« Prev The System of Gnosticism. Its Theology Next »

§ 117. The System of Gnosticism. Its Theology.

Gnosticism is a heretical philosophy of religion, or, more exactly a mythological theosophy, which reflects intellectually the peculiar, fermenting state of that remarkable age of transition from the heathen to the Christian order of things. If it were merely an unintelligible congeries of puerile absurdities and impious blasphemies, as it is grotesquely portrayed by older historians,804804    Even some of the more recent writers, as Bishop Kaye (Eccl. History of the Second arid Third Centuries), and the translators of Irenaeus in the "Ante-Nicene Christian Library" (Edinb. 1868, vol. 1st, Introductory Notice) have the same idea of the Gnostic system as an impenetrable wilderness, of absurdities. But Mansel, Lightfoot, and Salmon show a clear knowledge of the subject, and agree; substantially with Neander’s account.04 it would not have fascinated so many vigorous intellects and produced such a long-continued agitation in the ancient church. It is an attempt to solve some of the deepest metaphysical and theological problems. It deals with the great antitheses of God and world, spirit and matter, idea and phenomenon; and endeavors to unlock the mystery of the creation; the question of the rise, development, and end of the world; and of the origin of evil.805805    Πόθεν τὸ κακόν, or ἡ κακία: unde malum? (See Tertullian, De Praescript. 7; Adv. Marc. I. 2; Euseb. H. E, V. 27; Baur, Gnosis, p. 19.05 It endeavors to harmonize the creation of the material world and the existence of evil with the idea of an absolute God, who is immaterial and perfectly good. This problem can only be solved by the Christian doctrine of redemption; but Gnosticism started from a false basis of dualism, which prevents a solution.

In form and method it is, as already observed, more Oriental than Grecian. The Gnostics, in their daring attempt to unfold the mysteries of an upper world, disdained the trammels of reason, and resorted to direct spiritual intuition. Hence they speculate not so much in logical and dialectic mode, as in an imaginative, semi-poetic way, and they clothe their ideas not in the simple, clear, and sober language of reflection, but in the many-colored, fantastic, mythological dress of type, symbol, and allegory. Thus monstrous nonsense and the most absurd conceits are chaotically mingIed up with profound thoughts and poetic intuitions.

This spurious supernaturalism which substitutes the irrational for the supernatural, and the prodigy for the miracle, pervades the pseudo-historical romances of the Gnostic Gospels and Acts. These surpass the Catholic traditions in luxuriant fancy and incredible marvels. "Demoniacal possessions," says one who has mastered this literature,806806    Dr. Lipsius, Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden (1883), vol. 1. P. 7.06 "and resurrections from the dead, miracles of healing and punishment are accumulated without end; the constant repetition of similar events gives the long stories a certain monotony, which is occasionally interrupted by colloquies, hymns and prayers of genuine poetic value. A rich apparatus of visions, angelic appearances, heavenly voices, speaking animals, defeated and humbled demons is unfolded, a superterrestrial splendor of light gleams up, mysterious signs from heaven, earthquakes, thunder and lightning frighten the impious; fire, earth, wind and water obey the pious; serpents, lions, leopards, tigers, and bears are tamed by a word of the apostles and turn upon their persecutors; the dying martyrs are surrounded by coronets, roses, lilies, incense, while the abyss opens to swallow up their enemies."

The highest source of knowledge, with these heretics was a secret tradition, in contrast with the open, popular tradition of the Catholic church. In this respect, they differ from Protestant sects, which generally discard tradition altogether and appeal to the Bible only, as understood by themselves. They appealed also to apocryphal documents, which arose in the second century in great numbers, under eminent names of apostolic or pre-Christian times. Epiphanius, in his 26th Heresy, counts the apocrypha of the Gnostics by thousands, and Irenaeus found among the Valentinians alone a countless multitude of such writings.807807    Adv. Haer.l.c. 20. §1: Ἀμύθητον πλῆθος ἀποκρύφων καὶ νόθων γραφῶν, ἃ̔̀ς αὐτοὶ ἔπλασαν, παρεισφέρουσιν είς κατάπληξιν τῶν ἀνοήτων καὶ τὰ τῆς ἀληθείας μὴ ἐπισταμένων γράμματα.07 And finally, when it suited their purpose, the Gnostics employed single portions of the Bible, without being able to agree either as to the extent or the interpretation of the same. The Old Testament they generally rejected, either entirely, as in the case of the Marcionites and the Manichaeans, or at least in great part; and in the New Testament they preferred certain books or portions, such as the Gospel of John, with its profound spiritual intuitions, and either rejected the other books, or wrested them to suit their ideas. Marcion, for example, thus mutilated the Gospel of Luke, and received in addition to it only ten of Paul’s Epistles, thus substituting an arbitrary canon of eleven books for the catholic Testament of twenty-seven. In interpretation they adopted, even with far less moderation than Philo, the most arbitrary and extravagant allegorical principles; despising the letter as sensuous, and the laws of language and exegesis as fetters of the mind. The number 30 in the New Testament, for instance, particularly in the life of Jesus, is made to denote the number of the Valentinian aeons; and the lost sheep in the parable is Achamoth. Even to heathen authors, to the poems of Homer, Aratus, Anacreon, they applied this method, and discovered in these works the deepest Gnostic mysteries.808808    Hippol. Philos. IV. 46, V. 8, 13, 20.08 They gathered from the whole field of ancient mythology, astronomy, physics, and magic, everything which could, serve in any way to support their fancies.

