Gnostic Heretics

While reading Medieval News today, I came across a story that will be interesting to those of you who have been following our discussion on polygamy, and particularly the sub-thread of the discussion related to interpretation of the Gospel passages related to marriage.

The story relates to a recently-discovered, second-century set of gnostic inscriptions, which may be the earliest physical-culture aspect of Christianity that we have.  They seem to be directly related the bridal-chamber imagery we've been discussing.
To my bath, the brothers of the bridal chamber carry the torches,
[here] in our halls,  they hunger for the [true] banquets,
even while praising the Father and glorifying the Son.
There [with the Father and the Son] is the only spring and source of truth.
Now, this is a gnostic site, which means that from the perspective of the modern Christian tradition the inscription relates to a suppressed heresy.  Another recent discovery is the so-called "Gospel of Philip," which contains a number of the gnostic beliefs.  Scholars seem to be unsure what to make of these.
The mysteries of truth are revealed, though in type and image. The bridal chamber, however, remains hidden. It is the Holy in the Holy. The veil at first concealed how God controlled the creation, but when the veil is rent and the things inside are revealed, this house will be left desolate, or rather will be destroyed. And the whole (inferior) godhead will flee from here, but not into the holies of the holies, for it will not be able to mix with the unmixed light and the flawless fullness, but will be under the wings of the cross and under its arms... 
(Translation by Wesley Isenberg) 
"It's not quite clear what it [the bridal chamber] is, it's explained to some degree, but explained in cryptic terms in the Gospel of Philip, it's a ritual involving freedom and purification and union with the deity," McKechnie said.
You may wonder why the Gnostics were suppressed.  Gnosticism was the doctrine of salvation by knowledge, or as the Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to call it, "the dreadful sum of all heresies... a retrogression... the last throes of expiring cults and civilizations[.]"

Why?  Well, that's kind of hard to explain.  The core doctrines were these:

"[Gnostics] held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour."

That matter is a deterioration of spirit is a neo-Platonic view, though, which was a school important to many early Christian philosophers (and, actually, the very Christian and much-later philosopher Hegel ends up arguing something quite close to this view); that the whole universe is a depravation of the Deity is very similar to the writings of the neo-Platonist Plotinus, who nevertheless wrote a treatise against Gnosticism; and the desire to leave the fallen world and return to God the Father, led by the God-sent Savior, is of course the foundation of the entire Christian church.

Two core areas of dispute are the use of magic, and the evilness of the flesh.  Christianity is opposed to both doctrines, the first more obviously than the second.  Orthodox Christianity, though, expects the resurrection of the flesh -- and therefore is opposed to the idea that flesh, or body-dependent qualities such as manhood or womanhood, are wicked or undesirable.  Rather, they are part of the creation originally blessed as good.

16 comments:

Dad29 said...

a suppressed heresy

Actually, it showed up again, and the Ruling Class owns it.

Dad29 said...

The Catholic church does not recognize the 'gospel of Phillip' as a book of the Bible.

Scholars may say what they wish.

Tom said...

Given that I am not a theologian, nor do I play one on TV, I might be treading on thin ice here.

But, as I understand both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, the material world was perfect at creation and it was only polluted by human sin. This is a problem with the Gnostic version of things.

One significant ramification of this difference is that, until the 19th century anyway, it was widely believed that one could learn about God by studying the Book of Nature, God's other scripture. This inspired a number of men and women, such as Kepler and Newton, to look to nature and natural philosophy in an attempt to understand the mind of God, something a Gnostic would never consider, as I understand Gnosticism.

Another issue is the difference on the humanity of Jesus; to Gnostics, he only seemed human but was in fact pure spirit, whereas to the Christian he was both human and divine.

Of course, when I read that Gnostics were "people who knew", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know, I had to wonder how the political left got into this conversation.

Tom said...

Actually, it showed up again, and the Ruling Class owns it.

I was beaten to the punch!

Eric said...

Of course, when I read that Gnostics were "people who knew", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know, I had to wonder how the political left got into this conversation.

Whatever Gnosticsm was, it was not a 'political' movement--since the Gnostics really didn't want anything to do with the material world.

