The modern spirit of Marcion: pitting Jesus against His WordWritten by Subby Szterszky
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The Christian church was barely a hundred years old when it was shaken by a popular heresy whose spectre has kept popping up ever since.
It began courtesy of Marcion, a wealthy and connected second-century churchman who started to promote his own alternative brand of Christianity. Marcion refused to accept that the God of wrath shown in the Old Testament was the same as the God of love depicted in the New. In fact, he believed they were two separate beings – the former an angry tribal deity of the Jews, the latter a benevolent universal god who sent Jesus to offer the world nothing but love and mercy, without a hint of judgment.
To support these beliefs, Marcion created his own truncated canon of Scripture. He rejected all of the Old Testament and much of the New, keeping only a highly redacted version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, similarly edited to remove anything Marcion found unpalatable.
If any of that sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it should. The specifics may have changed, but the spirit of Marcionism is sadly thriving in modern attempts to pit Jesus against the rest of Scripture, and even against Himself.
Jesus versus the Old Testament
This is where the problems all started for Marcion, as they have for many other readers since. In the Old Testament, they encounter a God who thunders in judgment from atop a smouldering mountain, destroys cities with fire and flood, and orders Israel to wipe out entire people groups in the land of Canaan. Even in the Psalms, they discover the occasional curse levelled at enemies, wishing for their bodies to wither, their wives to be widowed, and their infants to be dashed against the rocks.
These are undeniably difficult – and disturbing – passages of Scripture, not easy to reconcile with the New Testament portrait of a kind and gentle Messiah. Marcion’s solution was to lift a page from the Gnostic playbook and deny that the God of the OT was really God at all. Instead He was a demiurge, an inferior deity who created an evil world from which humanity needed to be saved by the supreme God of the New Testament.
Such a belief may no longer fly in the twenty-first century, but alas, the attitude behind it persists. Nowadays, critics of the OT simply dismiss it as the cultural by-product of a primitive people living in a brutal world. The events it records never actually happened, they claim. God was merely allowing the Israelites to express their faith in the violent, warlike categories that made sense to them.
That thinking, however, is not only logically and historically untenable, but it presents a grossly distorted image of God, who apparently spent centuries lying to (and through) His people – if He was ever speaking at all.
It also relies on a highly selective reading of the OT that ignores the frequent descriptions of God as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It discounts the numerous OT portraits of God as a shepherd who tends His lambs; as a mother who dandles her baby on her lap; as a husband who loves and protects His bride; as an advocate with a tender heart for widows and orphans; and as a good king who fills His people with good things and gives them joy in His presence.
Most of all, Marcionism both ancient and modern fails to recognize Jesus’ own high view of the Old Testament and everything in it – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. In point of fact, Jesus affirmed all of the OT’s accounts of God’s goodness as well as His acts of judgment. And He claimed that these accounts were ultimately about Him, the one who perfectly embodies all of the divine attributes.
Jesus versus the Apostle Paul
For Marcion, the Apostle Paul was one of the few legitimate authors of Scripture – at least in severely edited form. His modern ideological heirs, however, have turned that conviction on its head. For many of them, Paul has become the chief villain of the New Testament despite having written the lion’s share of it. They see him as a surly judgmental chauvinist – indeed even as misogynistic and homophobic – whose letters betray his outmoded cultural beliefs.
Whereas Jesus was all about love and inclusion, Paul supposedly twisted those pure teachings and laid the groundwork for the narrow, patriarchal religion Christianity has become, in the opinion of these critics. Better to just focus on the life of Jesus and be inspired by His humble example, they insist, rather than listen to the stern voice of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
But as with the Old Testament, such an attitude toward Paul betrays a lack of careful reading and relies on cherry-picking the letters of the Apostle. It ignores his many expressions of love and affection for his readers and members of his team alike, as well as his abiding concern for the well-being of individuals and churches under his care. And it fails to distinguish between the varying tones he takes in his letters, as the occasion warrants: he’s warm and convivial with the Philippians who’ve been his faithful partners in ministry; he’s concerned and persuasive with the Corinthians who are immature in their faith; and he’s alarmed and angry with the Galatians who are in danger of turning away from the Gospel of grace. And in his magnum opus, the letter to the Romans, Paul unfolds the beauty and truth of that Gospel in all of its glory, marvelling all the while at the wisdom of God.
To be sure, much of the present animus toward Paul is due to his teachings on sexuality and gender roles, which are at odds with the contemporary zeitgeist. Moreover, the current emphasis on the power of narrative to teach and inspire – good and true as that may be – has led to a faulty conclusion that all one needs from the NT are the stories about Jesus in the Gospels. Letters full of instructions about what to believe and how to behave have become curiously unfashionable in the present cultural moment.
