Gnostic Doctrine

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The Valentinian Trinity and the origins of the Cosmos and the three Natures



The Valentinian Trinity and the origins of the Cosmos and the three Natures

Whereas the orthodox Trinity was concerned with developing a theological creed out of Matthew 28:19, the Valentinian Trinity was concerned with bringing a system of meaning and structure to the wider universe. The Valentinian Trinity began with the notion of a primary dualism. The Valentinians generally believed that our universe originated from the primeval intermingling of two realms of Light and Darkness, or Spirit and Matter. The intermingling of these two substances gave birth to the Soul which is composite in nature and lives in a perpetual state of conflict. On the basis of this idea it was held that the universe was comprised of these three substances: Spirit, Matter and Soul. 

The Gnostic traditions vary on how these substances came to commingle and form the cosmos. But the underlying theme is the same: Our universe is derived from a mixture of pure light and pure darkness, and that the soul is a mixture of the two. The soul of the Demiurge, and all the souls of the celestial deities and of angels and human beings, all originate from the original Soul substance.

Among the Ophite sects, the Archontics, who believed in the reality of the celestial rulers, seem to have taught of an original trinity of Light, Spirit, or Ruach, and Darkness; the former they held to be completely pure. Spirit both pure and impure, and the latter, the completely impure basis of the material world.

The Sethians of whom we are treating begin with a trinity; Light, Spirit and Darkness. The Spirit is not, however, to be thought of as a breath or wind, but as it were a subtle odour spreading everywhere. All three principles then are intermingled one with another. And the Darkness strives to retain the Light and the Spirit, and imprison the light-sparks in matter; while the Light and the Spirit, on their side, strive to raise their powers aloft and rescue them from the Darkness.

The basic logic behind the trinity goes like this: The Spirit or Light represented the highest and finest substance that originated from the essence of the highest and most sublime God. Matter represented death and evil, and everything that was opposed to God. The Soul is a composite substance comprised of both spiritual and material essences. 


In Gnostic doctrine the very cosmos and the souls of humanity, and their flawed, paradoxical natures exist because at some point that which is perfectly good has combined with that which is perfectly evil. Out of these fundamental essences comes the tragically flawed reality where evil things happen to good people. It also explains why people who are in theory “good” are capable of committing evil acts. It also explains why a “God” who is supposed to be good, and just, is yet the Creator of a world that is filled with evil and injustice.

This idea of opposing elements intermingling is conveyed in numerous Gnostic myths, in different ways, but the underlying theme is always the same. The following primitive motif is attributed to Nicolaus, who is named among the earliest Christians in Acts chapter 6.

“A brother heretic emerged in Nicolaus. He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles. He affirms that Darkness was seized by a lust, a foul lust, for the Light: out of this permixture…were born, moreover, daemons and gods and [the] spirits seven, and other things sufficiently sacrilegious… Enough it is for us that this heresy of the Nicolaitans has been condemned by the Apocalypse of the Lord…” (Against All Heresies, 1; from Tertullian or Victorinus, included with the writings of Tertullian; see Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, pg. 650)

This basic concept of dualism also appears in the system of Mani and of the later Cathars, which maintain that our universe originates from a mixture of two primeval realms of Light and Darkness; and that all living souls, of gods, angels and men, originate from this combination. Man achieves redemption by rejecting the darkness and seeking the Light.

Other Gnostic systems maintain that the realm of Spirit and Light existed first; and that Darkness and Matter emerged as the result of a breach in the primal order. This concept is conveyed in the myth of the fall of Sophia. In Valentinian myth Sophia is a twelfth generation descendant from the supreme Being. But she forms a wrong conception of the Father within herself (an enthymesis) and this passes out of her as an aborted fetus (ectroma). In summary, Sophia’s miscarriage is an impure mixture comprised of her own spiritual nature, but is combined with material substance which represents her grief and fear, and also a soul substance, which represents her desire for repentance. Our cosmos is therefore comprised of a combination of the three elements that, according to myth, originate from Sophia’s downfall: spirit, matter and soul. Spirit comes from Sophia’s primeval nature. Matter comes from her error and grief. Soul is a combination of the two which constitutes the capacity for duality, and also the capacity for repentance. Sophia’s desire for repentance is the origin of the soul in both gods and men.

