In the apostolic age, before the appearance of the Gnostic movement as a school (or schools), or as separate sects, the apostles dealt with false teachings similar to the Gnostic systems, as in 1 John and the pastoral epistles.
The study of Gnosticism entered a new phase, however, with the discovery of a large collection of Coptic Gnostic documents found at Nag-Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Upper-Egypt in 1945. Before this discovery all our information on the Gnostic sects and doctrines relied on anti-Gnostic writings, such as those of SS. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. This discovery has made available a wealth of original documents that are being studied now for the first time.
GNOSIS AND Gnosticism
Charles W. Hedrick states, “In general, the term gnosticism is applied to a series of widespread and rather diverse religio-philosophical movements in late antiquity and nevertheless are understood to have some similarities. Although a precise definition of gnosticism and a clear dating for its emergence in the Hellenistic world are still matters of scholarly debate, working definitions have generally included certain elements. It is understood to have an anti-cosmic or world-rejecting stance… The ignorant or slumbering spiritual elements reside in the material, in humankind, like dying embers in a cold fire-pit.”
Ever since the first international conference on the origins of gnosticism held at Messina, Italy, in 1966, scholars have made a distinction between gnosis and gnosticism. The term gnosticism is reserved for the developed gnostic systems of the second century A.D, while gnosis is used when referring to similar phenomena prior to the second century. This distinction, however, has not generally been followed.
Gnosticism is a modern term, not attested to in antiquity. Even the term gnostic (Gr., gnostikos “knower”), as found in patristic writings, was never used to indicate a general spiritual movement but rather applied only to a single, particular sect.
Gnosticism designates a complex religious and philosophical movement that started probably before Christianity and flourished from about 100 to 700 A.D. There were many Christian, Jewish and pagan Gnostic sects that stressed salvation through a secret “knowledge” or “Gnosis.” The term “Gnostics” was first applied by second and third century patristic writers to a large number of teachers, such as Valentinus, Basilides and many others; all of whom were regarded by the Church Fathers as Christian heretics. Although Marcion and his community stand somewhat apart, certain features are common to the movement as a whole.
Today gnosticism is defined as a religion in its own right, whose myths state that the Unknown God is not the creator (Demiurge, YHVH); that the world is an error, the consequence of a fall and split within the deity; and that man, spiritual man, is alien to the natural world and related to the deity, and he becomes conscious of his deepest self when he hears the word of revelation. Unconsciousness, not sin or guilt, is the cause of evil.
The word “gnosis”
The Greek word gnosis is derived from the Indo-European root “gno,” and is also preserved in English word “know,” and Sankrit word “jnana,” which means “knowledge.” The term has long been used in comparative religion to indicate a current of antiquity that stressed awareness of the divine mysteries. This was held to be obtained either by direct experience of a revelation or by initiation into the secret, esoteric tradition of such revelations .
The experience of gnosis was highly esteemed at the beginning of our era in various religious and philosophical circles of Aramaic and Greco-Roman civilization.
- It is a key word in the scrolls of the Jewish Essene sect found at Qumran.
- Gnosis was used in Greek to indicate self-awareness. The inscription on the temple in Delphi reads “gnothi seauton” (know yourself). A saying in a recently discovered Armenian collection attributed to Hermes Trismegistos (“thrice-greatest Hermes,” identified with the Egyptian god Thoth) is “He who knows himself, knows the All.” The author of Poimandres expresses the same insight: “Let spiritual man know himself, then he will know that he is immortal and that Eros is the origin of death, and he will know the All.” And to illustrate this saying the author tells the story of a divine being, Anthropos (Man), who becomes enamored of the world of (lower) nature and so falls into a material body. Most Hermetic treatises take up a short saying and expound on it in this manner. They also preserve the impact of Egyptian mythology.
- The Platonists interpreted gnosis as meaning that man, by turning his attention inward, could abstract from the sense perception and passion to uncover reason to know the being.
- In contrast, the Stoics argued that man could only know himself by looking outwards to the providence and harmony of the cosmos and so discover that man is a part of a whole (the Stoa is holistic).
- Undogmatic skeptics, who were against both schools, proved that man could not know anything with certainty, especially about God, and therefore he should humbly acknowledge his limitations. Under their influence, the Platonists admitted that the One God of Parmenides, who is Being itself, cannot possibly be known and therefore is invisible, unutterable, and unknowable. The only gnosis of this Agnostos Theos (Unknown God) is the awareness that He cannot be known. In Greek, estin autou Gnosis he agnostia. As a result, many were led to the realization that God or the gods must reveal Himself or themselves in order to be perceived. Gnosis thus became an intuitive knowledge of immediate revelation or of an esoteric tradition of such revelation for the elect. Christian Gnosis
W.H.C. Frend believes that gnosis held a worthy, if limited place, in the Jewish and the earliest Christian scales of values. “Knowing” God to Jews meant acknowledging that Yahweh was God and recognizing the acts of God. Indeed, the Septuagint describes God as the “God of knowledge” (1 Sam. 2:3), and the word “gnosis” is used to denote this. The representative and teacher of gnosis is the pious sage and Servant of the Lord (Is. 53:11), and gnosis is denied to the worldly-minded and to sinners.
