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PART II.

lost in the world. They also foretold the approach- CENT. 1. ing defeat of the evil principle, to whom they attributed the creation of this globe, and declared, in the most pompous terms, the destruction of his associates, and the ruin of his empire. An opinion has prevailed, derived from the authority of Clemens the Alexandrian, that the first rise of the gnostic sect is to be dated after the death of the apostles, and placed under the reign of the emperor Adrian; and it is also alleged that, before this time, the church enjoyed a perfect tranquillity, undisturbed by dissensions or sects of any kind. But the smallest degree of attention to the language of the holy scriptures, not to mention the authority of other ancient records, will prevent our adopting this groundless notion. For, from several passages of the sacred writings, it evidently appears that, even in the first century, the general meeting of christians was deserted, and separate assemblies formed in several places, by persons infected with the gnostic heresy; though, at the same time, it must be acknowledged, that this pernicious sect was not conspicuous, either for its number or its reputation, before the time of Adrian. It is prop. er just to observe here, that under the general appellation of gnostics are comprehended all those who, in the first ages of Christianity, corrupted the doctrine of the gospel by a profane mixture of the tenets of the oriental philosophy, concerning the origin of evil and the creation of the world, with its divine truths.

sprung from

the oriental

IV. It was from this oriental philosophy, of which the leading principles have been already mention- philosophy; ed, that the christian gnostics derived their origin. If it was one of the chief tenets of this philosophy, that rational souls were imprisoned in corrupt matter, contrary to the will of the Supreme Deity;

1 John ii, 18. 1 Tim. vi. 20. Col. ii. 8.

II.

CENT. I. there were, however, in this same system, other PART 11. doctrines which promised a deliverance from this deplorable state of servitude and darkness. The oriental sages expected the arrival of an extraordi nary messenger of the Most High upon earth; a messenger invested with a divine authority, endowed with the most eminent sanctity and wisdom, and peculiarly appointed to enlighten, with the knowledge of the Supreme Being, the darkened minds of miserable mortals, and to deliver them from the chains of the tyrants and usurpers of this world. When, therefore, some of these philosophers perceived that Christ and his followers wrought miracles of the most amazing kind, and also of the most salutary nature to mankind, they were easily induced to believe that he was the great messenger expected from above, to deliver men from the power of the malignant genii, or spirits, to which, according to their doctrine, the world was subjected, and to free their souls from the dominion of corrupt matter. This supposition once admitted, they interpreted, or rather corrupted, all the precepts and doctrines of Christ and his apostles, in such a manner, as to reconcile them with their own pernicious tenets.

occasions many pernicious

v. From the false principle above mentioned errors concer- arose, as it was but natural to expect, a multitude tures and oth of sentiments and notions most remote from the

scrip

er matters.

tenor of the gospel doctrines, and the nature of its precepts. The gnostic doctrine, concerning the creation of the world by one or more inferior beings of an evil, or at least of an imperfect nature, led that sect to deny the divine authority of the books of the Old Testament, whose accounts of the origin of things so palpably contradicted this idle fiction. Through a frantic aversion to these sacred books, they lavished their encomiums upon the serpent, the first author of sin, and held in veneration some of the most impious and profligate persons, of whom mention is made in sacred history.

PART II.

The pernicious influence of their fundamental prin- CENT.L. ciple carried them to all sorts of extravagance, filled them with an abhorrence of Moses and the religion he taught, and made them assert that, in imposing such a system of disagreeable and severe laws upon the Jews, he was only actuated by the malignant author of this world, who consulted his own glory and authority, and not the real advantage of men. Their persuasion that evil resided in matter, as its centre and source, prevented their treating the body with that regard that is due to it, rendered them unfavourable to wedlock, as the means by which corporeal beings are multiplied, and led them to reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and its future reunion with the immortal spirit. Their notion, that malevolent genii presided in nature, and that from them proceeded all diseases and calamities, wars and desolations, induced them to apply themselves to the study of magic, to weaken the powers, or suspend the influences, of these malignant agents. I omit the mention of several other extravagances in their system, the enumeration of which would be incompatible with the character of a compendious history.

ions concern

VI. The notions of this sect concerning Jesus Their opin Christ were impious and extravagant. For, though ing Christ they considered him as the Son of the Supreme God sent from the pleroma, or habitation of the Everlasting Father, for the happiness of miserable mortals; yet they entertained unworthy ideas both of his person and offices. They denied his deity, looking upon him as the Son of God, and consequently inferior to the Father; and they rejected his humanity, upon the supposition that every thing concrete and corporeal is in itself essentially and intrinsically evil. From hence the greatest part of the gnostics denied that Christ was clothed with a real body, or that he suffered really, for the sake of mankind, the pains and sorrows which he is

CENT.I said to have sustained, in the sacred history. They

Their moral

doctrines.

maintained that he came to mortals with no other view, than to deprive the tyrants of this world of their influence upon virtuous and heaven born souls, and, destroying the empire of these wicked spirits, to teach mankind how they might separate the divine mind from the impure body, and render the former worthy of being united to the Father of Spirits.

VII. Their doctrine relating to morals and practice was of two kinds, and those extremely different from each other. The greatest part of this sect adopted rules of life that were full of austerity, recommended a strict and rigorous abstinence, and prescribed the most severe bodily mortifications, from a notion that they had a happy influence in purifying and enlarging the mind, and in disposing it for the contemplation of celestial things. As they looked upon it to be the unhappiness of the soul to have been associated, at all, to a malignant, terrestrial body; so they imagined, that the more that body was extenuated, the less it would corrupt and degrade the mind, or divert it from pursuits of a spiritual and divine nature; all the gnostics, however, were not so severe in their moral discipline. Some maintained that there was no moral difference in human actions; and thus, confounding right with wrong, they gave a loose rein to all the passions, and asserted the innocence of following blindly all their motions, and of living by their tumultuous dictates. There is nothing surprising or unaccountable in this difference between the gnostic moralists. For, when we examine the matter with attention, we shall find that the same doctrine may very naturally have given rise to these opposite sentiments. As they all in general considered the body as the centre and

+ See Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromatum, lib. iii. cap. v. p. 529, edit. Potter.

source of evil, those of that sect, who were of a morose and austere disposition, would be hence naturally led to mortify and combat the body as the enemy of the soul; and those who were of a voluptuous turn, might also consider the actions of the body, as having no relation, either of congruity or incongruity, to the state of a soul in communion with God.

CENT. L

PART 11.

trines were

VIII. Such extraordinary doctrines had certainly How their de need of an undoubted authority to support them; supported. and as this authority was not to be found in the writings of the evangelists or apostles, recourse was had to fables and stratagems. When the gnostics were challenged to produce the sources from whence they had drawn such strange tenets, and an authority proper to justify the confidence with which they taught them; some referred to fictitious writings of Abraham, Zoroaster, Christ, and his apostles; others boasted of their having drawn these opinions from certain secret doctrines of Christ, which were not exposed to vulgar eyes; others affirmed, that they had arrived at these sublime degrees of wisdom by an innate force and vigour of mind; and others asserted, that they were instructed in these mysterious parts of theological science by Theudas, a disciple of St. Paul, and by Matthias, one of the friends of our Lord. As to those among the gnostics, who did not utterly reject the books of the New Testament, it is proper to observe, that they not only interpreted those sacred books most absurdly, by neglecting the true spirit of the words and the intention of the writers, but also corrupted them, in the most perfidious manner, by curtailing and adding, in order to remove what was unfavourable, or to produce something conformable to their pernicious and extravagant system.

IX. It has been already observed, that the gnos-Whence the tics were divided in their opinions before they em- mong this sect.

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