The Gnostic idea underpinning human divinity—one that most of the earliest Christian communities espoused but that was denounced near the end of the second century by the first Church Father, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon—was called the doctrine of emanations. Briefly, the doctrine of emanations says there exists a spiritual universe upon which the physical universe is patterned, a universe that is the realm of innumerable divine "emanations," all of which have free will. These emanations were not created by God, but rather, were parts of God, certain of which He chose to become human souls. Because souls once found their abode in the heavenly state, on earth they retain a portion of their divinity.

     Almost all of the earliest Christian sects and communities believed in the doctrine of emanations from one eternal Source—the idea that all individuals have their origin in the eternal, and all partake, in their inmost being, in the eternal. According to St. Paul, human beings are composed of a Spirit, soul, and body. Gnostics believe that the destiny of man is to return to the spiritual realms (eternal life) by a process termed "the resurrection," which was demonstrated by Jesus. Because they believe in the preexistence of souls in a spiritual statesouls that were a part of God and subsequently fell into matter and became clothed with bodiesGnostics hold that men retain a divine spark within. It is this spark itself, this infinite power within human beings, that is the means of salvation. It is the universal root, which exists as a potential in everyone.


     How did Irenaeus's particular interpretation of Christianity differ from other views? The ancient Christian understanding of man's relationship to divinity was that man originated in Spirit and remained connected to it, however tenously. Sectarian Christians taught that periodic saviors of the world, from Krishna to Christ, were able to rekindle the divine spark in those in whom it had gone out. But in Irenaeus's doctrine, man was created by God as a physical being, not a spiritual one. Man, therefore, has no intrinsic connection to God, no divine spark through which God can communicate. Man is distinct from God.

     Rejecting the part of original Christian thought that held that the soul is spiritual and immortal—an idea that some later Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen came back to—the early Fathers developed the concept of creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing.[5] Man could not be on a par with God, they reasoned, therefore his soul could not be part of God. It could not have been created out of God’s essence. God must have created souls—along with bodies and the rest of the material universe—out of nothing at all. As Tertullian described it, God "fashioned this whole fabric with all its equipment of elements, bodies, spirits... out of nothing, to the glory of His majesty."[6] The soul, thus constituted, has no part of God inside itself.

     That doctrine persists to this day. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia explains it,

"Between Creator and creature there is the most profound distinction possible. God is not part of the world. He is not just the peak of reality. Between God and the world there is an abyss....

To be created is to be not of itself, but from another. It is to be non-self-sufficient. This means that deep within itself [the soul] is in a condition of radical need, of total dependence.... It means to accept the fact that the world has no reality except what the Creator thinks and wills."[7] (Emphasis added.)

     In other words, there is not, as the Platonists believed, a great chain of being linking the creation to the Creator and enabling the creation to return to the Creator. There is no divine spark inside each heart. Instead, there is an abyss between Creator and creation.

     Irenaeus, in his theology, overturned the ancient doctrine of emanations which lay at the root not only of early Christianity, but of Platonism, Apocalyptic Judaism, Zoroastrianism, esoteric Buddhism, and Kabbalism. In so doing he not only reinterpreted the relationship of human beings to God as one of greater separateness, he also effected an historic separation of his doctrines from Gnostic Christianity and every other religion premised on the belief in emanations. In denying that God individualizes or fragments Himself in, and as, his creation, Irenaeus was denying that the one God, whether manifest as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, differentiates Himself in the creation and in man, ad infinitum, and still remains One.

     This newer vision of our relationship to God is not a hopeful one. It tells us that we humans are crouched in misery at the edge of the great abyss. We peer down into nothingness and strain to see the opposite side, where God and his Son reign eternally. Stretching across the chasm is a single arch: the Church, its approach securely gated, the keys to heaven accessible only through its official doctrine. And yet, Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of Irenaeus, had dignified man with the description, "A noble hymn of God is man, immortal, founded upon righteousness, the oracles of truth engraved upon him."[8] When Irenaeus said that man was created out of nothing, how far he digressed from Christianity’s sources!


Part Two: The Logos and the Teacher of the Way


     Like the concept of Spirit, the Gnostic conception of Jesus contrasted sharply with the orthodox one. Jesus, according to Irenaeus, was the one and only God, the creator and redeemer, who actually sent His son from Heaven to earth to save men. Not a man who became God because he was of the same essence as God, as Gnosticism posits all men are. Not a vehicle of Divinity, which Gnosticism posits all men can be. And, therefore, not a man who showed men the way to reunion with God, but a God forever separate from men. The Gnostics saw Jesus as a guide. They believed their souls came from the same source as his. They even sought to become like him. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person."[9]

     The Church Fathers considered such teachings blasphemous, particularly the idea that our souls came from the same source as Jesus'. Writing in the late second century, Irenaeus said the Gnostics believe that "their souls derive from the same surroundings [as Jesus'], and therefore ... are counted worthy of the same power, and return again to the same place." "Some say they are like Jesus," he fumed. "Some actually affirm that they are even stronger."[10] Indeed, the Nag Hammadi scripture Teachings of Silvanus tells us that a "wise man" is one who "exists on earth" but "makes himself like God."[11] But the Gnostics found support for their beliefs not only in Apocryphal texts, but in such scriptures as Galatians 2:20, where Paul says, "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me."

