Valentinus, founder of one of the Gnostic sects which originated in the first half of 2nd cent.
I. Biography.—According to the tradition of the Valentinian school witnessed to by Clemens Alexandrinus, Valentinus had been a disciple of Theodas, who himself, it is very improbably said, knew St. Paul. Valentinus cannot have begun to disseminate his Gnostic doctrines till towards the end of the reign of Hadrian (117–138). Before this he is said to have been a Catholic Christian. It must have been, therefore, at most only shortly before his appearance as the head of a Gnostic sect that Valentinus became a hearer of Theodas and received, as he said, his doctrines from him. The Gnostics were fond of claiming for their secret doctrines apostolic tradition and tracing them back to disciples of the apostles. To this otherwise unknown Theodas the Valentinians appealed as an authority in much the same way as Basilides was said to have been a disciple of Glaucias, and he, in turn, an “interpreter of Peter.”
Irenaeus speaks of Valentinus as the first who transformed the doctrines of the Gnostic “Heresy” to a peculiar doctrinal system of his own. By the expression Gnostikí we understand a party which called themselves “Gnostics,” whom we may recognize in the so-called Ophites, described by Irenaeus, when he remarks that the Valentinian school originated from those unnamed heretics as from the many-headed Lernean Hydra. Concerning the home and locality of these so-called “Gnostics” Irenaeus tells us nothing. But we know from other sources that those Ophite parties to whom he refers had their homes both in Egypt and Syria.
Concerning the fatherland of Valentinus himself Epiphanius is the first to give accurate information, which, however, he derived simply, it appears, from oral tradition. According to this his native home was on the coast of Egypt, and he received instruction in Greek literature and science at Alexandria. Epiphanius, who makes him begin to teach in Egypt, relates further that he also went to Rome, and appeared as a religious teacher there, but that, both in Egypt and at Rome, he was regarded as orthodox, and first made shipwreck of faith in Cyprus and began to disseminate heretical opinions. But this statement rests merely on a combination of different accounts. According to Irenaeus, Valentinus “flourished” at Rome in the times of Pius and Anicetus. Epiphanius, on the other hand, read in the Sintagma of Hippolytus, that Valentinus stood once in the communion of the church, but being drawn by overweening pride into apostasy had, during his residence in Cyprus, propounded his heretical doctrine. But we cannot doubt that when Irenaeus speaks of Valentinus’s flourishing at Rome during the times of Pius and Anicetus, he refers to the fact that his chief activity as a religious teacher was then displayed, and that under Anicetus he stood at the head of his own Gnostic school. With this there is no difficulty in reconciling Tertullian’s statement, that Valentinus no more than Marcion separated himself from the Church on his arrival at Rome. For the Gnostics, for the very sake of disseminating their doctrines the more freely, made a great point of remaining in the Catholic church, and made use for that end of a twofold mode of teaching, one exoteric for the simpler sort of believers, the other esoteric for the initiated, as is shewn in the fragments which have come down to us, the most part of which purposely keep the peculiarly Gnostic doctrines in the background.
We may, then, conclude that Valentinus, towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (c. 130), appeared as a teacher in Egypt and in Cyprus, and early in the reign of Antoninus Pius he came to Rome, and during the long reign of Antoninus was a teacher there. He had probably developed and secretly prepared his theological system before he came to Rome, whither he doubtless removed for the same motive as led other leaders of sects, e.g. Cerdon and Marcion, to go to Rome—the hope to find a wider field for his activity as a teacher. From a similar motive he attached himself at first to the communion of the Catholic church.
II. History of the Sect.—Valentinus had numerous adherents. They divided themselves, we are told, into two schools—the anatolic or oriental, and the Italian school. The former of these schools was spread through Egypt and Syria, the latter in Rome, Italy, and South Gaul. Among his disciples, Secundus appears to have been one of the earliest. Tertullian and the epitomators of Hippolytus mention him after Ptolemaeus; the older work, on the other hand, excerpted by Irenaeus is apparently correct in naming him first as Valentinus’s earliest disciple. Then follows, in the same original work as quoted by Irenaeus, another illustrious teacher, of whom a misunderstanding of later heresiologists has made a Valentinian leader, named Epiphanes; who this illustrious teacher was is matter of dispute. The more probable conjecture is with Neander and Salmon to suppose it was MARCUS, whose first Tetrad exactly corresponds to that of this unnamed teacher. Marcus himself will, in any case, be among the earliest of Valentinus’s disciples. His labours in Asia were probably contemporaneous with Valentinus’s residence and activity at Rome, and there a “godly elder and herald of the truth,” whom Irenaeus quotes from as an older authority, made him the subject of metrical objurgation as the “forerunner of anti-Christian malice.
