On the Gnostic Trinity

The “orthodox” Trinity vs. the Valentinian Trinity

Gnostic tradition has its own peculiar rhetoric which resembles an “orthodox” Trinity doctrine. On the surface Gnostics can be shown to have used language based on the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit.” An example may be seen in the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip, where we read that anyone who does not have the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” will also have the name “Christian” taken away (67:15ff.; see M. Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pg. 173). Another example is from the Tripartite Tractate; where there is an obvious reference to the baptismal creed of Matthew 28:19. “There is no other baptism apart from this one alone, which is the redemption into God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—when confession is made through faith in those names.” (127:26ff.; see J. Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, pg. 150)

Whether or not these passages are solid evidence of a “trinity” dogma is an open question. Again, both passages seem to resemble “orthodox” rhetoric. The message here seems to be that if you don’t confess the three persons of the Trinity then you’re not a real Christian, and your baptism was not a true baptism.

On the other hand, anyone who is familiar with Gnostic writings or reports from the Catholic Fathers will realize that the passages quoted above actually represent rare references to the trinity in Gnostic tradition. The fact is, Gnostic tradition is not distinguished by any systematic Trinity doctrine involving the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The Gospel of Philip may refer to a trinity dogma—or this passage may be a mockery, or caricature, of “orthodox” dogma. The obscure language makes it difficult to determine what exactly is being said. The passage from the Tripartite Tractate above represents the one clear reference. But this passage in turn has no internal connection or relevance to the description of the godhead as presented at the beginning of the treatise (51–60). In all the tedious language that is used to describe the godhead there is not one reference or mention of the three persons of the trinity “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” In comparison we can note the supposed trinity as stated in the Trimorphic Protennoia “Father, Mother, Son” (37:22). Again we are confronted with the problem of a systematic dogma. How does this statement compare with the Tripartite Tractate in which no female principle or “mother” is mentioned? Nowhere in the Trimorphic Protennoia is the Father/Mother/Son connected with the three persons of Matthew 28:19.

Indeed when it comes to evidence of a conventional “Trinity” dogma in Gnostic tradition (viz. Mt. 28:19) the extant Gnostic texts are like shifting sand. Most texts make no reference to a “Trinity” at all; and the few references there are, as mentioned above, are obscure and represent the rare exception rather than the rule. And it may very well be that these passages, cited above, are really just references to the baptismal creed of Matthew 28:19, and are not be confused with the notion of a central theological standard such as the “orthodox” Trinity doctrine.  Consistent with this conclusion is that the Catholic Fathers do not mention any such theological standard where Gnostics are concerned. The Catholic reports more often show that the Gnostics were concerned with organizing their “Aions” into sets of four and eight, thereby constituting the holy Ogdoad of Gnostic tradition (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.1.1–3; 1.8.5; 1.11.1; 1.12.3; 1.15.1–2; Tertullian, Against Valentinians, 7; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5.29).

The passages cited above are of reports showing the Gnostics organizing their Godhead into primary sets of four and eight. The one Catholic writer who breaks ranks in this regard is the defrocked cleric Marcellus of Ancyra (c. 300–374). Marcellus was a contemporary of the Church historian Eusebius and he was present with the latter at the Council of Nicea (c. 325). Marcellus claimed a connection between the Trinity and the teachings of the great Gnostic sage, Valentinus (c. 85–150 AD).

“Valentinus, the leader of a sect, was the first to devise the notion of three subsistent entities in a work that he entitled On the Three Natures. For he devised the notion of three subsistent entities and three persons—father, son and holy spirit.” (B. Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pg. 232)

To understand the meaning of Marcellus’s statement it must be seen against the background of the time in which it was written. Both Marcellus and Eusebius lived in an age where the Catholic Church had achieved total dominance; and had received recognition and support from the Roman emperor. In this period the Church was split between two theological factions. One of these factions (the “orthodox”) believed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three distinct persons who shared one nature or essence (homoousion). This was the position of the majority of the Catholic clergy. In opposition was the heretical faction led by an Egyptian priest named Arius (c. 250–336), who led a rebellion against the bishop of Alexandria. Arius and his followers insisted that the Father and Son had separate natures [1]. (This controversy was probably based on the paradox between Matthew 19:17 and John 10:30.) In the fragment above Marcellus is crediting the notorious heretic Valentinus with being the originator of the separate natures position as taken by the followers of Arius. I believe Marcellus is basically twisting the facts in order to smear the followers of Arius [2]. (In a similar manner Arius claimed in his Confession of Faith that the doctrine of one nature originated from the teachings of Valentinus and the Manicheans.[3])

The problem here is that Marcellus is stretching the truth when he states that Valentinus’s concept of “Three Natures” is connected with the notion of “three subsistent entities and three persons—father, son and holy spirit.” The fact is, no other historical witness makes this claim about Valentinus; and there is no evidence in any Gnostic text that shows a connection of this sort. Gnostic texts do contain infrequent and obscure references to the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as I have shown above. But again there is no evidence either in Catholic or Gnostic sources that there was a prevailing theological system in Gnostic tradition that revolved around the phrase “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Much to the contrary, the historic evidence available shows that the “trinity” of Valentinus, and of the Gnostics, referred to something entirely different and unique.

