As shown below, the similarities between the Gnostic Christology and Trinity of the Valentinians and the orthodox Trinitarians are striking. The Valentinians were teaching a Christology very similar to the Christology of the Trinity Doctrine expressed in the Athanasian Creed about 350 years before the proclamation of the Athanasian Creed.
Valentinus (c.100-c.160) was a teacher in Rome, who almost became Pope. Before coming to Rome in about 140, he had studied in Egypt. About 160, he died in Cyprus. He claimed to have received his ideas from Theodas, a disciple of Paul. Valentinianism survived into the fifth century.
Valentinus’ teachings merged Christianity with Greek and Oriental speculation. He developed a metaphysical system that incorporated Christianity with paganism and Greek philosophy, primarily Platonism. His theology fluctuated between Gnosticism, esotericism, and orthodox Christianity of his time.
Valentinus believed that Christ’s flesh was spiritual. Although Jesus ate and drank, he did not defecate. Because Jesus’ body received heavenly substance, it only appeared to need food. (This idea of Jesus conflicts with the New Treatment: Jesus was “like his brethren in all things” [Heb. 2:17]. Like the Valentinians, the Trinitarians also have a Jesus who is incompatible with the New Testament Jesus.)
Fundamental to the Valentinian Christology is Christ’s deity and preexistence. Furthermore, Christ is a special emanation of God and embodies all the powers of God. They believe that the fullness of the Godhead consists of three persons: Wisdom (Sophia), Truth (Aletheia), and Word (Logos). Jesus was the manifestation of these divine powers. Thus, Christ is the fullness of the Godhead. Pressense described Valentinus’ concept of the Father and the Son as follows:
The principle of all things — the Immortal, the Ineffable, He who deserves the name of Father in the absolute sense — is an unfathomable abyss. He is linked neither to space nor time; He is above all thought, and, as it were, shut up within Himself. Around Him is eternal silence. The Father is not willing to remain in solitude, for He is all love, and love can only exist where it has an object. Thus He produced by emanation the Intellect and the Truth. The Intellect is the consciousness which the Father has of Himself; it is the only Son, His living image, who alone makes known the Father, The Intellect is at the same time the Truth, because of this identity. The Intellect and the Truth produce the Word and the Life. This is the great quaternion of the absolute. The Intellect finds its perfect expression in the Word; that expression is not a mere symbol, since it is also the Life. The Word and the Life produce Man and the Church. . . . The transcendently divine blends with the essentially human. . . . The Intellect and the Truth give birth to the Christ and the Holy Spirit (Pressense, pp. 26-27, 29)(For further description of Valentinus’ ontological metaphysical speculation, see Pressense, pages 27-33 and Hase, pages 78-80.)
Further, Valentinus taught that the God of the Old Testament, i.e., Yahweh, was not the Supreme God.
Valentinians divided into two schools: the Western (or Italian or later) and the Eastern (or Oriental or earlier). According to the Western School, Jesus came down from heaven with a special incorrupted human body. The virgin Mary birthed this human Jesus. Later, either at the birth or baptism of this human Jesus, the divine Christ joined the human Jesus. Thus, Jesus possessed two persons or natures: One is fully human and the other is fully divine. According to the Eastern School, Christ, who has a purely spiritual body, is born through the virgin Mary. The divine person of Jesus absorbs the human person, and, by that, makes Jesus one person. Thus, the Eastern School was partly Docetic.
The Valentinians were ahead of the Trinitarians in recognizing Christ, the Son of God, as consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, which is an essential element of the Trinity Doctrine. Moreover, Valentinus may have been the first to teach the doctrine of three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This notion, he got from Hermes and Plato. (Hermes was a recorder of Egyptian mythology and paganism.) Unlike the Platonists, whose “hypostases” was impersonal, Valentinus’ “hypostases” was personal.
As the Valentinus’ notion of three persons in the Godhead was between that of the Arians and the Sabellians, Trinitarians adopted his idea (indirectly via his techniques) to avoid and to condemn the Arians and Sabellians. (The Arians believed that the Son was a created being and subordinate to God. Sabellians believed that the Son, as well as the Father and Holy Spirit, was an aspect or manifestation of God.) Like the Valentinians, the Trinitarians adopted a trinity doctrine of a triune God of three distinct persons (or Gods) in one person (or God). (One motivation for adopting the Trinity Doctrine was to distinguish and separate Christianity from the absurdity of Jewish Monotheism, as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), one of the greatest Trinitarian theologians of the fourth century, stated it.)
