Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Reading N°41 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

A less ephemeral success than that enjoyed by the Ebionites and the Elcesaites crowned the attempts of those who sought to revive the Jewish spirit by its union with the Hellenic. This was the origin of Gnosticism, which is the evolution of Jewish thought, stimulated by Greek philosophic speculation.[1] This applies especially to the first phase of the Gnostic heresy.

St. Irenaeus (AD 139-202) was the first Christian author to use the term
Gnostic in reference to the proponents of the new heresy.

If we consider the whole history of Gnosticism, we shall see that it is an effort of Greek thought to absorb Judaism and Christianity, as well as an effort of Jewish thought to assimilate Christian and Greek thought without itself being transformed. May we not also discover therein an effort of the Christian spirit - an effort legitimate in principle, but less so in its actual development - to give philosophic expression to the doctrines and practices of Christianity, or, if you wish, to transpose into the language of ancient philosophy the doctrinal and moral teaching of the sacred Books? Tertullian remarks that, in the strangeness of its formulas and symbols, Gnosticism did in reality broach the greatest problems that stir the human mind, namely: What are the possible relations between God and the world? How can the Pure Spirit, the infinite Being, know, produce, and govern the material and the finite? What is the origin of evil, and how, once it has been committed, can it be repaired?[2]

The history of the Gnostic movement includes two distinct phases. During the second phase especially, toward the close of the second century and beyond, we meet that multiplication of systems, with strange names, mysterious and sometimes shameful ceremonies, and obscure theories, in which theurgy, so-called "illuminatism," and magic are more in evidence than philosophy. The first phase, appearing in Hadrian's time and continuing to the reign of Antoninus Pius, is, on the contrary, marked by the intellectual worth and relatively high moral attitude of the leaders of the movement.

The idea inspiring Gnosticism possesses a certain majesty. Jewish monotheism is plainly its starting point. There is primarily a desire to conceive a very pure and lofty idea of the Divinity. To make this idea as pure as possible, it is stripped of every notion applicable to human nature, until it is impossible to speak of it except by calling it the Great Silence (Sige). To make this idea as lofty as possible, they conceive God as an infinitely remote Being, infinitely separated from 'man and nature, and they call Him "Chaos" (Bythos). An eternal silence in the depths of an infinite chaos: this, they say, is the only concept worthy of the Divinity.

But matter is here, palpable and unrefined; evil is here, visible and distressing; the heart of man is here, aspiring to purification, to liberation from matter, to union with God. How is this appalling dualism to be solved? It is on this question that the schools divide.

In the time of Trajan, a certain Saturnilus of Antioch, spoken of by Hegesippus,[3] taught that, between the supreme God, whom no one can know or name, and the visible world, there were intermediate spirits, created by God. After a dazzling image, fleet as lightning, which came to them from God, they created, or rather they tried to create, man. They succeeded in producing only an incomplete, crawling creature. This was primitive man. But God, recognizing therein some image of Himself, took pity on it; He sent it a spark of life which made this creature a man, and which is destined some day to return to the divine principle.

This is merely a rough outline of the great systems that Basilides, Carpocrates, and Valentinus elaborated in Hadrian's reign.

Basilides was born in Syria. He taught at Alexandria[4] and he gave out his doctrine to be a traditional teaching going back to the Apostles, professing to derive his ideas from St. Peter through the intermediary of a certain Glaucias, and also appealing to the authority of St. Matthew.[5] His theory was not much more than an amplification and more systematic statement of Saturnilus' doctrine: the idea of an inaccessible divinity, of an evil world, of intermediate spirits whom God employed to act upon the world, forms the basis of his religious philosophy. He adds the notion of a division of the spirits into good and bad angels, and he gives an important place to magical operations.[6]

Carpocrates of Alexandria, a contemporary of Basilides, is openly a Platonist. According to him, the first principle of all things is the Monad, in which eventually every spirit will be absorbed in perfect bliss. All souls, before their earthly existence, have contemplated the eternal truths; but some keep a more vivid memory of them than do others. Great men are those in whom these memories are the more perfect. They possess the Knowledge (Gnosis), which is the supreme good. The line of great men includes Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and, most eminent of all, Jesus, in whom the eternal ideas, which he had perceived in the bosom of the Father, were so present and living. Virtue, says Carpocrates, is an ascent toward the Monad, or toward the Father, by a progressive liberation from human conventions and laws. It is evident to what excess such a doctrine might lead. Carpocrates' disciples made immorality a means of salvation.[7]

