Valentinus (ca. 100–ca. 160) was the best known and, for a time, most successful theologian in early Christian Gnosticism. In his Alexandrian and Roman academies, he professed a neo-Platonic version of gnostic theology, stressing the ultimately monistic nature of the cosmos. Christologically, Valentinus followed the Docetist heresy, suggesting that Jesus's mortal body was simply an illusory emanation of the Ultimate Reality. These views were soon anathematized and declared to be heretical, despite their relative prevalence in early Christian thought. The first (and most detailed) of these denunciations still extant can be found in Irenaeus's Adversus Haereses. While many of the schools of gnosticism later characterized as Valentinian have highly elaborate theological and metaphysical systems, their very diversity implies that their original source material was basic enough to accommodate such a wide variety of interpretations.
Valentinus was born in Phrebonis in the Nile delta and educated in Alexandria, a metropolitan center of early Christian theology. There, he became conversant with Platonic philosophy and with the culture of Hellenized Jews, such as the great Alexandrian Jewish allegorist and philosopher Philo Judaeus—both of which came to influence his later philosophical system. An erudite scholar and a charismatic speaker, Valentinus soon developed a dedicated following, as noted by Saint Jerome: "No one can bring an influential heresy into being unless he is possessed by nature of an outstanding intellect and has gifts provided by God. Such a man was Valentinus." Demonstrating their Christian pedigree, his Alexandrian followers suggested that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas, who was himself a disciple of Saint Paul of Tarsus. Apparently, Valentinus himself claimed that Theudas had imparted to him the secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to his inner circle, which Paul publicly referred to in connection with his visionary encounter with the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10). The Gnostic's dissemination of these "revelations" began in the city where he was educated, though he relocated to Rome circa 136, dwelling there during the pontificates of Hyginus (r. ca. 136-140), Pope Pius I (r. ca. 140-154) and Pope Anicetus (r. ca. 154-167).
According to a later tradition, he withdrew to the island of Cyprus near the end of his life, where he continued to teach and draw adherents. He died circa 160 C.E. Aside from these scant details, the historical Valentinus remains a mystery, causing G. R. S. Mead to quip that he was "the great unknown" in the school's history.
Given the intense criticism directed at Valentinus and his followers in early Christian heresiologies, many additional "biographical" details were offered by orthodox Christians who sought to discredit the movement (such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanius). For instance, Tertullian, in his critical biography of the heretic, suggests that Valentinus had been a candidate for the bishopric of Rome (ca. 143), but that he was passed over in favor of a more orthodox preacher. Apparently, this adverse event was sufficient to cause the gnostic to break with the Church and develop his highly unconventional theology.
Valentinus had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence. Being indignant, however, that another obtained the dignity by reason of a claim which confessorship had given him, he broke with the church of the true faith. Just like those (restless) spirits which, when roused by ambition, are usually inflamed with the desire of revenge, he applied himself with all his might to exterminate the truth; and finding the clue of a certain old opinion, he marked out a path for himself with the subtlety of a serpent.
While Valentinus was alive, he earned many disciples, with his system becoming the most widely diffused of all the forms of Gnosticism. However, it developed into several different versions, not all of which acknowledged their dependence on him, as noted by Tertullian ("they affect to disavow their name"). Among the more prominent disciples of Valentinus were Bardasanes, invariably linked to Valentinus in later references, as well as Heracleon, Ptolemy and Marcus. While many of the schools grouped together under the rubric of "Valentinianism" have highly elaborate theological and metaphysical systems, Filoramo notes that their very diversity implies that their original source material was basic enough to accommodate such a wide variety of interpretations.
Many of the writings of these Gnostics (and a large percentage of Valentinus's own literary output), existed only in orthodox heresiologies until 1945, when the cache of writings at Nag Hammadi was discovered. One of these texts was a Coptic version of the Gospel of Truth, which is the title of a text that, according to Irenaeus, was the same as the Gospel of Valentinus mentioned by Tertullian in his Adversus Valentinianos. This attribution echoes the early scholarly consensus that "the Gospel of Truth was written by Valentinus himself, before the development of typically gnostic dogmas."
