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The Doctrine of Christ
Confronting Gnostic Heresies


Confronting Gnostic Heresies

"Turn away from godless philosophical discussions and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge[GNOSIS], which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith." (1 Tim. 6:20, NIV and NJB)

WHEN the Apostle John spoke of those who do not "abide in the doctrine of Christ" (2 John 9), what false teaching was he refuting? We believe he was confronting a particular false teaching being advocated in his time and place. As mentioned earlier, the Trinity doctrine was not yet formulated, and John was not confronting it. It was not troubling the Church at that time. In Acts 15 the early Church did have a heated conference of elders and Apostles, but it addressed the issue of Gentiles coming into the Church and being pressured to keep the Jewish Law Covenant. The council ended with a very clearly-worded message: "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost [Spirit], and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well" (Acts 15:28, 29).

Now, you would think if the Trinity was even faintly mentioned in Church teachings, it would need some clarification. Certainly, those of the Priesthood (Acts 6:7) who had become believers and who were trying to bring Gentiles under the Law would have raised eyebrows at any teaching beclouding the one-God concept of the Jewish Law. The leadership of the Church were all mainly Jews carried over from the Law arrangement. Yet not one word emerged about a tripersonal deity. How could the Trinity not have been mentioned in this conference, or in the Bible itself, if it was an essential doctrine for Jews and Gentiles alike to believe?

John’s Gospel, as well as his epistles, are believed to have been written toward the close of the first century. McClintock & Strong on "John," says:

"Ephesus and Patmos are the two places mentioned by early writers, and the weight of evidence seems to preponderate in favor of Ephesus. Irenaeus . . . states that John published his Gospel whilst he dwelt in Ephesus of Asia. Jerome . . . relates that John was in Asia . . . Theodore of Mopsuestia . . . relates that John was living at Ephesus when he was moved by his disciples to write his Gospel.

"The evidence in favor of Patmos comes from two anonymous writers. The author of the Synopsis of Scripture, printed in the works of Athanasius, states that the Gospel was dictated by John in Patmos, and published afterwards in Ephesus. . . . [Another] author . . . states that John was banished by Domitian to Patmos, where he wrote his Gospel."1

Quoting McClintock and Strong, on "John, First Epistle," we read:

"It has been conjectured by many interpreters, ancient and modern, that it was written at the same place as the Gospel. The more ancient tradition places the writing of the Gospel at Ephesus, and a less authentic report refers it to the island of Patmos . . . it was probably posterior to the Gospel, which seems to be referred to in 1 John 1:4. Some are of the opinion that the Epistle was an envelope or accompaniment to the Gospel, and that they were consequently written nearly simultaneously."2

These comments suggest John’s writings were the writings of his old age. Having outlived the other Apostles, John could see the essential fabric of Christianity beginning to be subjected to intellectual Hellenistic philosophy and gnosticism. John was the last Apostolic outpost defending the "faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). He was dearly loved by the brethren of that time, but not by all. "Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not" (3 John 9). It is hard to believe anyone would not receive John in the Christian community. However, ambition and power-lust were running high, and hence even the beloved Apostle found himself put upon. This should make us wary of accepting beliefs not originating in Apostolic times.

Confessing Jesus Christ Is Come in the Flesh

John, in his epistles, as well as in his gospel writings, was dealing with certain gnostic heresies that had started to trouble the early Church. In 1 John 4:3, we read: "And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist." What was John addressing here? For an answer we quote McClintock & Strong:

"Irenaeus says, ‘Cerinthus taught that the world was not made by the supreme God, but by a certain power (Demiurge) separate from Him, and below Him, and ignorant of Him. Jesus he supposed not to be born of a virgin, but to be the son of Joseph and Mary, born altogether as other men are; but he excelled all men in virtue, knowledge, and wisdom. At His baptism, the Christ came down upon Him, from God who is over all, in the shape of a dove; and then He declared to the world the unknown Father, and wrought miracles. At the end, the Christ left Jesus, and Jesus suffered and rose again, but the Christ being spiritual, was impassible.’"3

This view presents Jesus as a mere man fathered by Joseph, who later became possessed by Christ at Jordan and deserted by Christ before Jesus was crucified. Hence, Christ did not come in the flesh, nor did he suffer in the flesh, but simply took possession of a man named Jesus from Jordan and left him before he was crucified. Under this teaching, Christ neither suffered nor died. It was Jesus the man who suffered and died and was resurrected. This concept may have arisen from the practice of demons entering fleshly bodies to possess them, such as evidently was fairly commonplace in Jesus’ day.

