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Simon Magus

The best way of getting a grip of the murky world of heresies is to start with the first encounter with a heretic by the apostles in the Book of Acts.

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, "This man is the divine power known as the Great Power." They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. (Acts 8:9-11)

This man, popularly known as Simon Magus, belonged to that nefarious group that, according to the Old Testament, provoked the Lord to anger. He was a sorcerer, he dabbled in the black arts and didn't mind who knew. He was a Jew in open rebellion with his maker, with many followers. Even worse, he claimed to be the Great Power, rivalling God Himself. He was treading on dangerous ground.

But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. (Acts 8:12-13)

Simon became a believer and was baptised. So, end of story? Not quite. Was there something suspicious about this interest in signs and wonders? Could there have been a selfish motive? Moving on in the story, to verse 18, we read:

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:18-19)

He had nailed his colours to the mast! His was no conversion as a response to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His was just a lucrative career move. The "Great Power" had witnessed a greater power and wanted it and was willing to pay for it.

Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin." (Acts 8:20-23)

Suffice to say, Simon did not get his wish and we are not told what happened next.

I earlier called Simon Magus the first heretic. Why? A heretic is someone who rejects or corrupts established doctrines. We can assume that Simon was familiar with basic doctrine, we are told he believed and was baptised. Yet it was clear that, as the so-called "Great Power", his interest was as a collector of powers, seeking to add the Holy Spirit to his menagerie of demons, by whom he was carrying out his sorcery. His heresy probably followed on from this episode, promoting teachings combining Christian belief with all the other nonsense he had already picked up on the way. More specifically, Simon Magus became known as not just the first heretic, but the first Gnostic heretic. So Gnosticism, the daddy of all heresies, is where we go to first.

Gnosticism is the result of thinking like a Greek and then re-moulding Christianity accordingly. This is implied by the name itself, gnosis being the Greek word for "knowledge". Gnostics through history have been puffed-up individuals, just like Simon Magus, who have boasted "secret knowledge", who consider themselves as special superior beings who, through these divine secrets have ascended to a higher level than mere mortals. The problem comes when others also believe that there is value in following these deluded individuals. We will read more of this later on.

Just like Marcionism already mentioned, Gnosticism was borne from the dualism of Plato. Remember Plato's major statement: the spiritual world is good, the material, physical world is bad. Because of this, Gnostics (as with Marcion) believe that the material world was created by a "lesser god" and that Jesus, the "greater god" taught secret knowledge to the "spiritual elite". Gnostics have always been great scribblers and a lot of their early writings have been found, which is a shame!

These were the type of people faced by Justin Martyr, or Justin Apologist, who wrote a series of letters, the apologies, to fight these ideas. Yet he wasn't the "main man" of the early Church; the greatest apologist of that period was Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp. More of him next week ...

Steve Maltz
August 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)

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