Gnosticism: Doctrine

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1 Gnosticism is a mystical religion and philosophy which contains elements of, among others, the occult, Eastern mysticism, astrology, sorcery, Judaism, Christian doctrine, Greek philosophies and even Zoroastrism. Gnosticism: Doctrine The term Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word gnosis that means knowledge. Gnostics believe that man's soul, which is part of the divinity or spirit of God, is caught up in the physical world and can only escape from it and return to the divine origin through special knowledge (gnosis). Gnosticism experienced a period of growth in the second and third centuries after Christ in, among others, Iran, Palestine, Syria and Egypt, but gradually lost ground following opposition from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Church. In the twentieth century interest in Gnosticism flared up again following the discovery of old Gnostic writings near Nag Hummadi in Egypt. Basic doctrines of Gnostism Some forms of modern Gnosticism tend to be more of a philosophy than a religion because the emphasis is more on the notion of the individual being able to 'free' or 'improve' him or herself through knowledge of the self and the cosmos in which he or she lives. In essence, however, traditional Gnosticism is a religion, because God and man's relationship with God plays a central role. God and the creation Dualist Deity Gnostics believe that God is an omnipotent deity who does not necessarily involve himself with the people and the issues of this world. He/she can be regarded as dualist, seeing that he also has a female side which is called Sophia and which is the wise spirit of God.

2 ABOVE: Painting by Blake depicting creation. Gnostics believe that God has a female side called Sophia. Gnostics believe that this God is not the Christian and Judaic God of the Old Testament, but the God of the New Testament. God lives in a heavenly realm called the pleroma. The pleroma consists of about thirty aeons (supernatural spiritual beings which are also worlds) who had been made by God. Imperfect Demiurge According to Gnostics Sophia, God's Spirit, wanted to reproduce a being like herself, but did not have God's (the male side) permission for this. She still continued with it, and gave life to a child called the Demiurge. The Demiurge, however, was ugly and imperfect, and did not resemble Sophia at all. Because she was ashamed of his imperfection, Sophia took the child from the heavenly realm and hid him in a cloud so that the other heavenly beings could not see him. Gnostics believe that the Demiurge is the same person as Jehovah, the Christian and Judaic God of the Old Testament, and that he is at the same time the Satan of the New Testament. Demiurge creates physical world Because Sophia had made the Demiurge from herself, a part of the spirit was still contained in him. The Demiurge used this power of the spirit to make the physical world (the earth and the visible cosmos). In that process both he and a part of the spirit got caught up in the physical world. Gnosticism thus holds the belief that the Demiurge is the creator of the world, and that through this creation he holds on to a part of the spirit of God and prevents it from returning to the heavenly realm (pleroma). The spirit of God therefore occurs in all matter, but especially in man.

3 Liberation of the spirit Gnostics believe that the only way in which individuals (or the spirit caught in them) can be freed from the Demiurge and his imprisonment in this world, and be able to return to God and the heavenly realm, is through obtaining secret knowledge about themselves and their spiritual identity. Gnostics regard the Biblical version of God's (Jehovah) prohibition to Adam and Eve not to eat from the "tree of all knowledge" (Genesis 2:17) as the Demiurge's attempt to stop man from achieving knowledge. This knowledge, called gnosis, is not rational or logical knowledge as one could obtain through the study of mathematics or natural sciences. It is rather an intuitive or reflexive knowledge obtained through the study of man's inner self or soul. Because the spirit is in this world mostly caught in the human being, many Gnostics believe that the liberation of the spirit (in all people) can be helped by not prolonging life unnecessarily. It is therefore also not desirable to bring forth new life by having children. These convictions had led to most Gnostics originally leading a monastic kind of life where sexual intercourse was strictly prohibited. Some groups did allow men and women to marry, but they were not allowed to bring forth children from these marriages. On the other hand, a minority, including a second-century group known as the Ophites, was known for their love orgies. During these orgies unusual and perverse sexual acts were committed where the individual's needs were satisfied without the possibility of fertilisation. Interestingly enough, the Ophites also worshipped the serpent because, according to the Biblical story (Genesis 3:4-7), he had persuaded Adam and Even to eat from the tree of all knowledge and so to obtain their gnosis! Some Gnostics believe that the soul or spirit of a Gnostic (somebody who has obtained the knowledge) can after death return to God. However, others are of the opinion that the souls of those who have obtained the knowledge will return together as soon as the physical cosmos has been destroyed by knowledge. Some Gnostics also believe that mankind can be divided into three groups: (1) the spiritual, who will automatically be saved, regardless of their actions as human beings; (2) the soulish, who will be saved if they follow the Gnostic way; and (3) the carnals, who are hopelessly lost and cannot be saved in any way. Some are of the opinion that one has only one life in which one gets the opportunity to gain the liberating knowledge. Should this not happen, one's soul is lost forever and one can never