We refer again to McClintock & Strong on Cerinthus:

"The account of Irenaeus is that he [Cerinthus] appeared about the year 88, and was known to St. John, who wrote his Gospel in refutation of his errors. Irenaeus, on the authority of Polycarp, narrates that the Apostle John, when at Ephesus, going on a certain day to the bath, and finding Cerinthus within, fled from the building, saying ‘Let us even be gone, lest the bath should fall to pieces, Cerinthus, that enemy of the truth, being within.’"4

This scrap of history would confirm John’s unwillingness to have any interchange or contact with one who was introducing such mind-beguiling errors into the Churches. Yet, the point to be noted is that, even while the Apostle John still lived, various forms of gnostic errors affecting the nature of Christ were indeed infecting Christianity. What would happen when all the Apostles fell asleep? Surely, no one would logically expect truth to triumph.

Jesus taught—"While men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way" (Matt. 13:24-30). What were the "tares" the enemy sowed? Errors or false teachings which would subvert true Christianity. Yes. Even before the Apostles fell asleep, the Devil was busy trying to infuse gnostic beliefs among the people of God. Paul confirms this, saying, "The mystery of iniquity doth already work" (2 Thess. 2:7). We must always remember, these false teachings were kept out of the Bible, but not out of the Church. What was to be a "wheat field" turned into a field of "tares," the planting of the Wicked One. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) was given by the Master to foretell what would follow the death of the Apostles. For anyone to go to the fourth and fifth centuries to seek the truth is to ignore this clear warning of Jesus.


Docetism appeared in the latter half of the second century. It was, in fact, only another form of gnosticism. McClintock & Strong, commenting on Docetae, say:

"In order to remove the author of all good from all contact with matter, which they conceived to be the same as evil, they called in the aid of Oriental philosophy in order to people the space between God and matter with a vast succession of superhuman beings as mediators between God and the world. These, emanating from the Deity, were called aeons; among these the highest rank was assigned to Christ. Here, however, they seem to have split. ‘Many imagined that Jesus was a mere man, and maintained that the aeon Christ descended upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and left him immediately before his crucifixion, so that Christ was not, in fact, subjected to pain and death; while others held that the body, with which Christ appeared to be invested, was not really human and passable, but unsubstantial or etherial, or, at least immaterial: these last were called Docetae.’ (Waddington’s History of the Church, p. 74, 75). They denied the whole humanity of Christ, regarding it only as a deceptive show, a mere vision.

"Docetism was a most subtle element, which wrought variously before it had any discernible concentration in any leading men or sects, and it infused its unreal and fantastic leaven into various Gnostic sects, and other later ones which grew out of Gnosticism. It was a deep, natural, rationalistic, pseudo-spiritualistic, anti-incarnation element."5

The errors introduced by Cerinthus did not disappear, but infected the Church heavily in the second century. It was these errors that were leavening the lump, and to offset them, both truth and additional errors were used to put down these gnostic teachings. The hardest thing is to defend the truth without exaggerating matters. The Devil does not care which ditch one gets into, as long as one leaves the strait and narrow path of truth.

Gnosticism in the Church

The early Christians did seek knowledge of spiritual things. Paul says some were given the "word of knowledge (gnosis) by the same Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:8). There was a proper knowledge that came to saints of that day, and then there were supposed superior knowledge and insights that were nothing more than heretical gnosticism. The Church was put upon by these claimants of superior knowledge. McClintock & Strong, on Gnosticism, say:

"The name Gnosticism has been applied to a variety of schools which had sometimes little in common except the assumption of a knowledge higher than that of ordinary believers. . . . They seldom pretended to demonstrate the principles on which their systems were founded by historical evidence or logical reasonings, since they rather boasted that these were discovered by the intuitional powers of more highly endowed minds, and that the materials thus obtained, whether through faith or divine revelation, were then worked up into ascientific form according to each one’s natural power and culture. Their aim was to construct not merely a theory of redemption, but of the universe—a cosmogony. No subject was beyond their investigations. Whatever God could reveal to the finite intellect, they looked upon as within their range. What to others seemed only speculative ideas, were by them hypostatized or personified into real beings or historical facts. It was in this way that they constructed systems of speculation on subjects entirely beyond the range of human knowledge, which startle us by their boldness and their apparent consciousness of reality."6

Most of the controversies of the early Church were Judaistic in nature, but evidence is found early on of heretical influences that affected the brotherhood. Quoting again from McClintock & Strong on Gnosticism:

