"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." I Timothy 3:15
Gnostic Corruption in the 4th Century
Thomas Armitage, D.D.
From the book, The History of the Baptists, 1886
It would require a volume to trace the corruption of Christianity with Platonism,
for we have this heresy in germ in the Apostolic Churches long before the Gnostics
injected it into the truth at Alexandria, as the exalters and defenders of knowledge
Paul found it creeping in at Crete, Colosse and Ephesus.
The ideas of Pythagorus had prepared its way in Crete, Ephesus was the center of
all pretentious philosophy, and Colosse was full of Phrygian pantheism entwined with
the mysteries of Pan, Cybele and Bacchus. All these were dexterously interwoven
into Christianity by Simon Magus, the real father of Christianized Gnosticism; others
fostered it, and Manes led it to full manhood by the end of the third century. Paul
saw its drift and warned Timothy against the opposition air knowledge falsely so
At first it was simple, without system or great power, never arraying itself openly
against the truth; hence, its danger lay not in the violence of its attacks, but
in its secret aggressions. Hippolytus calls it a 'hyrdra' which had been pushing
its way in the dark for many years; but no error matched it in efficiency. In his
time it had corrupted between thirty and forty sects and subsects who differed amongst
themselves, all holding principles contrary to the simple faith of Christ and putting
it under the control of Oriental paganism.
Gnosis of Alexandria is not easily defined; for it was a compound of monotheism,
materialism, pantheism and spiritualism, taken from the heart of Platonism and the
reasoning of Aristotle, with an admixture of native Egyptian thought.
It professed to be the essence of intelligence, and so won the learned by its liberal
speculations, the rationalist by its mastery of all logic, the superstitious by its
many mysteries and the ignorant by its pretense, that it explained everything. The
Greek philosophy was too narrow for its tastes, and the teachings of Jesus too practical
for its uses, so it made sad havoc of Homer's pure literature and Christ's plain
revelations. It refused to take anything in the proper and natural meaning of its
words, and its allegory distorted everything by the attempt to transfigure its simplicity.
Hippolytus says that the whole system reminded him of Thales, who, "Looking toward
heaven, alleging that he was carefully examining supernal objects, fell into a well;
and a certain maid, Thratta, remarked of him derisively that while intent on beholding
things in heaven, he did not know what was at his feet."
At the opening of the fourth century none of the Churches were entirely free from
this corrupt leaven. It affected their doctrine and practice, had created an aristocracy
in their ministry, pushed aside the letter of Scripture in sublimating its interpretation
in relation to the person of God, of Christ, good and evil, incarnation and atonement
; and had left but little in the Gospel unchanged, either in theory or experience.
Almost all the African fathers had gone after it, and it had produced swarms of
monastic orders in Greece, Gaul and Italy. Worse than this, it had destroyed the
common bond of brotherhood between the rich and poor; and because of its pomp, ceremony,
symbol, mystery and liturgical worship, it had found that favor with the nobles which
exalted Christ's religion into an awful sacredness, and well nigh made the Church
a secret society, which now cared little to up-lift the slave, the poor and the downtrodden.
This explains why Christianity took the shape that it did in its final struggle with
paganism. Having corrupted itself and become weak, the steps were easy to popular
influence, and the unity of the temporal with the spiritual power.
For forty years the law of Gallienus had recognized the Christians as a legal community.
They had become numerous and influential. In the great cities they had large and
costly temples furnished with vessels of gold and silver; their faith was much the
rising fashion; the army, the civil service, the court, were filled with Christians,
and the old Christ-likeness had nearly gone.