Five Characteristics of Gnosticism

If you spend enough time in Catholic circles, you will eventually come across the term “Gnostic.” Usually it is used in a derogatory sense, analogous to elitist, specifically an elitist who believes himself privy to special or inside knowledge not available to others. Sometimes the phrase denotes the belief that specified knowledge makes one a better believer, a kind of “salvation by inside knowledge.” In this context, Gnostic is equated with secret knowledge, the implication being that it is Gnostic to claim to possess or act on secret knowledge.

While there is some value to these popular definitions, they ultimately fail to give us a comprehensive understanding of what Gnosticism really was and risks turning it into a vague pejorative with little grounding in history or theology. Gnosticism was, after all, a historical heresy that flourished between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D.—and there was much more to it than “secret knowledge!” In this article we will examine five characteristics of historical Gnosticism to get a better understanding of what this term really means.

1. God Creates Through Emanations

Gnosticism was a complicated and multi-faceted system of thought that incorporated ideas from various traditions, making it a challenge to explain. But, at the heart of all Gnostic systems is the idea of creation as a series of emanations from God. This is the linchpin around which the various Gnostic systems turn. In Gnosticism, God creates by means of emanations; these emanations are like waves that proceed from God’s being and bring other things into existence. Because these emanations are of God’s very essence, there is always a pantheistic flavor to Gnostic thought. God does not create from nothing; He emanates, similar to how Christians envision the Holy Spirit “proceeding” from the Father and the Son. The creation itself is a kind of procession from the godhead; some of the cruder Gnostics even explained it as a “secretion” from God, as St. Irenaeus complained about in Adversus Haereses. So, the first tenet of Gnosticism is creation as an emanation.

2. The Sub-Emanation of the Aeons

The second point is a hierarchical ordering of these emanations, with each emanation producing its own successive “sub-emanation.” For example, God’s primal emanation gives rise to other spiritual realities; sometimes these realities are intelligences, akin to angels, while at other times they are purely rational abstractions belonging to the noumenal world (e.g., “mind”, “thought”, “silence”, “profundity”, etc.). These emanations have various names—Teleos, Bythos, Charis, Ennoea, and so on. Sometimes they are even grouped in male-female pairings called syzygies. We can get lost down a truly bizarre rabbit hole discussing the names of functions of the various emanations, but that would take us too far afield. It suffices to note that collectively the emanations are known simply as Aeons. These Aeons give birth to each other in a complex arrangement of emanations, producing intricate hierarchies. This “family” of God and His successive emanations and sub-emanations is called the Pleroma, the world of the supra-sensible. 

3. The Corruption of the Material World

The third tenet of Gnosticism is the creation of the physical world as a deviation from the purity of the Pleroma. The Gnostic myths vary depending on what source we read, but all agree that at some point one of the Aeons emanated something that did not reflect the purity found in the Pleroma. Some say it was a flaw, others a passion or sin of one of the Aeons. Whatever it was, this deviation was the creation of physicality, the material universe. There are disagreements as to what Aeon or Aeons were responsible for this; in Christian Gnosticism, this would be the work of Satan or (as in Marcionism) the God of the Old Testament, who is a lower, rebellious emanation from the One. Gnostics typically referred to this being as the Demiurge, or sometimes the Great Archon. Either way, the point is the material world represents a corruption of the spiritual purity envisioned by the One.

4. The Human Ascent to the Pleroma

Materiality being emanated, further sub-emanations created physical beings, and thus into the material world come human beings. As beings in the sequence of divine emanations, humans truly have the divine life within them; they are “part of God” in a literal sense. Yet, they find themselves materialized in the corrupt nature of corporal existence, trapped in a corporeal existence. Human salvation is understood, then, as the ascent back through the Aeons until we reach the Pleroma. Salvation is a return to a Pleromic existence that is conceived as purely spiritual. The return to the Pleroma through the Aeonic ascent is essentially a return to our home. It is a kind of Platonic conception of the world, a view of spiritual enlightenment as a repudiation of corporeality as we gradually ascend back to a purely spiritual existence in harmony with the One in the Pleroma. How, then, do we ascend back through the Aeons? Through a combination of ritual, knowledge, and asceticism that are all found within the hierarchical degrees of the Gnostic community.

5. Gradual Revelation Through Myth

Finally, we come to the fifth tenet of Gnosticism, the gradual revelation of truth through mythic language. The ascent through the Aeons back to the Pleroma is a movement from corporeal to spiritual, entailing a purification of intellect. A beginner is unable to contemplate the sublime truths the way a seasoned initiate can; their mind is too darkened by their crude materiality. Therefore, Gnostic teachers used mythic language to explain their system to newbies and the inexperienced. We have seen how the Aeons might be personified, anthropomorphized, and given names; the emanations of the Aeons would then be explained in corporeal terms (e.g., the world is formed by the tears of the Aeon Sophia, or by the semen of the Demiurge).

Later, as the initiate advances through the hierarchy of the Gnostic community, the philosophical and mystical meanings of these myths are explained to him. This mythic language is why St. Augustine, when he had a chance to interview the Manichaean Gnostic teacher Faustus, was disappointed by the man, whose explanations of Gnostic doctrine were “fraught with prolix fables, of the heaven, and stars, and sun, and moon, and I now no longer thought him able satisfactorily to decide what I much desired [to know]” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book V). Tertullian also complained about these fables, that the initiate “as soon as he finds so many names of aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’ which the inspired apostle by anticipation condemned, while these seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth?” (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, Chap. 3).


It is interesting that the erudite historian St. John Henry Newman, when summarizing Gnosticism, omits any mention of “secret doctrine.” When speaking of the essence of Gnostic belief, he says, “Gnosticism is…the doctrine of two principles, that of emanation, the intrinsic malignity of matter, the inculpability of sensual indulgence, or the guilt of every pleasure sense” (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chap. 1, Sec. 1, §1). Newman rightly identifies emanation and the corruption of the world as fundamental Gnostic ideas but does not place claims to secret knowledge among the primary tenets of the Gnostics. From whence, then, do we have this idea? 

It seems that the practice of beginning with mythic language for the simple and gradually layering more complex meanings onto the fables as the initiate progresses is what gave rise to the concept of Gnosticism as consisting of “secret knowledge.” As you can see, this was only a small part of the Gnostic system, and it was not exclusive to Gnosticism either. Pagan mystery cults, such as the cults of Isis, Eleusis, and Mithras also used this method. So did the philosophical school of the Pythagoreans. Christianity, too, utilized a gradual revelation of truth in its own initiatory rites. The idea of knowledge reserved to the initiates was simply a common theme of ancient spirituality. Even Jesus Christ Himself affirms that there is a special knowledge available only to those who have “eyes to see”:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand…But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Matt. 13:10-13, 16

It is understandable that people misuse the terms “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic”; after all, the Gnostic heresy is complex and not easily summarized in a single handy term. Hopefully, however, we can be a little more discerning and accurate with how we speak when we use this word.

Photo by 𝕶𝖚𝖒𝖆𝖘 𝕿𝖆𝖛𝖊𝖗𝖓𝖊 on Unsplash

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Phillip Campbell is a history teacher for Homeschool Connections and the author of many books on Catholic history, most notably the Story of Civilization series from TAN Books. You can learn more about his books and classes on his website. Phillip resides in southern Michigan.

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