Controversy over the incarnation didn’t take long to make its way into the early church. It is generally assumed a considerable part of the problem had its roots in popular dualistic philosophy, which played the spirit against the flesh. While it is biblical to say we have souls that survive the death of our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:8), it is wrong to think our bodies are inherently evil, or that the divine nature of God could not live in flesh without being corrupted in some way.
My grandmother was from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and when something seemed to go against common decency she would say, “That’s just ugly!” Had some of these ancient philosophers, such as the Gnostics, been from my grandmother’s hometown, I believe they would have used this phrase to describe the incarnation: “That’s just ugly!”
Who were the Gnostics? The name Gnostic is from the Greek word “gnosis”, meaning knowledge. Gnostics believed they had special insight into all things divine, which included the conviction the earth could not have been created by God. How could God be responsible for something so flawed and temporal? Instead, creation must have been accomplished through the existence of a “demiurge” who acted as an intermediary between God and the physical world. Many Gnostics carried this logic to its natural conclusion in denying the divinity of Jesus. Since it was crude to think a holy God could inhabit a human body, they believed Jesus was a created being who became divine by attaining knowledge, which He, in turn, shared with the other disciples.
There are many nuances in Gnostic philosophy which are important, but perhaps not as important as its basic threat to the church: Gnostic philosophy, and other forms of dualistic thinking, rendered the incarnation quite impossible, if not “ugly” in every way. It is obvious this line of thinking was present in the early church. Just how much it emerged within the church, or trickled into the church from outside influences is something scholars continue to debate. The doctrines and adherents of Gnostic thinking were “all over the map” as they say, meaning it could be found in a variety of forms. But an attack on the divinity of Jesus seems to be a common thread in its influence, and one that biblical writers attempted to counter with some regularity.
The Apostle John begins his first letter with a clear picture of the disciples’ personal interaction with Jesus. He writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (1 John 1:1). It is easy to see here that John wants his readers to know God walked on the earth in human flesh. The Apostle Paul reminded the Colossians God was pleased to have “all his fullness” dwell in Jesus (Colossians 1:19). He also said the mystery surrounding the gospel had already been revealed, in that Gentiles were intended to be a part of God’s kingdom all along (Colossians 1:256-27). If we take time to read the entire book of Colossians with the assumption Paul is addressing a Gnostic heresy in the church, we notice numerous affirmations of the deity of Jesus and His place as the incarnation of God Himself (Colossians 2:8-10).
We could spend much more time discussing Gnosticism or other philosophies that sought to degrade the notion of the incarnation. More important to our purposes here, however, is to recognize its presence in the church, and to consider how people might have used it to as a tool of rebellion.