For the Gnostics, God was nothing like the image of a stern but kind old man in the clouds that, rightly or wrongly, many of us think of when we think of the Christian God. Instead, he was utterly ineffable and inhuman – something that couldn’t be accurately characterized in any human language. You couldn’t even say that he created the world, because that was the work of another, lesser, more human-like being (the demiurge).

Yet the Gnostics were far from silent about God. They wrote about him at some length and in a poetically evocative manner. But their descriptions of him were attempts to describe why he’s so indescribable – a feat that’s ultimately impossible, as the Gnostics readily acknowledged. Still, they did the best they could in the hope that some of their readers would be able to understand the meaning behind their words.

The Gnostics referred to God as “the One,” “the One Who Is,”[1] “the Great Invisible Spirit,”[2] “the Unknown Silent One,”[3] “the Abyss,”[4], “the non-being God,”[5] and other such deliberately mysterious designations.

When they said anything more about him, they primarily used an approach that theologians call “negative theology” or “apophatic theology:” talking about God by saying what he’s not rather than what he is.[6] The rationale for this approach is that since God utterly transcends the mundane world, the language we use to describe the mundane world is utterly inadequate to describe God. His nature inherently invalidates any attempts to describe him using earthly language.[7] But we have to refer to him somehow, so we might as well refer to him as that which is above even our loftiest concepts. The Gnostics also peppered their basically negative characterizations of God with a few very simple and abstract positive characterizations, which were presented as extremely crude approximations that shouldn’t be taken literally, and which were based on the characteristics that God had imparted to spiritual existence – life, blessedness, and so on.[8]

Many Gnostic texts feature a section in which the narrator pauses from the story he (or perhaps she) is telling in order to give an awe-inspired description of God. The following excerpt from Eugnostos the Blessed is typical:

The One Who Is is ineffable. From the foundation of the world, no power, no creature, no nature has known the One Who Is. Only the One Who Is knows itself.

The One Who Is is immortal, eternal, without birth,
For whoever is born will die;
Unconceived, without a beginning,
For whoever has a beginning has an end;
Undominated, without a name,
For whoever has a name has been fashioned by another;
Unnamable, with no human form,
For whoever has a human form has been fashioned by another.
The One Who Is has its own appearance,
Not like what we have received and seen,
But an alien appearance that surpasses everything
And is superior to everything in the universe.
It looks everywhere and beholds itself in itself.

The One is infinite,
Incomprehensible,
And constantly imperishable.
The One is unequalled,
Immutably good,
Without fault,
Everlasting,
Blessed,
Unknowable,
Yet it knows itself.
The One is immeasurable,
Untraceable,
Perfect,
Without defect.
The One is blessed,
Imperishably,
And is called the Father of All.[9]

The Gnostics were far from alone in their predominantly negative approach to describing God. Plato had done it before them,[10] and negative theology was to have a long and illustrious career in Christianity after the Gnostics were gone. Its most famous exponent is surely Pseudo-Dionysius, a highly influential Christian theologian and mystic who lived in the fifth or sixth century. In his treatise “The Mystical Theology,” Pseudo-Dionysius makes the case for negative theology, with which the Gnostics would have surely agreed:

Leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside… strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.[11]

He concludes with a characterization of God that’s more systematically negative than even the Gnostics’ negative characterizations of God:

The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all of this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.[12]

But such a conception of God created a theological problem for the Gnostics, a problem which is really inherent to Christianity as such: how could such a perfect, self-sufficient entity be the “cause of all things,” as Pseudo-Dionysius put it? How and why would he have given rise to anything else outside of him?[13]

The Gnostics attempted to get around this problem in two ways.

Firstly, the Gnostics didn’t believe that God created the universe. That was the work of the demiurge, a petty, ignorant, and even malevolent being whose existence and deeds were contrary to the will of God. God, the Gnostics said, was too perfect to act, and certainly too perfect to have created a world as messed up as the one we’ve got.

But that begs the question: where did the demiurge come from? If God is the cause of all things, then isn’t he ultimately the cause of the demiurge as well?

This brings us to the second way the Gnostics tried to get around the problem of a perfect God and a flawed creation. The demiurge, they said, wasn’t created by God, but was instead the last in a long line of entities who had descended from God, each of whom was less perfect than the one before it due to its greater distance from God. This chain of beings had been started not by God consciously choosing to create something and then speaking the words to make it happen, as in Genesis; for the Gnostics, this process of divine “emanation,” as they called it, took place before the Genesis creation narrative began. (And for the Gnostics, Genesis described the work of the demiurge, not of God.) God’s infinite abundance of thought overflowed and became a series of new beings,[14] or he gazed into the primeval waters below him and saw his reflection, which became a new being who then gave rise to further beings.[15] These explanations all in effect said that God didn’t create anything beyond himself – it just came about of its own accord, even though God was still its ultimate source.

The Gnostics were evidently satisfied with such an answer, and believed that it enabled them to preserve their notions of both the perfection of God and the hopelessly corrupt nature of the world.

References:

[1] Funk, Wolf-Peter. 2008. “The First Revelation of James.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 324.

[2] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 247-270.

[3] Turner, John D. 2008. “Marsanes.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 636.

[4] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 288.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 154-156.

[7] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 288.

[8] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 53-54.

[9] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “Eugnostos the Blessed.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 275-276.

[10] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 59.

[11] Pseudo-Dionysius. 1987. “The Mystical Theology.” In Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid. Paulist Press. p. 135.

[12] Ibid. p. 140-141.

[13] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 154-156.

[14] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 53-54.

[15] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 154-156.