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The Valentinians had a very distincitive view of the material creation. Unlike other Gnostics, they saw the creation of the material world as part of the process of redemption. It was seen as instrumental in the destruction of the deficiency and the restoration of the fallen spiritual element to the divine fullness (pleroma). This viewpoint had certain ethical consequences which serve to further distinguish them from their Gnostic contemporaries.
In the Valentinian view, human beings consist of three components. Each person has a material body, an animating soul, and a spirit. Similarly, the cosmos itself is viewed as having a tripartite structure. It too is said to consist of spirit (pneuma), soul (psyche) and matter (hyle).Valentinians trace this tripartite structure back to the origin of the cosmos. According to their creation myth, the cosmos has its origins from the fall and redemption of the divine emanation (Aeon) Sophia or "Wisdom". Sophia attempted to know the Father through thinking alone and as a result she was excluded from the divine Fullness (pleroma) and fell into ignorance and suffering. She repented of her actions and began to plead for assistance. The Father had mercy on her and sent Christ to her and she attained knowledge (gnosis) of the Father. Sophia's fall, repentance and redemption are said by Valentinian writers to give rise to the three constituents of the universe. Matter (hyle) is said to originate from her suffering, soul (psyche) from her repentance, and spirit (pneuma) from her gnosis (Against Heresies 1:2:3, 1:4:1-5, 1:5:4 cf. also Refutation of Heresies 6:25-27, Excerpts of Theodotus 43:2-46:1, etc.).
Spirit is destined to attain salvation and reenter the presence of God along with Christ and Sophia. Matter or the "left" has no share in salvation and is dissolved by gnosis. Soul or the "right" is intermediate between matter and spirit and is characterized by free will and is capable of partial salvation (Excerpts of Theodotus 56:3).
The Valentinian view of matter seems to indicate a fundamentally pessimistic view of material existence. However, as we shall see, this is far from the whole story.
During her fall and redemption by Christ, Sophia gave rise to unformed spiritual substance (pneuma). She was unable to form it herself. Therefore she was required to find a place for it to grow to maturity. This place is the material world. Thus in Valentinian thought, the creation of the world is instrumental in the process of redemption. As Hans Jonas (1963) succinctly puts it, "this fruit of hers had therefore to pass into and through the world to be 'informed' in its course. The Demiurge is an unwitting instrument in this process".
As Jonas indicates, Sophia was not regarded as having created the world directly. Rather she acted through the Demiurge and the lower powers. The Demiurge mediates between Sophia and matter in much the same way that the soul mediates between the spirit and matter within the individual person and allows the creation of the material world. The Demiurge is "the god through whom she (Sophia) made the heaven and the earth (Excerpts of Theodotus 47:2). Sophia "uses him as a hand, to beautify and work on the things below"(Tripartite Tractate 100:31-33). Though him she shaped matter into an image of the Fullness in order to provide a place for the seed to "grow and increase in it, and so become suitable for the reception of perfect Word" (Against Heresies 1:5:6). Note that the substance of the world (i.e. matter) is viewed negatively but its form contains images of pleroma and thus makes it suitable place for the seed to grow to maturity.
The ultimate purpose of this process is the creation of human beings (Tripartite Tractate 104:18-30). Sophia used the Demiurge to create human beings consisting of a material body and a soul. Into each soul she sows the spiritual seed. Thus every human being is a microcosm consisting of all three substances: matter, soul and spirit (Against Heresies 1:5:6, Excerpts of Theodotus 53:2, Valentinian Exposition 37, Tripartite Tractate 105:29-35).
The human body is created in order to serve as a vessel in which the spiritual seed will grow to maturity. This is the main purpose of the Demiurge. According to Ptolemy, the spiritual element "was secretly deposited in him (the Demiurge), so that it might be sown by him into the soul that comes from him and into this material body; might be carried by these (as it were by a pregnant woman), and increase; and might become ready for the reception of the perfect Word" (Against Heresies 1:5:6). As Herakleon says, it is the Demiurge and "the angels of the dispensation, through whom - as mediators - it (the seed) was sown and brought up" (Herakleon Fragment 36).