However, the Trinity of the Trinitarians differs significantly from the Trinity of the Valentinians in one important aspect. For the Trinitarians, God the Father and God the Son are coequal. For the Valentinians, the Son is subordinate to the Father. Another important difference between the two is that according to the Trinitarians the three persons of God are male. According to the Valentinians, the Father and Son are male, and the Holy Spirit is female.
Another essential component of the Trinity Doctrine is the eternal Son. Valentinians taught the eternal generation of the Son, i.e., the eternal Son. God the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son. However, they seem to mean that the Son is eternally begotten out of the Father instead of eternally being with or in the Father.
Similar to the Christology of the Valentinians is the Christology of the Trinitarians. Trinitarians have the preexisting God the Son coming down from heaven to earth and uniting with a human body. However, according to the Trinity Doctrine, Jesus consists of two persons: a human and God. He is 100 percent God and 100 percent human. Yet, he is one person. That is, the Trinitarian Jesus is one person with two wills and two minds. Thus, the Trinitarian Jesus is not a personal man; he is human nature without personal substance. He becomes an abstraction void of personality united with God.
According to the Valentinians, Christ, who emanates from the Intellect, the consciousness of the Father, the Supreme God, has of Himself, is the highest anointed. Jesus, who is born of Mary is the “ensouled body” that the Savior puts on. The Savior is a lesser anointed, who is also called Jesus, Christ, Word, Son, and All. Jesus was earthly with a human body into which the heavenly Savior descended, yet the Savior’s body was apparently not material. The spiritual Christ departs just before the crucifixion — thus, Deity does not die — and the human body, Jesus, suffers and dies.
Both the Trinitarian Christ and the Valentinian Christ are similar to the Docetic Jesus. According to Docetism, Christ is not a man; God took the form of a man to Himself. According to the Trinitarians, when God the Son became man at the incarnation, he gave up none of his divine attributes by taking manhood to himself. Like the Trinitarians, the Valentinians hold that Christ is not a true or real man because God subjected all his properties to His divine personality while He preserved a complete and functional human nature. Thus, both the Trinitarians and Valentinians agree that Jesus Christ is not “a true man”; he is God united with human qualities.
Nearly all Trinitarians maintain that only the human bodyof Christ died on the cross. God the Son, Christ’s divine nature, left the body of Christ at the crucifixion, for God cannot die. (If he died, he would no longer be immortal or eternal.) Valentinians hold the same doctrine of the crucifixion. Christ, i.e., the divine nature, left Jesus, i.e., the human nature, before Jesse died. The primary difference between the two is that for Trinitarians, the human nature left the God nature at death whereas for Valentinians, the God nature left the human nature before the human nature died.
According to the New Testament, the Son of God died on the cross. Propitiation is by the death of the person of Jesus. However, for Valentinians and Trinitarians, the divine person did not die; only a human image or body died. Both have the divine person experiencing death without having to die.
Nevertheless, Valentinians and Trinitarians do differ on their view of Jesus Christ. For the Valentinians, Christ is deity and Jesus is human; that is, Christ and Jesus are two distinct persons. Therefore, Jesus dies, but Christ escapes death. (This notion that Christ did not die conflicts with Paul’s teachings: Romans 14:9.)
For the Trinitarians, Jesus and Christ are one person, although he is two distinct persons, divine and human. According to the Trinity Doctrine, Jesus has both a divine person, the Logos, and a rational human soul. Therefore, Jesus’ human nature retains a human mind and will, and he also has a divine mind and will. Nevertheless, Jesus has only one person in himself. Thus, Trinitarians have more difficulty in explaining Christ’s death without the Son of God dying than do Valentinians.
Like the Trinitarian Jesus, the Valentinian Jesus consists of the deity and a rational human. Both have Jesus with two souls, but with only one ego, the divine person, dominating. Both believe that the divine must dominate Jesus, or else he would sin. Basically, the difference between the Valentinian and the Trinitarian doctrine of two natures of Jesus is that the Valentinians present theirs in a clear and undeniable fashion, while the Trinitarians present theirs in a hazy and incoherent way.
Although the Valentinian Jesus had both a human mind and will and a divine mind and will, the divine controlled. Most Trinitarians maintain the same position: Jesus’ divine mind and will controlled his human mind and will. Both have the divine suppressing, at least to some degree, the humanity of Jesus. Thus, Jesus never sinned and could never sin. One significant difference between the Valentinian Jesus and the Trinitarian Jesus is that the Valentinian Jesus is two different persons: one divine, and one human. The Trinitarian Jesus is one person in spite of having two minds and two wills.
