Part 4 of a series by guest blogger, Stephen Huebscher
C. CONCEPTIONS OF HEAVENLY WORSHIP IN GNOSTIC GROUPS
This post deals with groups that are known as “Gnostics” from the Greek word gnosis = “knowledge.” They developed the century after Christianity. They are the darling of much of contemporary scholarship, which tends to trust them more as authentic christianities and distrust the NT—it is so backwards! One of the results of the problem these groups posed, is that early Christians developed their understanding of Christianity in order to show the distinction. But when you read these, you will see a sampling of how these groups derided and scorned followers of Jesus.
Some scholars are using the term “Gnostic” less these days, because we have come to see that there was a fair amount of diversity among these groups. But the term is still useful. To follow up on the previous point, the groups who drew on the mystical elements present in some streams of Judaism (e.g., Enoch) as well as middle-Platonism came to be known as “Gnostics,” though many scholars regard this as a fairly elastic, catch-all category. There were many different Gnostic groups, which have been divided into three major types, based on their liturgical practices: (1) Cults of Power—e.g., Simon Magus; (2) Groups originating from the Separation of Christianity from Judaism—and (3) ‘The Gentile Counter-Churches’—e.g., Valentinus, Marcion, and Tatian. (Although Montanus may be classed in this division, he and his Church cannot usefully be pushed into the same theological classification with the others as a ‘Gnostic’ phenomenon.) Look at some of the things they wrote. (Word that are between angle brackets show where there was a break in the text, and the scholar inserted their best guess.)
Treat. Seth 60.16-29. It is an ineffable union of undefiled truth, as exists among the sons of light, of which they made an imitation, having proclaimed a doctrine of a dead man and lies so as to resemble the freedom and purity of the perfect assembly, (and) themselves with their doctrine to rear and slavery, worldly cares, and abandoned worship . . . . [This Sethite text scorns Christians for imitating the heavenly world, but in the process admits belief in a perfect, heavenly assembly. Boldface added.]
Ap James 15.13-23. And when we had passed beyond that place, we sent our mind(s) farther upwards and saw with our eyes and heard with our ears hymns and angelic benedictions and angelic rejoicing. And heavenly majesties were singing praise, and we too rejoiced. [In this text, the disciples mentally ascend to heaven, where they join the heavenly worship.]
Disc. 8-9, 56.22—57.9. Lord, grant us a wisdom from your power that reaches us, so that we may describe to ourselves the vision off the eighth and the ninth. We have already advanced to the seventh, since we are pious and walk in your law. . . . Lord, grant us the truth in the image. Allow us through the spirit to see the form of the image that has no deficiency, and receive the reflection of the pleroma from us through our praise. [Here, the speakers pray for the ability to ascend to the eighth and ninth heavens so that they may have the heavenly vision of God.]
Irenaeus AH 1.21.3. For some of them prepare a nuptial couch, and perform a sort of mystic rite (pronouncing certain expressions) with those who are being initiated, and affirm that it is a spiritual marriage which is celebrated by them, after the likeness of the conjunctions above [italics mine].
Irenaeus AH 1.21.3. After this [baptism] they anoint the initiated person with balsam; for they assert that this unguent is a type of that sweet odour which is above all things.
Zost 8.10-14. And about this airy-earth, why it has a cosmic model? And about the aeon copies, how many there are, and, why they are [not] in pain?
These groups generally believed that there was one God, but many lower, divine beings in heaven, and that there were angels. Some also believed that the male God had a female consort. Most references to worship in the realms above the earth are rather general, whether in the presence of God or merely in the Aeons between heaven and earth. There is not much material extant on what most of them did for liturgy, and even less on what they thought they were accomplishing by what they did. These references often only say that “x praised y” or that “x prayed for forgiveness.” Generally, liturgical form is not implied.
Here are some more texts which refer to some kind of religious acts that might be called “liturgy” or “piety” or “worship.”
Origen, Comm John 13.114 – Heracleon thinks, however, that the expression “we worship” means the one who is in the aeon and those who have come with him, for these, he says, have known whom they worship, because they worship in truth. [Italics original. Those who have already ascended and are in the aeon, one of the intermediary levels of heaven between the Father and earth, are presumed by Heracleon, a Valentinian, to worship the Father properly.]
