I truly, truly apologize for the length of today’s post but inasmuch as it is THE key question plaguing contemporary Christianity, it cannot have a short, sweet and simple answer but deserves to be considered fully.
Once on my Facebook Page a poster commented to another poster, “I see that you are sensing a contradiction between the two testaments as far as God’s nature. This goes way back. Have you ever read anything about Marcionism? I’m not equated Michael’s teachings with Marcionism, but they both see the testaments contradicting!”
Marcion might be called the arch-heretic of the early church. He could not reconcile the message of the gracious God he found in the writings of Paul with the violent capricious God of the Old Testament scriptures. Anytime anyone brings up this question they are automatically looked at in the light of Marcion. The Nicene Creed does not solve this problem. Unlike the revision of the Creed at Constantinople in 381 (and the earlier Apostles Creed upon which it was modeled), the Nicene Creed has no mention of the phrase “kata tas graphas” (according to the Scriptures) after affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Nicene Creed ends with the phrase “[and we believe] in the Holy Spirit” where the emended Creed in 381 has “who has spoken through the prophets”
(which is also in the Apostle’s Creed).
If we acknowledge this editorial addition to the Creed it is important to note that the framers of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan document did not say “…the holy Spirit who has spoken through the Scriptures.” They could have, they had used the phrase earlier in the christological section, but they didn’t. Nor did they say “…the holy Spirit who has spoken through the Law and the prophets” as one finds for example in Matthew’s Gospel (5:17-20). They simply asserted that God had spoken “through the prophets.” How might we interpret this since there was no full blown theory of biblical inspiration in the early church?
We know there were major debates on how to read the Jewish scriptures in the early church. “Literalists” from Antioch collided with “allegorizers” from Alexandria on this. The big problem in the early church was precisely the question raised by Marcion: is the Abba to whom Jesus prayed to be equated with the God of the Old Testament?
Just because someone observes contradictions between the portraits of God in the Testaments does not mean they are Marcionite. I wrote about this in my book The Jesus Driven Life which I quote:
However, a more significant piece of data to consider is the problem that arose in the second century about the use of the Jewish Scriptures for Christian theology and life. Sometime in the early decades of the second century a wealthy ship owner from the area around the Black Sea made his way, first to Ephesus and then on to Rome. Marcion (80-150? C.E.) was a gifted teacher who asked the key theological question that has plagued
Christianity ever since: “What does the violent God of the Jewish Scriptures have to do with the gracious, compassionate God taught by Jesus and Paul?”
This really is a conundrum if we will admit it, for it appears that God changes from the Old to the New Testaments. There have been a number of ways to solve this apparent problem but until recently none have proved satisfactory. Marcion’s solution was to throw out the Jewish Scriptures and collect New Testament documents that had been purged of this Jewish influence (Luke and some of Paul’s letters). Influenced by the polytheism of his time and emerging Gnosticism, Marcion taught that there were two gods, the Creator God of the Jews and the higher God, who was Spirit, this latter God revealed in Jesus. By rejecting the ‘violent God’ of the Jewish Bible, Marcion also rejected the world made by the Creator, the world of flesh, blood, sweat and semen. His churches practiced rejection of sexual relations (even in marriage) and other ascetic practices.
The church leaders who opposed Marcion contended otherwise when they said it was one and the same God; that the God who created was the God who redeemed. This was the orthodox solution, which would soon run into a host of major problems and one in particular: how to reconcile the character of God as found in the Jewish Scriptures with the character of God found in the person of Jesus.
Many and varied are the ways by which the early Christian Fathers tried to bring the two ‘Testaments’ into relation. For Justin Martyr, they stand in a schema of promise and fulfillment, where the emphasis is on the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. For Clement of Alexandria they are pedagogically related, God could not reveal God’s self all at once and so accommodated revelation to our limited but growing understanding. For Irenaeus and Cyprian they are related as differing historical dispensations; God acts certain ways at certain periods of time.
Augustine’s theory, which included aspects of all of the above, goes under many names but is dualistically inspired by his neo-Platonic philosophical background: the Testaments can be related as letter-Spirit or even law-gospel, but his dictum that ‘the new in the old is concealed, the old in the new is revealed’ has been the maxim determinant in western Christian understanding of the testamental relationship for sixteen hundred years.
