"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Church and the Second Century Gnostics


Marcion displaying his canon

We saw already in our discussion of St. Polycarp how the Apostle John, around the age of ninety (between 97 and 101 AD), had fled from the bath-house in Ephesus when he learned that Cerinthus was inside it, saying, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." (Adv haer. 3.3.4) We have also seen St. Polycarp's opposition to Marcion, when in about the year 154 AD they happened to meet in Rome. Marcion asked St. Polycarp, "Do you know me?" (Notice that Marcion's focus is on himself, and his own fame.) St. Polycarp, not one to mince words at the age of eighty-five, and not having attended Dale Carnegie, replied, "I do know you, the first-born of Satan."

Who were these persons: Cerinthus, Marcion, Valentinus, Cerdo, etc.? They were gnostics who were trying to infiltrate the Church. We know little about Cerinthus. He was a contemporary of the Apostle John, and was said to have come to Ephesus from Egypt, and if not a Jew then at least circumcised. Cerdo and Valentinus arrived in Rome during the time that St. Hyginus was bishop of Rome (136 - 140 AD). Marcion arrived in Rome around 140 AD. Valentinus was from Egypt. Cerdo was from Syria. Marcion was from Pontus. Why did they come to Rome? Because they understood (as Simon the Sorcerer had understood) that this was the place most efficiently to spread their beliefs. All three of these who came to Rome sought to become the bishop of Rome, in order to take control of the Church.

Cerdo at one point confessed his errors to the church at Rome, and was readmitted into the Church. But, at some point later (we don't know when) he was excommunicated by the church at Rome.

We know more about the case of Marcion. Marcion's father was a bishop of Sinope in Pontus. Marcion was born around 110 AD, and was made a bishop (but not the diocesan bishop) in his home town. He was eventually expelled from his own church by his father, when he committed a grave sin with a virgin. He traveled to Rome, arriving sometime around 140 AD, probably to attempt to ascend to the bishop's seat when St. Hyginus vacated it. In 140 AD, however, St. Pius I (said to be the brother of Hermas who wrote "Shepherd of Hermas") was elected to take St. Hyginus's place as bishop of the church at Rome; he served as bishop until about 155 AD. In 144 AD Marcion was excommunicated from the church at Rome by St. Pius I. Marcion then started his own 'church', with its own bishops, priests, and deacons. This 'church' spread far and wide and endured, apparently, even into the Middle Ages. (cf. C.E. 'Marcionites') Marcion died around 160 AD. St. Justin Martyr, who died around 165 AD, refers in at least one place to Marcion as still living. Tertullian's work "Against Marcion" explains and refutes Marcion's teachings.

When it was time to elect a successor to St. Pius I (about 155 AD), it seems that Valentinus tried to win this election. Tertullian tells us this:

[BOQ] 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.[EOQ] (Against the Valentinians, 4)

Valentinus failed to attain the episcopal chair at Rome, and instead St. Anicetus was selected as bishop of Rome. It seems that about this time Valentinus was excommunicated by the church at Rome, whereupon he went to Cyprus and died around 160-161.

What did the gnostics teach? Among other things, they taught that Christ did not have a real body, and did not suffer. (They were, in this respect, docetic.) We can already see in the epistles of St. John the direct rejection of gnosticism. (1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7) Cerinthus's Christology was as follows:

[BOQ] Cerinthus distinguished between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was mere man, though eminent in holiness. He suffered and died and was raised from the dead, or, as some say Cerinthus taught, He will be raised from the dead at the Last Day and all men will rise with Him. At the moment of baptism, Christ or the Holy Ghost was sent by the Highest God, and dwelt in Jesus teaching Him, what not even the angels knew, the Unknown God. This union between Jesus and Christ continues till the Passion, when Jesus suffers alone and Christ returns to heaven.[EOQ] ('Cerinthus' in the Catholic Encylopedia)

Gnosticism separates matter and spirit, human and divine. In this way, it denies the *incarnation*. That is significant for multiple reasons, about which I have written in "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy". We saw already in St. Ignatius (Ep. ad. Smyrnaeans, 7) that the docetists abstained from (or only minimally received) the Eucharist, precisely because for them, as docetists, the Eucharist could not truly be the Body and Blood of Christ. But here I want to point out one very important *ecclesial* implication of gnosticism.

One Ecclesial Implication

If Christ did not have an actual material body, then the Church per se, i.e. the Body of Christ, cannot be visible. If the gnostics were right, then the Church per se is only spiritual and invisible, and that visible thing that is falsely called the Church is merely an earthly, human-made political body, just as the physical body of Jesus the son of Mary was (according to the gnostics who admitted that there was a human Jesus) *merely* human. The dualism implicit in the gnostic denial of the true incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ has as an implication a two-fold denial: it denies the divine character of the one visible Church, and it denies the visible character of the [one and very same] divine Church. Without the hypostatic union of the human and the divine, there is no visible divine body, and thus no visible divine Mystical Body, i.e. no visible Church. And if there is no visible Church, then there is no Church discipline. Marcion can start his own 'church', and make his own canon. If there is no visible Church, then the true knowledge is known 'spiritually', not by means of matter or a physical succession of bishops, not through the visible Church. If there is no visible Church, then how do we know which books are inspired? Spiritually, by a burning in our bosom, an internal witness with our spirit. If there is no visible Church, then how do we know who has the true interpretation of these books? Again, by an internal spiritual witness that this is their true and self-evident meaning. How do we know that we have salvation? Again, by an internal spiritual witness. The ecclesial implication of gnosticism's denial of the hypostatic union is the individualism of some form of Montanism.

