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Gnosticism

III. -- GNOSTICISM.


1. ORIGINATING CAUSES OF GNOSTICISM. --Three causes were especially operative in giving rise to Gnosticism. The first of these was that spirit of intellectual aristocracy which dominated so largely the ancient world. Priesthoods and philosophers embraced the theory that the great mass of men were without capacity for the higher grades of religious as well as of secular knowledge. The favored few, as a kind of spiritual aristocracy, were set over against the many. Platonism was not free from this spirit; indeed, it ministered directly to pride of intellect, by making ignorance or mental infatuation the source of sin, and consequently locating salvation in the healing and cultivationof the understanding. For the simple-minded it held out but little hope of reaching God, since it considered elevated philosophical reflection as pre-eminently the pathway to His presence. Now, this inveterate tendency of ancient thought still held its place in many minds that were attracted toward Christianity. They were not willing to rank with the common mass, and form a part of a spiritual democracy. Ordinary Christians were regarded by them as merely men of faith who had received on authority the outward facts of Christianity, but had not been inducted into its mysteries. From this unlearned multitude they wished to be distinguished as the men of knowledge, as the Gnostics, who had grasped Christianity in its transcendent significance. Their tendency was to sacrifice the historical and the ethical to the speculative and the intellectual. "The motto of the Gnostic," says Mansel, "might be exactly given in the words of a distinguished modern philosopher, 'Men are saved, not by the historical, but by the metaphysical.'" [The Gnostic Heresies, p. 11. The words of Fichte are, "Nur das Metaphysische, keineswegs aber das Historische, macht selig."] "The tendency of Gnosticism," says Pressensé, "is always to make the element of knowledge predominate over that of the moral life: it changes religion into theosophy." [Heresy and Christian Doctrine, Book I., chap. i.] It is not, however, to be inferred from this, that Gnosticism, as a whole, was actually distinguished by a high intellectuality. A large part of, it was not so much a product of genuine thought as of a wild and rampant imagination. To explain how they came into possession of their boasted knowledge, and to obtain a sanction for the same, the Gnostics were forward to claim that Christ had revealed to a select circle what He never had declared openly, and that this secret teaching had been transmitted continuously through a line of disciples, whose natures rendered them receptive of the mystery.


A second factor which contributed greatly to Gnosticism was the spirit of Oriental mysticism. As is abundantly attested by history, the Oriental mind has a peculiar bent toward the allegorical, the mystical, the vague, and the immense. By a mind thus disposed, clear outlines and divine simplicity were poorly appreciated. Jewish history, and even the gospel history, appeared too narrow and commonplace. It was thought necessary, therefore, to penetrate beyond the range of revelation, to traverse the secret chambers of the universe, and to view the facts of the gospel in the light of developments which had taken place within the God-head, and among the higher powers.


A third motive-power in the direction of Gnosticism was a lively feeling of dualism, a painful consciousness of the might of the evil which struggles in this world for mastery over the good. This feeling characterized to a peculiar degree the declining classic world. The state of society emphasized the force of downward tendencies, and the inherited faith afforded meagre promise of a remedy. There was accordingly little of youthful ambition and hope to make present evil seem less by summoning up exciting prospects of coming good. A sense of the evil in the world rested like a heavy weight upon many heathen minds that were not too indifferent, or too absorbed in earthliness and sin, to reflect upon the subject. This feeling, when carried into the speculative sphere, and not corrected by an appropriation of the inner spirit of Christianity, logically issued in a species of philosophical pessimism, in other words, it naturally gave currency to that dark view of the world already naturalized in the Orient, according to which evil has the force of a necessity, and is an inherent quality of material existence.


2. MATERIALS EMPLOYED BY GNOSTICISM.-- Eclecticism was carried to an extreme by Gnosticism. Some ideas, particularly that of redemption, were borrowed from Christianity; some from the more speculative forms of Judaism, especially the Philonic ; some from the varied schools of Greek philosophy; some from the varied religions of the Orient, including Zoroastrianism, and probably also Buddhism and Brahmanism. Whether borrowed or not from these last sources, some of the Gnostic ideas were undoubtedly such as are found in the Hindu pantheism; and there is little reason to question that they had an historical connection more or less direct with that source. The conquests of Alexander resulted in a measure of communication with India. Buddhist missionaries are supposed to have visited Egypt before the Christian era. [C. W. King, The Gnostics and their Remains (p. 23). Neander and Baur also emphasize the influence of the Indian specultations.] That the religious philosophy of India was widely celebrated in the early centuries, we know from the remarks of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. [Apol., xlii.; Strom., vi. 4; Cont. Celsum, i. 24.] Thus every quarter was laid under contribution, and made to supply one or more fragments for the fantastic combinations of the Gnostic kaleidoscope.