According to the Valentinians, the human body of Jesus descended from heaven and passed through Mary. Thus, Jesus’ human body preexisted in heaven. This Valentinian doctrine, the Trinitarians reject.
A great problem that Trinitarians have encountered over the centuries is explaining the two natures of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus without God dying on the cross while avoiding Gnosticism. Even today, some Trinitarians, e.g., Congdon, accuse many evangelicals of preaching a Docetic and Valentinian Christology.
So that ordinary people can understand the Christology of the Trinitarians as expressed in the Athanasian Creed, Lord Bacon, a Trinitarian, translates it:
He believes a Virgin to be a Mother of a Son; and that very Son of hers to be her Maker. He believes him to have been shut up in a narrow room, whom heaven and earth could not contain. He believes him to have been born in time, who was and is from everlasting. He believes him to have been a weak child carried in arms, who is the Almighty; and him once to have died, who only hath life and immortality in himself (Norton 82-83).In other words, God is contained in a womb and stable but is omnipresent. He is eternal yet born in time. He is a vulnerable infant yet omnipotent. He died but is an eternal, immortal God who cannot die. This is the Christology that a good Christian believes whether he realizes it or not. Except Mary being the mother of her Maker, i.e., God, Bacon’s description of Christ fits the Christology of the Valentinians.
The similarities between Valentinian Christology and the Trinitarian Christology are remarkable. Both hold that Christ was deity and a hypostasis [a person] of the Supreme God. Further, both have him descending from heaven and having two complete natures. While the divine nature performs the miraculous and salvific works of the Supreme God, the human nature experiences the life of a human body capable of hunger, pain, and death.
In developing their Christology, the Trinitarians did not copy the Valentinians. Their Christologies are similar because both used the same technique in interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Both read the Scriptures through the thick lens of Platonism. As for the differences, they primarily result from the Valentinians incorporating more paganism and Gnosticism than the Trinitarians. The notion of a God-man and even a Triad (Triune) God comes from paganism. These notions certainly did not come from the staunchly monotheistic Old Testament or the staunchly monotheistic writers of the New Testament.
Although the teachings of the Valentinians were extremely similar to that of the Trinitarians, they are condemned as a major enemy of orthodoxy. Perhaps the similarity is a cause of the Valentinians being condemned as heretics.
When theologians develop a doctrine and especially a dogma, they seem not only to discard Occam’s razor, but, to the contrary, they seem to adopt its inverse. (According to Occam’s razor, when two theories are competing, the simpler explanation is to be preferred as it is usually the better of the two.) Do they do so to keep the masses ignorant and depended on them and, thereby, increase their status and importance? They seem to strive to create the most complex, incomprehensible doctrines and dogmas that they can.
Further, most theologians seem to believe that when a few passages appear to disagree or conflict with many passages in the Bible, the many should be interpreted in light of the few. The few should not be understood in light of the many. Thus, the best doctrines allow or even demand the few to govern the many. For example, 53 scriptures support the doctrine that Jesus is God, while 386 scriptures show that he is not God (Holt, p. 311).
One of my bosses said, partially joking, that the best way to get data points to fall on the curve is to draw the curve first and then plot the data. Some doctrines of the Church seem to have been developed this way. First, the doctrine is declared, and then verses are found to support the doctrine or are forced via interpretation to support the doctrine. Better yet, is to write the doctrine so that it can void any scripture that contradicts it. An example is the doctrine of the dual nature of Jesus (Jesus is 100 percent human and 100 percent God, yet he is only one person); the doctrine itself makes everything that Jesus says that proves that he is not God irrelevant.
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Hase, Charles. History of the Christian Church. Translators Charles E. Blumenthal and Conway P. Wing. New York: D. Appleton, 1870.
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Holt, Brian. Jesus God or the Son of God: A Comparison of the Arguments. Mt. Juliet, Tennessee: Tell Way Publishing, 2002.
Neidhart, Ludwig. Biblical Trinity Doctrine and Christology. Augsburg: 2017.
Norton, Andrews. Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians, Concerning the Nature of God, and the Person Of Christ. Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Company, 1833.
Pressense, E. De. The Early Years of Christianity: Heresy and Christian Doctrine. Translator Anne Harwood. New York: Nelson & Phillips, n.d.
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen
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