The incarnation, the belief that God became a physical, human man in the person of Jesus Christ, is a central doctrine of Christianity. Christians affirmed it in the earliest creeds and councils and it permeates today's denominations. Yet some early Christian groups held other beliefs about God and about Christ. Such is the case with Gnosticism, which had a very different take on the idea of incarnation.
Gnosticism is marked by a dualism between spirit and material. It borrows this dualism from Platonism, taking the idea to its ultimate extreme. For Gnostics, flesh itself is evil and prevents the spirit from connecting with God entirely. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation says that God became flesh, which is an obvious problem for Gnosticism. Different Gnostic groups tried to solve this problems in different ways, primarily by altering their view of Christ's nature.
The Nature of Christ
If God must by nature be purely spiritual, there can be no incarnation. That leaves Gnostics with the problem of Jesus. Instead of believing Jesus was God in the flesh as taught by the church, different Gnostic groups offered different solutions. One group, for example, suggested that Christ's suffering and death only appeared to be happening, and didn't actually happen to Christ's spiritual reality. Another Gnostic option is found in the Gospel of Thomas, which describes Jesus simply as a teacher of wisdom rather than God in the flesh. Yet another strain found in the Gospel of Truth looks at symbolic themes from the life of Christ, rather than attempting a narrative.
For Gnostics, God is pure spirit and entirely separated from the material world. God doesn't interact with the material world, because it is inherently imperfect. Instead, God sends various emanations or "Æons" to humanity. These Æons take the form of secrete spiritual knowledge. This knowledge isn't content-based or intellectual, but rather a spiritual knowledge that can only be described, not explained. For some Gnostics, Jesus Christ was one of many Æons. The gospel, then, becomes a process whereby an individual connects with the Christ Æon.
By the time Christianity reached the end of the second century, the doctrine of Christ, or "Christology," was being hotly debated. The church was struggling to come to grips with the idea of the incarnation, and of the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. The doctrine of the trinity was first being articulated at this time, as well. Gnostic Christians likely considered themselves as orthodox as the next believer. As time went on and theologians like Irenaeus put forth doctrines that would eventually be accepted by the church councils, Gnosticism came to be viewed as heretical. At the core of the Gnostic problem was the incarnation. Could Gnostics have accepted the church's ideas on God becoming material flesh, it's possible the group could have survived much longer.
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