The majority solution, while rejecting the two gods theory of Marcion, tended to unify all biblical statements about God in just as much of a dualistic paradigm as Marcion’s. By the time we get to Augustine (400 C.E.), the most influential figure in Christian history after the Apostle Paul, God’s character has two sides, light and dark, loving and wrathful, merciful and punishing. This two-faced view of God (the Janus-Face) has dominated
Christian theology ever since.
As we saw in a previous chapter, the early church was by and large committed to the way of peace and nonviolence. As they struggled with how to relate the apostolic writings to the Jewish canon they would gradually begin to accept that God, like all the other gods, was retributive. As we saw in the last chapter, it is short step from a doctrine of a punishing God to a view that Christian ethics can also be penal in its outworking.
It would be easy to criticize the early church fathers for their inability to see that something startlingly new had occurred in Jesus. The fact is they were working out their theology from a perspective dominated by the categories of Greek philosophy. The first important apologist of the second century, Justin Martyr, was a student of many Greek philosophical schools before he became a Christian. Clement of Alexandria and Origen were deeply influenced by Plato. Augustine would drink deeply from the well of Neo- Platonic thought. The problem with this is that God was already a ‘known’ quantity; what God could or could not do, what God was like had already been discussed and decided apart from God’s revelation to the Jewish people throughout their history and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
These early theologians were trying to put a square peg in a round hole by bringing together the dynamic revelatory God of Judaism with the static unchangeable thought patterns of Greek philosophy. One can see this over and over again. The God of Exodus 3:14 (“I will be who I will be”) who will not be named, labeled or boxed became the god who is unchangeable, without feeling, apart from space, time and history. This is a god who cannot suffer and who is not affected by the human situation. This god is remote and far removed from the vicissitudes of human existence.
Therefore the early church fathers rejected the dualism of Marcion only to succumb to philosophical dualism. This affected the way they interpreted their Scriptures, both the Jewish canon and the emerging New Testament. They began to develop a doctrine of God that was both parts oil and water, Jewish and Greek, biblical and pagan. To put it quite bluntly, the definition of God that comes out of Greek philosophy cannot contain the biblical revelation of the dynamic character of the Trinitarian God known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
This rather longish post is necessary for this is the major problem with the doctrine of inspiration popular in the Protestant imagination. Simply labeling one (or me) a Marcionite does not do justice to the issue. The fact is, if we say Jesus is ‘homoousias’ (of the same stuff) as the father, and if we assert that Jesus was non-violent and non-retributive in dealing with his enemies, and if we acknowledge the absolutely key role forgiveness plays in Jesus’ ministry and teaching, then we must come to the conclusion that either God is not like Jesus and the framers of the Creed were dead wrong or we must come to the conclusion that God is like Jesus, nonviolent, non-retributive and non-retaliatory. These are the only two options. There is no third option of trying to harmonize the character of Jesus with that of certain traditions about “God” in the Jewish Scriptures.
I would say that a generous “orthodox” reading of the Creed (of 381) suggests that the writers are following a specific trajectory “a prophetic reading of the Law”, a reading which critiqued the sacrificial system and its attendant sacrificial violence justifying hermeneutic. A splendid example of this can be found in Jeremiah 7, a text Jesus cites in the episode where he symbolically shuts down the Temple. Jeremiah 7:21-23 is translated in the New International Version: “this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.”
According to this translation, God gave many commands following the Exodus from Egypt; among them were commands about the sacrificial system. Now contrast the NIV translation of 7:22 with the translation of the Revised Standard Version: “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
There is in the NIV the addition of the little word ‘just.’ The addition of this word indicates that among all the commandments given on Sinai were those of the sacrificial system, something that is certainly the case in Torah. Yet the RSV and almost all other translations do not have this addition. Jeremiah is saying that the sacrificial system was not part of the original Torah. The NIV translators (primarily conservative Evangelicals) could not handle the possibility that Jeremiah could be in contradiction to Torah and so brought his speech in line with what was in Torah. Yet, it is clear from the context that Jeremiah is a trenchant critic of the sacrificial system and the Temple.
Is Jeremiah a Marcionite? Is Jesus? Hardly. To critique the portrait of God found in certain texts of the Jewish Scriptures is not to engage in Marcionism but to follow the lead of the One God who by the Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” So, like the Anabaptists of the 16th century, we can choose to follow the nonviolent Jesus or like the Calvinists of the 16th century and later we can follow the violence justifying God of certain Old Testament passages. We know where the latter has led. Are we ready yet to rethink the relation between the Testaments and follow Jesus?