or heretical by their authors (though depending on the issue not necessarily the early Church) but it would literally have been impossible for it to be a refutation of Gnosticism, and at least in Paul’s case it is unlikely he would have criticized the then extant emerging ideologies of proto-Gnosticism. If anyone knows where this misconception originated from, please let me know, because I tried googling it and found very little, so you’d make my day if you did. That’s it for this post, so have a good rest of your day.