Hermeneutics of the Gnostics
1. Rejection of Sola Scriptura
Tertullian points to the inability of the heretics to support their controversial views using the principle of Sola Scriptura.
Tertullian (c. 160-220) :
Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground. For that which commends men’s common sense is its very simplicity, and its participation in the same feelings, and its community of opinions; and it is deemed to be all the more trustworthy, inasmuch as its definitive statements are naked and open, and known to all.ANF: Vol. III, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter III.
The same is true today. What Roman apologist seriously thinks he can prove the immaculate conception or bodily assumption of Mary from Scripture? And only slightly more will fantasize that they can prove the infallibility of the bishop of Rome from Scripture. Like the errors of the Gnostics, the errors of the Romans are unable to be supported from Scripture alone.
2. Tradition Mandatory
Irenaeus in "Against Heresies," Book IV, Chapter 2, explains that the Gnostics that he was dealing with opposed the perspicuity of Scriptures, opposed the self-interpreting nature of Scripture, and insisted that tradition is mandatory in order to be able to understand them. Irenaeus writes:
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.(Against Heresies, 4:2:1)
Interestingly, on this point, the hermeneutics of the Gnostics is like that of Mr. Hoffer's church, not like that of "Protestantism." Mr. Hoffer's church, Rome, when confronted with the Scriptures does not say dare to say that Scriptures are not correct, and while Rome does not give them the proper level of authority, Rome does not altogether deny their authority. Rome does, however, assert that the Scriptures are ambiguous and that tradition is necessary in order to properly understand Scriptures.
Hopefully it is obvious that "Protestantism" (in general) does not accuse the Scriptures in ways like the Gnostics do. So, on this point, the Gnostic approach is closer to that of Rome than that of the Reformation.
To summarize: enscripturated revelation maintains that it is accessible and sufficiently clear for every person to understand. True, it links comprehensive understanding and existential transformation to the gift of the Holy Spirit. But philological understanding and the essential content lie open to every person. The Christian community itself requires no special class of people “in the know” who alone are competent to open up Scripture’s meaning to the rest. Therefore, we abide by the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture in the double sense alluded to above.Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 183.
The protest against the perspicuity of Scripture has traditionally come from three quarters: from Gnosticism, from the champions of the Catholic teaching office, and from historical-critical theologians.
3. Even Tradition and Scriptures Insufficient
Irenaeus continues by pointing out that when appeal is made to tradition from the apostles and Jesus himself, the Gnostics still claim that one needs something more:
2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.(Against Heresies, 4:2:2)
A similar thing happens when we engage Rome on the teachings of the fathers. They insist you need tradition handed down from the fathers outside of Scripture, and so we point out what the fathers actually say. But then they end up appealing to the raw authority of their own truth, as though Trent and Vatican I were wiser not only than the fathers but than the apostles as well, and that Rome alone has discovered the unadulterated truth.
The Reformed hermeneutic, by contrast, holds the Scriptures to be sufficient. Therefore, while we may study the fathers to gain the benefit of their wisdom, we do not invest them with infallibility. At the same time, however, we do not claim to have our gift of infallibility. Unlike Rome and the Gnostics, we appeal to a rule of faith that is not tied claims about ourselves. The Gnostics claim their own private revelation, whereas Rome claims to have an infallible magisterium, so there are distinctions, but those two positions are closer to one another than to Irenaeus and us.
Later in the history of the Church a need was felt to supplement Scripture by teaching from Tradition and this is the ‘supplementary view’. Gnostics adopted this position in the second century and it was the commonly held view in Roman Catholicism from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.Peter Toon, Evangelical Theology 1833-1856: A Response to Tractarianism (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), p. 138.
J. N. D. Kelly:
Not only did the Gnostics exploit Scripture to their own ends, but one of their techniques was to appeal, in support of their speculations, to an alleged secret apostolic tradition to which they claimed to have access.J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 4th edition (London: Adam & Charles Black, reprinted 1968), p. 36.