According to the holy Scriptures the first man used to enjoy “the sound (voice) of the Lord God walking in the garden” (Gen. 3:8). God used to meet His most beloved creature, man, and granted him the true knowledge of Himself, His mysteries, and His will. Even after the fall of man, God started a dialogue with Adam and Eve and offered them the knowledge of His redeeming plan. God directed creation towards natural law, the prophets’ sayings, and towards Himself to reveal knowledge. As sin is an obstacle for attaining knowledge, God, the Logos Himself, came to our world to destroy its dominion over our hearts and to establish His divine kingdom, revealing his super knowledge through the work of his Holy Spirit in our sanctified inner man. The New Testament concentrates on the divine revelation as the source of our knowledge, which is realized within our inner man through personal fellowship with Christ as members of His Holy Body, His Church.
In other words, we can summarize our concept of Christian knowledge as follows:
- The Incarnate Word of God is the source of knowledge.
- Knowledge is received through the Church, as the body of Christ, especially by participation in the Eucharist.
- Knowledge is revealed in our inner man, if it has been purified and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
- The knowledge of God and His eternal glory can be realized partially in this world, through our unity with the Father in His Only-Begotten Son, by the work of the Holy Spirit, and completed in the world to come.
Some German scholars, such as R. Reitzenstein, W. Bousset and R. Bultmann, have strongly supported the concept of pre-Christian Gnosticism. The sophisticated second-century religio-philosophical systems did not get that way overnight, since it would appear that a certain amount of lead time is required for their development. Those scholars believe that gnosticism is of Iranian origin. This hypothesis has been abandoned; the alleged Iranian mystery of the “saved savior” has been disproved. At present, many scholars are inclined to believe that gnosticism is built upon Hellenistic-Jewish foundations and can be traced to centers like Alexandria, which had a large Jewish population. Polemics in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, who himself was an opponent of local heresies, make it clear that he knew Jewish groups that had already formulated certain basic elements of gnosticism, though a consistent system did not yet exist in pre-Christian times.
Brian E. Daley writes, “It (Gnosticism) was rather a type of elitist religious thought, present in Jewish and philosophical pagan circles, as well as a fairly wide range of Christian ones that claimed privileged access to a kind of knowledge that could revolutionize the believer’s understanding of existence. John Ferguson states, “Gnosticism is thus to be seen as a trend or tendency rather than as a well- defined philosophical or religious stance.”
In Christianity, the movement appeared first as a school (or schools) of thought within the Church, which posed a serious problem both to the interpretation of the gospel, and the life and the worship of believers. It soon established itself in all principal centers of Christianity; and by the end of the second century the Gnostics had mostly become separate sects.
Gnosticism in various forms persisted for several centuries. The sect of the Manichees, founded by Mani, a Persian of the 3rd century, spread as far as Turkestan and survived there until the 13th century; meanwhile the possibly related sects of the Albigenses and Cathari had appeared in France, Germany and Italy. One sect of Gnostics, the Mandaeans, has survived in Mesopotamia until the present day.
Although the Gnostics shared certain basic convictions, they disagreed with each other on practically everything else.
- Most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter. They agreed in refusing to attribute the origin of the material order to the ultimate God, the God of goodness. Their systems were based on the inseparable division and antagonism between the Demiurge or “creator god” and the supreme unknowable Divine Being.
This belief had its effect on the concept of “salvation.” All the Gnostic groups were agreed that redemption was a possibility – that it was possible for us to ‘wake up,’ free our souls (the spiritual element) from our bodies (the material element), and negotiate successfully the perilous path which leads to our spiritual home.
- In some systems the creation of the material universe is believed to result from the fall of Sophia (wisdom); this creation is viewed as evil. From the Divine Being, the Demiurge was derived by a longer or shorter series of emanations or “aeons.” He, through some mischance or fall among the higher aeons, was the immediate source of creation and ruled the world, which was therefore imperfect and antagonistic to what was truly spiritual.
The Samaritans, the last survivors of the ten tribes of northern Israel, were and are heterodox Jews who keep the Law while rejecting the rest of the Bible. They transmit a certain tradition about Wisdom as the personal creator of the world. According to Simon, Wisdom, the spouse of the Lord, was called the Holy Spirit and is God’s first idea, the mother of all. She descended to the lower regions and gave birth to the angels by whom the world was created. She was overwhelmed and detained by these world powers so that she could not return to her abode. She was even incarnated and reincarnated in human bodies, such as that of the Helen of Greek mythology and poetry. Finally, she came to dwell as a whore in a brothel in Tyre, Phoenicia, where Simon, “the great power” of God, found and redeemed her. In the Apocryphon of John as well as in the school of Valentinus, this Sophia model has been combined with the Anthropos model. Both are pre-Christian in origin.
- Usually Gnostics divided men into two or three classes:
a. The “spiritual” (pneumatics) are those who have illuminated souls. Into the constitution of some men there had entered a seed or spark of Divine spiritual substance, and through “gnosis” this spiritual element might be rescued from its evil, material environment and be assured of a return to its home in the Divine Being. They were freed by knowledge from the constraints of ignorance, the Law, and the fears of the coming judgment.
The leaders were teachers, both men and women, not ecclesiastics. They were regarded as servants of Demiurge, and fit only to exercise authority over the mass of uninitiated Christians.
b. The “fleshy” (hylics) or “material,” are slaves of matter, and are earthbound. To those ignorant faithful, the ordinary Christians, Christ had appeared on earth and revealed the truths in the four gospels, but these truths were no more than the pabulum of the nursery. To the Gnostics He had revealed far more; and thus they could produce a large number of non-canonical Gospels and similar treatises to prove it. This was what Christ had really taught, this was the true Christianity; not a system which asked only simple faith, but a system which demanded intellectual understanding and secret knowledge, a system not for the many, but for a few; a system not for sleep-walkers, but for spiritual athletes; a system not for believers, but for knowers .
c. The Gnostics add a psychic, intermediate class.
