In the second century of the Christian era, the Roman Empire comprehended some of the fairest and most cultured portions of the globe. Between 96 and 180 A.D., the gentle but powerful influence of the five Emperors — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines — had cemented the Empire into a unified whole and brought peace and prosperity to its inhabitants.
The love of letters, which naturally accompanies such periods of history, prevailed among the subjects of these five Emperors, who themselves were men of culture and learning. Even the most northern tribes of Britain had acquired a taste for rhetoric. Homer and Virgil were being transcribed and studied on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube. During the reign of the two Antonines (Pius and Marcus Aurelius) schools had been established in many cities of the Empire. Professors of rhetoric, science, philosophy and politics were maintained at public expense, the salary of the ordinary professor being ten thousand drachmae (about $2,000) a year. So high was the value placed upon education that the sophist Polemo is said to have received the equivalent of $40,000 for three declamations.
In addition to its love of learning, the Roman Empire of the second century was noted for its religious tolerance. All the faiths of the world received equal protection under the Roman standards, and all the gods of mankind were accorded equal rights. Every man was left free to pursue his own form of worship, and encouraged to maintain the purity of his own religious ceremonies. This religious tolerance on the part of their rulers produced an equal tolerance among the people themselves. Every man worshipped as he saw fit, but allowed the same freedom to his neighbors and expressed an equal respect for their gods. The Greek, the Roman and the barbarian, as they met in front of their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves that they were all worshipping the same deities, although under different names.
The only exception to this general prevalence of tolerance was found among the orthodox Jews and the orthodox Christians. The Jews, considering themselves the “chosen people,” made no attempt to conceal their disdain for any god other than Jehovah. The orthodox Christians not only classed all other religions under the heading of “idolatry,” but denounced all forms of education which were not based upon the “rule of faith.” Going still further, they condemned all forms of art, and any artist who attempted to follow his profession after his conversion to Christianity was promptly excommunicated from the Church.
This “dire heresy of separateness,” which isolated Christianity from all other religions, also separated orthodox Christianity from philosophical Christianity. The orthodox Fathers began to cover the Gnostic doctrines with a thick slime of vituperation and ridicule. The Gnostic Fathers made no reply to these attacks, knowing that their doctrines were only for those who could understand them, and refusing to make things of the inner life a matter of public debate. The three Gnostic Fathers whose teachings were particularly attacked during the second century were Basilides, Marcion and Valentinus. The three orthodox Fathers who devoted their lives to refutation and denunciation of their “heresies” were Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian.
Basilides was an Alexandrian who taught in that city around the year 120. He was a man of great culture and learning, and is described by Clement of Alexandria as “a pious, godlike, theosophic philosopher, who sought to express old truths under new forms, and perhaps to combine them with the new faith, the truth of which he could admit without renouncing the old.” Basilides was a student of the esoteric side of Christianity, and claimed that he had been instructed by Matthew himself. Perhaps it was his knowledge of the real teachings of Jesus that made his position in the orthodox Church so insecure. Perhaps it was his knowledge of the philosophical basis of Christianity that made him so dangerous. Whatever the cause of his unpopularity, no effort was spared to destroy both him and his teachings. Irenaeus reviled him. Tertullian stormed at him, and the other orthodox Church Fathers could not find enough obloquy to express their contempt for this “heretic.” His twenty-four volumes of Interpretations of the Gospels (the first commentaries written by a Christian philosopher) were burned and Basilides himself was excommunicated and driven out of his native land. But in the fragmentary remains of his works, found in the Refutations of Hippolytus, one sees that Basilides was a true Theosophist, and that he taught the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy, and the doctrines of Reincarnation and Karma.
Marcion was a rich ship-owner who lived on the southern slope of the Black Sea before he came to Rome in the middle of the second century. All historians agree as to his pure religious aspirations, his irreproachable character and his exalted views on life. But, in spite of his reputation for piety and learning, Tertullian calls him the “beast” and speaks of him as “that impious and sacrilegious Marcion.” His sacrilege, from Tertullian’s point of view, is easily understood. For one thing, Marcion denied the alleged historical facts of Jesus’ birth, life and crucifixion, maintaining that such statements were but carnalizations of metaphysical allegories and a degradation of the true spiritual ideas that lay behind them. He recognized none of the so-called Scriptures of the day with the exception of a few of Paul’s Epistles. He declared that Paul was the only apostle who understood Jesus’ teachings, and accused the disciples of “depraving the pure form of the gospel doctrines.” He drew a distinct line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity, claiming that Jesus had taught a universal doctrine which could not be confined within the narrow limits of Judaism. He declared that the mission of Jesus was to abrogate the Jewish concept of God, “which was as opposed to the God and Father of Jesus as matter is to spirit, as impurity is to purity.”
