Making the Cut
From the Acts of John , written circa 150 AD (translation by M. R.
(V. 98) "And having thus spoken, he showed me a cross of light fixed, and
about the cross a great multitude, and therein was one form and one
likeness: and in the cross another multitude, not having one form. And the
Lord himself I beheld above the cross, not having any shape, but only a
voice: and a voice not such as was familiar to us, but one sweet and kind
and truly of God, saying unto me: John, it is needful that one should hear
these things from me, for I have need of one that will hear. This cross of
light is sometimes called the word by me for your sakes, sometimes mind,
sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes door, sometimes a way,
sometimes bread, sometimes seed, sometimes resurrection, sometimes Son,
sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes life, sometimes truth,
sometimes faith, sometimes grace. And by these names it is called as toward
men: but that which it is in truth, as conceived of in itself and as spoken
of unto you, it is the marking-off of all things, and the firm uplifting of
things fixed out of things unstable, and the harmony of wisdom and indeed,
wisdom in harmony. There are <places> of the right hand and the left, powers
also, authorities, Lordships and daemons, workings, threatenings, wraths,
devils, Satan, and the lower root whence the nature of the things that come
into being proceeded.
(V. 99) "This cross, then, is that which fixed all things apart by the
word, and separate off the things from birth and below it, and then also,
being one, streamed forth into all things. But this is not the cross of wood
which thou wilt see when thou goest down hence: neither am I he that is on
the cross, whom now thou seest not, but only hearest his voice. I was
reckoned to be that which I am not, not being what I was unto many others:
but they will call me something else which is vile and not worthy of me. As,
then, the place of rest is neither seen nor spoken of, more shall I, the
Lord thereof, be neither seen <nor spoken of>…"
(V. 103) "Having therefore beheld, brethren, the grace of the Lord and
his kindly affection toward us, let us worship him as those unto whom he
hath shown mercy, not with our fingers, nor our mouth, nor our tongue, nor
with any part whatsoever of our bodies, but with the disposition of our soul
– even him who became a man apart from his body…"
The apocryphal "Acts of John" didn’t make it as a sanctioned Book of the
Bible, when the Church Fathers began to separate the "sacred from the profane"
in the 4th century AD. It has come down to us in a number of Catholic
recensions. There is a very strong Gnostic form and influence in it. I
consider parts of it spiritually elevating.
The origin of Gnosticism is still largely enveloped in obscurity, but is
generally accepted as being pre-Christian at its root. Although Gnosticism may
at first sight appear to be a mere syncretism of just about any and all
religious systems in antiquity, it has one deep, unique root-principle:
philosophical and religious pessimism.
The Gnostics borrowed their terminology almost entirely from existing
religions, but they only used it to illustrate their idea of the essential
evil of the present world and the duty of man to try to escape it. This utter
pessimism bemoaned the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a
calamity. In fact, the world inhabited by men was only the lowest and most
degenerate plane of a system comprised of a number of sequentially
degenerating spheres, emanating from the original Godhead. The Gnostic has a
feverish craving to be freed from the body and a mad hope that, if he only
knew them, he could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this
existence. This is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.
The Gnostic escape is effected by sequential ascent of the soul through the
planetary spheres, back to the sublime heaven that lies beyond them -- the "7th
heaven", in some Gnostic cosmologies. This journey was conceived as a struggle
with adverse powers, and became the first and predominant idea in Gnosticism.
The second component of Gnostic thought is magic, i.e. the power of
names, sounds, gestures, actions, and also the mixture of elements to make
possible the flight back to the Godhead. These magic formulae are found in all
forms of Christian Gnosticism. No Gnosis was possible without the knowledge of
the formulae, which, once pronounced, became the weapons used against the
higher hostile powers. (This reminds us of the use of exact prescriptions and
incantations for ascending to heaven from The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
For that matter, it's not that much different from the formulaic gestures,
words and ritual accoutrements used to govern the conduct of sacraments
in the Christian Church itself, or of any other organized religion.)
As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread
like a fungus at its root. It boldly claimed itself to be the only true form of
Christianity – albeit, a form that was set apart only for the "gifted" and the
"elect". So rank was its poisonous doctrine in the noses of the early Church
Fathers that there seemed a danger it might stifle Christianity
altogether, and so they devoted all their energies to uprooting it. Though in
reality the spirit of Gnosticism is divergent to that of Christianity, it
seems to the unwary to be merely a modification or refinement thereof. When
grown on Greek soil, Gnosticism sounded somewhat like neo-Platonism (though it
was strongly repudiated by the premier neo-Platonist of the time, Plotinus).
By the time of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine,
the consternation of the Church leaders had became so exceedingly vociferous
that it threatened to interfere with the general peace. Constantine mandated a
meeting of the Church leaders in 325 AD – the First Council of Nicaea – to
work out these differences. One of the primary objectives was to deal with a
growing heresy called Arianism.
Arius did not himself derive directly from any particular Gnostic school,
but his line of argument espoused a view that the Gnostics had already made
familiar. He described the Son as a second, inferior God, standing midway
between the First Cause and the creatures of the Earth. He believed that the
Son was made out of nothing, emanating from God. He existed before the worlds
of the ages; and was arrayed and contained in all divine creations -- except
the one that was the stay and foundation of all Creation itself. God alone was
without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and so he once had not
Constantine began the Council by making the bishops understand that they
had greater business to attend to, than to be constantly diverted by personal
quarrels and interminable recriminations. Daily sessions were held, and Arius
was often summoned before the assembly. (St. Athanasius assures us that the
activities of the Council were nowise hampered by Constantine's presence.) The
Church writings declare that Arius’ opinions were seriously discussed and that
the opposing arguments attentively considered. The majority, especially those
who were confessors of the Faith, energetically declared Arius’ doctrines to
be impious and heretical.
The symbol of this First Ecumenical Council, influenced mostly by Hosius
and St. Athanasius, was the following declaration, in which the Nicene Creed
"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all
things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only
begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the
Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made,
of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom
all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our
salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose
again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and
the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was
not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of
nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or
another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or
mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes."
Funny, I don't remember reciting that last part in church.
The adhesion to this creed was general and enthusiastic. All the bishops
save five declared themselves ready to ascribe to this formula, convinced that
it contained the ancient faith of the Apostolic Church. The opponents were
soon reduced to two, Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais, who were
exiled and anathematized. Arius and his writings were also branded with
anathema, his books were cast into the fire, and he was exiled to Illyria.
And so it goes, and goes, and goes. To me, a Gnostic at my core, this is a
pitiable tale of men trying to maintain primacy for a religious doctrine
that’s counter to what we all see around us and what we all feel in the dark
hours of the night. Trying to stifle what's in the hearts of men will always
fail. Gnosticism thrives to this day -- and it will ever do so, as long as the
newspapers continue to print their daily news, the radios and televisions
continue to broadcast their trash, and "wars of righteousness" continue to be
fought. In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me my time and effort
spent looking for those elevating words of power.
"Beam me up, Scotty!"
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Catholic Encyclopedia. Gosh, there are a lot of
typographical errors there – they sure do need a proof-reader!
Most of this material is paraphrased from the