It is necessary to clarify a series of points so that we can understand the differences between Gnosticism and Orthodoxy. We could classify the gnostic as “the one who knows,” the one who has knowledge. Orthodox is the one of “right-thinking,” while Catholic literally means “universal.”
We have then two well-defined currents. On one hand, those who recognize as final authority their own Being, who manifests through the direct intimate revelation that each one verifies in the realism of one’s own psyche. On the other hand, we have the other tradition that speaks to us of the transmission that goes from Jesus to the apostles, and from the apostles directly to the different Patriarchs or bishops of Rome, the rest of the bishops, priests and deacons, and from them down to the people.
The Valentinian gnostics accept this last transmission, but they say that in addition to this external or exoteric transmission, there exists an esoteric or internal transmission. Valentinus goes back to Paul, who receives it directly from Jesus Christ in his mystic experiences that he narrates in the Acts of the Apostles and in his letters. As shown in these words from his second letter to Corinthians referring to himself:
“I know a man in Christ about fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth) such a one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
As much in the experience on the road to Damascus, as in the other experiences narrated in the letters, Paul affirms the existence of this type of internal revelation that connects the disciple with Christ himself. In this manner, the tradition affirms that exactly as Jesus spoke in parables to all the people, nevertheless, to his disciples He spoke the words of the Kingdom of God. It occurs in the same way at the level of transmission of the teaching afterwards. Jesus himself affirms it in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
“Then, approaching the disciples, they asked Him: ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’He responded, telling them: ‘Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath (consciousness), to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.'”
Within the primitive Christian hierarchies, only a few were able to comprehend the immediate magnitude of Christ, while for others it was gradual, and for the many they were left without understanding the full magnitude of the event that was being represented. Among those who understood perfectly the dimension of the change that Christianity meant for the ancient world we find Paul; although not a direct apostle, he incorporates later to Christian Gnosis by way of revelation obtained on the road to Damascus. As we have seen previously, these intimate revelations received by Paul, according to the tradition, are transmitted to his disciple named Theudas, who, after receiving the transmission, raises himself in the revelation, and teaches in Alexandria to a series of characters, among which we find a young man known as Valentinus, whose history we already know.
Therefore, we must comprehend that there are two different religious perspectives: on one hand the gnostics that speak of the knowledge of oneself and of the path of Christic initiation as a means to salvation. On the other hand, the orthodox path, which tells us that Christ already made the sacrifice and that salvation is obtained by believing in him, participating in his church, accepting the authority of the clergy, receiving the sacraments and proclaiming the Apostolic Creed.
This means that, from then on, what it literally means to be a Christian, according to the Orthodoxy, is defined: to accept the doctrine, the ritual, the hierarchy, just as it was delivered; without intimate or esoteric transcendence. Meanwhile, Gnosticism speaks of the occult interpretation of the gospels, of the importance of the transcendent aspect of the sacraments and of the preponderance of revelation.
For the Orthodox, the origin of suffering is sin. Accepting Christ is how sin is eliminated, since he already made the sacrifice. For the gnostics, the root of sin is ignorance, and this generates attachment, desire and suffering. Therefore, obtaining knowledge or Gnosis, you liberate yourself from ignorance, attachment, sin and suffering. To arrive to knowledge of oneself is to vanish any possibility of wrongdoing and therefore, to eliminate any possibility of sinning.
While on one hand a passive type of salvation is established, the Gnostics speak of an active type of salvation. While the Orthodox Church catholicizes or universalizes Christianity, reducing the demand levels so that everybody can be involved; and with that really become a universal church; the Gnostics distinguish according to the levels of comprehension. There exist radical Gnostics that completely exclude from their cults and meetings anyone who does not have enough maturity to comprehend these mysteries. There exist others, such as the Valentinians, who live in the bosom of the Church and accept all levels, giving to every one according to their comprehension.
But in practice, this coexistence had in reality very little future. Let us imagine a bishop from a place where there was a Valentinian school, in theory subjected to the bishop’s authority. A school that supposedly could only study the canonically approved texts, and that should meet where the bishop indicated, and that were able to celebrate the Eucharist only from the bishop’s hands. And let us also imagine that Valentinian group that, in an active or passive form, are telling that bishop that he does not have the Gnosis, that by direct connection with the intimate revelation, they skip over all the hierarchies that enter in contradiction with their intimate experience, except that of the spiritual hierarchy. And, furthermore, that only those who have already begun walking in the levels of revelation, have access to the knowledge of the spiritual hierarchy. It is obvious that, more and more, the two positions are separating. One position offers a superficial, simple, concrete teaching that everybody understands, and where everybody universally feels saved, where everyone can participate without any distinction due to their level of comprehension. That is to say, a religion that is in the image and likeness of the Demiurge. And on the other hand, the Gnostics saying that everybody can participate, but each at their own level, and in that level receiving and delivering. And adding that the one who elevates himself to the revealed knowledge will connect directly with the divinity, with Christ, without going through the earthly hierarchy; a position in the image and likeness of the Intimate Christ.
That implies an absolute danger for an institution that is being born; in addition to giving grounds for any lunatic or mythomaniac to make a peculiar proposal on Christianity, as it occurred in practice with some who deviated. Let us not forget that not all the schools called gnostic really maintained the level of the Christic teaching, others were simply followers of deviated or degenerated individuals. This is a real danger of Gnosticism; hence it is so difficult to institutionalize Gnosis. Here we enter into the difficult balance between liberty and order, which allow us to maintain a pure and balanced vehicle necessary for the institution, provided that those who direct it at all its levels are involved in the intimate process of awakening.
For that reason, where the Valentinian school finally clashed was inside the institutional Catholic hierarchy, because for them the revelation was not accepted if it did not follow the official channels: bishop, priest and deacon. The proof of this is that the institutional church has always persecuted the mystic.
Neither can it be said that in the past all those who were grouped as gnostics really were. For that reason we base ourselves a great deal on the teachings of the Valentinian school, in the first place, because they left recognized initiates with whom the contemporary seeker can connect, who still are found working for humanity, who left texts that have been recovered that are crystal clear about the interior work, demonstrating that those who elaborated them had a deep initiatic knowledge.