Unfortunately no Valentinian treatises survive from antiquity which set forth these ideas first hand. But the Catholic Fathers do provide plausible summaries. Irenaeus gives the following report on Sophia’s passions following her downfall from the realm of Light:

“This collection of passions they declare was the substance of the matter from which this cosmos was formed. From her desire of returning (read: repentance) every soul belonging to this world, and that of the Demiurge himself, have its origin. All other things owed their beginnings to her terror and sorrow. For from her tears all that is of a liquid nature was formed; from her smile all that is lucent; and from her grief and perplexity all the corporeal elements of the cosmos.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.4.2)

And then regarding the origin of the three natures, Irenaeus writes:

“These three kinds of existence then, having been formed—one from passion, which was matter; a second from conversion, which was animal (soul); and the third, that which she herself brought forth, which was spiritual.” (ibid. 1.5.1)

The Sethians give a different version of the Sophia myth. While agreeing on many points, they maintain that Sophia’s miscarriage emerged directly as the misshapen and demonic Demiurge, which Sophia gave the name Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth is in turn the sum both of Sophia’s spiritual nature and also her misguided passion. In the Apocryphon of John the dual nature of the Demiurge is described this way:

“When light mixed with darkness it made the darkness shine. When darkness mixed with light it dimmed the light, and it became neither light nor darkness, but rather gloom. This gloomy archon has three names: the first name is Yaldabaoth, the second is Sakla, the third is Samael” (Apocryphon of John, 11:52; quoted from Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, HarperCollins, pg. 116).

In the Apocryphon of John the soul of mankind originates from Yaldabaoth and is of like nature to himself (15). Sophia’s spirit is breathed into Adam and he then becomes a superior nature to his Creator (19f.). The material body is created for Adam and his descendants so that they might be weighed down and lulled into ignorance (21). The soul has the capacity for either salvation or condemnation (26). The three natures are not described explicitly as dogma, but the theme is clearly evident as the structure beneath the text. Sophia’s primal nature is pure spirit. Yaldabaoth’s nature is a synthesis of Sophia’s pure spirit and wrong passions. Adam’s “psychical” (soul) body is of the same nature as the Demiurge. The material body is created for Adam in order to keep him and his descendants from choosing salvation. The conflict between light, darkness and the soul originate from a conflict within the nature of Sophia. (Note: all number citations are from the original codex page numbers which appear in the English translations in bold type. All secondary numbers refer to specific lines in a text and appear to the right of the page number, e.g. 11:52 means page 11, line 52.)

In another Valentinian treatise The Tripartite Tractate we learn that the three-fold order emerges as the result of a certain fallen “Logos” which obviously corresponds to Sophia in other traditions. The Logos makes an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible Father and this causes him to lapse into self-doubt and confusion. The text itself gives this account of the fall of the logos:

“The Logos himself caused it to happen… For he was not able to bear the sight of the light, but he looked into the depth and he doubted. Out of this there was a division—he became deeply troubled—and a turning away because of his self-doubt and division, forgetfulness and ignorance of himself… His self-exaltation and his expectation of comprehending the incomprehensible became firm for him, and was in him. But sicknesses followed…having come into being from self-doubt, namely from the fact that he did not [reach] the glories of the Father.” (Tripartite Tractate, 77)

The result of this failure is that the Logos caused a realm of chaos to come into existence which was the product of his abortive thoughts.

