The Gnostics were seekers, open to new knowledge, not fixated on the past but trusted the "living Christ."
The Gnostic scriptures are so important because they reveal that many early Christians believed Christ's intent was different from what became "Christianity." Christ did not preach a set of beliefs. Gnostics did not believe his intent was to establish a Church, led only by males that could dictate rules for faith and morality. His intent was not to establish Christianity as a political power to condemn others or to become a state religion. Yet that is exactly what happened. The early Orthodox Church, which was blessed by Constantine, literally set forth and defined Christianity as believing doctrines that their Church said were the only true teachings of Jesus and his Apostles. Christianity was established as a belief system, and the earnest battle over the right to true beliefs began.
Lost in the midst of many emotional struggles over beliefs was a different way to be Christian than claiming that there was only one true way to be Christian. Certainly, the Gnostics had beliefs but theirs were open to change and not final answers. Beliefs were open to debate, but more importantly faith was a seeking for truth, not declaring it blindly or arrogantly. More than claiming truth by some self- proclaimed authority, faith was open process of seeking always an honest and open relationship with God through Christ. The Gnostics saw Christ's message more as a spiritual journey. And even though Christianity was established differently from what they hoped, the discovery of their Gospels and writings have the power, not to totally change, but to elevate a different approach on how we are Christian.
Gnostic Christianity emphasized one's experience and personal connection to Christ through what they called "gnosis." The experience of gnosis could range from what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road -- to ones receiving enlightenment. Thankfully, the word "gnosis" wasn't given a precise meaning but obviously meant something more like insight or spiritual illumination rather than knowledge as just "fact" or a "set of beliefs." Those now known as Gnostics (not named that until later in history) were not a church but more what we might call a theological perspective. They did have a few leaders, both male and female, and had various and diverse theologies. They did have some unusual beliefs. They didn't always agree with each other in their beliefs, but this did not present a crisis or make their faith false as the bishops claimed it did. (You will not agree with everything or believe all they said as well; they might even say this makes you a better Christian!)
Some leaders did write both gospels and tracts that shared their Christian vision. Some of their gospels contain the same sayings of the New Testament, but additional words and stories of Jesus stress the inward experience over belief. Some Gnostic writings went so far as to criticize items of belief like the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. They raised the importance and value of Mary Magdalene and women. Christ's intent was more spiritual than doctrinaire or ecclesiastical. Christianity was more about seeking a relationship with Christ than "either you believe or you don't." But as the Emperor Constantine stepped into Christianity for political reasons, the Gnostic approach to Christianity was easily suppressed. Perhaps it is natural that we all might wish that everyone believes "as we do," or hope as Constantine that Christianity would be one voice. It is a fact that is what the early apostolic church wanted, but also clearly Constantine.
In contrast to the Gnostics, the early church, or what Bart Ehrman calls the proto-orthodox (orthodox means 'right' or 'correct'), believed their church had the authority and wisdom to declare, even in written decree, that all Christians should believe as they did. Constantine agreed with them. If Christians "believed" the same, Constantine said it would bring "harmony" to the church and Empire. Therefore, the Bishops (and Constantine who financed the event) met in a village named Nicaea.
The Nicene Creed became the official doctrine that was to define "Christianity." The vote was unanimous; well, that was because Constantine exiled those who dissented! (Read Constantine's Sword.) Constantine ordered "heretics" and "schismatics" to surrender their church's properties to what was beginning to be called the catholic or universal church. Even though some have estimated nearly half of Christians were Gnostic or heretical in their thinking, Orthodox Bishops (all male) and Constantine were able to tell the world exactly what the correct interpretation of Christ was. Constantine, a crafty and warring politician, was able to declare "officially" that those who agreed with him and his Bishops were the true Christians. And, amazingly, understanding himself as the "vice regent of God," he and the Bishops were able to silence others like the Gnostics who saw the meaning and purpose of Christ differently.
Constantine's Council did help Christianity to become the state religion, and by the official Creed to be one voice -- that is until major -- but little-known controversies would split the Eastern hemisphere and Western hemisphere Churches. The story of these controversies after the Council probably provides some substance that there will always be divisions in Christianity -- even Constantine switches his stance before his death bed conversion! Yet temporarily gaining state and ecclesiastical power, the patriarchal Christian Church of Constantine was able to judge for Christ and God who was and wasn't a true Christian on the basis of what one "believed." This Council, nonetheless, became a watershed event for those who believed differently, and so the "war cry" for those who might interpret Jesus in another was resounded again: "YOU ARE HERETICS." Whoops! Be Yee Careful
Traditional Christianity in time will be challenged to change some of its dictates with the discovery of the 52 Gnostic writings. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson, was first published in 1977, but it was not widely accessible to the general public until 1990 (a reason many have not heard of them). It includes all the Gnostic scriptures in English. These books found in Egypt in 1945, two years before the discovery of the The Dead Sea Scrolls, are far more important for Christianity. More than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which most likely were writings of the Jewish sect, the Essenes, the Gnostic Scriptures raise important challenges to traditional Christian belief. Three of these challenges relate to the Orthodox teachings on Theology, the Bible, and the Church.
Theologically, for example, can you honestly say you totally believe every article of the Apostles' Creed? This document, or tool for authority, was not written by the Twelve Disciples or Apostles, nor was it essential for the Gnostics. They were not obsessed with believing in hell, the virgin birth, or bodily resurrection. Most Gnostics did not believe such. The Orthodox, much like today's Fundamentalists, said you believe these doctrines or go to hell! The 52 Gnostic texts (actually 46 as some are duplicates) certainly vary in detail. Yet, they support those who question theological articles in both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, who also question that God's divinity was limited only to Christ, and those who ask whether "right belief" is the simple ticket to heaven. According to the Orthodox, the theological "truths" and "creeds" as established by the Bishops, should not be questioned. Indeed, correct belief was the ticket to heaven.
Regarding the Bible, the Orthodox, having assumed their new power, were able to determine basically which books and writings were to be known as the New Testament Canon. Because the "other" gospels did not comply with their theology, the Gnostic Gospels were excluded. Certainly, all the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi had some different perspectives, and thus they were determined not worthy of "holy" inclusion. That they were ordered destroyed is shocking and almost unbelievable. But such an action shows how unfairly Christianity, as we know it, was established. Only the chosen books of the Canon held the "truth." But that is not all!
The authority of the Church, questioned by the Gnostics, was the real threat! Indeed, because the Gnostics read other gospels that presented a Jesus whose mission was more than establishing one true Church, their writings needed to be destroyed! Also, it was clear that the Gnostics definitely believed women should be be clergy. That did not sit well with the Orthodox theologians who would argue Jesus chose all males as his disciples. In contrast, the Gnostic Gospels shockingly uplift the discipleship of Mary Magdalene, and certainly not being the prostitute that Jesus spoke to (as the church once charged), but as the closest and most trusted apostle and disciple of Jesus. Things can change. She is now a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
However, the real problem with the Gnostics is that they did not give absolute trust to the "learned" clergy" and did not accept blindly what they said! So to protect their truth and their church, the Orthodox began a long tradition of condemning any who raised questions of their authoritarian beliefs, as also being -- "heretics." Many know of the most famous one who actually helped the truth of the world and Christianity.