The report of Marcellus above may be compared with the reports of the early Latin Father, Tertullian of Carthage. Tertullian lived at least 50 years before Marcellus and his writings are especially important because they show the origin and development of the word “trinity” in early Christian thought [4].

Historically, Tertullian was the first Catholic writer to begin using the word “trinity” in reference to a systematic dogma. Of note however is that Tertullian never used the word “trinity” in his own “rule of faith” as articulated in his own Catholic/apologetic writings (e.g. On Prescription Against Heretics; c. 200 AD) [5]. He began using the term in reference to his own dogma only after joining the Montanist “New Prophecy” movement. Tertullian’s first confession of the “trinity” appears in his treatise “Against Praxeas” which was a polemic against the Monarchian theologians who dominated the Catholic Church at that time (c. 210 AD) [6]. The Monarchians believed that while God could appear in three forms, there was, nonetheless, only one God. Tertullian insisted that the Godhead was in fact three distinct persons, but that these persons shared the same essence [7]. (Obviously the later “orthodox” creed had its origins among the Montanists, and was later adopted by Catholic theologians and formalized in the Nicene Creed.)

The irony is that when Tertullian first used the word “trinity” in his earliest Catholic writings, this term was used in reference to Gnostic doctrine. Tertullian actually described this doctrine with the words “Valentinian trinity” (in Latin: trinitas Valentiniana [8]). Hence the first mention of the trinity in ecclesiastical literature actually refers to an idea that belonged to the Valentinian Gnostics. Here is an example from Tertullian’s Treatise on the Soul:

“[The heretics] deny that nature is susceptible to any change, in order that they may be able to establish their three-fold theory, or ‘trinity,’ (“trinitas”) in all its characteristics as to the several natures, because ‘a good tree cannot produce evil fruit, nor a corrupt tree, good fruit; and nobody gathers figs of thorns, nor grapes of brambles’.”  (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 21)

Tertullian’s description of the Gnostic “trinity” shows no connection with the three persons but instead refers to a doctrine of three natures. What Tertullian actually describes is a Gnostic doctrine which maintains that the universe is comprised of three fundamental substances or natures, which are identified as spirit, soul and matter (ibid., pg. 202; see below). Tertullian here accuses the Gnostics of teaching that the three natures are not subject to change, which he construes to mean that there is no hope for salvation, because the soul’s nature can’t change. Of course he has misstated the Valentinian doctrine; which maintains that the soul is in fact subject to change, i.e. redemption. It is the natures of spirit and matter which are not subject to change. Tertullian correctly reports this doctrine in his later treatise Against Valentinians, 25, where he admits that the soul (animal) “oscillates between the material and the spiritual, and is sure to fall at last on the side to which it has mainly gravitated.” (ibid., pg. 515f.) What Tertullian half-hazardly describes is the “trinity” which was the central tenet of ancient Gnostic tradition, and which provided the structure by which Gnostics defined their concepts of the universe, theology, christology and human nature (see below).

Whether or not the “orthodox” Trinity was actually inspired by the Gnostics we can never know for sure. But it is interesting to see the way that the word “trinity” crept into Tertullian’s writing. He first mentioned this word in reference to Gnostic doctrine and jargon (“trinitas”). But later Tertullian began using the word in reference to his own doctrine (Against Praxeas). And it is a fact that Tertullian was the first known Christian to begin articulating the concept of a “trinity” doctrine that “orthodox” Christians would recognize—as compared with the “trinity” of Valentinus.

Inevitably we must dispense with the notion that the Gnostic Trinity revolves around the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as found in the baptismal creed in Matthew 28:19. This connection is really based on an orthodox view of history and doctrine. From this point of view some Gnostic texts appear to refer to the “orthodox” Trinity as I have shown above; but the connection is superficial. The essential Gnostic Trinity was something entirely different. And, indeed, when Tertullian was young, the word “Trinity”, when spoken among Christians, referred to something that was taught by the Gnostics.

The Gnostic Trinity and the origins of the Cosmos and the three Natures

Whereas the orthodox Trinity was concerned with developing a theological creed out of Matthew 28:19, the Gnostic Trinity was concerned with bringing a system of meaning and structure to the wider universe. The Gnostic Trinity began with the notion of a primary dualism. Early Gnostics generally believed that our universe originated from the primeval intermingling of two realms of Light and Darkness, or Spirit and Matter. The intermingling of these two substances gave birth to the Soul which is composite in nature and lives in a perpetual state of conflict. On the basis of this idea it was held that the universe was comprised of these three substances: Spirit, Matter and Soul. The Gnostic traditions vary on how these substances came to commingle and form the cosmos. But the underlying theme is the same: Our universe is derived from a mixture of pure light and pure darkness, and that the soul is a mixture of the two. The soul of the Demiurge, and all the souls of the celestial deities and of angels and human beings, all originate from the original Soul substance.