Nevertheless, that kind of false rift in the New Testament doesn’t stand up under the light of Jesus’ own intentions. While He was on earth, the Lord commissioned His apostles to publish and flesh out His teaching after He had ascended to heaven, sending them His Holy Spirit for that express purpose. He specifically called Paul to be His primary instrument for spreading the Gospel beyond Israel to the rest of humanity. Paul wrote with the authority of Jesus and in harmony with His teaching. To drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul is to drive a wedge between Jesus and His mission.
Jesus versus Himself
Of course, Marcion was no stranger to pitting Jesus against Himself, nor are those who follow in his footsteps. For the second-century heretic, it meant rejecting three of the Gospels as well as big chunks of the fourth, the one written by Luke. But modern-day Marcionites take a more piecemeal approach, treating the four Gospels like a smorgasbord from which to pick out the palatable bits while disregarding or explaining away the rest.
Using this strategy, they create a Jesus they can live with – one who never claimed to be God, never focused on sexual sin, never judged anyone, and accepted all comers unconditionally. His death merely served as an example (of what they can’t quite say) rather than as an atoning sacrifice for sin. And all of Jesus’ words about holiness and hell, about repentance and obedience, about His own role as sovereign Lord and coming judge of the world – these they dismiss as having been put into Jesus’ mouth by later writers trying to build a religion based on fear and patriarchy.
It doesn’t take much effort to recognize these sorts of claims as disingenuous at best, and intellectually arrogant at worst. On what criteria, for instance, does one decide which things Jesus said and did, and which things He didn’t, other than personal or cultural bias?
There are no seams in the Gospel accounts. The same Jesus who took children in His arms, who wept with Mary at the grave of her brother, and who raised Jairus’ little daughter by the hand from her deathbed, also chased the merchants from the temple with a whip and kicked over their tables. He welcomed prostitutes and other sinners with grace and kindness but also commanded them to stop sinning. He described Himself as humble and gentle, but also as having existed before creation and as having all authority in heaven and on earth.
Any attempts to discount parts of the Gospel record are in reality attempts to divide Jesus against Himself. They dishonour and misrepresent the Lord, and make a mockery of His mission to earth. That mission, according to the Gospels, was to save His people from their sins by shedding His blood and giving His life as a ransom for them. But if there is no divine wrath against sin – or no sin to begin with – then what precisely did Jesus save His people from? Why did He need to die in the first place?
Jesus is the Word, as well as its author
The Gospel of John begins with its famous description of Jesus as the Word of God. This Word was with God from the beginning and was in fact God Himself, the one through whom all things were created, and the one through whom the triune God has always spoken to humanity. In other words, Jesus is not only God in the flesh and creator of the cosmos, but also the grand central subject of Scripture as well as its divine author.
Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word logos is used to describe both Jesus and the Scriptures as the Word of God. This usage is also consistent within the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was in common use during Jesus’ time. The implication is clear: Jesus and His Word are vitally connected and are not to be separated. Among other things, this means that Jesus didn’t just speak the red-letter words of the Bible. He spoke all of them, through a variety of human authors, over the course of some 1,500 years.
Jesus told the Jewish leaders of His day that He was one with God, and He assured His disciples that whoever had seen Him had seen the Father. Indeed, Jesus is the perfect representation of the divine nature in all its justice and mercy, holiness and love. He offers acceptance and forgiveness of sin to everyone who comes to Him, but He will judge the sin of those who don’t.
At one point during the Lord’s time on earth, a large group of His followers turned away from Him, claiming that His words were too hard to bear. This pattern has repeated ever since, through various times and cultures from Marcion down to the present, each finding something about Jesus (and His Father) that they simply refuse to accept. At the moment, Jesus’ exclusive truth claims, the violent histories of the OT, and the sexual ethics found throughout Scripture are particularly onerous to the surrounding culture – as well as to more than a few professing believers.
This should hardly come as a surprise. After all, God’s ways and thoughts are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth – which in light of modern astronomy, is a lot farther than the ancients might have imagined.
But when we try to domesticate God, picking and choosing between His words and attributes to build a divine image we’re comfortable with, we are in effect creating an idol. Or as Tim Keller put it, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”
God does indeed disagree with us, quite often. He also calls us and woos us and welcomes us into His grace and His joy. For all of which, thanks be to God.
Sources and further reading
Kevin DeYoung, “Marcion and getting unhitched from the Old Testament,” The Gospel Coalition, May 11, 2018.
Ligonier editorial, “Marcion’s challenge,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed October 2018.
Matt Slick, “What is Marcionism?” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, accessed October 2018.
William J. Tighe, “Modern-day Marcionism,” First Things, April 11, 2012.
Angela Tilby, “Marcionism: Can Christians dispense with the God of the Old Testament?” chapter in Heresies and how to avoid them: Why it matters what Christians believe, edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), pp. 73-80.
Andrew Wilson, “Tom Wright skewers the new Marcionism,” Think Theology, May 29, 2013.
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