Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Evening Note for Wednesday, March 15

 Thought for the Evening: The Valentinian Theology of Sacraments

Most Gnostic forms of Christianity clearly established themselves in opposition to the the episcopal system that structured the Church. But the Gnostic movement that most threatened the Church was in part such a threat because it deliberately did not do this; it grew up inside the Church, incubating within it, overlaying it. These were the Valentinians, and of all the heretics of the second and third centuries, only the contemporary Marcionites left a more lasting impression on the Church.

Valentinus is said to have been born in Egypt, and probably spent quite a bit of time in Alexandria. According to the Valentinians themselves, he was a student of a man named Theudas, who was a student of St. Paul. We don't know what the truth of this is, but it indicates an important aspect of the Valentinian movement: they took themselves to have the authentic Christian message. Eventually Valentinus ended up in Rome, probably about the mid-130s and stayed there until his death in about 170 to 180. He began preaching and teaching, and he made an impact; Valentinus was an immensely talented and charismatic man. He worked entirely within the structure of the local Christian community, but the movement became a force to be reckoned with, almost managing to make him Bishop of Rome in the mid-140s. As a Gnostic, Valentinus held that the material world was the result of error and failure in the Godhead, which he called the Totality or the Fullness. The Fullness was rooted in the incomprehensible and unknowable Father, who emanated the Son; from the Son (but still within the Fullness) emanated the eternal Church, which he called the Aeon of aeons, a single spiritual super-angel that included as part of itself an assembly of other super-angels. 'Aeon of aeons' in the Bible is usually translated as 'forever and ever', or something similar, but this is the essential feature of Valentianian exegesis -- everything in the text is reified and personified into some spiritual being emanating from another spiritual being. The result (which St. Irenaeus complains about) is that unlike many other Gnostics, they used a very Christian vocabulary -- pretty much every term used by the Valentinians comes from Scripture somewhere -- but they would always translate it by an elaborate theogonical allegory into a very different esoteric meaning (one in which, for instance, the Son and the Logos were distinct beings), which they passed around in secret study groups within the Church. Tensions between these study groups and the rest of the local community of Christians led eventually to the Valentinians setting up on their own, but it was a long slow process.

One of the interesting things about the Valentinians is that they provide a distinct witness to the structure of sacramental life in the mid to late second century. After all, the Valentinian sacraments originally just were the sacraments of the larger Christian community, seen through layers of Gnostic allegory. Obviously because of the highly allegorical interpretations they gave them, and also because there was a divergence over time, this has to be handled carefully as evidence. But the orthodox often treat the sacramental life of their day as just obvious background, and will mention it but not explain much; the Valentinians, because they allegorized everything, sometimes explicitly talk about it. So the Valentinians are potentially useful witnesses to the sacramental structure even of the orthodox and non-Valentinian Church. Particularly useful in this regard is the Gospel of Philip, which identifies five sacraments:

1. Baptism
2. Chrism
3. Eucharist
4. Redemption
5. Nymphon

Baptism is explicitly associated with resurrection of the dead into new life; this was interpreted spiritually. Again, the Valentinian baptism seems to have begun as standard baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but later Valentinians adapted the formula in various ways, and at least some of them baptized in the Name of the Unknown Father, the Son, and the Truth that is Mother of all, where the Name is one of their aeonic emanations within the Fullness. Nonetheless, they make clear the importance of baptism in the second-century Church, and often talk about it in ways that, verbally at least, would still be recognizable today.

However, the Valentinians held that chrism was an even more important sacrament than baptism. In a passage that is very worth quoting, the Gospel of Philip says:

The chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word "Chrism" that we have been called "Christians," certainly not because of the word "baptism". And it is because of the chrism that "the Christ" has his name. For the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us. He who has been anointed possesses everything. He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit. The Father gave him this in the bridal chamber; he merely accepted (the gift). The Father was in the Son and the Son in the Father. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is, despite some slight garbling and allegorizing, recognizably a version of the rite that is today called confirmation or chrismation, whose meaning still could be characterized as "the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit" and as making us like Christ. 

The eucharist in Valentinian theology was characterized as a wedding-feast in which we partake of life-giving bread from heaven and grace-filled wine of the Spirit. According to the Gospel of Philip, "The Eucharist is Jesus." In partaking of it, we take on "the living man".

