The Followers of Valentinus
Valentinianism is a school of Christian theology often identified as within the broader category of Gnosticism. The Valentinian school first emerges in the early 2nd century with the writings and teachings of the theologian Valentinus, whose uncertain biography traces him as a talented thinker who grappled with Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and early Christian thought in his attempt to produce the first coherent and systematic account of the Christian faith. The records we have suggest that the Valentinians (contra, for instance, to the Sethian school) did not consider themselves to be a religion or spiritual movement distinct from Apostolic Christianity but instead a higher theological explanation of such. Indeed, the ancient Valentinians did not like to be referred to as such, thinking of themselves as 'Christians' first and adherents to Valentinian philosophy second. The Valentinians attended the same church gatherings as the proto-orthodox, while also developing their own unique liturgical and sacramental tradition for practice amongst themselves, much of which has been lost.
“The gospel of truth is joy for those who have received grace from the Father…” - The Gospel of Truth
What remains to us is a system and school of philosophical Christianity emphasizing: A. the utter transcendence of the Platonic 'One' – that is, the Father, B. The distinction between the Father and the idea of God as Master and King, C. a supra-cosmological drama of a Fall and a Passion to explain the creation of the world, and D. the unique revelation of the Father in Jesus of Nazareth as the source of salvation and the ultimate purpose of the cosmic drama. Not all of these topics will be covered in this article, nor can this article do full justice to the topics it does cover – I encourage the interested reader to investigate the ancient texts for themselves, accompanied by a good grounding in the secondary literature on the topic.
“In order to speak about exalted things, it is necessary that we begin with the Father, who is the root of the All and from whom we have obtained grace to speak about him.” - The Tripartate Tractate
The Valentinian system begins with and is oriented around two poles – the Christian revelation, and the human yearning for knowledge of the Ultimate that takes its developed form (in the world of the 2nd century) in Platonic thought. The Valentinian philosophy therefore begins with the Father, who in purely philosophical terms can only be spoken of apophatically – he is inconceivable, unknowable, unlimited, infinite, timeless, changeless. The question “but how then may we come to know the Father?” therefore becomes the central overarching focus of Valentinian thought – in a sense, the whole system may be thought of as an attempt to answer this question.
The Valentinian idea of God does not end only with the affirmation in apophatic terms of the unknowable Father. While none can know the Father externally, it was argued by the Valentinians that the Father has self-noesis (self-knowledge) – that is, he knows himself. This self-noesis gives rise to the Son, who is one with the Father yet he has come forth from the Father as the one revelation of everything that the Father is in himself. The mutual self-knowledge of the Father and Son also brings forth myriad (indeed, infinite) different expressions of the Father’s nature, and this third aspect of the Godhead is called the Church, or the Holy Spirit. It may be put that whereas the Son is the oneness of the Father, the Church is the infinite diversity of the Father.
The Church is within the Father, but the Father intended that the members of the Church should have their own being, distinct from the Godhead. Therefore, the Valentinians supposed a second tier of reality – within but apart from the Godhead, the members of the Church came forth as their own being, still dependent on the Father for their being but no longer only expressions of the Father without being of their own. This second tier of reality is called the Pleroma, or 'the Fullness'. These Aeons, the members of the Church given being, did not know the Father, and as such were not perfect from the beginning. Furthermore, through a drama of Fall and Passion, the process of perfection in the Pleroma whereby the eternal Aeons come to know and love the Father, a third tier of reality was formed, the Kenoma, meaning ‘emptiness’ composed of three substances – flesh, soul, and the spiritual seed. This Kenoma is identical with what we would think of as the entire material universe – the Kenoma is the cosmos.
It must also be noted that the above scheme (and this entire article) of a three-tiered reality of Kenoma, Pleroma and Godhead is characteristic of 'Eastern' Valentinianism, of the kind represented in the Nag Hammadi texts. 'Western' Valentinianism has a very different theological scheme, and perhaps deserves its own article at some point in the future.
“The creation of the human happened in the same way as everything else.” - The Tripartate Tractate
The Valentinian anthropology begins with the supposition that the fundamental constitution of the universe (explained in the Sophianic Drama, which can be located in detail within the Tripartite Tractate) and the fundamental constitution of each human being are identical – the universe contains three substances (the flesh characterized by will, desire, striving, and deficiency, the soul characterized by imperfection, rationality, and seeking towards the Good, and the spiritual seed characterized by perfection, imperishability, and unity with the Father), all of which are present within the human being. There is debate among scholars and modern Valentinians as to how exactly this anthropology should be and historically was conceived, with three dominant interpretations emerging:
Each human being is a fleshly person, a psychic (mental or soulful) person, and a spiritual person, according to the three basic constituents of their makeup. The fleshly aspect of all persons is doomed to destruction, the spiritual aspect is destined to flowering and perfection, and the soul of each will receive salvation through becoming one with one’s spiritual aspect.
Each human being is either a fleshly person, or a psychic person, or a spiritual person. These are states that can be changed and depend on which aspect predominates at any given time. The fleshly person is doomed to destruction, the spiritual person has a certain or ‘better’ salvation, and the psychic person has an uncertain or ‘lesser’ salvation.
Each human being is either a fleshly person, or a psychic person, or a spiritual person. These are strict castes and cannot be changed. As above, the fleshly person is doomed to destruction, the psychic to an uncertain or lesser fate, and the spiritual to a certain or greater salvation.