To take on flesh in a true union (not just in appearance or in an extrinsic manner) is to bind oneself to the particular, to the here and now, in space and time. But the particular is known in a different way than is that which is spiritual, invisible, and universal. What is entirely spiritual cannot be known by the senses. It must be known apart from the senses. Hence gnosticism entails that Christ is known internally in the subjectivity of one's own heart, not through matter, and thus not through one's senses, and definitely not through a material and temporal succession of sweaty, smelly, sinful men. But the incarnation entails something altogether different. Because of the incarnation, Christ is known to us through His material body, through His physical acts in particular places and times. "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." (St. John 14:9) We come to God through His Body and Blood, not bypassing them. (St. John 6) Since Christ is embodied and visible in His particularity in space and time, so too the Church, as His Body, is visible in its particularity in space and time. As we come to Christ through union with that *matter* which flowed from the side of His physical body on the cross, so likewise we come to Christ through sacramental union with that same matter that pours forth daily from the side of His Body, the Church, in the Eucharist. The Church per se must be particular and visible in space and time because it is the Body of Christ, and because in taking on a body in His incarnation Christ was truly and permanently united with matter in all its particularity and visibility.

3 comments:

CD-Host said...

Bryan --

A surprising fair treatment! Lots of little comments but the overall thesis I'd agree with.

1) I think the history should be a bit more qualified like "according to one catholic source" some of the biographical history you cite is heavily disputed. I'm not sure how deep we need to dig into this so at this point it is not worth debating. For example many scholars contented that Irenaeus is reading into Valentinus' Marcionic history and that the excommunication of Valentinus never occurred.

2) I think you are confusing several different types of docetic thought. For example Christ might have been fully material but relative to a higher spiritual plane. Or via a type of modalism the Christ inhabited or influenced Jesus. Your basic point regarding the necessary rejection of the incarnation by gnosticism stands however.


3) Without the hypostatic union of the human and the divine, there is no visible Church. And if there is no visible Church, then there is no Church discipline.

I think that is too strong. "Without the hypostatic union of the human and the divine, the visible Church is non divine. And if there is no visible Church, then the Church discipline is wholly material."

4) Marcion can start his own 'church', and make his own canon.

I don't think there is much question Marcion is the one who invented the idea of joining the works of Paul with a gospel and creating a "bible" for Christians. Arguably he may have been the first to have gospel's read like histories, a retelling of events i.e. the structure we see in Luke may be from Marcion depending on your view of the origins of Luke relative to the origin of the Gospel of the Lord.

The Catholic church took his idea not the other way around. That is it was his canon they changed.

5) We saw already in St. Ignatius (Ep. ad. Smyrnaeans, 7) that the docetists abstained from (or only minimally received) the Eucharist, precisely because for them, as docetists, the Eucharist could not truly be the Body and Blood of Christ.

Here your analysis is off. Most Gnostics like most Christian sects did have the Eucharist. They may have interpreted differently: spiritual food, symbolic sexual joining, elevating the Psychic to the Pneumatic.... but they had it.

6) Marcion is really not a Gnostic I think it confuses things to include him in an unqualified way. Most importantly he never preached a doctrine of gnosis.

As I said I like the piece. There is no question that the Christians that took a weak view of the incarnation took a weak view of the church.

Principium unitatis said...

Collin,

Thanks for your comments. I concede most of your points. I am curious about one thing you said:

The Catholic church took his idea not the other way around. That is it was his canon they changed.

Where are you getting this idea? (I'm not denying what you are saying; it is often the case throughout the Church's history that the action of the heretic provokes the Church to state and clarify some point of orthodoxy that had not hitherto been defined.)

I think Marcion is a gnostic in the broader sense of the term regarding the evil of matter. That comes from his notion of who created matter. And it is the evil of matter that sets up the idea of salvation not through matter, but through spirit, i.e. intellect, and hence knowledge.

Regarding the Eucharist, there were different kinds of gnostics, because there are two ways to respond to the "matter is evil; we are spirits trapped in bodies" thesis. You can either eschew all matter in an effort to escape and avoid matter, or you can be a libertine about all things carnal since it doesn't really matter what you do in the flesh, since you are a spirit, not a soul-body union. And if I remember correctly we can see both of these types of responses in the various forms of gnosticism.

Thanks again for your comments.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

CD-Host said...

Where are you getting this idea? (I'm not denying what you are saying; it is often the case throughout the Church's history that the action of the heretic provokes the Church to state and clarify some point of orthodoxy that had not hitherto been defined.)

History. There are no Christian collections of that form prior to Marcion and after Marcion they become the standard. In fact around 130 there is not widespread decimation of gospels at all, while by 160 they are universal. So for example if you look at the Muratorian fragment (which is a 170 Catholic list) the list has the same structure as the modern structure. There simply nothing like this prior to Marcion.

Regarding the Eucharist, there were different kinds of gnostics, because there are two ways to respond to the "matter is evil; we are spirits trapped in bodies" thesis. You can either eschew all matter in an effort to escape and avoid matter, or you can be a libertine about all things carnal since it doesn't really matter what you do in the flesh, since you are a spirit, not a soul-body union. And if I remember correctly we can see both of these types of responses in the various forms of gnosticism.

I don't disagree with you understanding of the gnostic attitudes towards sin; though many Gnostic sects held to a variety of other positions regarding good conduct on earth. They may have not seen a connection between salvation and morality but they still may have advocated traditional morals and values.

But on the Eucharist here I think you have a hidden premise that the utilization of the Eucharist and the Catholic understanding of it went hand in hand. And that is not true. The gnostics were as enthusiastic about it as the Catholics (in general) some moreso. It is one of the defining characteristics of the Christian communities. I can start making lists but for example all the gnostic sects mentioned in this article were enthusiastic about it.

So again the attitude towards matter does effect the interpretation of the Eucharist but not the frequency of performance of the rite.