The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years

Universalist Publishing House, 1899

Chapter 7:   Three Gnostic Sects.



The Basilidians. 45 The Carpocratians. 45 The Valentinians. 45

Three Gnostic sects flourished nearly simultaneously in the Second Century, all which accepted universal salvation: the Basilidians, the Valentinians, and the Carpocratians.

The Basilidians.

The Basilidians were followers of Basilides, who lived about A.D. 117-138. He was a Gnostic Christian and an Egyptian philosopher. He wrote an alleged Gospel--exegetical rather than historical--no trace of which remains. As some of his theories did not agree with those generally advocated by Christians, he and his followers were regarded as heretics and their writings were destroyed, though no evidence exists to show that their view of human destiny was obnoxious. Greek philosophy and Christian faith are mingled in the electicism of the Basilidians. Basilides taught that man's universal redemption will result from the birth and death of Christ. According to the "Dictionary of Christian Biography," 1 Hippolytus gives an exposition of the mystic Christian sect. Basilides himself was a sincere Christian, and "the first Gnostic teacher who has left an individual, personal stamp upon the age." 2 He accepted the entire Gospel narrative, and taught that the wicked will be condemned to migrate into the bodies of men or animals until purified, when they will be saved with all the rest of mankind. He did not pretend that his ideas of transmigration were obtained from the Scriptures but affirmed that he derived them from philosophy. He held that the doctrines of Christianity have a two-fold character--one phrase simple, popular, obtained from the plain reading of the New Testament; the other sublime, secret, mysteriously imparted to favored ones. His system was a sort of Egyptian metempsychosis grafted on Christianity, an Oriental mysticism endeavoring to stand on a Christian foundation, and thus solve the problem of human destiny. Man and nature are represented as struggling upwards. "The restoration of all things that in the beginning were established in the seed of the universe shall be restored in their own season."


Irenæus charges the Basilidians with immortality, but Clement, who knew them better, denies it, and defends them. 3

The Carpocratians.

The Carpocratians were followers of Carpocrates, a Platonic philosopher, who incorporated some of the elements of the Christian religion into his system of philosophy. The sect flourished in Egypt and vicinity early in the Second Century. Like the Basilidians they called themselves Gnostics, and inculcated a somewhat similar set of theories. Irenæus says that the Carpocratians explained the text: "Thou shalt not go out thence until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing," as teaching "that no one can escape from the power of those angels who made the world, but that he must pass from body to body until he has experience of every kind of action which can be practiced in this world, and when nothing is wanting longer to him, then his liberated soul should soar upwards to that God who is above the angels, the makers of the world. In this way all souls are saved," etc. But while Irenæus calls the Carpocratians a heretical sect, and denounces some of their tenets, he had no hard words for their doctrine of man's final destiny.

The Valentinians.

The Valentinians (A.D. 130) taught that all souls will be finally admitted to the realms of bliss. They denied the resurrection of the body. Their doctrines were widely disseminated in Asia, Africa and Europe, after the death of their Egyptian founder, Valentine. They resembled the teachings of Basilides in efforts to solve the problem of human destiny philosophically. Valentine flourished, in Rome from A.D. 129 to 132. A devout Christian, and a man of the highest genius, he was never accused of anything worse than heresy. He was "a pioneer in Christian theology." His was an attempt to show, in dramatic form, how "the work of universal redemption is going on to the ever-increasing glory of the ineffable and unfathomable Father, and the ever-increasing blessedness of souls." There was a germ of truth in the hybrid Christian theogony and Hellenic philosophizing that made up Valentinianism. It was a struggle after the only view of human destiny that can satisfy the human heart.


These three sects were bitterly opposed by the "orthodox" fathers in some of their tenets, but their Universalism was never condemned.

Phases of Gnosticism.