The seed is "being trained and nourished here since it was sent out in immaturity, but was later deemed worthy of perfection" (Against Heresies 1:7:5). As the Tripartite Tractate says, "the entire preparation of the adornment of the images and representations and likenesses, have come into being because of those who need education and teaching and formation, so that the smallness might grow, little by little, as through a mirror image. For it was for this reason that he created mankind at the end, having first prepared and provided for him the things which he had created for his sake" (TriTract 104:18-30). The world has been formed into an image of the Pleroma and human being were created to serve as a vessel in which the seed may attain to maturity. Valentinians believed that the spiritual "fruit of hers (i.e. Sophia) had therefore to pass into and through the world to be 'informed' in its course" (Jonas 1963).
The attaining of maturity by the seed is linked to it receiving form. The seeds are described as "immature" or "unformed" when sent out for "training" in the world. According to Ptolemy, "the spiritual substance has been sent forth so that it might be formed by being coupled with the animate (psychic) and learning along with it during its time of residence in this place" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:1). Similarly, according to Theodotus, "From the three species (sown in humanity) there takes place both the formation of the spiritual substance and the changing of the substance of soul from slavery to freedom." (Excerpts of Theodotus 57:1).
Herakleon describes how Christ comes to "harvest" the souls of believers. He says, "The harvest is of the souls of believers. They are already ripe, ready for harvest, and suitable for being gathered into the barn, that is, through faith into rest, all those who are ready. For they are not all ready. Some were already ready, some were on the point of being ready, some are near to being ready, and some are still being sown" (Her Frag 32). Through the activity of Christ, the seed "is being gradually given form through knowledge (gnosis)" (Excerpts of Theodotus 59:1). Furthermore, "so long as the seed is unformed, it is a child of female (alone). But when it is formed, it becomes male and becomes a bridegroom's attendant. No longer weak and subject to the cosmic powers, visible and invisible, but, having become (joined to the) male, it becomes an imperishable fruit" (Excerpts of Theodotus 79:1).
Other Valentinian sources describe this process in a slightly different manner. As described above, matter is identical with the fallen state or "deficiency." The material body into which each seed is sown represents their share of "deficiency" or "death". This is what Valentinus refers to when he addresses the elect: "From the beginning you have been immortal and you are children of eternal life. And you wanted death to be allocated to yourselves so that you might spend it and use it up, and that death might die in you and through you. For when you nullify the world and are not yourselves annihilated, you are lord over creation and all corruption" (Valentinus Fragment 4). The matter of which the world was formed is regarded as identical with ignorance or "death". By entering the world, the seeds each are allocated a share of death or deficiency. It is their mission to "spend" and "use up" their share of death and thereby "nullify the world." Gnosis represents the destuction of lack and therefore of matter. As Valentinus elsewhere describes, "Inasmuch as the lack came into being because the Father was not known, from the moment the Father is known, the lack will not exist...lack passes away in completion, and so from that moment on, the realm of appearance is no longer manifest but will pass away in the harmony of unity...It is by acquaintance (gnosis) that all will purify themselves out of multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within themselves as fire" (Gospel of Truth 24:28-25:19).
Just as the Demiurge created our material bodies out of matter or dust (chous), the gnosis brought by Christ removes the matter or dust from us. Theodotus describes how Christ aids us in the desctuction of our inner ignorance or "dust" (chous). According to him, "When the Savior came, he awakened the soul, but kindled the spark...And after the resurrection when he breathed his spirit into the apostles, he blew away the dust (chous) like ashes and removed it, but he kindled and made alive the spark." (Excerpts of Theodotus 3:1-2) Theodotus compares our reception of Christ's spirit to blowing on the embers of a fire. The Holy Spirit removes the "dust" or ignorance and awakens the spiritual spark.
