« PreviousContinue »
tion of knowledge from a distance was tardy and imperfect; when oral accounts, with the misunderstandings and misrepresentations by which they are usually characterized, were often the only source of information attainable ; and when the voice of the press, which now makes itself heard on every side, to confirm truth, or to confute error, in regard to all facts that are anywhere of common notoriety, was as yet unuttered. Thus, as reporters of the history and doctrines of the Gnostics, in their obscurer ramifications, even the earlier fathers were, in a great measure, disqualified, not merely by their feelings of dislike toward those heretics, but by the great difficulty of obtaining full and correct knowledge concerning them; and, we may add, by that want of accuracy of conception and representation, which they shared in common with their opponents, and with all others of their age. We must keep in view their prejudices, and their liability to mistake, not merely as respects the doctrines, but also as respects the character and morals of the Gnostics. We may readily believe, that vices, which were more properly to be ascribed to the depravity of individuals, were sometimes brought as general charges against the whole body, to which those individuals were considered as belonging ; and, that the practical inferences unfavorable to morality, to be drawn from the false doctrines of the Gnostics, were represented as their common practical effects; though it is often the case, that men do not follow out in action the results of bad principles any more than of good.
In determining the truth concerning the Gnostics, we may find a concurrence of credible and contemporary testimony to what is probable in itself, and coincident or consistent with the still remaining expositions which they themselves gave of their doctrines ; and consistent, also, with forms of opinions prevailing during the period when they sprung up and flourished. This testimony, so confirmed, is sufficient to establish the leading facts concerning their character and doctrines. In proceeding further, we must judge of the accounts given of them from the particular probabilities that each case may present, and especially from the consistency of those accounts with the truths concerning them, which we have found means to settle. And, throughout this whole inquiry, particular attention must be given to the very different value of those ancient writers who have treated of the Gnostics, to the period when they lived, to their means of information, to the temper and purpose with which they wrote, and to their respective characters for correctness and truth. In this respect, as we shall hereafter see, a very wide distinction is to be made between writers, who have often been indiscriminately quoted, as of equal authority in regard to the history of the Gnostics.
This subject has afforded scope for an abundance of hypotheses in modern times ; for few facts have been so well established, and so generally acknowledged, as to stand in their way. . It has been a sort of disputed province between fiction and history. We may meet, on every side, with statements respecting the Gnostics altogether unfounded. Gibbon says, that they “were distinguished as the most learned, the most polite, and most wealthy of the Christian name;
"* but the assertion is made without proof, on his own responsibility ; unless, indeed, he has repeated or exaggerated the error of some preceding modern writer, of which I am not aware. The representation is such as it may readily be supposed was not
* Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. xv. Vol. II.
derived from their ancient controversial opponents, who alone can be referred to for information concerning the subject. No one, I think, beside Gibbon has ascribed to them the worldly distinctions of superior refinement and wealth ; but the zeal for paradoxes, which prevails among many of the theological writers of our age, has shown itself in other representations. The theosophic Gnostics, though their speculations are among the most vague and inconsequent that any visionaries have produced, have been transformed into penetrating and refined philosophers, or rather described as
equally versed in the mysteries of Platonism, of the Cabala, of the Zendavesta, and of the New Testament; as belonging rather to the world of ideas than to that of sensations, and as manifesting the human soul in its sublime ecstasies." *
This is the language of a writer, who does not separate himself from the rest of the intellectual world by his general tone of thought and expression, or by any radical changes in the use of language. But one of the followers of the latest, darkest, and most repulsive school of German metaphysicians has likewise thought to do honor to the Gnostics, by claiming them as its progenitors.*
* Matter, Histoire Critique du Gnosticisme. (1828.) Tom. II.
To justify such eulogies as have been bestowed on them by the writer first mentioned, their systems are professedly laid open ; and
* I refer to Baur, Professor of Gospel Theology in the University of Tubingen, a disciple of Hegel, and a writer of much note among his countrymen, who has published a large work relating to the Gnostics, entitled “The Christian Gnosis (or Gnosticism); or the Christian Philosophy of Religion historically Developed.” (Tubingen. 8vo. 1835.) His main purpose is to represent the Gnostics as the true religious philosophers of their times, and to exhibit the resemblance of their doctrines to the latest philosophy of religion, as developed by Jacob Boehmen, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and finally by Hegel, who has brought it nearest to perfection. The fundamental doctrinė, in which he regards the Gnostics as coinciding with these modern philosophers, is one which he has arbitrarily ascribed to them. According to him, they viewed God (their Supreme God) as an unconscious, impersonal, and unintelligent being. The doctrine of Hegel teaches that all individual spirits are but modifications of one universal spirit, the only positive existence in the universe. Ideas alone are things. But this universal spirit is, in itself, unconscious, and first arrives at consciousness in its developement in man. Man is the only conscious God. “The essence of religion, therefore, is the self-consciousness of God. God knows himself in a consciousness different from him, which, in itself, is the consciousness of God, but which also has reference to itself, as it knows its identity with God; an identity existing through the negation of finiteness. Thus, in one word, God is this, — to distinguish one's self from one's self, to become objective to one's self, but, in this distinction, to be absolutely identical with one's self.” These words, in which Baur reports the doctrine of Hegel on the most important of subjects, seem rather the language of