The basic logic behind the trinity goes like this: The Spirit or Light represented the highest and finest substance that originated from the essence of the highest and most sublime God. Matter represented death and evil, and everything that was opposed to God. The Soul is a composite substance comprised of both spiritual and material essences. In Gnostic doctrine the very cosmos and the souls of humanity, and their flawed, paradoxical natures exist because at some point that which is perfectly good has combined with that which is perfectly evil. Out of these fundamental essences comes the tragically flawed reality where evil things happen to good people. It also explains why people who are in theory “good” are capable of committing evil acts. It also explains why a “God” who is supposed to be good, and just, is yet the Creator of a world that is filled with evil and injustice.

This idea of opposing elements intermingling is conveyed in numerous Gnostic myths, in different ways, but the underlying theme is always the same. The following primitive motif is attributed to Nicolaus, who is named among the earliest Christians in Acts chapter 6.

“A brother heretic emerged in Nicolaus. He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles. He affirms that Darkness was seized by a lust, a foul lust, for the Light: out of this permixture…were born, moreover, daemons and gods and [the] spirits seven, and other things sufficiently sacrilegious… Enough it is for us that this heresy of the Nicolaitans has been condemned by the Apocalypse of the Lord…” (Against All Heresies, 1; from Tertullian or Victorinus, included with the writings of Tertullian; see Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, pg. 650)

This basic concept of dualism also appears in the system of Mani and of the later Cathars, which maintain that our universe originates from a mixture of two primeval realms of Light and Darkness; and that all living souls, of gods, angels and men, originate from this combination. Man achieves redemption by rejecting the darkness and seeking the Light.

Other Gnostic systems maintain that the realm of Spirit and Light existed first; and that Darkness and Matter emerged as the result of a breach in the primal order. This concept is conveyed in the myth of the fall of Sophia. In Gnostic myth Sophia is a twelfth generation descendant from the supreme Being. But she forms a wrong conception of the Father within herself (an enthymesis) and this passes out of her as an aborted fetus (ectroma). In summary, Sophia’s miscarriage is an impure mixture comprised of her own spiritual nature, but is combined with material substance which represents her grief and fear, and also a soul substance, which represents her desire for repentance. Our cosmos is therefore comprised of a combination of the three elements that, according to myth, originate from Sophia’s downfall: spirit, matter and soul. Spirit comes from Sophia’s primeval nature. Matter comes from her error and grief. Soul is a combination of the two which constitutes the capacity for duality, and also the capacity for repentance. Sophia’s desire for repentance is the origin of the soul in both gods and men.

Unfortunately no Valentinian treatises survive from antiquity which set forth these ideas first hand. But the Catholic Fathers do provide plausible summaries. Irenaeus gives the following report on Sophia’s passions following her downfall from the realm of Light:

“This collection of passions they declare was the substance of the matter from which this cosmos was formed. From her desire of returning (read: repentance) every soul belonging to this world, and that of the Demiurge himself, have its origin. All other things owed their beginnings to her terror and sorrow. For from her tears all that is of a liquid nature was formed; from her smile all that is lucent; and from her grief and perplexity all the corporeal elements of the cosmos.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.4.2)

And then regarding the origin of the three natures, Irenaeus writes:

“These three kinds of existence then, having been formed—one from passion, which was matter; a second from conversion, which was animal (soul); and the third, that which she herself brought forth, which was spiritual.” (ibid. 1.5.1)

The Sethians give a different version of the Sophia myth. While agreeing on many points, they maintain that Sophia’s miscarriage emerged directly as the misshapen and demonic Demiurge, which Sophia gave the name Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth is in turn the sum both of Sophia’s spiritual nature and also her misguided passion. In the Apocryphon of John the dual nature of the Demiurge is described this way:

“When light mixed with darkness it made the darkness shine. When darkness mixed with light it dimmed the light, and it became neither light nor darkness, but rather gloom. This gloomy archon has three names: the first name is Yaldabaoth, the second is Sakla, the third is Samael” (Apocryphon of John, 11:52; quoted from Marvin Meyer, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, HarperCollins, pg. 116).

In the Apocryphon of John the soul of mankind originates from Yaldabaoth and is of like nature to himself (15). Sophia’s spirit is breathed into Adam and he then becomes a superior nature to his Creator (19f.). The material body is created for Adam and his descendants so that they might be weighed down and lulled into ignorance (21). The soul has the capacity for either salvation or condemnation (26). The three natures are not described explicitly as dogma, but the theme is clearly evident as the structure beneath the text. Sophia’s primal nature is pure spirit. Yaldabaoth’s nature is a synthesis of Sophia’s pure spirit and wrong passions. Adam’s “psychical” (soul) body is of the same nature as the Demiurge. The material body is created for Adam in order to keep him and his descendants from choosing salvation. The conflict between light, darkness and the soul originate from a conflict within the nature of Sophia. (Note: all number citations are from the original codex page numbers which appear in the English translations in bold type. All secondary numbers refer to specific lines in a text and appear to the right of the page number, e.g. 11:52 means page 11, line 52.)

