November 6, 2021

What is Gnosticism?

by Interfaith

I have seen a few different definitions of Gnosticism. Some define Gnosticism as a continuous movement, treating sects like the Sethians and Valentinians as schools of thought within it. Others view Gnosticism as a distinct school of thought, which some sects included in a way a sect might include Docetism or Trinitarianism. Still, I have seen others define Gnosticism by example, as an umbrella term for a variety of sects. There is also a select niche of scholars who argue that Gnosticism is a modern construct, and not something that existed before the 17th century.

There are a few edge cases. Marcionism, Catharism, Manichaeism, and Swedenborgianism are four schools of thought that I see consistent disagreement on whether they count as Gnostic or not. Discussions on each of these might warrant their own threads and help us narrow our own definitions.

I have seen two major listings of what beliefs group Gnostic sects together in general terms. The first is a short list:

  • Dualistic cosmology (spirit vs matter)
  • Dualistic theology (Monad vs Demiurge)
  • Salvation through Gnosis

The second is a longer list, which I have taken from GnosisForAll:

  • A belief in hidden salvific knowledge, and in personal experiental revelation of the divine – gnosis.
  • A pronounced spirit/matter duality with a negative view of the latter. In most Gnostic traditions this duality was produced by a divine mistake or catastrophe that resulted in both the genesis of the material world and its imperfect nature (see the fall of Sophia and other such accounts).
  • A ‘Demiurgic’ figure(s) responsible for shaping the material cosmos – who is not only seperate from the highest transcendent God (the Monad), but in fact quite far removed from such.
  • An emanationist scheme of divine beings (Aeons) that stretches from the highest unknowable God at the very top, down to the material world.
  • A belief in a Saviour/revealer figure(s), who has descended down from the Pleroma (the divine, spiritual world above) in order to help free humanity and teach salvific gnosis.
  • A belief in a ‘divine spark’ (Pneuma) carried within us all. A piece of the divine sundered from its source, which in station is exalted far above the material world in which it finds itself, and which longs to escape the cycle of incarnation in order to return to its home in the Pleroma above. As such, to the ancient Gnostics, knowledge of God and knowledge of the self were but one and the same.

How do you feel about these definitions? Do you see Gnosticism as a meaningful label? Is it its own doctrine, a broader movement, or a group of related sects? What beliefs do you see as defining Gnosticism?

I personally see Gnosticism as its own doctrine and see the short list as defining the bare minimum beliefs. Do you think I’m being too strict? Not strict enough? Do you have your own criteria? Let the forum know in a reply! This is a divisive topic, so it’s good to get a variety of opinions out there.


(Discussion in ‘Esoteric‘ started by¬†Ella S. 2/10/2021)

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