I had not intended to spend much time researching or writing about Gnosticism. But the subject just keeps coming up in my studies of early Christianity. I have been learning more about the Gnostics, and just completed Stephan A. Hoeller’s book: Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.
Hoeller is a proponent of Gnostic thought, so his book needs to be considered in that light. However, it is well researched and well written. It contains a great deal of information as well as extensive philosophical (spiritual) discussion. I won’t be able to cover all the topics here, but I will share the main points that stood out for me.
A religious cosmology is a belief system’s underlying understanding of the origin, history and ultimate fate of the physical and spiritual cosmos (universe). Even though the Gnostics are often described as Christian, their cosmology is very different from that of any other branch of Christianity. Compare the Gnostic principles quoted below from Hoeller’s book with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God and His creation:
“1- There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.
2- The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.
3- One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).”
Hoeller goes on to explain more about Gnostic dualism — that humans have an outer aspect that is the handiwork of the inferior creators, and an inner aspect that is a “fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity”. There is also a discussion of Sophia, the personification of wisdom in divine feminine form, who participated in the creation of the world.
What struck me most about all this was not only how different the basic spiritual concepts are, but that there is never any reference to how or why they are believed to be true. There is no reference to divine revelation or prophets or scriptures or any other authoritative source. The Gnostics apparently just “know” by their own internal experience. However, it is only fair to point out that Gnostics do not claim that their knowledge is objective and based on observable fact, but is more based on gaining understanding through myth and allegory.
The final point that I found to be significant is that the Gnostics view Jesus as the greatest Messenger of Light sent to us from the “ultimate unity” in order to impart to mankind the gnostic mysteries and instruct us in the way of gnosis. They believe that salvation comes from that gnosis, apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection or our personal faith. The bottom line is that Gnostics revere Jesus as a teacher, but in general do not align with either the Jewish scriptures or with the teachings of the apostles. I would not include them under the broadest of “Christian” umbrellas, their own claims notwithstanding.
Footnote: The Gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, etc.) claim that the apostles did receive secret gnostic teachings from Jesus. These writings include many alleged sayings of Jesus that are not in the four canonical gospels, but even there I do not find any basis for the divergent Gnostic cosmology described above.