The Secret Tradition
According to Valentinus, there are esoteric teachings which originate from Jesus that were passed on in secret. When Jesus spoke in public, he used metaphors that did not disclose his complete teachings. He only passed them on to his disciples in private. He referred to this when he said: "The knowledge about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables so that they may look but not see and listen but not understand."(Luke 8:9-10 cf. Ireneus Against Heresies 1:3:1). Similarly, when Saint Paul encountered the risen Lord in a vision (2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10), he received the secret teaching from him. Valentinus claimed that he learned this secret teaching from Theudas.
According to Valentinus, this secret tradition provides the key that is essential for a complete understanding of Jesus' message. One of his followers put this in the following words: "The scriptures are ambiguous and the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 3:2:1). The Valentinians claimed that the secret teachings are meaningful only to those who are spiritually mature. If a person was not ready to receive them, they seem like nonsense "because their value can be judged only on a spiritual basis" (1 Corinthians 2:14). According to the Valentinian tradition, Paul and the other apostles revealed these teachings only to those who were 'spiritually mature' (1 Corinthians 2:6)
Valentinians believed that God is incomprehensible and cannot be known directly. Therefore he defies accurate description. He is infinite, without beginning or end and is the ultimate origin of all things. He encompasses all things without being encompassed. Everything including the world lies within the deity and continues to be part of it. The Godhead manifests itself through a process of self-unfolding in the subsequent multiplicity of being while maintaining its unity.
Valentinians believed that God is androgynous and frequently depicted him as a male-female dyad. This is related to the notion that God provides the universe with both form and substance. The feminine aspect of the deity is called Silence, Grace and Thought. Silence is God's primordial state of tranquillity and self-awareness She is also the active creative Thought that makes all subsequent states of being (or "Aeons") substantial. The masculine aspect of God is Depth, also called Ineffable and First Father. Depth is the profoundly incomprehensible, all-encompassing aspect of the deity. He is essentially passive, yet when moved to action by his feminine Thought, he gives the universe form.
The origin of the universe is described as a process of emanation from the Godhead. The male and female aspects of the Father, acting in conjunction, manifested themselves in the Son. The Son is also often depicted by Valentinians as a male-female dyad. The Son manifests himself in twenty-six spiritual entities or Aeons arranged into male-female pairs. The arrangement and names of the Aeons will not be discussed here. They represent the energies immanent within Son and were seen as part of his personality. Together they constitute the Fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead.
The Aeons who are manifested by the Son are conceived as having some degree of psychological independence. They lie within God but are separated from him by a Limit or boundary. As a result, they do not know the one who brought them into being. The Aeons sensed that they were incomplete and longed to know their origin.
This longing passed to Sophia (Wisdom), the youngest of the Aoens. On behalf of the whole Fullness, she took up the quest to know the supreme Parent. She attempted to know him by thinking alone, something that is impossible. As a result, she became separated from her consort and fell into a state of deficiency and suffering. Through the power of Limit, Sophia was divided in two. Her higher part was returned to her consort but her lower part was separated from the Fullness into a lower realm along with the deficiency and suffering. This lower realm is identical with the physical world.
Valentinians envisioned the universe as a series of concentric spheres. The innermost sphere is the world or deficiency where the lower Sophia was exiled. Enclosing this is the Fullness (pleroma) where the Aeons are. The Aeons are enclosed within the Son. The outermost sphere which encompasses the Son is where the Father (Depth and Silence) is. There is a boundary or Limit between God and the Fullness. There is a second boundary or Limit between the Fullness and the deficiency. Just as the Fullness is a product of the Godhead and lies within it, so also the realm of deficiency is a product of the Fullness and lies within it. The deficiency arose as result of ignorance and it will be dissolved through knowledge (gnosis).
Through the mediation of the Son, the Aeons within the Fullness were given knowledge (gnosis) of God and received rest. All of the Aeons then joined together in celebration and became completely integrated into the personality of the Son. The reintegrated Son is also called the Savior. He is destined to be the male partner or bridegroom of the fallen Sophia. He is surrounded by a retinue of angels who were brought forth in honor of the Aeons.
The lower Sophia, trapped in the realm of deficiency, continued to suffer the emotional torments of grief, fear and confusion. As a result of her ignorance, she was trapped in a state of illusion and was unable to distinguish what was real and what unreal. She underwent a conversion when she thought of the light and she began to plead for assistance. In response, her bridegroom, the Savior, and his retinue of angels descended through the Limit to her. Through knowledge (gnosis) of the eternal realm she was freed of illusion and suffering.
The lower Sophia rejoiced at the sight of the Savior and his retinue of angels, and brought forth spiritual seeds in their image. These seeds are the spiritual element present in every Christian. For this reason the seeds are referred to as the spiritual Church. Just as the Savior is the bridegroom of the lower Sophia, so also the angels will be the bridegrooms of the spiritual seeds at the end of time.
