“The temptation with a man of refined thought and high education is to depart from the simple truth of Christ crucified, and to invent, as the term is, a more intellectual doctrine. This led the early Christian churches into Gnosticism, and bewitched them with all sorts of heresies. This is the root of Neology, and the other fine things which in days gone by were so fashionable in Germany, and are now so ensnaring to certain classes of divines.” – C.H. Spurgeon

It was 1897, little by little papyri leaves were being uncovered which contained apparent lost sayings of Jesus. By this period in history, Gnosticism had faded from mainstream thought and was considered little more than ancient religion deemed heretical by ancient Christianity. This was the beginning of a reemergence of a long lost heresy, and at Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1946 the proverbial floodgates were opened with the discovery of a nearly complete Gospel of Thomas; Gnosticism was reborn.

Before continuing on with John’s epistles, the historical situation surrounding the church he was writing to needs addressing. At this time, Christian Gnosticism was just beginning to overshadow Christianity. Full blown Gnosticism did not appear on the stage for a few more years. To what extent this heresy infiltrated John’s churches is not the focus of this synopsis, but the fact that John had to deal with a new false teaching greatly effects how we are to approach reading these letters.

So what is Gnosticism? The word gnosis means knowledge; the goal of all Gnostic teaching is to uncover secret or hidden knowledge. The Gospel of Thomas clearly fits into this teaching with the opening statement: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded” (it should be noted that the Gospel of Thomas has never been considered part of the Bible, the early church Fathers rejected this manuscript). One of the most influential Gnostic teachers, Valentinus, lived in Egypt around A.D. 140. His teachings form a foundation to the understanding of the Gospel of Thomas. This Egyptian sect of Gnosticism concentrated on a twisted view of Christianity. They taught that Jesus did not suffer but a Cyrenian named Simon bore the suffering of Christ: “and Simon was crucified in ignorance and error, having been transfigured by him, that men should suppose him to be Jesus, while Jesus himself took on the appearance of Simon and stood by and mocked them.” The primary teaching of this Gnostic view of the crucifixion follows the idea that if one acknowledges the crucifixion they are not saved, but if one denies the crucifixion of Christ, secret knowledge of the Unborn Father shall be imparted. Valentinus also taught that the flesh is inherently evil and therefore indulgence in lust and other practices was not considered sinful but natural; the primary focus of this Gnostic sect was on spiritual matters, one could damage the body but not the spirit. Various Valentinian writings attest that God chose to remain inaccessible and hidden to any direct approach for the God of the Gnostics is only realized by a human figure known as the Savior. However any imparted knowledge gained is to be shared indiscriminately and without hesitation. Basically, this Gnostic sect abused many of the Christian teachings of the era and it was out of this group that the Gospel of Thomas was produced.

Gnosticism reached its most influential point just prior to A.D. 325 and the Council of Nicea. This council was called to settle the doctrine of the Trinity. At this time Arius taught that Christ was the first creation of God and not coequal with God. It was the Council of Nicea which declared that Christ was in fact coequal with God. It is important to note here that Christ’s divinity was never the issue (as Dan Brown’s Davinci Code would have us believe); the council was not affirming his divinity but his Trinitarian status. The teachings of Arius are considered a precursor to the Mormon cult of today.

Consequently, the roots of Gnosticism stretch further back than the early Christian church. In its purest sense Gnosticism is a form of teaching which inappropriately separates the soul from the flesh. There are typically two deities in Gnostic philosophy: 1) The demiurge, which is often expressed as evil personified; and 2) the unknowable supreme being, which in turn is absolute goodness. In order to escape the imperfect material world, a person would have to uncover previously hidden knowledge, or gnosis.

Concerning the world, the Gnostics believe that our world is flawed. It is an inferior version of the truth, similar to Plato’s analogy of the cave. Therefore to a Gnostic, redemption of the soul carries the addition significance of divine understanding on the cosmic level.

I hope this brief synopsis is beneficial in preparing for a glance at John’s letters and the topic of obedience.