The other two sacraments are trickier. But from what we can gather from our sources, these different sacraments -- which seem to be adaptations of major Church baptismal liturgies, such as one might have at Easter -- were read allegorically as depicting what happens to the souls of the saved after they die. The redemption is associated with the ascension of the soul into the heavenly realms, renouncing and being ransomed from the fallen world of matter. St. Irenaeus complains that every Valentinian group tends to do this sacrament differently, but the  prayers that he claims are sometimes associated with it have patterns very similar to a baptismal exorcism.

The nymphon is the distinctive Valentinian sacrament. It means 'bridal chamber' and it does have something to do with marriage, but it's a spiritual marriage. In the Valentian theology, the aeons emanate in pairs, a masculine and a feminine, and within the Fullness in the proper sense the masculine and feminine are in harmonious union with each other. However, our corrupt, fallen, material world arose when some aeons attempted to conceive things without regard for the essential harmony with their consorts, thus estranging themselves. All of us have a heavenly aeonic consort from whom we are alienated, and to return to God, we must restore union with them. This is done spiritually in the sacrament of the bridal chamber, and finally and consummatively after death when the spirits of the redeemed fully unite with their bridegroom-angels. As the Gospel of Philip puts it:

If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this, Christ came to repair the separation, which was from the beginning, and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed, those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him.

Since St. Irenaeus seems to have regarded the bridal chamber sacrament as the weirdest part of the Valentinian liturgy, one could argue that this Valentinian sacrament was a complete de novo invention of the Valentinians, used to initiate people into their groups. Some people have argued that in fact it was an elaborately allegorized and ritualized version of imposition of hands, which could also very well be the case, given the things that are said about it, because it's sometimes associated with receiving what seem to be charismatic gifts, as you became imbued with your aeonic bridegroom and the grace of it overflowed. 

The Valentinians, recall, originally began by allegorizing the same Scripture and liturgy that the rest of the Christian community used; thus while we have to take much of the content with a grain of salt, the structural elements of the Valentinian sacramental theology can with a fair degree of probability be held to be based on what was liturgically important in the second century. Just as the weird Valentinian theology of the aeons can be evidence, used cautiously, for which parts of Scripture Christians of the day kept coming back to, because the Valentinians were originally allegorizing precisely those parts of Scripture, so too the Valentinian theology of sacraments gives us a foggy mirror-image of the sacramental life of the community as a whole, because originally the Valentinian theology of sacraments was just a highly allegorized interpretation of that sacramental life. From this we see (again, without complete certainty, but with high probability) that besides baptism and the eucharist, the second-century church had an important chrism-based sacrament that is recognizable even through Valentinian interpretations as confirmation. We also see that there were important rituals of exorcism or at least of some kind of renunciation of evil. Something like imposition of hands seems to be suggested by the Valentinian sacrament of nymphon, but even if it was a point at which the Valentinians were being innovative, the way it is developed establishes very clearly that marriage was regarded as an important matter, capable of reflecting heavenly matters. Many of the ways in which the Valentinians talk about these things have recognizable similarities to later orthodox discussions that seem to owe nothing to the Valentinian movement; although, of course, they are interwoven with the aeonic theology and the esoteric interpretations that make the Valentinians Gnostics.

Various Links of Interest

* Lawrence Nolan and John Whipple, Self-Knowledge in Descartes and Malebranche (PDF)

* Giannis Stammatellos and Dionysis Mentzeniotis, The Notion of Infinity in Plotinus and Cantor (PDF)

* Craig Warmke, Electronic Coins (PDF)

* Andrew J. Miller, From His Fullness: Reflecting God's Aseity, at "Modern Reformation"

* Jonathan Haidt, Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest

* Edward Feser, Great Scot, reviews Thomas Ward's Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus, at "First Things"

* Ben Landau-Taylor and Samo Burja, Our Knowledge of History Decays Over Time, at "Palladium"

Currently Reading

Pius II, Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope
Tikhon Pino, Essence and Energies: Being and Naming God in St. Gregory Palamas
Moses Mendelssohn, Moses Mendelssohn's Hebrew Writings

In Audiobook

Hobbes, Leviathan