Thus the creation can be understood as a mechanism by which lack and matter are gradually destroyed. As each person attains to gnosis, the lack and matter within them is destroyed and the universe is one step closer to reintegration with the pleroma. Eventually all of the ignorance will be used up and the world will be destroyed. As Ptolemy says, "the end is supposed to come when every spiritual element has been formed and perfected in acquaintance (gnosis)" (Against Heresies 1:6:1). Once all the ignorance will has been "used up", the matter of which the world is composed will cease to exist. According to Ptolemy, "The fire which is hidden in the world will blaze up and ignite, annihilate all matter, and consume itself also at the same time, and pass into nothingness" (Against Heresies 1:7:1 cf 1:6:1). With the deficiency eliminated, Sophia along with the seed will be readmited to the divine pleroma (Against Heresies 1:7:1 cf Excerpts of Theodotus 64:1). As Ptolemy says, "what leads them to the Fullness is the seed which was sent forth from there before it was mature, but attained to perfection here" (Against Heresies 1:6:4)
This view of the world is not without ethical consequences. Entering the world is viewed positively in Valentinianism. It was seen as a necessary step towards receiving gnosis and returning to the pleroma. With this in mind, Valentinian teachers vigorously defended marriage and raising children. Ptolemy, an important teacher of the Valentinian school at Rome says of marriage: "Whoever has been in the world and has not loved a woman in such a way as to unite himself with her (i.e. marry her) is not from the Truth and will not attain to the Truth"! (Against Heresies 1:6:4). Similarly, the teacher Theodotus argues that marriage and rearing children "is indispensable for the salvation of those who believe - for this child-bearing is essential until the previously reckoned seed is brought forth" (Excerpts of Theodotus 67:2-3). It is quite easy to see that the Valentinian view on marriage is a logical consequence of their teaching on the creation. If entering the world is the path to salvation for the spiritual element then the means by which this occurs (i.e marriage and child-bearing) must be viewed positively. For this reason Clement of Alexandria saw the Valentinians as allies against those who reject marriage (Stromata 3:1) despite his opposition to other aspects of their theology.
Such an attitude towards marriage and childbirth sharply contrasts with other Gnostics who condemned marriage and child-bearing. Those Gnostics who rejected marriage and reproduction saw the created world in purely negative terms as the end results of the fall. Valentinians in contrast saw the creation of the world as part of the process of redemption and consequently had a less negative view towards it. Rather than being the nadir of the fall into ignorance, the creation is the way back from the fall. It is created specifically as a place for the spiritual seeds to attain to gnosis. The attainment of gnosis also corresponds to the destruction of ignorance and lack as well as their concrete manifestation i.e. matter. Thus the world is also a mechanism for the destruction of ignorance and matter.
Valentinians agreed with Plato that the form of the created world preserved the image of the ideal realm (the pleroma). For this reason they rarely criticisize the form of the world. Instead most of their criticism is focused on the world's material substance. In their view, the matter of which the world is formed is condensed or solidified deficiency and suffering. Thus while the world preserves the image of the pleroma, it is inevitably deficient on account of its substance. Valentinians could therefore appreciate that which was beautiful about the world while criticisizing that which was ugly.
The view of the created world is quite different in Valentinianism than in most other forms Gnosticism. According to Valentinian teaching, the world is created to aid the spiritual element to return to the Fullness (pleroma). Its creation was necessitated by the primordial fall into ignorance and suffering. While the Valentinian view of the world is not altogether positive, it resulted in a positive view of marriage and reproduction.
R. P. Casey, 1934. The Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria, Chistophers, London.
Hans Jonas, 1963. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the AlienGod Boston: Beacon.
Bentley Layton, 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures . Garden City, NY:Doubleday & Co.
James M. Robinson, ed., 1977. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. NewYork: Harper and Row