While not a complete list of early church heresies, these groups are the ones that the New Testament authors seem to write against and respond to most often.
Below is a simplified, summary of their beliefs compiled from The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Letters of John by John R.W. Stott, The Early Church by Henry Chadwick, and New Testament History by F.F. Bruce and some online resources.
Gnosticism is a term applied to many different late 1st Century & 2nd Century groups who called themselves Christian but deviated from apostolic Christianity. Gnostics began around 80 AD and flourished into the second century. All the forms of Gnosticism were dominated by a concern for knowledge.
Authority: Gnostics paid lip-service to the same authority as mainstream Christianity: Jesus & the apostles. But they claimed only they had secret, reliable knowledge which was conveyed by the apostles from Jesus but that other Christians lacked.
Salvation: Gnostics thought evil was a matter of ignorance and distortion. They thought salvation was not a matter of forgiveness, but rather a matter of overcoming defilement through knowledge and enlightenment.
Sin: Gnostics believed that the spirit was good and the physical was evil. They sought to release the spirit from the evil body through knowledge. The “elect” contained a “divine spark” within them that allowed this release. This idea led to 3 views:
- Sin does not influence our behavior. We can control sin through asceticism (fasting, celibacy, abstinence, etc.) and rigid control over our bodies or even physical abuse.
- Sin does not exist in our spirit. Sin is only in our physical bodies. Once we have the right knowledge, it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies. Therefore, all forms of sexual immorality, and self-indulgence are permissible.
- Sin does not affect our relationship with God. Since only the body is evil and God would never stoop so low as to have anything to do with anything material, sin in our body is irrelevant to our relationship with God.
Incarnation: Gnostics believed Jesus was not really a man. Because the body was evil, God could not inhabit something evil and He certainly could not suffer pain or die.
Other Believers: Gnostics believed they possessed “superior knowledge” and a “divine spark” which other Christians lacked. Thus, as the self-proclaimed “spiritual aristocracy,” they despised other Christians.
Docetism claimed that Jesus was not both man and God. One form held that the incarnation only “seemed” real. Another form held that Jesus only “seemed” human. Another form that because God has no emotions, Jesus was not God.
Marcion rejected the authority of the Old Testament, because he had a profound reverence for the teaching of the Apostle Paul.
Dictionaries & Encyclopedias
- Gnosticism – Holman Bible Dictionary
- Gnosticism – Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible
- Gnosticism – Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
- Gnosticism – International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- What is Docetism? – Zondervan Academic
- Early Church Heresies from ChurchHistory101