Marcion brought Jehovah before the tribunal of justice and fearlessly questioned:
“How can a God break His own commandments? How could He consistently prohibit idolatry and image worship, and still cause Moses to set up the brazen serpent? How command: ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and then order the Israelites to despoil the Egyptians of their gold and silver?”
Was Marcion wrong? In what respect does the jealous, wrathful, revengeful God of Israel resemble the God of Jesus? Did Jesus ever mention the name of Jehovah? From that memorable day when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, an immeasurable chasm opened up between the God of that Mount and the God of Mount Sinai. The language of Jesus is unequivocal. It implies not only rebellion against the Mosaic Law, but an actual defiance of it. “Ye have heard,” he says, “that it hath been said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you: that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And again: “Ye have heard that it hath been said: Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.”
Who then was the real Christian, Tertullian or Marcion? Tertullian’s Deity was the God of wrath and vengeance who condemned the whole non-Christian world to eternal damnation. Marcion’s God was a universal and impersonal Principle. Tertullian’s God showed neither mercy nor justice to His creation. Marcion taught the Law of Karma, in which effect follows cause as night follows day.
Marcion was a brave man. He recognized the necessity of promulgating Theosophical principles. He saw how those principles were being perverted by the orthodox Church, and charged the Church Fathers with
. . . “framing their doctrines according to the capacity of their hearers, fabling blind things for the blind, according to their blindness; for the dull according to their dulness; for those in error, according to their errors.”
Justice has been waiting eighteen centuries for intelligent commentators to appreciate the difference between the orthodox Tertullian and the Gnostic Marcion. The brutal violence, unfairness and bigotry of the “great African” would repulse any true Christian. But Tertullian and his views were upheld by the orthodox Church, and it was owing to his Refutations that Marcion, who was a Bishop and the son of a Bishop, was finally excommunicated and all his works destroyed.
Valentinus, who has been called the “profoundest Doctor of the Gnosis,” was educated in Alexandria in all that Egypt and Greece had to offer. His unusual learning and eloquence are admitted even by his bitterest enemies, and no word has ever been uttered against his moral character. While Valentinus was living in Alexandria, he came in contact with those communities which have already been described: the Therapeutae and the Ophites. From them he learned of the existence of the Gnosis, that original Source from which all true systems of religion and philosophy have sprung. Realizing that the various Gnostic Schools were presenting but aspects of the Gnosis, Valentinus resolved to synthesize these different aspects, and from this synthesis to formulate a universal system which would include them all, even Christianity. But the exclusive policy of the orthodox Church was definitely opposed to anything which denied the uniqueness of the Christian religion. And so Valentinus, like Basilides and Marcion, was excommunicated and his works destroyed. Another “heretic” was removed from the ranks of Christianity, and another door to knowledge closed. Again the work of the Theosophical Movement was frustrated by those who failed to realize its importance.
Against these three men, whose work seems to have formed part of the work of the Theosophical Movement, were ranged the three orthodox Church Fathers whose aim it was to refute their “heresies” and establish in their stead a narrow system of dogmas, the acceptance of which depended entirely upon faith.
Justin Martyr, the earliest Church Father after the Apostolic Age, was born of Greek parents, around the year 105. Before entering the Church, Justin had attempted to gain admission into the Pythagorean School, but was rejected on account of his ignorance of Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music, a knowledge of which was required of every candidate for admission. In the year 135 Justin entered the Church and became, according to Catholic History, “a most valuable witness to the Faith, and a philosophical, if not logical defender of Christianity.” But to the impartial observer, his lack of logic is not always apparent. For one thing, Justin declared the miracles of Jesus and Apollonius to be identical. He admitted that Jesus’ miracles were matters of tradition alone, while those of Apollonius were matters of common knowledge. His lack of logic appears when, after admitting the Gnostic teaching that all religions had sprung from a common source, he still insisted that Christianity was unique.
Justin Martyr was a bold man, and flung his gauntlet in the face of the orthodox Church Fathers whenever he disagreed with them. When Tertullian declared that all pagan philosophers were burning in Hell, Justin Martyr took issue with him and refused to admit that men like Socrates were being punished because they had happened to be born before the Christian era. But, in spite of the frequent rebukes tendered to him by the Church, Justin has come down in history as a “Saint,” and his Refutations against the Heresies are considered to be a most valuable addition to the literature of the early Church.
Irenaeus, who later became the Bishop of Lyons, was born in Asia in the year 135. He was a pupil of Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, and through this association became acquainted with the original Gospel of Matthew, which contained the real, esoteric teachings of Jesus. But, unlike Basilides, Irenaeus refused to accept these teachings, and in the year 181 he published his five volumes of Refutations against the Heresies, which are considered to be the most valuable relic of early patristic literature which has come down to us.
