Gnostic Doctrine

Friday, 18 June 2021

What is Fate?

 What is Fate?

In this study we will look at the Gnostic understanding of Fate. But first an introductory reading from The Apocryphon of John:

24 I said, "Christ, where did the counterfeit spirit come from?''

He said to me, "(It all began) when the Mother whose mercy is great and the holy Spirit, the compassionate, who troubles herself with us—the seed that is, the Epinoia of the light awakened the thinking of human beings of the generation of the eternal, luminous, perfect Human. Then the Chief Ruler knew that they surpassed him in the excellence of their wisdom. He wanted to restrict their plan for he was ignorant. He did not understand [that] they were wiser than he. He made a plan with his powers. {He made a plan and begot Fate.}

They begot Fate and they bound the gods of heaven and angels and demons and human beings with measures and seasons and times in order to keep them all in its fetter—for it was lord over them all. (The Apocryphon of John)

Understanding Fate
fate--"That which is destined or decreed; appointed lot. Fate suggests inevitability and immutability in strict use, but usually carries no clear implication of whether it is good or evil" (Webster). 

In the Greco-Roman world fate was considered to be the overwhelming force that determines the destiny of all earthly and heavenly 

The philosophy of the Stoics stressed fate or natural destiny; one should be of high virtue but strive for indifference to pain or pleasure.

Astrologers in the ancient world like today considered “the position of the stars at the hour of birth, by various arts of computation and divining . . . determined the fate of individuals.” (Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, translated by S. P. Tregelles, 1901, pp. 166, 167)

The Pharisees Regarding their ideas about fate or providence, Josephus reports: “[They] attribute everything to Fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate co-operates.”—The Jewish War, II, 162, 163 (viii, 14).

Valentinian Understanding
In the system of Valentinus, the seven heavens (referred to as the Hebdomad), and even the region above them (referred to as the Ogdoad), were regarded as but the lowest and last stage of the exercise of creative power. Above them was the Pleroma, where were exhibited the first manifestations of the evolution of subordinate existence from the great First Principle.

The Ogdoad, is a place where the fallen Wisdom dwells, having been formed “in being” (κατ᾿οὐσίαν) and “in knowledge” (κατὰ γνῶσιν) by two emanations of the Pleroma, viz. Christ and Holy Spirit. The formation “in being”seems to have given rise to the realm of the fixed stars, whereas the formation “in knowledge” led, on the one hand,to the separation of passions from the fallen Sophia, and, on the other hand, to the generation of the spiritual substance (τὸ πνευματικόν), which will play a crucial role in the Valentinian soteriology.
The separated passions were, in turn, transformed by the Holy Spirit into two other substances, the material and the psychic one.

The next level is the level of the Hebdomad. It is created by Wisdom from the psychic substance, along with its ruler and his angels. This ruler, called Demiurge, is responsible for the formation of the psychic and material elements, thus becoming a creator of the sublunary world. His realm, the Hebdomad, seems to correspond to the seven planetary spheres. Finally, along with the formation of the material elements, the Demiurge also created the devil and the evil spirits. The devil is described as κοσμοκράτωρ, the ruler of the (sublunary) world.

It is against this background that a particular view of fate, widespread in early Christian literature, is reflected in the Valentinian narrative. This view includes two suppositions: (a) the notion of fate as a force exerted by or mediated through the heavenly bodies, which somehow determines the course of events, including human action, in the sublunary realm; (b) the belief that fate in this sense either does not exist or does not pertain to the Christians. Various versions of this view can be found in the Christian apologists, Bardaisan of Edessa, and some gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library.
The Powers and Forces
69 Fate is a union of many opposing forces and they are invisible and unseen, guiding the course of the stars and governing through them. For as each of them arrived, borne round by the movement of the world, it obtained power over those who were born at that very moment, as though they were its own children. (Extracts from the Works of Theodotu)

70 Therefore through the fixed stars and the planets, the invisible powers holding sway over them direct and watch over births. But the stars themselves do nothing but display the activity of the dominant powers, just as the flight of the birds (for omens) indicates something but effects nothing. (Extracts from the Works of Theodotu)

71 Now the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the seven stars which follow them rising now in conjunction, now in opposition, . . . these, moved by the powers, show the movement of substance toward the creation of living beings and the turn of circumstances. But both the stars and the powers are of different kinds: some are beneficent, some maleficent, some right, some left, and that which is born shares in both qualities. And each of them comes into being at its own time, the dominant sign fulfilling the course of nature, partly at the beginning, partly at the end. (Extracts from the Works of Theodotu)

As the heavenly bodies are carried around by the motion of the cosmos, these powers ride upon them, and whichever has reached the upper position obtains authority over those beings that are born in that particular moment.
The text says that the seven ‘planets’ (i.e. five planets plus the Sun and the Moon), moved by those powers, somehow indicate “the motion of the substance to the becoming of the animals”
(71): this enigmatic phrase probably refers to the above-­‐mentioned teaching of the psychic substance, from which the Demiurge creates the souls of beings generated in the sublunary realm. Our passage suggests that each generated being has its own dominant power, which also seems to be responsible for its coming to life and dying. This, 
at least, is how I take this sentence:  "And each of them comes into being at its own time, the dominant sign fulfilling the course of nature, partly at the beginning, partly at the end." (Exc. Th. 71).

that which is born finds itself in the midst of a battlefield: powers are different, some are right, some are left, some beneficient, some maleficent, and “that which is born is shared by them“, that is to say, that which is born can be subdued by either side of the battle,one being the side of God (i.e., presumably, the Demiurge) and the other the side of the devil:

72 From this situation and battle of the powers the Lord rescues us and supplies peace from the array of powers and angels, in which some are arrayed for us and others against us. For some are like soldiers fighting on our side as servants of God but others are like brigands. For the evil one girded himself, not taking the sword by the side of the king, but in madly plundering for himself. (Extracts from the Works of Theodotu)
74 Therefore the Lord came down bringing the peace which is from heaven to those on earth, as the Apostle says, “Peace on the earth and glory in the heights.” Therefore a strange and new star arose doing away with the old astral decree, shining with a new unearthly light, which revolved on a new path of salvation, as the Lord himself, men's guide, who came down to earth to transfer from Fate to his providence those who believed in Christ.