Some scholars have sharply criticized St. Clement of Alexandria, considering that he was affected by Gnosticism in making a distinction between classes of Christians: on the one hand, there is the unsophisticated beginner who clings to the externalities of the faith; on the other hand, there is the advanced gnostic Christian who beholds the mysteries of God and abides in communion with God through a heart full of understanding. These detect a Stoic influence at this point, the Stoic discrimination of those who are advancing. Other scholars believe that he distinguishes between them, but not as two classes. On the contrary he believes that all Christians are babies in Christ, and in need of continuous learning. He also, in opposing Gnosticism, believes that none, except Jesus Christ is perfect. G. Florovsky says that St. Clement does not make a distinction among classes, but reinforces the dynamic nature of spiritual growth from being “babes” in Christ to constant growth in the faith: spiritually and intellectually.
St. Clement states that all Christians who receive baptism are babies in Christ and are in need of constant growth through the teaching and the training of the Paidagogos. He says, ‘Pedagogy is a training of children’ and then raises the question who those are that the Scripture calls ‘children.’ They are not, as the Gnostics claim, only those who live on a lower level of Christian faith whereas the Gnostics alone are perfect Christians. All those who are redeemed and reborn by baptism are children of God: ‘Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.’
Here I quote some sayings of St. Clement concerning spiritual childhood:
Therefore the name “childhood” is for us a life-long season of spring, because the truth abiding in us is ageless and our being made to overflow with that truth, is ageless too. For wisdom is ever fruitful. Ever fixed unchangeable on the same truths, ever constant.
You have become old in superstition; as young, enter into the practice of piety. God regards you as innocent children.
The Educator and Teacher is there naming us little ones, meaning that we are more ready for salvation than the worldly wise who, believing themselves wise, have blinded their own eyes.
We ought now to be in a position to understand that the name ‘little one’ is not used in the sense of lacking intelligence. Childishness means that, but ‘little one’ really means ‘one newly become gentle,’ just as the word ‘gentle’ means being mild-mannered. So, a ‘little one’ means one just recently become gentle and meek of disposition.
Childlikeness is the foundation for simplicity and truthfulness. ‘For upon whom shall I look,’ it is said in the Scripture, ‘if not the meek and the peaceful?’ (Isa. 66:2)
But whatever partakes of eternity assumes, by that very fact, the qualities of the incorruptible; therefore, the name ‘childhood’ is for us a life-long spring time, because the truth abiding in us is ageless and our being, made to overflow with that truth, is ageless, too.
‘The children,’ the Scripture says, ‘shall be put upon the shoulders, and they shall be comforted on the knees, as one whom the mother comforts, so will I comfort you’ (Isa. 66:12,13). A mother draws her children near her; we seek our mother, the Church.
‘Now that I have become a man,’ Paul continues, ‘I have put away the things of a child.’ He is not referring to the growing stature that comes with age, nor yet to any definite period of time, nor even to any secret teaching reserved only for men and the more mature when he claims that he left and put away all childishness. Rather, he means to say that those who live by the Law are childish in the sense that they are subject to fear, like children afraid of ghosts, while those who are obedient to the Word and are completely free are, in his opinion, men.
Concerning perfection, St. Clement believes that the Gnostics attain a kind of perfection, even while they are living here in this world, for by the divine grace they become Christlike. He also assures that no man is perfect in all things at once. “I know no one of men perfect in all things at once, while still human, though according to the mere letter of the Law, except Him alone who for us clothed Himself with humanity… But Gnostic perfection in the case of the legal man is the acceptance of the Gospel, that he that after the Law may be perfect.”
- The secret knowledge that the Gnostics claimed to possess was acquired, not by perseverance in moral rectitude, but by a sudden illumination that enabled them to understand the ways of God, the universe, and themselves. It was knowledge that freed them and revealed the mysteries of truth, and rent the veil which concealed how God controlled the creation.
- Despite their reliance on the methods and attitudes of current philosophy, they claimed to have succeeded contemptuously as not “having the possibility” of understanding reality. “We alone know the unutterable mysteries of the spirit,” the Nassene (Snake) sect claimed (c. 200). Only its initiates could bring order into “the disorder of the world.” Gnostics claimed that they were the “true brothers” on whom the love of the Father had been poured out.
- Many of the Nag-Hammadi writings are Christ-centered. Their understanding of Christ, the Scriptures and man differed fundamentally from that of members of the Church. The function of Christ was to come as the emissary of the supreme God, bringing “gnosis.” As a Divine Being, He neither assumed a properly human body nor died, but either temporarily inhabited a human being (Jesus) or assumed a merely phantasmal human appearance.
One form of Gnosticism was “Docetism,” a heresy that threatened the young church. The Greek word “dokein” means “to seem,” or “appear to be.” Docetists believed that Jesus Christ was not a real man but only seemed to be so; according to them, He did not have a body, but simply passed through the Virgin without being fashioned of her substance.
According to St. Irenaeus, Saturninus (c. 120) “declared that the Savior was unborn, incorporeal and without form … For to marry and bear children, he says, is of Satan.”
Valentinus (2nd century) also taught that Christ united himself with the man Jesus who was born through Mary and not of Mary. He passed through her as through a channel.
Marcion’s doctrine was that Jesus did not have a human soul nor an earthly body. He was not born of Mary, but appeared suddenly in Judaea with imaginary flesh, a full grown man ready to start immediately his ministry.
Appeles conceded genuine flesh to Christ, but a celestial body. It came down from heaven into this world, and not of Mary.