It is to Irenaeus that the Church owes its doctrine of Apostolic Succession. Justin Martyr, who preceded Irenaeus, makes no reference to Peter’s connection with the Church of Rome. When we inquire carefully into the matter, we find that we have to take the word of Irenaeus alone. We also discover that Irenaeus himself did not furnish one single valid proof of the claim which he so audaciously put forward. He offers no authority either for his dates or his assertions. Twitted and cornered at every step by his equally astute and learned adversaries, the Gnostics, he falls back upon imaginary tradition invented by himself and padded up with endless forgeries. But in one point, at least, the Gnostics had the better of him. For they drove him, through mere fear of inconsistency, to the recognition of the kabalistic doctrine of atonement. Unable to grasp it in its allegorical sense, Irenaeus presented it to the world in a form which would have filled Peter with pious horror if he had still been alive.
While the Church is indebted to Irenaeus for its doctrine of vicarious atonement and its dogma of apostolic succession, it was Tertullian who first introduced the idea of eternal damnation and the custom of anathema into the Church. These two ideas are entirely original with the Christians. The Pagans rejected both with horror. But the early Christian Church, under the influence of Tertullian, delivered over to eternal torture the greater portion of mankind. Tertullian affirmed that all persons who had been born before Jesus, or who persisted in their pagan beliefs after hearing of Christianity, could expect no forgiveness from the enraged Deity. According to Tertullian, when God created the world He ordained punishment for men in Hell, the greater portion of which was specially reserved for the pagan philosophers. Tertullian took great pleasure in anticipating his own condition after death when, from his own reserved seat in Heaven, he would be able to witness the suffering of these philosophers:
“How I shall admire, how I shall laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness! So many magistrates liquefying in fierce fires! So many sages and philosophers burning in red hot flames with their deluded scholars! So many celebrated poets trembling before the tribunal of Christ! So many tragedians, more tuneful in the expressions of their own sufferings, . . .”
and so on, ad infinitum, in a steady crescendo of unfeeling witticism.
Tertullian was the son of a Roman Centurion, and was born in Carthage around the year 150. Forty years later he became a Christian priest. Just why he became a Christian it is difficult to understand. His adoption of the Christian faith was certainly not dictated by his reason, since he wrote:
“I maintain that the Son of God was born. Why am I not ashamed of maintaining such a thing? Why? Because it itself is a shameful thing. I maintain that the Son of God died. Well, that is wholly credible, because it is monstrously absurd. I maintain that after being buried he rose again. And that I take to be absolutely true, because it was manifestly impossible!”
After becoming a priest of the religion which he had already defined as “monstrously absurd,” Tertullian devoted the rest of his life to the abuse of everybody and everything not agreeing with his personal views. Most of his works begin with the word against. “Against the Jews,” “Against the Christians,” “Against Hermogenes” (in which he declares that matter is not eternal but was created by God), “Against the Valentinians,” “Against Marcion,” “Against Praxeas,” and so on. Tertullian’s works are written in a rude Punic Latin interspersed with African or old Latin idioms and phrases of Latinized Greek, the most important of his writings being his Apologies of the Christians against the Accusation of the Gentiles. In this work, Tertullian clearly states that Christianity is founded upon the Jewish Bible, which he claims to be the most ancient book in the world:
“The Books of Moses, in which God has inclosed, as in a treasure, all the religion of the Jews, and consequently of the Christians, reach far beyond the oldest books that you have.”
Tertullian’s claim that Christianity is founded upon the Old Testament is still accepted by the Catholic Church. For in the Ecumenical Council of 1870 Pope Pius IX wrote:
“The Holy Mother Church affirms that it has pleased God to reveal Himself and the eternal decrees of His will in a supernatural way. This supernatural revelation, as decreed by the Holy Council of Trent, is contained in the books of the Old and New Testament. These are sacred because they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. They have God for their author, and as such have been delivered to the Church.”
Having asserted the antiquity and the sacredness of the Jewish Scriptures, Tertullian then proceeds to outline the teachings of the Christian Church as derived from them. These Holy Scriptures, he says, teach that there is one God, who made the world out of nothing. This teaching is still accepted by the Catholic Church. For Pope Pius IX issued the following anathema:
“Let him be anathema
Who does not acknowledge that the world and all things which it contains were made by God out of nothing.”
Tertullian admitted that in former times God sent Prophets into the world. They were all Jews, and addressed their teachings entirely to the Jews. On their statements Christianity is founded. Therefore the Jewish Bible is the only source of wisdom in the world; the Jewish Scriptures are the standard of all truth, and whatever does not agree with them is false and should be destroyed.
