O How Unlike the Father

Frank Kermode

  • The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake by A.D. Nuttall
    Oxford, 282 pp, £40.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 01 981846 7

A. D. Nuttall is probably the most philosophically-minded of modern literary critics, and he has the additional merit of assuming that at some level philosophical (or theological) problems are of importance to everybody, an assumption that operates even when he is applying his mind, and his exceptional erudition, to such matters as the presence of Gnostic speculation in Marlowe, Milton and Blake. The justification for this belief is that almost everybody, often at an early age, has wondered how a God officially certified as good in all possible ways can co-exist with a creation that is manifestly not so.

This puzzle is generally known as the Problem of Evil, and Nuttall says it worried him as a child, having no doubt been instructed, or allowed to believe, that in spite of evidence to the contrary God was good as well as omnipotent, and that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Most people soon put this problem aside and get on with their lives. Some, less quiescent, consider the matter in the light of such works as Leibniz’s Theodicy, and Voltaire’s satirical response to it in Candide. But there is another venerable way of looking at it, invented by heterodox thinkers in the early days of the Christian era. Gnosticism avoids our problem by holding that the world is not the work of a good God at all, but rather of an evil power, the Demiurge, who has been falsely represented as a good God and could be identified with the God of the Old Testament. The consequent doctrinal ramifications are endless, and whenever the question came up it was likely that certain aspects of early Gnostic thought would be aired again.

The early Gnostics had considerable success, and had the views of Marcion, in the second century, prevailed (as they might well have done), the Old Testament, a celebration of the bad god, would have been banished from Christian Bibles. For he was a god of Law, an intolerant and capricious dictator who was wholly responsible for the evil of the Creation. Only a part of the New Testament, certified as purely concerned with Love, was to be used – some Pauline epistles and a reduced version of Luke’s Gospel. One effect of Marcion’s efforts was to prompt the orthodox establishment to set about defining a rather more copious Biblical canon. In the end, Marcion, and many much wilder Gnostics, lost the struggle with orthodoxy so completely that few traces of their writings survived; their ideas were known only by their citation in the works of the orthodox Church Fathers who triumphantly refuted them. But more direct light on Gnostic speculation was provided by the discovery, in 1945, of a cache of Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, and since then Gnosticism has been intensively and sympathetically studied.

The eclipse of this rival form of Christianity by a politically well-organised Church has been much regretted. Elaine Pagels calls it ‘an impoverishment of Christian tradition’. Nuttall says its defeat ‘is of some interest because in one respect orthodox Christianity seems philosophically more vulnerable than Gnosticism’. He means that none of the Christian answers to the problem of evil really works. They include the notion that God leaves evil in the Creation simply because, for reasons secret and inscrutable, he chooses, in spite of being good and powerful, not to remove it; or that evil is there to promote wisdom by enabling us to distinguish good from bad; or that it is a necessary consequence of our being granted free will. None of these, apart possibly from the second, is very convincing, except to the apologists themselves. Gnosticism does not need these excuses since it regards the whole Creation as evil, and the work of a corrupt Demiurge.

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