J. N. D. Kelly:
Did Irenaeus then subordinate Scripture to unwritten tradition? This inference has been commonly drawn, but it issues from a somewhat misleading antithesis. Its plausibility depends on such considerations as (a) that, in controversy with the Gnostics, tradition rather than Scripture seemed to be his final court of appeal, and (b) that he apparently relied upon tradition to establish the true exegesis of Scripture. But a careful analysis of his Adverus haereses reveals that, while the Gnostics’ appeal to their supposed secret tradition forced him to stress the superiority of the Church’s public tradition, his real defence of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture. Indeed, tradition itself, on his view, was confirmed by Scripture, which was ‘the foundation and pillar of our faith.’J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 4th edition (London: Adam & Charles Black, reprinted 1968), pp. 38-39.
Here Kelly directs the reader to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, 2:35:4, “But that I may not be thought to avoid that series of proofs which may be derived from the Scriptures of the Lord (since, indeed, these Scriptures do much more evidently and clearly proclaim this very point), I shall, for the benefit of those at least who do not bring a depraved mind to bear upon them, devote a special book to the Scriptures referred to, which shall fairly follow them out [and explain them], and I shall plainly set forth from these divine Scriptures proofs to [satisfy] all the lovers of truth.” Kelly also cites 3:5:1, where we read, “Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him.”
Augustine (354-430) commenting on John 16:12-13:
And yet all these utterly senseless heretics, who wish to be styled Christians, attempt to color the audacities of their devices, which are perfectly abhorrent to every human feeling, with the chance presented to them of that gospel sentence uttered by the Lord, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now:” as if these were the very things which the apostles could not then bear, and as if the Holy Spirit had taught them what the unclean spirit, with all the length he can carry his audacity, blushes to teach and to preach in broad daylight.NPNF1: Vol. VII, Tractates on John, Tractate XCVII, §3-4.
It is such whom the apostle foresaw through the Holy Spirit, when he said: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
4. Apostolic Succession
It is important to note that the Gnostics claimed apostolic succession. Commenting on Irenaeus' comments above, G. W. H. Lampe (the compiler of the only Patristic Greek Lexicon available today) concurs that “According to Irenaeus the Valentinians (a Gnostic sect) claimed that the truth in Scripture cannot be discovered by those who are ignorant of tradition.” Coupled with this observation, the same writer then proceeds to make the same striking connection:
G. W. H. Lampe:
In Gnosticism, therefore, we encounter for the first time the idea of unwritten tradition as an authority for doctrine. Unlike orthodox tradition, it is neither the raw material, as it were, of what is to become Scripture, nor the explication of what is contained in Scripture. It is wholly independent of Scripture and is even superior to it, since only in the light of the tradition can Scripture be understood. Doctrine and practice alike are founded upon it. It claims to be apostolic tradition, handed down in succession from the apostles. The Gnostic theory was reasonable enough, given the doctrinal principles of the movement. Having denied the historical basis of the gospel, the Gnostics seek to reinterpret it in alien terms with the aid of a spurious tradition. A similar theory of tradition, however, adopted from different motives, is by no means unknown today.Quoted from his essay in F. W. Dillistone, ed. Scripture and Tradition (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955), p. 41.
G. W. H. Lampe:
Apostolicity, guaranteed by historical succession, was, indeed, the only weapon readily available with which to meet the attack of Gnostics with their bogus claims to apostolic succession and Montanists with their new revelations of the Spirit which, if unchecked, would have sought to produce a kind of second and spurious apostolic age.Quoted from his essay in F. W. Dillistone, ed. Scripture and Tradition (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955), p. 42.
Despite the deep gulf between them in other respects, is it not true to say that the Catholic Church, Gnosticism, and ancient and modern sects which claim a superior enlightenment, are at one in denying that scripture is a superior norm for the testing of the genuine activity of the Holy Spirit? The Church will examine every later revelation, individual or collective, but will always take as criterion this norm [i.e., scripture] of the apostolic witness. The Church will therefore not be a superior tribunal able to decree what must be added to this norm.Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, trans. A. J. B. Higgins (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), p. 83.