- The Gnostics and their orthodox opponents hotly debated the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. This went to the heart of the rival schemes of salvation. Was the Old Testament the prefiguration or introduction to the New, as in Hebrews 10, or was it wholly alien – the work of an inferior being or an evil archon?
The great Egyptian Gnostics seem to all have been of Jewish birth. The adherents of Basilides claimed, “We are no longer Jews and not yet Christians.” The followers of Valentinus reported, “When we were Hebrews, we were orphans.” Nevertheless, Basilides and Valentinus both proclaimed a God beyond the Old Testament God.
The teaching of the Gnostics concerning the antagonism that exists between the Law and the Gospel called forth a vigorous reaction on the part of ecclesiastical writers, especially the Alexandrian Fathers.
The Alexandrian Fathers emphatically stressed the fundamental unity of both phases of revelation. St. Clement of Alexandria expressed his views on this point in no uncertain terms: the two Testaments form but one single saving Testament, given by one God by means of one Lord and which, in spite of the diversity of ages and generations, extends from the constitution of the world unto us. Origen inculcates the unity of authorship of both revelations. One is not surprised to find that St. Cyril subscribed to similar tenets, following the Alexandrian tradition.
The immediate consequence of the common origin of both Testaments is the doctrine that the teachings of the Law and the Prophets are in perfect agreement with that of Christ and the apostles. Ecclesiastic writers describe it in terms of a comparison borrowed from music. St. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the ecclesiastical symphony of the two choirs – the Old and the New Testaments – and of the choristers of which they are formed. Origen opposes heresy by stating, “the sublimity of gospel-preaching, filled with the symphony of the doctrines common to the Testaments that are styled Old and New.” He also writes, “the whole of Scripture is but one single instrument of God, perfect and harmonious, which renders one consonance that is formed of different sounds.”
The early Fathers stressed the harmony of both Testaments to the extent of claiming that they are identical. No writer of the early period claimed that the apostles’ knowledge was superior to that of the prophets. St. Clement of Alexandria describes the charism of the apostles by analogy to that of the prophets: the apostles, he argues, were prophtai and dixaio at the same time, who “share the fragrant anointing of the Holy Spirit by means of prophecy;” Nobody will ever equal the prophets and the disciples of the Spirit.
Origen is much more explicit, teaching ex professo that the knowledge possessed by the perfect in times preceding Christ’s advent was not less than that of the apostles who were instructed by Christ. For according to St. Paul, the revelation of mysteries is made to the apostles by means of the prophetic writings. The prophets, thanks to their wisdom, must certainly have understood their own statements; hence, they grasped what was manifested to the apostles. It is true that the mode of knowledge is different since the prophets contemplated the mysteries before they were realized, whereas the apostles beheld them as already accomplished. However, this difference is only accidental; Christians, who will witness Christ’s second coming will know nothing more than the apostles who foretold of this event; similarly, the wisdom of the apostles could not have outstripped that of the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.
St. Cyril speaks in glowing terms about the prophets and the excellence of their knowledge, but he very rarely institutes a comparison between them and the apostles. On one occasion, however, he confesses that he felt “inclined to crown Isaias not only with the grace of prophecy but also with the prerogatives of the apostles … The views to which the older Alexandrians had committed themselves practically deny all real development of the faith; the patriarchs, prophets and apostles were all endowed with equal knowledge and their predictions already contained the whole of Christ’s doctrine. On the other hand, St. Cyril, shows leanings which can be interpreted as somewhat favoring the idea of a real development; as we shall see, he espouses the idea that a gradual spiritualization of religion takes place during the prophetic period. Statements made by him with reference to the superiority of the gospel to the old dispensation show that he was conscious of the fact that further development took place in New Testament times. He clung to the doctrine favoring the identity of both Testaments. In his very first exegetical work St. Cyril writes, “The New Testament is sister to and closely related to the Mosaic oracles; indeed it is composed of the selfsame elements. We can show that the “life in Christ” is not remote from conduct in accordance with the Law, provided that the ancient ordinances are given a spiritual interpretation.”
- Fr. Matthias F. Wahba in his thesis, “The doctrine of Sanctification in relation to Marriage according to St. Athanasius,” dealt with the Gnostics’ view of marriage. He states that St. Clement explained that the Gnostic’s duelist view of creation led to two opposing attitudes toward marriage and sexuality: the extreme of a rigorous and negative asceticism on the one hand, and a licentious antinomianism on the other. Both repudiate nature; the one through abstention and the other through excess.
St. Clement believes that they regarded birth as evil because the world is evil. It is the evil creator of the material universe who gave the command, “Increase and multiply,” (Gen. 1:28) to fill the world with brutish men and women. They asserted that no spiritual, or even psychic (ordinary), believer in the Gospel would engage in sexual intercourse, and thereby increase the number of the brutish who are in any case predetermined to damnation.
Ascetic Gnostics placed a great reliance on the Gospel according to the Egyptians. For example, in a dialogue between Jesus and Salome, she asks, “Until when shall men die?” He answers her, “As long as women bear children.” In another passage, Jesus says, “I come to destroy the works of the female.”
At the other extreme were the licentious groups. They denounced private property, marriage, and the repressive nature of the Decalogue. “The followers of Carpocrates and (his son) Epiphanes,” says Clement, “think that wives should be common property.”