     The Gospel of Philip expresses elegantly the Gnostic goal of merging, or union, with the Ultimate. For the Gnostics, knowledge and wisdom lead to eternal life, while ignorance is equivalent to a state of bondage to death. Philip tells the seeker, "The word said, 'If you know the truth, the truth will make you free' (John 8:32). Ignorance is a slave. Knowledge is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us. If we are joined to it, it will bring our fulfillment."[12]

     The Gnostics thought that the orthodox vision of Jesus as God was based in part on a misunderstanding of the Gospel of John. John tells us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." And later, "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."[13] The orthodox concluded from these passages that Jesus Christ is God, the Word, made flesh.

     But the Gnostics believed that when John called Jesus "the Word," he was referring to something else. For when John said the "Word" created everything, he used the Greek term for "word": logos.

     In Greek thought, Logos described the part of God that acts in the world. Origen of Alexandria called it the soul that holds the universe together. Clement tells us that each man has the "image of the Word [Logos]" within him, and it is for this reason that Genesis says man is made "in the image and likeness of God."[14] Philo, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and a contemporary of Christ, called the Logos "[G]od’s Likeness, by whom the whole [c]osmos was fashioned." Philo believed great human beings like Moses could personify the Logos.[15]

     Thus, when John wrote that Jesus is the Logos, he did not mean that the man Jesus had always been God the Logos. The Gnostics understood John to mean that Jesus the man became the Logos. The Logos, then, is the spark of divinity that is within our hearts.

     The early conception in the Gnostic tradition was that Jesus became the Logos just as he became the Christ. But that didn’t mean he was the only one who could ever do it! Jesus explained this mystery when he broke the bread at the Last Supper. He took a single loaf, symbolizing the one Logos, the one Christ, and broke it and said, "This is my body, which is broken for you."[16] The Gnostics interpreted this teaching to mean that there is one absolute God and one Universal Christ, or Logos, but that the body of that Universal Christ can be broken and each piece will still retain all the qualities of the whole. Jesus was telling his disciples that the seed of Christ is not diminished qualitatively, no matter how many times his body is broken. The smallest fragment of God, Logos, or Christ contains the entire nature of Christ’s divinity.

     This is the meaning of the fragmentation of the host in the communion ritual, undoubtedly lost on Irenaeus even as he participated in it.


     Beginning with Justin Martyr in about 150 C.E., and then continuing through Irenaeus, Tertullian (of Carthage), and others, certain Church Fathers fought hard against Gnostic ideas. Why? If the "Christ," Christ-Spirit, or Holy Spirit were seen as separate from or greater than Jesus, then that same Christ-Spirit might also descend upon anyone who was worthy. Thus we would have the impossible situation of there being more than one Christ! This would never do, since the orthodox movement in Christianity had claimed Jesus and God were the same entity. If God was One and indivisible, it naturally followed that there could be only "one Lord Jesus Christ," as Church Creed affirmed, and that no one else could ever aspire to that title.

     Some Christian sects of a Gnostic persuasion affirmed that a believer in Christ could become Christ, that it was possible to attain a level of Christhood commensurate with that of Jesus, taking seriously his words: "Behold, greater things than I do, ye shall do." These sects and their teachings were branded heretical by the orthodox. But this begs an important question: whence came the authority of one kind Christianity for censuring another?


[5] See, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 10

[6] Tertullian, Apology 17, quoted inThe Mask of Jove: A History of Greaeco-Roman Civilization from the Death of Alexander to the Death of Constantine, Stringfellow Barr (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencourt Co., 1966) p. 469. See also:  the entire text of Tertullian's Apology.

[7] The New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Creation"

[8] Exhortation to the Greeks 10, quoted in Robert Payne, The Fathers of the Eastern Church, p. 30

[9] Gospel of Thomas, saying 108. NB: Although the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Greek, the only known complete copy of it is the Coptic translation found in Nag Hammadi Codex 2. (Three other manuscripts preserve small portions of the gospel in Greek.) Scholars are undecided about when the original Greek Gospel of Thomas was written. Some place it as early as the last three decades of the first century, i.e., before Matthew, Luke and John were written, and roughly at the same time as Mark. Others disagree and say that Thomas was written after the four Biblical Gospels.

[10] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book 1, 25:2. These arguments are echoed in the Arian controversy of the fourth century.

[11] Teachings of Silvanus 107;12, 108:25-27 in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, ed., 3rd Edition (San Fransico: Harper and Row, 1998), pp. 390, 391

[12] Gospel of Philip 84:7-13 in Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, p. 159

[13] John 1:1, 3, 14 KJV

[14] Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, quoted in David Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism, p. 42

[15] Philo, quoted in Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God, p. 41. Philo believed the teachings of Moses could be reconciled with Platonic philosophy. He taught the preexistence of souls, reincarnation, and elaborated upon a "Logos theology," in which he declared that all men were, in effect, intrinsically divine incarnations of the Logos whom he termed "logoi."

[16] I Cor 11:24 KJV; Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19