PTOLEMAEUS, on the other hand, was a contemporary of Irenaeus himself, and one of the leaders of the Italian school, whom Hippolytus in the Syntagma, and probably on the basis of an arbitrary combination of Iren. i. 8, 5 with 11, 2,
puts at the head of all other disciples of Valentinus. HERACLEON was still younger than Ptolemaeus, and the second head of the Italian school. His doctrinal system appears to be that mainly kept in view in the Philosophumena . Irenaeus names him as it were in passing, while Tertullian designates his relation to his predecessors with the words, Valentinus showed the way, Ptolemaeus walked along it, Heracleon struck out some side paths. He makes also the like remark concerning Secundus and Marcus. Clemens speaks of Heracleon (c. 193) as the most distinguished among the disciples of Valentinus, meaning, of course, among those of his own time. Origen’s statement, therefore, that he had a personal acquaintance with Valentinus is to be received with caution. In part contemporaneously with him appear to have worked the heads of the anatolic (oriental) school Axionikos and Bardesanes, who both lived into the first decennia of cent. III.
Axionikos was still working at Antioch when Tertullian composed his book against the Valentinians, therefore c. 218. We cannot here discuss how far the celebrated Edessene Gnostic BARDESANES (ob. 223) is rightly accounted a Valentinian. Tertullian indicates Axionikos as the only one who in his day still represented the original teaching of Valentinus. Theotimus, therefore, who is previously mentioned by Tertullian, and seems to have occupied himself much with the “Figures of the Law,” was, it appears, an older teacher. The same was also probably the case with Alexander, the Valentinian whose syllogisms Tertullian had in his hands.
Concerning the later history of the Valentinian sect we have but meagre information. Tertullian, writing c. 218, speaks of the Valentinians in his book against them as the “frequentissimum collegium inter haereticos.” This is confirmed by what is told us of the local extension of the sect. From Egypt it seems to have spread to Syria, Asia Minor, and to Rome. Its division into an oriental and an Italian school shows that it had adherents even after the death of its founder, in both the East (Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) and West (specially at Rome). In Asia Minor the doctrine appears to have been mainly disseminated by Marcus, who was so vigorously attacked (c. 150) by the “godly elder,” quoted by Irenaeus. Disciples of Marcus were found by Irenaeus in the Rhone districts, where also he appears to have met with adherents of Ptolemaeus. In Rome, c. 223, an important work of the Italian school came into the hands of the writer of the Philosophumena, who speaks of both schools as being in existence in his time. Tertullian also mentions the duae scholae and duae cathedrae of the party in his time . Remains of the sect were still found in Egypt in the time of Epiphanius. Theodoret, on the other hand, can only speak of the Valentinians as of other Gnostic sects (whom he deals with in his first book) as belonging to the past, of whom he possesses a mere historical knowledge.
III. The System.—A review of the accounts given by the Fathers confirms the judgment that, with the means at our command, it is very difficult to distinguish between the original doctrine of Valentinus and the later developments made by his disciples. A description of his system must start from the Fragments, the authenticity of which is unquestioned. But from the nature of these fragments we cannot expect to reconstruct the whole system out of them.Moreover, the kinds of literature to which these fragments belong—letters, homilies, hymns—show us only the outer side of the system, while its secret Gnostic doctrine is passed over and concealed, or only indicated in the obscurest manner. The modes of expression in these fragments are brought as near as possible to those in ordinary church use. We see therein the evident desire and effort of Valentinus to remain in the fellowship of the Catholic church. Of specific Gnostic doctrines two only appear in their genuine undisguised shape, that of the celestial origin of the spiritual man (the Pneumaticos), and that of the Demiurge; for the docetic Christology was not then, as is clear from Clemens Alexandrinus, exclusively peculiar to the Gnostics. All the more emphatically is the anthropological and ethical side of the system insisted on in these fragments.
As the world is an image of the living Aeon, so is man an image of the First Man. Valentinus, according to Clemens Alexandrinus, spoke of the Sophia as an artist making this visible lower world a picture of the glorious Archetype, but the hearer or reader would as readily understand the heavenly Wisdom of the Book of Proverbs to be meant by this Sophia as the 12th and fallen Aeon. Under her (according to Valentinus) stand the world-creative angels, whose head is the Demiurge. Her formation is Adam created in the name of the First Man. In him thus made a higher power puts the seed of the heavenly pneumatic essence. Thus furnished with higher insight, Adam excites the fears of the angels; they are seized with fear of the images made by their own hands to bear the name of God, i.e. the idols, so these angels cause the images they have made to disappear. The pneumatic seed nevertheless remains in the world, as a race by nature capable of being saved, and which has come down from a higher sphere in order to put an end to the reign of death.