Tertullian then turns his pen to the refutation of the heretical doctrines of the Gnostics, employing the same argument that holds good in the Catholic Church of today. He says:
“The Catholic Church is in possession in the full legal sense of the Word of God. Catholic doctrine existed from the beginning, and is therefore the only true one. Every heresy is an innovation, and therefore of necessity false.”
These are a few of the doctrines that were taught by the orthodox Christian Church of the second century. Against these teachings were pitted the impersonal and universal doctrines of the Gnostics, some of which will now be considered.
The First Fundamental Proposition: The Gnostics repudiated the idea of an anthropomorphic God who created the world out of nothing. The Deity of the Gnostics was an Omnipresent, Boundless and Immutable Principle which they called The Great First Cause. They gave no name to this first Principle, but symbolized it under two aspects. The Gnostic Ophites called these two aspects Abrasax, the male potency, and Bythos, the female potency. From their union sprang Ophis, the Son, or the Manifested Logos.
Like Theosophy, the Gnostics postulated one Absolute Reality which antecedes all manifested, conditioned existence. The state of non-being, which precedes manifestations, is described by Basilides (in words strangely similar to those found in an ancient Rig-Vedic Hymn):
“There was a time when naught was; even that naught was not aught of things that are. For that naught is not simply the Ineffable. It is beyond that. For that which is really Ineffable is not named Ineffable, but is superior to every name that is used. Naught was, neither matter, nor substance, nor voidness of substance; neither man, nor angel, nor god. Such was the state of non-being.”
This state of non-manifestation was followed by the appearance of the Logos, the manifested Deity with every nation and people; the outward expression, or the effect of the cause which is ever-concealed:
“This Universal Seed contained everything in itself potentially, in some such way as the grain of mustard seed contains the whole: roots, stems, branches, leaves and the innumerable germs that come from the seeds of the plant, and which in their turn produce still other plants in manifold series.”
From this point onward, the Gnostic system proceeded to outline the doctrine of Emanations, in which the One evolves the Many in gradual stages, each emanation in turn evolving and permeating its own creation. This doctrine of Emanations was opposed as vigorously in the nineteenth century as it was in the second. For Pope Pius IX issued the following anathema:
“Let him be anathema
Who says that the substance or essence of God, and of all things is one and the same.
Who says that finite things, both corporeal and spiritual, are emanations of the divine substance; or that the divine essence, by manifestation or development of itself, becomes all things.”
The Second Fundamental Proposition of the Gnostics postulated the universality of the Law of Periodicity. Their whole system revolved around the Law of Cycles, while Reincarnation and Karma were put forth as the two most important laws governing man. The present, wrote Basilides, is but the effect of the past. This offers the only solution to the problem of suffering:
“Men suffer from their deeds in a former life. The soul of the elect suffers honorably, while the souls of a lower nature are made to pay their debts through appropriate punishments.”
The Third Fundamental Proposition. The Soul, said Valentinus, is an Immortal Entity:
“From the beginning have ye been immortal and the Children of Light.”
They used the word Christos to describe this immortal principle, and declared that its presence in man made him a God. “Know ye not that ye are all Gods and Lords?” questions the Pistis Sophia.
The Gnostics recognized the sevenfold nature of both man and the universe, describing these seven principles as seven aspects of the One Principle. The Pistis Sophia, which is the most precious relic of Gnostic literature that we possess at the present day, speaks of the human entity as “the septenary Ray of the One.” The three higher principles were described as the God in man; the four lower principles were called appendages, which were said to be attached to the rational soul. The conquest of the lower principles by the God within made man the Lord of creation. Valentinus wrote:
“As ye dissolve the world and are not dissolved yourselves, ye are the Lords of creation and destruction.”
The doctrine of vicarious atonement was never taught by the Gnostics. They declared that man’s progress and final salvation depended entirely upon his own self-induced and self-devised efforts:
“It is the man himself who leads his desire towards evil, and refuses to battle with the appendages. Our duty is to show ourselves rulers over the inferior creation within us, gaining mastery by means of our rational principle.”
The Catholic Church is still as opposed to the idea that man himself is the maker of his own destiny as it was in the days of Tertullian. In those days the idea was merely refuted. Now it is anathematized, as in the further words of Pope Pius IX:
“Let him be anathema
Who says that man can and ought to, of his own efforts, by means of constant progress, arrive at last at the possession of all truth and goodness.”
These are only a few of the “heretical” doctrines which have always been bitterly fought by the orthodox Catholic Church. The original Gnostic documents were, of course, destroyed by the Church. The Refutations against these doctrines have been carefully preserved. But in preserving the Refutations, the Church has unwittingly preserved enough of the Gnostic teachings to show that they were the legitimate offspring of the ancient Wisdom-Religion, and that the movement known as Christian Gnosticism must have formed part of the work of the Theosophical Movement.