“The stones the Gnostics offered fitted the comers of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom”

The revolt against the Gnostic influence depended on two things. There was the capacity of individual anti-Gnostic writers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons. There was also—and far more important—the actual belief of the separate Church­es. It was on many points yet undefined; there were spec­ulative points on which it has not yet been defined. But all those groups in all those cities, founded in the apostolic doctrine, made it clear that they did not, in fact, believe what the Romantic philosophers declared; that this was not the Faith as they had received and held it. What did the Churches believe? They believed that Almighty God—the final Deity—had Itself created heaven and earth, and was, as the First and Only Cause of them, finally respon­sible for them. They believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the Father—in that Deity—and had been materially born on earth ex Maria Virgine. They believed, that is, that the First and Only Cause initiated, operated, and concluded Redemption. They rejected, with great energy, the idea that cause belonged to a subordi­nate Demiurgus and the idea that there was a special kind of superior redemption for superior persons. No doubt there were prophets and speakers with tongues and teachers and so on; no doubt Almighty God operated peculiarly through certain individuals. But they repudiated any opposition between faith and vision. Faith was not a poor substitute for vision; it was rather the capacity for integrating the whole being with truth. It was a total disposition and a total act. By definition, all men were in need of salvation; therefore, of faith and repentance in faith. The Gnostic view left little room for the illuminati to practise love on this earth; “they live as though they were indifferent,” said Irenaeus. The Church anathematized the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority except in morals, in labour, in love. See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.

In some sense, the Gnostics avoided any “scandal” to the mind and soul. The stones they offered fitted the comers of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom. God was not really responsible for the appalling putrescence of misery which we call the world. The soul and the body (so to divide them formally) were not responsible for each other. Men were not responsible for each other. The Gordian knot of the unity was cut, and the bits fell radically apart. Toothache, cancer, women’s periods, frustrated sex-love, these and other ills were without relation to the activity of the celestial spheres. “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar the Christ came down from heaven,” wrote Marcion, one of the last and one of the greatest of the Gnostics, but the orthodox answer was that, years earlier, he had been generated on earth: “the book of the generations of Jesus Christ.”

Charles Williams

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10 Responses to “The stones the Gnostics offered fitted the comers of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom”

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    “God was not really responsible for the appalling putrescence of misery which we call the world.” This is a strong point of the apokatastasis of all – that, it turns out, God is at the last responsible, responsible as the Creator by whom and from whom all things were created.


  2. mercifullayman says:

    I think a lot of the gnostics, and in many ways even the heresiarchs, were a needed voice in the life of the church. Articulation matters, say what you mean….In many ways, we must be thankful for people like Arius et al, because without them, we could never have really come to a knowledge of the truth as it is articulated, especially in the cultural milieu of that time that needed to be able to “define” almost everything. We also have to remember, that some of those people, were intensely devout (albeit to the wrong idea(s) or explanation(s) but no less were trying to parse a world in which they were trying their best to make sense of a radical claim about existence as it is.) There are some of them who I thoroughly enjoy, like Apollinarius and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Sure, they may be wrong in the end, but the actual discussions they brought forth allowed us the space to grow closer to the truth. The Spirit moved, and we moved along with It. I think of Heraclitus’ comment from the fragments here:

    Always having what we want
    may not be the best good fortune
    Health seems sweetest
    after sickness, food
    in hunger, goodness
    in the wake of evil, and at the end
    of daylong labor, sleep.

    We come to truly appreciate the truth when we are able to see it in the light of error. It’s as if God was trying to get us to stop being lazy, and to do the work of coming to know him more fully. So I’ll be thankful for them in that way, and I’m sure, they’ve learned, in their repose (if they didn’t in life), the error as it is.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    The grain and weed grow in the field together…. although with Monsanto….we now have no need for strays.


    • mercifullayman says:

      It’s interesting you say this. My father works in that world. Crop Science is interesting in that it seems the weeds, bugs, etc always seem to adapt or some new issue is always around the corner. And yet, the most stubborn things they tend to fight, are still the oldest things we’ve learned about from the beginning. In a sense, the opposite is always ever present to remind us to be on our guard. It is often the most ancient of things that still trickles in behind the scenes, even when dressed in new sophistic language.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I see there is a scan of a copy of The Descent of the Dove from the Claremont School of Theology in the Internet Archive, which is handily searchable – e.g., if one wants easily to see more of what Williams says about orthodox use of the terminology of ‘gnosis’, especially where Clement of Alexandria is concerned.


    • DBH says:

      Really, there are far better sources out there. It’s a silly book.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Even if one might well conclude it’s a silly book, it’s one that has the exact effect of sending me looking for other, more detailed, and in that sense in any case “far better sources” – am I alone in this? (See further below.) I see the sense of Rowan Williams having his students read it when he was a Cambridge don, back in the day, as he told us at the Oxford Lewis Soc (or was it the CW Soc?).


  5. DBH says:

    “Marcion, one of the last and one of the greatest of the Gnostics…”

    The number of simple historical errors in that book still astounds me. My favorite is Williams’s claim that the Eastern Church removed the filioque from the Nicene creed.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Hmm… The subtleties of ‘search engines’ are beyond me, but the only substantial (if that be not a clumsy word-choice, here) reference to the Filioque the Internet Archive one turns up in the scan of the Clermont copy is in this passage, beginning on page 98 and continuing on to page 99, in the antepenultimate paragraph of the fourth chapter:

      “The sacred Nature of our Lord the Spirit had been long since defined to proceed from the Father; it was universally accepted. It was all but universally accepted that He also proceeded from the Son. But the phrase so defining it had not been included in the final formation of the Creed, and Oecumenical Councils had decreed that there should be no addition made [p. 99] to the Creed. The ardour of a Council in Spain (whose fervour has so often been inconvenient to Europe!) defended the Deity of the Son against some unorthodox teaching by declaring that any who denied the Procession from the Son should be anathema. He from whom God proceeded must himself be God. The devout and orthodox Spaniards began to sing Filioque in the Creed, and the habit spread. Charlemagne adopted it for the royal chapel at Aix, and so through his dominions. The Pope Leo, who had had the original Creed inscribed on silver plates in Greek and Latin and set up in St. Peter’s, refused to adopt it. But the thing had happened, and the East, as orthodox as Spain, heard with horror a revised and expanded Creed used through the West. The offence grew greater still when it was known that at last the Roman See, when occupied by Nicholas I, had consented to ratify the interpolation.” (By the way, what a messed-up scan I have now discovered this to be: pages 97-98 (as “114 of 257′) are followed by pages 100-101 while pages 99-100 (as “128 of 257”) are interpolated between pages 114 and 115 of the fifth chapter. But, given the clarity of this passage, I find it hard to imagine he slips up as you note on some other page omitted from this scan. But perhaps you are misremembering “it had not been included in the final formation of the Creed” as “the Eastern Church removed it”.)

      More broadly, I cannot help but imagining that many another reader, like myself, finds Williams, here as elsewhere, a ‘centrifugal’ writer who sends one off to find out more for oneself – and if that includes finding him making a plethora of simple historical errors, so much the better. In the current example, it leaves me wanting to know more about both the history of the Creed from 325 to 381, and who, if anyone, might give grounds for saying “It was all but universally accepted that He also proceeded from the Son”, and whenthey might do so.


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