Death originates from the Demiurge, to whom the word refers that no one can see the face of God without dying. The members of the pneumatic church are from the first immortal, and children of eternal life. They have only assumed mortality in order to overcome death in themselves and by themselves. They shall dissolve the world without themselves suffering dissolution, and be lords over the creation and over all transitory things. But without the help of the only good Father the heart even of the spiritual man (the pneumaticos) cannot be cleansed from the many evil spirits which make their abode in him, and each accomplishes his own desire. But when the only good Father visits the soul, it is hallowed and enlightened, and is called blessed because one day it shall see God. This cleansing and illumination is a consequence of the revelation of the Son.
We learn from the fragments only that Jesus, by steadfastness and abstinence, earned for Himself Deity, and by virtue of His abstinence did not even suffer to be corrupted the food which He received (i.e. it did not undergo the natural process of digestion), because He Himself was not subject to corruption. It must remain undetermined how Valentinus defined the relation of Jesus to God. If the text of the passage quoted above be sound, Jesus put Himself in possession of Godhead by His own abstinence, a notion we should expect in Ebionite rather than in Gnostic circles. But the true will be that by an extraordinary asceticism Jesus avoided every kind of material pollution, and so became Himself the image of the incorruptible and imperishable Godhead. At any rate, this fragment does not tell us whether, according to the teaching of Valentinus, the body of Jesus was pneumatic or psychical.
According to another fragment attributed to Valentinus, and preserved by Eulogius of Alexandria, he appears to have treated with ridicule the opinion of the “Galileans” that Christ had two natures, and to have maintained that He had but one nature composed of the visible and the invisible. Hilgenfeld supposes the Valentinus of this fragment to be the Gnostic, while others take him to have been the Apollinarian. But we have no other instance of any Gnostic giving to Catholic Christians (as did the emperor Julian later) the epithet “Galilean.” Further, although Tertullian and Origen may have spoken of two natures or two substances in Christ, we can hardly imagine Valentinus pronouncing a doctrine ridiculous, and yet it finding acceptance in his school. For we find the Occidental Valentinians actually teaching in very similar terms, that Soter, the common product of the whole Pleroma, united himself with the Christus of the Demiurge the Man Jesus. Could we otherwise assume that the fragment is genuine, it would serve to prove that the doctrine of the Oriental school concerning the pneumatic body of Christ was in fact the original teaching of Valentinus. How Valentinus thought concerning the origin of matter and of evil cannot be made out from existing fragments. When, however, we find him designating the Demiurge as author of death, we can hardly suppose that he derived the transitory nature and other imperfections of the terrestrial universe from an originally evil material substance.
The view, moreover, which underlies the psalm of Valentinus, of which the Philosophumena have preserved a fragment is decidedly monastic. He there sees in the spirit how “all things are hanging and are upborne, the flesh hanging on the soul, the soul upborne by the air, the air hanging on the aether, from Bythos fruits produced and from the womb the child.” Again the Demiurge hangs from the spirit which is outside the Pleroma, i.e. the Sophia in the kingdom of the Midst, the Sophia from Horus and from the Pleroma, and finally the world of Aeons in the Pleroma from the abyss, i.e. their Father. If this interpretation be, as we may assume, correct, Valentinus must have conceived the whole universe as forming a grand scale of being, beginning with the abysmal ground of all spiritual life, and thence descending lower and lower down to matter. The whole scale then is a descent from the perfect to ever more and more imperfect images; according to the principle expressly laid down by Valentinus, that the cosmos is as inferior to the living Aeon as the image is inferior to the living countenance. This view of the nature of the universe exhibits a much nearer relationship to Platonic philosophy than to the Oriental dualism which underlay the older Gnostic systems; and Hippolytus is therefore completely right, when dealing with the psalm of Valentinus, to speak of Platonizing Gnostics.
To what authority Valentinus made appeal as the source of his doctrine cannot be made out from the fragments. From the Homily to the Friends Clemens Alexandrinus has preserved a sentence which defines “many of the things written in the public books” as “found written in the church of God”—”for,” he adds, “those things which are common””are words from the heart”; and proceeds, “The law written in the heart is the People of the Beloved One, both loved and loving”. The meaning is that this “People” is in virtue of the inward revelation of the Logos a law unto itself . But this inward revelation has reference only to “that which is common”, i.e. to the universal ethical truths written in the heart which “the church of God” needs not first to learn from “the public books.” But this passage tells us nothing about the sources whence Valentinus derived his Gnosis. For these we must go back to the statement of Clemens, according to which the Valentinians spoke of their leader as having learned of a certain Theodas, a disciple of St. Paul. But the actual statement of Irenaeus is more to be depended on, that Valentinus was the first who transformed the old doctrines of “the Gnostics” into a system of his own.
