Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

The Docetæ

As previously remarked, the remains of the ancient bed of the stream of the Gnosis which we are endeavouring to survey, are so fragmentary, that nothing can be attempted, but a most imperfect outline, or rather a series of rough sketches of certain sections that some day further discovery may enable us to throw into the form of a map. Chronological indications are almost entirely wanting, and we can as yet form no idea of the correct sequence of these general Gnostic schools. We must therefore proceed at haphazard somewhat, and will next turn our attention to a school which Hippolytus (Bk. viii.) calls the Docetæ, seeing that their tenets are very similar to those of the three schools of which we have just treated. There is nothing, however, to show why this name is especially selected, except the obscure reason that it is derived from the attempt of these Gnostics to theorise on "inaccessible and incomprehensible matter." It may, therefore, be possible that they believed in the doctrine of the non-reality of matter; and that the name Docetæ ("Illusionists") is of similar derivation to the Maya-vadins of the Hindus. The system of this Gnostic circle bears a strong family likeness to the doctrines of the Basilidian and Valentinian schools; but the doctrine of the non-physical nature of the body of the Christ, which is the general characteristic of ordinary Docetism, is not more prominent with them than with many other schools. The outline of their tenets given by Hippolytus is as follows.

God.The Primal Being is symbolized as the seed of a fig-tree, the mathematical point, which is everywhere, smaller than small, yet greater than great, containing in itself infinite potentialities. He is the "refuge of the terror-stricken, the covering of the naked," and much else as allegorically set forth in the Scriptures. The manner of the infinite generation of things is also figured by the fig-tree, for from the seed comes the stem, then branches, and then leaves, and then fruit, the fruit in its turn containing seeds, and thence other stems, and so on in infinite manner; so all things come forth.

The Æons.In this way, even before the sensible world was formed, there was an emanation of a divine or ideal world of three root-æons, each consisting of so many sub-æons, male-female; that is to say, worlds, or beings, or planes, of self-generating powers. And this æon-world of Light came forth from the one ideal seed or root of the universe, the ingenerable. Then the host of self-generable æons uniting together produce from the One Virgin (ideal cosmic substance), the Alone-begotten (-generated) one, the Saviour of the universe, the perfect anon; containing in Himself all the powers of the ideal world of the æons, equal in power in all things to the original seed of the universe, the ingenerable. Thus was the Saviour of the ideal universe produced, the perfect æon. And thus all in that spiritual world was perfected, all being of the nature of That which transcends intellect, free from all deficiency. Thus was accomplished the eternal and ideal world-process in the spaces of the æons.

Next with regard to the emanation of the ideal world into the sensible universe. The third root-æon, Cosmos and its turn, made itself threefold, containing in itself all the supernal potentialities. Thus, then, its Light shone down upon the primordial chaotic substance, and the souls of all genera and species of living beings were infused into it. And when the third æon, or Logos, perceived that His ideas and impressions and types or seals (χαρατ?ρες)--the souls--were seized upon by the darkness, He separated the light from the darkness, and placed a firmament between; but this was only done after all the infinite species of the third æon had been intercepted in the darkness. And last of all the resemblance of the third æon himself was impressed upon the lower universe, and this resemblance is a "life-giving fire, generated from the light." Now this fire is the creative god which fashions the world, as in the Mosaic account. This fabricating deity, having no substance of his own, uses the darkness (gross matter) as his substance, out of which he makes bodies, and thus perpetually treats despitefully the eternal attributes of light which are imprisoned in the darkness. Thus until the coming of the Saviour, there was a vast delusion of souls, for these "ideas" are called souls (ψυχα?) because they have been breathed out (?ποψυγε?σαι) from the (æons) above. These souls spend their lives in darkness, passing from one to another of the bodies which are under the ward of the creative power or world-fabricator.

In support of this the Gnostic author refers to the saying: "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias that was for to come; he that hath ears to hear, let him hear"; and also to Job ii. 9: "And I am a wanderer, changing place after place and house after house." The latter passage is found in the version of the Seventy, but is omitted in the English translation.

The Saviour.It is by means of the Saviour that souls are set free from the circle of rebirth (metensomatosis), and faith is aroused in men that their sins should be remitted. Thus, then, the Alone-begotten Son gazing upon the soul-tragedy--the "images" of the supernal æons changing perpetually from one body to another of the darkness--willed to descend for their deliverance.

Now the individual æons above were not able to endure the whole fullness of the divine world, i.e., the Son; and had they beheld it they would have been thrown into confusion at its greatness and the glory of its power, and would have feared for their existence. So the Saviour indrew His glory into Himself, as it were the vastest of lightning-flashes into the minutest of bodies, or as the sudden cessation of light when the eyelids close, and so descended to the heavenly dome; and reaching the star-belt there, again indrew His glory, for even the apparently most minute light-giver of the star-sphere is a sun illuminating all space; and so the Saviour withdrew His glory again and entered into the domain of the third sphere of the third æon. And so He entered even into the darkness; that is to say, was incarnated in a body.

And His baptism was in this wise: He washed himself in the Jordan (the stream of the Logos), and after this purification in the water He became possessed of a spiritual body, a copy or impression of his virgin-made physical body; so that when the world-ruler (the god of generation) condemned his own plasm (the physical body) to death, i.e., the cross, the spiritual body, nourished in the virgin physical body, might strip off the physical body, and nail it to the "tree," and thus the Christ would triumph over the powers and authorities of the world-ruler, and not be found naked; for He would put on His new spiritual body of perfection instead of another body of flesh. Thus the saying: "Except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens; that which is born of the flesh is flesh."

As to Jesus Christ, the Gnostic writer wisely remarks that this ideal can be seen from many sides; that each school has its own view, some a low, some a high view; and that this is in the nature of things. Finally none but the real Gnostics, that is those who have passed through initiations similar to those of Jesus, can understand the mystery face to face.

It would seem hardly necessary to point out to the student of Gnosticism the striking similarity between the general outlines of this system and the leading ideas of the contents of the Bruce and Askew Codices; and yet no one has previously remarked them.



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