Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


SATURNINUS, or more correctly Satornilus, is generally regarded as the founder of the Syrian Gnosis, but The Chain of Teachers.there is every reason to suppose that Gnosticism was widespread in Syria prior to his time. Justin Martyr (Trypho, xxxv.), writing between 150 and 160, speaks of the Satornilians as a very important body, for he brackets them with the Marcians (? Marcionites), Basilidians and Valentinians, the most important schools of the Gnosis in his time. Saturninus, Basilides and Valentinus were separated from each other respectively by at least a generation, and Saturninus may thus be placed somewhere about the end of the first and the beginning of the second century; but this assignment of date rests entirely upon the Patristic statements that Menander was the teacher of Saturninus, Saturninus of Basilides, and Basilides of Valentinus. It is, however, not improbable that, with regard to the first two, a general similarity of doctrine alone was sufficient reason for the hæresiologists to father the origin of Saturninus’ system upon Menander himself, whereas in reality a generation or two may have elapsed between them, and they may have never as a matter of fact met face to face.

Saturninus is said to have taught at Antioch, but Asceticism.(as is almost the invariable case with the Gnostic doctors) we have no information as to his nationality or the incidents of his life. He was especially distinguished for his rigid asceticism, or encratism. His followers abstained from marriage and from animal food of all kinds, and the rigidity of their mode of life attracted many zealous adherents. Salmon says that Saturninus seems to have been the first to have introduced encratism "among those who called themselves Christians." Protestant theologians especially regard encratism as a heretical practice; but there seems no sufficient reason for assuming that so common a feature of the religious life can be traced to any particular teacher.

Our information as to the Saturninian systemSummary of Doctrines. is unfortunately exceedingly defective; the short summary of Irenæus is presumably based on, or a copy of, the lost Compendium of Justin. This is all the more regrettable as fuller information would have probably enabled us to trace its connection with the "Ophite" and "Barbelo" developments, and to define the relations of all three to the Gnosticism of Basilides and Valentinus. The main features are of the same nature as those of the "Simonian" and Menandrian Gnosis; we should, however, always bear in mind that these early systems, instead of being germinal, or simple expressions, may have been elaborate enough. The mere fact that Irenæus gives a summary which presents comparatively simple features, is no guarantee that the systems themselves may not have been full and carefully worked out expositions. We may with safety regard the summary of the bishop of Lyons as a rough indication of heads of doctrine, as a catalogue of subjects deprived of their content. Thus we learn that Saturninus taught the Unknown Father; the great intermediate hierarchies, archangels, angels, and powers; the seven creative spheres and their rulers; the builders of the universe and the fashioners of man. There were numerous inimical hierarchies and their rulers, and a scheme of regeneration whereby a World-saviour in the apparent form of man, though not really a man, brings about not only the defeat of the evil powers, but also rescues all who have the light-spark within them, from the powers of the creative hierarchies, among whom was placed the Yahweh of the Jews. The Jewish scriptures were imperfect and erroneous; some prophecies being inspired by the creative angels, but others by the evil powers.

The most interesting feature of the system which Irenæus has preserved for us, is the myth of the creation of man by the angels, or rather the fabrication of man's external envelope by the hierarchies of the builders.

The Making of Man.The making of man was on this wise. A shining image or type was shown by the Logos to the demiurgic angels; but when they were unable to seize hold upon it, for it was withdrawn immediately, they said to one another: "Let us make man according to [this] image and likeness." They accordingly endeavoured to do so, but the nature-powers could only evolve an envelope or plasm, which could not stand upright, but lay on the ground helpless and crawling like a worm. Then the Power Above, in compassion, sent forth the life-spark, and the plasm rose upright, and limbs developed and were knit together, that is to say, it hardened or became denser as race succeeded race; and so the body of man was evolved, and the light-spark, or real man, tabernacled in it. This light-spark hastens back after death to those of its own nature, and the rest of the elements of the body are dissolved.

Here we have in rough suggestion the same theory of the evolution of the bodies of the early races as we find advanced, from totally different sources and an entirely different standpoint, by a number of modern writers on theosophic doctrines--and, therefore, we all the more regret that the orthodox prejudices of Irenæus or his informant have treated Saturninus and his "heresy" with so scant notice.



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