The fragments, moreover, give a series of points of contact with the opinions of these older “Gnostics.” We may therefore regard as an axiom to be adhered to in our investigations that of any two Valentinian doctrines, that is the older and more original which approaches more closely to the older and vulgar Gnosis. Yet the system of Valentinus had a peculiar character of its own. He was the first to breathe a really philosophic spirit into the old vulgar Gnosis, by making use of Plato’s world of thought to infuse a deeper meaning into the old Gnostic myths. Baur, therefore, was quite right in emphasizing the Platonism of Valentinus, to which the Philosophumena had already called attention.
Irenaeus completes the information afforded by the fragments concerning Valentinus’s doctrine of the Aeons. At the head of them stands a Dyad. From this Dyad proceeds a second Dyad, which with the first Dyad forms the highest Tetrad. From this Tetrad a second Tetrad proceeds, and these complete the First Ogdoad. From Logos and God proceed a Decad, from Man and Church a Dodecad of Aeons. In this the number 30 of Aeons forming the Pleroma is completed. The names of the Aeons composing the Decad and the Dodecad are not given. We may, however, venture to assume that the names elsewhere given by Irenaeus, and literally repeated by Pseud-Origenes, and then again by Epiphanius with some differences of detail, in his much later account, did really originate from Valentinus himself. However arbitrary this name-giving may seem, it is evident that the first four masculine Aeons repeat the notion of the First Principle, and the first four feminine the notion of his syzygy, in various forms of expression. The names Monogenis and Nous meet us again among the Valentinians of Irenaeus as expressions for the secend Masculine Principle, and Paraklitos as that for the common product of all the Aeons—the Soter. Patrikos, Matrikis, Eklesiastikos, are names simply expressing that the Aeons which bear them are derived from the higher powers within the Pleroma. The feminine names Makaria, Pistis, Elpis, Agapi, Synesis, Sophia, describe generally the perfection of the Pleroma by means of Predicates borrowed from the characteristics of the perfect Pneumaticos. So that all these inferior Aeon names are but a further and more detailed expression of the thought contained in the names of the first and second Tetrad. The first Tetrad expresses the essence of the Upper Pleroma in itself, the second Tetrad divided into two pairs of Aeons expresses its revelation to the Pneumatici and the Pneumatic World.
The last of the 30 Aeons, the Sophia or Mater, falls out of the Pleroma. In her remembrance of the better world she gives birth to Christus with a shadow, Christus being of masculine nature, cuts away the shadow from himself and hastens back into the Pleroma. The mother, on the other hand, being left behind and alone with the shadow, and emptied of the pneumatic substance, gives birth to another Son the Demiurge, and at the same time with him a sinistrous archon. So then from these two elements, “the right and the left,” the psychical and the hylical, proceeds this lower world. This the original doctrine of Valentinus appears to have had in common with that of the Ophites, that both doctrines knew of only one Sophia, and that for the Ophites also Christus leaves the Sophia behind and escapes himself into the upper realm of light.
The notion of a fall of the last of the Aeons from the Pleroma, and the consequent formation of this lower world as the fruit of that fall, is new and peculiar to Valentinus in his reconstruction of the older Gnosticism. He set his Platonic Monism in the place of the Oriental Dualism. The Platonic thought of the soul’s fall and longing after the lost world of light he combined with the other Platonic thought of the things of this lower world being types and images of heavenly Archetypes, and so obtained a new solution of the old problems of the world’s creation and the origin of evil.
The statements of Irenaeus concerning his teaching are, alas! too fragmentary and too uncertain to supply a complete view of the system of Valentinus. But the excerpts in Clemens Alex. taken from Theodotos and the anatolic school contain a doctrine in §§ 1–42, which at any rate stands much nearer to the views of Valentinus than the detailed account of Ptolemaic doctrines which Irenaeus gives in i. 1–8. We have in these excerpts a somewhat complete whole, differing in some important respects from the doctrinal system of the Italic school, and agreeing with that of Valentinus in that it knows of only one Sophia, whose offspring Christus, leaving his mother, enters the Pleroma, and sends down Jesus for the redemption of the forsaken One.