The Gnostic Gospels Part 3; “One God, One Bishop”

The following blog contains notes gathered from “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels detailing the origins of Christianity.

The Christian creed begins with the words, “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Some scholars suggest this was formulated to exclude followers of the heretic Marcion (circa 140 A.D.) from Orthodox Churches. A Christian from Asia Minor who pointed out the contrast in the God of the Old Testament, who demands justice and punishes every violation of his law, and the Father whom Jesus proclaims in the New Testament to be the God of love and forgiveness. Marcion asked why God would create a world of suffering, pain and disease. He concluded it has to be two different Gods. Many Christians deemed that a dualistic view, resulting in the orthodox view being one God who is father almighty and created Heaven and Earth.

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden references when God first spoke of the forbidden fruit. “From every [tree] you may eat, [but] from the tree which is in the garden do not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” But the serpent persuaded Eve to eat from the tree because its fruit will open your mind. The serpent’s promise of enlightenment came true, but God’s promise of death did not. In this interpretation Eve can then be viewed as the spiritual principal in humanity who raises Adam from his material condition. Since Adam is now, “like one of us”, God cast them out of paradise and curses the snake and Eve for enlightening man.

One reference the Gnostics have of the two God theory can be found in the Secret Book of John where it states God said upon the angels and his creations, “I am a jealous God, and there is no other God besides me…” But if he is the only God, who is there for him to be jealous of?

Why the Orthodox Christians attacked the belief of two Gods may be found in the political sense of it all. Around the time they fully declared “One God” they also declared “One Bishop” and recognized the Bishop represented spiritual authority on Earth.

One of the earliest writings from the church at Rome comes from a letter attributed to Clement, called Bishop of Rome (circa 90 A.D.-100 A.D.) In it he speaks of a rebellion of fools against the wise, the young against the old. He insists the deposed leaders be restored to authority; feared, respected and obeyed. He argues that the God of Israel rules everything. God has bestowed his power upon the rulers and leaders on Earth and to disobey them is to come into direct conflict with God. One God, one bishop, one order to obey.

This marked a drastic change in Christianity as it is the first document known to call for the division of the Christian community and incorporated strict orders of superiors and subordinates. Though this letter doesn’t explain exactly what religious issues were at hand, historians are puzzled by who the Corinthians felt were trying to overthrow the young church.

A 1,000 miles away Ignatius of Antioch, Syria started advocating the same agenda. He declared there shall only be one Bishop of the church and he should be obeyed “as if he were God.” Whether he was attempting to better grow his own political power we may never know for sure. Before being condemned to death for treason against Rome, he preached that God could only reach humanity through the church and if you take away the bishop and priests there is nothing to be called a church left on Earth. Essentially creating the ideology that the Bishop is the only one capable of getting you to heaven. An ideology that can still be found in some churches nearly 2,000 years later.

Valentinus, who was a well respected man of the time, claimed to have received an initiation into a secret doctrine of God from Theudas who was a direct disciple of Paul. The secret tradition was revealed that most Christians naively worship “the creator” who is only the image of the true God. Valentinus suggests “the creator” was a lesser divine being who serves as an instrument of the higher powers.

It’s understandable why the Orthodox Church that put a Bishop as its supreme ruler would deem this way of thinking as dangerous. When he attempts to use his command of being placed in power by The Lord, creator of Earth, someone of this secret initiation can simply state that you serve a lesser God and hold no authority over me. In turn disobeying the Bishop.

Valentinus believed he could see the difference between ordinary Christians and Gnostics followers in their actions towards one another. Those of the Gnostic faith showed love and compassion towards one another for they were trapped in the same hell together. Orthodox Christians, of his time, attempted to outrival one another in an attempt to prove who was superior.

During meetings between Valentinian Christians (followers of Valentinus), they would draw lots to determine who would take on what responsibility that day; who would offer the sacrament, as bishop; who would read scriptures; who would take the role of the priest. They next time the group met, they would draw lots again; keeping one another equal. For they believed in the roles of certain church titles, just not in their sole ownership of the Lord’s power. There were no inferior and superior members within a hierarchy; they followed the principle of strict equality. Men and women alike could serve any role. By drawing lots they also felt that the put the power in God’s hands. Considering he rules everything in his universe, anything left at “random” would be truly left in the hands of God, letting him choose who needed to do what each night.

Bishop Irenaeus took this all as an attack on his authority and an attack on the “one catholic church” theology. He declared to his people that the Valentinians and Gnostics were agents of Satan who worshipped God and followed the code of Peter’s archenemy Simon Magus who tried to buy the apostle’s spiritual power and earned his curse.

The Gnostics during this time had two sources of traditions; one open and the other secret, only for the spiritually mature who had denounced the God of this world. They would attend church with Orthodox Chrisitans to obey the rules of the land but then would meet in private with those of the Gnostic faith. This caused Irenaeus’ followers to be confused on who was Orthodox and who was Gnostic. He declared anyone who didn’t follow his priests were heretical for his priests were the successors of the apostles. Anyone who meets to worship without the Bishop’s approval was also to be considered heretics.

Whether Bishop Irenaeus used his religious convictions to further along his political power or if his political agenda was the result of his religious beliefs, we may never quite fully understand. One thing that may be considered certain is that with the lack of a hierarchy set-up within the Gnostic belief system, one could easily assume that their rise during this time was not the result of a political uprising. Their religious vision wasn’t compatible with that of the Catholic Church and so they resisted.

In the next blog we will discuss if God was not only The Father but The Mother and why all feminine imagery of God was removed from the Bible by Orthodox Christians.

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