Valentinus of Rome was a mighty spirit. He was metaphysician, psychologist, and poet. Of God, man, nature, the various forces that move beings and their deepest antinomies, he purposed giving a complete explanation capable of satisfying the philosopher by its closely reasoned logic and of being grasped by the populace by its lifelike figures.[8] For him, Bythos and Sige (Chaos and Silence) are not two names of the Primal Being, but the divine Couple, the supreme Syzygie from whom everything emanates. Like his predecessors, Valentinus did not hide the fundamental antinomy between spirit and matter, God and the visible world. His whole effort consisted in showing how this infinite gap is filled with an infinite number of intermediary beings unequally perfect, how this radical opposition is corrected by a gradual yielding of the ascending and descending powers, and by the intervention of beings of pacification and harmony, placed in the world by the supreme couple who are at the summit of all things.

From Chaos and Silence are born Spirit and Truth. This is the primal Tetrad or Quaternion: Bythos, Sige, Nous, and Aletheia. Spirit, united to Truth, gave birth to the Word (Logos) and to Life (Zoe); and these communicated existence to man and to the Church. The blessed Ogdoad is thus constituted.

According to the distance to which beings go from the Primal Principle, they lose, by imperceptible diminution, something of the divine; yet they remain fecund and by generating form a series of superior beings or Aeons, which together constitute Fulness, or Pleroma. In this Pleroma, every Aeon aspires to complete comprehension of the Chaos; and this aspiration constitutes its life and joy.

It also produced the evil of the world. For the lower Aeons, those who descended as far as the limits of the Pleroma, have been jealous of the perfect Spirit, or Nous. In vain have the spirits of the Confines tried to restore harmony in the Pleroma; a lower Wisdom, a degraded Reason, was born in the midst of these conflicts. It is Achamoth. Being exiled from the Pleroma, Achamoth joined with Chaos; from these two was born the Demiurge, or Creator of the material world, and the whole of the material world has constituted the Kenoma (Void, Nothing). The decadence did not halt, but continued even to the supreme Evil, to Satan, Belzebuth, the Master of the lower world.

Man finds himself between these two worlds. The Demiurge made him material, but Wisdom infused a spirit into him. On the confines of the Kenoma, but aspiring to the Pleroma, man is divided between two worlds. Who will save him? A higher being, Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Spirit gradually purifies and who eventually will lead the elite of mankind with him into the Pleroma.

In consequence of these troubles, there was produced a division in mankind. It thenceforth includes the Materials (Hylists) , the Animals (Psychists), and the Spirituals (Pneumatists). These last no longer have need of good works or virtues; they have Knowledge (Gnosis). Whoever knows the mysteries, possesses salvation; whoever knows the enigma of the world, is freed from all rule; whoever has knowledge, no longer needs faith or law.[9]


[1] Cf. Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, 113.
[2] Tertullian, De praescr., VII; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta a Theodoto, 78.
[3] Eusebius, H. E., IV, xxii, 5.
[4] Basilides taught about the years 133-155. Cf. Harnack, Chronologie, p. 290.
[5] Or St. Matthias, according to the variant readings of the manuscripts.
[6] Such is the description given by St. Irenaeus (Haereses, I, xxiv, 3 ff.). The author of the Philosophumena (VII, xiv) gives a different interpretation; but all the evidence leads us to suppose that we have to do with an evolution of the doctrine of Basilides, such as it was in the third century. (See Dufourcq, Saint Irénée, pp. 62-64.)
[7] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, I, xxv; Dufourcq, op. cit., pp. 64-66.
[8] The spread of Valentinus' ideas at Rome began about AD 135. Cf. Harnack, Chronologie, 291.
[9] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, I, xi; Dufourcq, Saint Irénée, pp. 48-53.


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