3. FEATURES GENERALLY FOUND IN THE GNOSTIC SYSTEMS.--The Gnostic systems agreed, in the main, upon the following points: God is the unfathomable abyss exalted above all contact with the creature world. The universe is divided into many stories; and the Supreme Being (as Tertullian ironically represents in his treatise against the Valentinians) "has His dwelling in the attics." [Adv. Valentin., vii.] From God an unfoldment has proceeded, His attributes or powers going forth in personal form, the first emanations serving as sources for those more remote, until a chain of celestial beings, or Æons, appears between the Supreme Father and the material realm. The material is the sent of evil, something essentially opposed to the divine. The fashioner of the material world, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, is a subordinate being, standing below even the Æons, and representing psychical rather than spiritual existence. The Saviour is a being from the Æonic world, who united himself with Jesus of Nazareth. By this union, however, which was only temporary, he was not brought into contact with matter, or subjected to bodily needs and sufferings. The incarnation was unreal. Men are by nature divided into different moral classes, and so fitted for different destinies. No member of a lower class can transcend the circle which fate, or an absolute predestination, has drawn about him.


It is also a common feature of the Gnostic systems, that they deal in images rather than in pure conceptions. Every thing assumes shape or personality. As Irenæus complains, the Gnostics were "perverse mythologists." [1 Cont. Hær., iv. 1. 1.] Theology, under their handling, becomes not so much a discourse about God, as an imaginary history of God, a grand romance, tracing divine life in its outgoings toward the material world, and in the return toward its original source.


4. POINTS OF DIFFERENCE. --The Gnostic systems differed as to the degree of dualism which they affirmed. The Syrian were in general more dualistic than the Alexandrian. Some, much after the fashion of the Hindu pantheists, regarded tile material realm as the region of emptiness and illusion, the void opposite of the pleroma, that world of reality and spiritual fulness; others assigned a more positive nature to the material, and regarded it as capable of an evil aggressiveness, even apart from any quickening by the incoming of life from above. Some sects were less hostile to Old-Testament Judaism than others. Hence, while some represented Jehovah as a positively malicious being, others represented him as merely a limited being unconsciously fulfilling the will of a higher power. So marked were the differences in this respect, that Neander considers the attitude toward Judaism the proper standard of classification. Some taught a stricter docetism, or more thorough negation of all reality in Christ's bodily appearance, than did others. In their use of the Scriptures, all the Gnostics were arbitrary to the last degree; but some were disposed to sustain their views chiefly by far-fetched allegorizing, while others rejected outright large portions of the Bible, and worked over the remaining to suit their ideas. In their practical principles there were also notable differences. Some tolerated marriage; others reprobated it in the strongest terms. Contempt for the world led some to strict asceticism; others pleaded the same thing for unbounded license. Some practised great simplicity in their worship; others indulged an extreme of mystic pomp.


5. ORGANIZATION, ERA, AND INFLUENCE. --With the Gnostics, the speculative predominated over the practical. The speculative, too, exhibited much of centrifugal energy. Disciples were little disposed to adhere closely to their masters. Hence Gnosticism, on the whole, was not an example of compact organization and vigorous propagandism. It resulted in a multitude of separate, shifting schools. Tertullian's description, though likely overdrawn, may be credited with no little truth. "All heresies," says he, "when thoroughly looked into, are detected harboring dissent in many particulars even from their founders. The majority of them have not even churches. Motherless, houseless, creedless, outcasts, they wander about in their own essential worthlessness." [De Præscript. Hæret., xlii.] Many of the Gnostics, could they have found tolerance, would have preferred to remain in the communion of the Catholic Church, constituting there a species of spiritual and intellectual aristocracy.


