Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


As to his biography, we know next to nothing. Valentinus was an Egyptian, educated at Alexandria in all that Egypt and Greece had to teach him. The mysterious lore of ancient Khem, the "mathesis" of Pythagoras, the wisdom of Plato, all helped to fashion his character. But the greatest inspiration of all he found in the last outpouring from the same source from which the wisdom of every true philosopher comes--the stream of Christianity that was swirling along at full tide. But what kind of Christianity did Valentinus encounter at Alexandria? There was no Catechetical School when he was a boy. Pantænus and Clement were not as yet. There were the Logoi, the Sayings of the Lord, and many contradictory traditions; a Pauline community also, doubtless founded by some missionary from Asia Minor; and numerous legends of the mysterious Gnosis which Jesus had secretly taught to those who could comprehend. But, above all things, at the back were the inner schools and communities of the wisdom-traditions and the Gnosis. Valentinus must have been in closest intimacy with Basilides, though he is said to have stated that a certain Theodas, an "apostolic man," was his witness to the direct tradition of the Gnosis. Nothing is known of this Theodas or Theudas, and Ussher has even assumed that it was a contraction for Theodotus, a conjecture in which he has been followed by Zahn. This theory would thus make the Theodotus of the Excerpts in Clement an older authority than Valentinus himself, which would still further complicate the Eastern and Western school question, and, in fact, change the whole problem of Valentinian origins. All we can say here is that the view is not entirely improbable, and would clear the ground on certain important points.

In addition there were at Alexandria, in the great library and in the private libraries of the mystics, all those various sources of information, and in the intellectual and religious atmosphere of the place all those synthetical and theosophical tendencies which make for the formulation of a universal system of religion. And this we know was the task that Valentinus set before him as his goal. He determined to syntheticize the Gnosis, every phase of which was already in some sort a synthesis. But in so doing, Valentinus did not propose to attack or abandon the general faith, or to estrange the popular evolution of Christianity which has since been called the Catholic Church. He most probably remained a Catholic Christian to the end of his life. It is true that we read of his excommunication in Tertullian, coupled with the favourite accusation brought against prominent heretics, that he apostatized from the Church because his candidature for the episcopal office was rejected. Tertullian imagined that this took place at Rome; but, even if so, did Rome speak in the name of the Catholic Church in those early days? Would Alexandria, the philosophic, recognize the ruling of disciplinarian Rome? Or did Rome excommunicate Valentinus after his death, a favourite way with her in after times of finishing a controversy? Or is not Tertullian romancing here as is not infrequently the case? Epiphanius distinctly states that Valentinus was regarded as orthodox so long as he was at Rome, and Tertullian himself also, in another place, adds fifteen years of orthodoxy on to the date of his leaving Rome.

Date.Valentinus seems to have passed the greater part of his life in Egypt; he was, however, if we can trust our authorities, for some considerable time at Rome, somewhere between 138 and 160. One authority also says that he was at Cyprus.

The date of his death is absolutely unknown; critics mostly reckon it about 161, but in order to arrive at this conclusion, they reject the distinct statement of Tertullian that Valentinus was still an orthodox member of the Church up to the time of Eleutherus (c. 175); and the equally distinct statement of Origen, that he was personally acquainted with Valentinus. This would set back Origen's own date of birth and advance the date of Valentinus' death; but as both are problematical, we have nothing to fear from the putting back of the one and the putting forward of the other ten years or so.

On the whole I am inclined to assign the date of Valentinus to the first eighty years of the second century. In further support of this length of days, I would invite the reader to reflect on the extraordinary fact that, though the name of Valentinus is in the mouth of everyone of the time, and though his fame entirely eclipses that of every other name of this most important Gnostic cycle, the words and deeds of the great coryphæus of Gnosticism are almost entirely without record, and, stranger than all, he is regarded, at any rate for the major part of his life, as orthodox. This strange fact requires explanation, and I would venture to suggest that the explanation is to be found to a great extent in the extraordinary reserve and secrecy of the man. He was an enigma not only to the generality, but even to those who regarded him as a teacher.

The Gnosis in his hands is trying to forestall "orthodoxy," to embrace everything, even the most dogmatic formulation of the traditions of the Master. The great popular movement and its incomprehensibilities were recognized by Valentinus as an integral part of the mighty out-pouring; he laboured to weave all together, external and internal, into one piece, devoted his life to the task, and doubtless only at his death perceived that for that age he was attempting the impossible. None but the very few could ever appreciate the ideal of the man, much less understand it.

None of his technical treatises were ever published; his letters and homilies alone were circulated.

After leaving Rome he is practically lost to the sight of the Western hæresiologists. Where Writings.he went, what he did, and how long he lived after that, is almost entirely conjectural. But if it be ever shown to be true that such documents as the Pistis Sophia are specimens of the workshop to which he belonged, we can at least conjecturally answer that he went back to Alexandria, where he finished his life in the retirement that such abstruse literary labours required.

Of his writings, besides the fact that they were numerous and his technical treatises exceedingly difficult and abstruse, we know very little. He composed numerous Letters and Homilies and Psalms. We are also told that he composed a Gospel, but this is supposed to be a false assumption--false, that is to say, if by Gospel is meant a Gospel containing the Sayings of the Lord. But may not Gospel here be used in the Basilidian sense of an exposition of the Gnosis, or knowledge of the things beyond the phenomenal world?

Tertullian also tells us that Valentinus composed a treatise entitled Sophia, or Wisdom, Some critics have asserted that the words of Tertullian do not refer to a book but to the Wisdom which Valentinus claimed to teach; but if this were so, the antithesis which Tertullian makes between the Wisdom of Valentinus and the Wisdom of Solomon would lose all its point. The Wisdom of Solomon is a book, the Wisdom of Valentinus should also be a book; if it were intended to mean simply the Gnosis which Valentinus taught, then its proper antithesis would have been the Wisdom of God and not of Solomon.

The Fragments that remain.We have now to treat of the few fragments of the works of this prolific writer which have come down to us in the writings of the Church Fathers. The latest collection of 'them is by Hilgenfeld (1884), whose "emendations," however, we shall not always follow. The fragments consist of a few scraps of letters and homilies preserved by Clement of Alexandria, and two pieces in The Philosophumena--the narrative of a vision and the scrap of a psalm.



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