Divine Love and Semi-Gnositicism:
Heretical Tendencies In The Thought of Julian of Norwich
By: Gregory S. Neal
Julian of Norwich is, without a doubt, the quintessential example of medieval mysticism. Her visions, understood as revelations from God, serve to provide her with the content of her theology, much of which maintains a rather close proximity to standard, orthodox Christianity. Such subjects as the Trinity, sin, grace, and love all receive clear and honest reflections which, with a number of very important exceptions, stay well within the bounds of all that was then-considered catholic. Some of her teachings, however, stray towards the deep end of heresy. This is especially true of her position on the nature of the human soul, which can be said to be semi-gnostic in many respects. This is an extremely difficult problem in understanding Julian, for it does, indeed, detract from her basic and overriding message of a God of Love, with whom human union is understood as being the focus of God’s will.
The basic message of Julian of Norwich, as conveyed through the succession of sixteen revelations, can be summed up in the following:
The grounds for this statement are simple: the Love of God (ibid., p. 211). The implications of the statement, however, are disastrous for her theology. The problem arises in her discussion on the nature of the human soul and, more specifically, the soul’s sinless nature.
For our Lord is so good, so gentle, so considerate, that he never faults those who are going to bless and praise him for ever. . . . For God is righteous, and it is therefore necessary that human nature – which is going to fill heaven – should be . . . joined and united to him. . . . (Julian of Norwich: p. 155.)
This will is a gift of God, deposited within the soul and encased in a sinning body which cannot inherit, by its own power, eternal life. The object of “salvation” is the union of the soul with God, this union being possible because there is, within the soul, a portion of God’s will that is without sin. Indeed, this portion of will is not just a gift of God but, rather, is viewed as a deposit of God's very nature within the human soul. Julian “. . . could see no difference between God and our substance: it was all God, so to speak." (ibid. p. 157) This view is very gnostic. It is much more than the concept of the “new man” within, for the new man is a transformation of our selves by the sanctifying grace of God, not a deposit of God’s soul within out souls.
. . . I understood with absolute certainty that there is in every soul to be saved a godly will that never has assented to sin, and that never will. This will is so good that it never wills evil, but always wills good, and, in the sight of God, does good (ibid).
It should be noted in her favor that Julian of Norwich had a very positive view of creation. All creation is good. Nothing is, in and of itself, evil. One cannot see evil; only the outward manifestations of evil can be known (ibid., pp. 80-82, 103-104). In classical gnosticism, however, the created order does not come into existence through the power of the high God, but by a lesser being, sometimes called the Demiurge, who governs the created order. The universe is structured in such a way that people are imprisoned within it. For Julian, however, it is not the universe which was created bad, but the nature of sin within humans which makes unification with God impossible. An aid is necessary for humans to even be capable of uniting with God; this aid must be without sin (Joseph B. Tyson. The New Testament and Early Christianity. pp. 380-383.).
In gnosticism, salvation comes by way of a messenger from the divine region, who comes secretly to bring gnosis to human beings. This gnosis is a deposit of divine nature, given to make the recipients aware of their separation from God and to awaken their desire for restoration (ibid). For Julian, an event very much similar to gnosis occurs when her presence in the body of sin was revealed to her, followed by the love of God as being the path back to God, for "through the keeping power of his great goodness and grace, there would be no separation between his love and our souls." (Julian of Norwich pp. 202-204). Thus, it is through the revelation of God that one’s state in sin is known, and it is through revelation that the way back to God is made clear.
By equating the deposit of the divine will within the soul with God, Julian opened up the road for gnostic influences; most importantly, it made the nature of God within the Christian the conduit for the salvation process. Without the divine nature within the soul, a nature which is incapable of doing sin, it would be impossible for there to be any reunification of human and divine – for the Divine will not reunite with that which is not sinless. Indeed, this divine substance is not only sinless and capable of unification with God, but also has never been removed from communion with God. This position is far beyond the Pauline idea of the "New Man," which is the result of God's grace transforming us; the deposit of Divine nature that Julian conceives is not a transformation of our will into conformity with God's will, but an addition of God's will to us ... the implantation and indwelling of more than just the holy spirit into our lives, but a supplanting of our nature within our souls with God's nature. Far removed from indwelling, this sounds more like "possession," and idea that is far from orthodox conceptions of sanctification.
With direct relation to human beings, this sounds very much like a gnostic concept: humans sin, but within them is a part of their soul which cannot sin. The world is not corrupt, but instead is the creation of God – and, therefore, created good. Julian of Norwich’s theology is semi-gnostic because it contains a number of un-orthodox concepts which reflect Gnostic tendencies. That of the human being having a divine nature within it, which yearns for reunification, being only the most important of them and the one which most directly effects Julian's main focus, which is the love of God in the act of reunion with humankind. Since it becomes such an important part of her understanding on salvation, it should be attended to more closely in any investigation of her theology. Since it is so un-orthodox – indeed, Gnostic – it should be addressed as an exceedingly interesting case of radical thinking which went un-countered in medieval Christian thought.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love. Penguin Classics (1988)
© 1989 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved
*This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.