The Actual Danger of Marcionism in Progressive Christianity

The Actual Danger of Marcionism in Progressive Christianity October 16, 2018
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Image credit: “Berlin 1937,” Thomas Neumann, National Archives of Norway, Wikimedia Commons.

What could Nazis and an ancient heresy have to do with progressive Christianity? Keep reading.

As a progressive Christian, and specifically as one who denies biblical inerrancy, I’ve had plenty of conservative Christians accuse me of the heresy of Marcionism. And I’ve previously taken the time to explain how utterly absurd I find this charge to be. Denying inerrancy does not make one a Marcionite. And for the record, I still stand by that.

However, I’m coming to realize that the actual sinister impulse at the heart of Marcionism really could pose a threat to progressive Christianity: anti-Semitism.

I understand that the previous sentence leaves us with a lot to unpack. So let’s start with a review of Marcion and his teachings, and then we’ll circle back to progressive Christians and how we might be affected.

Marcionism

Marcionites, according to the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “rejected the writings of the Old Testament and taught that Christ was not the Son of the God of the Jews, but the Son of the good God, who was different from the God of the Ancient Covenant.”

Of Marcion himself, the article has this to say:

He wanted a Christianity untrammeled and undefiled by association with Judaism. … He had to account for the existence of the Old Testament and he accounted for it by postulating a secondary deity, a demiurgus, who was god, in a sense, but not the supreme God; he was just, rigidly just, he had his good qualities, but he was not the good god, who was Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. …

Marcion had secondly to account for those passages in the New Testament which countenanced the Old. He resolutely cut out all texts that were contrary to his dogma; in fact, he created his own New Testament admitting but one gospel, a mutilation of St. Luke, and an Apostolicon containing ten epistles of St. Paul. …

All men are indeed created by the Demiurge, but by special choice he elected the Jewish people as his own and thus became the god of the Jews. … The Old Testament is true enough, Moses and the Prophets are messengers of the Demiurge, the Jewish Messias is sure to come and found a millennial kingdom for the Jews on earth, but the Jewish messias has nothing whatever to do with the Christ of God.

Marcion’s creator or Jewish god was … inferior to the good God yet he was independent; he was just and yet not good; his writings were true and yet to be discarded…. [Marcion’s] cardinal doctrine was the opposition of the Old Testament to the New….

It should be obvious at this point that Marcion’s heresy was not a simple matter of seeing errors in scripture. Quite the contrary, he actually affirmed that the Hebrew Scriptures “were true and yet to be discarded.” And why should these true writings be discarded? Because they were Jewish. And according to Marcion, Christianity should be cleansed from all traces of Judaism.

As for the God of the Jews—Yahweh—it’s not so much that the scriptures were wrong about him, but that (according to Marcion) he wasn’t actually the ultimate God of the universe. Yahweh was instead a demiurge, concerned to a fault with blind justice, but not truly good, loving, or merciful. Marcion’s view of Yahweh makes him out to be much closer to the satan than to the Father of Jesus.

Marcion rightly saw (as did the orthodox Church Fathers) that certain things attributed to Yahweh were incompatible with the character of God revealed in Jesus. But rather than finding a new way to read and interpret those texts about Yahweh in light of Christ (as did the orthodox Church Fathers), he asserted instead that they were true as literally stated, but that they described and derived from a different God—the Jewish God whom he placed in opposition to Jesus’ Father. So not only did the Old Testament have to go, but so did the majority of writings that would eventually form the New Testament. Only portions of Luke and the epistles of Paul could remain.

In Marcion’s view, Jesus came as a revelation from the good God in order to oppose the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism in general. Jesus wasn’t the Jewish Messiah, nor was he really even Jewish, as he wasn’t ultimately human. Marcion rejected all the infancy narratives of Jesus, believing instead that he simply appeared as “God Manifest not God Incarnate.” “Marcion used the story of the three angels, who ate, walked, and conversed with Abraham and yet had no real human body, as an illustration of the life of Christ.”

Anti-Semitism

I don’t want to give the impression that Marcion stands out as the evil anti-Semite of the period who was opposed by the good orthodox Church Fathers on account of his anti-Semitism. Christian history is far from that simple. In truth, those who deemed Marcion’s views heretical had plenty of anti-Semitic views themselves, and the Christian church as a whole has continued to struggle with anti-Semitic tendencies in one form or another throughout the majority of its history.

But I am asserting that anti-Semitism was at the heart of what made Marcion’s views most truly objectionable. At its core, Marcionism was an attempt to create a version of Christianity devoid of Jewish influence.

Marcionism (or something very close to it) has enjoyed a number of minor revivals since Marcion’s day. Perhaps the most notable instance was that of the so-called “Positive Christianity” movement of the self-proclaimed “German Christians” of Nazi Germany. Like Marcion, their aim was to remove all traces of Judaism from Christianity. To this end, they rejected the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures—and they too created an alternate New Testament consisting of only the portions they saw as not supporting Judaism in any way. Their version of Jesus was not Jewish at all, but rather came to oppose Judaism.

And that brings us back to contemporary progressive Christians such as myself.