The common characteristics of nearly all the Gnostic systems are (1) Dualism; the assumption of an eternal antagonism between God and matter. (2) The demiurgic notion; the separation of the creator of the world or the demiurgos from the proper God. (3) Docetism; the resolution of the human element in the person of the Redeemer into mere deceptive appearance.809809    Δόκητις, φάντασμα.09

We will endeavor now to present a clear and connected view of the theoretical and practical system of Gnosticism in as it comes before us in its more fully developed forms, especially the Valentinian school.

1. The Gnostic Theology. The system starts from absoIute primal being. God is the unfathomable abyss,810810    Βυθός.10 locked up within himself, without beginning, unnamable, and incomprehensible; on the one hand, infinitely exalted above every existence; yet, on the other hand, the original aeon, the sum of all ideas and spiritual powers. Basilides would not ascribe even existence to him, and thus, like Hegel, starts from absolute nonentity, which, however, is identical with absolute being.811811    So in the old Hindu philosophy, absolute Being is regarded as the ground of all existence. It is itself devoid of qualities, incapable of definition, inconceivable, neither one thing nor another thing, yet containing in itself the possibilities; of all things; and out from its dark depths the universe was evolved through some mysterious impulse. The Vedas describe it thus: "It is neither Brahma, nor Vishnoo, nor Sivan, but something back of these, without passion, neither great nor small, neither male nor female, but something far beyond."11 He began where modern Agnosticism ends.

2. Kosmology. The abyss opens; God enters upon a process of development, and sends forth from his bosom the several aeons; that is, the attributes and unfolded powers of his nature, the ideas of the eternal spirit-world, such as mind, reason, wisdom, power, truth, life.812812    Νοῦς, λόγος , σοφία, δύναμις, ἀλήθεια, ζωή , etc.12 These emanate from the absolute in a certain order, according to Valentine in pairs with sexual polarity. The further they go from the great source, the poorer and weaker they become. Besides the notion of emanation,813813    Προβολή (from προβάλλω), a putting forward, a projection.13 the Gnostics employed also, to illustrate the self-revelation of the absolute, the figure of the evolution of numbers from an original unit, or of utterance in tones gradually diminishing to the faint echo.814814    Basilides and Saturninus use the former illustration; Marcos uses the latter.14 The cause of the procession of the aeons is, with some, as with Valentine, the self-limiting love of God; with others, metaphysical necessity. The whole body of aeons forms the ideal world, or light-world, or spiritual foulness, the Pleroma, as opposed to the Kenoma, or the material world of emptiness. The one is the totality of the divine powers and attributes, the other the region of shadow and darkness. Christ belongs to the Pleroma, as the chief of the aeons; the Demiurge or Creator belongs to the Kenoma. In opposition to the incipient form of this heresy, St. Paul taught that Jesus Christ is the whole pleroma of the Godhead (Col. 1:19; 2:9), and the church the reflected pleroma of Christ (Eph. 1:22).

The material visible world is the abode of the principle of evil. This cannot proceed from God; else he were himself the author of evil. It must come from an opposite principle. This is Matter (ὕλη), which stands in eternal opposition to God and the ideal world. The Syrian Gnostics, and still more the Manichaeans, agreed with Parsism in conceiving Matter as an intrinsically evil substance, the raging kingdom of Satan, at irreconcilable warfare with the kingdom of light. The Alexandrian Gnostics followed more the Platonic idea of the ὕλη and conceived this as κένωμα, emptiness, in contrast with πλήρωμα, the divine, vital fulness, or as the μὴ ὄν, related to the divine being as shadow to light, and forming the dark limit beyond which the mind cannot pass. This Matter is in itself dead, but becomes animated by a union with the Pleroma, which again is variously described. In the Manichaean system there are powers of darkness, which seize by force some parts of the kingdom of light. But usually the union is made to proceed from above. The last link in the chain of divine aeons, either too weak to keep its hold on the ideal world, or seized with a sinful passion for the embrace of the infinite abyss, falls as a spark of light into the dark chaos of matter, and imparts to it a germ of divine life, but in this bondage feels a painful longing after redemption, with which the whole world of aeons sympathizes. This weakest aeon is called by Valentine the lower Wisdom, or Achamoth,815815    Ἡ κάτω σοφία, Ἀχαμώθ (Iren. 1. 4; in Stieren, I. 44), הַחָכְמרׄת or אַכִּימוּת the Chaldaic form of the Hebrew חָכְמָה 15 and marks the extreme point, where spirit must surrender itself to matter, where the infinite must enter into the finite, and thus form a basis for the real world. The myth of Achamoth is grounded in the thought, that the finite is incompatible with the absolute, yet in some sense demands it to account for itself.