And as for what the Church recognizes, you have the Emperor Constantine to thank for that.

Tom said...

Eric, there was also no 'political left' at that time.

Eric said...

Did you even read what I wrote?

Tom said...

Ah, maybe I'm confused. Why did you quote me and then write: "Whatever Gnosticsm was, it was not a 'political' movement..."?

It seemed like a non sequitur since I wasn't suggesting Gnosticism was a political movement. I was drawing a parallel with today's elitists who fetishize intellectualism, dividing society into a supposedly enlightened elite (those who know and hence are superior) and the rest of us who are, in their minds, just dumb rubes (those who don't know and are therefore inferior).

Sorry for any confusion.

Eric said...

But the analogy fails. The Gnostics weren't *intellectuals* as the term is used today, and did not as a group try to force their beliefs on the rest of their society by use of the machinery of the government.

Unlike, say, the Catholic Church. (Which also btw, maintained that it knew better for everybody else.)

Grim said...

Plotinus' work against gnosticism can be read online. Plotinus is not easy going -- and I'm told it's even worse in the Greek. Translators apparently tend to impose an order and coherence on his writings that isn't really there.

Yet he is worth reading, even though it may not be possible to understand him: he is writing about things that are above and beyond the world we live in, and above and beyond the rules that govern the world. Still, you can see the sense of what he is saying here:

"We assert [Soul's] creative act to be a proof not of decline but rather of its steadfast hold. Its decline could consist only in its forgetting the Divine: but if it forgot, how could it create? Whence does it create but from the things it knew in the Divine? If it creates from the memory of that vision, it never fell."

Compare that with Tolkien's idea of art as sub-creation, and you begin to get the idea. Plotinus wasn't thinking of the same God as Tolkien, but there is something like the same idea at work.

Tom said...

"But the analogy fails."

No, no, it's both fitting and proper for the reason I employed it.

Speaking of forcing beliefs on people, sure, the RCC did it at one time. So did the Romans, Protestants, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, and probably many others I don't even know about. And?

Tom said...

Grim, Plotinus' work is interesting. I knew the name but not anything about the man before this, I'll have to read more later.

It is interesting, though, to see him attack the Gnostics from a Platonic viewpoint.

Eric said...

And? You are using the snarky comment from Dad29 remark to draw the wrong conclusion from history.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Grim said...

Softly, my friend. They were just having fun.

You've a point to make about the right way to think of these things -- make it. I will be glad to hear what you think myself. It's an interesting phenomenon, and I will be glad of your perspective. This period is yours as much as mine, and indeed more than yours insofar as it touches on Roman things.

rcl said...

I'm way late but here goes...

Gnosticism has been an ongoing heresy since the first century. Although ethnically Catholic, Irish-Italian, I was raised a Christian Scientist. Same for my wife by a remarkable coincidence. Gnostic to the core. The lure of "special wisdom", of vanity, is an ever present danger to we humans.

The heresy of Arius was a much more powerful threat than gnosticism. Like gnosticism on steroids it was very popular with Hellenists and the upper classes including Emperor Constantine and his immediate successors.

In spite of the powerful political threats wielded against the Church by the Arians the Bishops held fast. The Black Dwarf, St. Athanasius, was the tip of the Catholic spear that philosophically slayed the Arian heretics. Although exiled from his diocese numerous times by Roman Emperors he held the Bishops of the Church together and guided the Council of Nicea to define Catholic orthodoxy. When Arianism was put to the vote it was crushed.

Grim said...

The Arian heresy was more powerful because it is a highly intuitive reading of Jesus' status. It's not just that it has John 14:28 behind it; it had the entirety of the Greek and Roman pagan traditions behind it as well. What does it mean to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time? That's hard to grasp. What does it mean to say that he is half-god and half-man? It means he had one divine parent (God) and one mortal parent (Mary). That's just like Hercules! We know exactly how to think about that.

It's kind of impressive that the Arian heresy was defeated at all. It's the kind of reading you'd expect to take hold, intuitive and fully vested in the extant culture.