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Valentinian Ethics

Because they believed that the teachings of Jesus provided all the moral instruction that was required, Valentinians did not write extensive treatises on ethical matters. They did demand the highest possible ethical standards from their initiates. Gnosis was believed to make it possible to lead a sinless existence. A truly spiritual person was expected not to sin. Sin was considered a sign that the person had not truly reached a spiritual level of development.

Valentinians believed that knowledge (gnosis) of the Truth set them free of unjust laws and petty human rules ( Letter to Flora 4:11-13, 5:4-7 cf. Matthew 15:4-9, Colossians2:22). However, the true law of love was fulfilled by the Savior and served as the guiding principle for members of the school (Letter to Flora 5:1-3, Matthew 5:17). According to the Gospel of Philip, acting in love means that one should never behave in a way intended to cause distress to other people (Gospel of Philip 79:33-80:22). Sometimes evil people will be distressed when we do good but it is not us but their own wickedness which is responsible for their distress (Gospel of Philip 19-20).

The person who had gnosis was believed to have a duty to act in the service of others. According to the Gospel of Philip, "Whoever is really free because of knowledge is a slave because of love of those who have not yet been able to attain the freedom of knowledge" (Gospel of Philip 77:26-29). In the Gospel of Truth, Valentinus lists the duties of the elect: "Make firm the foot of those who have stumbled, and stretch out your hand to those who are ill. Feed those who are hungry, and give rest to those who are weary. Raise up those who wish to rise and awaken those who sleep." (Gospel of Truth 32:35-33:9)

The person's spiritual nature had to be confessed through loving actions as well as words (Herakleon 50, James 2:14-26, Secret Book of James 8:10-15). One's true nature was revealed by the kind of fruit one produces, that is by our actions (Matthew 12:33-37). "Sin" which derives from the Greek word hamartia literally means "missing the mark." When a person sinned, they were producing fruit from their lower carnal nature and revealing that they were still ignorant, having missed the target of spiritual love. Therefore, they believed that they had to resist the lower carnal nature (Gospel of Truth 33:21-23) and the temptation of worldly things in order to focus on what really matters. As Theodotus says of the carnal nature, "Be well disposed to it, not nourishing it and strengthening it by the power to commit sin, but putting it to death here and now, and thereby showing it as transitory by our refraining from evil." (Excerpts of Theodotus 52:2). They believed it was possible to annihilate their ignorant, carnal nature through knowledge (gnosis) in order to become fully spiritual. They felt this was expressed by producing 'spiritual fruit' through their actions.

According to Ptolemy, refraining from sin and acting out of love is the true spiritual fasting (Letter to Flora 5:13 cf Gospel of Thomas 27). An essential part of this "fasting" is to avoid excessive attachment to transitory, worldly things. As Valentinus says, "Be concerned with yourselves, not with other things which you have cast off." (Gospel of Truth 33:11-12) Spiritual matters and love of others must take precedence over material things since "No one can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24).

According to one writer, one should never be jealous of others, because it is precisely in all of their differences that people make up a single body of Christ (Romans 12:4-6, Interpretation of Knowledge 17). They believed that they must be willing to share all that they had with others. As it says in the Gospel of Philip, "Love never calls anything its own. . . it never says, 'This is yours and that is mine,' but rather, 'All are yours.'" (Gospel of Philip 62:4-5)

A consequence of the law of love is non-violence as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48, Letter to Flora 5:4-7). Valentinians accepted the idea that they must love even their enemies and forgive all who wronged them. When persecuted, they advocated non-violent resistance, as it says in the Authoritative Teaching, "We ignore them when they curse us. When they cast shame in our faces, we look at them and do not speak" Authoritative Teaching 27:10-12 c.f. also Secret Book of James 5:9-29). Valentinian Christians were pacifists who opposed all forms of violence without exception.

Valentinian polemics against the rulers were not simply directed against abstract "spiritual rulers of wickedness" but also against their physical, temporal representatives. Valentinians embraced the notion that a truly spiritual person should not rule over others and that they should not be ruled by others (cf. Apocalypse of Peter 79:28-29, Matthew 20:25-27). All are made equal through the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit just as the Aeons in the Fullness were all made equal and united in the Savior. The Tripartite Tractate contains the following warning, "Those who are proud because of the desire of ambition and who love temporary glory . . . will receive judgement for their ignorance and senselessness" (Tripartite Tractate 120:29-121:6).

Women occupied a prominent position in the Valentinian movement. They are described as "strong by the perception which is in them" (1 Apocalypse of James 38:20-23). In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is considered as one of the most important apostles. This is in sharp contrast with the traditional position of orthodox Christians. In the pseudo-Pauline "Pastoral" letters which were rejected by the Valentinians, women are forbidden to teach or even speak in church (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

Unlike regular Christians such as "saint" Augustine, who viewed sex as identical with original sin, followers of the Valentinian tradition held a generally positive view of sexuality. Even the activity of God was seen in sexual and procreative terms. One source even goes so far as to suggest a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Gospel of Philip 63:60-64:8)! Human relationships were seen an imperfect image of the divine (Gospel of Philip 82:1-6). According to the teacher Ptolemy, marriage could be a means to a deeper understanding of God (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:4). On the other hand, Theodotus sees a more practical purpose to marriage. In his writings, he says that marriage and child-bearing are essential so that those with the spiritual seed can be born (Excerpts of Theodotus 67:2-3). Many Valentinians also practised celibacy. Whether marriage was appropriate or not was left to individual choice.

In conclusion, it must be said that Valentinians took Christian freedom very seriously. They rejected any tendency to diminish individual moral autonomy. Unlike ordinary Christians, they resisted writing ethical treatises which set out lists of "do's" and "don'ts". Instead, they believed that they should "Look to God" (Enneads II:15). This same spirit is present in the Gospel of Mary where Christ says, "Do not lay down any rules beyond what I have appointed for you. And do not give a law like a lawgiver lest you be constrained by it" (Gospel of Mary 8:22-9:4).


Content authored by David Brons