Progressive Christianity

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that progressive Christianity is inherently or irredeemably anti-Semitic. Nor am I suggesting that the latent anti-Semitism within certain segments of progressive Christianity is anywhere near that of the Nazi “German Christians” under Hitler.

Ours is a much more subtle variety. I don’t believe it is intentional on the part of any progressive Christian I know. And it’s not so much a matter of antagonism against Judaism as it is a careless way of speaking about it. But this subtle anti-Semitism, perpetuated in ignorance, has the potential to grow into something much more insidious if left unchecked.

The problem is that we—like Marcion—far too often pit the Christian New Testament against the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were fundamentally opposed to each other. Or we pit Jesus against the Mosaic Law, as if he rejected it entirely. Or at the very least, we leave open such implications, even if we may not spell them out as such.

I myself have been guilty of this. So I’m not attacking anyone. I’m publicly repenting of my error, I’m attempting to do better, and I’m urging those of my own camp to join me in exercising more caution in this area.

Here’s the thing. The scriptures—Christian and Jewish alike—do contain mistakes. This really shouldn’t be considered a progressive position to hold in our day and age. It’s just a matter of intellectual honesty about the texts we have. Whether we’re talking about internal contradictions, historical inaccuracies, or theological missteps, the scriptures are not free from incorrect statements, and one way or another, we simply have to come to terms with this. But it’s incredibly problematic when we—mainly progressive Christians—act as if the New Testament exists to correct the Old.

Furthermore, Jesus did, on many occasions, contravene the letter of the Law. This again is a simple matter of honesty about what the Gospels say. But we run into trouble when we infer from this that Jesus opposed the Law itself. Jesus was clear that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. Yet in fulfilling the spirit of the Law, Jesus did at times go against a literalist reading of the letter thereof. Jesus interpreted the Law through the lens of love, and he fulfilled the Law accordingly.

Our intention as progressive Christians should be to refute the fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Mosaic Law. But when we’re not careful, our language can come across as attacking the Law itself. And on a handful of occasions, I’ve seen some progressive Christians do so explicitly. This is a really big problem.

The Jewishness of Jesus

There’s a simple truth that resolves this whole matter. And the problem some progressive Christians face is that we haven’t been as direct in emphasizing this truth as we should have been.

The truth is this: Jesus was Jewish.

When we fail to emphasize Jesus’ Jewishness, we end up pitting him against Judaism, which was not at all his purpose. Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as his own. And nowhere did he suggest that he came to start a new religion or to attack the one he was a part of. He certainly shook things up within Judaism, and he opposed the religious leaders who abused their positions, but he never went against Judaism as a whole.

We also have to realize that Judaism is not (and never has been) a monolithic religion. That is, not all Jews believe the same things. And crucially, not all the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures believed the same things. Many different streams of belief run throughout the scriptures, carrying on a continual dialog with one another and voicing their disagreements with one another.

And Jesus, as a Jew, stepped into this dialog and into one of these streams. Namely, Jesus sided with “mercy rather than sacrifice”—a favorite quotation of his from Hosea 6:6.

It would be entirely erroneous to suggest that the Old Testament commands sacrifice but that the New Testament opposes it. Rather, while the Hebrew Scriptures do indeed contain passages supporting sacrifice, they likewise contain passages rejecting sacrifice and asserting that God never commanded it (Jeremiah 7:22). This debate fills the pages of the Old Testament, and it’s easy to see—unless, of course, one reads with the preconceived notion that the scriptures never contradict each other.

Inerrantists jump through all manner of hoops to turn such dialog within the Hebrew Scriptures into a monologue, and progressive Christians are right to oppose this. But we have to be sure we do so in a way that honors the multivocality of Judaism, rather than throwing out Judaism as a whole. And we also don’t want to imply that half of the Old Testament is bad while the other half is good. We need to embrace the whole of scripture as being scripture, while recognizing its diversity and maintaining our freedom to enter the debate of scripture with our own voices and opinions.

Again, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the tendency in some progressive Christian circles to discard Judaism has been largely unintentional. We’ve done so mostly out of ignorance and through carelessly phrased wording. But the fact of the matter is that we have done so. I have done so. And we—and I—need to repent of that.

Conclusion

We need to explicitly affirm and honor the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of our own faith. We need to affirm that Yahweh is the true good God and Father of Jesus, rather than some alternate god to be opposed. We need to be clear that our objection to certain statements found within the Hebrew Scriptures is not a rejection of those scriptures themselves, but is simply our way of stepping into the ancient and ongoing dialog with those scriptures that we all hold dear. We need to remember that even when Jesus broke the letter of the Law, he did so in the name of love in order to fulfil the true spirit of that very same Law (Matthew 7:12; 22:37–40).

We also desperately need to step out of our Christian bubbles and interact with our Jewish siblings. They’ve been studying the scriptures for far longer than Christians, and we have quite a lot to learn from them. If you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend Amy-Jill Levine as an excellent entry into the conversation.

If we do not become more intentional about this, then I fear that we leave the door open for a latent anti-Semitism to grow into something much more sinister. If we’re not careful, the accusations of Marcionism we’ve received may become reality. Let’s fix this problem now before that happens.

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