The Gnostic God

Article ID: DG040-1 | By: Douglas Groothuis

The following is an excerpt from article DG040-1 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be read by following the link below the excerpt.


The GNOSTIC GOD: UNKNOWABLE OR KNOWABLE?

Many Gnostic treatises speak of the ultimate reality or godhead as beyond conceptual apprehension. Any hope of contacting this reality — a spark of which is lodged within the Gnostic — must be filtered through numerous intermediary beings of a lesser stature than the godhead itself. In the Gospel of the Egyptians, the ultimate reality is said to be the “unrevealable, unmarked, ageless, unproclaimable Father.” Three powers are said to emanate from Him: “They are the Father, the Mother, (and) the Son, from the living silence.”34 The text speaks of giving praise to “the great invisible Spirit” who is “the silence of silent silence.”35 In the Sophia of Jesus Christ, Jesus is asked by Matthew, “Lord…teach us the truth,” to which Jesus says, “He Who Is is ineffable.” Although Jesus seems to indicate that he reveals the ineffable, he says concerning the ultimate, “He is unnameable….he is ever incomprehensible.”36 At this point the divide between the New Testament and the Gnostic documents couldn’t be deeper or wider. Although the biblical Jesus had the pedagogical tact not to proclaim indiscriminately, “I am God! I am God!” the entire contour of His ministry points to Him as God in the flesh. He says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The prologue to John’s gospel says that “in the beginning was the Word (Logos)” and that “the Word was with God and was God” (John 1:1). John did not say, “In the beginning was the silence of the silent silence” or “the ineffable.” Incarnation means tangible and intelligible revelation from God to humanity. The Creator’s truth and life are communicated spiritually through the medium of matter. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling place among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Word that became flesh “has made Him [the Father] known” (v. 19). John’s first epistle tells us: “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…” (1 John 1:2-3). Irenaeus encountered these Gnostic invocations of the ineffable. He quotes a Valentinian Gnostic teacher who explained the “primary Tetrad” (fourfold emanation from ultimate reality): “There is a certain Proarch who existed before all things, surpassing all thought, speech, and nomenclature” whom he called “Monotes” (unity). Along with this power there is another power called Hentotes (oneness) who, along with Monotes produced “an intelligent, unbegotten, and undivided being, which beginning language terms ‘Monad.'” Another entity called Hen (One) rounds out the primal union.37 Irenaeus satirically responds with his own suggested Tetrad which also proceeds from “a certain Proarch”:

But along with it there exists a power which I term Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced…a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon.38

Irenaeus’s point is well taken. If spiritual realities surpass our ability to name or even think about them, then any name under the sun (or within the Tetrad) is just as appropriate — or inappropriate — as any other, and we are free to affirm with Irenaeus that “these powers of the Gourd, Utter Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.”39 Whenever a Gnostic writer — ancient or modern — simultaneously asserts that a spiritual entity or principle is utterly unknown and unnameable and begins to give it names and ascribe to it characteristics, we should hark back to Irenaeus. If something is ineffable, it is necessarily unthinkable, unreportable, and unapproachable.

ANCIENT GNOSTICISM AND MODERN THOUGHT

Modern day Gnostics, Neo-Gnostics, or Gnostic sympathizers should be aware of some Gnostic elements which decidedly clash with modern tastes. First, although Pagels, like Jung, has shown the Gnostics in a positive psychological light, the Gnostic outlook is just as much theological and cosmological as it is psychological. The Gnostic message is all of a piece, and the psychology should not be artificially divorced from the overall world view. In other words, Gnosticism should not be reduced to psychology — as if we know better what a Basilides or a Valentinus really meant than they did. The Gnostic documents do not present their system as a crypto-psychology (with various cosmic forces representing psychic functions), but as a religious and theological explanation of the origin and operation of the universe. Those who want to adopt consistently Gnostic attitudes and assumptions should keep in mind what the Gnostic texts — to which they appeal for authority and credibility — actually say. Second, the Gnostic rejection of matter as illusory, evil, or, at most, second-best, is at odds with many New Age sentiments regarding the value of nature and the need for an ecological awareness and ethic. Trying to find an ecological concern in the Gnostic corpus is on the order of harvesting wheat in Antarctica. For the Gnostics, as Gnostic scholar Pheme Perkins puts it, “most of the cosmos that we know is a carefully constructed plot to keep humanity from returning to its true divine home.”40 Third, Pagels and others to the contrary, the Gnostic attitude toward women was not proto-feminist. Gnostic groups did sometimes allow for women’s participation in religious activities and several of the emanational beings were seen as feminine. Nevertheless, even though Ms. Magazine gave The Gnostic Gospels a glowing review41, women fare far worse in Gnosticism than many think. The concluding saying from the Gospel of Thomas, for example, has less than a feminist ring:

Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”42

The issue of the role of women in Gnostic theology and community cannot be adequately addressed here, but it should be noted that the Jesus of the Gospels never spoke of making the female into the male — no doubt because Jesus did not perceive the female to be inferior to the male. Going against social customs, He gathered women followers, and revealed to an outcast Samaritan woman that He was the Messiah — which scandalized His own disciples (John 4:1-39). The Gospels also record women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10) — and this in a society where women were not considered qualified to be legal witnesses. Fourth, despite an emphasis on reincarnation, several Gnostic documents speak of the damnation of those who are incorrigibly non-Gnostic43, particularly apostates from Gnostic groups.44 If one chafes at the Jesus of the Gospels warning of “eternal destruction,” chafings are likewise readily available from Gnostic doomsayers. Concerning the Gnostic-Orthodox controversy, biblical scholar F. F. Bruce is so bold as to say that “there is no reason why the student of the conflict should shrink from making a value judgment: the Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose.”45


This article is an excerpt from article DG040-1 from the Christian Research Journal. To view the full article, please click here.