Gnosticism arose, and made a noticeable advance, during the lifetime of the apostles. The early Fathers attached to Simon the magician, whom Peter withstood in Samaria, the opprobrium of being the first Gnostic. Quite a number of passages which probably refer to Gnostic heresy are found in the New Testament (Col. ii. 8, 18; 1 Tim. 1, 4, vi. 20; 2 Tim. ii. 16-18; Jude 17-19; Rev. ii. 6, 14; 1 John i. 1-3, iv. 1-3; 2 John, 7). As Irenæus testifies, and as the contents of the book also indicate, John wrote portions of his Gospel with direct reference to the Gnostic vagaries of Cerinthus and the Nicolaitans. [Cont. Hær., iii. 11.] But it was the second century which was the special era of Gnosticism. In this century arose the most elaborate and influential systems. At the beginning of the third century, Gnosticism had already, in large part, succumbed before the able and vigorous opposition of the Church. Like great epidemics, it had its season, and appeared thereafter only in limited strength.


While Gnosticism was not destitute of valuable thoughts, and contained some elements of speculative acuteness, it was, on the whole, a caricature of Christianity. Nevertheless, it was not without its benefits. On the one hand, the work of opposing it brought the essential truths of Christianity more clearly into the consciousness of the early Church than would have been possible otherwise. On the other hand, Gnosticism made a positive contribution by calling attention to Christianity as a central factor in the scheme of the universe. Herein it did service as an off-set to the narrow-minded Ebionism.


6. GLANCE AT VARIOUS SYSTEMS. -- The earliest of the important exponents of the Egyptian Gnosis was Basilides. Valentinus, who wrote some years later, was its most distinguished representative. Indeed, his system may be regarded as the most elaborate and finished expression of the more speculative type of Gnosticism. Saturninus was a leading exponent of the Syrian Gnosis. Marcion was the most successful propagator of Gnosticism that came from Asia Minor. The teachings of these four men, as being most representative and significant, will command our chief attention; but, before they are taken up, a brief reference to some of the less noteworthy df the Gnostic systems may be worth our consideration.


According to Irenæus and Hippolytus, Simon Magus, whom Peter encountered in Samaria, represented himself as a manifestation of divinity, -- the active principle or father of the universe. The passive or feminine principle, he claimed, was embodied in his companion Helena, whom he had purchased from slavery in Tyre. This Helena, the first conception of his mind, after having become the mother of the powers which made the world, suffered degradation at their hands, but at length had been restored by him. Menander, the disciple and successor of Simon, gave currency to similar views. The Simonians, who worshipped the sorcerer as a redeeming being, are said to have been of a highly immoral stamp. Origen testified that in his day the sect probably did not number thirty members in the whole world. [Cont. Celsum, i. 57.]


Irenæus identifies the Nicolaitans of later times with those mentioned under that name in the Apocalypse, and derives their name from Nicolas, one of the seven deacons, whom he supposes to have apostatized from the faith. [Cont. Hær., i. 26. 3.] Clement of Alexandria, on the other hand, while he indicates that the sect claimed descent from the deacon, discredits the propriety of the claim. [Strom., ii. 20.] The sect had a reputation for gross antinomianism. Clement charges them with a shameful perversion of the maxim that the flesh must be abused.


The Ophites, or Naassenes, are so called from the prominence given to the serpent in their system. As exhibiting the same feature, the Peratae, Sethians, and Cainites are properly ranked as branches of the same general class. The eclectic system of these Ophite sects began early to be formed, possibly before the rise of Christianity, from which it received only a moderate contribution. The significance attached to the serpent seems to have been different in the different branches; some understanding by the serpent an offspring of the evil Demiurge, others Sophia, others the Word or the Divine Son. [Irenæus, Cont. Hær., i. 30; Hippolytus, Philos., v. 1-17.] Some of the Ophites were antinomians of the extremest cast. The Cainites, who were one of the most fanatical of these sects, looked upon the God of the Old Testament as an evil being, gloried in the disobedience of the first parents, and honored as worthy heroes such men as Cain, Korah, and Judas Iscariot. [Irenæus, i. 31.] Their hostility to the God of law became a raving mania. Origen speaks of the Ophites as "a very insignificant sect." [Cont. Celsum, vi. 24.]