Midway between the two extremes, the rigidly ascetic and the freely licentious, were Basilides and Valentinus. Basilides and his son Isidore allowed marriage on the ground that it is better to marry than to burn (cf. 1 Cor. 7.9), but marriage was to be avoided by the man who was ambitious to attain perfection. After his death, Basilides’ followers departed from their master’s teaching and fell into licentious ways, “by living lewder lives than the most uncontrolled heathen, they brought blasphemy upon his name.” According to St. Irenaeus, Basilides taught that the practice of all lusts was a matter of indifference, and said, “Marrying and bearing children are from Satan.” Gnosticism, then, could not sanctify marriage as long as it had such an attitude towards matter and body; both, for the Gnostics, are evil. The Gnostic texts of Nag-Hammadi agree that marriage and procreation, as instigated by archontic powers, have no place in the perfect life.
Gnosticism was never interested in ethics and morality. As pneumatics, the Gnostics believed that they would be saved, not by means of conduct, but because they were spiritual by nature. On the contrary, St. Clement states, “works follow knowledge, as the shadow follows the body.”
Gnostics generally regarded the world of ordinary experience and work as having only a low grade of reality, and promised escape from matter and union to the transcendent source of being to the favored few who accepted the esoteric knowledge that the group possessed.
Finally, we can acknowledge the Alexandrians’ struggle against Gnosticism from Origen who debated with a certain bishop, Heracleides, that Gnosticism was about to reappear in a new guise as a rival universal religion molded by a genius Mani. Athanasius, also, repeatedly mentions Mani together with Marcion and Valentinus as schismatic groups.
Gnosticism and Alexandria
The most important center of Gnosticism was Alexandria which had became the heir of Jewish traditions, classical thought, and the old mysticism of oriental religions. It was in Alexandria that the greatest doctors of Gnosticism – Basilides, Carpocrates and Valentinus -flourished. St. Athanasius frequently refers to them, as well as to Marcion, warning of their danger to Christian doctrine. St. Clement of Alexandria, “the most reliable of early Christian writers on Gnosticism,” provides us with a systematic analysis of the various sects.
Basilides was a theologian of Gnostic tendencies, according to St. Irenaeus, and a teacher at Alexandria. His work fell within the reigns of Hadrian (117-138) and Antoninus Pius (138-161). He and Isidore, his son and disciple, were prodigious workers. Basilides wrote a gospel, of which we have only one fragment. Origen says that this heretic had the audacity to write a gospel, and this work is mentioned by St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. It is possible that Basilides reworked the canonical Gospels to make them favorable to Gnostic doctrine. He also wrote a biblical commentary, the Exegetica, in twenty-four books; and some Odes.
His system is difficult to reconstruct, since only fragments of his writings survive, and conflicting accounts are given by SS. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus. According to Hippolytus, Basilides taught a wholly transcendent God, who created an evolving universe and planted in it an elect race. Besides biblical material he used secret traditions supposedly derived from St. Peter and St. Matthias, some Gnostic doctrines, and elements of Platonic and Stoic philosophy.
According to Basilides, when the time was right, Jesus was enlightened at His baptism in the river Jordan (a typically Jewish-Christian notion). Jesus is considered to be the prototype of all spiritual men who through His revealing word became conscious of the innermost being, the Spirit, and rose up to the spiritual realm. When the entire third sonship (the Spirit in the spiritual man) has redeemed itself, God will take pity on the world, and he will allow the descent of “the great unconsciousness” upon the rest of mankind. Thereafter, no one will have even an inkling that there was ever anything like the Spirit. Basilides foresaw a godless and classless society.
Basilides seems to have been one of those many liberal Jews who had left behind the concept of a personal Lord as a belief in the Unknown God. He looked to Yahweh as an aggressive deity and the Jews as a people who took after him, aspiring to subjugate other nations. Basilides hated Judaism as he knew it in his own time and makes no claim for his followers that they were a ”new Israel,” perhaps an interesting comment on feelings in Alexandria during the years between the Jewish rebellion of 115 AD and the up-rising of Bar Kochba in A.D 132. Nevertheless, Basilides was basically Jewish in his attitudes. His followers in St. Irenaeus’ day are recorded as asserting that ”while they were no longer Jews, they were more than Christians,” as though for them Judaism was still a norm.
Basilides’ concerns, however, were moral as well as metaphysical. He aimed at explaining the paradox of divine goodness and human suffering – why must a Christian who had supposedly been redeemed by Christ undergo a martyr’s death? Basilides was quoted by St. Clement as stating that even the man Jesus of Nazareth, had sinned, hence the crucifixion! All suffering, Basilides asserted was the result of sin. Individual confessors might not be grievous sinners but they possess a capacity and desire to sin. Their sufferings might be regarded therefore as those of a child who suffers simply because of an innate sinful quality or perhaps through sin committed in a previous life. Suffering and death therefore, were forms of atonement. In due time a heavenly light would descend and raise up Jesus to summon the elect; they will ascend to the highest heaven, while other beings come to rest in destinations appropriate to their capacities. He was accused of teaching Docetism, Metempsychosis, and other doctrines that were later condemned. His followers soon formed a separate sect; but his own teachings may perhaps have been typical of an ill-defined and speculative theology that was prevalent in Alexandria in his day.
Basilides accepted the Platonic view of “providence,” that in no sense could providence be held responsible for evil. Evil, therefore, was independent of God and resulted from the actions of another deity, namely the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, the chief of the creator angels. True Christians would therefore reject the Old Testament and confess Christ, but not Jesus as crucified because that was merely material worship. They would identify themselves with the spiritual Christ as spirit to spirit. Similarly, Scripture was to be interpreted spiritually through the use of allegory on which the words of Homer “the poet” as well as of Paul “the apostle” could throw light on its true meaning. This demanded mastery of a range of Greek philosophy and poetry as well as of existing Jewish and Christian exegesis.