Three states of being or "substances" came into being from Sophia as a result of her quest to know God. First the illusion which characterizes material existence came from ignorance and suffering; it is personified as the Devil. Second came soul which comes from conversion as an intermediate stage between ignorance and knowledge. It is personified as the Craftsman (demiurge) who forms the material world. Last the spiritual seed came from her knowledge (gnosis) and is personified in the lower Sophia herself.
Despite the fact that the lower Sophia was no longer ignorant, the ignorance was not fully dissipated. The spiritual seeds were immature and needed training. For this purpose, the creation of the material world was necessary. The lower Sophia and the Savior secretly influenced the Craftsman to create the material world in the image of the Fullness. The Craftsman is ignorant of his mother and thinks that he acts alone, but he unconsciously acts as her agent.
Human beings were created by the Craftsman. In addition to a physical body, Valentinians believed that people were composed of three non-corporeal elements: a demonic part (chous), a rational soul (psyche), and a spiritual seed (pneuma). Human beings were divided into three types depending on which of the three natures is dominant within them. That is why Adam and Eve are described as having had three children who they named Cain, Abel and Seth. They are the prototypes of carnal (choic), animate (psychic) and spiritual (pneumatic) human beings respectively.
The decisive event in the history of the world was the ministry of Jesus. He is the physical manifestation of the Son or Savior. Prior to his coming, the true God was unknown. Jesus came to bring knowledge (gnosis) to a suffering humanity that was desperately seeking God. By knowledge, the two elements which had been separated (i.e. the seeds and the angels) are joined.
The Valentinian tradition draws a sharp distinction between the human Jesus and the divine Jesus. The human Jesus was born the true son of Mary and Joseph. By a special dispensation, his body is consubstantial with Sophia and her spiritual seed. When he was thirty years old, he went to John the Baptist to be baptized. As soon as he went down into the water, the divine Savior, referred to as the "Spirit of the Thought of the Father", descended on him in the form of a dove. This is the true "virgin birth" and resurrection from the dead, for he was reborn of the virgin Spirit.
Jesus taught publicly in parables and riddles, but to his closest disciples he revealed the whole truth about the fall of Sophia and the coming restoration of the Fullness. According to Valentinian tradition, Mary Magdalene was an important member of this inner circle. She is seen as an image of the lower Sophia and is described as Jesus' consort in the Gospel of Philip.
The divine Jesus experienced all of the emotions of human being including grief, fear and confusion in the Garden of Gethsemene. However, only the human Jesus suffered pain and died on the cross. His divine aspect transcends physical suffering and death. When his physical body died, his non-corporeal spiritual body rose up from it.
Following the crucifixion, Valentinians believed that Jesus continued to appear to his disciples for eighteen months, not the forty days reported in the Acts of the Apostles. During this period he instructed the disciples "plainly about the Father." Even after his ascension, he continued to appear to people in visions, most notably Saint Paul and Valentinus.
According to the Valentinians, people manifest their true nature by their response to the message of Jesus. Using the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-8), they explain that through Jesus, Sophia sows the spiritual seed in all who hear the message. In some people the seed "falls on the path" and they do not respond at all. Such people are carnal by nature. In others the seed is choked by the thorns which are worldly concerns. They are hesitant and are unable to go beyond the level of rational explanations. Such people are dominated by their rational element or soul. In others, the seed was planted "in good earth" and they bear spiritual fruit. Such people are Gnostic or spiritual Christians.
People bear fruit spiritually by attaining a state of mystical knowledge (gnosis) in which they are joined with their angel who accompanies the Savior. Awakened from the drunken stupor of ignorance, and freed of suffering, they recognize their true spiritual nature. This is the true resurrection from the dead, that is, from the death of ignorance. This resurrection does not take place in the afterlife. It must be experienced in the here and now.
Valentinians describe the process of union with the divine in terms of a general eschatology that can be realized in the individual here and now. First the person spiritually ascends above the Craftsman and the lower powers to join Sophia, the Savior and their angel. Rejoicing with all of the saved, the person is joined with their angel and enters the Fullness. Such a person is "in the world but not of it." They have already attained a spiritual existence such that, for them, the world has become the Fullness.
Despite the untruths spread by their enemies, Valentinians insisted on the highest possible ethical standard from members of their school. They believed that it was possible to lead a sinless existence through perfect knowledge (gnosis) of God's will. Sin was seen as an expression of ignorance. As it says in the Gospel of Philip, "The one who has knowledge is a free person. But the free person does not sin, for the one who sins is a slave of sin " (Gospel of Philip 77:15-18).
The Sermon on the Mount was seen as a guide to leading an ethical life. According to the teacher Ptolemy, the law of love taught by Jesus abolished unjust laws, tranformed other laws to a spiritual sense and fulfilled the true divine law (Letter to Flora). While they did reject wealth and temporal authority, Valentinians never rejected marriage and raising children. According to the Alexandrian teacher Theodotus, marriage was necessary so that those with the spiritual seed might be born. Despite his advice, some members of the school practiced celibacy.