Playing with "Pleo" and "Pleon" (II)
Exploring the PLEROMA
Pleroma can be translated as "fullness" or "plenitude," but it has a wonderfully rich context in the theological tensions between Gnostic and more orthodox Christianity in the first few centuries after Christ. Because of the renewed interest in Gnosticism in our culture through the discovery, publication and translation of the Coptic Nag Hammadi texts from Egypt, I would venture to say that pleroma has not yet made its last theological stand. In addition, it can more easily than plerophory be put into adjectival form so that you could speak, for example, of a pleromic feeling that you might have after an especially good dinner or date.*
[*Though pleromic is unattested, word pleromatic appears occasionally in a theological sense. I like the shorter word.]
In Gnostic Theology
The OED defines pleroma as follows: "In Gnostic theology, the spiritual universe as the abode of God and of the totality of the Divine powers and emanations." If that sounds obscure, you are on the right path. It is meant to be obscure. But, one aspect of the pleroma is as a place, the place where God resides and from where divine emanations and messages come to earth. One of the most familiar usages of pleroma in this way is in the opening verse of the Gospel of Truth, discovered in Egypt around 1945.
"The Gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father."
But the Gnostic idea of the pleroma is really more than simply a geographical concept. It refers also to the totality of divine powers that not simply rule the universe but somehow become accessible to the initiate. Speaking of the pleroma, then, was one of the signs that one was in Gnostic company.
The Pleroma Among the More Orthodox Christians
But just as the Democrats in 2004 decided that they couldn't give the Republican party full claim to the flag as their symbolic possession, so the more orthodox Christians did not want to abandon such a promising term as pleroma to the Gnostics. Thus, when Paul wrote to the Colossians he could speak about how in Christ dwelled all the fullness (the Greek word is pleroma) of godhead in a bodily form (Col. 2:9). Why not fold the Gnostic concept into Christ, thus taking away from the Gnostics one of their more powerful verbal weapons? For if the fullness of it all was not found in some mysterious pleromatic realm out there, but was really to be discovered in the Christ who lived in here, what would be the intellectual attraction of this competing religion?
This argument tends to assume the "answer" to what is a hotly debated issue in scholarship of early Christianity (or at least was a scintillating issue in the 1980s), and that is, (1) "When did Gnosticism emerge?" and (2) "Was Gnosticism an alternative Christian belief system from the beginning or was did it represent a "break" from a more "orthodox" Christianity that was only congealing in the second century?
My answer is that the use of pleroma in Colossians, as well as its appearance in other New Testament literature (for example, in Ephesians 3:19 the author wishes that his hearers woudl be filled with all the fullness--pleroma-- of God) suggests to me that the term was already widely circulating at the time and that the authors wanted to "claim" it for the emergent, more orthodox (Pauline) Christian movement. But its use probably also flourished in a non-Christian context.
Be that as it may, I think the term ought to be rediscovered today, mostly as an adjective, to describe a feeling or sense of confidence, completeness, superabundance. Rather than saying, "I feel copacetic (which, by 2004 is fading, I am afraid), one could intone, "I feel pleromic" or, if one is a stickler for word-formation, "I feel pleromatic." One could have a pleromic visage and a cherubic smile. Why not?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long