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The word Gnostic is formed from the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism claimed to give a particular knowledge of the mysteries of the unseen world. Greek philosophy merged into Oriental mysticism. In its early years the great danger to which Christianity was exposed arose from Gnostic Heresy by which Christian doctrines were corrupted.
“The Gnostics were a sect of philosophers that arose in the first ages of christianity, who pretended they were the only men who had a true knowledge of the christian religion. They formed for themselves a system of theology, agreeable to the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, to which they accommodated their interpretations of scripture. They held that all natures, intelligible, intellectual and material, are derived by successive emanations from the infinite fountain of deity. These emanations they called oeons. These doctrines were derived from the oriental philosophy.” (GNOS'TIC, n. nostic. [L. gnosticus; Gr. to know.] Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of The English Language)
Encyclopedia.com gives the following definition: “Gnosticism - Dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a variety of sects, all promising salvation through an occult knowledge...that they claimed was revealed to them alone. Christian ideas were quickly incorporated into these syncretistic systems, and by the 2nd cent. A.D. several posed a serious threat to Christianity; much of early Christian doctrine was formulated in reaction to this danger. Gnosticism taught that the spirit was held captive by evil archons but that through the use of secret formulas it could be freed at death and restored to the heavenly abode.” (Encyclopedia.com "Gnosticism")
The very soul of Gnosticism was mystery, and "its end and object was to purify its followers from the corruptions of matter, and to raise them to a higher scale of being", suited only to those who were to become perfect by knowledge. We have a key to many parts of their system when we know that they held matter to be intrinsically evil, of which, consequently, God could not be the author." Some believed that angels were employed in creating the world [in direct contradiction to the scriptures – “God, who created all things by Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:9)].
At the beginning of Christianity when the Gospel was first preached, the Western world was overrun with Eastern magicians and soothsayers. They claimed for their peculiar knowledge the ability to communicate with a higher world. They advanced the theory that between God and man were various grades or emanations by which we might rise to the highest knowledge.
Instead of opposing Christianity this Gnosticism took possession of it, invested it, and by this blending of the two the pure truths of the Gospel were perverted. "Its peculiar attraction lay in that it flattered the pride of man by tracing the origin of evil, not to the perverted will of the creature, but to creation, saying it was the necessary consequence of the union of matter and spirit. Then again its utter impractibility made it attractive; teaching as it did that human perfection was not attained by the following of a lowly Saviour in a narrow way, but by embracing barren speculations concerning the nature of unseen mysteries."