The Carpocratians, emanating from Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes, formed another of those sects, so predominantly heathen as to exhibit but little trace of the influence of Christianity. They cultivated a hero-worship much in the spirit of Neo-Platonism, and placed Christ in the same rank with other men of religious fame. They were antinomian, teaching that license is a fitting expression of contempt for all external restrictions, and a stepping-stone to true emancipation. [Irenæus, i. 25; Hippolytus, vii. 20; Euseb., iv. 7. In point of antinomianism, the Antitactæ and Prodicians are associated with the Carpocratians.]


The Encratites proceeded from Tatian, who was converted to Christianity by Justin Martyr, but afterwards strayed into Gnosticism. His teaching concerning the Æons resembled that of Valentinus. Like Marcion, he discountenanced marriage, and enjoined a rigid asceticism. [Irenæus, i. 28.]


7. THE SYSTEM OF BASILIDES. --The writings of Hippolytus [Philos., vii. 2-15.] and Clement of Alexandria are regarded as the most reliable sources of information upon this system. Basilides taught at Alexandria in the time of Hadrian. The starting-point of his system is the extreme of Gnostic vagueness. He goes beyond all bounds in emphasizing the transcendence of the primal Being, declaring Him not only above all name and conception, but above the category of existence itself, identical to our thought with nonentity. In passing from the primal Being to the lower orders of existence, Basilides takes a somewhat unusual course for a Gnostic. Discarding the emanation theory, or a downward evolution, he predicates instantaneous creation and evolution upwards. First of all, the unnamable Being produces by an involuntary fiat the world-seed. In this seed, which contains the universe in germ, there exists a threefold sonship of the same substance as its Author. One part or order of the sonship is refined, one part relatively gross, while the third is in need of purification. The first of these rises at once to the supreme Deity; the second, by the aid of the Holy Spirit as a wing, rises to the next inferior place; while the disengaged wing remains between it and the lower region. From the seed springs up now the Great Ruler, who ascends to the firmament, or the region of the Holy Spirit. An inferior Ruler also, the Lawgiver of the Old Testament, springs up and governs an inferior space. Under these Rulers, an elaborate scheme of creation is inaugurated. The Great Ruler, otherwise called Abrasax, or Abraxas, is said to preside over no less than three hundred and sixty-five heavens. Meanwhile, each of the Rulers had generated a son greater than himself. These sons of the Rulers serve a redemptive purpose, enlightening their fathers, and providing a channel by which enlightenment descends to the sonship needing purification; Jesus of Nazareth being the first recipient, and illustrating by his ascent to the higher regions the exaltation awaiting his followers.


The system of Basilides, while of course it disparages Judaism, reveals no special bitterness towards the same. In this it agrees with that which is next to be characterized.


8. THE SYSTEM OF VALENTINUS. --This most distinguished of the Gnostic writers, who mingled not a little of the poetical with the speculative, is supposed to have been a native of Egypt, and of Jewish descent. He taught in Rome the major part of the interval between 140 and 160, and ended his career at the latter date in Cyprus. According to Tertullian, he was an able and eloquent man, who was much disappointed by his failure to obtain the office of a bishop. [Adv. Valentin., iv.]


