Gnostic Doctrine

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The New Testament and the origins of the Valentinian Trinity




The New Testament and the origins of the Valentinian Trinity

Irenaeus rejected the Valentinian Trinity of man and substance as having no basis in the Apostles. It is true that no New Testament writer refers specifically to a “trinity” of natures—anymore than these writers refer to any “orthodox” trinity. On the other hand, some of these writers do express profound ideas regarding a division of natures which has subsequently been suppressed and ignored in “orthodox” tradition. The Valentinian Trinity is an attempt to organize these ideas into a system; but at the same time is a later organization of earlier ideas that are found in the Letters of Paul (and to a lesser extent in the Gospel of John).

On the historical record Paul is the first known writer to express these ideas of varying natures, which are expressed in terms of the spiritual, the natural (soul) and the fleshly or carnal—and which appear later in the Valentinian Trinity of natures. These ideas appear most prominently in 1 Corinthians 2. In this passage Paul writes as a mystagogue, and he reveals certain details of a “mystery” and a “hidden wisdom” which are spoken of only among the “perfect” (teleiois: initiates). Paul reveals that men have different natures, and that this applies even in the Church. The “mystery” itself is described as a “wisdom” which is revealed by the “Spirit of God.” And the only way that a man can receive this spiritual wisdom is if he himself has received the “Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:6–7, 10–13). Paul then explains to his readers:

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judges all things…” (1 Cor. 2:14–15)

In this passage Paul makes a distinction between the spiritual man (pneumatikos) and the natural man (psychikos). In 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 Paul goes on to describe the third category, the “fleshly” man (sarkikos). This is the nature that Paul actually condemns. The fleshly man is consumed by jealousy and strife (1 Cor. 3:3). Paul warns his readers that they are showing themselves to be “fleshly” when they allow themselves to be divided by factionalist disputes (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11–12). It is a well-known point of Paul’s doctrine that he regarded the “flesh” as the root of all the ills and evil in man’s nature (cf. Romans 7:18, 25; Galatians 5:19–23). Paul even insists that Jesus appeared only in the “likeness” of “sinful flesh” and that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Rom. 8:3, 1 Cor. 15:50).

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives more detail as to the larger cosmic order of the natures. Paul explains that there is a “soul” body and a “spiritual” body; and that all men are sewn in soul bodies but will be transformed into spiritual bodies. And Paul also states “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; neither can corruption inherit incorruption.” (1 Cor. 15:42–50) A very important point here is that Paul never affirms the “orthodox” dogma that Man was created in the image of God and then fell. Paul says that only Christ represents the image of God (the “heavenly”) whereas Adam is a living soul of the earth, “earthy.” This means that Paul believed that Adam sinned because it was his earthly nature to do so [10].


10] In Romans 5:12 Paul says that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” In these words orthodox theologians see an affirmation of the doctrine of “original sin.” But Paul nowhere affirms that Adam was created in the image of God and then fell. In 1 Cor. 15 Paul actually denies that Adam was ever created in the image of God, and that this image was born alone by Christ. Thus Paul implies that Adam was created with the capacity for sin; and that from the beginning his body was created from the “earth” and was “earthy” in nature. This means that Adam was by nature weak and limited.

 And in Paul’s statement there is a relationship in concepts between Paul’s use of the words “fleshly” and “earthy.” And clearly Paul is basing his creation of man on the creation account in Genesis 2:7 where the “Lord” creates Adam from the earth: whereas a different creation of man is described in Genesis 1:26f., where “God” creates man in his own image “male and female.” No “dust” is mentioned. Again, Paul’s ideas are in reference to the second account and not the first.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul’s statements have theological implications as this applies both to Genesis and 1 Corinthians 2. The Valentinians recognized these monumental implications whereas, it seems, the orthodox crowd wanted to avoid giving themselves a headache (as Tertullian wrote “…for a controversy over the Scriptures can produce no other effect than to upset either the stomach or the brain”)[11].


11] Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 16.

 In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not affirm that Adam was created in the image of God. This means that Paul made a distinction in the Genesis creation accounts (as Philo did) and that Paul did not assign Adam’s origin to the supreme Being as described in Genesis 1:26. Paul refers only to Genesis 2:7, and he affirms accordingly that Adam is a living soul of the earth, earthy. When Paul refers to the “Spirit” of God and that which is “spiritual” he refers to elements of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 a “spirit” of God is mentioned, whereas no such “spirit” is mentioned in Genesis 2. From these two ideas, of “spirit” and “soul”, we may gather that there are two separate creations, two creations of man, two creators, and two natures: of Spirit and Soul. The third nature is the dust of the ground, the earth; from which Adam’s fleshly body was created. Paul believes that the “soul body” can be transformed to a “spiritual body” but he insisted that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” In Paul’s thought flesh is equated with evil and cannot be saved.

In Paul it is possible to see the roots of the Valentinian Trinity of natures and its theological structure. Moreover I should point out that there are no writings or evidence before Paul’s writings that show these unique ideas and the contrast between spiritual, natural and material or fleshly substance. The only other source I know of that contains a Trinitarian theme is in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who was an older contemporary of Paul. I’ll summarize Philo’s doctrine in brief. Philo believed that that there were three forms of God (one reality and two manifestations). 