"The heretical gnosis did not make its appearance with an uncovered head until after the death of the apostles, but . . . that it previously worked in secret. . . . While most of the heresies of that period were Judaistic, there was an obvious difference between those reproved in the Galatian churches and those noticed in the epistles to the Colossians and Timothy. The latter are treated much more mildly, and we readily perceive that they must have been much less developed and less subversive of the Christian system. They are expressly called (1 Tim. 6:20) a false gnosis, and were characterized by empty sounds without sense and subtle oppositions to the truth, a depreciation of the body, and a worship of angels (Col. 2:18, 23), and interminable genealogies and myths (1 Tim. 1:4). These seem more akin to Jewish than to heathen speculations, and imply not the completed Gnosticism of the second century, but the manifest germs of Docetic emanations and Gnostic dualism."7

It is easy to see how such forces at work within the early Church were like leaven that needed an incubation period before it "leavened the whole." While the leaven was rising, it induced a power struggle among the bishops, some for truth and some for error and, more often than not, a struggle for preeminence and power. To secure these, one needed some platform that played well and would seduce the largest numbers. Later, the seduction was directed toward the Emperor Constantine, for the imperial power would make or break the bishops. Those who contended for the faith "once delivered unto the saints" became merely voices crying in the wilderness (Jude 3).

To believe that most Church leaders were the great preservers of the "faith once delivered to the saints" is to believe the unbelievable. The Great Wall of China was built to keep out invading enemy forces. However, the wall was breached three times within the first century of its construction—in each instance from within. Once we leave the Apostolic Era and the Word of God, it becomes stormy and treacherous.

What John Was Confronting

The Apostle John, in his Gospel, was filling in details left out in other Gospel accounts as well as lightly addressing some subtle errors of that era. In John 1:1-18, we find John refuting gnostic heresies. He shows that Jesus was a spirit who was "with God" and who subsequently became flesh. He says, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (vs. 14). This is a plain statement of fact. Jesus was "made flesh." He did not possess another’s body or form, but he was, in fact, "flesh." Neither was he a mixture of natures—spirit and flesh. He was "flesh." Peter confirms this truth, saying, "Being put to death indeed in flesh, but made alive in spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18, Rotherham). The gnostic teaching that Christ was a composite of spirit and flesh did finally emerge. But the Bible is quite clear that Jesus was made "flesh." It does not say he assumed a fleshly body and then left it. He died on the cross and was raised from the dead by God on the third day (Matt. 28:7; Acts 2:31, 32).

John 1:18 reads, "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten son [some authorities read God], which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." Men did see Jesus. No man has ever seen God, nor can they and live. Jesus, then, is the revealer of God, the one through whom we may know the Father.

What did John mean when he said: "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son" (2 John 9)? Why didn’t he add: "hath the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit"? Obviously, John was not dealing with any part of the Trinity when he wrote these words. He was meeting the errors of Cerinthus and gnosticism, which were beginning to surface in that very early era when the Apostles still lived. He was endeavoring to prevent Cerinthus and his deceived followers from bewitching the Church with their Satan-inspired, beguiling errors.

The battle did not cease after the Apostles fell asleep. The Church of God became infested with philosophy, gnostic dualisms, docetic emanations, etc. The stage was being set for the dualism of God and Christ to be fused into one substance, composed of spirit and flesh simultaneously. Because these earliest errors had to do with the nature of Jesus Christ in human flesh and his relationship to God, it became increasingly difficult to separate fact from fancy. A thick cloud of confusion settled upon Christians. As a result, theologians left the simplicity of the unitarian God of the first century and fused Jesus and God into one Being in the fourth century.

At last in the fifth century, the Trinity was born even while the Christian Church began its descent toward the Dark Ages. If at least we could see the Church moving toward more brotherly love and kindness after the Trinity concept took root, we could sense that something good had emerged. But such was not the case. The picture that emerges is of a Church steeped in worldliness, pomp and ceremony, leaving the purity and simplicity of its early faith far behind. Even worse are centuries filled with bloodletting and ruthlessness that followed, with the Church bent on world conquest. All contrary religious thought was stifled as the Church grasped for total world-control.

Hellenistic Influences in the Church

Hans Kung writes:

"If we take the New Testament as a criterion, we cannot deny that the Council of Nicaea certainly maintained the New Testament message and did not Hellenize it totally. But it is equally beyond dispute that the council remained utterly imprisoned in Hellenistic concepts, notions and thought-models which would have been completely alien to the Jew Jesus of Nazareth and the earliest community. Here in particular the shift from the Jewish Christian apocalyptic paradigm [beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community] to the early church Hellenistic paradigm had a massive effect."8

There is little doubt that after the Hellenization of the Church, it would have been unrecognizable to early Jewish Christians.

