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Gnosticism the Colossian Heresy


Gnosticism was a second and third century "heresy that denied the deity of Christ, excused evil conduct on the supposition that the body is evil, encouraged asceticism, limited the sufficiency of redemption through Christ, and gave rise to ritualism, speculation, and low standards of righteousness" (Russell Bradley Jones, Survey of the Old and New Testaments, p. 332). 

The Gnostics taught a dualism which held to "a distinction between the purity of the immaterial world and the corruptibility of the material world." They held that the God of creation was not the pure God, that there was a distinction between Jesus who suffered on the cross and the Christ who was the transcendent Savior. They held that the direct revelation they received gave them unique insight and superiority over any other Christian writings. This revelation provided the initiated with access to gnosis, or knowledge about the true God. They were in direct competition with authentic Christianity.

The word "secret" highlights the internal emphasis of the ancient Gnostic texts of the second and third centuries. Darrell Bock observes Gnosticism taught, "to know the secrets is to experience knowledge and salvation. This knowledge involved views of God very distinct from the views that have driven the major wings of the traditional church. Each side of this dispute recognized that the other side represented a very distinct expression of Christianity. One could not easily be both a Gnostic and a traditional-based Christian." Gnosticism has "very different views of the Creator God, Jesus, the cross, and salvation."  Moreover, "What is represented in the secret gospels and related texts is an expression of Christianity vastly different from that in the texts with which we are familiar in the New Testament. Neither side in this dispute sought a coming together."

There were a number of characteristics of the heresy as described in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Colossians, and by the apostle John in his letters.

F. F. Bruce makes this keen observation about the cult:

"Basically the heresy was Jewish; this seems clear from the place which it gave to legal ordinances, circumcision, food regulations, the Sabbath, new moon and other prescriptions of the Jewish calendar. But on the Jewish foundation there had been erected a philosophical superstructure which was non–Jewish in origin—an early and simple form of what later came to be known as Gnosticism. In this part of Asia Minor the barriers between the Jewish communities and their pagan neighbors were not very effective. Social intermingling led to religious fusion, and the Colossian heresy may be described as a Jewish–Hellenistic syncretism which had made room for some Christian elements in its system so as to attract the young churches of the area."

A. T. Robertson describes this incipient Gnosticism which was threatening early Christianity as those who were especially concerned about the origin of the material universe, holding that matter was essentially evil. "God is good and hence could not touch matter. Therefore they believed that the world was created by intermediate agencies called aeons (emanations form God) who came in between God and matter. On accepting Christianity they at once had trouble with the person of Christ. Where would He come in their system? They solved the problem by making Him one of the subordinate aeons. At once Christological problems came to the front. Paul insisted, in reply, that Jesus is head over all creation visible and invisible, the creator of the universe (Col. 1:15-17), and the head of the Church, His body (1:18). In Him all the Godhead dwelleth bodily (2:9) and He is above all angels (2:18). Some of the Gnostics said that Jesus and the Messiah were distinct and that only the Messiah was an aeon, descending on Jesus at his baptism and leaving him at the crucifixion, but Paul identifies Christ with Jesus (2:6). Others held that Jesus was only apparently a man and really an aeon (Docetic Gnostics), but Paul replied that He reconciled us to God by the blood of His cross (1:20) and hence was a real man as well as God. In practical morals the Gnostics had two tendencies. On the one hand some went to license with the idea that sin of the body could not touch the soul (3:5f). Others reached to asceticism (2:20-23)." (The Student's Chronological New Testament, pp. xxxix-xl).

1. It "attacked the adequacy and the unique supremacy of Christ." Paul stresses that Jesus is the image of the invisible God; in Him all fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form (1:15, 19; 2:2, 9).

2. Jesus was the instrument of the Father in creation of the universe (1:16, 17).

3. The humanity of Jesus is also emphasized in Colossians (1:22; 2:9).

4. The Colossians seem to be preoccupied with astrology.

5. Demonic spirits are dealt with (1:16; 2:10, 15). William Barclay writes, "The Colossian false teachers were clearly saying that something more than Jesus Christ was needed to defeat the power of the demons."

6. Philosophy they sought to spoil men and fill them with empty deceit is evident (2:8).

7. Special days and rituals are insisted on by the cult (2:16).

8. Legalism and associated behaviors is evident (2:16, 21). It said, "Touch not; taste not; handle not."

9. An antinomian streak is also found (3:5-8).

10. The worship of angels appears in Colossians (2:18).

11. A "know it all" snobbery is found in this cult (1:28). Christ alone was insufficient for them. You needed more "light." Biblical Christianity says, "Christ alone is sufficient!"

The appeal of the philosophical cult is, as F. F. Bruce observes: "to a certain religious temperament, the more so as it was presented as a form of advanced teaching for a spiritual elite. Christians were urged to go in for this higher wisdom, to explore the hidden mysteries by a series of successive initiations until they achieved perfection. Baptism was only a preliminary initiation. . . But however attractive many might find this cult, Paul condemns it as specious make-believe. Far from constituting a more advanced grade of knowledge than that presented in the apostolic preaching, it was totally inconsistent with that preaching and threatened to overthrow the foundations of Christianity. . . ."

Frederica Mathewes-Green gives a good comparison and contrast between the first century Christianity and Gnosticism that developed during the next couple of centuries. This is why the early Christians declared Gnosticism heretical and clearly rejected it.

"Gnosticism rejected the body and saw it as a prison for the soul; Christianity insisted that God infuses all creation and that even the human body can be a vessel of holiness, a 'temple of the Holy Spirit.' Gnosticism rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and portrayed the God of the Jews as an evil spirit; Christianity looked on Judaism as a mother. Gnosticism was elitist; Christianity was egalitarian, preferring 'neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.' Finally, Gnosticism was just too complicated. Christianity maintained the simple invitation of the One who said, 'Let the little children come unto me.' Full-blown science-fiction Gnosticism died under its own weight."

Paul developed his response with one of the greatest pieces ever written about Christ in Colossians 1:13-22. Modern man needs to hear this message of Christ’s supremacy over all the powers in the universe. Bruce adds, "Christ crucified and risen is Lord of all; all the forces in the universe are subject to Him, well–disposed and ill-disposed alike. To be united to Christ by faith is to be liberated from the thralldom of hostile powers, to enjoy perfect freedom, to gain the mastery over the dominion of evil because Christ’s victory is ours."

Historic first century Christianity and Gnosticism were two very different approaches to Christianity. In fact, they were so very different from each other as to be incompatible from the view of each school. And they still are regardless of what the "new" school of theology is introducing in our day.

The apostle John also dealt with incipient Gnosticism in his epistles.

Title: Gnosticism      PDF

Series: Introduction to Bible Books


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    Message by Wil Pounds (c) 2018. Anyone is free to use this material and distribute it, but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's written consent.

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    Wil is a graduate of William Carey University, B. A.; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Th. M.; and Azusa Pacific University, M. A. He has pastored in Panama, Ecuador and the U. S, and served for over 20 years as missionary in Ecuador and Honduras. He had a daily expository Bible teaching ministry heard in over 100 countries from 1972 until 2005, and a weekly radio program until 2016. He continues to seek opportunities to be personally involved in world missions. Wil and his wife Ann have three grown daughters. He currently serves as a Baptist missionary, and teaches seminary extension courses and Evangelism in Depth conferences in Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, India and Ecuador. Wil also serves as the International Coordinator and visiting professor of Bible and Theology at Peniel Theological Seminary in Riobamba, Ecuador.