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Irenaeus’s Revealing Struggle with Valentinus

by Dr. Marko Marina and Dr. Shirley Paulson

Icon of St. Irenaeus painted by Christos N. Liondas, photo by Dianelos Georgoudis, CC0 1.0 (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Icon of St. Irenaeus painted by Christos N. Liondas, photo by Dianelos Georgoudis, CC0 1.0 (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons Click for larger version.

In the preceding blog posts in our series on Valentinus (Valentinus: Ancient Heretic or True Christian? and “Summer Harvest” by Valentinus: Revealing Two Aspects of Reality, Not Two Realities), we have traversed the enigmatic terrain of Valentinus’s thought. We turn our attention now to the broader perspectives on Valentinian theology and cosmology. This third blog post introduces the contentious accounts of Bishop Irenaeus, a fervent adversary of Gnostic teachings in general and Valentinus in particular. 

Irenaeus versus Valentinus

Irenaeus was a contemporary of Valentinus and was one of the most significant Church Fathers. Since very few of Valentinus’s original writings remain and Irenaeus scorned Valentinus’s teachings, his reliability as a spokesperson for Valentinus has long sparked intense debate among scholars today.

At the heart of this discourse is Einar Thomassen, a prominent figure who doubts the accuracy of Irenaeus’s depictions of Valentinus. While acknowledging the potential authenticity of certain elements within Irenaeus’ descriptions, Thomassen cautions against accepting them wholesale due to the fragmentary nature of Valentinus’ own writings and the polemical nature of Irenaeus’ account. On the other hand, scholars like Gilles Quispel and Simone Petrement push the other direction against Thomassen’s views because they’re pretty convinced of the genuine authenticity of Irenaeus’ account.

Part of the reason for Irenaeus’s battle against Valentinians (the followers of Valentinus) was that they were too close to the type of Christ followers Irenaeus wanted to promote. Valentinians were, in Irenaeus’s eyes, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Therefore, he tried to make Valentinianism look as different and wrong as possible. He considered Valentinus’s views as a sneaky synthesis of what was to become orthodox—”straight thinking”—and the thought of his opponents, the so-called classical Gnostics.

Is Irenaeus giving us a clear picture of those people he did not like? Or is he giving us a true look at an unusual religious thinker? Without access to Valentinus’s own works, scholars find it very difficult to discern historical truth from ancient theological arguments. But Irenaeus has been our primary source of Valentinianism, so we need to consider what he said.

Irenaeus’s “Great Account” of Valentinus

According to Irenaeus’s “Great Account” of Valentinus, Valentinus envisioned the cosmos operating through the supreme God as a complex structure with eons (or ‘aeons’) emanating forth in male/female pairs. An eon could be a spatial idea such as a realm, or it could be a personified idea, as in Truth or Wisdom. One might interpret this cosmic design (described by Irenaeus) as Valentinus’s explanation for why this supreme God could include some forms of material shadows and earthly problems.

The divine realm, known as ‘the Pleroma’ (or ‘Fullness’), could be wonderful, but it wouldn’t account for the earthly problems. So, according to Irenaeus, the Valentinian idea of the divine realm included two distinct boundaries.

The first boundary separates the divine beings out, away from the primordial perfect principles of the Abyss (or ‘Ineffable’) and Silence.

The second boundary sets apart the Mother named Achamoth (or ‘Sophia’), isolating her from both the primordial principles and the lesser divine beings. In her isolation, Achamoth produces both the Anointed (‘Christ’) and the shadow, matter. But the Anointed strips himself of matter and returns to the divine realm.

Despite Irenaeus’s effort to discredit Valentinus’s Christian contribution by making his ideas sound very strange, the Valentinian ideas he presents were actually similar enough to some other authentic Valentinian texts to suggest that Irenaeus did not invent his “Great Account” entirely himself.

Valentinian Fragments

Fortunately, we do still have access to some tiny fragments from Valentinus available to us today, and from these, we find less of a distinction between his work and the ideas of future orthodoxy. For instance, to illustrate his commonality with what would later become the biblical tradition, Valentinus infuses his cosmology with such elements as eons named with terms like ‘Truth,’ ‘Life,’ ‘Logos,’ and ‘Church.’

As was common in the second and third centuries, we see in these fragments that Valentinus drew on Platonic concepts to further develop the explanation for the existence of evil. The Platonic idea of a Demiurge (creator of the material world) demonstrated the catastrophic error that occurred within the divine framework. This Demiurge, often portrayed as the God of the Old Testament and the creator of the material world, was seen as an inferior deity. Valentinus’ Demiurge shares this diminished status with the figure of Yaldabaoth, the evil Demiurge in other extracanonical writings. But Valentinus’s Demiurge is depicted simply as lesser, not quite so evil or ignorant as the Demiurge portrayed by others.

Valentinus’s views of the origin of evil also form the foundation of his ideas about salvation. He believed that salvation should be understood as a process of unlocking the inherent divine potential within individuals, allowing them to transcend the work of the Demiurge— or, the material world’s corruption. With this, he demonstrates his belief in the transformative power of spiritual knowledge that transcends the physical.

Compared with Nag Hammadi 

With the discovery of the Valentinian texts at Nag Hammadi, scholars were in a position to compare Irenaeus’s “Great Account” with the Nag Hammadi texts, but they found very little similarity.

In contrast with Irenaeus’s interpretation of Valentinus, the Nag Hammadi perspectives on Valentinus lean toward his understanding of the nature of the savior. Although humanity originates in this divine consciousness, through the tragic disruption of the realm, human beings find themselves in need of a savior. Jesus of Nazareth fulfills this role through the incarnation of the Logos in him. He is able to save people from pain, sorrow, and sin, enabling them to ‘see’ with this kind of spiritual knowledge and reunite with God.

Valentinus emphasizes a less tangible, more innate divine consciousness within humanity, as opposed to texts like the Secret Revelation of John (from Nag Hammadi), in which Sophia and Barbelō collaborate to impart spiritual knowledge (or, gnosis).

Valentinus’s indelible mark

With this brief exploration into Valentinus’ complex and provocative theology, we are reminded of the enduring legacy of this enigmatic figure. Through the intricate tapestry of his interpretations of oral and written traditions, Valentinus has left an indelible mark on the history of early Christian thought.

Our journey is not yet over. In our next blog post on Valentinus, we will look more closely at a Valentinian work from Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Truth. It is sometimes attributed to Valentinus himself and provides deeper insights into his spiritual vision and philosophical acumen.