The system of Valentinus starts forth with the assumption of God as the primordial abyss, the absolute ground of all real existence. As to whether He dwelt alone before the first of the Æons was generated, there was a difference of opinion among the Valentinians themselves. "Some of them," says Hippolytus, "suppose that the Father is unfeminine, unwedded, and solitary. But others reckon along with the Father of the universe, in order that He may be a Father, Sige as a spouse." [Philos., vi. 24. Compare Irenæus, Cont. Hær., i. 1.] Probably the first of these representations was that offered by Valentinus himself. From the supreme Father, as the first link in the chain of emanations, is projected the pair Nous and Aletheia. From this pair proceeds the pair Logos and Zoe, and from this last emanates the pair Anthropos and Ecclesia. Then ten emanations proceed from the first two Æons. Logos and Zoe, serving also as a ground of emanations, add twelve Æons, making twenty-eight in all. These together constitute the pleroma, the region of light and spiritual fulness. The perfect harmony within this region is first broken by the ambition of Sophia, the remotest of the Æons, who is seized with a passion to search into the nature of the supreme Father, and to emulate Him also by producing without her partner. It is, however, only a formless, incomplete being that she is able to bring forth, a being unfit for the pleroma. To meet the exigency thus created, another pair of Æons, namely, Christ and the Holy Spirit, is produced. The shapeless Achamoth, the offspring of Sophia's passions, is expelled from the pleroma, receiving form, however, through the good offices of Christ and the Holy Spirit; and the Father produces an additional Æon, Heros, to guard the border. Pity for the fallen Achamoth now causes the Æons to combine for the production of the Æon Saviour, who is to serve as the agent of her redemption. He descends with his angels into the void and formless region, where the daughter of Sophia is tortured with desire, fear, grief, and perplexity, and separates her passions from her. Various orders of beings result. From the passions of Achamoth come the Devil and his angels, and every thing of a material nature; from her tears, liquid substance; from her laughter, whatever is bright in nature. Her repentance and desires result in psychical natures, at the head of which is the Demiurge, or world-fashioner. Her joyful gaze upon the beauty of the Saviour's attendants gives rise to pneumatic, or spiritual, natures. Having thus begun the redemption of Achamoth, the Saviour retires for a season.


The Demiurge, to whom the details of the lower creation are intrusted, and who unconsciously is the instrument of a higher power, is the God of the Old Testament. In forming men, the Demiurge has power to impart to them only material and psychical elements; but, without his knowledge, Achamoth secures that a certain select portion of mankind should become partakers of the spiritual essence. Corresponding to the three varieties of substance, there are three orders of men, -- the earthly (or somatic or hylic), the psychical, and the spiritual; the immediate sovereign of the first being Satan, of the second the Demiurge, of the third Achamoth.


The consummation of redemption is in the following manner: The Demiurge promises the coming of a Messiah. This promised Messiah appears in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a being made in the image of the Demiurge, and having the bodily form of a man; his body, however, being composed not of matter, but of an ethereal substance from the upper regions. At the baptism of this Messiah, there is joined with him the Saviour from the pleroma, who continues with him till his passion. In virtue of the redemptive work, men receive a revelation of the truth suited to their natures, and are attracted toward their proper sphere. The lost sheep, Achamoth, is finally to be restored to the pleroma as the bride of the Saviour. The spiritual men are to be received into their presence, and to be united to the attendant angels. Psychical men, if they improve their opportunity, are to find a happy, though less exalted, lot in the paradise of the Demiurge. [An element of contingency is admitted only in respect to the second class. Men of the first class are certain to be saved; those of the third certain to be destroyed, those of the second are saved or destroyed, according as they elect good or evil.] Material men, and all things material, are to be consumed by fire.


In its outcome, therefore, the theory of Valentinus stops short of the true pantheistic goal. But this issue is to be regarded as rather the product of a happy inconsistency than of strict adherence to the requirements of his premises. "As the thought," says Mansel, "which underlies his whole theory is substantially that of the Indian pantheism, according to which all finite existence is an error and an unreality, so his scheme of redemption logically carried out should have resulted in the absorption of all finite and relative existence into the bosom of the infinite and absolute." [The Gnostic Heresies, Lecture 12.]


The school of Valentinus won many adherents. Among the more distinguished disciples were Ptolemy, Marcus, and Heracleon. The name of Bardesanes might also be included, but he is supposed to have adhered only temporarily to the teachings of Valentinus.


9. THE SYSTEM OF SATURNINUS. -- Only brief accounts of this system are given us. It is chiefly noteworthy for the impress of Persian dualism which it reveals. A region of light and a region of darkness are set over against each other. On the borders of the former stand seven angels, the God of the Jews being their chief. In the exercise of their creative function, they produce the earth and man. This is interpreted by the powers of darkness, under the lead of Satan, as an assault against their realm; and a continual warfare results. Men are allied with the one party or the other, according to their possession or destitution of the principle of light. To assist those who are worthy, the supreme Deity sends down a redeeming being, who takes on the semblance of a body, and becomes the teacher and guide of spiritual men. Asceticism is the path to emancipation. The followers of Saturninus are said to have reprobated marriage and procreation as being from Satan, and to have abstained for the most part from animal food.