In another Gnostic treatise The Tripartite Tractate we learn that the three-fold order emerges as the result of a certain fallen “Logos” which obviously corresponds to Sophia in other traditions. The Logos makes an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible Father and this causes him to lapse into self-doubt and confusion. The text itself gives this account of the fall of the logos:

“The Logos himself caused it to happen… For he was not able to bear the sight of the light, but he looked into the depth and he doubted. Out of this there was a division—he became deeply troubled—and a turning away because of his self-doubt and division, forgetfulness and ignorance of himself… His self-exaltation and his expectation of comprehending the incomprehensible became firm for him, and was in him. But sicknesses followed…having come into being from self-doubt, namely from the fact that he did not [reach] the glories of the Father.” (Tripartite Tractate, 77)

The result of this failure is that the Logos caused a realm of chaos to come into existence which was the product of his abortive thoughts.

“The Logos was a cause of those who came into being and he continued all the more to be at a loss and he was astonished. Instead of perfection, he saw a defect; instead of unification, he saw division; instead of stability, he saw disturbances; instead of rests, tumults. Neither was it possible for him to make them cease from loving disturbance, nor was it possible for him to destroy it. He was completely powerless, once his totality and his exaltation abandoned him.” (ibid. 80; see J. Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, pp. 73, 74)

The Logos then repents of his wrong thoughts and condemns that which has emanated from him (81). As part of this repentance the Logos must bring the chaos into order. This order is divided into three: the “Spiritual”, the “Psychic” (soul) and the “Hylic” (material). (96–98) The Spiritual level represents all the purely righteous thoughts of the Logos that existed in the beginning, and which reflects the Pleroma above. The Psychic or soul level belongs the Logos’ conversion, memory (of the Pleroma) and judgments against the wrong thoughts and emanations. The Hylic level belongs to the Logos’ thoughts and emanations of “fear and despair, oblivion, confusion and ignorance” (98).

This is the primeval template for the cosmic order that the Logos will later create through his instrument, the Demiurge (100:20). This leads to the eventual creation of the three-fold human race “the spiritual, the psychic (soul), and the material” (118:15ff). In the Tripartite Tractate the purpose of the Human race is to reveal the fulfillment of all that is good and evil on behalf of the hierarchies above—and to reveal the consequences of ignorance (126). But then again this is only one Gnostic’s theory of the Trinity as this regards the three-fold nature of Man. We will return to this subject below and we will consider other Gnostic opinions about it. Let us now look at the basic theological structure of the Gnostic Trinity.

The theological structure of the Gnostic Trinity

The Gnostic Trinity mandates that there are three theological principles that correspond to the three natures: Spirit, Soul and Matter. The spiritual God is the supreme Being, the Secret God of the Gnostics. The Soul God is the Demiurge. This is the God of justice, the Creator, that was revealed in the Bible. And then the material God was identified with Satan, and was referred to by some Gnostics as the “Cosmocrator” or “World-Ruler.” Each God was the governor of its peculiar domain, whether of Spirit, or of the Soul, or of the material world, where all power falls into the hands of predators. Irenaeus gives a concise statement of this theological order according to the Valentinians who maintained that three theological orders emerged from Sophia’s nature:

“The Demiurge they describe as owing his origin to [Sophia’s] conversion… And on this account, he (the Demiurge), being incapable of recognizing any spiritual essences, imagined himself to be God alone, and declared through the prophets ‘I am God, and besides me there is none else.’

They further teach that spirits of wickedness originate from [Sophia’s] grief. Hence the devil, whom they call the Cosmocrator (world-ruler), and the demons and angels…found the source of their existence.

They represent the Demiurge as being the son of that mother of theirs, and the Cosmocrator as a creature of the Demiurge. … Their Mother dwells in that place which is above the heavens…the Demiurge in the heavenly place, that is, the Hebdomad; but the Cosmocrator in this, our world.” [9]

If Irenaeus can be trusted then we have a concise statement here of the three-fold Valentinian theology as this applies to our cosmos. Sophia-Achamoth is a proxy for the spiritual God and she resides in the realm above the seven heavens; hence she is identified as the “Ogdoad” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.2–3). The Demiurge is the god of this cosmos, and is the Creator and Lawgiver as mentioned in the Old Testament. The Demiurge is a god of soul because he originates from the substance of Sophia’s repentance or “conversion.” The “devil” is the Cosmocrator. His rule signifies the law of the jungle and of all people who have no godly capacity at all. The Valentinians believed that all material substance, and evil, originated from Sophia’s grief.

In extant Gnostic/Sethian texts this three-fold theological order can be seen, e.g., in the Reality of the Rulers (Hypostasis of the Archons). In this text Sophia is the proxy for the spiritual order. Yaldaboath is the devil who is cast into tartaros (the lowest level of hell). And his son Sabaoth repents and sings praises to Sophia. The fates of Sabaoth and Yaldabaoth signify the duality of the soul and the capacity of the soul to choose either salvation (the spirit) or condemnation (the material).

In the Tripartite Tractate, the Logos is the proxy for the spiritual God. The Demiurge is the Psychic God, and is the product of the Logos’ repentance and judgment (and does not know of the existence of the Logos or the spiritual realm, cf. 101; “…for he was ignorant that the movement within him came from the spirit…” and “…produced things that were greater than is own nature”). The Hylic power in this treatise is personified by the “serpent” in the garden of Eden, who is said to be “more cunning than all the evil powers” (107).

