Shades of Valentinian Ideas
Early orthodox father Tertullian pointed out that the Valentinians, whether advocating a particular point of view or negating it, had disagreements not only among themselves but with their own founder's ideas on how to interpret their doctrines. The Gnostics considered all spiritual doctrines as only paths or approaches to the truth manifested in the realm of Light. They emphasized that gnosis was the means to that enlightenment. The early church fathers, conversely, came to believe that their orthodox doctrine was itself the truth. They taught that one had to have faith that the church's teachings were the right interpretations of the gospel. Their doctrine represented the truth, or so they believed, whereas the unorthodox doctrines like those of the Gnostics encouraged a constant questioning but never achieved the truth.
What did the Valentinian teacher Theodotus teach about gnosis?
He taught that “saving” knowledge can be summarized as understanding who we were; where we were (came from); where we have been, where we have come to, and where we are hastening; from what we are redeemed; and what is birth and rebirth.
Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels suggests that the “radical” Gnostics and the orthodox Christians were aligned on opposite poles and the followers of Valentinus, who saw themselves not as outsiders, but inside the Christian church, assumed a middle position. But like a pot of water simmering until it reached the boiling point, the Valentinians began discoursing among themselves about who constituted the body of Christ until the debate became a conflict that ultimately split the Valentinians into two groups. One group said that the church (the body of Christ) was made up only by those completed in gnosis while the other group believed that the church was split between the spiritual ones with gnosis (Gnostics) and those who had not yet received gnosis (the unspiritual Christians).
Gnostic Masters in Disagreement
Gnostic teachers holding viewpoints at variance with each other were Theodotus (espousing the view that only the eastern Valentinians were spiritual ones with gnosis) and Ptolemy and Heracleon (representing the western Valentinians), who taught that the church was made up of both those Christians with and without gnosis. The former was to teach and lead the latter, or so they thought. The Gnostic view that many orthodox Christians did not have gnosis and therefore were unspiritual beings to be led by Gnostics with gnosis outraged the orthodox leadership. Modern scholars know about Ptolemy from mentions of a letter he sent to Flora, a wealthy woman who some sources say was not a Gnostic. He was definitely a follower of Valentinus, but was active in southern Gaul (modern France) and Italy. Heracleon was a second-century Gnostic and perhaps one of the most well-regarded teachers in Valentinian tradition at Rome. His commentary on the Gospel of John exists in fragments that were written about by early church father Origen in his own commentary on John. Heracleon also wrote about the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and some of his beliefs have been preserved in the writings of Clement of Alexandria.
Conservative Church Outraged
The bishops were intent on guiding the church in a direction of universal acceptance of converts of varying degrees of knowledge and understanding and would not tolerate challenges to their doctrine, hierarchy, or ritual. As Pagel noted in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, the Gnostics challenged them all. Consquently, the Gnostic teachings were suppressed and Gnostic texts destroyed, and the Gnostic churches died out within a few centuries.