J Quasten states that the following practical conclusions can be drawn from the summary of Basilides’ teaching which St. Irenaeus mentions:
a. Knowledge (gnosis) proceeds from the principalities which form the world.
b. Only a few, one in a thousand, two in ten thousand, are able to possess the true knowledge.
c. Mysteries should be kept secret.
d. Martyrdom is futile.
e. Redemption affects only the souls, and not the body, which is subject to corruption.
f. Every action, even the most heinous sins of lust, is a matter of perfect indifference.
g. The Christian should not confess Christ the crucified but Jesus, who was sent by the Father. Otherwise he remains a slave and under the power of those who formed our bodies.
h. Pagan sacrifices ought to be despised, but can be used without any scruple because they are nothing.
He was a Gnostic teacher of the 2nd century who was probably a native of Alexandria. His disciples, the “Carpocratians,” who survived until the 4th century, preached a licentious ethic, the transmigration of souls, and the doctrine that Jesus was born by natural generation. His son Epiphanes wrote a treatise “On Justice,” in which, under the influence of Plato’s “Republic”, he advocated a community of women and gods. However, this tradition about Carpocrates has been disputed, and may possibly rest on a confused account of a cult of the Egyptian deity Harpocrates.
According to St. Irenaeus, Carporates and his followers maintained that the world and the things which are there-in were created by angels greatly inferior to the unbegotten Father. They also held that Jesus was the son of Joseph and was just like other men with the exception that he differed from them in that his soul was steadfast and pure so he remembered perfectly those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God. On this account, a power descended upon him from the Father by which he might escape from the creators of the world; they also said that He, after passing through them all and remaining in all points free, ascended again to him. This position of Jesus was by no means unique because in the same way the soul which is like that of Christ can despise those rulers who were the creators of the world, and in like manner receives power for accomplishing the same result. This idea appealed so much to some of the Carpocratians that some of them arrogantly declared themselves to be similar to Jesus, while others haughtily maintained that they were superior to his disciples, such as Peter, Paul and the rest of the apostles.
Images of some of them were painted or made with them having a likeness of Christ, and portraying Jesus among them. They crowned these images and set them up along with the images of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and others. They also had other modes of honoring these images in the same manner as the gentiles.
The Carpocratians also practiced magical arts and incantations, philters and love potions, and had recourse to spirits, dreams, demons and other abominations, declaring that they possessed power to rule over not only the princes of this world but also over the things in it. Carpocrates was a contemporary of Valentinus because according to St. Irenaeus one of his women disciples, Marcellina, went to Rome during the reign of Pope Anicetus (154-165 AD), and seduced many.
The greatest Gnostic of all time was the poet Valentinus. Despite his Latin name, he was born in the Nile Delta around the year 100 A.D and educated in Alexandria. He created an academy for free research, which in turn formed a loose network of local groups within institutional religion. Even among his opponents Valentinus became renowned for his eloquence and genius. He was probably the most influential of the Gnostics and had a very large following (frequentissimum collegium inter haereticos). Several of his disciples founded schools of their own. They included Theodotus in the East, and Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, Florinus, and Marcus in the West, all contributed to the spread and development of Gnosticism in Italy, Alexandria, and Gaul respectively, down to the end of the century.
According to St. Irenaeus and others he was a native of Egypt whose disciples claimed that he had been taught by Theodas, a pupil of St. Paul. He lived in Rome from c. A.D 136 to c. 165 and had hopes of being elected Bishop “on account of his intellectual force and eloquence” (quia et ingenio poterat et eloquio) St. Jerome, by no means one of the kindest critics, wrote of him, ”No one can bring heresy into being unless he is possessed by the nature of an outstanding intellect and has gifts provided by God. Such a person was Valentinus.”
Until the discovery of the Nag-Hammadi library, Valentinus’s ideas could be guessed only from accounts given by his opponents, especially St. Irenaeus. Though no work actually bears his name, a group of four works from Nag-Hammadi – the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, the Exegesis on the Soul, and the Treatise on Resurrection to Rheginus – appear to have close affinities with each other and correspond to some extent with St. Irenaeus’ account of Valentinus’s ideas. Another important treatise, The Teachings of Silvanus, seems to have been contemporary with Valentinus and may also reflect some aspects of his thought. The Gospel of Truth, a meditation on the true eternal gospel proclaimed by Christ to awaken man’s innermost being (the unconscious Spirit) was probably written by Valentinus himself around A.D 150. His most influential production was a systematic theology known to us only in the developed and modified form given down to us by his disciples. It appears to have been based on the Ophite system and to have incorporated Platonic and Pythagorean elements. Valentinus, like Basilides, saw God as a single, transcendent, and utterly unknowable Being, but originating not from “absolutely nothing” but from the Primal Cause or Depth (Bythos). After countless ages Depth emanated his spouse, called Womb or Silence (Sige) and eventually these two, representing Male and Female principles, brought forth the Christ, or Logos, upon whom all aeons (half ideas, half angels) depend and through whom the All is coherent and connected. He also states that the couple – Depth and Silence – emanate Understanding (Nous) and Truth (Aletheia). From these follow Word and Life, and Man and Church, and eventually thirty Aeons are produced, pair by pair, male and female (compare Gen. 1:27), representing Christian (or Jewish) concepts and virtues to complete the heavenly or spiritual world or Pleroma. The last aeon was Wisdom (Sophia). She, desiring to know the unknowable Father, fell into the darkness of despair and gave birth to a premature and malformed infant laldabaoth (probably ”Child of Chaos”), by whom the universe with all its imperfections was created. Thus the visible world owes its origin to the fall of Sophia, the youngest of these, whose ultimate offspring was the Demiurge who was identified with the God of the Old Testament. The subsequent struggle between laldabaoth and Wisdom was responsible for the mixture of good and evil, virtues and passions, in the world and in individuals. A Savior, Jesus, is sent to Wisdom. He “forms Wisdom according to understanding” and separates her from her passions, and thus sets in train the events that lead to similar processes of salvation in the visible universe.
