Of course, the church didn't understand gnosis this way, as for them it meant ones "knowledge" of God. Thus because gospels attributed to Thomas, Philip, and Mary Magdalene taught the "false" knowledge of God, they need not be read. With the charge of being false gospels, it is natural to just say these were then latter gospels.
So in a sense, this is how the name "Gnostic Gospels" came to be; it was because these Christians appreciated them. And because these gospels contained elements of the Gnostic myths, it was convenient for the church to dismiss them as "Gnostic" mythical gospels. Yet now that we know these gospels contained expressions of faith beyond these myths, it can be argued a better name would have been "other" early gospels and writings (actually, there are only a few gospels and many more writings in the collection known as the Gnostic Gospels).
Nevertheless, labeling one's enemy has been helpful in vilifying those we oppose, and in this case, calling all the books "Gnostic," was quite effective. In essence, the church shut the door on truth by limiting Jesus' message to only what they believed, and then by doing so, the way of knowing Jesus and God as one knows a friend (as can be discovered in these gospels) got covered up.
Yet this is what the church wanted people to believe about the Gnostics because it made it appear that they, as opposed to the wisdom of the church, were those who just "thought" they "knew" the "secrets" of the divine and the cosmos. Now it is clear from these gospels that this was an effective tool to slander them as heretical "know--it --alls," and it worked well; it also becomes clear now from these gospels -- they did not!
In no way do these gospels (or the Gnostics) have all the answers. In fact, these gospels, which supplement, not supplant, the biblical gospels, are for the most part inferior to them, but they are powerful in the sense that they unlock that faith is limited to those who tell us that which we must believe -- or else! Rather, they recapture what some of us believe reflects the deeper message of Jesus. Faith becomes being on a journey to seek our positive relationship (gnosis) with God through Christ and his living spirit. Interestingly, then, our spiritual life is something we experience now and is not just another world that comes only when we die. The spirit of Christ is with us now!
Christians as Seekers
As said in the introduction, these gospels encourage a more dynamic, refreshing, open-minded, spiritual, loving, and exciting way to be a Christian. A different way of faith, as some might assume from preconceptions about these gospels, doesn't mean some radical, secret, or cultic way to believe but refers to a dramatic shift in the focus of faith. This focus becomes a dynamic connection to a vital inner experience of God's spirit that Jesus says (in the Gospel of Thomas) is both "within us" and "beyond us." Christianity becomes not merely a collection of facts but an honest and open quest, as this gospel says, to "bring forth" Christ's spirit for both ourselves and the world. Together as a whole, the discovery of these new early gospels puts more emphasis on "how" we believe. The "how" is about our personal relationship with the one these gospels refer to as both the "living Jesus" and the "living Christ." They lift up the same Jesus as found in the New Testament gospels (another shock), but more than beliefs about him is building our own vital, spiritual relationship with him. Thus gnosis meant our knowing Christ -- as one knows a friend! This makes a huge and positive difference.
A Call to Refocus Faith by being Seekers
The Gnostic Gospels were unexpectedly discovered in Egypt in 1945. To be clear, their discovery was two years before that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which absolutely contained no gospels. Yet they are often confused with the Scrolls, and many Christians don't realize their separate importance. This was a different discovery in Egypt, and it contained news that many Christians didn't want to hear -- there were other early gospels! After all, the tradition told us there were only four. So even if there were other gospels what difference does this make for Christianity?
This is what changes. Until the discovery of other early gospels, the way to be Christian was simply "to believe." This Orthodox or Fundamentalist interpretation of Christ made Christianity another religion -- to oppose others. "Believe in Christ as we do or go to hell." "The only way to know God is limited to our chosen books." "Obey and believe the beliefs and rules of our church -- and its God given authority." In doing so, you would receive the gift of salvation. This was the orthodox message from Jesus -- to be a "believer."
In contrast, and in summary:
The Gnostics were "seekers." It was far more important to seek God through all kinds of knowledge rather than "just believe." They were believers in Christ, but they heard a different message from Jesus. They had beliefs, as we all do, but they did not insist they had the corner on -- or final -- truth in interpreting the world or God. Christ's message was more spiritual than religious -- not bearing all the answers.
The place to find God was within oneself, not in externals like beliefs, dogma, or dictates of the church. Their interpretation was that we could experience the living Christ and God, by seeking, not finalizing God. Your faith is not what you believe about Christ but your relationship with him and this relationship affected your positive relationship with yourself and others. As faith is a two way relationship, it is also essential to know yourself and be touched by what the Gospel of Philip calls the transforming power of "love and light." Seeking God and this relationship, because of Christ and his messages, both in his words and in his actions from the cross (which they interestingly called a living book), was the true act of faith. That is the Gnostic style and spirit found in the exciting materials often called, the Gnostic Gospels!
Although not the only reason scholars refute this, here is the clinger. Early bishops and church fathers refer to these gospels and mention some of them by name in their writings! Some have been carbon dated as being early gospels as well. Thus most believe they would have been read alongside the biblical gospels. With the discovery of these written gospels, the evidence becomes that one hundred years after the life of Jesus, those in power in the church decided for Jesus (and us) that these gospels were worthless. And those who read them were "Gnostics" because their gnosis was erroneous.
This is what is quite surprising in these books. As noted earlier, no block of "secret knowledge" is found in these gospels! To comment further, the secret seems to be that we can know the living Christ in different ways and not just the way dictated by the church. To be fair, it is true that some of the books, but not all, are titled secret, e.g., the "Secret Gospel of Thomas." Yet no one is for sure why they are called "secret." They may have been described such because they were deemed "forbidden" writings. Some put them as "advanced" or special teachings akin to when Jesus in the Bible (in Matthew and Mark) draws some disciples away and gives them special or yes --secret -- teachings.
Thus it is quite common today to associate the word gnosis as meaning some kind of secret wisdom or some very deep specific spiritual insights, as they do stress the spiritual over the religious. Yet what is really stressed is that faith is "Beyond Belief" -- the title of one of Elaine Pagels' books. Thus some might hope (and even try to teach) that these books can tell us the "secrets" of what is beyond belief. (Wouldn't we all like to have to those secrets to claim and sell --God forbid!). Yet to the disdain of those who believe gnosis means secret knowledge, these gospels do not tell us what these insights or wisdom might be.
And if that wasn't enough, the church quite successfully taught that their gnosis was "secret knowledge." Of course, this made them to be like a cult, or those who were better than others (as if the church did not make this claim), or those who claimed to know the deep, dark secrets of God that only a few knew.