Valentinianism is a Gnostic movement that was founded by Valentinus in the second century CE. Valentinianism was one of the major Gnostic movements. Its influence was extremely widespread, not just within Rome, but also from Egypt through Asia Minor and Syria in the east, and Northwest Africa (Green 1985, 244).

Later in the movement's history it broke into two schools, an Eastern school and a Western school. Disciples of Valentinus continued to be active into the fourth century CE, after the Roman Empire was declared to be Christian (Green 1985, 245).

Valentinus and the Gnostic movement that bore his name, were considered threats to Christianity by church leaders and Christian scholars, not only because of their influence, but also because of the doctrine, practices and beliefs. Gnostics were condemned as heretics, and prominent Church fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome wrote against Gnosticism. Most evidence for the Valentinian theory comes from its critics and detractors, most notably Irenaeus, since he was especially concerned with refuting Valentinianism (Wilson 1958, 133).


Valentinus was born in approximately 100 CE and died in Alexandria in approximately 180 CE (Holroyd 1994, 32). According to Epiphanius of Salamis, a Christian scholar, he was born in Egypt and schooled in Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria, another Christian scholar and teacher, reports that Valentinus was taught by Theodas, a disciple of the apostle Paul (Roukema 1998, 129). It is reputed that he was an extremely eloquent man who possessed a great deal of charisma and had an innate ability to attract people (Churton 1987, 53). He went to Rome some time between 136 and 140 CE, in the time of Pope Hyginus, and had risen to the peak of his teaching career between 150 and 155 CE, during the time of Pius (Filoramo 1990, 166).

Valentinus is said to have been a very successful teacher, and for some time in the mid-second century he was even a prominent and well-respected member of the Catholic community in Rome. At one point during his career he had even hoped to attain the office of bishop, and apparently it was after he was passed over for the position that he broke from the Catholic Church (Roukema 1998, 129). Valentinus was said to have been a prolific writer, however the only surviving remains of his work come from quotes that have been transmitted by Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus and Marcellus of Ancyra. Most scholars also believe that Valentinus wrote the Gospel of Truth, one of the Nag Hammadi texts (Holroyd 1994, 32).

Notable Valentinians included Heracleon, Ptolemy, Florinus, Axionicus and Theodotus.

The Valentinian System

The theology that Irenaeus attributed to Valentinus is extremely complicated and difficult to follow. There is some skepticism among scholars that the system actually originated with him, and many believe that the system Irenaeus was reacting against was that of the later Valentinians, and not Valentinus himself. According to Irenaeus, the Valentinians believed that at the beginning there was a pleroma, also known as the ‘fullness’. At the centre of the pleroma was the perfect Father who projected 30 heavenly archetypes (aeons), among them Sophia (wisdom). Sophia’s weakness, curiosity and errors lead to the creation of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and eventually to the creation of the world and of man, both of which are flawed. To the gnostics, Jehovah is what is known as the demiurge, an imperfect and flawed creator, who Valentinians identified as the God of the Old Testament (Goodrick-Clarke 2002, 182). According to the Valentinians, the God of the Old Testament was not God at all and was merely the 'imperfect creator'. One had to realize this and learn to recognize the Father, the ‘depth of all being', as the true source of divine power in order to achieve gnosis (knowledge), which was the ultimate goal (Pagels 1979, 37). The Valentinians believed that the attainment of knowledge by the human individual had positive consequences within the universal order, and contributed to restoring that order (Holroyd 1994, 37). According to the Valentinians, gnosis, not faith, is the key to salvation. Clement wrote that the Valentinians regarded Catholic Christians “as simple people to whom they attributed faith, while they think that gnosis is in themselves. Through the excellent seed that is to be found in them they are by nature redeemed, and their gnosis is as far removed from faith as the spiritual from the physical” (Roukema 1998, 130).

Relationship with the Church

One of the main issues that proto-orthodox Christians took with the Valentinian point of view was their separation of Christ into three figures; the spiritual, the psychic and the bodily. Each of the three Christ figures had its own meaning and purpose (Rudolph 1977, 166). The distinction between Christ’s human nature and his divine nature was a major point of contention between Valentinians and Catholics. They acknowledged that Christ suffered and died, but believed that “in his incarnation, Christ transcended human nature so that he could prevail over death by divine power” (Pagels 1979, 96). These beliefs are what caused Irenaeus to say of the Valentinians, “Certainly they confess with their tongues the one Jesus Christ, but in their minds they divide him” (Rudolph 1977, 155).