Redemption was effected by Christ, who united Himself with the man Jesus (either at his conception or at His baptism) to bring man the redeeming knowledge (gnosis) of His origin and destiny. This gnosis, however, is given only to spiritual men or the “pneumatics,” i.e. the Valentinians who enter the pleroma through it, whereas other Christians (called “psychics” after 1 Cor. 2.14 etc.) attain by faith and good works only the middle realm of the Demiurge; the rest of mankind (called “hylics”, being engrossed in matter) are given over to eternal perdition.
On the basis of this metaphysical view, Valentinus and his followers valued both sex and marriage, at least for the pneumatics. A preserved fragment from the school of Valentinus gives the following interpretation of Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John that the Christian’s life is in the world but is not from it (John. 17:116): “Whosoever is in the world and has not loved a woman so as to become one with her, is not out of the Truth, and will attain the Truth; but he who is from the world and unites with a woman, will not attain the Truth, because he made sex out of concupiscence alone.” The Valentinians permitted intercourse only between men and women who were able to experience it as a mystery and a sacrament, namely, those who were pneumatics. They forbade it between those whom they called psychics (Jews and Catholics) or hylics (materialists), because these two lower classes knew nothing but libido. As the only early Christian on record who spoke lovingly about sexual intercourse and womanhood, Valentinus must have been a great lover.
The Jung Codex contains five Valentinian writings:
- The Prayer of the Apostle Paul.
- The Apocryphon of James is a letter purporting to contain revelations of the risen Jesus, written by James, his brother. In reality, it contains Valentinian speculations grafted onto the root and fatness of the olive tree planted beside the waters of the Nile by Hebrew missionaries from Jerusalem (c. 160).
- The Gospel of Truth.
- The Epistle to Rheginos concerning the Resurrection is an explanation of Paul’s views: already, here and now, man anticipates eternal life, and after death he will receive an ethereal body.
- The Tripartite Treatise is a systematic and consistent exposition of the history of the All. It describes how the Spirit evolves through the inferno of a materialistic (pagan or “hylic”) phase and the purgatory of a moral (Jewish and Catholic or “psychic”) phase to the coming of Christ, who inaugurates the paradiso of final consummation, in which spiritual man becomes conscious of himself and of his identity with the Unknown God. The author, a leader of the Italic (Roman) school of Valentinianism, was most likely Heracleon (c. 170). It was against this shade of Valentinian gnosis that Plotinus, the Neoplatonic philosopher, wrote his pamphlet Against the Gnostics (c. 250).
- The Manichaeans
In the second half of the third century, the great Gnostic Mani (216-277) sent his missionaries Papos and Thomas to Egypt, where they settled in Lycopolis, on the Nile above the Thebaid in Middle Egypt. There they proselytized among the pupils of the Platonic philosopher Alexander of Lycopolis, who wrote a preserved treatise against them. They also seem to have translated, or to have had translated, the Manichaean writings found at Madinat Madi in 1930-1931 (kephalaia, psalms, homilies, etc.) from East Aramaic into sub-Akmimic, the Coptic dialect of Lycopolis and the surroundings.
According to Valentinus, every man has a guardian angel or Self who gives gnosis to his counterpart, but also needs the man or woman to whom he belongs because he cannot enter the pleroma, the spiritual world, without his other half. Mani taught that every Manichaean has a twin, who inspires him and leads him to the light, but at the same time Mani held that the eternal Jesus suffers in matter and is to be redeemed by the Gnostic. Jacob Boehme says that God is an ocean of light and darkness, love and ire, who wants to become conscious in man.
The God of gnosticism is Being in movement.
WHY DID GNOSTICISM SPREAD IN ALEXANDRIA?
There are at least five reasons for the success of Gnosticism in Alexandria, especially in the early centuries:
- In contrast to other religions, Gnosticism first appeared in the city not as a religious sect or school but as an attitude accepted by some pagans, Jews and even Christians. The Gnostics took advantage of the importance of Alexandria as a center of interchange of religious ideas and as the intellectual meeting point between Jew and Greek.
- The pseudo-Christian Gnostic sects could offer a religious system, with a guaranteed way of salvation, and much more similar to the pagan systems, from which the converts were changing.
- The Gnostics tried to answer the following problems:
If God was Goodness, why was there evil in the world, unless the matter from which it was created was irredeemably bad?
If God is good, who created the evil?
If the universe was not governed by Fate, how did one explain calamity, sickness, and sudden death?
What was the use of attempting to practice moral excellence when one might be swept away overnight?
- Gnosticism provided the well-educated members with the sense of superiority, as they felt that they alone are trust-worthy of the divine mysteries.
- Many of the founders of the Christian Gnostics belonged to Pre-Christian Gnosticism, who instead of surrendering their former beliefs, they only added some Christian doctrines to their Gnostic views. They also were very interested in literature, thus they wrote many apocryphal gospels, epistles and apocalypses and attributed many of it to St. Mary, the disciples, and the apostles, which had a tremendous effect because of its popular content.