The Gnostic Trinity of Man

The Gnostics also believed that this basic trinity of natures was reflected in three types of humans: the Spiritual, the Natural (Soul), and the material (or fleshly). The Spiritual human was identified as such because he supposedly possesses some seed or essence from the Spiritual God above. The Spiritual human is by nature good and is predestined for salvation. The Natural human is purely a man of soul. The fate of the Natural human is determined by free will, because the Natural man has the capacity for either good or evil. The Material human is by nature evil, and cannot be changed or saved.

Irenaeus gives this account of the Valentinian doctrine of the trinity of man and the three natures:

“They conceive, then, of three kinds of men, spiritual, material, and animal (soul), represented by Cain, Abel and Seth. These three natures are no longer found in one person, but constitute various kinds of men. The material goes as a matter of course into corruption. The animal, if it choose the better part, finds repose…in the intermediate place; but if [choosing] the worse, it too shall pass into destruction. …

But they assert that the spiritual principles which have been sown by [Sophia], being disciplined and nourished here from that time until now in righteous souls…at last attaining perfection, shall be given as brides… (referring to the Bridal Chamber), while the animal souls rest of necessity with the Demiurge in the intermediate place (referring to the Valentinian notion of the repentance and salvation of the Demiurge).

And again, subdividing the animal souls themselves, they say that some are by nature good, and others by nature evil. The good are those who become capable of receiving the spiritual seed; the evil by nature are those who are never able to receive the seed” (Against Heresies, 1.7.5).

And here again Irenaeus describes the three natures and the types of men who receive them:

“There being three kinds of substances, they declare all that is material, which they also describe as of the ‘Left hand’, that it must of necessity perish, inasmuch as it is incapable of receiving any afflatus of incorruption.

As to every animal existence, which they denominate as of the ‘Right hand’, they hold that, inasmuch as it is a mean between the spiritual and the material, it passes to the side to which inclination draws it. (ibid. 1.6.1)

Animal men, again, are instructed in animal things; such men, namely, as are established by their works, and by a mere faith, while they have not perfect knowledge. We of the Church, they say, are these persons. Wherefore also they maintain that good works are necessary for us, for that otherwise it is impossible that we should be saved.

But as to themselves, they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual in nature. For, just as it is impossible for material substance should partake of salvation…so again it is impossible that spiritual substance…should ever come under the power of corruption.” (ibid. 1.6.2)

The Tripartite Tractate also refers to the three-natures and types of men:

“Mankind came to be in three essential types, the spiritual, the psychic, and the material, conforming to the triple disposition of the Logos, from which were brought forth the material ones and the psychic ones and the spiritual ones. Each of the three essential types is known by its fruit. And they were not known at first but only at the coming of the Savior, who shone upon the saints and revealed what each was.

The spiritual race, being like light from light and like spirit from spirit, when its head appeared, it ran toward him immediately. It immediately became a body of its head. It suddenly received knowledge in the revelation.

The psychic race is like light from a fire, since it hesitated to accept knowledge of him who appeared to it. (It hesitated) even more to run toward him in faith. Rather, through a voice it was instructed, and this was sufficient, since it is not far from the hope according to the promise, since it received, so to speak as a pledge, the assurance of the things which were to be.

The material race, however, is alien in every way; since it is dark, it shuns the shining of the light, because its appearance destroys it. And since it has not received its unity, it is something excessive and hateful toward the Lord at his revelation.

The spiritual race will receive complete salvation in every way. The material will receive destruction in every way, just as one who resists him. The psychic race, since it is in the middle when it is brought forth and also when it is created, is double according to its determination for both good and evil.” (Tripartite Tractate, 118)

Notice the remarkable similarities between the words above and what is reported by Irenaeus. Both sources affirm a three-fold principle that provides a structure and explanation for the origins of nature, theology and human nature. A similar doctrine was also taught by the Naaasenes as recorded by Hippolytus in the so-called Naassene Sermon (Refutation of All Heresies, book 5). Here the Naassene source offers the following definition of “gnosis.” Hippolytus explains that this gnosis is rooted in the knowledge of the three-fold nature of the primal man:

“For they say, of this man, that one part is rational, another psychical, another earthly. And they suppose that the knowledge of this is the originating principle of the knowledge of God, expressing themselves thus: ‘The originating principle of perfection is the gnosis of Man, while the gnosis of God is absolute perfection.’ … All of these qualities—rational, psychical (soul) and earthly—have all descended into one man at once: Jesus, who was born of Mary. And these three men (meaning the three natures) speak through Jesus according to their own separate natures. For, according to the [Naassenes], there are three kinds of existent things—angelic, psychical, earthly; and there are three churches: angelic, psychical, earthly; and the names of these are Elect, Called and Captive.” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5:1)

The three natures mentioned above correspond to the three natures of the Gnostic Trinity. The Naassenes believed that the knowledge of these three natures is the key to salvation. If one reads through the Naassene Sermon that person will ultimately find that this knowledge meant understanding the difference between the elements and focusing on the spiritual. This is to unlock the greater Mysteries:

