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 2nd-century churchman who promoted his own 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, with no 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 redacted version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, likewise edited to remove anything Marcion considered unpalatable.
If any of that sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it should. The specifics may have changed, but the spirit of Marcionism is alive and well in modern attempts to pit Jesus against the rest of Scripture, and even against himself.
Jesus versus the Old Testament
This is where the problem started for Marcion, as it has for many 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 curses 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 follow the Gnostic playbook and deny that the God of the OT was really God at all. Instead this god was a demiurge, an inferior deity who created an evil world from which humanity needed to be rescued by the supreme God of the New Testament.
Such a belief may no longer fly in the 21st century, but the attitude persists. Nowadays, critics of the OT dismiss it as the cultural by-product of a primitive people living in a brutal world. The events it records never happened, they claim. God was just 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 distorted image of God, who allegedly spent centuries lying to (and through) his people – if he was ever speaking at all.
It also relies on a 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 generous 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’ high view of the Old Testament and everything in it – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. In 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 edited form. His modern ideological heirs, however, have turned that conviction on its head. For many of them, Paul is the chief villain of the New Testament despite having written most of it. They see him as a surly chauvinist – even as a misogynist and a homophobe – whose letters betray his outmoded cultural beliefs.
Whereas Jesus was all about love and inclusion, Paul supposedly twisted those teachings and laid the groundwork for a narrow, patriarchal Christianity, 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 cherry-picks the letters of the Apostle. It ignores his expressions of love and affection for his readers and members of his team, as well as his 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 may warrant: 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, his letter to the Romans, Paul unfolds the beauty and truth of that Gospel in all its glory as he marvels at the wisdom of God.
To be sure, much of the present animus toward Paul is due to his teachings on sexuality and gender, which are at odds with the contemporary zeitgeist. Moreover, the current emphasis on the rhetorical power of narrative – 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 unfashionable in the present cultural moment.
Nevertheless, this false rift in the New Testament doesn’t hold up in light of Jesus’ teaching. While he was on earth, he commissioned his apostles to publish and flesh out his words after he had ascended to heaven, sending them his Holy Spirit for that purpose. He called Paul to be his main instrument for spreading the Gospel beyond Israel to the rest of the world. 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
Naturally Marcion was no stranger to pitting Jesus against himself, nor are those who follow in his footsteps. For the 2nd-century heretic, it meant rejecting three of the Gospels and 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 addressed 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 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 patriarchal authority.
It’s not hard to recognize such 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 fact 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 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 and 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 consistent with the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was in common use in Jesus’ time. The implication is clear: Jesus and his Word are connected and not to be separated. Among other things, this means 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 authorities 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 (or 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 especially onerous to the broader culture – as well as to more than a few professing believers.
This should not 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 to build a deity we’re comfortable with, we are creating an idol. 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.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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