4 return to God. Others believe that one's soul can repeatedly be reborn in a new body through reincarnation until one can gain the knowledge needed for liberation. Divine messengers Most ancient and modern Gnostic groups believe that the deity had sent a special messenger or messengers to the earth in order to share with people the gnosis or the knowledge leading to liberation. Because most ancient Gnostics regarded themselves as Christians, they saw Christ as this messenger. In modern Christian Gnosticism Jesus is still regarded in this light. In non-christian Gnosticism either the Egyptian god Seth, the prophet Zoroaster or one of various mythological beings is sometimes seen as the messenger. Holy Gnostic writings Until just before the second half of the twentieth century, only a few remaining Gnostic writings were known, such as Shepherd of Men, Asclepius, Codex Askewianus, Codex Brucianus, Odes of Solomon, the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Gospel of John and the Hymn of the Pearl. Additional information about Gnosticism was obtained from the writings of people such as Irenaeus ( BC), Tertullian ( BC) and Hippolytus ( BC) who criticised Gnosticism and regarded it as a blasphemous distortion of the Christian doctrine. ABOVE: Irenaeus ( BC). Nag Hummadi collection In 1945 Mohammed Samman, a camel driver from El Qasr in Egypt, and his brother went to dig nitrate-rich soil, which they wanted to use as fertiliser, near the village Nag Hummadi. To their surprise they came upon a clay urn filled with ancient writings, which they later sold to a dealer in Cairo.

5 The brothers' discovery directly gave rise to renewed world interest in Gnosticism seeing that as far as it is known this is the most complete collection of Gnostic literature available today. In the urn there were 53 (some say 50) ancient Gnostic writings in the Coptic language which had probably been hidden there in the fourth century BC by monks from a nearby monastery. ABOVE: The Nag Hummadi collection. These writings, which would later be known as the Nag Hummadi collection, are known today as the Gnostic gospels. Six of the manuscripts were copies of works already known, a further six were copies of other works also contained in the urn, and 41 were 'new' writings which had not been available for centuries. Origin of Gnosticism All the works in the Nag Hummadi collection were not of pure Gnostic origin, but it is for that very reason that they offer a clear version of the divergent sources from which Gnosticism originally sprang. Thunder, Whole Mind is of Judaic origin, Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles are Judaeo-Christian, Prayer of Thanksgiving is Hermetic and Authoritative Teaching is early Roman Catholic (see The Gospel of Thomas ). Rituals and customs Very little is known today about the rituals, organisational structures and customs of the ancient Gnostics. Although the Nag Hummadi documents have thrown a lot of light on Gnostic doctrines and convictions, they offer little information about how the Gnostic groups really functioned. Two extremes It does emerge, however, that among ancient as well as modern Gnostics there are on the one hand groups which unconditionally reject all sacraments and rituals, while others again saw these as an important part of their religions experience.

6 In the third and fourth centuries AD it was the rejection by some Gnostic groupings of the Christian use of sacraments, such as baptism and communion, which increased the conflict between them and the Christian church. Other groups' rituals, such as those of the modern Ecclesia Gnostica, are very similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church and communion and baptism are frequently celebrated, although the meaning of these sacraments is different from that held by the traditional Christian churches. Some non-christian Gnostics have rituals, which are related to other religions with which the relevant Gnostics associate themselves partly (or fully), such as the Jewish Cabbalists, Sikhism and Vairayana Buddhism. Specific examples Some Gnostics pour a special liquid over the head of someone who is dead or dying in order to help the person's soul to return safely to God and the heavenly realm. Ritual invocations are sometimes used, among others also to stop demons from capturing and fixing a dying soul in a new body again. Although some reject baptism, other Gnostics regularly baptise their members as a symbol of redemption from ignorance. New members in some groups are initiated by a special baptism in the name of the deity (male side of God), Sophia (the female side and spirit of God), and their son. Some Gnostics are totally celibate and may not participate in any sexual activities. Others believe that sex, even in perverse forms, is permissible, as long as fertilisation does not occur. Some even indulge in forms of ritual sex. In contrast to many other religions, women play an equal role to men in Gnostic groups and have been doing so in ancient times already. Even in the earliest times women had filled positions of leadership and women wrote some Gnostic holy writings. =========================================================================== Glossary Aeons: Thirty supernatural spiritual beings who are also worlds and were created by the deity. Together they make up the pleroma. Demiurge: An evil being brought forth by Sophia and who created the physical (material) cosmos. Gnostics regard him as Jehovah, the Christian and Judaic God of the Old Testament, as well as the Satan of the New Testament.

7 Gnosis: A Greek word which means knowledge. Gnostics believe that man can only be redeemed through special knowledge called gnosis. Occult: A study and alledged 'science' of the hidden, secret, esoteric, demonic, paranormal and supernatural - not related to the true God of the Bible. Pleroma: The heavenly sphere where the deity (God) lives and which consists of the thirty aeons. Reincarnation: A conviction that the souls of the dead return to the earth repeatedly to be born into new bodies. Also see articles: Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, Druidism and Druse. Sophia: The so-called wise spirit and the female side of God (the deity), according to Gnostics. Sorcery: The manipulation of supernatural powers through demonic powers in order to effect change in the visible (natural) and the invisible (spiritual) worlds through a variety of rituals, invocations and other practices. Article by Manie Bosman (

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