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§ 120. Schools of Gnosticism.


The arbitrary and unbalanced subjectivity of the Gnostic speculation naturally produced a multitude of schools. These Gnostic schools have been variously classified.

Geographically they may be reduced to two great families, the Egyptian or Alexandrian, and the Syrian, which are also intrinsically different. In the former (Basilides, Valentine, the Ophites), Platonism and the emanation theory prevail, in the latter (Saturninus, Bardesanes, Tatian), Parsism and dualism. Then, distinct in many respects from both these is the more practical school of Marcion, who sprang neither from Egypt nor from Syria, but from Asia Minor, where St. Paul had left the strong imprint of his free gospel in opposition to Jewish legalism and bondage.

Examined further, with reference to its doctrinal character, Gnosticism appears in three forms, distinguished by the preponderance of the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian elements respectively in its syncretism. The Simonians, Nicolaitans, Ophites, Carpocratians, Prodicians, Antitactes, and Manichaeans belong to a paganizing class; Cerinthus, Basilides, Valentine, and Justin (as also the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, though these are more properly Ebionitic), to a Judaizing; Saturninus, Marcion, Tatian, and the Encratites, to a Christianizing division. But it must be remembered here that this distinction is only relative; all the Gnostic systems being, in fact, predominantly heathen in their character, and essentially opposed alike to the pure Judaism of the Old Testament and to the Christianity of the New. The Judaism of the so-called Judaizing Gnostics is only of an apocryphal sort, whether of the Alexandrian or the Cabalistic tinge.826826    Gibbon, who devotes four pages (Ch. XV.) to the Gnostics, dwells exclusively on the anti-Jewish feature, and makes them express his own aversion to the Old Testament. He calls them (from very superficial knowledge, but with his masterly skill of insinuation) "the most polite, the most learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name," and says that, being mostly averse to the pleasures of sense, "they morosely arraigned the polygamy of the patriarchs, the gallantries of David, and the seraglio of Solomon," and were at a loss to reconcile "the conquest of Canaan, and the extirpation of the unsuspecting natives with the common notions of humanity and justice."26

The ethical point of view, from which the division might as well be made, would give likewise three main branches: the speculative or theosophic Gnostics (Basilides, Valentine), the practical and ascetic (Marcion, Saturninus, Tatian), and the antinomian and libertine (Simonians, Nicolaitans, Ophites, Carpocratians, Antitactes).

Having thus presented the general character of Gnosticism, and pointed out its main branches, we shall follow chiefly the chronological order in describing the several schools, beginning with those which date from the age of the apostles.



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