Here now comes in the third principle of the Gnostic speculation, namely, the world-maker, commonly called the Demiurge,816816    Δημιουργός, a term used by Plato in a similar sense.16 termed by Basilides "Archon" or world-ruler, by the Ophites. "Jaldabaoth," or son of chaos. He is a creature of the fallen aeon, formed of physical material, and thus standing between God and Matter. He makes out of Matter the visible sensible world, and rules over it. He has his throne in the planetary heavens, and presides over time and over the sidereal spirits. Astrological influences were generally ascribed to him. He is the God of Judaism, the Jehovah, who imagines himself to be the supreme and only God. But in the further development of this idea the systems differ; the anti-Jewish Gnostics, Marcion and the Ophites, represent the Demiurge as an insolent being, resisting the purposes of God; while the Judaizing Gnostics, Basilides and Valentine, make him a restricted, unconscious instrument of God to prepare the way for redemption.

3. Christology and Soteriology. Redemption itself is the liberation of the light-spirit from the chains of dark Matter, and is effected by Christ, the most perfect aeon, who is the mediator of return from the sensible phenomenal world to the supersensuous ideal world, just as the Demiurge is the mediator of apostacy from the Pleroma to the Kenoma. This redeeming aeon, called by Valentine σωτήρ or Ἰησοῦς descends through the sphere of heaven, and assumes the ethereal appearance of a body; according to another view, unites himself with the man Jesus, or with the Jewish Messiah, at the baptism, and forsakes him again at the passion. At all events, the redeemer, however conceived in other respects, is allowed no actual contact with sinful matter. His human birth, his sufferings and death, are explained by Gnosticism after the manner of the Indian mythology, as a deceptive appearance, a transient vision, a spectral form, which he assumed only to reveal himself to the sensuous nature of man. Reduced to a clear philosophical definition, the Gnostic Christ is really nothing more than the ideal spirit of himself, as in the mythical gospel-theory of Strauss. The Holy Ghost is commonly conceived as a subordinate aeon. The central fact in the work of Christ is the communication of the Gnosis to a small circle of the initiated, prompting and enabling them to strive with clear consciousness after the ideal world and the original unity. According to Valentine, the heavenly Soter brings Achamoth after innumerable sufferings into the Pleroma, and unites himself with her—the most glorious aeon with the Iowest—in an eternal spirit-marriage. With this, all disturbance in the heaven of aeons is allayed, and a blessed harmony and inexpressible delight are restored, in which all spiritual (pneumatic) men, or genuine Gnostics, share. Matter is at last entirely consumed by a fire breaking out from its dark bosom.

4. The Anthropology of the Gnostics corresponds with their theology. Man is a microcosm consisting of spirit, body, and soul reflecting the three principles, God, Matter, and Demiurge, though in very different degrees. There are three classes of men: the spiritual,817817    Πευματικοί.17 in whom the divine element, a spark of light from the ideal world, predominates; the material,818818    Σωματικοί, φυσικοί, σαρκικοί, ὑλικοί.18 bodily, carnal, physical, in whom matter, the gross sensuous principle, rules; and the psychical,819819    Ψυχικοί.19 in whom the demiurgic, quasi-divine rules; principle, the mean between the two preceding, prevails.

These three classes are frequently identified with the adherents of the three religions respectively; the spiritual with the Christians, the carnal with the heathens, the psychical with the Jews. But they also made the same distinction among the professors of any one religion, particularly among the Christians; and they regarded themselves as the genuine spiritual men in the full sense of the word; while they looked upon the great mass of Christians820820    Οἱ πολλοί.20 as only psychical, not able to rise from blind faith to true knowledge, too weak for the good, and too tender for the evil, longing for the divine, yet unable to attain it, and thus hovering between the Pleroma of the ideal world and the Kenoma of the sensual.

Ingenious as this thought is, it is just the basis of that unchristian distinction of esoteric and exoteric religion, and that pride of knowledge, in which Gnosticism runs directly counter to the Christian virtues of humility and love.

« Prev The System of Gnosticism. Its Theology Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |