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Ecclesia Gnostica

Gnostic Scriptures and The Gnostic Church

By Stephan A. Hoeller
Bishop, Ecclesia Gnostica

The Gnostic Church and its Branches

The two principal branches of the Gnostic Church are the French and the English. Of these, the French is the older and more widely disseminated. Long before there was a country named France, Gnostics were already present in that land. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (c.a. 180 A.D.) was so troubled by the presence of Gnostics in his diocese that he devoted volumes of diatribes to combat them. Gnostic groups of various kinds flourished in France throughout history, the best known and most numerous being the Cathar Church in the Middle Ages. French crusaders also came into contact with Gnostic groups in the Middle East and brought their teachings back to the French homeland, where these teachings were cultivated by generations of French devotees of the Gnosis in secret. This seems to have been the case with the Knights Templar, who, not unlike the Cathar Gnostics, were cruelly exterminated by the unholy alliance of the French crown and papacy.

French history from the Middle Ages to the present is characterized by an oscillation between Roman Catholic and anti Roman Catholic tendencies in cultural life and in the body politic. The cruel massacre of the Cathars and of the Templars created a wide spread and long lasting resentment against the Roman Catholic Church, which resentment was extended to the Bourbon monarchy as well. Every time the hold of the Roman Catholic Church weakened on the government of France, Gnostic and gnosticizing religious bodies emerged from hiding, only to be suppressed eventually by another clerical government. One of these incidents of emergence occurred in the late Nineteenth Century, when Jules-Benoit Doinel du Val Michel (Tau Valentin II), inspired by spiritual influences that appeared to have been of Cathar origin founded the French Gnostic Church, which by way of its various branches and under several names has functioned ever since. Primarily by way of its Haitian extension, this church came to establish itself in the United States as well, particularly within the last few decades.

Gnostic interest in the English speaking countries was initially restricted to secular avenues. The rise of the Theosophical Society in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century brought some considerable attention to focus on the Gnostics. Madame Blavatsky in her writings extolled the Gnostics as her kindred spirits and her pupil, G.R.S. Mead became the best known and most accurate as well as most sympathetic translator of Gnostic scriptures of his time. While there was certainly some contact between the French Gnostics and the gnostically inclined British and American Theosophists, (Jules Doinel received his revelation concerning the founding of the Gnostic Church at the residence of the prominent British Theosophist, Lady Caithness), another half a century elapsed before the English Gnostic ecclesiastical transmission was to have its beginning.

At the halfway point of the Twentieth Century, the Australian born British Gnostic, Richard, Duc de Palatine felt inspired to become a pioneer of sacramental Gnosticism for Britain and the United States. (De Palatine was born with the name Powell, but legally changed his name). Having been consecrated as a bishop by the well known British independent Catholic prelate, Hugh George de Wilmott Newman, de Palatine proceeded to establish a sacramental Gnostic church both in England and in the United States. Bishop Palatine was acquainted with several French Gnostic bishops, and received encouragement and inspiration from them. The present writer, after serving for about a decade as a priest under Bishop Palatine, was consecrated in 1967 as regionary bishop for America by him, and has represented the Gnostic tradition ever since as senior holder of the English Gnostic transmission.

Early Interest in Gnostic Scriptures

In their attempt to re establish and uphold the Gnostic tradition, the various branches of the Gnostic church always availed themselves of such scriptural sources of Gnostic teaching as were available at the time. In amplification of this statement, however, two issues need to be understood.

One of these issues is that prior to the monumental find of Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi in Egypt (1945) only a relatively small number of original Gnostic writings was available. (Even much of this material was either untranslated, or accessible only to a small circle of academics until G.R.S. Mead's popular translations appeared after 1880).

Another issue concerns the relationship of scripture and tradition. Prior to the coming of Protestantism, with its highly one sided emphasis on scripture at the expense of tradition, it was always understood that many mysteries and teachings existed that were not written down, but rather handed on in an oral and initiatic fashion. Scripture is not the only source of teaching and sacramental authority in the Gnostic church, even as it is not the only source of such in the other apostolic and sacramental branches of Christendom. Useful as scripture is, one must keep in mind that tradition (augmented by individual Gnosis) always plays an important role.

The founders and leaders of the Gnostic Church in the 19th Century Gnostic revival as well as their counterparts in the 20th century were all well informed and devoted to classical Gnosticism. To them, as well as to us, the terms "Apostolic Gnosis" conjured up the presence of the great Gnostic teachers, Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion, Bardesanes and their fellows. Apostolic Gnosis was not a nebulous commodity restricted to such s.c. orthodox figures as Origen and Clement of Alexandria.

In our days there are many who bandy about the words "Gnosis" and "gnosticism" without much understanding of their meaning and import. Such was not the case regarding the leading figures of the Gnostic Revival who were active in the Gnostic Church. Jules Doinel's approach to his Gnostic Church was quite explicitly and even radically Gnostic; replete with female bishops (Sophias) and the revived sacrament of the Consolamentum. Patriarch Jean Baptiste Bricaud (Tau Jean II), the noted Martinist and friend of Papus, even wrote a Gnostic Catechism, which demonstrates an excellent knowledge of classical Gnostic scriptures and is unreservedly Gnostic in character. The same kind of spirit animated the late English Gnostic founder, Richard, Duc de Palatine. Having known him for more than twenty years the present writer can attest that this modern Gnostic leader was also profoundly learned in Gnostic scriptures and wished his church to be truly a Gnostic one.

It is of course true that the revived Gnostic Church served and continues to serve purposes in addition to the revival of Gnosticism. The French Gnostic Church has for long been known as L'Eglise des Inities (Church of the Initiated). This means that Roman Catholics who have been initiated into secret orders of a Masonic, Martinist, Rosicrucian and similar character and who have therefore incurred excommunication from the Roman authorities were and are able to attend the services and receive the sacraments of the Gnostic Church. In a country like France, which is Catholic and Masonic at once, this represents an important issue. The English Gnostic transmission, while less involved in Masonic and related concerns still always welcomed to its altars those who were sincerely desirous of receiving the sacraments. In the Los Angeles Gnostic community, which the present writer has been leading for almost forty years, we have offered sacramental refuge not only to committed Gnostics, but in addition to Kabbalists, Theosophists, Wiccans and Magicians and also to traditionalist Roman Catholics, who prefer the Gnostic Mass to the bowdlerised and trivialized Novus Ordo Mass of their own troubled church.

While Gnostic Churches have thus welcomed people of diverse spiritual orientation, there was never any doubt that the churches themselves were and continue to be Gnostic. The most evident symbols of this were always the Gnostic scriptures, used both in our liturgical formulae and in the sacred readings occurring at our services. This brings us to the collection of texts used in one book which most of us regard with pride and with joy, i.e. the Gnostic Lectionary.

The Gnostic Lectionary

It is a time honored practice of sacramental Christendom to make available to its communicants selected passages of sacred scripture, marshalled in accordance with the holidays and seasons of the Church Year. The Roman Missal as well as the Roman Breviary (especially in their pre-Vatican II form) are eminent and admirable examples of such selections. While the Protestant emphasis on a non-selective reading of scripture has robbed some of Christendom of the use of Lectionaries (as such selections are often called) such books retain their value to this day. The Gnostic Church possesses a unique lectionary in the English language which is enjoying an increasing popularity. It is known officially mainly by its descriptive title: The Collects, Lessons and Gospels to be used throughout the Church Year and was issued under the authority of the bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica in America in 1974.

The Gnostic Church is a Christian church and considers itself as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Ecclesia founded by the Logos and His apostles. In view of this, it is evident that the canonical Christian scriptures would be well represented in its Lectionary. The availability of a fairly large number of Gnostic scriptures in our days makes it possible as well as desirable, however, that scriptures of the specifically Gnostic corpus should be included in fair numbers. In addition to the canonical Christian and the Gnostic scriptures, it seemed also desirable to include a certain number of gnostically related writings, such as the Hermetic, the Mandaean and the Cathar scriptures as well as the Chaldean Oracles. The Lectionary is not of a universalistic character and thus it does not include writings from traditions other than the Christian Gnostic, although the closest relatives of this tradition, i.e. the Manichaean, Mandaean and Hermetic documents are represented also. Contemporary scholarship recognizes that Hermeticism with its texts, such as the Corpus Hermeticum, the Poimandres, and others, is but a non-Christian variant of Gnosticism, as is the Mandaean religion. Manichaeanism is in fact more Christian than the former two schools of thought. The Prophet Mani considered himself a spiritual apostle of Jesus Christ, and the Manichaeans used several known Christian scriptures, such as the Gospel According to Thomas. There exists sufficient justification therefore, for the inclusion of all of these variants of the Gnostic tradition.

The various Sundays and Holidays of the Church Year have ascribed to them special intentions. The collects, lessons (sometimes known as epistles in other lectionaries and liturgies) and gospels have been carefully selected so as to express, as far as possible, the intentions of the Sundays and Holidays. Of the collects, 24 are taken from Manichaean sources. (A collect is a prayer manifesting a central keynote or point). The brake-down of the sources of the lessons is as follows: Manichaean: 14; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 14; Hermetic Writings: 4; Mandaean Scriptures: 3; Cathar Scriptures: 1; Chaldean Oracles: 3; other miscellaneous Gnostic sources: 4; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 39. The gospels in the Lectionary are taken from the following scriptures: Manichaean: 1; Pistis Sophia: 3; other Pre-Nag Hammadi scriptures: 4; Gospel According to Thomas: 18; Gospel of Truth: 7; Gospel of Phillip: 19; Hermetic Writings: 2; Cathar Scriptures: 2; Canonical Scriptures (both Old and New Testament): 31. The Lectionary comprises 185 pages, including seven pages of occasional collects to be used at the discretion of clergy either within or outside of the context of the Eucharist. (Visit the Lectionary)

Scriptures for Private Study

Gnostic clergy and communicants ought to be particularly aware of what may be called the primary sources of Gnostic teachings. A primary source is a scripture that comes to us directly from the ancient Gnostics themselves. Among these primary sources we find, first the Nag Hammadi Library, and second, the codices and treatises whose discovery precedes the Nag Hammadi find. The latter are: the Askew, Bruce and Berlin Codices, the Acts of Thomas, Acts of John, and a few others. Less reliable because of their anti-Gnostic bias, and no longer qualifying as primary sources, are the references and quotations of Gnostic content in the writings of certain Church Fathers, Epiphanius, Irenaeus and others, who, for the most part, acted as polemicists against the Gnostic teachers of the early Christian centuries. Although certainly biased and often distorted, the information in these sources is still often quite informative.

To address ourselves first to the most important primary source, we must turn now to the Nag Hammadi Library of Gnostic writings. There are six separate major categories of writings, when they are analyzed according to subject matter. They are as follows:

  1. Writings of creative and redemptive mythology, including Gnostic alternative versions of creation and salvation. These are: The Apocryphon of John (two versions); The Hypostasis of the Archons; On the Origin of the World; The Apocalypse of Adam; The Paraphrase of Shem.
  2. Observations and commentaries on diverse Gnostic themes, such as the nature of reality, the nature of the soul, the relationship of the soul to the world: The Gospel of Truth; The Treatise on the Resurrection; The Tripartite Tractate; The Tractate of Eugnostos the Blessed (two versions); The Second Treatise of the Great Seth; The Teachings of Sylvanus; The Testimony of Truth.
  3. Liturgical and initiatory texts. (These may be of special interest to persons of sacramental and initiatic interests): The Treatise on the Eighth and Ninth; The Prayer of Thanksgiving; The Valentinian Exposition; The Three Steles of Seth; The Prayer of the Apostle Paul. (The Gospel of Phillip, listed under category 6, does in part have great relevance to this category also, for it is in effect a treatise on Gnostic sacramental theology).
  4. Writings dealing primarily with the feminine deific and spiritual principle, particularly with the Divine Sophia: The Thunder: Perfect Mind; The Thought of Norea; The Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Exegesis of the Soul.
  5. Writings pertaining to the lives and experiences of some of the apostles: The Apocalypse of Peter; The Letter of Peter to Phillip; The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles; The First and Second Apocalypses of James; The Apocalypse of Paul.
  6. Last but certainly not least, the scriptures which contain sayings of Jesus as well as descriptions of incidents in His life: The Dialogue of the Saviour; The Book of Thomas the Contender; The Apocalypse of James; The Gospel of Phillip; The Gospel According to Thomas.