Robert M. Grant:
The Gnostic teacher Basilides claimed that he had been instructed by a mysterious Glaucias. Papias had said that Mark had been an “interpreter” or translator for Peter; Basilides claimed that Glaucias performed the same function for the same apostle. Similarly, another Gnostic teacher named Valentius said that his own teacher had been Theodas, a disciple of Paul. Apparently Valentius had in mind the more normal tradition that it was Luke who was Paul’s disciple and, like Mark, wrote a gospel. And Valentius’ own disciple Ptolemaeus, perhaps about 160, said that his Gnostic group had received its “apostolic tradition” by “succession,” just as ordinary Christians claimed to have received theirs. In such an era of claims and counterclaims about tradition it was inevitable that more emphasis would come to be laid on the written word and on the collecting of acceptable books.See his chapter “The Creation of the Christian Tradition” in Joseph F. Kelly, ed., Perspectives on Scripture and Tradition (Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, Inc., 1976), p. 14.
Clement of Alexandria (150 - c. 215):
And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. It was later, in the times of Adrian the king, that those who invented the heresies arose; and they extended to the age of Antoninus the elder, as, for instance, Basilides, though he claims (as they boast) for his master, Glaucias, the interpreter of Peter.ANF: Vol. II, The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 17, p. 555.
Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter.
Such being the case, it is evident, from the high antiquity and perfect truth of the Church, that these later heresies, and those yet subsequent to them in time, were new inventions falsified [from the truth].
4. Extra-Scriptural Tradition
E. Flesseman-Van Leer:
For Irenaeus, the church doctrine is certainly never purely traditional; on the contrary, the thought that there could be some truth, transmitted exclusively viva voce, is a Gnostic line of thought.E. Flesseman-Van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen, 1954), pp. 133.
E. Flesseman-Van Leer:
Thus we can maintain that scripture is, for Irenaeus and Tertullian, apostolic tradition in written form. When they want to get direct access to this tradition in concrete form, they point not to the church, which is a living, intangible locus of the tradition, but to scripture in which this tradition has become as it were attainable and perceptible to every one. They appeal exclusively to scripture to substantiate their assertions in matters of faith. For they are fully convinced that as regards content, apostolic kerygma, scripture, and church tradition coincide entirely. They deny most decidedly the existence of extrascriptural tradition. To appeal exclusively to revelatory truth apart from Scripture is heretical gnosticism.E. Flesseman-Van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church, p. 191.
5. Living Voice of the Magisterium
It would not be difficult to detect in the Roman concept of the charisma veritatis a threefold Gnostic idea at work. In the first place the notion that truth is known only to the hierarchy introduces into the Church the esoteric idea of there being ‘initiates who possess the gnosis, and non-initiates who do not possess it, but can receive it from the hierarchy’. Thus the gospel notion of truth is substituted by one which seems not unconnected with Gnostic ideas.Vittorio Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism, trans. Reginald Kissack (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), pp. 130-131.
Secondly, there is the idea of the ‘living voice of the magisterium’ and the idea of truth committed by Christ directly to the apostles and passed on by word of mouth without ever being fixed in written form, constituting thus the secret key for interpreting the written traditions in the true sense intended by the Master. Here we cannot but think of that tradition so favoured by the Gnostics, that set the greatest store on that period between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, which cannot be historically verified and in which he is alleged not only to have communicated to certain favoured disciples the secret knowledge necessary for the understanding of the words he had spoken during his public ministry, but also to have given them a series of special revelation reserved for the ‘perfect’.
In the third place one might note a Gnostic, as well as Jewish, influence, in the way of interpreting the apostolic succession as a succession both of doctrine and of persons from the apostles down, a chain of transmission through history, intended to guarantee the apostolicity both of the content and the origins of the message and of its interpretation. This seems to have been a device, used by both the Gnostic and Christian sides, to counter each other’s propaganda attacks, from Irenaeus, perhaps even from Hegesippus on. This concept is closely bound up with that of oral tradition, and it is to be recalled that the most ancient document known to us in which we first find the phrases ‘apostolic tradition’ and ‘succession’ is not a document of the Church, but a Gnostic one of Valentinian tendencies, the Epistle of Ptolomy to ‘sister’ Flora.
P.S. I would also direct Mr. Hoffer's attention to the interesting comparisons provided at the linked web site.
N.B. I am indebted to Pastor David King for his assistance in identifying and transcribing the quotations provided in this post.