These three forms of God corresponded to three types of men. Philo did not employ terms such as spiritual and natural as Paul and the later Valentinians, but he conveyed a similar theme. Philo maintained that only the truly enlightened man could attain the “vision” of the true living God, whereas less enlightened men could only know the vision of God as manifest in the scriptures. The better among the less enlightened were still capable of knowing the better of the two: this was good “God” as described in Genesis 1. The still less enlightened, in turn, were only capable of knowing God in the image of his royal or governing power. This referred to the “Lord God” who carried a sword and resorted to violence in scripture. Of note is that Philo also referred to the latter two types of men as of the “right” and of the “left.” This shows some possible connection with the later Valentinian Trinity and its notion of the right and left as mentioned both by Irenaeus and in the Tripartite Tractate (cited above).

Here are some quotations from Philo which show his concepts of the three natures:

“There are three different classes of human dispositions, each of which has received as its portion one of the aforesaid visions. The best of them has received that vision which is in the centre, the sight of the truly living God. The one which is next best has received that which is on the right hand, the sight of the beneficent power which has the name of God (Theos, Gn. 1:1f.). And the third has the sight of that which is on the left hand, the governing power, which is called lord ” (Kurios, Gn. 2:4f.).

And also:

“…and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. And the creative power is God [Theos], for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord [Kurios], for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore, the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind… a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three…” (On Abraham, 121f., 124)

Philo’s notion of three natures and three corresponding visions of God is certainly a cornerstone in the foundation of later Valentinian tradition, and the Valentinian Trinity. Of course we have no direct evidence that ancient Valentinians studied Philo, at least not in their writings. But the fact that Clement of Alexandria does mention Philo indicates that the Valentinians of Alexandria surely were aware of him as well (Clement, Stromata, 1:5).

Getting back to Paul, he set the basic precedent in that he was the first on the historical record to begin defining men as either “spiritual” or “natural” or “fleshly” (or also “earthy”). Where Paul got these ideas is a total mystery for scholars. But undoubtedly this is the source of the later Valentinian Trinity and all its theological implications. And indeed the Valentinians recognized that Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 2 had theological implications. For Valentinians Paul’s words meant that there was a spiritual God, and there was a natural God (and likewise a fleshly God, viz. Satan; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). The reason is because Paul states that the Natural man cannot receive spiritual wisdom (1 Cor. 2:14). This means that the Natural man cannot know the spiritual God, but can only know a lesser form of god after the nature of the soul. In Valentinian tradition this lesser god is the Demiurge.

In the Nag Hammadi fragment The Prayer of the Apostle we can see a prime example of the link between Valentinian theology and Paul’s concept of natures:

“I invoke you, the one who is and who pre-existed in the name which is exalted above every name, through Jesus Christ, the Lord of Lords, the King of the ages; give me your gifts, of which you do not repent, through the Son of Man, the Spirit, the Paraclete of truth. Give me authority when I ask you; give healing for my body when I ask you through the Evangelist, and redeem my eternal light soul and my spirit. And the First-born of the Pleroma of grace—reveal him to my mind!

Grant what no angel eye has seen and no archon ear (has) heard, and what has not entered into the human heart which came to be angelic and (modelled) after the image of the psychic God when it was formed in the beginning, since I have faith and hope. And place upon me your beloved, elect, and blessed greatness, the First-born, the First-begotten, and the wonderful mystery of your house; for yours is the power and the glory and the praise and the greatness for ever and ever. Amen.”

In these quotations both the three natures and the threefold theology of the Valentinian Trinity are evident: and it may be seen how these ideas were carried over from Paul. First note the reference to “Jesus Christ” who “pre-existed in the name which is above every name.” The writer asks Jesus, through the “Spirit”, to “redeem my eternal light soul and my spirit.” Note here that the “Spirit” is identified with Jesus and with the “name which is exalted above every name.” The latter passage is taken from Ephesians 1:21 where “Paul” writes that Jesus has been lifted to the right hand of the Father “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this aeon, but also in that which is to come.” This passage inevitably refers to a name and a place far above “Jehovah” whose Name is known as the ruler of this aeon and dominion. In the Prayer quoted above, this is meant to show that Paul appeals to the highest Godhead, which is Spiritual in essence, and is not known to this world.

Next this writer makes a request based on Paul’s interpolation of Isaiah 64:4 as preserved in 1 Corinthians 2:9. In another article I point out how that Paul’s quotation is an inversion of the original passage (and which other biased theologians and scholars have tried to connect with a non-existent passage from the Apocalypse of Elijah). The original passage refers to YHWH’s plan which has been announced to the prophets and which has never been heard from any other God. Paul quotes this passage so as to refer to a Plan which no man has known, and which “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man…” The author of the Prayer quotes these words so as to refer to the “psychic God.” Hence: “Grant what no angel eye has seen and no archon ear (has) heard, and what has not entered into the human heart which came to be angelic and (modelled) after the image of the psychic God.” The writer here refers to the spiritual ignorance of the Demiurge who has dominion over the realm of the soul.

The Prayer of the Apostle is the one surviving text which shows direct evidence that Valentinians understood the implications of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 2 as this regards theology and the several natures. Again the Valentinian Trinity is a later exposition and organization of these ideas. To ignore the Valentinian Trinity is to ignore the spiritual heart of earliest Gnostic Christianity and its unique Wisdom. —jw

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