“The Logos was a cause of those who came into being and he continued all the more to be at a loss and he was astonished. Instead of perfection, he saw a defect; instead of unification, he saw division; instead of stability, he saw disturbances; instead of rests, tumults. Neither was it possible for him to make them cease from loving disturbance, nor was it possible for him to destroy it. He was completely powerless, once his totality and his exaltation abandoned him.” (ibid. 80; see J. Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pp. 73, 74)

The Logos then repents of his wrong thoughts and condemns that which has emanated from him (81). As part of this repentance the Logos must bring the chaos into order. This order is divided into three: the “Spiritual”, the “Psychic” (soul) and the “Hylic” (material). (96–98) The Spiritual level represents all the purely righteous thoughts of the Logos that existed in the beginning, and which reflects the Pleroma above. The Psychic or soul level belongs the Logos’ conversion, memory (of the Pleroma) and judgments against the wrong thoughts and emanations. The Hylic level belongs to the Logos’ thoughts and emanations of “fear and despair, oblivion, confusion and ignorance” (98).

This is the primeval template for the cosmic order that the Logos will later create through his instrument, the Demiurge (100:20). This leads to the eventual creation of the three-fold human race “the spiritual, the psychic (soul), and the material” (118:15ff). In the Tripartite Tractate the purpose of the Human race is to reveal the fulfillment of all that is good and evil on behalf of the hierarchies above—and to reveal the consequences of ignorance (126). But then again this is only one Gnostic’s theory of the Trinity as this regards the three-fold nature of Man.

The theological structure of the Valentinian Trinity

The Valentinian Trinity mandates that there are three theological principles that correspond to the three natures: Spirit, Soul and Matter. The spiritual God is the supreme Being, the Secret God of the Valentinians. The Soul God is the Demiurge. This is the God of justice, the Creator, that was revealed in the Bible. 


And then the material God was identified with Satan, and was referred to by some Gnostics as the “Cosmocrator” or “World-Ruler.” Each God was the governor of its peculiar domain, whether of Spirit, or of the Soul, or of the material world, where all power falls into the hands of predators. Irenaeus gives a concise statement of this theological order according to the Valentinians who maintained that three theological orders emerged from Sophia’s nature:

“The Demiurge they describe as owing his origin to [Sophia’s] conversion… And on this account, he (the Demiurge), being incapable of recognizing any spiritual essences, imagined himself to be God alone, and declared through the prophets ‘I am God, and besides me there is none else.’

They further teach that spirits of wickedness originate from [Sophia’s] grief. Hence the devil, whom they call the Cosmocrator (world-ruler), and the demons and angels…found the source of their existence.

They represent the Demiurge as being the son of that mother of theirs, and the Cosmocrator as a creature of the Demiurge. … Their Mother dwells in that place which is above the heavens…the Demiurge in the heavenly place, that is, the Hebdomad; but the Cosmocrator in this, our world.”  (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.4.)

If Irenaeus can be trusted then we have a concise statement here of the three-fold Valentinian theology as this applies to our cosmos. Sophia-Achamoth is a proxy for the spiritual God and she resides in the realm above the seven heavens; hence she is identified as the “Ogdoad” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.2–3). The Demiurge is the god of this cosmos, and is the Creator and Lawgiver as mentioned in the Old Testament. The Demiurge is a god of soul because he originates from the substance of Sophia’s repentance or “conversion.” The “devil” is the Cosmocrator. His rule signifies the law of the jungle and of all people who have no godly capacity at all. The Valentinians believed that all material substance, and evil, originated from Sophia’s grief.

In extant Sethian texts this three-fold theological order can be seen, e.g., in the Reality of the Rulers (Hypostasis of the Archons). In this text Sophia is the proxy for the spiritual order. Yaldaboath is the devil who is cast into tartaros (the lowest level of hell). And his son Sabaoth repents and sings praises to Sophia. The fates of Sabaoth and Yaldabaoth signify the duality of the soul and the capacity of the soul to choose either salvation (the spirit) or condemnation (the material).

In the Tripartite Tractate, the Logos is the proxy for the spiritual God. The Demiurge is the Psychic God, and is the product of the Logos’ repentance and judgment (and does not know of the existence of the Logos or the spiritual realm, cf. 101; “…for he was ignorant that the movement within him came from the spirit…” and “…produced things that were greater than is own nature”). The Hylic power in this treatise is personified by the “serpent” in the garden of Eden, who is said to be “more cunning than all the evil powers” (107).

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