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7.5 Conclusions

The story of the origin of the Christian Church has been written by the winners, the Orthodox Christians. However, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents has changed the situation. At the beginning Christianity was not united but was composed of many “sects”, each of them with different doctrine, creed, and ritual. If it had remained divided it would probably have disappeared as so many other religions of the past did. If it survived in the form that we know to-day, it is mainly due to the organisation and theological structure that emerged in the so-called Orthodox Christians. The controversy between the Orthodox and the Gnostic Christians has been mainly described as a battle of ideas, as expressions or symbols of religious experience. Gnosticism and Orthodoxy were dealing with different kinds of human experience, and for this reason they appealed to different types of persons. The Gnostics believed that the answers to all our problems had to be found within us and that those who succeeded received enlightenment and identification with the divine being. This was, and had to be, a solitary path as no one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act; the Gnostic cannot accept, as final, what others say but has to discover the truth within himself.

Orthodox Christians are more concerned with their relationship with other people. The Orthodox sees himself as a member of the human family, as a member of a universal church. The way to salvation is simple because it must be accessible to all people and not to the few mature initiates or elite as the Gnostics teach. The Orthodox faith rests on absolute authority, the approved scriptures, the creed, the church ritual, and the clerical hierarchy.

It is true that Jesus’ teaching as reported in the “New Testament” could be the base of both the Orthodox and Gnostic forms of Christianity. It all depends on the interpretation chosen for Jesus ‘ words and actions. These possibilities were the source of conflicts that were settled only by the emergence of the Catholic Church through its organisation, structure and simple creed, doctrine, and ritual. The imperial support received in the fourth century was also an important factor in its successful path. Christian Gnosticism, and its lack of popular appeal, was no match for this increasingly stable and enduring Orthodox church. It finally disappeared to all effect, even if some small groups came to life again in the Middle Age, to disappear for ever with the Reformation. (14)