This leaves a small number of scriptures of the Nag Hammadi Library which may be called "unclassifiable." It also must be kept in mind that the passage of time and translation into languages very different from the original have rendered many of these scriptures abstruse in style. Some of them are difficult reading, especially to those not familiar with Gnostic imagery, nomenclature and the like. Lacunae are also present in some of these scriptures. The most readily comprehensible of the Nag Hammadi scriptures is undoubtedly The Gospel According to Thomas, with The Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth as close seconds in order of easy comprehension. There are various translations of most of these scriptures available; the most complete being the one volume collection The Nag Hammadi Library in English, (edited by J. Robinson) which is readily available.

The Gnostic writings, whose discovery precedes that of the Nag Hammadi Library have been in large part accurately and sympathetically translated by the late scholarly Theosophist, G.R.S. Mead, in such works as Pistis Sophia, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, and his series of smaller books, entitled Echoes from the Gnosis. Mead's works have been reprinted in recent, albeit probably small, editions. There is also an excellent selection of Gnostic writings of the pre Nag Hammadi variety, entitled The Gospel of the Gnostics, edited by another outstanding scholar and Theosophist, Duncan Greenlees. The same scholar has also edited and published a very fine selection of Manichaean writings under the title, The Gospel of the Prophet Mani. Both of these fine books are out of print, but may be obtained in Libraries of the Theosophical Society for study.

Nearly twenty years have elapsed since the complete translations of the Nag Hammadi Library was completed and published. The exegetical literature based on these writings is slowly growing. Curiously enough, one of the most useful books of this sort is still one which was published very soon after the Nag Hammadi Library: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Some other useful authors in this field are: Bentley Layton, Giovanni Filoramo, Simone Petrement, Dan Merkur, Marvin Meyer and Ioan Couliano. An increasing number of books employing the name "Gnostic" in their titles are being sold. The usefulness and authenticity of such literature need to be evaluated and judged by individual students on a case by case basis. (Visit the Gnosis Archive reading list for an annotated list of books suitable for further study,)


It is important to remember that later varieties and recensions of Gnostic teachings are present in virtually all transmissions of the Occult tradition in the West. Some of these later variations resemble the original model more closely than others. Clergy, members and other persons interested in the Gnostic Church often possess Martinist, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Theosophical and similar affiliations and dedications. All of these schools of thought, whether they acknowledge it or not, are related not only to each other, but by way of historical and mystical descent also to the matrix of ancient Gnosticism. (Certainly some of the leading figures of these movements have acknowledged their relationship to Gnosticism, as H.P. Blavatsky's numerous writings on the Gnostics exemplify).

Whatever the other interests and dedications of all of us may be, we are Gnostics. We are Gnostics moreover, not only in the sense of pursuing, or possessing a quality of consciousness that might be called Gnosis, but we are members of a specific tradition. This tradition, the Gnostic tradition, is the one represented by the Gnostic Church. It may be true that the non Gnostic branches of Christendom have or claim a certain kind of Gnosis, which they may call at times "Apostolic" or by any other name. Aspects of the Gnosis have passed into many hands over the centuries. Yet, we must not be satisfied with that which is in part, for we are heirs of the fullness, the Pleroma itself. And this is the principal reason for our interest in and dedication to the Gnostic Scriptures. These scriptures are one of our chief links with our origins. (The other links are the seven mysteries, or Sacraments and the arcane, oral tradition). It is by way of these scriptures that we may in large measure join ourselves consciously with the Fathers of the Gnosis, great sages like Valentinus, Basilides and their company. It is also thus, that through them, we are joined to the Holy Apostles and through them to their and our Master, Jesus Christ, the most precious flower of the Pleroma, the Logos, the Pansother, the fountainhead of all true Gnosis.

Stephan A. Hoeller, Ep.Gn.
(Tau Stephanus I)


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