As mentioned above, Valentinus averred that his ideas were derived from Saint Paul's hidden revelations, and, as such, his system drew considerable inspiration from some books of the New Testament. Intriguingly, the resultant theology was unlike a great number of other 'Gnostic' systems mythologies (which were expressly dualistic), in that it was was profoundly (perhaps even ultimately) monistic. As such, Shoedel suggests that "a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic." To this end, the Valentinian system suggests that mainstream Christianity fundamentally misinterprets the character of the Divine:
While the Valentinians publicly confessed faith in one God, in their own private meetings they insisted on discriminating between the popular image of God—as master, king, lord, creator, and judge—and what the image represented—God understood as the ultimate source of all being. Valentinus calls that source "the depth"; his followers describe it as an invisible incomprehensible primal principle. But most Christians, they say, mistake mere images of God for that reality. They point out that the Scriptures sometimes depict God as a mere craftsman, or as an avenging judge, as a king who rules in heaven, or even as a jealous master. But these images, they say, cannot compare with Jesus' teaching that "God is spirit" or the "Father of Truth."
Valentinus described the Primal Being or Bythos as the beginning of all things who, after ages of silence and contemplation, gave rise to other beings by a process of emanation. The first series of beings, the aeons, were thirty in number, representing fifteen syzygies ("sexually complementary pairs"). Through the error of Sophia (one of the lowest aeons) and the ignorance of Sakla, the lower world with its subjection to matter is brought into existence. Humans, the highest beings in the lower world, participate in both psychic and hylic (material) nature. In this view, the ultimate God (the fountainhead of existence) is utterly unlike the demiurge, who created the material world. This "god" is characterized as "a deficient being who seems unaware of his deficiency and [who] is determined that his creatures shall remain unaware of their source."
In the Christology and soteriology that emerge from this metaphysical system, Jesus the Son of Mary is irrelevant in his corporeal form, as his salvific potential is only realized when he is understood as a being of pure spirit. Indeed, the Gnostics (in general) characterize the work of redemption as consisting of freeing the higher order of being (the spiritual) from its servitude to the lower—a task that the "emanated" Christ was ideally situated to complete:
And one there is who is good! His free act of speaking is the manifestation of the son. And through him alone can a heart become pure, when every evil spirit has been put out of the heart. For the many spirits dwelling in the heart do not permit it to become pure: rather, each of them performs its own acts, violating it in various ways with improper desires. ... Just so, a heart too is impure by being the habitation of many demons, until it experiences forethought. But when the father, who alone is good, visits the heart, he makes it holy and fills it with light. And so a person who has such a heart is called blessed, for that person will see god.
Shortly after Valentinus' death, Irenaeus began his massive work Adversus Haereses ("On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis"), which expounded a resoundingly polemical opinion of Valentinus and his teachings. Such sentiments were echoed in Tertullian's Adversus Valentinianos, though this text seems to primarily contain retranslated passages from Irenaeus without the addition of original material. Later, Epiphanius of Salamis also discussed and dismissed him (Haer., XXXI). As with all the non-traditional early Christian writers, Valentinus has been known largely through quotations in the works of his detractors, though an Alexandrian follower also preserved some fragmentary sections as extended quotes.
Valentinus was among the early Christians who attempted to align Christianity with Platonism, drawing dualist conceptions from the Platonic world of ideal forms (pleroma) and the lower world of phenomena (kenoma). Of the mid-second century thinkers and preachers who were declared heretical by Irenaeus and later mainstream Christians, only Marcion is as outstanding as a personality. The contemporary orthodox counter to Valentinus was Justin Martyr.
In a text known as Pseudo-Anthimus, Valentinus is quoted as teaching that God is constituted of three hypostases (hidden spiritual realities) and three prosopa (persons), called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—a teaching that is unflatteringly tied to Platonism:
Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God…. These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him 'On the Three Natures'. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato.
This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
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