In the annals of early Christianity, among the myriad voices and theological currents that surged in the first few centuries C.E., one figure stands out as enigmatic and intriguing—Valentinus.
In this, the second of a four-part exploration, we look at his poem, “Summer Harvest.”
In a previous post, we briefly introduced Valentinus as a historical figure emphasizing his position within the early Christian world. We explained how the later Church tradition accused him of heresy despite Valentinus belonging to the Christian tradition. Not only did he belong to it, but Valentinus probably worked within the networks of the proto-orthodox Christian church in Rome.
In this second part of our journey, we’ll explore Valentinus’ short poem as a small window into his theology and philosophy. The lack of Valentinus’s literary works prevents us from seeing the full picture of this incredible early Christian teacher, but we can catch glimpses of it by looking more closely at his poem “Summer Harvest.”
Ironically, this poem comes to us only as a quotation included in an anonymous early third-century work entitled “Refutation of All Heresies.” In the next blog post, we’ll shift our focus to Bishop Irenaeus’ account of Valentinian cosmology and theology. Needless to say, as a great “heresy-hunter,” Irenaeus wasn’t pleased with Valentinus’ views.
Valentinus and his poem
By reading between the lines of Irenaeus, we can get a glimpse of Valentinus’s world, discovering ways in which he changed and adapted the creation myth that was popular among various early Christian communities during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
First and foremost, “Summer Harvest” illustrates Valentinus’s willingness to express himself outside of the narrow box of the ‘mainstream’ (or proto-orthodox) Church. In other words, Valentinus’s poem stands as a witness to his innovative ways of conceiving the world around him.
Equipped with the knowledge of Platonic philosophy, Jewish religious tradition, and early Christian texts, Valentinus developed an original viewpoint on God, the world, humanity, and salvation. What follows is the poem in the translation provided by Bentley Layton.
In spirit, I see that all things are hanging.
In spirit, I know that all things are being carried.
Flesh hanging from soul.
Soul cleaving to air.
Air hanging from the upper atmosphere.
Crops coming forth from the deep.
A baby coming forth from the womb.
We notice right away that Valentinus is speaking from first-hand, personal experience. In both canonical and extracanonical texts, a specific third person is often put into the middle of the narrative, such as John in The Secret Revelation of John. That person is on the receiving end of a vision from God.
Another example is in the famous prologue of the Book of Revelation: “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1-3).
In contrast to this typical rhetorical practice within apocalyptic texts, “Summer Harvest” conveys Valentinus’s own personal religious experience. In other words, the author himself is on the receiving end of a vision. There is no ‘third party.’
The deep message of his poem
As for what Valentinus is teaching, he wants his readers to understand that there are two aspects of reality, a division between ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ (first two lines):
- The aspect of reality we all can see;
- The other aspect of reality which can be known only to those who are influenced by Valentinus’ teachings and insights.
In the first five lines, Valentinus emphasizes that everything that exists depends on the spiritual realm. The unity and stability of the cosmos occur within a particular hierarchy. This style and vocabulary point to the influence of Greek philosophy, and Einar Thomassen draws attention to the similarity between the Pythagoreans’ philosophy and Valentinian theology in his excellent study of Valentinianism.
But the structure of the poem can be divided into two separate parts, and the last two lines indicate that a dynamic change in the order of the cosmos has taken place. The stability was removed by the act of creation!
As readers, we find ourselves in a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, there is a notion of stability and connectedness, but on the other hand, there is a disturbance put forward by the creation of the material world.
What is this about? I believe that the last two verses of the poem represent eons (sometimes spelled aeons) emanating from the supreme God. (We’ll take a closer look at the idea of eons in the next Valentinus blog post.) If this is indeed the case, we can conclude that Valentinus’s poem conveys a strong distinction between the material and the divine realms.
However, there are no radically negative views on this world and its creation and no particularly positive views of the material world, either. So the essential message of the poem is that everything eventually depends on the divine realm.
Conclusion: Poem as a First Step to Valentinus’ World
Irenaeus’ description of Valentinian cosmology from the poem, including the nature of the material world and its creation, is pretty close to the Valentinian-related texts discovered later in Egypt. The poem itself is too brief to serve as a fruitful basis for a detailed reconstruction of Valentinus’s cosmology and theology. However, comparing it with other information about Valentinus and his thought, we discover a profound “Christianization” of the earlier second-century creation myths that circulated among some of the early Christ followers.
But to know more, we have to delve into Irenaeus’ account. It’s a complicated task because of the polemical nature of his work. Nevertheless, it’s possible!
So, how did Valentinus envision the origins of the cosmos? What were his views on salvation? These are the questions that we’ll be asking ourselves in my third blog post on Valentinus – a great Christian philosopher and teacher.