Marcionites Then and Now

Fellow Patheos blogger Tom Hobson, a Presbyterian pastor with a doctorate from Concordia Seminary, has written some posts at Biblical Words and World about ancient heresies and how they are showing up today.  (See this and this.)  I was struck by his account of the Marcionites, who reject the “Old Testament God” in favor of a deity who never displays wrath or judgment.

From Tom Hobson, Back to the Second Century:  Echoes of Modern Heresy:

One second century heresy that seems more prevalent in today’s church is the heresy of Marcion, for which I must refer you to a more complete treatment in Randy Otto’s excellent article in the Sept/Oct 1998 edition of Theology Matters (http://www.theologymatters.com/SEPOCT98.PDF). In 140 AD, Marcion introduced his god of sweetness and light to replace the vengeful, evil Creator of the material world. As Tertullian derisively describes Marcion’s theology, a “better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind. Of course he forbids you to sin – but only in writing…Fool: you call him lord, but deny he is to be feared.” (Against Marcion 1.27.1)

Because he despised the material creation, Marcion opted for an asceticism that regarded even marriage as being lechery. But Tertullian rightly asks, “So then, you who decline to fear your god because he is good, what keeps you from bubbling over into all manner of vice…?” (Against Marcion 1.27.5)

Marcion is famous for jettisoning the entire Old Testament, plus three Gospels and the rest of the New Testament except for a mutilated (Irenaeus calls it “circumcised”) Gospel of Luke and ten mutilated letters of Paul. Likewise, today’s progressives wish to dispense with the evil god of the Old Testament and proclaim a god who is all love and no wrath. Even evangelicals like Andy Stanley have echoed Marcion by claiming that we need to “unhitch” ourselves from the Old Testament.

Irenaeus tells us that that when Marcion begged Polycarp, “Recognize us,” Polycarp replied, “I do recognize you, you firstborn of Satan.” (Against Heresies 3.3.4)

Does this sound familiar? Except for the part about rejecting all sex, even in marriage?  We don’t hear that too much these days.

However, I have heard it said, in a discussion about how God punishes sin, “That’s not the God I believe in!”  Right.  You believe in Marcion’s God.

This reminds me of a recent discussion we had here, based on Carl Trueman’s observation that Pope Francis puts forward a version of Christianity that emphasizes kindness and love, as opposed to one that emphasizes doctrine and salvation.

We also see the practice of snipping out passages of the Bible that the reader doesn’t like.  Thomas Jefferson did this, and so do the higher critics of the Jesus Seminar.  But lots more of us do this informally, not using scissors but just setting aside the teachings that make us uncomfortable.

Marcion was a Gnostic fellow-traveller, which accounts for his rejection of sex, though other Gnostics had no problem with sexual immorality, both agreeing that the body has no spiritual significance.  The other reason Marcion excised the Old Testament was because Gnostics considered the Creation to be an evil act, since the physical realm is intrinsically evil.  Gnostics considered the Creator in Genesis to be the “bad guy,” while the serpent, who promised “knowledge” (that is, gnosis) was the good guy.  We see this inversion today in confused scholarly interpretations of Milton’s Paradise Lost and in Philip Pullman’s atheistic children’s novels His Dark Materials.

Today we have quite a few people, Christians as well as non-Christians, who reject the doctrine that God created the physical universe.  This manifests itself not just in advocating evolution, but also in thinking that the physical world has no meaning or spiritual importance.

 

Illustration:  Marcion Displaying His Canon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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