75 They say that the results prophecied show that Fate exists for the others and the consideration of calculations is a clear proof. For example, the Magi not only saw the Lord's star but they recognized the truth that a king was born and whose king he was, namely of the pious. At that time only the Jews were noted for piety; therefore the Saviour going down to the pious, came first to these who at that time were carrying fame for piety.

76 As, therefore, the birth of the Saviour released us from “becoming” and from Fate, so also his baptism rescued us from fire, and his Passion rescued us from passion in order that we might in all things follow him. For he who was baptised unto God advanced toward God and has received “power to walk upon scorpions and snakes,” the evil powers. And he commands the disciples “When ye go about, preach and them that believe baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” in whom we are born again, becoming higher than all the other powers.

That’s why the Lord came, to show “a new path of salvation“ to those who believe him. This new path is a path leading beyond fate, liberating man from fate and delivering him to providence: „Therefore a strange and new star arose doing away with the old astral decree, shining with a new unearthly light, which revolved on a new path of salvation, as the Lord
himself, men's guide, who came down to earth to transfer from fate to his providence those who came to believe in Christ“ (74). According to our author, this delivery takes place through baptism, which is „called death and an end of the old life when we get rid of the evil principalities, but it is also called life according to Christ, of which he is the only Lord“
Freedom from Fate
According to Valentinian teaching, one's fate depended on whether one had attained to gnosis or not. Those who did not have gnosis were believed to be subject to judgement and punishment by the Craftsman (demiurge) and his associates in the "Middle" (Gospel of Philip 66:7-20).

78 Until baptism, they say, Fate is real, but after it the astrologists are no longer right. But it is not only the washing that is liberating, but the knowledge of/who we were, and what we have become, where we were or where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth. (Extracts from the Works of Theodotu)

Thus baptism is a transcendence of fate, delivering the believer to providence: „Until baptism fate is real, but after it the astrologists are no longer right.“

Clement of Alexandria compares humans governed by fate to marionettes on strings.6 Tatian describes fate as an invention of evil demons who rule over nativities and generate various courses of life without any sense of justice, simply to amuse themselves like spectators in a theatre.“But we are above fate,“ says Tatian defiantly, “and instead of rambling (planetary) demons, we have come to know one ruler who does not ramble; we are not led by fate and have rejected its lawgivers.”7

Beyond Fate
Unlike the Pharisees, says Josephus, the Sadducees denied the workings of fate, maintaining that an individual, by his own actions, was solely responsible for what befell him. (Jewish Antiquities, XIII, 172, 173 [v, 9]) 

Like the Sadducees some Gnostics rejected the ideas of "self governed", "Fate", and "Providence"  

Eugnostos, the Blessed, to those who are his.

Rejoice in this, that you know. Greetings! I want you to know that all men born from the foundation of the world until now are dust. While they have inquired about God, who he is and what he is like, they have not found him. The wisest among them have speculated about the truth from the ordering of the world. And the speculation has not reached the truth. For the ordering is spoken of in three (different) opinions by all the philosophers; hence they do not agree. For some of them say about the world that it was directed by itself. Others, that it is providence (that directs it). Others, that it is fate. But it is none of these. Again, of three voices that I have just mentioned, none is true. For whatever is from itself is an empty life; it is self-made. Providence is foolish. Fate is an undiscerning thing.

Whoever, then, is able to get free of these three voices I have just mentioned and come by means of another voice to confess the God of truth and agree in everything concerning him, he is immortal dwelling in the midst of mortal men.

The Savior said to them: "I want you to know that all men are born on earth from the foundation of the world until now, being dust, while they have inquired about God, who he is and what he is like, have not found him. Now the wisest among them have speculated from the ordering of the world and (its) movement. But their speculation has not reached the truth. For it is said that the ordering is directed in three ways, by all the philosophers, (and) hence they do not agree. For some of them say about the world that it is directed by itself. Others, that it is providence (that directs it). Others, that it is fate. But it is none of these. Again, of the three voices I have just mentioned, none is close to the truth, and (they are) from man. But I, who came from Infinite Light, I am here - for I know him (Light) - that I might speak to you about the precise nature of the truth. For whatever is from itself is a polluted life; it is self-made. Providence has no wisdom in it. And fate does not discern. But to you it is given to know; and whoever is worthy of knowledge will receive (it), whoever has not been begotten by the sowing of unclean rubbing but by First Who Was Sent, for he is an immortal in the midst of mortal men."

Eugnostos starts by refuting three propositions about the nature of the world which to him represent the basic shortcomings of contemporary philosophy, or perhaps of philosophy as such: (1) the world is governed by itself, (2) by a providence, or (3) is subject to predestination. His refutation is neither philosophical in the proper sense of that word, nor does it deal with the implications of these propositions in detail: That which is from itself leads an empty life, providence is foolish, and that which is subject to destiny or fate is something that does not attain knowledge. According to Eugnostos, real insight is not reached through philosophy; what matters is to be able to refute the propositions of philosophy and by means of another proposition to gain access to and reveal the god of truth. The attainment of this, he says, means to be immortal amidst the mortals

Man, through his thought, is working out his own salvation; he is created in the image and likeness of God and is finally to reach "the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14).

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