Val Exp 25.30—26.21 – [He is] . . .the [true] High Priest, [the one who has] the authority to enter the Holies of Holies, revealing the glory of the Aeons and bringing forth the abundance to . The East [. . . that is] in [him. He is the one who revealed himself as] the primal [sanctuary] and [the] treasury of [the All]. [liturgical terms and cosmology with heavenly paradigm—primal sanctuary—implied]
Val Exp 39.20-22 – [The complete one glorifies] Sophia; the image [glorifies] Truth. [worship in the heavenly realms, but not worshiping Jesus]
Val Exp 40.20-29 – And we [glorify] thee: [Glory] be to thee, the Father in the [Son, the Father] in the Son, the Father [in the] holy [Church and in the] holy [angels]! [glory to God among the angels]
Gosp Truth 40.30—41.3 – For that very reason he brought him forth in order to speak about the place and his restingplace from which he had come forth, and to glorify the pleroma, the greatness of his name and the sweetness of the Father. [The Son was created to praise the pleroma (in heaven?)]
Tripart Trac 64.20-22 – The one whom they hymn, thereby glorifying him, he has sons. [the beings created by the ?son sing hymns of praise to him]
Tripart Trac 68.22 – Therefore, in the song of glorification and in the power of the unity of him from whom they have come, they were drawn into a mingling and a combination and a unity with one another. They offered glory worthy of the Father from the pleromatic congregation, which is a single representation although many. . . . Now this was a praise […] [the pleromas sing praise]
Some groups, such as the Valentinians, believed that the person’s soul passed through multiple heavens, each higher than the last, in order to gaze upon God and sometimes participate there in the angelic liturgy. (In the Valentinian form, one had to ascend first through thirty levels (Aeons). In other words, worship = ascending to heaven. A key difference from early Christian texts is that Jesus was not worshiped, either in heaven or on earth. After all, he was merely the human body that the heavenly Savior or Christ descended on. There were many other heavenly beings who were much higher and much more important and glorious than the Christ. For instance, in the Gospel of Philip, “the sacramental catechesis. . . insists that its rites transform the initiate into Christ in contrast to those of conventional Christians which merely lend the name Christian” (Pheme Perkins, “Identification with the Savior,” 183). Also, they believed it was an error to worship God as the Creator. This is because at least one group (the Valentinians) distinguished between God and the creator. The one who created the world was not God, but said was a lower being that resulted from a botched abortion by Sophia. This, of course, was a significant difference from OT and early Christian practice.
Not covered here are the mysterious references to the heavenly “bridal chamber,” about which little is known.
CHRISTIANITY COMPARED TO GNOSTIC GROUPS
- Christians worshiped Jesus. This was a big deal. Gnostics never did.
- Christians worshiped God as Creator. Gnostics never did.
- Some Gnostic groups (e.g., Valentinians) believed in ascending to heaven as a substitute for worship. They didn’t need Jesus, etc.
“We may not always know what we are reading in ancient documents. We do not always know how a document is related to its own context, since the context is not always known. In the final analysis, we can only do what we are mandated to do by the dominical institutions as we have them in the writings that the church canonized as sacred scripture. We preach the gospel to all people and baptize in the triune name those who come to faith in Jesus. We take bread and wine and give thanks over them. There are models in the tradition that can instruct us in how to do these things. But we must finally do them in a way that reflects our own obedience of faith and expresses our own devotion to the Giver of every good and perfect gift.” (Frank Senn, 327-28)
David H. Tripp, “‘Gnostic Worship’: the State of the Question,” in Gnosticism in the Early Church, Studies in Early Christianity 5, ed. David M. Scholer (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1993), 322-23; reprinted from Studia Liturgica 1 (1987): 210-20.
Margaret Barker, Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2003).
Robert A. Oden, Jr., “Cosmology, cosmogony,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 1.1170.
Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. by James Robinson, 3rd edition.
April D. Deconick, “Heavenly Temple Traditions and Valentinian Worship: A Case for first-Century Christology in the Second Century,” in Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila, and Gladys S. Lewis, Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, SJSJ 63 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 308-41.
Pheme Perkins in “Identification with the Savior in Coptic Texts from Nag Hammadi,” in Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, ed. Newman, Davila, Lewis (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
Frank C. Senn, “Lutherans Are Natural ‘Splitters’,” Worship 79 (July 2005).
Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.
- K. Beale, NIGTC,Revelation(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999),
David E. Aune, WBC, 3 volumes: Revelation 1—5, Revelation 6—16, and Revelation 17—22.