It would be interesting to give an exposition of the Gnosticism that for some of the earlier centuries agitated the Christian Church; it will suffice for our purpose here to say that its manifold phases were attempts to reach satisfactory conclusions on the great subjects of man's relations to his Maker, to his fellow-men, to himself, and to the universe--to solve the problems of time and eternity. The Gnostic philosophers in the church show the results of blending the Oriental, the Jewish, and the Platonic philosophies with the new religion. "Gnosticism, 4 was a philosophy of religion," and Christian Gnosticism was an effort to explain the new revelation philosophically. But there were Gnostics and Gnostics. Some of the Christian Fathers used the term reproachfully, and others appropriated it as one of honor. Gnosis, knowledge, philosophy applied to religion, was deemed all-important by Clement, Origen, and the most prominent of the Fathers. Mere Gnostics were only Pagan philosophers, but Christian Gnostics were those who accepted Christ as the author of a new and divine revelation, and interpreted it by those principles that had long antedated the religion of Jesus.5 "The Gnostics were the first regular commentators on the New Testament. The Gnostics were also the first practitioners of the higher criticism. It (Gnosticism) may be regarded as a half-way house, through which many Pagans, like Ambrosius or St. Augustine, found their way into the church." ("Neoplatonism, by Rev. Dr. Charles Bigg.) The Valentinians, Basilidians, Carpocratians, Manichæans, Marcionites and others were Christian Gnostics; but Clement, Origen and the great Alexandrians and their associates were Gnostic Christians. In fact, the Gnostic theories sought a solution of the problem of evil; to answer the question, "Can the world as we know it have been made by God?" "Cease," says Basilides, 6 "from idle and curious variety, and let us rather discuss the opinions which even barbarians have held on the subject of good and evil. I will say anything rather than admit Providence is wicked." Valentinus declared, "I dare not affirm that God is the author of all this." Tertullian says that Marcion, like many men of our time, and especially the heretics, "is bewildered by the question of evil." The generally accepted Gnostic view was that while the good would at death ascend to dwell with the Father, the wicked would pass through transformations until purified.


Says Prof. Allen: "Gnosticism is a genuine and legitimate outgrowth of the same general movement of thought that shaped the Christian dogma. Quite evidently it regarded itself as the true interpreter of the Gospel." Baur quotes a German writer as giving a full exposition of one of the latest attempts "to bring back Gnosticism to a greater harmony with the spirit of Christianity." Briefly, sophia (wisdom), as the type of mankind, falls, rises, and is united to the eternal Good. Baur says that Gnosticism declares that "either through conversion and amendment, or through utter annihilation, evil is to disappear, and the final goal of the whole world process is to be reached, viz., the purification of the universe from all that is unworthy and perverted." Harnack says that Gnosticism "aimed at the winning of a world-religion. The Gnostics were the theologians of the First Century; they were the first to transform Christianity into a system of doctrines (dogmas). They essayed to conquer Christianity for Hellenic culture and Hellenic culture from Christianity."7

Noteworthy Facts.

Differing from the so-called "orthodox" Christians on many points, the three great Gnostic sects of the Second Century were in full agreement with Clement and Origen and the Alexandrine school, and probably with the great majority of Christians, in their views on human destiny. They taught the ultimate holiness and happiness of the human family, and it is noteworthy that though all the Gnostics advocated the final salvation of all souls, and though the orthodox fathers savagely attacked them on many points, they never reckoned their Universalism as a fault. This doctrine was not obnoxious to either orthodox or heterodox in the early centuries.

1 Vol. I, pp. 271, 2.

2 Bunsen's Hipp. and His Age, Vol. I, p. 107.

3 The standard authorities on the subject of Gnosticism are Neander, Baur, Matter, Bigg, Mansel (Gnostic Heresies).

4 Baur, Ch. Hist. First Three Cent., I, pp. 184-200. Baring Gould's Lost and Hostile Gospels, p. 278.

5 Mansel, Baur, etc.

6 Stieren's Irenæus V, 901-3. Clem. Strom. IV, 12.

7 Outlines of the Hist. of Dogma, pp. 58,9.

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