Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

Some Gnostic Fragments Recovered from the Polemical Writings of the Church Fathers

Oh that mine adversary had written a book!
       Job (according to the Authorised Version).

Some Gnostic Fragments Recovered from the Polemical Writings of the Church Fathers

WE shall now proceed to introduce the reader to the chief teachers and schools of Gnosticism, as far No Classification they are known to us from the polemical writings of the Church Fathers. Unfortunately we are not in a position to present the student with a satisfactory classification of the Gnostic schools; every classification previously attempted has completely broken down, and in the present state of our knowledge we must be content to sift the different phases of development out of the heap as best we can. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, tried the rough expedient of dividing these schools of Christendom into ascetic and licentious sects; Neander at the beginning of the present century endeavoured to classify them by their friendly or unfriendly relations to Judaism; Baur followed with an attempt which took into consideration not only how they regarded Judaism, but also their attitude to Heathenism; Matter adopted a geographical distribution into the schools of Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt; and Lipsius followed with a more general division into the Gnosticism of Syria and of Alexandria.

All these classifications break down on many important points; and we are thus compelled to follow the imperfect indications of the earliest Patristic hæresiologists, who vaguely and uncritically ascribed the origin of Gnosticism to "Simon Magus." It is, however, certain that the origin of Gnostic ideas, so far from being simple and traceable to an individual, was of a most complex nature; some have thought that it has to be sought for along the line of so-called "Ophitism," which is a general term among the hæresiologists for almost everything they cannot ascribe to a particular teacher. But the medley of schools and tendencies which the Fathers indiscriminately jumble together as Ophite, contains the most heterogeneous elements, good and bad. The name Ophite, or "serpent-worshipper," is simply a term of abuse used solely by the refutators, while the adherents of these schools called themselves generally "Gnostics," and were apparently the first to use the term.

We shall, therefore, first of all follow the so-called "Simonian" line of descent until the first quarter of the second century; then plunge into the indefinite chaos of the "Gnostics"; next retrace our steps along a Gnostic phase of the Ebionite tradition; and finally treat of the most brilliant epoch of Gnosticism known to us--when Basilides, Valentinus, and Bardesanes lived and worked and thought, and Marcion amazed infant orthodoxy with a "higher criticism" which for boldness has perhaps not yet been equalled even in our own day. It was an epoch which gave birth to works of such excellence that, in the words of Dr. Carl Schmidt (in the Introduction to his edition of the Codex Brucianus), "we stand amazed, marvelling at the boldness of the speculations, dazzled by the richness of thought, touched by the depth of soul of the author"--"a period when Gnostic genius like a mighty eagle left the world behind it, and soared in wide and ever wider circles towards pure light, towards pure knowledge, in which it lost itself in ecstasy."

We should, however, in studying the lives and teachings of these Gnostics always bear in mind that our only sources of information have hitherto been the caricatures of the hæresiologists, and remember that only the points which seemed fantastic to the refutators were selected, and then exaggerated by every art of hostile criticism; the ethical and general teachings which provided no such points, were almost invariably passed over. It is, therefore, impossible to obtain anything but a most distorted portrait of men whose greatest sin was that they were centuries before their time. It should further be remembered, that the term "heresy" in the first two centuries, did not generally connote the narrow meaning assigned to it later on. It was simply the usual term for a school of philosophy; thus we read of the heresy of Plato, of Zeno, of Aristotle. The Gnostics, and the rest of Christendom also, were thus divided into a number of schools or "heresies," which in those early times were more or less of equal dignity and authenticity.



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