The Alexandrian fathers and gnosticism
The Christian ministers and teachers of the first centuries were forced to keep a continual eye on Gnosticism, which was a threat, a rival rather than an influence.
Gnosticism was a vital part of the thought-world of St. Clement; much of his writing was polemic against it, and at the same time it influenced his categories of thought.
St. Clement’s objection to Gnosticism is that it lay outside the church and is offensive to human freedom of will and common sense. In his own optimistic outlook, St. Clement believes that humans are reasonable beings. Christianity had to be interpreted in terms of the ultimate harmony between Scripture and philosophy. Therefore, Gnostic dualism, libertinism, and fatalism could not be the true Christian revelation.
W.H.C. Frend writes,
Faith remained the foundation of Christianity, but the Christian advanced from faith towards knowledge, that is, an ever-deeper understanding of the Word of God, not achieved in a sudden flash of illumination, but through a life dedicated to obedience to God’s will. Thus it was that the believer became “like God” enjoying a freedom from all passions that hindered the soul’s ascent to perfection and deification. Few could attain this state. Clement’s Gnostic was as much the member of a spiritual elite as the Gnostic’s counterpart and shared the latter’s ultimate aim. The differences between Clement and the Alexandrian Gnostics were, however, equally important. Clement’s religion was monotheist as well as being church-oriented and he was profoundly influenced by Philo’s Platonism. For him also, God was absolutely transcendent, “unity but beyond unity, transcending the monad,” and embracing all reality and infinitely greater than all his works. He could be known, however, through his Son, or Word (Logos), not a Demiurge or lesser creator-god, but his image, mind, and reason, inseparable from himself. As J.N.D. Kelly pointed out, “the Word was like the Nous of middle-Platonism and Neo-Platonism; the Word was at once unity and plurality, comprising in Himself, His Father’s ideas and also the active forces by which He animates the world of creatures.” He reflected God rather than contrasted with God, while the Spirit was light issuing from Him, to illuminate the faithful (through the prophets and philosophers) pervading the world and drawing humans towards God. There was no dualism in Clement’s religion. For him, the Trinity consisted of a hierarchy of three graded Beings, and from that concept – derived from Platonism – depended much of the remainder of his theological teaching.
In addition, Clement had an optimistic view of human beings and their relation to God. The world was created by God and therefore was good. Man and woman had been made in the image of God, and had the means within themselves to progress toward God. There was no “natural evil” and no impassable categories of Spiritual Men, Psychics, and Hylics as in the Gnostic systems. Christ was Teacher (paidagogos) of humankind rather than Illuminator of the few. Understanding – itself the fruit of moral progress – was true Gnosis.
St. Clement loathed the Gnostics, not least the Carpocratians, for their fatalism and libertinism.
ST. CLEMENT’S VIEW OF GNOSIS OR “knowledge”
It is no exaggeration to praise St. Clement as the founder of speculative theology. If we compare him to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, it is evident that he represents an altogether different type of teacher. St. Irenaeus was the man of tradition, who derived his doctrine from apostolic preaching and regarded every influence from the surrounding culture and philosophy as a danger to the faith. St. Clement was the courageous and successful pioneer of a school that purposed to protect faith by making use of philosophy. Together with St. Irenaeus he fought against the false Gnosis. However, St. Clement did not remain merely negative against the false gnosis; he set up a true and Christian Gnosis.
Before St. Clement, the word “Gnostic” was identified as a heretic, for throughout the first two centuries, some heresies appeared under the title “Gnostics” in various forms. They believed – that knowledge (gnosis) is the main way of salvation. The reaction of many church leaders (such as Tertullian) was to attack “knowledge” and “philosophy” as enemies of “faith.” The School of Alexandria faced the Gnostic heresies, which were spread in the East, not by attacking “knowledge” (gnosis), but by giving a new concept of “knowledge” that helps believers even in their faith. The Alexandrian School adopted philosophy as a way that leads to faith, and looked to knowledge as a divine gift.
St. Clement of Alexandria emphasizes the following:
I. The title “Gnostic” does not refer to a heretic but to the orthodox Christian who attains the divine gnosis (knowledge) from the Holy Spirit, by illumination through Christ (the Logos) in the light of the tradition of the church. St. Clement writes, “Here are the notes that characterize our Gnostic: first, contemplation; then the fulfillment of the precepts; finally the instruction of good men. When these qualities are encountered in a man, he is a perfect Gnostic. But if one of them is missing, then his Gnostic is crippled.” According to Walter Volker, while St. Clement’s gnosis is animated by a basic concern for regulating one’s life, it is above all a knowledge of the Scriptures in which everything is illuminated through Christ (the Logos), in the light of the tradition of the Church.
II. Gnosis is the principle and author of every action conforming to the Logos.
III. The Gnostic is called to know God (ginoskein) or epignonai, to see God, and to possess Him.
IV. It is to the extent that the Gnostic attains this state that he becomes the equal of the angels.
V. The grace of gnosis comes from the Father through the Son.
VI. Christ is the source of knowledge (gnosis), who grants us His knowledge through baptism, by making God known to us from the fact that the eyes of our souls are purified.
VII. Christ gives us gnosis also through reading the Scriptures.
VIII. The true Gnostic desires knowledge, struggles to practice goodness not in fear but in love. He is full of love towards God and men, fulfills the will of God, a man of prayer, witnessing to God daily (as a martyr), and never fears death.
IX. Those who know (the Son) are called sons and gods. The Logos of God was made man so that you might learn how man can become god.
This information was reposted from : https://www.copticchurch.net/patrology/schoolofalex/I-Intro/chapter4.html
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