top of page


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

Valentinianism: About

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

The writer of this article personally adheres to the first interpretation, but it must be admitted that there is genuine debate on this topic, and it is likely that there was genuine disagreement among the ancient Valentinians themselves as to which interpretation was the case. Assuming the first interpretation, then, the Valentinian understanding of anthropology treats each human as being constituted by three irreducible parts – by the flesh we are children of deficiency, by the soul we are children of repentance, and by the spirit we are children of the Father.

“…so that by being a son of God he might conquer death, and by being a son of humanity fullness might be restored.” - The Treatise on The Resurrection

Regardless of interpretation, the Valentinian conception of how this salvation comes to take place is clear and is indeed the central purpose of the entire system. The answer to the question ‘but how then may we come to know the Father?’ is answered with the following: through the unique revelation of the Father’s character and essence within Jesus of Nazareth. The Valentinian account of Jesus prior to his baptism is mixed. Some ancient Valentinian sources suggest that Jesus was already in some way unique (or even already God himself) prior to his baptism, while others imply nothing of the sort other than Jesus being a good man prior to the baptism. Whatever the case in that regard, the Valentinian consensus was that after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, Jesus is 'the Son' present to humanity as a human being. Jesus’ role in his ministry was to make manifest the Father’s nature and character, such that when a person comes to know Jesus, they recognize their spiritual Father, and the spiritual nature within them begins to flower and come to perfection. Thus, the answer to the ultimate question is found – through knowing Jesus, we come to know the Father and achieve perfection through that knowledge that is bestowed on us. Jesus made manifest the Father’s character even to the point of his own persecution and execution by the Roman state on the Cross, and yet transcends that death due to his nature as a child (indeed, the Son) of the Father. This is articulated in this passage from the Gospel of Truth:

“Oh, such great teaching! He abases himself even unto death, though he is clothed in eternal life. Having divested himself of these perishable rags, he clothed himself in incorruptibility, which no one could possibly take from him. Having entered into the empty territory of fears, he passed before those who were stripped by forgetfulness, being both knowledge and perfection, proclaiming the things that are in the heart of the Father, so that he became the wisdom of those who have received instruction.”

Jesus Christ was therefore not understood by the Valentinians as a sacrifice or legal expunger of sins. The Valentinian Christ is an illuminator and wise man (indeed, Light and Wisdom itself) that saves through making manifest the Father’s character, and thereby bestowing the perfecting knowledge of the Father. Through the loving-knowing of Jesus, our spiritual nature was thought to come to fruition in the knowledge of the Father, which is nothing else but the Resurrection, the Kingdom of God, and eternal life, utterly transcendent of the deficiency, suffering, and death that characterizes the Kenoma. Somewhat uniquely among Gnostic systems of thought, the Valentinians did not deny the significance of the Crucifixion. The significance of the Crucifixion in Valentinian thought is as the ultimate expression of the Father’s nature as self-giving love – in that Christ made manifest for our sake the Father’s will and character even knowing it would lead to his torturous death. However, the Crucifixion was not thought of as a salvific event in itself, but only a stage in Jesus’ self-revelation of the Father.

Additional Notes:

A topic of great interest to the modern historically minded Valentinian is the Valentinian eschatology. We have no surviving exact eschatological account that is not filled with lacunae or difficult to interpret. While there are certain conclusions we can draw from the Valentinian theological system, it is left open for the reader to investigate the texts themselves and theorize as to the philosophical implications.

The Valentinian tradition seems to have offered an alternative vision of Christian organization to the hierarchical church. Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels discusses the Valentinian practice of refusing to distinguish amongst themselves between laity and clergy, instead practicing strict equality (including gender equality) and taking certain roles in church services only temporarily and according to the outcome of drawn lots. A plausible possible reason for this is the distinction drawn by Valentinians between 'the Demiurge' of the Kenoma often referred to as God by other Christians and the Father. The Valentinian image of the Father denies that he can be properly described as a judge, military commander, or other authority figure and instead should be thought of as a purely self-giving and generous Father. As a consequence of this view, the Valentinians thought of themselves (being children of the Father) as transcendent of clerical authority, which was understood to be only an instrument of the Demiurge – hence the severe theopolitical threat posed by the Valentinians to a Church hierarchy eager to affirm its own authority.

The Valentinian tradition as it survives for us today is best found in the words of the ancient Valentinians themselves in the relevant Nag Hammadi texts, particularly (in the opinion of this author) texts such as, for example, the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Book of James, the Tripartite Tractate, and the Treatise on the Resurrection - see our Ancient Gnostic Scriptures page. While there is valuable information to be gained from the descriptions of heresy-hunters (such as the above note on Valentinian egalitarianism), we should be careful to privilege the words of actual ancient Valentinians over the words of those who persecuted them.

Valentinianism: About
bottom of page