10. THE SPSTEM OF MARCION. --Marcion, reputed to have been the son of a bishop in Pontus, was born in the early part of the second century. On account, probably, of his restless temper and leaning to heresy, he was expelled from the church of his native place. Coming to Rome, he met the Gnostic Cerdo, and adopted a Gnostic type of doctrine.


A somewhat exceptional position among the Gnostics was occupied by Marcion. He had much more of a practical disposition than the great majority. This manifested itself in greater activity in spreading his views, in less emphasis upon the gnosis as compared with faith, and in a comparative rejection of allegorizing interpretations of Scripture. In his way, however, he was as arbitrary as any of the Gnostics in his treatment of the oracles of religion. He denied all doctrinal authority to the Old Testament. Of the New Testament, he used a mutilated copy of Luke's Gospel and ten Epistles of Paul. Among the apostles, Paul was his sole authority, the others being only pseudo-apostles and falsifiers of the truth.


It was a fundamental assumption of Marcion, that Christianity, on its appearance in the world, was an entirely new fact; and this idea colored all his thinking. He was probably a man of warm, enthusiastic nature. We read how, in the zeal of his first love, he gave largely of his possessions to the Church. [Tertullian, Adv. Marcionem, iv. 4.] His conversion was by a sudden crisis. In like manner, it seemed to him that Christianity had suddenly broken into the world. He saw no preparation for it in Judaism or in heathenism. The chasm between the Old Testament and the New seemed to him immeasurable, so that by no possibility could both have come from the same God. The New Testament shows us the God of love; the Old reveals to us a Being who is angry, who punishes, whose one idea is justice.


Marcion, therefore, regarded Jehovah as a middle being, intermediate between the Supreme God and the material world, the Demiurge, who falsely imagined himself to be supreme. Matter he regarded as unoriginated, something essentially evil, the realm of Satan. As he gives no account of the origin of Jehovah, it would seem that he predicated the existence of three primary unoriginated principles.


Men were made by the Demiurge in his own image. Rut, as they were given bodies from the evil matter, they proved corrupt and unmanageable subjects. Unable by other means to lead them to their proper goal, the Demiurge designed the sending of a Messiah, and the coming of such was predicted by his prophets. Meanwhile, the Supreme Being sent into the world His own Christ, who, however, was not born of Mary, but came down from heaven in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. [Adv. Merc., iv. 7.] The Demiurge mistook him for the promised Messiah; but, when he found that he was not acting as an instrument of his will, he secured his death through the Jews. Then Christ appeared to him in his true character, and brought him to the consciousness that there was a God above himself. As regards the incarnation, Marcion was an absolute docetist, teaching that the bodily appearance of Christ was pure delusion, and that he never came into contact with sinful matter. His hatred of matter, in connection with his moral earnestness, naturally led him to inculcate asceticism, and to repudiate marriage. A rejection of a bodily resurrection followed, as a matter of course, from his principles, as from those of the Gnostics generally.


Tertullian says of Marcion, that he repented of his error, and was anticipating restoration to the Catholic Church when his death intervened. But abhorrence of heresy was so easily productive of unreliable traditions, that we hardly know how much credit to give to this statement. Of the feeling of repulsion which Marcion's system awakened in the orthodox, we have an example in the story of his meeting with Polycarp. As Marcion saw the venerable bishop in Rome, he came to him and accosted him with the words, "Do you not know me?" -- "Yes," replied Polycarp, "I know the firstborn of the devil." [Irenæus, Cont. Hær., iii. 3. 4.]


The Marcionites, who were honorably distinguished among the Gnostics by purity of morals, spread into many regions. Traces of them appear at intervals for several centuries.


In describing the various Gnostic systems, we have made no special effort to go back of their mythological guise, and to extract a definite philosophical import. Such a task is at once difficult and hazardous. Theosophic speculation does not easily admit of translation. Very likely, when stripped of their peculiar imagery, some of the Gnostic representations would not appear very widely distinguished from more recent attempts to solve great problems, such as the passage from the absolute to the relative, from unity to plurality, from good to evil. But, on the other hand, the interpreter needs to be careful not to impute to the Gnostics too great erectness and rigor of thought. On the whole, they moved more in the realm of imagination than of logic.

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