When the Church became Hellenized, it became a tool for Constantine. Hans Kung says:

"He not only convened the ecumenical council but directed it through a bishop whom he had commissioned, with the assistance of imperial commissioners; he adjourned it and concluded it; by his decision the resolutions of the council became imperial laws. Constantine used this first council not least to adapt the church organization to the state organization. . . . It was now clear to Constantine, the political strategist, that the imperial church needed more than just the more or less varied confessions of faith of the individual local or provincial churches. It needed a uniform ‘ecumenical creed,’ and this was to be the church law and imperial law for all the churches. He believed that only in this way could he ensure the unity of the empire under the slogan ‘one God—one emperor—one kingdom—one church—one faith.’"9

While Constantine was using the Church for his own political agenda, it must be remembered that, although confessing to be a Christian, he was actually a ruthless opportunist. He still presided at all pagan festivities, commissioned many of the new Churches to be adorned with pagan artwork, and was responsible for murdering members of his own family. In 326 A.D., long after his "conversion," he had his wife, Fausta, and his eldest son, Crispus, put to death. When convinced that his own death was near, he received baptism from Eusebius of Nicomedia, in 337 A.D. He had delayed baptism to the end, since he felt he could not avoid committing "mortal" sin during his lifetime, and such sin after baptism was considered to be unforgivable.10 This was the man who forced his will upon the Nicene Council, dictated the wording of its creed, and thereby directed the doctrinal course of the Church for centuries to come. But is this the kind of man to whom we should be entrusting our most sacred beliefs?

Hans Kung makes another observation:

"Nor did Paul want to replace Jewish belief in one God with a Christian belief in two Gods. Rather, he always regarded the Jesus who had been exalted by God’s spirit to God as subordinate to this one God and Father: as the Messiah, Christ, image, Son, of the one God. So his christocentricity remains grounded in and culminates in a theocentricity: ‘from God through Jesus Christ’—‘through Jesus Christ to God.’ To this degree Paul’s christology is directly compatible with Jewish monotheism."11

We realize, too, that Paul was not opposed by his Judaizing Jewish brethren because of his presentations of God. It was his opposition to bringing Gentile Christians under bondage to the Law arrangement that incurred their ire.

We quote again from Hans Kung:

"We should note that whereas the Council of Nicaea in 325 spoke of a single substance or hypostasis in God, the starting point in the 381 Council of Constantinople was three hypostases: Father, Son and Spirit. There has been much discussion in the history of dogma as to whether the transition from a one-hypostasis theology to a three-hypostasis theology is only a terminological change or—more probably (as the temporary schism in Antioch between old and new orthodox shows)—also involved an actual change in the conceptual model. At all events it is certain that we can speak of a dogma of the Trinity only after the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople."12

There is little doubt when Trinity became a Church dogma. For those willing to accept the Council of Constantinople as the basis of their faith, we wish them well, but our conviction is that Christians should be free to believe only what was taught by the Apostles.

Trinity a Recognized Stumbling Block

When the Church united with the Roman powers, it seemed certain that the conquest of the world lay before it. Rome was the leading power of the world, and the Church was able to march under two banners—Christ and Rome. It was seemingly invincible. Why did it fail? Hans Kung says:

"A main cause of the failure of Christianity seems to have lain in the inadequate foundation of the dogmas of christology and the Trinity. The Catholic theologian Hermann Stieglecker, who gives an admirable account of the theological controversies between Christians and Muslims in his book on The Doctrines of Islam, rightly regards this lack as one of the most serious causes of the collapse of Christianity, particularly in its homelands, in the Near East and North Africa. It was in fact simpler to believe in the One God and Muhammad, the Prophet after Jesus. In addition, however, there were also the lamentable internal divisions within Christianity."13

Christianity was born in the Middle East, and for the churches to have lost that whole area is most painful to them. While a few churches are now tolerated there, what hope is there in regaining what the Muslims have taken? The Trinity, which seemed a popular route to take in conquest of the world, has turned out instead to be a great impediment. That is why Hans Kung and a host of men like him are trying to break out from this "incomprehensible" Trinity concept. No matter how it is explained, no matter how it is qualified, no matter how it is propped up, its inherent weakness remains—it is unreasonable and consequently incomprehensible.

An Overview of the Controversies Concerning Christ

Let no one come away thinking that only two views of Christ have existed. The controversies were many. We quote from Christian History:14

Those Believing Jesus Was Either Divine or Human

"Docetists, e.g., Gnostics: The divine Christ would never stoop to touch flesh, which is evil. Jesus only seemed (dokeo, in Greek) human and only appeared to die, for God cannot die. Or, in other versions, "Christ" left "Jesus" before the Crucifixion.

"Apollinarians: Jesus is not equally human and divine but one person with one nature. In Jesus’ human flesh resided a divine mind and will (he didn’t have a human mind or spirit), and his divinity controlled or sanctified his humanity.

"Modalists, a.k.a. Sabellians: God’s names (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) change with his roles or ‘modes of being’ (like a chameleon). When God is the Son, he is not the Father. There is no permanent distinction between the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity, otherwise you have three gods."

Those Believing Christ May Be Special, But Not Divine

"Ebionites: For these conservative Jewish Christians, God is one, and Jesus must be understood in Old Testament categories. Jesus was merely a specially blessed prophet.

"Adoptionists, a.k.a., dynamic monarchianists: No denying Jesus was special, but what happened is this: at birth (not conception) or baptism, God ‘adopted’ the human Jesus as his special son and gave him an extra measure of divine power (dynamis, in Greek).

"Arians: The Son as Word, Logos, was created by God before time. He is not eternal or perfect like God, though he was God’s agent in creating everything else."

Those Believing Christ Has One Nature

"Monophysites, e.g., Eutychians: Jesus cannot have two natures; his divinity swallowed up his humanity ‘like a drop of wine in the sea.’

Those Believing Christ Was Two Persons

"Nestorians: If you dismiss Jesus’ humanity like that, he cannot be the Savior of humankind. Better to say he has two natures and also two persons: the divine Christ and the human Christ lived together in Jesus."

The Orthodox View: (The Majority View, Right or Wrong)

"Trinitarians: Jesus is fully human and fully divine, having two natures in one person—‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’"

Every inquirer for truth should know how widespread, divisive and confusing these controversies were before the Trinitarians were able to crush the opposition, taking over schools of learning much as evolutionists have done in our day. The law at work here might be likened to that of the Wild West, where the man with the fastest draw became the established authority. History records that the Church "was racked by feuding, recriminations, and downright treachery. . . . Bishops turned against one another, often mounting intricate intrigues to promote their theological viewpoints. To win the day, or just to survive, churchmen needed both a theologian’s wisdom and a politician’s savvy."15

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and called a saint by his followers, is an outstanding example of a Trinitarian leader noted for his strong stand against Arianism. But consider the kind of man he was—ruthlessly and tenaciously opposing Arius, the kindly, intelligent and popular presbyter in Alexandria, who courageously defended the early Church view of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. Athanasius, in contrast, staunchly upheld the Nicene Creed, "was incapable of compromise, and believed that anyone who disagreed with him was not only wrong but also evil." He was harsh and acrimonious in manner and was known for being "autocratic in his dealings with dissenters in his church." He was variously accused of employing black magic, attempting to levy improper taxes for priestly vestures, and even of rape and murder. Called before a full ecclesiastical council at Tyre in 335, just ten years after Nicea, he was deposed as bishop and thereafter was exiled no less than five times. Yet, despite all this, he is considered one of the Fathers of the Church—solely because of upholding the "faith of Nicea."16

It is also common knowledge that the victor in the kind of strife that occurred here is the one who controls the history of the period. The evidence for the opposing view is methodically squelched or distorted. In this instance, an effort was made to give the impression that Trinity was the accepted Christian belief from the very beginning of the Church, rather than the labored product of centuries of theological squabble and fusion with pagan beliefs.

In retrospect, it seems odd that the one view which seems least understandable, and the least logical, would be the one that claims orthodoxy today. And yet we must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by what the Apostle Paul termed "the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge [Greek, GNOSIS], for by professing it, some have missed the mark as regards the faith" (1 Tim. 6:20, 21, RSV). What a hollow victory for Trinity to have carried the day with such an incomprehensible and mysterious teaching.

Finally, when we turn to artwork, we find that artists created other heresies when they tried to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. Medieval art depicted God with three faces and one body, which really is modalism, which denies differences between the Father, Son and holy Spirit. Another medieval Hungarian portrait showed God on a throne with the holy Spirit as a dove resting upon Jesus, who is portrayed as a man. This shows God as three separate beings. Alas, nothing seems able to describe this mystery adequately, even in artwork! Yet Jesus confidently taught us, "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11). And the Apostle Paul said, "We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory; which none of the princes of this world knew . . . but God hath revealed . . . unto us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:7-10).