Many Valentinian traditions and practices also clashed with those of the church. They often met at unauthorized gatherings and rejected authority based on their belief that they were all equal. It has also been reported that the members of the movement took turns administering sacraments as well as preaching (Holroyd 1994, 33). Among the Valentinians, women were considered to be equal, or at least nearly equal to men. There were female prophets, teachers, healers, evangelists and even priests. This was very different from the Church’s view of women at the time (Pagels 1979, 60). Valentinians held normal jobs, got married and raised children just like Christians; however they regarded these pursuits as being less important than gnosis, which was to be achieved individually (Pagels 1979, 146). The beliefs of the Valentinians were much more oriented towards the individual than towards the group, and salvation was not seen as being universal, as it was in the church.

The main points of disagreement between the Valentinians and the proto-orthodox Catholic Church were the (Valentinian) notion that God and the creator were two separate entities, the idea that the creator was flawed and formed man and earth out of pain and confusion, and the separation of Christ’s human form and divine form. Church authorities believed that Valentinian theology was “a wickedly casuistic way of subverting their authority and thereby threatening the ecclesiastical order with anarchy” (Holroyd 1994, 33). The practices and rituals of the Valentinians were also different from those of the Christian Church, however the Valentinians considered themselves to be Christians and not pagans or heretics. By referring to themselves as Christians they worsened their relationship with the Church, who viewed them not only as heretics, but as rivals (Rudolph 1977, 206).

Although the Valentinians publicly professed their faith in one God, “in their own private meetings they insisted on discriminating between the popular image of God – as master, king, lord, creator, and judge – and what that image represented – God understood as the ultimate source of all being” (Pagels 1979, 32). Aside from the Church fathers, however, “the majority of Christians did not recognize the followers of Valentinus as heretics. Most could not tell the difference between Valentinian and orthodox teaching” (Pagels 1979, 32). This was partially because Valentinus used many books that now belong to the Old and New Testaments as a basis for interpretation in his own writing. He based his work on proto-orthodox Christian canon instead of on Gnostic scripture, and his style was similar to that of early Christian works. In this way, Valentinus tried to bridge the gap between Gnostic religion and early Catholicism (Layton (ed.) 1987, xxii). By attempting to bridge this gap, however, Valentinus and his followers became the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. “The apparent similarity with orthodox teaching only made this heresy more dangerous – like poison disguised as milk” (Pagels 1979, 32). Valentinian Gnosticism was “the most influential and sophisticated form of Gnostic teaching, and by far the most threatening to the church” (Pagels 1979, 32).

Early Christianity has been described as “a complex network of individual parties, groups, sects, or denominations” (Layton (ed.) 1987, xviii). This inconsistency made the threat of Gnostic sects such as Valentinianism even more threatening to the Church.

External links

* [ "Valentinus and the Valentinian Tradition"] - an extremely comprehensive collection of material on Valentinian mythology, theology and tradition (from the Gnosis Archive website).
* [ "Valentinus - A Gnostic for All Seasons"] Excellent introductory essay by Stephan A. Hoeller (from the Gnosis Archive website).


*Churton, Tobias. The Gnostics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, 1987.
*Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1990.
*Green, Henry A. The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985.
*Holroyd, Stuart. The Elements of Gnosticism. Dorset: Element Books Limited, 1994.
*Layton, Bentley (ed.). The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
*Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
*Roukema, Riemer. Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1998.
*Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1977.
*Wilson, Robert McLachlan. The Gnostic Problem. London: A.R. Mowbray & Co. Limited, 1958.

Further reading

*Wilson, R. McL. "Valentianism and the Gospel of Truth" in Layton, B., (ed.) "The Rediscovery of Gnosticism", (Leiden 1980): 133-45.
*Thomassen, Einar. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the Valentinians (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies) (Brill Academic Publishers 2005)Bermejo, Fernando, La escisión imposible. Lectura del gnosticismo valentiniano, Publicaciones Universidad Pontificia, Salamanca, 1998


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