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 first of a four-part exploration, we begin a dive headlong into the life, teachings, and influence of Valentinus. Our journey will be guided by the torch of modern scholarship, illuminating the shadowy corners of antiquity where this mysterious figure once walked.
Detail of a fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican, depicting the 325 CE debate over what became the Nicene Creed. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to pop up the full image.
In the early fourth century, one priest was facing charges of Christian heresy. His name was Arius and his views on the ‘Trinity’ brought him there. The Trinity was the new Church doctrine claiming that the Godhead included the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as equals.
Arius, however, argued that the Son wasn’t equal to the Father. Some of the proto-orthodox leaders regarded such suggestions as a dangerous attack on the true faith.
‘Proto-orthodox’ is a term denoting the stream within the early Christian world that eventually developed into an organized Church with councils and decrees.
To calm the situation down, Arius wrote a letter to the bishop of Alexandria claiming that his teachings were, in fact, in line with the tradition. At one point Arius asserted: “I don’t teach that the Son of God is the emanation of the Father, as Valentinus taught.” One of the most effective ways for Arius to defend himself against the heresy charges was to claim that he didn’t subscribe to Valentinus’s views.
So, in the fourth century, Valentinus was firmly set in the collective memory of proto-orthodox bishops and leaders as a heretic. Is that a fair assessment of his life? Was he a heretic? How do we understand these terms and developments? Let’s take a look at these issues from the perspective of modern scholarship.
Valentinus’s Place within Christian History
During the defense of my dissertation, a professor from the committee asked me whether I thought Valentinus belongs to the Christian tradition. His goal was to argue that Valentinus shouldn’t even be considered a Christian.
I found the question somewhat unusual. However, it is worth noting that older generations of scholars tended to view various early Christian figures through the perspective of their enemies.
While Valentinus may not fit neatly into the category of the so-called Gnosticism (a term fraught with complexities), his exploration of such ideas led to his inclusion among the infamous ‘heretics.’ Yet, contemporary historians have convincingly argued that the labels ‘heresy’ and ‘orthodoxy’ are fundamentally subjective.
In other words, they are, as Nicole D. Lewis reminds us, labels utilized within a certain social group to create differentiation. Moreover, the term ‘heresy’ also served as a rhetorical tool for delegitimization of perceived enemies.
Proto-orthodox writers insisted that figures such as Valentinus weren’t Christian. Lactancius, who was an early Christian author, philosopher, and advisor to the emperor Constantine, provides us with a great example.
He asserted that, because of their beliefs and practices, opposing groups within the early Christian world “lost the name and the worship of God.” He continued: “For when they are called… Valentinians… or by any other name, they have ceased to be Christians.”
By taking away the identity of Christians from individuals like Valentinus, early Christian heresiologists were marginalizing them, thus gaining important rhetorical victories in the battle for the “map of the Christian world”.
However, if we were to look at the way Valentinus’s followers identified themselves, we would see an early Christian movement that tried to utilize different philosophical and religious traditions to understand God, the Cosmos, Christ, and salvation.
Modern scholarship, therefore, paints a much more complex picture of early Christianity. It was a fluid world with different streams, communities, and leaders. And Valentinus was among them!
Valentinus’s Life and Relation to the Proto-orthodox Church
Valentinus lived in the middle of the second century C.E.—nearly 200 years before Arius. Nevertheless, some Christians in the fourth century still considered Valentinus as an archetype of heresy. But this assessment goes back to the later part of the second century.
When the Church Father, Irenaeus, around 180 C.E. wrote “Against Heresies”, the followers of Valentinus represented his biggest fear. They were, to use his words, the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Valentinus was probably born around the year 100 in Egypt. We are not sure, but he may have spent his early years in Alexandria which was, back then, a melting pot of the ancient world. It was a city where different philosophical schools and religious traditions converged. Already as a student in Alexandria, Valentinus came under the influence of Platonic and Pythagorean traditions.
At some point in his life, Valentinus moved to Rome where he began attracting people to his views. It’s certain that in the middle of the second century, Valentinus was a popular and effective teacher in the great center of the Roman Empire. He published biblical interpretations, wrote letters, and preached sermons. He was a true product of the rich tapestry of the early Christian world.
We don’t know when Valentinus died, but he was dead before Irenaeus wrote his massive work against the so-called Gnostics and Valentinians in 180 C.E.
In his lifetime, Valentinus was never declared a heretic. He never separated himself from the established ecclesiastical networks in Rome. Only later did proto-orthodox bishops and other authoritative figures agree that Valentinus and his followers should be condemned.
As a result of this conflict, nearly all of Valentinus’s writings have been lost. In other words, the proto-orthodox Church marginalized Valentinus’s teachings and sought to destroy his literary works. Consequently, we have about a half dozen fragments that his critics quote and a short poem in a third-century work entitled Refutation of All Heresies.
In the second part of our four-part series on Valentinus we’ll examine the short poem, “Summer Harvest,” and the significance of Valentinus within the early Christian world.