Continuing our study of Church History, we must take note of one of the earliest issues that we find addressed within both the NT and within the writings of the Patristics. The issue is still relevant today. It is a subject that predates Christianity (cf. Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Volume II under the section of the Heresies of the Ante-Nicene Age); yet it still reveals itself from time to time in the practical theology of individuals. The issue is Gnosticism.
The early Christians witnessed the amazing growth of the Church in an extremely rapid pace. Scholars suggest that by the 3rd and 4th century, Christianity was the dominating religion of the Roman Empire and that by as early as the end of the 1st century, Christianity had made a huge mark on Roman culture. Yet while Christianity was growing rapidly through the preaching of the Gospel, many warnings were issued from the apostles regarding what would be a soon coming test.
The apostle John helps us understand the theological landscape well. In fact, his reason for writing his first epistle was to encourage fellowship with the Father and Son through the eternal life that can only come through Jesus (cf. 1:3-4; 5:11-13). The question that naturally arises is simple: why does John emphasize the importance of fellowship with the Father and Son? After all, John traveled to Ephesus shortly after the preaching and teaching ministries of Paul (cf. Acts 19-20) and Timothy (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3). The Ephesians had clearly been taught orthodox theology by both Paul and Timothy. So what had happened since Paul and Timothy’s ministry? Why does John go to great lengths in order to bring about a much more clear understanding of the Incarnation and just exactly who Jesus really was. Why so much elementary doctrine written to a city of Christians who should have had a strong handle on orthodoxy?
We find the answer hinted at in Paul’s first and second epistle to Timothy because he writes extensively about the coming false teachers (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-11; 4:1-5, 16; 6:2b-10; 2 Tim. 3:1-9). By the time that John was writing his epistles, the false teachers had infiltrated the ranks of the Church and were proclaiming a heresy known as Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that knowledge was the way to salvation and they accepted the Greek idea of a radical dualism between God (spirit) and the world (matter).
According to their world view, the created order was evil, inferior, and opposed to the good. Ethical behavior for the Gnostics varied. Some avoided all human activity in order to refrain from being contaminated; others believed that knowledge meant freedom to participate in all activities. Gnosticism had an extremely unbiblical understanding towards Christology (e.g. Gnostics denied the incarnation).
This is why John warns his readers about the false teachers who were attempting to deceive them (2:26) and he urges his readers to “test the spirits” and identifies that those who are of God “listen to us” (cf. 4:1-6). It is also found through the use of “dualistic language” – light and darkness (cf. 1:5; 2:8-9). This would register squarely within the Gnostic way of thought, though he does not embrace dualistic thought; rather he stands in the center of Christian tradition.
The apostle John’s foundational key to the Gospel is that God has appeared in human form (1:1-4; John 1:14). The incarnation is life (1:2) and this life is available in the Son of God (5:11). Fellowship with God can only be realized by knowing God and abiding in Him. Through Jesus we are joined to Him righteousness (2:29), truth (3:19), and most importantly love (4:7-8).
Gnosticism more or less gave rise to the systematic presentation of orthodox theology. Note what Brown writes:
Opinions differ as to which early Christian writer deserves to be called the first theologian. A claim can be made for the converted philosopher Justin Martyr (ca. 100-ca. 165), author of the celebrated First Apology, dealing with pagan arguments, and of the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, dealing with Jewish ones. We shall choose the Greek-speaking Bishop of Lyons in southern Gaul, Irenaeus (ca. 125-ca. 202), author of a five-volume work, Against Heresies, written about 180-89. The full title is The Unmasking and Refutation of the Falsely So-Called Gnosis. Thus we see that one of the very earliest significant doctrinal works of Christianity was the direct result not of any desire to produce a comprehensive theology, but grew out of the necessity to deal with a dangerous and persistent heresy. The fact that Against Heresies is so comprehensive is due in no small measure to the fact that the heresy against which it speaks was not limited to a particular point or doctrine, but was an alternative version of religious reality spanning a wide range of doctrines. Because of the importance of this work, it is possible to say that Gnosticism is in a sense the stepmother of systematic theology and that a heresy is the stepmother of orthodoxy.” (Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy And Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, p. 42)
I find it important to note the providence of God in using what appears to be highly negative (Gnosticism) in order to bring about some of the greatest expositions of orthodox Christian doctrine! So, while we must oppose this heresy and clarify the truth, we can also recognize God’s sovereignty in using this heresy to bring out a better presentation of what is essential to the faith. Perhaps this is seeing the cup half full rather than half empty! At any rate, I’m thankful that the truth is always contrasted against that which is false. Praise the Lord!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.