“For they who obtain their share of the greater Mysteries receive greater portions. For this is the gate of Heaven, and this is the house of God, where the good God alone dwells. And into this gate no unclean man shall enter, no ‘man of soul’ or carnal. But it is reserved for the spiritual only. And those who go there must cast off their clothes and become bridegrooms, made thoroughly male through the virgin Spirit. For this is the virgin who carries in her womb, and conceives and brings forth a son, not animal (soul), not corporeal (material), but blessed forever more.” (Hippolytus, ibid., 5:3)

According to Gnostic tradition Jesus was the one who revealed the occult economy or Trinity. Although in terms of actual evidence, the origin of this trinity can be most easily traced to the ideas of Paul. Paul of course would claim to have learned his ideas from Jesus.

The New Testament and the origins of the Gnostic Trinity

Irenaeus rejected the Gnostic Trinity of man and substance as having no basis in the Apostles. It is true that no New Testament writer refers specifically to a “trinity” of natures—anymore than these writers refer to any “orthodox” trinity. On the other hand, some of these writers do express profound ideas regarding a division of natures which has subsequently been suppressed and ignored in “orthodox” tradition. The Gnostic Trinity is an attempt to organize these ideas into a system; but at the same time is a later organization of earlier ideas that are found in the Letters of Paul (and to a lesser extent in the Gospel of John).

On the historical record Paul is the first known writer to express these ideas of varying natures, which are expressed in terms of the spiritual, the natural (soul) and the fleshly or carnal—and which appear later in the Gnostic Trinity of natures. These ideas appear most prominently in 1 Corinthians 2. In this passage Paul writes as a mystagogue, and he reveals certain details of a “mystery” and a “hidden wisdom” which are spoken of only among the “perfect” (teleiois: initiates). Paul reveals that men have different natures, and that this applies even in the Church. The “mystery” itself is described as a “wisdom” which is revealed by the “Spirit of God.” And the only way that a man can receive this spiritual wisdom is if he himself has received the “Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:6–7, 10–13). Paul then explains to his readers:

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judges all things…” (1 Cor. 2:14–15)

In this passage Paul makes a distinction between the spiritual man (pneumatikos) and the natural man (psychikos). In 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 Paul goes on to describe the third category, the “fleshly” man (sarkikos). This is the nature that Paul actually condemns. The fleshly man is consumed by jealousy and strife (1 Cor. 3:3). Paul warns his readers that they are showing themselves to be “fleshly” when they allow themselves to be divided by factionalist disputes (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11–12). It is a well-known point of Paul’s doctrine that he regarded the “flesh” as the root of all the ills and evil in man’s nature (cf. Romans 7:18, 25; Galatians 5:19–23). Paul even insists that Jesus appeared only in the “likeness” of “sinful flesh” and that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Rom. 8:3, 1 Cor. 15:50).

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives more detail as to the larger cosmic order of the natures. Paul explains that there is a “soul” body and a “spiritual” body; and that all men are sewn in soul bodies but will be transformed into spiritual bodies. And Paul also states “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; neither can corruption inherit incorruption.” (1 Cor. 15:42–50) A very important point here is that Paul never affirms the “orthodox” dogma that Man was created in the image of God and then fell. Paul says that only Christ represents the image of God (the “heavenly”) whereas Adam is a living soul of the earth, “earthy.” This means that Paul believed that Adam sinned because it was his earthly nature to do so [10]. And in Paul’s statement there is a relationship in concepts between Paul’s use of the words “fleshly” and “earthy.” And clearly Paul is basing his creation of man on the creation account in Genesis 2:7 where the “Lord” creates Adam from the earth: whereas a different creation of man is described in Genesis 1:26f., where “God” creates man in his own image “male and female.” No “dust” is mentioned. Again, Paul’s ideas are in reference to the second account and not the first.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul’s statements have theological implications as this applies both to Genesis and 1 Corinthians 2. The Gnostics recognized these monumental implications whereas, it seems, the orthodox crowd wanted to avoid giving themselves a headache (as Tertullian wrote “…for a controversy over the Scriptures can produce no other effect than to upset either the stomach or the brain”)[11]. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not affirm that Adam was created in the image of God. This means that Paul made a distinction in the Genesis creation accounts (as Philo did) and that Paul did not assign Adam’s origin to the supreme Being as described in Genesis 1:26. Paul refers only to Genesis 2:7, and he affirms accordingly that Adam is a living soul of the earth, earthy. When Paul refers to the “Spirit” of God and that which is “spiritual” he refers to elements of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 a “spirit” of God is mentioned, whereas no such “spirit” is mentioned in Genesis 2. From these two ideas, of “spirit” and “soul”, we may gather that there are two separate creations, two creations of man, two creators, and two natures: of Spirit and Soul. The third nature is the dust of the ground, the earth; from which Adam’s fleshly body was created. Paul believes that the “soul body” can be transformed to a “spiritual body” but he insisted that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” In Paul’s thought flesh is equated with evil and cannot be saved.

