When analyzing the argument of a dissertation the challenge is often centered on being able to check citations. In the case of Ken Wilson’s dissertation, it is both sources (he had access to Oxford’s library for months on end) as well as formulation and expression of argumentation. Wilson’s writing is often incoherent and disjointed. Most of his paragraphs look like lightly edited attempts to connect notes derived from his months of reading without much concern about actually communicating anything meaningful. So we have the incredibly short and disjointed section on Gnosticism, a vitally important topic for the establishment of his oft-repeated allegation of “Gnostic interpretation” or the like. And as soon as I started to look at the dissertation I was struck by a single citation. I followed the notes and A&O, using the Ministry Resource fund that you, our faithful supporters provide, ordered the source of the citation. You can see why I viewed it as important. Here is the section from Wilson’s work:
Not only does Plotinus deprecate Gnostic Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individuals’s Eternal Destinies, he accuses Gnostics of immorality and ugly conduct lacking virtue, thereby validating Irenaeus and Clement (Adv. haer. 2.9.15–17; Strom. 3.40.2). Edwards stated, “All works are predestined, discipline and abstinence effect nothing, and the elect are saved by knowing that they are saved.”Wilson, pp. 13-14
So does Plotinus recognize the concept that Wilson admits he himself has named (DUPIED)? And does Mark Edwards (lecturer in Patristics at Oxford) likewise support this idea (DUPIED) in the words cited? Is Edwards referring to something that has any meaningful connection at all to Augustine’s doctrine of divine sovereignty and providence, and hence, through history, to Calvin, and hence to the Reformed understanding of the divine decree, God’s sovereignty, and divine providence? I needed to find out! So I tracked down the source in the only way we could in the days of panic-driven pandemic lockdowns: Amazon. So, shall we read the citation in its context? Yes, let’s do so!
Porphyry claims that he himself, with Amelius’ help, exposed the counterfeit scriptures of the sect, and we possess Coptic texts of writings with the same titles, which confirm that Plotinus gives a fair epitome of the Gnostic myth in Enneads 2.9.22 According to this, a superfetation of aeons of hypostases in the godhead engendered Wisdom or Sophia as the last and most unable of the divine powers. Wantonly looking away and catching sight of her own reflection in the underlying darkness, she descended and, avoiding a fall herself, deposited souls and ‘members of wisdom’ in captivity. From her benighted fancy sprang the Demiurge, a mere shadow of a shadow, who proceeded to fahsion, not a beautiful image of the Ideal like his namesake in the Timaeus, but a lifeless adumbration of the divine realm which he glimpses at secondhand. The regular course of nature, superintended by the stars, is fatal rather than providential, and, of the two orders of soul, those consubstantial with Sophia will be redeemed by nature, while those compounded of matter are doomed to perish. All works are predestined, discipline and abstinence effect nothing, and the elect are saved by knowing that they are saved.
Spokesmen of the episcopal church made common cause with Platonism against this saturnine ‘tragedy of fears’ (Enneads 188.8.131.52), affirming both the goodness of the created order and the soul’s power to co-operate with Christ in her own redemption. Yet there are passages in Paul, not to speak of saying ascribed to Jesus, which imply that the salvation of the elect is foreordained, while in the Gospel of John it is strongly intimated that this world is lost, and its denizens already separated into children of darkness and children of light.Mark Edwards, Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus, 2006, 151-152.
So we see that the preceding context is about one of the basic forms of the Gnostic origins myth. Sophia, wisdom, the lowest of the aeons, gives rise to the Demiurge, the Creator of the physical realm (i.e., Yahweh, in the Bible), “a mere shadow of a shadow.” Does Sophia have a divine decree? No. Does Yahweh have a divine decree? No. Does the original, pure Spirit have a divine decree? No. Instead we have…astrology, so that the “regular course of nature, superintended by the stars, is fatal rather than providential.” This is a vitally important distinction for, of course, the divine decree of Reformed theology is intensely personal in every way, and gives rise to the kind of providence that led to blood-stained straw in a manger in Bethlehem. No Gnostic worth his mythical salt would even countenance such a concept.
But what is key is to understand the kinds of humanity in the Gnostic cosmogony. Though there are variations, depending on the source you are reading (a systematic theology was not the goal of the Gnostics), in essence you have the offspring of Seth on one side and everyone else on the other, with the value and standing of each group dependent upon their origination and ancestry. So the “two orders of soul” in the Edwards quote contrasts “those consubstantial with Sophia” who, please note here, “will be redeemed by nature.” Not by Jesus’ sacrifice, not by substitutionary atonement, but by who they are by nature. This is not election. This is not predestination related to grace. This is the supremacy of the Arian race in Nazi Germany. This is as far removed from any Christian concept imaginable. The other order, those who are not related to Sophia (in other sources, those who are not related to, descended from Seth, or his sister, in other versions) “are doomed to perish.” This is not reprobation. This is not justice. This is nature, once again, for they are “compounded of matter.” This then is the context for the sentence cited by Wilson, “All works are predestined, discipline and abstinence effect nothing, and the elect are saved by knowing that they are saved.” Please note the meaning: knowledge saves. Not grace. Gnosis, knowledge. In Gnosticism, for example, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a GOOD thing, for it is that knowledge that brings salvation—not redemption through repentance and faith, etc.
So what is important to recognize is that the statement from Edwards is not supportive of DUPIED. There is no basis in Gnosticism for the idea of a single, omnipotent, self-sufficient God creating all things, including the very fabric of time, for His own glory. The reason “all works are predestined” is because of the nature of the two orders of soul, which derive from their origination through the (almost) fall of Sophia, which was not decreed or fated or eternally planned or anything else. Discipline and abstinence effect nothing because one’s life is irrelevant, only one’s nature matters, and this is not about justice or the vindication of God’s wisdom in creation or anything of the like. And of course the use of the term “elect” here is only in reference again to one of the two orders of soul, not to undeserving objects of grace. To connect this kind of statement to anything related to Reformed theology shows a fundamental lack of comprehension of categorical thought. I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of this in the future.