In Paul it is possible to see the roots of the Gnostic Trinity of natures and its theological structure. Moreover I should point out that there are no writings or evidence before Paul’s writings that show these unique ideas and the contrast between spiritual, natural and material or fleshly substance. The only other source I know of that contains a Trinitarian theme is in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who was an older contemporary of Paul. I’ll summarize Philo’s doctrine in brief. Philo believed that that there were three forms of God (one reality and two manifestations). These three forms of God corresponded to three types of men. Philo did not employ terms such as spiritual and natural as Paul and the later Gnostics, but he conveyed a similar theme. Philo maintained that only the truly enlightened man could attain the “vision” of the true living God, whereas less enlightened men could only know the vision of God as manifest in the scriptures. The better among the less enlightened were still capable of knowing the better of the two: this was good “God” as described in Genesis 1. The still less enlightened, in turn, were only capable of knowing God in the image of his royal or governing power. This referred to the “Lord God” who carried a sword and resorted to violence in scripture. Of note is that Philo also referred to the latter two types of men as of the “right” and of the “left.” This shows some possible connection with the later Gnostic Trinity and its notion of the right and left as mentioned both by Irenaeus and in the Tripartite Tractate (cited above).

Here are some quotations from Philo which show his concepts of the three natures (quoted from my article Gnostics and the Old Testament):

“There are three different classes of human dispositions, each of which has received as its portion one of the aforesaid visions. The best of them has received that vision which is in the centre, the sight of the truly living God. The one which is next best has received that which is on the right hand, the sight of the beneficent power which has the name of God (Theos, Gn. 1:1f.). And the third has the sight of that which is on the left hand, the governing power, which is called lord ” (Kurios, Gn. 2:4f.).

And also:

“…and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. And the creative power is God [Theos], for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord [Kurios], for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore, the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind… a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three…” (On Abraham, 121f., 124)

Philo’s notion of three natures and three corresponding visions of God is certainly a cornerstone in the foundation of later Gnostic tradition, and the Gnostic Trinity. Of course we have no direct evidence that ancient Gnostics studied Philo, at least not in their writings. But the fact that Clement of Alexandria does mention Philo indicates that the Gnostics of Alexandria surely were aware of him as well (Clement, Stromata, 1:5).

Getting back to Paul, he set the basic precedent in that he was the first on the historical record to begin defining men as either “spiritual” or “natural” or “fleshly” (or also “earthy”). Where Paul got these ideas is a total mystery for scholars. But undoubtedly this is the source of the later Gnostic Trinity and all its theological implications. And indeed the Gnostics recognized that Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 2 had theological implications. For Gnostics Paul’s words meant that there was a spiritual God, and there was a natural God (and likewise a fleshly God, viz. Satan; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). The reason is because Paul states that the Natural man cannot receive spiritual wisdom (1 Cor. 2:14). This means that the Natural man cannot know the spiritual God, but can only know a lesser form of god after the nature of the soul. In Gnostic tradition this lesser god is the Demiurge.

In the Nag Hammadi fragment The Prayer of the Apostle we can see a prime example of the link between Gnostic theology and Paul’s concept of natures:

“I invoke you, the one who is and who pre-existed in the name which is exalted above every name, through Jesus Christ, the Lord of Lords, the King of the ages; give me your gifts, of which you do not repent, through the Son of Man, the Spirit, the Paraclete of truth. Give me authority when I ask you; give healing for my body when I ask you through the Evangelist, and redeem my eternal light soul and my spirit. And the First-born of the Pleroma of grace—reveal him to my mind!

Grant what no angel eye has seen and no archon ear (has) heard, and what has not entered into the human heart which came to be angelic and (modelled) after the image of the psychic God when it was formed in the beginning, since I have faith and hope. And place upon me your beloved, elect, and blessed greatness, the First-born, the First-begotten, and the wonderful mystery of your house; for yours is the power and the glory and the praise and the greatness for ever and ever. Amen.”

In these quotations both the three natures and the threefold theology of the Gnostic Trinity are evident: and it may be seen how these ideas were carried over from Paul. First note the reference to “Jesus Christ” who “pre-existed in the name which is above every name.” The writer asks Jesus, through the “Spirit”, to “redeem my eternal light soul and my spirit.” Note here that the “Spirit” is identified with Jesus and with the “name which is exalted above every name.” The latter passage is taken from Ephesians 1:21 where “Paul” writes that Jesus has been lifted to the right hand of the Father “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this aion, but also in that which is to come.” This passage inevitably refers to a name and a place far above “Jehovah” whose Name is known as the ruler of this aion and dominion. In the Prayer quoted above, this is meant to show that Paul appeals to the highest Godhead, which is Spiritual in essence, and is not known to this world.

Next this writer makes a request based on Paul’s interpolation of Isaiah 64:4 as preserved in 1 Corinthians 2:9. In another article I point out how that Paul’s quotation is an inversion of the original passage (and which other biased theologians and scholars have tried to connect with a non-existent passage from the Apocalypse of Elijah). The original passage refers to YHWH’s plan which has been announced to the prophets and which has never been heard from any other God. Paul quotes this passage so as to refer to a Plan which no man has known, and which “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man…” The author of the Prayer quotes these words so as to refer to the “psychic God.” Hence: “Grant what no angel eye has seen and no archon ear (has) heard, and what has not entered into the human heart which came to be angelic and (modelled) after the image of the psychic God.” The writer here refers to the spiritual ignorance of the Demiurge who has dominion over the realm of the soul.

The Prayer of the Apostle is the one surviving text which shows direct evidence that Gnostics understood the implications of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 2 as this regards theology and the several natures. Again the Gnostic Trinity is a later exposition and organization of these ideas. To ignore the Gnostic Trinity is to ignore the spiritual heart of earliest Gnostic Christianity and its unique Wisdom. —jw


1] A basic description of the Arian controversy is provided at the following links:



2] An example of Marcellus’s smear tactics may be seen in the quotation below in which he links the followers of Arius—called “Ariomaniacs”—with Valentinus.

“Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God…These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him On the Three Natures. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato.”

I acknowledge my debt to Wikipedia for its excellent article on Valentinus and for the quotation above, which is from A.H.B. Logan, “Marcellus of Ancyra (Pseudo-Anthimus), On the Holy Church: Text, Translation and Commentary. Verses 8–9.” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, 51.1, April 2000:95.

Ironically Marcellus was later condemned by the Catholic Church for going too far toward the Monarchian position (Sabellianism) in his fanatical opposition to the Arians. Thus while Marcellus affirmed the shared essence of the Trinity, he did so to the point of denying the reality of their separate persons. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09642a.htm

3] See link http://www.fourthcentury.com/index.php/urkunde-6  Note the mention of Valentinus and the Manicheans in verse 3.

In extant ecclesiastical literature the first use of the word homoousion in theology first appears in the doctrine of Valentinus as reported by Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.1.; see B. Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pg. 290, footnote b. Of significance is that Irenaeus never used this word in his own doctrine, just as he never used the word “trinity.”

4] In extant ecclesiastical literature the notion of a three-person Godhead first appears with Justin Martyr, Athenagorus, and Irenaeus (Justin, 1 Apology, 6, 60; Athenagorus, A Plea for the Christians, 12; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.4). These writers never use the word “trinity” but the three-fold idea is emerging in their thoughts. Most important is that these writers do not derive their three-fold ideas from any theological consensus in the NT. At best these writers refer to certain ideas that appear infrequently in certain NT passages, i.e. Mt. 28:19 and 2 Cor. 13:14. But again, there is no consensus in the NT that the Godhead is comprised of three persons. If there is any consensus at all in the NT, then the evidence most often shows that the Godhead is comprised of two figures, Father and Son (cf. Col. 2: 1–3, Jn. 1:1–3, 10:30). It is also notable that, in their polemics against heretics, neither Justin nor Irenaeus refer to any “trinity”; nor do they labor repeatedly on the notion that the godhead is ‘three-fold’ or is comprised of ‘three persons.’ This particular form of dogmatic opinion began with Tertullian (and the Montanists) and no one else (i.e. Tertullian, Against Praxeas).

5] Cf. Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 7, 13; Against Praxeas, 11. Note that in the earlier treatise Tertullian uses the word “trinity” in reference to Valentinus (7), but does not use the word in his own “rule of faith” (13). Whereas in the latter treatise the word “trinity” has become part of Tertullian’s “rule of faith.” (See note #8, link.)

6] Monarchianism is also known as “Modalism” or “Sabellianism.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10448a.htm

7] Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 11. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm

8] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 21. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, pg. 201. The English translation of this obscure passage is as follows:

“Now, if the soul possessed this uniform and simple nature from the beginning in Adam, it is not rendered multiform by such various development, nor by the triple form predicated of it in the Valentinian trinity, for not even this nature is discoverable in Adam.”

(Note: I have pared down the wording of this passage so that it follows the original Latin as closely as possible. To see the entire passage as translated in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, click on the following link and scroll down to chapter 21, first sentence. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0310.htm )

The Latin passage appears like this:

“Quodsi uniformis natura animae ab initio in Adam ante tot ingenia, ergo non multiformis, quia uniformis, per tot ingenia, nec triformis, ut adhuc trinitas Valentiniana caedatur, quae nec ipsa in Adam recognoscitur.” ( http://www.intratext.com/IXT/LAT0746/_PM.HTM )

In the above passage Tertullian refers to the Valentinian doctrine that Adam embodied the three natures, and which appeared later in three separate types of men as symbolized by Cain, Abel and Seth (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.7.5).

9] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.4.

10] In Romans 5:12 Paul says that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” In these words orthodox theologians see an affirmation of the doctrine of “original sin.” But Paul nowhere affirms that Adam was created in the image of God and then fell. In 1 Cor. 15 Paul actually denies that Adam was ever created in the image of God, and that this image was born alone by Christ. Thus Paul implies that Adam was created with the capacity for sin; and that from the beginning his body was created from the “earth” and was “earthy” in nature. This means that Adam was by nature weak and limited.

11] Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 16.

By James M. West. Copyright © 2009, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

  1. #1 by Jani on December 23, 2012 - 10:40 am

    Very interesting. Thx for the information.

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